Frank Tait

  • Kenyon Afterword


    The Spring 2023 issue of On Stage saw the last instalment of J. Alan Kenyon’s 14-part memoir in which he told of his long and fulsome career painting and designing sets for stage and film productions. We are grateful to his grandchildren Miles and Lisa Kenyon for providing access to the manuscript and many of the images used to illustrate the text. By way of an ‘afterword’, we publish a 1968 article by journalist Martin Collins to show George from another angle—and some additional words by the man himself.

    Meet a Man Who Can Really Take You Behind the Scenes

    by Martin Collins

    From The Australian, 6 February 1968    

    Not far from Chinatown’s Ancient Times House in Little Bourke Street, Melbourne, lies a lane of tall begrimed redbrick buildings from which, on ground level, brown wooden doors sit like blind eyes.

    Somewhere up the lane a small sign says J.C.W. Hire Service. Attack the right door (they all look the same), enter a high-roofed shed that’s part of the back precincts of Her Majesty’s Theatre, vault flights of wooden stairs, ignore the notice that says ‘Strictly Private’ and you’ll unearth George Kenyon, Williamson’s scenic designer, then scenic artist, for 45 years in toto.

    I unearthed George, a gentle-faced bloke who looked diffident and a bit dismayed: “It’s an illusory world, the theatre, and a fascinating one... But I suppose you want anecdotes, do you?” he asked. “Heard of the tenor in Lohengrinwho mounted the swan the wrong way round and came in clutching its tail, singing My Trusty Swan?”

    “What about your work?” I enquired, looking at the charts, the books, the easel, the brushes, the long wide desk, and the view of the rooftops.

    “My work?  I’ve nearly finished writing a book about my work and the entertaining things that have happened in theatre life. You’re welcome to dip into it if you’d like to, though it’s still in longhand: Behind the Velvet Curtain.

    “It’s the unrehearsed comedy or drama, and sometimes tragedy, that the audience never sees, that gives the job behind the scenes its fascination. Actors are usually unbusinesslike, being governed mainly by their emotions like the children they really are... Though the old superstitions are dying out: I’ve known some actors to have a horror of green, while others might be afraid of peacock feathers. There’s a marked difference in character shown by the actors before and after they pass from the proscenium onto the stage: two may be shouting insults at each other, another may be sunk in gloom over his lack of bank balance, yet another may be happily dwelling on where to spend the weekend.

    “But the moment they pass through the magic portal, they become real heroes and real villains. Vulgarity, bathos and pathos all belong to the comedians of the theatre. George Wallace was a great comedian: his story of little Aggie playing with a death-adder in the backyard, and the tale of Grandpa accidentally setting fire to his beard and causing a bushfire, were...”

    “Please stop talking about other theatre personalities,” I begged. “What about your own work? What do you do?”

    Blue eyes glinted; smoke curled from the Kenyon pipe. “When people lose their tempers with me, I can’t resist grinning at them, though it’s never had much of a calming effect... I was just about to tell you of the chandelier that dropped one second after a cast headed by Gladys Moncrieff had left the stage, and...”

     “Your work?” I insisted. Kenyon grinned. “I recall standing on stage and scratching a flea-bite, thanking God that the theatre was empty... suddenly a burst of applause came from the cleaners.  They’d thought that I was practising a native dance... I recall Melba’s thrilling Grand Opera season in 1924, with a galaxy of talent that included Toti del Monte, John Brownlee, Dion Borgioli. I recall chasing an emu we’d needed for a set, then finding it staring haughtily at traffic; we caught it before it stepped into a stray car. And I recall Borovansky, who merited accolades for putting Australian Ballet in a top class but yet never forgot nor forgave even a fancied slight, insisting that the sky of the backcloth of a new Swan Lake (for the 1954/55 seasons) that I’d designed was too light; then too dark; then—reluctantly—right. I’d never repainted the cloth: later I told him so.

