Derham Groves

Anna May Wong’s Lucky Shoes

The cover of Anna May Wong’s Lucky Shoes designed by Huey Groves

The book is published by the Culicidae Press and is available via or

A review of the book by Zoe Nikakis in Voice in The Age, 10 October 2011


Ames, IA: Culicidae Press, pp. 103,
ISBN: 978-1-257-71315-8, Paperback, AUD $39.95

Reviewed by Andrew Chrystall, Massey University, New Zealand.

Anna May Wong’s Lucky Shoes interfaces a chronological biography (cum-histography) of the Chinese-American film star, Anna May Wong’s 107-day visit to Australia in 1939 with the documentation of 52 design-as-biography projects by students at the University of Melbourne. The effect(s) is uncanny. Groves demonstrates a different approach to writing biography that is as challenging to the historian as his approach to design-as-biography is to the designer and architect and his mode of pedagogy to the teacher. While operating just outside the realm of the readily classifiable, due in large measure to the work’s hybridity and Groves’ multidisciplinary transgressions, Anna May Wong’s Lucky Shoes makes a contribution not only to our understanding of the popular and material cultural history of pre-World War II Australia. Arguably, Groves can also be read here as having created something of an anti-manifesto for dialogic, sustainable design that is of immediate relevance.

At the level of surfaces, Anna May Wong’s Lucky Shoes appears simple and unpretentious, if not parochial and banal. However, when read in light of the interplay between the two sections—biography and the documentation of design-as-biography projects —it becomes apparent that the materials have been organised to give the work a circuit-like quality. Surface simplicity gives way to a subtle complexity. Groves’ biography nurses the reader into an encounter with the design-as-biography projects and the projects draw the reader back to rediscover the biography of Wong—text begets image(s) and the image(s) beget a re-energized and re-configured text.

The first section of Anna May Wong’s Lucky Shoes documents the movements of the now little-known Wong to, around and from Australia just prior to World War II. Groves briefly establishes his personal appreciation of the enigmatic, Lady Gaga-esque Wong in the first person. But he quickly abandons a point of view and his writing takes on some of the characteristics of American novelist, Thomas Pynchon. Like Pynchon, Groves has the meticulous eye of the sleuth or the roving tactile-eye of the virtual camera for detail. Anna May Wong’s Lucky Shoes if full of detailed lists: passenger lists, guest lists, menus, and filmography. Around the movements of Wong Groves builds an inventory of Australian material and popular culture just prior to the war. His camera eye, panning and zooming incessantly, is quick to focus on concrete, individual particulars of the material culture of the day: time, date, places, street names and numbers, transactions, costs, makes, models, colours, patterns and textures. In addition to offering insight into Australian architecture, entertainment, fashion, food and politics, Groves provides a lens through which to view of racism in Australia and the racial politics of film production, homophobia, the rising cult of celebrity, (beautiful-) freak aesthetics, and the milieu of Australia’s social aristocracy. In short, Groves’ inspection captures everything that is going on—by means of a close inspection of the most common, everyday and banal—not merely what some people think should be going on. In this respect Groves’ operation is something of a prose equivalent for what his fellow Australian artist Reg Mombassa achieves in paint. And it is for this reason that the long-dead Marshall McLuhan might have said that Groves succeeds where F. R. Leavis failed. “The trouble with Leavis,” noted McLuhan (1987), was that his “passion for important work forbids him to look for the sun in the egg-tarnished spoons of the daily table […] [this] cuts him off from the relevant pabulum” (166).

In the second section, Groves, with the help of photography by Lee McRae, documents and offers a brief reflection on 52 pairs of shoes designed by his students enrolled in the Popular Architecture and Design paper. Groves set his students the task of designing a pair of (lucky?) shoes for Wong by altering an old pair of shoes purchased from an opportunity shop. Groves’ reflections here, however, do not interfere with documentation of the shoes on display. Rather his mode, tradition or sensible orientation towards art and art history appears to have some affinity with the humanism of Burkhardt, carried on in the 20th century by figures such as Wölfflin, Giedion and Moholy-Nagy. While Groves might disown the connection to these figures it is worth mentioning here as it may open up a way of reading Groves and help illuminate why he has sought to showcase the work of these young Australian designers.

