J Alan Kenyon

  • Behind and Beyond the Scenes; or, Joseph Harker and His Brethren

    IMG 1818 behind and beyond the scenes

    Within the leaves of J. Alan Kenyon’s scenic design folio JUDY LEECH has discovered a treasure-trove of original artworks including many items possibly created by Joseph Harker for Herbert Beerbohm Tree's 1913 production of the biblical epic Joseph and His Brethren.

    A Presentation in 3 Acts with a Prologue and an Epilogue


    We have a lot to thank J. Alan Kenyon for—not only for his memoirs—currently published online in Theatre Heritage Australia’s quarterly newsletter, On Stage—but also for the over-large and fairly bursting folio of J.C. Williamson designs, dating back to very early 20th century, if not a little before. Mr. Kenyon, aka George, worked as a set designer, scenic artist and props maker for more than four decades; his son John joined him, and when the latter died in 2019 his son Miles discovered he was now the custodian of this veritable treasure-trove of scenic work.

    All in all, there are around 120 examples, from pencil sketches to highly detailed and finished artwork, wings, flats, legs, borders, front and back cloths, cut-cloths, mostly executed at a 1 to 24 ration, very close to the ratio now favoured by today’s scenic designers—1 to 25. To absolutely verify this I would need to measure all 120 examples. This is something to be attempted at a later stage, but one setting I have examined suggests the height at around 7 metres—with the width at 11 metres.

    Unfortunately none of these designs are signed—the most we can find is the occasional name scrawled on the reverse, by someone else—but someone who felt confident enough to identify the odd example. The following are all the names, rightly or wrongly, that appear.

    George Upward, William R. Coleman and son William, W. Hogg and J.F.Hogg, Philip William Goatcher, Hawes Craven Green, Conrad Tritschler and Joseph Cunningham Harker. Some were born in the UK and then moved here, more or less permanently, others simply forwarded their designs for adaptation here following their production in London.

    Of all the designs contained within the folio Joseph and His Brethren is the most fully represented (and in fact glued on the reverse are fine wooden supports which enable it to be set up as 3-dimensional maquette) so I will focus on the English-born Joseph Harker: the name Harker is tantalizingly inscribed on the back of several pieces.

    I. Harker history

    Born in Levenshulme, Manchester, in 1855 on the 17th of October, Joseph Cunningham Harker was the son of Maria (O’Connor) and William Pierpont Harker, an Irish theatre family who were currently performing at the Theatre Royal in Manchester. Joseph was educated in that city and in Edinburgh and after playing some ‘child parts’ he began his painterly career in 1881 working on a production of Hamlet at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow, following an apprenticeship with T.W.Hall, a scene painter at the Globe Theatre. The young Joseph became a stock artist for a time, but on moving to Dublin and the Gaiety Theatre, he met the indomitable Henry Irving (christened John Henry Brodribb). He also spent a period gaining experience under Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Augustus Harris, Sir George Alexander, Oscar Asche—to name but a few.

    But it was for Irving and the Lyceum Theatre in London that Harker was to produce some of his finest work, often in collaboration with Hawes Craven and William Telbin. Over the years he worked on well over one hundred productions, collaborating also with T.E. Ryan, Walter Hann, Henry Emden, Robert McLeery—among others. Theatres included the Haymarket, Empire, Garrick, Drury Lane, Lyceum, and many, many more. Bram (Abraham) Stoker was the latter’s business manager at the time Harker was employed there, under the directorship of Henry Irving, later Sir Henry Irving. One of the leading characters, Jonathan Harker in Stoker’s novel Dracula, was named after him, and the name appears enigmatically in Joseph O’Connor’s 2019 Shadowplay. Harker, in the novel, is a young woman hoping to attain the position of scene painter at the Lyceum, and she disguises herself as a young man. It is also suggested that the ‘leading role’ of Dracula was inspired by, or based on, Stoker’s much-celebrated employer, Henry Irving.  And I cannot help but wonder if Shadowplay’sauthor, Joseph, is not a descendant of Joseph Harker’s mother’s family, Maria O’Connor’s, or of two Victorian scenic artists, also by the name of O’Connor.

    Well into the 20th century Harker was a great champion of the scene-painting profession. He wrote extensively on the subject, which included, in 1924, a book of reminiscences entitled Studio and Stage.

    In the late 1870s he married Sarah Hall, daughter of the aforementioned T.W. Hall, and they produced a family of nine children, three girls and six boys—Alice, Dora and Phoebe, Philip, Gordon, James, Joseph, Roland and Colin. Several of the boys went on to continue the family tradition of scene painting, and Gordon (1885–1967) had a long career on the stage from the age of 17, and also appeared in almost seventy films between 1921 and 1959, most notably in three silent films directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

    More family matters: Joseph and Sarah’s grand daughter (I can’t track which of the nine Harker siblings produced her) married one Mr. Adams and their daughter, Polly (Pauline) Adams, became an actress of some note. She married a Richard Owen and their daughters are named Nelly, Caroline and Susannah—all actresses—and all have taken the surname Harker—for pretty obvious reasons, I would say. The latter, now in her 50s, has worked in film, television and theatre and is most widely remembered for her role as Jane Bennet in the 1995 television adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It should be noted, her mother Polly played that same character in a 1948 film version of the novel. Most recently Susannah appeared in a 2017 episode of Grantchester, but her many other roles date back to the mid-1980s.

    So, another wonderful theatrical dynasty, to join that of the Foxes, Kendals, Redgraves, Kembles and Cusacks—and there are more.

    II. Dissected designs

    But, it is time to return to the designs for Joseph and His Brethren. Along with these JCW examples attributed to Harker are several colourfully exotic pieces inscribed with ‘Hogg’. Where do they belong? On checking the lists of the work of the two Hogg artists, initials J.F. and W. only, was hardly enlightening.  But on calling up the 1914 Australian production of Joseph and His Brethren, some answers were provided. J.F. Hogg was responsible for Zuleika’s Room in Act II and The Prison in Act III. It would appear W.R. Coleman, and son, were the designers for many of the other scenes, along with George Upward. So the vibrantly scarlet pieces are the work of Upward or—are they, in fact, truly the imported creations of Joseph Harker, following London’s production.

    Joseph and His Brethren, an oratorio by George Frideric Handel, was first performed in 1744 at Covent Garden. Almost 170 years later Louis Napoleon Parker was responsible for its presentation, now a Pageant Play of a very biblical nature, incorporating family jealousies, lies and deception, and the ever-constant feuding between Israelites and Egyptians. This was first performed in 1913 at His Majesty’s Theatre in London. On the 14th of February, 1914, Melbourne’s Theatre Royal was treated to its Australian premiere—six weeks later Sydney was home to the production.

    The play was produced by Cecil King, Stage Manager for Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s His Majesty’s Theatre in London, and presented by J.C. Williamson. The play consisted of four acts and incorporated thirteen scenes.

    According to The Australian Live Performance Database, Joseph Harker is listed as being the designer for several productions in Sydney and Melbourne, and in New Zealand, but that does not necessarily mean he had joined the team of scenic artists here in His Majesty’s paint-room except that—from April 1912 to June 1913 one of his sons, the actor Gordon, toured Melbourne and Sydney, appearing in several productions, all with scenery attributed to his father Joseph. But it is highly unlikely that he accompanied his son, with so many scenic commitments back in London, including Joseph and His Brethren, The Merchant of Veniceand Twelfth Night.  He could hardly have made a ‘flying visit’. According to Matthew Someville’s  ‘Theatricalia’ Harker was involved, in the period 1911 to 1914, in the production of eight major plays and operas, and on referring to the 1984 March edition of Theatrephile, a further eight plays and pantomimes: here, obviously, was a man in very high demand.