    “There are few designers who have had the paint-room experience, and served a long apprenticeship which enables them to achieve a standard in painting realism. Sixty years ago a scene took three months to do. Now? From the many who’ve offered themselves I have taken one pupil.  He has the ability to take care, to digest instructions... yes, I think I could say he is gifted. The pupil goes through a rigorous training, with the master being a sort of Simon Legree, the idea being that the pupil will eventually take over. The continuity of handing over accounts for the exclusiveness of the job.

    “What do I think about Australia’s motion-picture industry? You did say ‘industry’? It was thriving here in the 1920s, but production stopped with the finality of a beheading, even though it was a commercially profitable proposition. Today, in countries like Sweden, the motion-picture industry is thriving … our financial pundits didn’t know what they were doing... How creative am I?” Kenyon leaned forward, took out his pipe, and beamed.

    “I’ve told you, surely? You could perhaps epitomize the whole thing by saying that if I had an Aladdin’s lamp I’d give it a rub and start all over again.”

    A modest artist, George Kenyon. I rather envy his pupil.

    And George continues, with his thoughts regarding the film industry circa 1968, written, along with other recollections, to be included within his memoirs:

    Had the building-up process been allowed to continue, we would not be today in our isolated position of a rich progressive country without a film industry. Each picture production was an improvement on the previous one, and I firmly believe that had it not been dumped so stupidly the industry today would most certainly have been in the top bracket of profit-making investments. Documentaries and television would have coined money for an investing public.

    The foresight shown by Australian financiers has been chiefly remarkable for its absence in more cases than one. Such people are popularly supposed to be able to ‘smell money’, but maybe the olfactory senses of these gentlemen are no stronger than their sense of nationalism.  It is a fact that the studio at Rushcutter’s Bay was erected and production begun, before Hollywood was even a cross on the map. This is to the everlasting discredit of everyone concerned in the smashing of the young and thriving Australian film industry.

    The Immigration Department is an important connection for the theatre. Imported foreign stars all have certain dealings with the Federal Department. The Secretary of the Immigration Department once asked The Firm (through the General Manager, Claude Kingston), if it were possible for them to lend some aid to the staging of the Immigration Convention. I was asked to think about some form of stage presentation—it must primarily concern the participation of the work of the migrants as it blended into the life of the Australian people. In the main, these entrants to Australia were drafted into heavy industry: they worked on the Railways, in mining, or in construction plants. This was one occasion when I did actually have a joyride at the Government’s expense—I went to Canberra, staying at the Canberra Hotel, meeting the then Secretary of the Department, Sir Tasman Heyes, and discussing with him my ideas. 

    I looked over the Albert Hall and assessed its possibilities in regard to the stage, lighting, etc. Back at the theatre I made a model which illustrated what I proposed to do. This was composed of cut-out figures of men, showing them working in various industries. On the back-cloth I had a pale blue sky which, when lit from the back, revealed a map of Australia. In front of this cloth and behind the other figures was a rock set-piece with a figure wearing an artist’s smock, just finishing a carved inscription cut into the rock—‘From their efforts shall arise a greater Australia’. This was meant to represent the cultural skills people from abroad were bringing to the country. Possibly it was pretty corny, but once you venture to be sentimental, you are almost certain to end up ‘corny’.  It seemed necessary to reach the people to whom we were trying to convey a message of welcome and appreciation.

    At a given signal, a figure was to rise slowly from behind the rock, and shading his eyes he would watch the map of Australia, now visible as the sky changed to gold. The impression I wished to convey was that a golden future awaited all migrants. The general idea met with approval by the Department Head. There was, however, one provision: could I guarantee that the man would slowly rise from behind the rock? Some anxiety was exhibited—was it possible he may stick half-way, or perhaps topple over? Was there any other way in which disaster could overtake him? asked the Department Head. “If that man does not rise up or if anything happens to him, I’ll cut your throat!” He then proceeded to acquaint me with a rather painful chapter of ancient history, by very untoward happening.

    Before he became Secretary of the Immigration Department, he was in charge of the National Museum in Canberra. He related the following story: “I was responsible at the official opening for the success of a function. In a much smaller degree than what you are now proposing, I had arranged to feature the playing of the National Anthem. I had a dais built with a surround of red velvet curtains and these hangings concealed a grand piano. The Duke of Gloucester, who was then our Governor General, was to perform the opening ceremony. The Duke was late and in consequence the pianist I had engaged, now tired of waiting, slipped out for a smoke, leaving the dais quite empty. The inevitable happened.