The crux of the matter is that Groves does not turn away from objects or art nor does he use either as a platform to illustrate or argue a set of ideas (in the mode, say, of the social-engineer who sets design the task of changing people). Rather, for Groves, it is art that matters and he extracts himself to make a space for “objects” and the “art” to speak for themselves on their own terms. Subsequently, and this may be another reason why Groves eludes convenient categorisation, if he has anything to say beyond showcasing a motivational and fun pedagogical activity it is said at the level of demonstration. Design, as Groves presents it, can be a deeply dialogic activity with and in service of unique human individuals (with a history and somewhat messy relationship to material artefacts that can be, simultaneously, practical, emotional, irrational, calculated, and ever-changing). His mode of demonstration that eschews linear, logical and hypothesis-drive rational argument is entirely consistent with his goal(s). If we allow, then, Groves to demonstrate what design is, can and should be we find design (inclusive of architecture) can be a form of biography. It emerges from story—rich and concrete encounters between peoples, places and material culture. Design maximizes diversity and, therefore, minimizes competition (which is predicated on a large degree of sameness). Design is also transmutative and realised in and through a dialogue with pre-existing materials that are as historically conditioned as the client. Subsequently, design, neither has to result in the creation of more stuff, which is what Andrew Milner argues needs to be avoided for the realisation of a sustainable future, nor has to set itself the task of promoting a bloodless, or perhaps glamour-less, austerity ill befitting an art deco diva.

Works cited
McLuhan, Marshall. (1987), ‘Letter to Walter Ong and Clement J. McNaspy, December 23, 1944.’ in M. Molinaro, C. McLuhan, & W. Toye (eds.), The Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Toronto, Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press,

The Doll Theatre Project

The Doll Theatre Project

Derham Groves

The first cohort of students to do the new Bachelor of Environments degree at the University of Melbourne completed the course in semester two of last year, 2010. “Architectural Design Studio 4: Fire,” which I coordinated, was the Architecture Major students’ final design subject. The task of the 183 students who did it was to design a theatre exclusively for performances of Ray Lawler’s three classic Australian plays: Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1955), Kid Stakes (1975) and Other Times (1976), known as the “doll trilogy.”

The idea of designing a theatre specifically for Ray Lawler’s doll trilogy came to me after reading an article about Agatha Christie’s amazingly enduring play, The Mousetrap, which has been running continuously in the West End of London since 1952 (until 1974 at the New Ambassadors Theatre, and since then at St. Martins Theatre). In addition, there are a number of composer-specific/playwright-specific theatres around the world, including the Bayreuth Festival Theatre in Bayreuth, Germany, where only the operas of Richard Wagner are performed, the Globe Theatre in London, where only the plays of William Shakespeare are presented, and the Wrestling School in London, where only the works of Howard Barker are staged.

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is the best known and arguably the most important play of Ray Lawler’s doll trilogy. While it was written first, it actually takes place after Kid Stakes and Other Times. The story running through the three plays unfolds over a period of seventeen years—from 1945 to 1953—in a boarding house in the inner Melbourne suburb of Carlton.

The structure of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is relatively simple, but its plot is complex, revolving around the lives of the Queensland cane-cutters, “Roo” and Barney, and their girlfriends, the Melbourne barmaids, Olive, Nancy and (later) Pearl.  Each year the men spend five months—the cane-cutting off-season—living with the women in Carlton.  But this arrangement is upset when Nancy marries and the sceptical Pearl replaces her.  Summer of the Seventeenth Doll addresses some complex and universal themes, including resistance to change, the search for happiness, the loss of idealism, and the concept of Australian male-centric mateship.

When Summer of the Seventeenth Doll was written, Australian society was in a state of flux.  The country led by Prime Minister Robert Menzies (1894-1978) was experiencing a post-war economic boom, and an aggressive (pro-white European) immigration program was in place to quickly boost the workforce.  As a result, the traditional Anglo-centric make-up of the population began to change, along with the accepted view of what it meant to be an Australian (migrants, especially Greeks and Italians, were called “New Australians”).  At the same time, Australian artists like Sidney Nolan (1917-1992) and Arthur Boyd (1920-1999) and writers such as Patrick White (1912-1990) and Frank Hardy (1917-1994) started to be noticed; people anticipated that the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games would put Australia on the map; and the imminent introduction of television threatened to change almost every aspect of Australian family life.  It was in this context that Ray Lawler wrote Summer of the Seventeenth Doll in 1955.

The opening night of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll marked a turning point in Australian theatre history.  For decades, foreign plays and actors had dominated Australian theatres, but all of a sudden an Australian audience was presented with an Australian story, told in vernacular language and familiar accents, using local urban—as opposed to bush—references.  Unlike so many Australian plays that preceded it, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll was not a shallow appeal to patriotism or stereotypes, but instead it dealt with universal concerns in an Australian context, which presented Australians on stage in a realistic manner for almost the first time.

All of the students doing Architectural Design Studio 4 were required to read Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. Since a large number of them had never seen a live theatre performance before, we arranged for the students to attend the Union House Theatre’s production of Sweeney Todd (1973) at Melbourne University’s Union Theatre—the theatre where Summer of the Seventeenth Doll premiered in 1955—which happened to be on at the time.

