Randwick Local Legends Episode 9: Vilma Schramm

Vilma has lived in Coogee since the 1930s. Her father was a boxer, bookie and tele clerk, and her mother was a contortionist. Early memories include the shark nets at Coogee Beach and the excitement of rushing home from a picture theatre when the sirens went off during World War II. Growing up, school didn't interest this self-proclaimed extrovert who instead pursued a career in dance and performance, and later on, fashion. Vilma reflects on those years and reveals a different life to the one lived now with so many changes, both good and bad. The Coogee of her youth is no longer there, however Vilma continues to love this place for many new reasons.

About this episode

In Episode 9, Vilma shares her memories of Coogee including: her early days growing up in the 1930s and 40s; the sirens sounding when the Japanese midget submarines entered Sydney Harbour; barbed wire on Coogee beach during World War II and the wonderful picture theatres that were once abundant in the Randwick area. Passionate about drama and dance for as long as she can remember, Vilma shares her memories of studying dramatic art, performing in theatre and even dancing at Chequers, one of swinging Sydney's most successful and colourful nightclubs of the day.

Duration: 28min 40sec
Recorded: 2019

Episode transcript


Chelsea Hunter: Hi, you're listening to local legends, the podcast that explores the history of Randwick City through the recollections of locals who know and love the area. I'm Chelsea Hunter and with me is Vilma Schramm, who has lived in Coogee since the 1930s. Her father was a boxer, bookie and tele clerk and her mother was a contortionist. So her recollections of Coogee are bound to be colourful. Thank you so much for joining us, Vilma.

Vilma Schramm: Thank you.

Chelsea Hunter: So, you were born in Coogee?

Vilma Schramm: I came to Coogee when I was five.

Chelsea Hunter: And what are your earliest memories of Coogee?

Vilma Schramm: So much! I remember all the movie theatres. There was the Odeon, the Boomerang, there was the Clovelly Hoyts, and then there was the Clovelly Kings. I remember, as a child, I remember, the beaches. I remember there was a shark net in Coogee beach.

I think you'll find that there was quite a lot of big storms, big storms. And eventually they closed that down completely. They pulled the shark net down completely.

They had barbed wire on Coogee Beach because they thought the Japanese, if they invaded, they might come through the beaches.

Chelsea Hunter: That would have prevented people from swimming as well then!

Vilma Schramm: No, they used to have an area where you could swim. Yes. But as I said, I was I think I was about 10 at the time. And going back to be a child, I remember, we used to have to do a raid practice when I was at Coogee school, because of the Japanese you see and one night, my mother and I were at the Odeon Theatre and the air raid went off. This is when the Japanese came to the harbour and everything was blacked out. As I remember, my mother said we will run home and will get under the bed.

Chelsea Hunter: Do you remember how it felt at the time? Were you quite scared?

Vilma Schramm: No, I thought it was wonderful. Oh no. Running home in the dark and getting under the bed. Waiting for bombs to drop.

Chelsea Hunter: Very Dramatic

Vilma Schramm: Very. Being an only child. I think it makes you like that. Yeah, I think it does, and I was very spoiled, unfortunately.

Chelsea Hunter: So, what were the things that you learned when you're in school to protect against potential attacks? So, you had air raid drills?

Vilma Schramm: Nothing really, we didn't learn very much at all. I don't even think many people had an air raid shelter and so we had to rely you know … under the bed. And then that passed. Before I left Coogee Public, we had a wonderful teacher there called Miss McDonald. She was marvellous and I remember that we had to have a drill. We had to have air raid drill. And they blow the whistle and you get out of there. There was a little place in Coogee Public School and I don’t know if it is still there and we had to crowd into this little room. I mean, it was when I think of it, it was the best that they could do. And we were so far away from everybody.

Chelsea Hunter: Did it play on your mind, much as a child that there was potential danger? Or was it just something you lived with it?

Vilma Schramm: No, something that you lived with.

