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Margaret Joan (Peggy) Toppano (1927–2003)

by Valerie Lawson

Peggy Toppano, with her husband Enzo, by John Hearder, 1959

Peggy Toppano, with her husband Enzo, by John Hearder, 1959

National Library of Australia, 40491700

In the words of Irving Berlin's anthem to vaudeville, Peggy Toppano's life was defined by "the music, the spotlight, the people, the towns". An entertainer whose career spanned 70 years, she sang, danced, played and acted on a bewildering array of stages, endearing herself to audiences around the world.

Trained as a classical violinist and pianist, Toppano had "a rare and all-embracing talent", said her friend, Tommy Tycho. But at heart, she was a show business trouper whose epitaph might read "let's go on with the show".

Toppano's career reflected her times. She began in pantomimes, aged five, and was a vaudeville star before television killed the vaudeville circuit.

She starred on television in its infancy, and trod the tiny stages of theatre restaurants in their heyday. A year before she died, she was still working, writing a Christmas song which she recorded with Toni Lamond. The CD featured musical arrangements by her elder son, Lorenzo.

A stage-struck mother and grandmother set Peggy on the path. She married into a musical family and was, in turn, the mother of three children who made their career on the stage, screen, or bandstand.

Billed as "Australia's first family of entertainment", the Toppanos turned their extraordinary musical talents to all aspects of showbiz, but Peggy was perhaps the most multi-talented of all.

As a child, she played the piano and violin so well she performed for an ABC radio show at the age of eight, and by the time she was 10 was asked to play as a soloist with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Later, Peggy learned to play the banjo and mandolin. She was also an accomplished soprano, dancer, lyricist and composer.

The youngest of four children of public servant William Mortimer and his wife Grace, Peggy was born in Coogee, and attended St Mel's Primary School in Campsie.

Her future husband, Enzo, believes it was Peggy's maternal grandmother who guided her into the competition circuit. The girl with hazel eyes and dark hair was collecting trophies at eisteddfods from the age of eight. By 10, she won a scholarship to attend classes at the NSW Conservatorium of Music.

During a radio show hosted by Dick Bentley, she met another child star, Enzo Toppano, the son of Italian migrants who had settled in Broken Hill. Enzo and his brother were urged to take up the piano accordion by their father, who was a professional accordion player.

Peggy Mortimer attended St Patrick Girls' High School in central Sydney until 1943 when she was asked by theatre producer Bob Geraghty to appear in the vaudeville shows presented at the Cremorne Theatre in Brisbane. The American entertainer Evie Hayes was the star of the shows.

Peggy continued her schooling in Brisbane, completing her homework in the Cremorne dressing room, coached by her fellow vaudevillians.

In 1947, Peggy and her brother, Geoff, sailed to England. The Flanagan and Allen theatrical agency helped launch her European career, which included a spot on a British Broadcasting Corporation variety show. Two years after she arrived in London, Peggy met up with her childhood friend, Enzo, who had travelled to England in 1949.

The two entertainers had been booked to appear in the same ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association) show touring to Vienna, then under the control of the four Allied powers. They fell in love and married in 1950 in a church at Golders Green, London. Their daughter, Peta, was born a year later.

While Enzo toured England on the Stoll Moss theatre circuit, Peggy appeared in concert performances and continued her work with the BBC.

Her father's illness meant a hasty return to Australia. The Toppanos intended to return to Britain but life was a lot easier at home than in postwar England. They decided to stay, appearing throughout Australia and New Zealand in tours of Ice Parade, Ice Capades, and shows produced by Harry Wren.

After Lorenzo (Ren) was born in 1956, Peggy and Enzo were among the first entertainers to appear on Australian television, with their own segment on Sydney's first TV breakfast show.

The ATN 7 program was hosted by Ray Taylor, with Peggy conducting interviews, singing, and playing the piano. Near the end of the show's run, in early 1961, the two Toppanos were working at a breakneck pace. Enzo starred in Harry Wren's travelling show Celebrity Circus, wrote music for pantomimes, conducted the music and featured in guest spots. As well, he composed music for the ABC TV show, Cafe Continental. Peggy was also pressed for time. After daily appearances in pantos, she would race to another theatre to appear in Thanks for the Memory, starring Gladys Moncrief and George Wallace.

The pace was too much. She developed an ulcer and temporarily retired, while Enzo became musical director at the Menzies Hotel in Sydney.

Later, she appeared in scaled-down versions of the musicals Kiss Me Kate, Oklahoma! and South Pacific.

The Toppanos raised their three children - Dean was born in 1964 - in their Cammeray home, overlooking Middle Cove. All three followed their parents onto the stage.

In 1968, Peta starred in a stage version of The Flintstones, with music written by her parents, although her real love was ballet. A student of the former Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo dancer, Valrene Tweedie, Peta won a scholarship to Rosella Hightower's ballet school in Cannes in France.

When an accident to her foot ended her ballet aspirations, Peta became an actor and singer in musicals, including Godspell and A Chorus Line, then an actor in the TV shows Prisoner and Home and Away. Lorenzo moved to Los Angeles, then Mexico, where he is a music producer. Dean plays drums, piano and bass.

Peggy appeared at two theatre restaurants owned by producer Frank Strain, the Sesame restaurant in Woollahra, and the Bull 'n Bush in the city, then with her family, resumed the gypsy life, with gigs at casinos and nightclubs in Las Vegas, New York, the Bahamas and Montreal.

From the mid-1970s to 1981, the Toppanos' stage was Manly's Music Loft, where the family appeared in a string of revues, among them, In the Family Way, written by Peggy, Once More With Feeling and Encore.

Peggy's acting swansong was a cameo role in the television show Arcade, in which she appeared in a Bette Davis-style wig, as one of two sisters who ran the newsagency-bookshop, The Bookworm.

She continued working in the club scene until she had a stroke in 1991. She began suffering from Alzheimer's in 1998, and died in Sydney last month, survived by her husband and three children.

Original publication

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Citation details

Valerie Lawson, 'Toppano, Margaret Joan (Peggy) (1927–2003)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 29 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Peggy Toppano, with her husband Enzo, by John Hearder, 1959

Peggy Toppano, with her husband Enzo, by John Hearder, 1959

National Library of Australia, 40491700

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Mortimer, Margaret Joan

Coogee, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


November, 2003 (aged ~ 76)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.