Each student designing the doll theatre also had to analyse the design of one of 30 selected overseas theatres, which included, for example, the Gutherie Theatre (2006) in the USA, designed by Jean Nouvel and Architectural Alliance; the Casa de Musica (2004) in Portugal, designed by OMA; and the National Theatre (1960-1981) in Brazil, designed by Oscar Niemeyer; and give a 10-minute PowerPoint presentation about it in class. The students also attended a series of lectures related to the design of the doll theatre, which included a lecture by Keith Streames, the architect who designed the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne, on the basics of theatre design; a backstage tour of the Union Theatre at the University of Melbourne; a lecture by Peter Bickle from the architectural firm, ARM, which designed the Melbourne Theatre Company’s new MTC Theatre in Melbourne; and a screening of Season of Passion, the 1959 Hollywood movie based on Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, which starred Ernest Borgnine as “Roo,” Anne Baxter (Frank Lloyd Wright’s granddaughter!) as Olive, John Mills as Barney, and Angela Lansbury as Pearl. (This is not Ray Lawler’s favourite film, to say the least. To this day, he has never seen it!)

Carlton is an integral part of the doll trilogy. (Indeed, one reason for Ray Lawler’s dislike of Season of Passion is because the film producers set it in Sydney rather than Carlton.) Therefore, the site chosen for the doll theatre was on the corner of Faraday and Rathdowne streets in Carlton. The idea was to clear the site of its existing buildings (the houses at numbers 111 and 113 Faraday Street and the Silver Top Taxi depot next door at 52-54 Rathdowne Street) and start from scratch.

Keith Streames, Ray Lawler and myself developed the design brief for the doll theatre. Ideally, the form and space of the building needed to allow for a wide range of staging formats.  For example, one production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll might require the focus of the action to be on the stage, while another production of the play by a different director might call for the actors to spill out into the auditorium, the foyer or even outside. The doll theatre had three distinct zones that the Architecture Major students had to consider in their designs.

The first zone was the theatre space, which comprised a 250-seat auditorium that had a raking floor to provide the audience with good views of the stage; a 9-metre wide by 9-metre deep stage; two side wings to the stage, each 4 metres wide, with a “prompt corner” at the left hand edge of the stage; a 10-metre “tall space” over the stage; an overhead lighting bar, 6 metres above the stage; and a 3-metre wide by 3-metre deep control room equipped for two technicians, located towards the rear of the auditorium.

The second zone was the back-of-house, which comprised four dressing rooms—two 15 square metres in area and two 20 square metres in area—adjacent to the stage and at the same floor level as it; a rehearsal or “warm-up” room, 50 square meters in area; sufficient toilets and showers for the performers and the back-of-house staff; a technicians’ office/storeroom/workshop, 50 square metres in area; a loading dock, which was adjacent to the stage and had direct access to outside of the theatre; a carpentry storeroom/workshop, 50 square metres, that was adjacent to the loading dock; a wardrobe room, 20 square metres in area, where costumes were cleaned, repaired and stored; an office, 16 square metres in area, for the theatre director; and an open-plan office, 20 square metres in area, for a touring theatre company.

Finally, the third zone was the front of house, which comprised a foyer, 180 square metres in area; a café and bar, as large as possible, which ideally could be opened when the theatre was closed; a box or ticket office; and an open-plan office for five administrative staff, 60 square metres in area; and sufficient public toilets for the theatre and café.

The doll theatre definitely challenged the students’ abilities, as it was meant to do; however they did an excellent job and produced some interesting and provocative buildings. At the end of the 12-week project, I sent a few of the doll theatre designs to Ray Lawler to look at (even though he lives in Elwood, throughout the project we communicated with each other via “old fashioned” letters). He was both impressed and surprised by them. “Dear Dr. Groves,” Lawler wrote. “Thank you for allowing me to see the wide and interesting range of ideas that have come forward in response to the doll theatre concept.  I am impressed.  I had wondered if a space devoted solely to productions of the Trilogy might have curbed the imagination, but the students haven’t let it stymie them, and have used it as a springboard for all sorts of variations.  And their ability to present these with such clarity by means of modern technology amazes me—I am of a generation that relied for theatrical visualisation in terms of sketches and a model of the set.  I marvel, too, when you write that this is only the third building these students have designed—would you congratulate them for me? … Warmest regards Ray Lawler.”