Chelsea Hunter: So, going back to being a child in Coogee, you moved there when you're five years old. Which school did you go to?

Vilma Schramm: St Brigid’s. It's not there anymore. The Catholic Church is still there. But St Brigid’s isn't there. Then I went down to Coogee Public School. And when I was in fifth class, I decided that I wanted to be a real Catholic. So I went over to Holy Cross College, which I loved, but I left school very early, because I wanted to get into the theatre, you see.

Chelsea Hunter: So about how many children would have been at the school when you were there?

Vilma Schramm: I think in my class, at Coogee Public. I think there was about 45. But it was a different kind of education.

Chelsea Hunter: And what was the ethnic mix of kids in your class?

Vilma Schramm: Australian.

Chelsea Hunter: So quite homogenous and quite the same.

Vilma Schramm: Well like, yes, yes. I grew up unfortunately, in a White Australian policy.

Chelsea Hunter: And what were the subjects that were taught at the time?

Vilma Schramm: Reading, writing, arithmetic and geography, nothing that they taught today.

Chelsea Hunter: Did you enjoy school?

Vilma Schramm: Not really, I was a dunce. All I wanted to do is dance. I always wanted to be dramatic. No, I wasn’t very good at all. I liked the class, I liked the girls, but the schoolwork didn't worry me. And homework! No, I was always sick.

Chelsea Hunter: So how did you start your career then in dance?

Vilma Schramm: Oh, I think I was about four years old. And my mother took me to a dancing class because Shirley Temple was all the rage. Did you know who she was? Well, I mean, you know, she was all the rage and everybody wanted to be like Shirley Temple. So I went to dancing school and that’s where it started and I always loved dancing. Always.

Chelsea Hunter: So, you've been dancing from the age of four. No wonder school didn't really take!

Vilma Schramm: It didn't, no it didn’t. And the discipline of the school didn't take either. No.

Chelsea Hunter: Although there is a discipline in being in the performing arts.

Vilma Schramm: More so. If you're a dancer, then you know what discipline is really like. And that's where I learned. You are never late, you never tear your costumes. Because if you tear your costumes, you'd have to pay six pence to get them repaired.

Chelsea Hunter: What sort of dancing did you do?

Vilma Schramm: Everything; tap dancing and ballet. I mean, you know, I was with Chequers the nightclub for a little while. And then, I started actually, as a kid in pantomimes, I was with the Morris Diamonds School of Dancing. And I started… The first very first words I uttered in a pantomime was, ah, it was a Dick Whittington pantomime. It was at the Tivoli and I had to roll out the stage and say, ah, “the rats have invaded the palace”. It was my first, my first talking role.

Chelsea Hunter: And you were hooked from there were you?

Vilma Schramm: Oh, yes. I always wanted to dance.

Chelsea Hunter: Was it easy to get into theatre at that time?

Vilma Schramm: No, not really, because there wasn’t a lot around. Yes. And then I was interested in Dramatic Art. So, I went for a scholarship. It was called the Whitehall Academy of Dramatic Art. And I was lucky enough, I got it, it was two years of training, which I thought was wonderful.

But I left because I wanted to get married. I was 18. Can you imagine now? But in those days. I mean, if you weren't married, say about by about 22. I mean, now who cares? You live together, you have your baby and then you might get married.

It is a different type of a world today. I’m not saying that it’s any better, I’m not saying it's any good, but that's the way people are. Thank god they are, because they so broadminded today. That we could do things today that you'd never even dreamed of thinking of doing when I was growing up, which is unfortunate because I was a bit of an extrovert. It was very difficult for me. Very difficult for me.

Chelsea Hunter: So where did you train then as an actor?

Vilma Schramm: At Whitehall Academy of Dramatic Art.

Chelsea Hunter: Where was that?

Vilma Schramm: That was in the city. It was in a laneway. I don't even know what the name was. But it was between George Street and Elizabeth Street. I think yes, there used to be a laneway. It was like a classroom and it was a two-year course. It was very good.