    Wikipedia tells us: ‘In 1905, Harker had a two-storey, open plan studio constructed to his specifications on Queen’s Row, a narrow street off Walworth Road in London. The painting studio continued to produce scenic designs for the West End and other UK theatres until the 1990s. It was used to create David Hockney’s celebrated backdrops for the Glyndebourne Opera Festival.’

    And goes on: ‘Despite the building being Grade ll listed in 1989, as an important and rare example of a theatrical scene-painting workshop, the Southwark Council in early 2017 granted permission for the studios to be redeveloped into six luxury flats and an office unit … In response a petition which gained more than 4000 signatures was organized in 2017 requesting that the council change its decision.’    

    Sadly, this petition was unsuccessful and the studios were carved up and redeveloped as threatened. See Spitalfieldslife.com for some wonderful shots of the former studios.

    III. Design queries and clues

    Returning home, if we refer to the images we can access in the digitized JCW Scene Books, many give clues to the identity of the Kenyon folio’s designs. It is not always that we see a full stage set—we see a backdrop, borders, wings, a cut-cloth, a flat. Which is why it is important—or lucky—that in Book No. 5 we can often see a whole plan for a stage set, if not an actual elevation. If only there were more of these plans and elevations—although we can see, for example, plans for Silver King, The Arcadians, The Boy, Katinkaand House of Temperley—for none of which, sadly, Harker seems to have created designs.

    There is also the fact that backdrops/cloths were recycled or cannibalized, or simply painted over. Cut-cloths of foliage—trees, flowering plants—were also used time and time again. 

    In Book No. 3 and Book No. 6 there’s a surprising amount of backgrounds for Joseph and His Brethren—palms, pyramids and pillars, sphinxes, formal gardens and rocky outcrops—and many cut-cloths, foliage necessary for the romantic garden scene between Joseph, an Israelite, and Asenath, a young Egyptian girl. Sometimes the scenic artist’s name is typed or written alongside the image—the name Coleman appears frequently. For the back-cloths 36 feet by 23 feet is the measurement most often cited, around 11 metres by 7 metres high. There is a panoramic scene that worked out at 14 metres across, another at 20, but the height was always set at 7 metres.

    Then there is the question of colour—was the deep red (shown here) for Potiphar’s House used in the London production—was it used in the Australian one? Was it Harker or the Colemans who were responsible for these models—are they a true representation of what was seen on stage, back in 1913 and/or 1914?

    We are so used to thinking of 19th century sets as monochromatic—the 1000s of examples within the JCW Scene Books—when of course they were ‘in colour’, as is very evident when viewing the many pieces of artwork within the Kenyon folio. Could we discover the JCW sets’ colours by applying that special technique, whereby one can convert black and white to colour? Something film restorers have been doing for decades. 

    In Book No. 10 we have photographic records of some actual English productions. Here we can see the originals—the inspirations or guides for the later Australian plays or operas. They include The Second Mrs. Tanqueray(Harker design), As You Like It, Guy Domville, Importance of Being Ernestand Lady Windermere’s Fan—among others.

    There is something that I very much doubt happens these days: within one production of, for example, 3 acts with 2 or 3 scenes in each, there would be—as we have seen—several different artists, depending on their painterly or design expertise, or on their speciality. One artist may specialize in landscapes, another in architecture, interiors, ornamentation, etc. Figures may also come into it—see A Royal Divorce (Books 1,4,5,6 and 8). Apparently Joseph Harker was passionate about birch trees and often introduced them into his pastoral settings—Joseph and His Brethren definitely being the exception!

    To learn more about Harker and his work, his studio and his family, I cannot recommend highly enough Raymond Walker and David Skelly’s formidable 2018 publication, Backdrop to a Legend—a limited edition with ongoing supplementary chapters. I am indebted to them both.


    But to close, in 1927 on the 27th of March, Joseph Cunningham Harker died, at the age of 71. His scenic design business carried on—first by his eldest son Philip (whose two sons were to die tragically during the Second World War), followed by fourth son Joseph and fifth, Roland. I found listings, from 1930 to 1962, for a dozen productions attributed to a Joseph Harker—possibly the work of Joseph junior and of Roland? Two of the Harker daughters, their sisters, took to the stage—and so the tradition continued.

    And continues to this day.


    Sources and inspiration

    Australian Live Performance Database—AusStage

    Backdrop to a Legend—Walker & Skelly—2018

    Miles and Lisa Kenyon

    Elisabeth Kumm—Theatre Heritage Australia

    Scenic Studios—Melbourne

    Shadowplay—Joseph O’Connor—Harville Secker, 2019/Vintage, 2020


    Theatrephile—Vol.1, No.2, March 1984—Sean McCarthy

    Theatricalia—Matthew Someville



    Explore the JCW Scene Books

  • 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 10)


    Continuing his memoirs, J. ALAN KENYON recalls further adventures at the New State Theatre in Melbourne and working as Art Director on the 1944 feature film Smithy, about the life of airman Charles Kingsford-Smith, and his role in recruiting former Prime Minister Billie Hughes to appear in the bio-pic.

    Out on a Limb

    My wife is always delighted to tell the story of the last night of my stint at the New State Theatre (now the Forum). She said if she had not actually seen it happen, she would never have believed it. She insisted that my head was permanently turned by the spectacle of all those charming and beautiful girls, who had been hand-picked for their personalities—as well as their good looks—standing in line with tears on their cheeks waiting to kiss me goodbye. I was soggy with sentiment, and altogether it was an exceedingly pleasant experience for an old married man.

    One of these girls expressed her appreciation in a similar way to my dentist.  I had sent any girl having teeth trouble to this dentist and one of these was a very pretty girl who had one drawback—her front teeth were badly discoloured. Eventually I persuaded her to go along and have her teeth examined.

    My wife had had work done by this dentist, whose mechanic was an absolute artist. His work had been particularly admired by this girl who was adamant in declaring that her teeth ‘must look exactly like Mrs. Kenyon’s, or there was nothing doing!’ At last her big day arrived and I got a call from the dentist to send Mademoiselle up. His comment, following the procedure—'What a girl!’ he said. ‘Are they really as nice as Mrs. Kenyon’s?’ she demanded. When she did see the result in the mirror she exclaimed ‘They are beautiful!’—jumped out of the chair, threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. It was the first time his work had ever brought him that reaction.

    In the early 1940s and before I had left the State Theatre, the General Manager, Bill Tinkler, had been recalled to Sydney, and I had the theatre and all the work involved to myself. Many nights I missed getting home and on one of these evenings I still had the publicity to organize. I even had to forgo my dinner. What was worse, I had no razor in the theatre and my beard was showing. Fearful of appearing to need a shave, I asked many of the staff if they could notice anything. All said ‘no’. Then on this particular evening—it had to happen!

    While on duty in the foyer, with seething masses of people either purchasing tickets or pushing their way into the auditorium, I was approached by some character. I waited politely to hear what had had to say. He then withdrew from under his coat a piece of cardboard covered in black velvet, on which were pasted some letters. Somewhat mystified, I read them aloud ‘Union Representative’.

    ‘Well?’ I inquired.

    ‘I want to talk to your staff,’ confided this nut.

    ‘Very sorry, old boy,’ I shook my head. ‘We are much too busy for any interruption right now.’

    ‘But,’ he persisted. ‘I’m Dr. Huckerby’s representative.’

