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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Hennessy, Noreen Eileen (1912–1994)

by G. D. Rushworth

This article was published online in 2018

Noreen Eileen Mary Hennessy (1912-1994), organist, was born on 6 August 1912 in Brisbane, youngest of three daughters of Queensland-born parents Thomas Hennessy, civil servant, and his wife Mary Agnes, née Mogan. From an early age Noreen displayed exceptional musical talent for violin and piano. She attended St Patrick’s primary school, Fortitude Valley. In 1932 she was the pianist for a fund-raising performance of Sundowner, and by 1935 she was prominent among musicians and broadcasters in Queensland and south-eastern Australia.

Moving to Sydney, Hennessy was appointed organist at the Prince Edward Theatre in Castlereagh Street on 18 August 1944. For the next nineteen years she presented sparkling performances at the console of the Prince Edward’s Wurlitzer pipe organ, entertaining an estimated 2.5 million people. From the early 1930s silent films had given way to those with soundtracks. She was therefore not employed to improvise music and sound effects to match with films but rather to entertain audiences before, between, and after film screenings. Her popularity brought followers to the theatre as much to see and hear her perform as for the enjoyment of the film. She gave three performances a day, six days each week at the theatre, and on Sundays for eleven years was also musical director at the Western Suburbs Leagues Club. She gave many radio broadcasts from the Prince Edward Theatre organ for the Macquarie network, the Australian Broadcasting Commission, and Radio Australia.

The special features of Hennessy’s performances were that she sang the words to the popular songs she presented; and that she played from memory, without sheet music in front of her. ‘People came to listen to me playing,’ she recalled in a 1977 interview: ‘They came from Melbourne, Queensland, all over Australia. I could even keep teenagers quiet with Debussy’ (Bolton 1977, 10). The music she played ranged through ‘high-brow, middle-brow and low-brow’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1994, 15). She said, ‘I don’t think anyone minded what I played, as long as I played’ (Bolton 1977, 10). Her style and musical skills at the theatre organ can still be appreciated from several recordings.

Impending closure and demolition of the Prince Edward Theatre brought Hennessy’s final performance for patrons on 23 February 1964, and she also gave a private concert there on 15 August 1965. With the passing of the theatre organ era she largely disappeared from the public arena. In 1968 she suffered a severe nervous breakdown. She was reserved about her private life, and her movements in Brisbane and Sydney in later life are unclear. In 1977 she returned briefly to the spotlight to perform at the Music Hall theatre restaurant, Neutral Bay, Sydney.

Of medium height and build, Hennessy was always immaculately groomed with hair ‘permed’ in the fashion of the time. A well-known columnist, Leo Schofield, affectionately described her as ‘a real Sydney identity in the 1950s … blonde and beaming in crushed velvet and diamante’ (Schofield 1994, 34). Although she had been engaged in 1932, she never married. She died at Eastwood, Sydney, on 11 January 1994, and following a requiem Mass at St Anthony’s Catholic Church, Marsfield, was privately cremated.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Bolton, Clive. ‘Play It Again, Noreen.’ Australian, 5 July 1977, 10
  • Martin, K. J. Personal communication
  • Pratt, Tony. ‘Swansong of a Wurlitzer.’ Sun-Herald (Sydney), 15 August 1965, 92
  • Schofield, Leo, letter to the editor, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 January 1994, 34
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Queen of the Wurlitzer Reigned for Two Decades.’ 17 January 1994, 15
  • Webb, M. Personal communication

Additional Resources

Citation details

G. D. Rushworth, 'Hennessy, Noreen Eileen (1912–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/hennessy-noreen-eileen-18240/text29832, published online 2018, accessed online 28 October 2020.

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