Chelsea Hunter: And how many were you training with?

Vilma Schramm: Who was I training with?

Oh, there's quite a lot of people because a lot of people in those days, there was quite a few people who had gone to the war. And who had wanted to do this. And this was something that I think the government did. What would you say? Like, people who would come back from the war who want, I mean, there's quite a few guys who wanted to tap dance, that was … these are the things they wanted to do.

But it wasn't free for people like me, but I won a scholarship so I went for a scholarship and I went there for two years training.

Chelsea Hunter: And how old were you at that age?

Vilma Schramm: 15, 15 to 17 I was.

Chelsea Hunter: When did you first star or feature in your first play?

Vilma Schramm: I think I was about 16 I think. But it was a play like they do at NIDA now. It wasn't professional on the stage play. It was professional in play. Have you been to NIDA? We're a member of NIDA. So that's the National Institute of Dramatic Art. So much talent in this country. It's unbelievable. Really.

Chelsea Hunter: So, it would have taken a lot of focus and dedication then.

Vilma Schramm: It does. Because you not only do the history, like the stage, the plays that you're used to I used to do one of those was “Children in Uniform”. And that’s what I won a scholarship on, I mean, not talking about myself, but I’m just saying what happens, and the background of the "Children in Uniform" was you had to learn it to learn the character of who you're playing. Yes, it was very good.

Chelsea Hunter: Do you keep in touch with many of the people that you worked with at the time?

Vilma Schramm: Isn’t it strange, three the people that I used to work with, we’re all going on to 90 now. And we still sometimes have coffee together, yes, we do.

Chelsea Hunter: Wonderful. A very close-knit community then. So you left acting or the stage when you were 18 because you wanted to get married.

Vilma Schramm: I want to get married, yes.

Chelsea Hunter: And did you got married at that age?

Vilma Schramm: I did, yes. I married Michael's father. We had a very good marriage. Unfortunately, he's dead now. And then I met my beautiful, beautiful husband. So, we'd been married, gosh, I've been married 50 years.

Chelsea Hunter: So, you started your family then while living in Coogee?

Vilma Schramm: Oh yes. Michael was born in St Margaret’s [maternity hospital in Darlinghurst]. I waited six long years to have him. That was one of the happiest days of my life.

Chelsea Hunter: Where are you living at that time in Coogee?  What was your house like?

Vilma Schramm: 18 Melody Street, Coogee.  It's a semi, still there.

Chelsea Hunter: And how many? There was yourself, your husband? How many kids?

Vilma Schramm: Only one, only Michael. My mother was living with me. So I was able once I had Michael, I wanted to really get back into dancing. And I remember going… And my mother said to me, “Darling, go back, I'll watch him, I’ll be there, I’ll be here.” Yes.

But I never went back to dancing I went into fashion. You probably don't remember Farmers. Well, Farmers is where Myers is now. Myers took Farmers over. So I went into fashion and I love that as well. And then from there, I went into advertising, in fashion. I was a coordinator which was good. So, it’s been interesting.

Chelsea Hunter: So, going back to growing up in Coogee, what was the lifestyle that you had like?

Vilma Schramm: Simple, very simple.

We didn't even have television. So, we used to play on the road and there wasn't that many cars around. And we played cricket or we'd play countries, or we would do hopscotch or skipping. And they don't do that now. That's the thing where I think children miss out. I think children really have forgotten to play properly today, including my own three great-grandchildren.

I'll say about the computer. My 10 year old great grandchild, she says, "Nan, all you do is [pretends to play on computer keyboard].” She's 10 years old and she knows more about it than I do, but I'm not interested.

I'll tell you something funny. I still have a passbook for my bank. Because I know exactly what I've got. I look at that bank book and I say this is what I’ve got and this is what had then.

I remember in those days you could leave your doors open, nobody closed the doors, nobody closed them, because there were very few people in those days. That's why I think the streets are crowded today because a lot of people, they've got two or three cars today now. And I mean, in those days you were lucky to have a car.