    ‘I don’t care if you represent the Prime Minister or the Chairman of the Board, you do not go any further unless you have a ticket.’ I was certain that that was something he did not possess.

    Suddenly realization came to him that the stunt had failed. Putting his visiting card back under his coat, he stared hard at me and said cryptically “Eight-and-six a night, and a shilling for laundry.”

    I said ‘What are you talking about?’

    He continued to regard me coldly, repeating his strange incantation. He was trying to convey to me that he thought I was one of the ushers, and much too big for my boots. To put him right, I said ‘I’m not an usher, old boy. I’m the Manager.’

    ‘Oh yeah!’ he came back swiftly. ‘Then you are the only manager in Melbourne who hasn’t had a shave.’ With what he obviously considered was a crushing rejoinder he vanished.

    I had started a savings bank account with most of the girls, so that they would have a few pounds upon which to draw when their need of money was urgent. On my last day at the theatre, I cleaned and tidied up and transferred the account with the bank to the theatre’s Chief of Staff. I also found three pounds in the vault of which I had no recollection. I bought three pounds worth of tickets, tore them up and put them in the box at the entrance. Thirty minutes later the accountant rang me. Enquiring if I had three pounds floating around. I said ‘Why do you ask?’

    She answered ‘The auditors have just informed me that you are three pounds under-banked for the year.’

    That was the three pounds I had found in the strong-room and, consequently, I had to put in three of my own money.  When I thought of the small salary of the managers, the amount of work I had put in, especially with the stage shows, compared with what I had previously earned elsewhere, that little three pounds incident really annoyed me!

    But before moving on, a little anecdote I feel I should add.

    One of the electricians at the State Theatre had left his job to become a male nurse. He told me the story of a derelict who had been brought into the hospital in a perfectly frightful state of personal neglect. In his heyday he was credited with being the best dressed stage-hand in the business. He was quite definitely the Beau Brummel of the theatre boys. When he left his companions had presented him with an illuminated address which they had created, particularly stressing his smart appearance. There was a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek about it, of course, and here he was—in the last stages of neglect—brought to the hospital in rags, and reeking of filth.

    Of this same man, I recall an incident, in the late 1920s, which concerned Dame Nellie Melba. I had been told by Mr. Coleman to go on stage and watch the setting up of Pinafore. Standing at the prompt corner, I became aware of someone standing immediately behind me. Then the unknown asked ‘What is being set up?’ Before I had time to answer, a most belligerent and sarcastic voice forestalled me, barking ‘Pinafore, Dame!’ This was that same stage-hand, and the lady making the enquiry was the great Diva herself.

    As mentioned earlier, I moved back to Sydney to act as Art Director for the Columbia Pictures’ 1944 film Smithy.At its preliminary casting Mr. William Hughes was asked if he would consider playing his original part as Prime Minister. When Charles Kingsford Smith was planning his last flight from England, he was told by his doctor that it would be most unwise of him to attempt such a flight with his state of health. Mr. Hughes added his request, a warning verging on an order to abandon the venture. The interview was to take place in a set of the Hotel Savoy in London, which I had built and dressed, and it was all ready for the shot.

    In an ill-advised moment, the American producer had sent Billy Hughes an actor’s contract to sign—which was promptly torn up and returned. From then on, nothing or nobody could move Mr. Hughes from his determination to have nothing to do with the Company, the film or its people. Anyone referring to Columbia Pictures, Smithy, or Cinesound was quickly snubbed.  All telephone calls were simply cut off with a loud bang if any mention of the film was made.

    The production was nearing completion, time was running out, but nothing—no pleas or blandishments – could move Mr. Hughes. Then one morning the producer sent for me saying he wanted me to go out to see William Hughes. ‘Just persuade him to come to the studio and play his part.’ Just like that—quite simple. ‘Why pick me?’ I asked. No-one knew, except it was my set that had to be shot and it was taking up valuable space in the studio.

    So full of trepidation, apprehension and imagination, I procured a car and drove myself out to Roseville where Mr. Hughes lived. I rang the bell and when the door was opened—by a man in a green baize apron—I enquired for Mr. William Hughes. Going in, as I crossed the hall, Dame Mary came down the stairs. Wishing her a ‘Good morning,’ I introduced myself—who I was and why I was there.

    Dame Mary undoubtedly had some intuition of what had previously transpired. ‘Oh dear!’ she said, ‘I do wish you the best of luck. Mr. Hughes will be down shortly.’ I waited in the library, not having a clue of what to say, when Billy Hughes came in, which he did very soon after with a ‘Good morning Brother, and what can I do for you?’

    My ‘Good morning Sir,’ was, I’m afraid, a bit shaky—but what next? The appalling consequence of responsibility—failure or success. I fell into a state of self-pity; my set standing in the studio being pushed around, taken down, re-erected etc., but Billy Hughes did not seem concerned in the slightest. He had received a slight, a trampling of his dignity, by some damned impertinent American fellow who had the temerity to send him a contract—as if his word was not his bond!

    I listened attentively, wondering what I could say, when and how. But I was spared a little longer, Billy going over his parliamentary career. ‘Do you know that I have never by my own desire missed a session of Parliament in all the years of my service! I am a Privy Councillor—I have been the Prime Minister of this country …. ‘ Then some little bird gave me my entrée. With arrogant disregard to such pomposity I put in my first word ‘And what a wonderful achievement for dear old Wales!’

    ‘What, Brother? Wales! Do you know Wales?’

    ‘I had a Welsh grandmother. I know Flint, Aberystwyth, Llandrindod Wells …’ and we exchanged reminiscences happily. Any moment I would start a spirited rendering of Land of my Fathers. Eventually we got back to the reason of my visit and I happily heard Mr. Hughes saying ‘Not for you, or Columbia Pictures, or that impertinent American—if I even consider doing this part, it will be out of my mighty esteem and regard for a great Australian, Kingsford Smith.’

    ‘Sir, that is most generous of you. I shan’t have to move the set again.’

    ‘Mind you, it all depends on my parliamentary commitments—if I find time.’

    Then I made a mistake which sent the balloon up again—I suggested that if he was too busy during the weekdays, perhaps he would consider doing the shot on a Sunday. For my trouble, I got a blast about the day of rest—when all normal living was suspended. I mentally called myself names for being such a congenital idiot not to leave well alone, and tried to excuse myself with an apology that ‘I should have known better’.

    With ‘Well, Brother, I’ll think about it,’ and the interview ended and I was shown out by the green baize apron.

    Arriving back at the studio I reported to the producer and director that I had a promise ‘I’ll think about it.’ Anyway, the ice had been broken. I don’t suppose I had been back in the studio more than twenty minutes when I received a telephone call. The voice at the other end said ‘Send a car for Mr. Hughes at two o’clock.’

    There is not much to add except that I collected Billy Hughes, along with a secretary, and brought him to the studio where two of our charming girls served him with afternoon tea, and another made his face up for filming. He loved every minute of it and, incidentally, made a wonderful job of his role.

    The flight of the Southern Cross over the Tasman, when one engine cut out, and the epic effort of Patrick Gordon Taylor, was an exploit that made him famous right around the world. Kingsford Smith and Taylor, in May 1935, were flying from Sydney to New Zealand and the plane developed engine trouble about 600 miles from the Australian coast. Taylor had made the oil change from one dead engine to another by the incredible feat of climbing out onto the engine strut. This took place hundreds of feet above the sea and must have required a very particular branch of cool courage. It was on this adventure over the Tasman that rear projection, for the film Smithy, was to be used very effectively.