    “The Duke arrived and I gave my pre-arranged signal to the men on the curtains to pull the cord which would slowly and dramatically open. The men and the curtains played their parts perfectly with all the dignity such an occasion demanded. To my utter horror and consternation there was revealed an empty seat before the grand piano.” He looked at me grimly and asked “Do you know what happened next? I got up there and played God Save the King with one finger.”

    I did three of these conventions before the idea was scrapped but it had been very nice for my wife and myself. We always stayed at the Canberra Hotel and attended the opening of each convention. We attended Government House and Parliamentary garden-parties, and at one of these parties we were chatting with Sir Robert Menzies and Dame Pattie, together with a Scot who was with us. The PM and he were endeavouring to discover whose knowledge of the poetry of Robbie Burns was the most profound. They kept capping each other’s quotations.  I remember the Scot kept on insisting that ‘Menzies’ should rightly be pronounced ‘Minges’.

    During one of these conventions, I was told by one of my friends who laid claim to inside information, that during the next few days a certain job would be advertised in the daily papers. He thought it would be ‘right up my alley’.  It was for an appointment as Technical Officer in (if my memory serves me right) the Trade Department. I was advised to go and see the officer in-charge and I duly went along. The interview did not go very well as I was far from encouraged by the pompous manner of the officer, and the questions he posed.

    What qualifications had I got? What experience did I have? Why did I think I could do better than the outside architects whom they usually employed? He said “We do it this way. We get ideas from people and if one is not satisfactory, we get someone else. Naturally, they all get their fees whether we use their ideas or not.”

    I thought that could be a bit hard on the taxpayer, but refrained from commenting. This pompous, patronizing little man was beginning to bore me. I pointed out to him, as politely as I could, that he and his Department were really in Show Business, and Show Business was my business, my preserve and my occupation. He became quite ruffled and remarked very seriously “You cannot possibly make a comparison between a Government Department and commercial theatre.” I painstakingly explained to him that his immediate preoccupation with finding a suitable applicant for the position he was advertising was closely connected with show business. This was necessarily so, because it concerned the design of Trade Pavilions for overseas—used purely to stage and advertise Australian Exports. It was surely the idea to show these exports to their best advantage. Grudgingly, he admitted that there was some connection with the work and stage presentation.

    By this time I had lost all desire to produce any further explanations but asked him if he would like me to show him some of my drawings. He graciously gave me his permission and next day I took along some plans and sketches, which included the drawings I had made for a show I had just completed. I had had to create these designs, for The Teahouse of the August Moon, from the least possible source material. Whilst I had been talking to Mr. Frank Tait, together with the director Harald Bowden who had been overseas and acquired the show, the latter remarked airily “They wanted four thousand dollars for the plans, but I told them I had a man in Australia who would soon nut it out.” This accounted for the sparseness of the reference material I had been handed! I had got to work on them and the resultant plans and drawings were some I was very proud to claim responsibility for. And—these were the drawings that I took along to the Director of the Department. He barely glanced at them but said “Yes, but who does the actual drawing?” “I do,” I replied. “Oh, perhaps we can talk about it further, then. These are excellent.” It gave me a certain amount of mean satisfaction to say smugly “I’m sorry, but I am no longer available. Yesterday I signed my contract with J.C. Williamson’s again,” and I bowed myself out of His Pomposity’s presence,

    to go back to where I really belonged—

    to the theatre—

    and the world I knew best.

    KENYON: Editor’s Postscript

    J. Alan (George) Kenyon—born February 1, 1898—died March 11, 1972

    He arrived in Australia in February 1923 and two days later, found employment working for William R. Coleman, J.C. Williamson’s head scenic artist/designer.
    He married Miss Anne Leonard in 1926—their son John joined his father in the Paint Frame at Her Majesty’s in the 1950s.