Chelsea Hunter: So you were reliant on bus and tram at the time?

Vilma Schramm: Bus and tram. Yes. And we used to go from… at the end of our street Melody Street, there was a bus stop. And we used to go up to Peter's corner from Peter’s corner, get the train into the railway station or into Circular Quay.

And I remember, that was so funny. When they told us that we were getting, double-decker buses and they were going from right from the city to Coogee.

Where I live now in Dudley Street, which is lovely it used to be a dairy farm. When we moved there where I was living in Melody Street, where I used to go up to the Ritz, we used to walk up to the Ritz and things and there was a dairy farm.

Chelsea Hunter: Is that where your milk would come from?

Vilma Schramm: Yes, yes.

Chelsea Hunter: And did you also get delivery of bread?

Vilma Schramm: Always. Yes, and milk. We used to leave the glass bottles on the veranda. Wonderful.

Chelsea Hunter: Would it make life easier that way? Do you think?

Vilma Schramm: Well, we didn't know any other life. Oh, no. I think life in one way is a lot harder today, I do. I think people expect a lot more today. They expect material things today.

Like, I know in my family, I've got Michael and I know when he was, I think he was about 16 and eight months or something when he could drive a car. My father bought him an MG, I mean things like that. Now today, it's just all accepted. I mean, he's got his children, but there are four cars in the family. He had a car, Carol had a car, Kenny had a car, and so did Matthew. So you see the difference? When I was growing up, to have a car was... We’ve got a car… and as for having a swimming pool, oh no, only actresses and actors in Hollywood ever had those.

Chelsea Hunter: You’ve just reminded me of movies and the number of cinemas that were in the area. Was going to the movies a big part of your social life?

Vilma Schramm: Yes, we had the Boomerang in Coogee where they built units. We had the Odeon where the Chemist Warehouse is there. And then we had the Clovelly which now is a petrol station. We had Kings further down Clovelly, which I think is child mind care centre now. It used to be part of the RSL but I think they took it over, yes.

Chelsea Hunter: How often would you go to the movies?

Vilma Schramm: Oh, at least twice a week. Yes, yes. Saturday was the big day because we used to get two movies: a serial and a cartoon, and then on a Friday night at the Clovelly, they used to have a horror night.

I went to America when I was young, and they had television and I couldn't believe that here we were, I was watching this screen. We never had it out here then, you see.

But now my husband's Austrian and we can text Fritzi - she's still in Vienna - and in a minute we've got her answer back, thousands of miles away.

Chelsea Hunter: What was communication like when you're in America?

Vilma Schramm: You used to have to book a phone call. Yes, yes. As I said, we were in Europe too. And oh, no, I was in Europe a lot older. And we had to book a phone call. And it might have taken two hours or an hour or whatever it was. You just couldn't pick up a phone and ring it again. So, they’re the things that I think are fabulous there. I think these phones, I mean, I could pick up a phone to ring my son and say, "Sweetheart, how are you?" And he would say, "I’m alright, Mum" and I know everything's fine. Couldn't do that those days down there.

Chelsea Hunter: How much would a phone call cost?

Vilma Schramm: A lot of money in those days? I'd say pounds. Maybe it all depends on how long. I used to get three minutes. But if you want to extend but I'd say to you, do you have to extend this phone call? Quite a few. Yes.

Chelsea Hunter: Tell me about the tennis court in Melody Street.

Vilma Schramm: Oh, yes. At the Back of Melody Street. There were two. Where I lived at 18 Melody Street, there was 18 and there was 16 and between that there was a passageway going down. And there was a tennis court there. And then there was another tennis court there.

Now and then when they, when they, there was a landlord, there, he was what, he was wonderful. When he decided to sell the houses, that's when we decided to buy. My mother decided to buy the house. And the people who were in the semis, when they bought the houses they decided to take the tennis courts away and make them part of their backyard. Yes.