    Some footage was taken beforehand by a camera fixed to the cockpit of a plane. The plane repeated Kingsford Smith’s performance with the Southern Cross while Taylor was on the strut. With one dead engine, it was first necessary to gain height before making a slow descent. This was to allow him the maximum of freedom to extract oil from one of the engines. The masterly handling of the plane by Smithy in the difficult job of keeping the plane airborne throughout, and taking the utmost care not to dislodge Taylor from his perilous position on the spar, as he clung to the engine whilst making the change, had to be reproduced.  This was done—and it was a recreation of what actually happened—but in the studio.

    The model of the Southern Cross was set before the rear projection scene and on the screen was thrown the footage that the camera had taken. It was simply the rising and falling horizon which gave the stationary plane the required illusion of diving and climbing. Out of the cockpit climber Taylor to reproduce his epic feat and although the cockpit was only six feet above the stage, it was not as easy as it may sound because in order to simulate reality, we had an aeroplane engine going full blast on him out there on the spar. So it was not altogether ‘an act’ when he hung on grimly. The result—the real thing.

    For this superb act of heroism Captain P.G. Taylor was awarded the Empire Gallantry Medal—the civilian Victoria Cross.

    All kind of pictures are possible with rear projection—these can range from the passing landscape, as viewed from a train or a car, to that of a man hanging by one hand from a window-sill ten storeys from the ground. Glass shots became out of date but they were of great economic value at the time when they were used. A sheet of plate optic glass was anchored in front of the camera and placed in the right position to take the scene. For example, just imagine a ballroom which, when seen on the theatre screen, clearly gives the impression of much elaborate detail and ornamentation. 

    The technique involved is as follows: the set is built to wall height with all its architectural features, columns, panels, openings, etc. The next step is both very exacting and extremely difficult. All perpendicular lines are projected from the actual built set onto the glass by means of the finest silk thread, held on the glass to match up with the lines on the set. The difficulty is because this is done by looking through the actual aperture of the camera, remembering that the whole ballroom and glass is reproduced in a 35mm opening. The slightest fault, of course, would mean much magnification when shown on the cinema screen.

    When one’s eye was completely astigmatic and the job finished, the next task was to paint the top part of the set on the glass. It was such a great help that I had had considerable experience painting very detailed scenery. This method naturally saved a considerable sum of money, as otherwise the set had to be built full-size and complete.

    Perhaps it was the necessity for such exactitude in painting that caused this particular method to be scrapped. For example, I have been able to transform a summer landscape into a winter scene by using this glass shot method. Today, a matt shot is nearly always used and this method will add to, or transform, an interior or an exterior, as the occasion demands. The cameraman matts off the top half of his lens with a piece of black fabric. It must necessarily have a ragged edge, so that it vignettes very softly. The scene is taken, but of course the top half of the film is not exposed.

    When taking the film from the camera into the darkroom, a frame or two is cut off the film. This is processed and an enlargement is made. Only the bottom half of the film shows on the print as the top half is blank. Then the artist gets it onto his drawing board and paints in whatever is needed, taking the greatest care to blend his painting style with the photographic picture. This technique was used in the filming of Kingsford Smith’s Southern Cross, shown landing in different countries, a suitable background appropriate to each country being matted into a local foreground.

    I was out at Essendon Aerodrome where the engines of the Southern Cross were being overhauled, prior to its flying again for the production. Photographs were being taken so that we could create engines for the mock-up. At the ‘drome I met a newsreel cameraman who showed me five enlargements which he had made from a film he had taken at Essendon. He had been waiting for a plane to arrive on which were travelling some VIPs he had been assigned to photograph. The plane was overdue and, in the meantime, a DC3 was making its approach on the runway. To break the monotony, he pressed the trigger and photographed its arrival. It never quite arrived—disaster overtook the plane just as it was about to land. He subsequently made enlargements of some frames from the film.

    The first shot showed the DC3 flattened out, the second one showed a wing slightly out of alignment. In the next photo it was possible to see that the wing had broken away from the fuselage. In the next one, the wing was actually floating away, and the plane was about to crash. The cameraman was dedicated: he kept his finger on the trigger as the crashed plane skidded to within a few feet of him and his camera. His act was simply that of a good newsreel cameraman.

    When he was fully in control again, he noticed that there was a hole in the main spar, or rather half a hole. Having the instinct of a first-class newsreel man, he wandered over to the detached wing and there exposed the heinous crime of some maintenance man. He actually removed a plug of chewing gum from the other half of the corresponding hole in the stub of the main spar of the wing, which was the total effort of covering up a defect that eventually had caused the plane to crash.

    The American Authorities heard about the photographs that had been taken before the crash and immediately they commandeered the film—but not before the cameraman had made his very telling enlargements.


    To be continued

  • The Memoirs of J. Alan Kenyon or Behind the Velvet Curtain (Part 11)


    During the 1950s, scenic artist J. ALAN KENYON was back at J.C. Williamson Ltd, working on sets for Annie Get Your Gun, Oklahoma! and other plays, as he recalls in the latest instalment of his memoirs.

    The Hole of the Truth …

    It is the unrehearsed comedy and drama of the theatre that the audience never sees that gives the job behind the scenes its fascination. One becomes absorbed to the exclusion of everything else in the rush and scramble of a scene change, especially during a blackout, for example, when the stage is in complete darkness.

    On the opening night of Annie Get Your Gun (1948), Claude Flemming, who starred as Buffalo Bill and had an exaggerated fear of heights, even at the slightly absurd height of six or seven feet, always wanted a helping hand. The finale of Annie was a cloth with two painted horses, one on each side. A hole was cut above each horse and reinforced to carry a saddle, etc. One side was for Buffalo Bill, the other was for Pawnee Bill. On the other side of the cut there was a platform and each Bill, when on his platform, cocked a leg over the saddle and put a foot into the stirrup. On the platform for Buffalo Bill was also another foothold, plus a hand-grip to be held by the hand not holding the reins. To make assurance double sure, one of the stagehands had hold of one of Flemming’s arms, off stage. Shades of Buffalo Bill …!

    This finale was set after a blackout of the previous scene. If you have never seen an 18 foot high by 6 foot wide flat handled by one man, you would be amazed to see one of these flats folded, then man-handled off the stage and thrown against the wall into what is known as a pack. On this particular night, one of these flats did not quite make the wall in the blackout. It overbalanced away from the wall and naturally, fell back onto the stage. A piece of scenery of such dimensions does not fall quickly but it falls quite sufficiently hard enough to do some damage when it makes contact. Very unhappily the contact turned out to be Pawnee Bill’s head, and he was knocked out. There was not time to bring him round—and it was too near the end to consider dropping the curtain. So the unlucky actor was carted up the steps onto his platform to take his place on his steed.

    His inert leg was manipulated over the saddle, his foot placed in the stirrup and his hands on the reins. Supported by stagehands this gave some semblance of being in the show, although he was still unconscious. Buffalo Bill was of course being held, because of his phobia about heights, on the horse across the way at the other side of the cloth.

    Another incident concerning flats happened during a scene change. These flats are held together, that is, one to another, by toggle and line. At the top of one flat is attached a length of sash cord and on the same place on the flat that is to be joined is a piece of 4 inch by 1 inch square timber with the top cut away, so that the sash-line when flicked into the mouth, is held and pulled tight, at the same time clamping up the two flats. The two flats are held approximately 6 to 8 inches apart. The sash-line is then flicked up and if luck is with you its loop falls into the mouth of the toggle. It is by no means easy to accomplish this and as a matter of fact it requires a sleight of hand only achieved after a lot of practice. On this particular night a man was being given instructions how to achieve this—but he was having no success at all and time was running out. The man in charge, made careless by impatience, put his head between the flats in an attempt to discover what was causing the holdup. Then of course the unexpected did happen. The new man threw again, and this time he made contact—the line was at last in the toggle. Having everything in line to close up, he happily pulled the line and the two flats came—or rather should have come—together.