    Kenyon was involved in well over one hundred productions, shows and displays—for theatre, ballet and film, as scenic artist and/or designer, set and/or props maker, and as production manager for Cinesound Films.

    Theatres included:

    Melbourne—Her Majesty’s; The Comedy; The Princess; The Royal; The Apollo and the old State Theatre (now Forum)

    Sydney—Criterion; Minerva; Empire; Tivoli and The Royal

    Adelaide—The Royal and Her Majesty’s

    Perth—His Majesty’s

    Brisbane—Her Majesty’s

    Canberra—The Canberra

    Newcastle—The Victoria

    His name began to be included in theatre program listings in the early 1930s.


    AusStage provides a list of productions worked on by Kenyon. Given the confusion around his christian name, his work is listed under:

    George Kenyon

    J. Alan Kenyon


  • The Memoirs of J. Alan Kenyon or Behind the Velvet Curtain (Part 14)

    Velvet Curtain

    In this, the last instalment of J. ALAN KENYON’s memoirs, he shares more anecdotes and pays tribute to some of the men and women of the theatre and films.

    George Rings Down the Curtain 

    The manwith whom I was most in contact during my association with J.C. Williamson’s theatres was Frank Tait, later to become Sir Frank. As I remember him, he was a very fine type of person to whom one could apply the rather out-moded title of gentleman, in all sincerity. He was always friendly and sympathetic and ready to help in every possible way.  If you were foolish and overstepped your responsibility, he told you in a kindly manner that it was not your prerogative to act in that particular way.

    On one occasion I overheard the mechanist speaking in a very offensive manner of a certain artist’s work. Frank Tait was quick to tell him that he himself was in total disagreement with the mechanist’s views. He backed me up on numerous occasions against what I considered unreasonable opposition from producers. When I asked for an increase in salary, and remarked in parenthesis, that I only had ‘a few hundred in the bank’, he said, “You are lucky to have that,” but I got the raise. At yet another time when I was working on a grand opera season until 10 p.m. and sometimes later, I was overjoyed to find my salary had been increased by ten pounds, without my mentioning it.

    I have heard many unkind and unfair things said about the Taits, chiefly of course by disgruntled actors. However, when all had been sorted out, it was always the actors themselves who were at fault. The Taits were business people, and as such insisted on sticking to the letter of the contract. Trouble usually arose when an actor did something which violated his contract and when faced with this, he would be most put out, and could take refuge in derogatory statements about the management.

    The man behind Frank Tait, as his general manager, was Claude Kingston. This was undoubtedly a very smoothly operating partnership and the qualities which could be said to belong to one belonged equally to the other. We older members of the staff were all part of an organization, and had a very real responsibility to get the job in hand done. It was up to us to give the same loyalty to the Firm, as was extended to us. No enquiry was ever made as to what, when or how—provided the show was ready for rehearsals.

    There are a number of people with whom I have come in contact who are still, along with myself, with the Firm and Harry Strachan, a director and general manager is one. He grew up in the Firm, and if anyone knows the answers in management, it is certainly Harry. Up to date he has booked some very successful shows, and he has always been a very sincere man and very easy to get along with; in other words, a thoroughly nice bloke.

    Charles Dorning, another director, came out originally to play the male lead in Song of Norway (1950). Sidney Irving holds the reins in Sydney and it is always a pleasurable occasion when I meet him there. Bill Gordon, the publicity man has, in my opinion, done a marvellous job. He has managed to get publicity for shows in hitherto unexplored areas. Betty Pounder does the casting and produces the ballets for the shows—she is an extremely clever person, and a tremendous acquisition to the theatre.

    One of the years Anna Pavlova had a season here (1926) we were in the throes of a drought. I remember talking to her before a matinee and whilst we were talking the rain suddenly began to batter on the roof. We both rejoiced that the drought had ended!

    Beppie de Vries, starring in The Student Prince with James Liddy, gave such a magnificent performance it might still be remembered by many. A contretemps occurred concerning the production of Show Boat: the import who was supposed to be a bass baritone turned out to be a light tenor. It was impossible for him to sing “Old Man River” so he was eventually packed off back again to the USA. Colin Crane got his chance and thus began his journey to stardom. [Listen to Colin Crane singing “Old Man River” on YouTube.]

