They famously starred together on The Ernie Sigley Show in the 1970s, forging a friendship that would last decades later and see them through several more joint TV and theatre appearances.
But now Denise Drysdale, 70, has revealed she’s finally had to say goodbye to her former co-star Ernie Sigley, 80, as he continues to battle Alzheimer’s – having made the impossible decision not to visit him again.
Speaking in an exclusive chat with Starts at 60, Denise – who is set to return to Studio 10 on Wednesday following several months battling her own health issues – has opened up on her final meeting with Ernie and her agony at watching him slowly forget her and his loved ones.
“I haven’t seen him recently but I know that he hasn’t improved, he’s gone downhill a bit. It’s sad,” she said. “I was working on stage with him when it started, and it got to the stage where I couldn’t leave him on stage on his own because he’d go to start a song and then say, ‘I’ve never sung this before’. I just couldn’t bear to watch it, so I said no more shows.
Describing her final visit to the star last year, she said: “When I went to see him I sung the whole of ‘Hey Paula’, and he stood there and looked at me and got emotional. Then he gave me a big hug, so there was some recognition at that stage, but then I sat on the chair and he said, ‘God you remind me of somebody’.
“I said, ‘Oh I’m Delvene Delaney’, and he said, ‘No, no not her’! And I said, ‘Denise Drysdale’? and he said, ‘Yes, yes, that’s who you remind me of’.”
Asked if she plans to see him again, Denise said it was her final goodbye and explained: “No, no I’m happy with what I’ve got, I wanted to just go and see him in case something happened… I wouldn’t have forgiven myself if I hadn’t seen him.”
Ernie was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease in 2016. The degenerative disease affects more than 342,000 Australians and an estimated 44 million people worldwide. It typically robs people of their memories and can cause aggressive behaviour, paranoia and loss of muscle movement.
“He had such a brilliant mind you know, even though he’s a ratbag!” Denise fondly recalled. “He just, he had knowledge of history and sports people. I remember once we had a kid on the show, she was a bit prickly.
“In her body language she had her back to us in a way, anyway Ernie goes, ‘Now, I remember the first record you put out, it was on such and such, and the side was this, and the other side was this’. She swept round and changed completely, but no one else would have had that knowledge.
“This is going back to the ‘50s, when she first started, and then he went on to charm her completely! He’s brilliant, brilliant.”
Denise and Ernie starred in his hit program The Ernie Sigley Show in the 1970s and quickly became household names thanks to their impeccable comedic timing and on-screen chemistry. Their hilarious antics left Aussies in stitches and earned the pair Gold Logies in 1974. Denise won again in 1975.
In his heyday, Sigley was regarded as one of the best comedians in Aussie entertainment. After his show was cancelled in 1976, he and Denise remained close, with the comedy veteran acting as mentor to his young protégé.
The pair are well known for their duet of ‘Hey Paula’, which Denise performed solo last year in a poignant tribute to her partner on Studio 10. While she appeared solo on stage, she had Ernie’s vocals in the background throughout to accompany her.
Denise returns to Studio 10 this week, where she will appear every second week for two days following her recent health scares. The star suffered a horrific fall last year while on a cruise, resulting in her needing a knee replacement.
Shortly afterwards, she had to have another operation for a detached retina – which almost left her blind – just months before the comedian was left with a nasty infection and suffered a breast cancer scare. Luckily, it was a false alarm and she’s now looking forward to returning to the show.
“I’m just hoping that I can deliver, it’s a huge responsibility, I’m so lucky that they left that job open for me – certainly at my age,” she said.