    Full of pride in his accomplishment, he gazed upwards, quite unaware that the unfortunate mechanist’s head was still between the flats. He pulled harder, and the harder he pulled the nearer he came to choking the poor man. When the mechanist was finally set free, the stage hand had to listen to some very choice things about himself.

    The person who enjoys more importance and usually gets his way about most things on the stage is the producer.  Some have more suitability and ability than others. In Oklahoma (1949) there was a ballet scene consisting of a simple cut-cloth of trees. It was my opinion that this would certainly need framing after it had been cut out. The mechanist had objected ‘Aw, we don’t want to frame it—it’s such a ruddy nuisance when it has to travel.’ This was strictly true—all the 3-ply has to come off and be tacked on again before the next opening. I was sure, however, that the producer would not wish to see the trees waving about, as they certainly would, with the action of the dancers weaving in and out of them. Ted Hammerstein (cousin to Oscar Hammerstein II and Stage Manager on the original Broadway production) came to produce the show. We showed him all the scenery and we were very gratified when he told us it measured up to anything he had seen anywhere. ‘There is just one thing,’ he said. ‘I would like to have the tree cut-cloth framed.’ The mechanist said we never did such things—it wasn’t done! This was sheer pig-headedness. ‘Okay!’ agreed the director. So all through the week the cast rehearsed the scene.

    It has always been the custom to check all scenes and props on the Saturday morning of the opening at night. It is routine to go through everything backwards, as the set for the last scene is the opening scene ready for the show at night. On this particular Saturday the procedure was unvaried and the mechanist had just dismissed the stage staff, telling them they were free until they were due back at 7.30 pm. Just then a voice came from the stalls—‘Charlie, I want the cut-cloth framed.’ There was no argument—it was framed: but it took until late Saturday afternoon to do it.

    I had redesigned sets for a well-known imported actor. Because they were unlike those he had worked with overseas, he threw a tantrum and became very disagreeable indeed. The scenes were set up. Then Edward J. Tait and Harald Bowden, director and manager, along with myself, looked at the sets from the stalls. No one spoke. It was left to Mr. Tait to make the opening gambit. He took up the challenge and asked ‘Well, what about it?’ The actor, with quite a degree of petulance snapped that they were not the same as he had had in the London production. He was then asked what difference did that make? He made no reply. ‘Well,’ said E.J. Tait. ‘I think they are most attractive.’ Then the actor found his voice ‘They are too attractive—I couldn’t act in front of them.’ Actually, he really did have a point there—no scenery should be so intrusive as to draw attention away from the actors. It is a cardinal sin for it to assert itself. This is one of the hard and fast rules which a set designer must obey.

    I recall an instance where a certain actor was discovered to be seeking an excuse for a project of his own. It emerged after a few days when he brought one of Sydney’s women painters to check on my painting for a show whose title now totally eludes me. We did not see eye to eye on anything—we completely disagreed on technique—and the result led to something of an altercation. When people lose their temper with me I cannot resist the impulse to grin at them. It has never had much of a calming effect on anyone.

    This particular actor stamped his foot on the stage and shouted ‘I’m the boss and I’ll have things the way I want them!’ I told him he could most certainly have his own way, and at the same time take a ‘running jump in the lake’. Up to the office he rushed to make his complaint to management. I went back to the paint room and went on with the job. Some time later I heard a voice calling me from the stage. I looked down through the cut in the floor and saw E.J. Tait: his exact words were ‘You alright, George?’ ‘I’m fine,’ I answered, and I felt fine—hearing his voice and sensing the warmth in it. ‘Well, never mind … (naming the actor) he’s here today and gone tomorrow. We hope that you will be with us for a long time.’ That is the kind of attitude which inspires the people of the theatre to go all out to do their best in this strange industry. It is so unlike any other that an occasional boost to one’s ego is most welcome.

    My ego was not always uplifted by happenings in the theatre—sometimes entirely the opposite occurred and I was very badly deflated. On one occasion I had been called into consultation with the management of an Italian Opera Company about the forthcoming season. During discussions of matters pertaining to the scenery, I was always referred to as ‘il scena artista’—which seemed alright to me. So I designed and painted the sets for their two operas and they were duly performed. This was a private job. I sent in my account but after a few weeks had gone by and nothing had happened, I heard from somebody that a meeting was to be held at the Princess Theatre. Hoping that I could get some finality from the directors, I wandered up to the foyer just before the meeting was due to commence. Alas! The atmosphere had lost its warmth—there were no nods and becks and wreathed smiles and murmurs of ‘il scena artista’. Instead, I distinctly heard a ‘stage whisper’ from someone ‘Look out—here comes the bloody painter.’ However, eventually I was paid.

    Although there was a job for which I never did receive just payment. This happened when I did some work for a certain religious sect. I was approached concerning this job by a very well-known singer who had sung in opera overseas. I was asked if I would handle the production of a show, celebrating the centenary of this Order. I made my estimate of the cost, but was told that it was quite out of the question. Couldn’t I suggest a much cheaper way of doing things, thereby reducing the cost? At length after a lot of talk it was decided that instead of using expensive canvas we would make the ‘cloths’ out of brown paper. The two men I had with me got busy on the stage and glued lengths of brown paper together. There were at least six of them, plus a painted scrim. This was depicting a decorative frame of angels and cupids and so on. In regard to the financial aspect of the job it was arranged that my assistants were to be paid on a weekly basis, rent of the paint room was also to be charged and I was to receive a percentage of the takings on each of the three nights the show was to run. The show actually had its season extended to six nights, because the whole show was such a huge success!

    But the first night almost ended in tragedy. In those days lighting, in what is now the Metro Theatre in Collins Street, Melbourne (see note below) was not all that could be desired. Hanging, as part of the general lighting, was a naked 1000 Watt globe, a working-light for the stage. There were tiers of seating across the back wall of the stage, crammed with children. The screen, on which was a portrait of the Founder of the Order, was hanging there, until the concert was due to start. It was then rolled up like a verandah blind. Unfortunately the rolled-up screen came in contact with the 1000 Watt globe and the inevitable happened—it  caught fire. At first the two hundred children just made frightened noises—but these soon swelled to panicked screaming. They left their seats and milled around the stage in a yelling mob. All hell broke loose! I shouted instructions in a voice rivalling a sergeant major in the Irish Watch... They could not even hear me. In any case we had enough trouble getting the burning screen and the painted scrim down and off the stage. When they were halfway down the house curtains parted slightly and the audience saw the fire for the first time. I grabbed the fabric and pulled them closed. I got singed a little and lost some hair as the burning screens came level with me. Somehow we got a clear passage from the stage to the back and at last smothered the fire although the screens were completely ruined. After the show we worked all night painting a new show curtain and it was hung ready for the following performance. The offending lamp was removed. There had been no protests from the Fire Brigade and the six performances showed ‘House Full’ every night. The theatre was given free, and nothing was charged for the management— actually expenses were very few. Six shows must have shown a very handsome profit.  I received a cheque for 25 pounds. My estimate was 125 pounds. Well, one lives and occasionally learns.

