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Burgundy’s Debbie Dorday is still rocking her sequins

After a lifetime of razzle-dazzle, the gorgeous performer is far from hanging up her dancing shoes
Photos: Amalia Osborne

If you lived in New Zealand in the 1980s and ’90s, you’ll likely remember entertainer Debbie Dorday. She was the high-energy, red-headed dancer who owned a popular cabaret club and famously delivered the tagline in its iconic TV ads… “See you at Burgundy’s!”

These days, she’s just as witty and glamorous – you’ll still find her putting on fishnet stockings, fake eyelashes and lashings of body glitter – as she takes her act to retirement villages throughout New Zealand.

Arthritis might have put paid to high dance kicks, but accompanied by guitarist and singer Jim Joll and her husband of 38 years, Mike Stickland (who runs the tech side), the trio put on a show, which includes numerous costume changes, cabaret tunes and comedy routines.

In a chat filled with irreverent memories and laughter, Debbie dishes up stories to the Weekly about how she tricked her dad so she could attend stage school and why a mystery smell was almost the undoing of her at Burgundy’s.

Having worked in the entertainment industry since the age of 10, Debbie has a lifetime of memories.

You had a transient upbringing as the daughter of an English vicar. What was that like?

I was born in Hertfordshire, but we immigrated to New Zealand when I was 18 months old when Dad became vicar of St Heliers parish in Auckland. Then it was onto a vicarage in Ngāruawāhia for three years. I was a bit of a show off and loved to dance, so I used to do shows to raise funds for a new organ for the church or whatever was needed. We moved back to the UK before I was 10.

The vicar’s daughter loved dance from a young age.

And your father wasn’t aware you were attending a London stage school instead of a ballet school?

Yes! Mum said to me, “Dad thinks it’s Sadler’s Wells Ballet School you’re auditioning for, let’s just leave it at that.” Instead, I got into the famous Aida Foster Stage School. It was actually a big old house with 60 kids between 10 and 15 years old, and the emphasis wasn’t on schooling!

I recited Shakespeare, learned how to fall down stairs, put on different accents and how to fence, along with two hours of dance a day. My parents didn’t have to pay fees because pupils did acting work through an agency to cover the fees, so I’ve worked since I was 10.

Tell us how you ended up in the Moulin Rouge in Paris at 16?

The others at the school wanted to be actors in America. But I wasn’t into that. I really wanted to dance and sing or do musical comedy. I also wanted to wear the rhinestones and feathers, so I went to a dance audition for Moulin Rouge being held in London. It was very tough – you had to stand and do a high kick to your ear without any effort. I got the part and left the stage school.

They went mad when I told them. It was a turning point in my life and I often wonder if it was the right thing to do. Of course, my dad thought I was still doing ballet! It was very sad when he died when I was 20. I think he would have loved seeing me in that troupe.

Debbie at 16. “I was a bit of a show off.”

You met your first husband Alan Dorday as a teenager…

He lived in the bedsit next door. One night, I knocked on his door and asked, “Do you have a shilling for the gas meter?” He was a nice man. We had our three children, Jodie, Jason and Josh, very young.

21st birthday treat! With her mum and first husband Alan watching her idol Shirley Bassey perform.

After you had your kids, did you pine for the stage again?

I did. We came back to New Zealand and I didn’t tell anyone what I had been doing in my former life. I thought, “I’ll be a housewife and mother now.”

I joined the Plunket mothers support group in Papatoetoe and one day the president said, “We’re going to have a Father’s Night dance at the Papatoetoe Town Hall and we want some sort of item with you mums.” My friend Margaret piped up, “Debbie can teach us something – she was at the Moulin Rouge!” So I taught 30 housewives to dance seductively to Big Spender, while miming to Shirley Bassey. I made them wear red lipstick, black tights, a black jumper, white bow tie and a white bunny’s tail.

They were new mums who had never done anything like this before. They still remember it too – I’ve met a few of those mums in the audience at my retirement village shows. Then a new job beckoned at cabaret venue Annabel’s in Fort St in 1975.

I bowled up to owner Bob Sell and said, “There’s only one thing wrong with your show – I’m not in it!” I danced there four nights a week for eight years.

After the show, I used to put on my sneakers and a hoodie, then run to the carpark because I had to drive home to Manurewa and get to bed quickly to get up to make the kids’ school lunches the next morning.

One night, there was a cop who grabbed me, saying, “Just over there is a guy in a doorway with a knife.” That’s when I knew it was time to go – I wanted to start my own place.

“See you at the retirement village!” With her singer and guitarist Jim.

And Burgundy’s was born on Parnell Road!

Our performers were classy women and men, mostly from the New Zealand Ballet company. I began to do stand-up comedy. Before each show, I’d go table-to-table gleaning information and names about why they were there. Then at halftime, I’d put on something showy and mention every table and tell some gags. “Everybody, George is here from the Hamilton bowling club. Hello George, I didn’t recognise you with your clothes on!”

Can you share a behind-the-scenes anecdote?

One Saturday night, a woman from the audience went into the wings – nobody saw her – and she vomited behind a curtain.

Our next show wasn’t until Wednesday night. In the third number, a 1930s car backdrop pulled on slowly while we did a jazz number. Mike pulled the curtain and brought the vomit onto the stage in three patches. We all noticed the smell. I started speaking like a ventriloquist, with a huge smile on my face, while going, “There’s something there… Don’t slip! Keep away from it.”

The funniest thing was we saw Mike’s hand come under the backdrop with a cloth and wipe each patch away as he was crawling along in the dark. It started us all off giggling. But if you get the giggles and your eyes water, your eyelashes fall off. That’s the danger.

How fun was it working alongside your daughter Jodie?

She’s still the only one who can make me crack up and almost lose it on stage. One time, I came on stage with Jodie and just before the lights went on, she decided to trick me by whispering, “Mum, your wig’s on backwards” and then the spotlight came on. It was very naughty of her. When you try not to laugh, you breathe funny.

Debbie and daughter Jodie in 1988.

When Burgundy’s lease came up, how did it feel to close that chapter?

We were all heartbroken. I married Mike at Burgundy’s and my kids’ 21st birthdays were held there. I left on our final night at 2am and I couldn’t ever go back in to clear the dressing rooms. It was too sad, so Mike sorted all of that out. I kept my costumes, but sold the rest or gave headdresses to drag queens and the chattels were auctioned off. [The tables, bar and curtains went to The Classic Comedy Club on Queen Street.]

Has age slowed you down?

Hah! I can still change costumes quickly, but it’s getting my shoes or long boots on and off that’s hardest! I can still fit into one of my sparkly leotards – I like to be a bit oomphy on stage. But no, I’ve never thought about retiring.

She’s still got it! “I’ve never thought about retiring.”

What are you most proud of?

That my kids turned out okay and are great people. Showbiz-wise, it’s probably that from all my audiences over the decades, I never got one complaint. Every time I perform at a retirement village, at least 10 people will say, “I saw you at Burgundy’s and loved it.” I’m proud to have been a part of people’s special memories.

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