    This following incident happened before my time in the theatre but I include it here as having historic value. It was a Shakespeare season and George Rignold’s company were the players. Rignold played the king who was slain on the battlefield and it was done by an actor in the top echelon. Even the blasé stagehands had a look at it—the boys on the fly-floor used to go out on the grid (the structure right up above the stage) and from this vantage point they had a good view of the death scene. One night they took a new hand along with them to watch the action. It was the practice to tie a piece of sash-line around a man’s waist in order to hold a hammer or three. During the edging and shuffling for a better viewing position up on the grid, this particular night one of the boy’s hammers became dislodged and plummeted down from the grid. It landed right in the middle of the dead king’s breastplate. The astonished and furiously enraged monarch struggled back to life and swinging his sword vengefully, rushed off the stage , swearing to have the blood of the unlucky individual who had perpetrated such a ghastly indignity on His Majesty’s person.

    Another piece of idiocy which brought forth very untimely roars of laughter from the audience took place during a performance involving the storming, by invaders, of a castle. They were firing huge rocks from a catapult and there were two men straining to haul a large and extremely heavy-looking rock onto the catapult mechanism, when it slipped over the footlights into the orchestra pit. One of the violinists placidly put down his violin and handed back the rock—papier mâché—to the staggered troupes.

    Amongst many famous people I recall Emelie Polini who scored a success with charm and ability in My Lady’s Dress. Lawrence Grossmith topped box-office records with his performance in Ambrose Applejohn’s Adventure. These were some of the big names in the 1930s. There are other names of the past to conjure with—lovely Harriet Bennet in Rose Marie, Stephanie Deste in Desert Song, Lance Fairfax and Colin Crane, and Leon Gordon with Helen Strausky playing Tondeleo, who thrilled audiences in White Cargo.

    There has been some doubt expressed about the authenticity of the Flinders statue outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne. A writer to the Press mentioned the—I think he did call it ‘famous’—mural at Flinders Naval Base showing the landing of Captain Cook, in which he is shown in the identical stance of the Flinders statue. My reason for writing about this is that the mural, in several parts, was painted by William R. Coleman, the J.C. Williamson’s head scenic artist. The panels were transported by lorry from the theatre, already framed, ready to be installed in position in the Ward Room at Flinders. The boys who were assigned to the job were first entertained by the Petty Officers and as a result got rather ‘full’. Two ladders, one at each end of the wall, were used by the carpenters to hoist each painting up into position to be fixed.

    Great care had been taken with measurements, the frames being an exact fit to neatly fill the apertures, but one refused to go into place.  There was a lot of pushing and shoving until the mechanist, who had gone down to supervise the job, saw the trouble, and called, in a slightly slurred voice “Freddie, you bloody fool, take your fingers out from behind the frame!”

    During the Second World War I was busy constructing a model map (for the State Theatre) of Europe, showing the countries taken over by Herr Hitler. As the commentary told of each country being invaded it caught fire—a coating of match-head composition having been ignited by a fuse wire. As I was preparing that part of Northern Europe, Estonia, with mountains, rivers, etc., a voice behind me said, “There is a small lake just about there….” Turning round I said, “It must be very small—as it is not marked on the map!” “I know,” replied Eric Reiman, “It is small—but I know it’s there—I used to wee in it when I was a small boy.”

    The same Eric played a German officer in the film Forty Thousand Horsemen. In one shot he was hiding in a cave built within the studio. Eric swears it was so atmospherically real that he came down with a cold.

    I  suppose one of the most spectacular shows was My Fair Lady (1959), with the best box-office ever. Before the director—Sam Liff—arrived, I had quite a lot of the scenery already painted and exactly the opposite to the designs used in New York and London. I was quite definite—I was going to paint the show in my style, not in the easy impressionistic way it had been treated. In any case, all I had were 35mm slides of the original sketches (Oliver Smith’s) which were completely useless.