    Evelyn Laye and her husband Frank Lawton first played in Melbourne in a show called September Tide (1951). In the play they lived above a boat-house and at the end of Act 1 Lawton was to go through a trap in the stage down to the boat-house below—the carpenters were busy cutting the trap set-up. Evelyn rang me, asking me over to see her. Her first words were that she would buy me two double whiskies because she simply ‘adored the set’. It was her favourite colour—but she said, ‘Do look at the frock my dresser is holding—I bought it specially and it cost me such a lot of money.’ It was the exact colour and tone of the scenery: we repainted the set!

    Evelyn Laye was beautiful, charming and the epitome of elegance and she spoke to all and sundry in her beautiful speaking voice. As she left the stage to go to her dressing-room, the boys having finished cutting the hole for the trap, it was a revelation, simply amazing, to hear a pure cockney voice saying ‘Blimey, what a bloody awful ’ole!’

    Apropos another hole, Dion Boucicault was producing The Admirable Crichton at the King’s Theatre in Melbourne in 1926. He was always immaculate in black coat, striped trousers and spats. The effects for a thunderstorm were made up in the flies by means of cannon balls rolling down steps and onto a sheet of tin. Boucicault wanted the thunder louder so he called up to the property operator—one Bill Richards—‘A little louder Billy—do it again.’ It was done again but of course there was no control over the method and it sounded exactly the same as before.

    ‘No Billy, a little louder!’ But it was of no use. Dion left the stage and climbed up the steel-runged ladder attached to the side wall of the stage, and up through the floor of the flies. As he arrived at this hole, he poked his head through. ‘My God! What a dirty hole…’ and he came back down again.

    A hole with a difference comes to mind.

    During the filming of a comedy which took place on location, a haystack was to catch fire when the fire-engine dashed through it. The structure was merely a frame shell with wire netting, covered with straw. A props man was to saturate the interior with petrol, then make a trail to a safe distance so that he could throw a match from his end. This of course should happen just as the fire-engine emerged.

    For some unknown reason this man lit the match whilst he was still in the ‘haystack’. Although he was making his trail through a hole left for that purpose, he was not prepared for the extra boost he got when the petrol exploded. He shot out so rapidly that he avoided being burnt but unfortunately, he also misjudged this timing. The fire-engine was too far away to give the desired effect and he was in the picture, being catapulted through the air!

    Of course it had to be done again but the stack was a tangled mass of ashes and wire netting. To add to our troubles the clouds had started to bank up and blot out the sun. Also—it was Saturday afternoon and all the shops were shut. We needed extra straw for another haystack.

    Going into town we discovered the owner of the hay and corn store was playing in the local cricket team and was batting. Hoping he would get out smartly, we just had to wait. He was caught out soon after and we persuaded him to open up his store to supply us with some bundles of straw. Back on location we rebuilt the haystack and the sun peeped through the clouds sufficiently enough for us to get the shot.

    It was to a fire in a barn that the fire-engine was driven through the haystack—the firing of the actual barn on location was to be faked. A very careful detailed model was constructed of this building, complete inside as well as outside. This model was taken on location and positioned on cantilevered arms about six feet away from the camera. It was on a base, surrounded by old carts, fencing, etc. This merged into the distant landscape several hundred yards away. It was set on fire and filmed in slow motion. As the walls collapsed, the interior with horse-stalls and so on were seen, until it burned to the ground and we finally got the result that we desired.

    I had become very friendly with Mr. and Mrs. C.T. Lorenz of Sydney. Carl Lorenz had a flourishing business with shops—he was an optician and optometrist—in practically every suburb in Sydney. I had designed and fitted out for him a three storey shop, after gutting the original premises. The lower ground floor was for general examinations, etc., the next floor was for offices and the next housed the workshops.

    Clarice Lorenz had bought a very large house at Bathurst. This rambling blue-stone mansion required some renovations—which I planned and had done for them. Wallpapers and carpets had been selected, with no emphasis on cost. Unfortunately an accident had happened to the wallpaper at one top corner in the master bedroom—water had entered from a blocked gutter and spoilt it completely. I got rid of the segment which had been ruined and patched up the blank space, not with the same costly wallpaper but by painting matching colours into the missing patch. It was remarkable how successful this was.

    A very long and high corridor ran right through the house. Carl had arranged for a painter from Bathurst to come in and paint the ceiling. Leaving my room one morning on my way to breakfast, I came face to face with two very high trestles, topped with a narrow plank. An odd character who could have modelled for Fred in the ‘Right, said Fred’ comedy routine, was standing by the trestles surveying, in a contemplative fashion, a full four-gallon petrol-tin of paint. Wishing this character ‘Good morning’ I inquired if he really intended to take the tin up onto the plank—and a 9 inch plank at that. Regarding me sourly, he assured me that he had had many years of experience. ‘I know me job,’ he said, with an air of ‘And you can mind your own bloody business’. Shrugging aside my misgivings I continued on my way to breakfast. Several ghastly events came in quick sequence—as I sat down at the table the seat of the antique chair slipped and the end of my vertebrae, where the tail was once joined, scraped down the wood of the seat.

    Shutting my eyes and shuddering while electric thrills were rushing round my body, I was subconsciously prepared for the unholy clatter and din which suddenly shattered the early morning silence. Clarice and I dashed out into the passage, to be confronted with a most horrifying (if not all that surprising) sight. Fred had maneuvered his full pot of paint up onto the plank, only for disaster to overtake him. He overbalanced, knocking over the tin, and four gallons of paint splashed onto the walls, forming a river of paint which crossed the fantastically expensive carpet and flowed to the door of the billiard room and into one of the bedrooms. It seemed incredible that a mere four gallons could cover so much space. There was only one redeeming feature to this stupid, stupid incident. It was a water-based paint and after many days and much labour, and with dozens of buckets of clean water, most of the paint was washed out of the carpet and off the walls.

    It should be of interest to note here that Clarice Lorenz was the power and guiding force behind the forming and financing of the opera company in Sydney. She spent huge sums of money keeping opera going in Sydney, and was possibly the most persistent advocate responsible for the building of the Sydney Opera House. It is rather sad to have to state that nowhere will anyone be able to discover any evidence that her tremendous output of money and energy were in any way appreciated. Both Carl and Clarice Lorenz were musicians of concert standard and I felt highly privileged to attend a performance by Carl on his grand piano, accompanied by his wife on her harp. Together they made music of an enthralling quality.


    NOTE: Melbourne’s first concert hall, the Auditorium, located at 171 Collins Street, opened in 1913. Built and managed by J. & N. Tait, the complex comprised an eight-story office building with a three-tiered performance space on the ground level. Though principally a venue for live concerts, it was also used for the screening of silent movies. By the 1934, under the management of MGM, the venue was remodelled into a ‘modern’ cinema and renamed the Metro Collins. In 1975, Greater Union took over the cinema and it became known as the Mayfair Theatre. This closed in 1982 and the space was remodelled as Figgins’ Diorama, an exclusive department store. This venture lasted only 19 months and another short-lived retail venture took over. In 2010, the building was demolished and the facade was incorportated into a new 17-story office development.

  • The Memoirs of J. Alan Kenyon or Behind the Velvet Curtain (Part 12)


    In Part 12 of his memoirs, J. ALAN KENYON recalls amusing episodes working on sets for Nellie Melba’s grand opera season in 1924 to Joan Sutherland’s in 1965, plus a few local and international stars of musicals and dramas in between.

    Ready, Set, Go!