Sparks showcases a large number of the students’ doll theatre designs—in glorious black and white—which might otherwise have been “lost.” It is an excellent record of the work that the Architecture Major students did in Architectural Design Studio 4: Fire in 2010, as well as being a very useful resource for those students who have yet to tackle the subject. My sincere thanks go to the playwright, Ray Lawler; Peter Bickle from ARM; Tom Gutteridge, the Artistic Director of the Union House Theatre; Katie Frank from the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning; of course, the Architecture Major students in 2010; and my dedicated team of design tutors in 2010—Larry Cirillo; Kirsten Day; Phuong Quoc Dinh; Peter Hogg; Lee-Ann Joy; Jason Pickord; Ann Rado; Toby Reed; Mikel Roman; Ilana Rubenstein; Keith Streames; Chris Walker; and Taras Wolfe. Last but not least, my special thanks go to Tim Chandler from the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning for putting Sparks together.

Here is a sample:

Fiorn Lee

Francis Atkinson

Annie Harrison

Alison Dane

Marwin Hasim

Jas Johnston

Choong Chong

Cathrina Lee

Sarah Skillington

Quinland Yip

Filip Dans

Slavco Jovanoski

Natalie Ma

The stars of Season of Passion, the 1959 film version of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

Anne Baxter, who played Olive, and Ernest Borgnine, who played ‘Roo’

Anne Baxter, who played Olive

John Mills, who played Barney, and Angela Lansbury, who played Pearl

Ethel Gabriel, who played Emma

Vincent Ball, who played Johnnie, and Janette Craig, who played Bubba

Anna May Wong’s Lucky Shoes

Architecture students doing my Popular Art, Architecture and Design course at the University of Melbourne have designed and made pairs of shoes for the Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong, which will appear in a book about Anna May to be published by the Culicidae Press early next year.  Here is a sample of the shoes:

Cheryl HeapAlexandra WallYoke Kim Lee

Tim Clarke

Neo FuKatie MillerEnjie WuAudrey ZerafaLinton HartScott O’ReillyAmanda TanLachlan MichaelFransisca SugiartoCallista SieNur Zafira Zainal AbidinZoe LewisLinna ZhengAndrew Robinson from the Footwear Department at RMIT gives the students some words of advice at the beginning of the project

Forthcoming Talk at the Art Deco and Modernism Society

Hollywood comes to Melbourne
Melbourne Academic Derham Groves will present the story of the Hollywood star, Anna May Wong, who starred in numerous movies (usually as an Oriental Temptress) and who visited Melbourne to perform at the Tivoli in 1939. Anna was an Art Deco diva if ever there was one!

Date: Thursday 11 Feb 2010
Time: 7:30pm for 7:45pm start
Venue: Racecourse Hotel, cnr Dandenong Rd and Waverley Rd, Malvern East (Melways 68 F1)
Cost: $15 (coffee/tea, biscuits and mini-muffins provided)

Charley Chase’s Dymaxion Car

I was looking at film clips of Anna May Wong on YouTube. She was one of the actors featured in Hollywood Party (1937), a short film of a garden party with a Chinese theme, held to raise funds for the Kuomintang. I was surprised to see the US comedian Charley Chase arrive at the party driving a mock Dymaxion car. I didn’t realize that Buckminister Fuller’s invention had seeped into popular culture to that extent by 1937.DymaxionPC170041

Anna May Wong in Australia

Anna May Wong_27 Aug 09 012

Elaine Mae Woo, the director of Frosted Yellow Willows (2007), a documentary about the career of Anna May Wong, visited Melbourne last week for the Anna May Wong retrospective at ACMI. Pictured are moderator Philipa Hawker (above, left), Elaine and myself on stage following the screening of Frosted Yellow Willows on Thursday night at ACMI. Elaine and I spoke about Anna May Wong at the Chinese Museum on Saturday afternoon (below), and then I introduced Shanghai Express (1932), one of Wong’s best and most memorable films, at ACMI on Saturday night.


Dominick Dunne

dominick-dunne.jpggardner-mckay.jpgtiki.jpgRecently we saw the compelling Australian documentary Celebrity: Dominick Dunne. What an amazing life he’s had! Besides experiencing more than his fair share of personal tragedies, knowing ‘everybody’ in Hollywood and covering celebrity trials for Vanity Fair, Dunne also produced the late 1950s-early 1960s TV show Adventures in Paradise starring Gardner McKay as dashing Adam Troy, captain of the schooner ‘Tikki’. It was one of my favourite TV shows as a kid.

James Drury, The Virginian

save0127.jpgAbove: James Drury, star of the popular US TV Western series The Virginian, visited Australia in the 1960s (although I’m not sure exactly what year). When he arrived at Essendon Airport in Melbourne he was greeted by TV personality Panda (left) and TV singer Val Ruff (wife of Geoff Corke, a.k.a. ‘King Corky, King of the Kids’). You couldn’t tote a handgun at an airport like that these days! Below: Mum and me watching The Virginian on Foxtel last Sunday.