    When Sam Liff arrived we showed him the scenery which we had so far painted. He looked at it, then said to me, “I have strict instructions that the scenery must be exactly as in America and London—but you paint it how you want it. I will take the responsibility.”

    Our brickwork was like bricks, the stone and woodwork painted as such—I filled the flower-market stalls with baskets and flowers, marbled the ballroom with silver and bronze and painted the Ascot Racecourse scene as it should have been painted. The Covent Garden Market roof was in the original, without a mezzanine, which at the date of the original play was in existence—it was drawn that way.

    It was 110 degrees in the Theatre—Her Majesty’s, Melbourne—on the Friday night final rehearsal, and the same on the opening night. But one forgot the heat—it was a magnificently produced show and worth all the long hours we had put in with the painting of it. I even received a letter from Mr. Liff, saying, “it is a wonderful production, thanks to you!” Patsy Hemingway understudied Bunty Turner as Eliza and during the run she developed appendicitis and had surgery. She went on a world tour convalescing, attending the various productions of My Fair Lady in different countries. On her return to Australia, she was interviewed in Sydney and asked her opinion of these other productions. She was quite definite that the Australian one, scenically, was infinitely better than in any other country!

    I have inadvertently left until now, some of the well-known names of theatre comedians, names such as Alfred Frith, Gus Bluett, Don Nicol, Arthur Stigant and the Kellaways, Cecil and Alec. These people were tops in their profession, but often circumstances cut their lives short. In the case of ‘Frithy’ it was too much Bacchanalian revelry—many a time he would be missing and come seven thirty—zero hour in the theatre for the evening performance—no Alfred Frith. Search parties were unable to find him on the premises or in the vicinity. George Jennings was his understudy and would ready himself for the part.

    The show would start and the audience had settled down and then just as George made his entrance there would be loud cheering and clapping from the back of the gallery, holding up the show. On investigation—there was ‘Frithy’, happy in his cups, causing the interruption. What a character—but what a damned good comedian!  The same with Gus Bluett—a first-rate comedian, but over-indulgence spoilt everything. Don Nicol died early—he was excellent in his job and a very good caricature artist. Then there were Jack and Silvia Kellaway, two wonderful dancers—sadly Jack died of T.B. when quite young.

    In a sketch Frith and Bluett are doing a drink scene in a bar—they introduce themselves and find they have the same name. What’s more, they live in the same house in the same street—and so on. The tag-line—they say goodnight to each other because it is time to head home.  They do—separately. And then there was the sketch involving Gus Bluett and Charles Norman, as two elderly spinsters making their way to bed. They undress with all the antics imaginable—the climax being when they disentangle themselves from their corsets, fumbling and scratching as they shed the garments. They get into bed and afterwards, in a semi-blackout, one is seen crawling over the other to get out of bed; then fumbling under the bed with inaudible mutterings. Blackout. With the times, how comedy has changed ….!

    There are very pleasant memories of Mother’s Day when Lady Tait (Sir Frank’s wife, and formerly Viola Wilson) would produce a concert in the Melbourne Town Hall for funds for the Women’s Hospital. The stars of the current show at the theatre would perform within a big cast of entertainers. Lady Tait and I would get together on the production and I would design suitable décor for the occasion.

    When Dame Margot Fonteyn was here, she danced at one of these Mother’s Day shows, held in the mid-1950s. I had painted large cutouts of Dresden china ornaments and figurines, with Dame Margot as a figurine coming to life and dancing. The most spectacular was one which we did in the theatre, at the time of the Queen’s Coronation in 1953, when South Pacific was one month off the end of its run. I painted the interior of Westminster Abbey and the ceremony was re-enacted. During the casting of the company much fun was caused by suggestions of various people to play the different parts in the presentation. Such as—casting the most inept character to play the Archbishop of Canterbury. And in the same vein—I suggested that Bloody Mary, the Negress mother in South Pacific, should play a part. When the impact of this was given more thought, the potential was felt to be dramatic. Bloody Mary was dressed as a duchess—she sang “Home Sweet Home” and most of the audience had tears in their eyes as the great wave of applause nearly brought the roof down! Incongruous as it may have been, it still is a beautiful memory for me.