    It was the Grand Opera Season of 1924 (I had been with JCW for just one year). The cast was headed by Nellie Melba and included quite a galaxy of talent: Toti dal Monte, Dion Borgioli, Apollo Granforte and Lina Scavizzi. It was tremendous fun watching, and trying, without understanding the language, to interpret the arguments, the actions and the antics which were constantly waged between the producer, the chorus master, the prompter, and the musical director. It was a battle which never seemed to end. In the ‘Nile scene’ in Aida with Franco Paolantonio, the chief maestro of the orchestra conducting, there were three notes on the timpani the drummer just could not get right.

    To you and me, ‘da-da-da’ just means ‘da-da-da’ and nothing else. To Paul Antonio’s super-sensitive ear, they were either off beat or out of tune—which, I never did discover. After three attempts and three failures to satisfy him, and after holding up the orchestra three times, Paul’s rage and frustration reached the point of explosion. With arms stretched above his head, he broke his baton in halves, tore at his hair, and burst into loud sobs. Astonishment kept everybody silent.

    It always came to my mind along with memories of Hamlet ‘It then draws the season—Wherein the spirit held his want to walk’ whenever I crossed the darkened stage of the Princess Theatre. It was necessary to put out all the lights before leaving the paint room, the switch being at the top of the stairs. In total darkness, with a loose board creaking eerily, one watched one’s step, particularly if one had once crashed over a chair in the line of travel. It is quite an experience crossing one hundred feet in total darkness, recalling the ghost of the Princess. During one Grand Opera performance of Faustat Melbourne’s Princess in 1888 Federici (Federick Baker) as Mephistopheles, in a puff of smoke, falls through a trap from the stage to the cellar. Nothing seemed amiss during the performance, everything had gone according to plan, except that when he reached the cellar he was later found to be dead.

    Again about Grand Opera, and now in 1965, the Joan Sutherland Season will always be memorable for the repercussions on my department. There was a terrific amount of unnecessary work and worry which were all the result of inexperience. A very charming girl (Tonina Dorati, daughter of the great Antal Dorati) did the designs for all that season’s operas and although her charm was undeniable, alas, so was her inexperience. The first batch of designs came from London and they were for the first opera to be presented, which was Lucia di Lammermoor. The heads of departments were all called up to the Director’s office and were shown the sketches. As inevitably happens with such drawings, they had not been done to scale. This in itself was a frightful mistake and caused no end of complications.

    The sketches showed sets of such gigantic dimensions that I remarked, somewhat sardonically I’m afraid, ‘If the curtain goes up at eight o’clock, the house will come out at two am.’ This sally received only a disdainful look. The design for the ‘mad scene’ was of such huge proportions that it swept from Opposite Prompt (OP) to Prompt Side (PS) and nearly touched the stage’s back wall. Everybody who knew the theatre (Her Majesty’s) and stage agreed that the set-up was completely and utterly impossible. However, some semblance had to be kept to the original in any of the alterations which we made.

    The only yardstick for measurement was the recognized height of a step, which was about six or seven inches. Then, by counting the number of steps at these increases, it was possible to arrive at the height of the rostrum where the steps finished. From memory, I think I made this height to be seventeen feet—utterly impossible at the distance at which the back of the set was placed. Only the first rows of stall seats would see any action up there. All these sketches had been passed by the powers that be, so we had to get out of it as tactfully and safely as was possible. It was quite out of the question to use the drawings for construction and after a bit of anxious consultation, we eventually agreed on a ten-foot-high platform. This set, along with the others, was then constructed.

    At one rehearsal, the Prima Donna made her entrance onto the platform from the OP side (left from the audience’s point of view). She was singing in full voice—the Mad Scene—and Joan Sutherland was at her truly magnificent best. The cast was standing gaping in amazed admiration. At the balcony, before descending the steps, Sutherland bent her knees and made the long descent in the same attitude. Arriving at the bottom, she waved her hand and asked ‘Can you see me at the back of the stalls?’

    Each scene was rehearsed for setting and striking. Then the day arrived for a full rehearsal of all scenes and with the entire company. After cutting down the wall surrounding the platform of the first scene three times, both it and the platform were scrapped. The platform in the second scene was also thrown out—there simply was not time to set and strike it. Following that, one whole scene was thrown onto the scrap heap. Two thousand pounds worth of work and material careered merrily down the drain.

    There was the incident concerning a designer, with an extremely lofty and quite unjustified idea of his own importance, being especially imported from England to do an opera. He came with his sketches prepared and announced importantly to the quite mystified carpenters that his style was ‘free’! In spite of this blithe explanation, they continued to regard his drawings of bent columns and falling-over walls—doubtfully. He would come up to the paint room, pick up his sketch and insist that every brush stroke and variation of colour be faithfully copied. Incidentally, while he was in the paint room one night, putting some artistic touches to a cloak which needed to look old and rain-sodden, he had practically flooded the floor. I’m afraid I told him a few home truths.

    It was inevitable that a man of his tyrannical type would wait his opportunity to catch me out. One day he decided that the time was right for getting his own back. Joyfully, he picked out a blob in the corner of a design, saying triumphantly, ‘This very nice piece of variation has been left out. Why?’ His triumph was short-lived. I explained to him very happily that that particular piece of decoration was simply a smear of colour we had put on ourselves when matching the hue. One hoped that his ego was at least a little dinted.

    Wildflower Acts 1 3 1Wildflower (1924),Acts 1 & 3 set. JCW Scene Books, Book 07-0016, Theatre Heritage Australia.

    We were taught never to try and get self-publicity by the design of our sets. If the sets are meant to produce atmosphere, they should take their place, do their job perfectly, and be forgotten. If they are so blatant that the audience is attracted to them, they are not serving their purpose. But sometimes the show opens with an empty scene, and it is then the scenic artist may let himself go, and maybe receive a round of applause. The opening scene of Wildflower(1924) with Marie Burke reproduced a village square at the foot of a range of mountains. As the lamplighter makes his rounds, putting out the lamps, the sun is rising. The effect achieved by Mr. Coleman was really spectacular. As the sun rose it hit the top of a mountain, then slowly illuminated the whole side of it, the lighting slowly fading in on the scene at the same time until the sun was fully up and the scene fully lit. Of course, in those days the scenic artist lit his scenery—today there are lighting experts who use, I think, dozens of spots in a less effective way than that of the old floods and light battens. Also, there is too much building of architraves, cornice moulds, etc. There are very few designers who have had paint room experience and served a theatre apprenticeship. The audience is of course aware that the background is only painted canvas on a wooden frame and accept it as such. This supposes always that the painting of the scenery is up to a standard. In my experience, not one person in a thousand cares two hoots about art in the theatre—they want entertainment, good acting and good music. (Editor’s note: I hate to think this is still true to this day!)

    One of the best sets I ever painted was the result of a disagreement between a team consisting of a husband and wife. The husband, John McCallum, was the producer, and he talked to me about the set for the show, its locale Scotland. It was decided that the timber interior should be painted a honey colour to represent Scotch Fir. This was done, and a lot of careful, very nice work went into the painting. When the scenery was set up on stage, the following dialogue took place:

    Googie Withers: It should be grey.

    John McCallum: But it’s a Scotch interior of pine wood.

    GW: (Very decidedly) It should be grey.

    JMcC: But it’s such a lovely set.

    GW: (More decidedly) It should be grey.

    JMcC: (Resignedly) Okay. But it will have to be repainted.

    So it was repainted although there was scarcely any time to have it back on the frame, as it was wanted for rehearsal. So, I had it laid out flat on the trestles, one piece at a time. We mixed a bucket of grey glazed colour and hurriedly slopped it over the flats. Before they were dry, they were taken off the trestles and stood up. The colour settled in puddles in some places, then it ran off here and there, occasionally missing some areas. By accident and without design, the set was wonderful. If we had spent weeks on the painting, the result would never have been half so effective.  Such lucky accidents do sometimes happen.