Chelsea Hunter: So how often would you go to the tennis courts?

Vilma Schramm: Oh, where I was, my first husband ... he used to use the tennis courts all the time. He used to love them. He used to play tennis quite a bit too.

Chelsea Hunter: And were they dirt courts?

Vilma Schramm: No, no.

Chelsea Hunter: What kind of courts where they?

Vilma Schramm: I think not dirt courts, so the red courts? I don't know what to call them, they weren’t bitumen. No.

Chelsea Hunter: Was there a strong tennis community at the time?

Vilma Schramm: Oh in those days? Oh, yes. This is where we had the Hoads and all those people. The... Lewis Hoad [1956, 1957 Wimbledon champion] and people like that who used to win all the tennis. Was very different altogether. But then again, you see, in those days they didn't have the Europeans coming in. Now, they had England. And of course, we learnt more of English history those days than we ever did of Australian.

Chelsea Hunter: So these were casual games between friends?

Vilma Schramm: Oh yes, they had little community games.

Chelsea Hunter: Did anyone go professional?

Vilma Schramm: No, it was all just fun.

Chelsea Hunter: Now, apparently it used to flood quite a bit in Coogee.

Vilma Schramm: Oh yes it did. Yes, yes. Michael could tell you. We've got a photograph of Michael in where you know where the oval is. Yes, a lot.

Chelsea Hunter: How deep did the water get?

Vilma Schramm: Deep enough for kids to swim.

Chelsea Hunter: How would you get around in that case?

Vilma Schramm: It used to flood the oval up to where the tennis courts are now. Everybody, people just walked.

I mean, as I said, now, kids go to school in their cars and parents drive to school. That didn't happen when I was growing up. No, no, that didn't happen. People felt a lot safer.

Chelsea Hunter: Right ... OK. 'Cause you mentioned before that you used to leave your doors open.

Vilma Schramm: And the windows open, and the cars. Yes, yeah. Nobody thought about harming. People could sleep on their verandas, if they wanted to. But don't forget, darling, we were only a very small population in those days.

I was working at Farmers at the time because I wanted to train there to be a fashion buyer, you see. I was lucky enough to get into the fashion office and become their coordinator, so that was great. I loved that.

And we got the first window dresser.  And he was Italian. And we thought, "We've an Italian person coming!" He was gorgeous. We all loved him. We fell in love with him. Everybody fell in love with him, you see, and people used to say, and I'll have to tell you this, we never understood the food. For me, I used to think to myself, "People who eat garlic?!" And then of course, I married an Austrian who was wonderful. And now I can’t live without my garlic.

When I think, when I think that we used to get Devon ... and we went up to the mountains one time and they had the first, I think  it was wonderful Jewish delicatessen up there, and they had all these things like salami, and I couldn't believe it, I thought, "Now, how can I live without those things?"

Chelsea Hunter: The wonderful thing about having people from different countries.

Vilma Schramm: And I remember walking down, going down Coogee Bay Road and this is a restaurant after restaurant. But when I was growing up they were mostly, there were fruit shops and there was a draper shop and a shoe shop.

I think there was probably about two Chinese food shops, I think it was. Very few restaurants. Now you walk down Coogee Bay Road and, and it's wonderful. It's all food restaurants, oh yes, yes it's lovely.

Chelsea Hunter: Coogee Bay Road would have been very much a town centre and everything that a village needed. You wouldn't have to have to travel too far to get all the things of daily living.

Vilma Schramm: Oh no, there was a wonderful butcher down there and the fruit. Oh, no.

Chelsea Hunter: Did you get to know a lot of the providores by name, so you would have known your butcher by name?

Vilma Schramm: Oh, that was a long time ago, yes. And even where I was at Coogee Public School, there was a wonderful grocery shop, there was a wonderful butcher there. There was a wonderful pie shop there. None of it's there now. But that's life.

Chelsea Hunter: Could you shop direct with them or out of the area?