    That same night, the papers’ headlines splashed the wonderful news that Mount Everest had been conquered.

    Some of the old shows which still have such joyful memories are The Merry Widow, Lilac Time, The Student Prince with James Liddy and that superb actress Beppie de Vries. The wonderful male chorus in this last show—with ‘Scottie’ Allan who sometimes took the top note for Liddy. Madame Pompadour, Silver King, If I were King, Sybil with Gladys Moncrieff, Potash and Perlmutter, The Broken Wing...

    And then there were the people who gave a huge amount of their talent and industry to the film industry of the 30s and 40s and to which a value could not be set. Stuart Doyle, for one, was instrumental in launching Cinesound Productions. Ken G. Hall was another—he was the director of every production, with the exception of one, made by Cinesound. Others I feel compelled to mention were Captain Frank Hurley, George Heath as cameraman, sound engineers Arthur Smith and Clive Cross, and the tutors of expression and acting Frank Harvey and George Cross. Jack Soutar and Harry Strachan were production managers, and Jack Kingsford Smith was a wizard on the optical printer, something he had designed and constructed himself. Other skilled people included Bert Cross, lab manager, and Bill Shepard the film editor and cutter. There were highly experienced make-up men, there were carpenters, property men and electricians. 

    All these dedicated people had given all their time and energy into the melting pot, only to find their skills were lost to the community when the Motion Picture Industry, which had been thriving in Australia, stopped, in the 60s, with the surety and finality of a beheading. No one has advanced any reason why it was suddenly discontinued. At the time I am writing we have neither a film industry nor many suburban picture theatres—they have all practically closed down since the advent of television. Just for the sake of ‘making a faster buck’, a worthwhile industry which would have had untold value, as it created a fine national image, was utterly destroyed. It was an instance of a tremendous opportunity cast to the winds for lack of vision, and for greed.

    But returning to the world of theatre, as I look back, little instances—entertaining, good and/or bad, come to mind. The beautiful production of Aida with the Nile scenes and the massive Tomb scene. This tomb was built to take the big ballet number after the two characters had been interred. Because of the number of people involved above, the construction was of heavy timber. Two frames supported four-by-three joists and over these were laid the platform tops. These consisted of 20 feet by 4 feet of flooring and were unwieldy and extremely difficult to handle. Experienced stagehands could manage the juggling, but the Mechanist was breaking in some new stagehands to manipulate these troublesome rostrum tops. The first, second and third attempts were very unsuccessful, the tops all but toppling over and crashing onto the stage—only to be saved by others rushing to the rescue. At last the Mechanist, with a lovely flow of indecent swear words, broke his silence. “Cripes, you stupid bastards—you’ll never learn!”

    The reply he got from one of the newly initiated was “Who the hell wants to...” And this bloke walked out of the theatre.

    A little bit of history of a different kind: during the period I was Art Director to the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales I had designed a circular entrance vestibule to the big hall at the Show Ground. I wanted to use all Australian timbers, varying from the darkest to the lightest in colouring. Being war time, I had to approach the Timber Conservation Board for approval to obtain the three-ply. They were interested enough to have the sheets made for me—the partition was a fifty-foot semi-circle, and three six-foot high sheets of ply, the lightest coloured timber in the centre, gradually going through to darker and to the darkest at the edges. It was quite a feature.

    Many months afterwards, I was having lunch in Sydney when I was approached by a man who enquired if I remembered him. I did, but had forgotten where we had met. He mentioned that he had dealt with my request for the timber for the RAS—so we got talking. He remarked that knowing at the time that I was with Cinesound and that they, of course, watched the Cinesound News Reels, he was dying to tell me of a job he had been given to do, top secret, and of the highest priority.

    He told me of his travels and the eventual finding of a great number of Coachwood trees, found growing in warm, temperate rainforests along the coast of NSW.  With every available man and piece of machinery they were felled, sawn up and transported to the small arms factory in Penrith, where, with round-the-clock effort they were manufactured into rifle butts—since Australia hadn’t a rifle left in the country!

    What a scoop for the news it would have been if it had been broadcast!