Vilma Schramm: Oh, yes you could, but then there was a Chinese shop or there were gardens going towards Malabar. Now that's all. That's all, it's all gone, all done… all built out now.

And I remember my girlfriend and I, when she was still alive... so, we’d known one another for a long, long time. And I remember, we were saying that we were going to buy some land at Maroubra. And I think it was 100 pounds at that particular time, an acre. And people said, "You cannot buy land there, it's all sand, its only sand hills." Well, what an opportunity we missed out on. 100 pounds for an acre. And every time we go over to Maroubra now, and we see what it's like, we just look at one another. It's, my God, to think!

Chelsea Hunter: It feels like a lot of the strong memories you have of being in Coogee are almost things are being replicated now. So, the delivery of milk and bread that you used to get each day, a lot of people get their groceries delivered to their home.

Vilma Schramm: Yeah, I was just about to say that. Yes, yes, and now of course with all the… you could buy offline and we often buy offline and oh, it's easy. Yeah. So, it's always, it's easy, but then you don't get to know those people. You see, you only get to know or you get to know voices.

All you do is get to know the things that tell you, you press this and you press that, and that's another thing too, I find that no matter what department you ring up today, they say if you press one you get so and so. You press two for so and so. Well. Sometimes it's very inconvenient for people. I feel very sorry for people who find it very difficult at the time to speak English, must be difficult.

I know when my husband came out here to work. He's an engineer. And he did all his training in Austria. When he came to Australia they didn’t recognise his degrees, had he been English, they would have, they would now. So he went back to university. And he got his degrees all over again. And people said to him, but it was lucky for you because, you know, you had ... you were an engineer. He said, Look, I had to learn English. I had to write English, you can't write exams in German.

And now if you asked him to speak German, he hasn't a clue.

His sister comes out often from Vienna. And he tries to speak to her. And she will say, "Rudy, please don’t speak in German, because I can’t understand anything you say." Because she speaks perfect English.

Chelsea Hunter: That would have been very difficult to have to study again.

Vilma Schramm: That’s why I feel very sorry for people who speak another language. I go out of my way to help them. Because I know the experience that Rudy had.

Chelsea Hunter: Was there ever a time that you considered not living in Coogee?

Vilma Schramm: No. No, because I love Coogee. I had a lot of friends. And because I knew the area and it was very precious to me. And I remember when we first moved to where we are now in Dudley Street, you couldn't see a tree there. Now you could hardly see a house because all the trees have grown. And I call them my gentle giants. I love them. We've got a lovely view for where we are in Dudley Street - of the ocean. We had a bigger view, but of course the trees there have all grown up, but I love them, it's beautiful.

Chelsea Hunter: Wow, that's really telling. It shows just how long you've been in an area.

Vilma Schramm: Oh, yes. And the other day when I went out, I was on the balcony and opposite us we've got the most beautiful Jacaranda tree. It's just divine. And there was the purple of the Jacaranda and there was the blue of the sea and then the rain. We had a little rain, but what rain there was on the tree, it was shining. It was like as if there were jewels on the tree. And I said to Rudy, “You've got to come out and look at this". It was perfect. Just perfect. Unless you see those things, you can't explain them to people. But they were beautiful. Lovely.

Sometimes the very simple things in life are more important, you know, than what you think they are. And as I said, as you get older, you realise there's two things in life, darling, your family and love. You don’t need anything else. Truly, you don't. And you learn that. Yes, I know people say to me, "Oh but you’re lucky because so and so and so" and I said, “Yes but, we're lucky because we worked for it”. We worked hard.

Chelsea Hunter: They are the values that you had and you worked towards.

Vilma Schramm: We had the values. Yes. It's good, yes. It's great.

Chelsea Hunter: Beautiful. I couldn't think of a better way to end an interview. Thank you so much for sharing your memories with us. We really appreciate it.

Vilma Schramm: Oh no, thank you. It was lovely for you. Yes.

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