    Perhaps the most outstanding, and the best of all the producers, was Oscar Asche (1871-1936). As well as being a superb actor and producer, he was a master of lighting. He disliked giving what he considered to be ‘unnecessary explanations’. For example, he would say to an electrician, ‘Put a row of lamps up here on the fly rails, and don’t ask me if I need any on the other side. The sun only shines one way.’

    He was a big man in every way. His completely authentic thoroughness in production was evidenced at its best in The Skin Game (1925). In this play the script called for him to be drowned in a canal. The dour North Country man was drowned, and he stayed drowned—he never took a curtain call at the end of the show. This piece of realism added considerably to the play’s impact on the audience. He produced Chu Chin Chow (early 1920s) magnificently. Then there was Cairo (1922) and Julius Caesar (also 1920s) in which he was an unforgettable Marc Antony. Julius Caesar was presented in black drapery. I remember him coming up to the paint room to consult Mr. Coleman about the black velvet for the surround and he was shown three or four samples of velvet. Then he enquired, ‘Which is the most expensive?’ He was told and he said, ‘Well, that’s the one I want.’ He was indeed a perfectionist.

    nla.obj 148804720 1 2Gladys Moncrieff, centre, and full cast onstage in A Southern Maid, 1924. Photo by Talma, Melbourne. National Library of Australia, Canberra.

    When he produced Southern Maid (1923) starring Gladys Moncrieff the rehearsal was not up to his standard of perfection. It was a rehearsal of the orange-groves scene and had been painted by Coleman. Oscar Asche ordered all the cast into the stalls and when he had them all there, he pronounced, ‘Take a look at that scene. Now, go back and act up to it.’ He never asked—he ordered. He was even known to use his not-inconsiderable weight to emphasize his meaning. He stood no nonsense from anyone.

    Another producer who was a character in his own right was George A. Highland (1870-1954). He was another man who really knew his job, and how to get the best out of everyone. He himself was an arrant exhibitionist and invariably on a first night when he took his curtain call, he would partially undress and appear in a state of collapse. Though on one occasion his roughed-up appearance for his curtain call had been acquired the hard way. There was a platform which moved up and down the stage, pulled by a wire. In his haste to take his call, George forgot about the wire and tripped, falling headlong onto the stage. The boys rushed to pick him up and help him to take his call, but he was very shaken and had no need to simulate distress that night.

    The stage staff who see all the shows, watching with the closest attention a tremendous variety of performers and performances, get a real education in the theatre, and they are never at a loss for an answer. Their repartee is usually terse and very much to the point. They develop over the years a very particular sense of humour, typical of and peculiar to, the stage. With a sprinkling of profanity, their descriptions are usually both trenchant and apt—they pounce on the funny side of any development and are always quick to turn any situation into a joke.

    The Russian Osipov Balalaika Orchestra was rehearsing on stage for the first time (1937) and I stayed to listen for a few minutes. Going back to the paint room I was followed by one of the stage staff. He asked if I had heard the Russians playing, and was I there at the end of the number which happened to be the finale of the show...? I told him I had come away before the end. He grinned, then said that they had begun very softly, making only a faint sound and then worked up to a great crashing crescendo, only to stop abruptly. The conductor cut them off suddenly with a lightning fall of his baton. Then he turned around dramatically to the audience and roared ‘Ooos-a pop!’ A small voice from the back squeaked ‘I am.’ This bit of typical humour was apparently conceived on the spot.

    An imported producer was rehearsing a show which contained a children’s ballet within its production. The kids had jacked up for some reason only known to themselves and were making no progress whatever. They seemed too dumb-struck and listless to try and get anything right. The producer made them go over and over the same thing with no appreciable results and, driven desperate by their non-co-operation, he made them an offer of two shillings each if they only got somewhere near the effect he wanted. He said, ‘Now let’s try it again.’ This time it was nearly perfect. The producer was heard to mutter, ‘I’ve come 12,000 miles to be taken in by a lot of bloody Australian kids...’

    One very satisfactory painting job (in films) was the reproduction of an all-black marble hotel foyer—the St. Francis—in, I think, Los Angeles. On a sheet of glass, with various tones, from black to white, of plaster, we turned out slabs of very creditable and credible imitation marble. Pouring on the black, cracking the glass, we then poured on the grey and white mixtures. Viewing the job by a mirror under the sheet of glass, we were able to control the effect. The large round columns were more difficult, but we made them on a form quite successfully. Whilst on technique, practically anything from brick walls to palm trees can be replicated using plaster moulds, made from casts of the job.

    As an example of the futility of building features of interiors I give the opening scene of Lady of the Rose (1925) as a classic. This set was completely fabricated by Wunderlich in pressed metal. All the columns’ bases and caps, cornices, friezes and architraves were in this pressed metal and it was an utter failure as the lighting flattened it all. Mr. Coleman gave me the job of climbing all over the set, painting in the darks and the highlights, on this reproduction of the entrance to the Royal Academy in London’s Burlington Arcade. This meant I had to paint between the acanthus leaves and volutes of the capitals, the ornamentation of the friezes and the flutes of the columns. Then I had to add the highlights for the lot—it involved my going up and down a ladder all day long, until the work was finished. This building of separate parts in set construction never works out successfully, because always, and I emphasize always, it becomes necessary to paint in the darks and lights afterwards. If this is not done, it all appears to be completely flat. Painted moulding is unquestionably the best way for stage presentation.

    From my workroom I had a clear view of the hiring department, when I once spied someone handling a lion’s head—which brings me in on cue. One of the important people I had with me in the Production Studio was a man called Max Krumbach. He was the modeller and plaster expert, and a complete master of his job. He could extricate a plaster mould from a cast, nearly as thin as cardboard. His father was a sculptor mason, and Max related to me the following story. Incidentally, I later had the opportunity to verify every word he uttered. His father and another man were the sculptors who modelled the lion’s heads which adorn the base corners on each side of the Sydney Town Hall. The foreman builder on the job was an irascible old Scot and when he was making his rounds it was his habit to contort his face into a leering mask of disapproval as he observed the progress. 

    Eventually the building was completed and ready for the opening ceremony. The last job was of course the cleaning up. At the end of the building, against the last corner, had been stacked a huge heap of timber. This was the last thing to be removed and when the workmen pulling the leaning boards away, there was the lion’s head. No-one seeing it could doubt that it was a clever caricature—there was the characteristic leer and grimace of the old Scot, carved into the lion’s visage.

    The same Max Krumbach had modelled a huge whale for one of the floats in Sydney’s Sesquicentenary Celebrations. He had finished the wire netting and the plaster-work on the whale, and it was ready for painting. The man whom I deputized to paint the job was a rather bumptious type who had managed to get under Krumbach’s skin. Every time this chap attempted to commence painting, a stentorian voice would boom out ‘Keep off that bloody whale!’ In the interests of peace and progress, I had to replace this painter with someone more acceptable to Krumbach, the master.

    To be continued


  • The Memoirs of J. Alan Kenyon or Behind the Velvet Curtain (Part 13)


    In Part 13 of his memoirs, J. ALAN KENYON recalls numerous events from his career as a scenic artist in both theatre and film, ranging from the gay to the grave.

    The Masks of Comedy and Tragedy

    During the course of thirty years, assistants in the paint room have been many and varied. The junior member—who is of course not necessarily the youngest—has the task of keeping the room neat and orderly. He had to wash the brushes and pallets, and there was one man who kept the place spotless. Bob was regarded as being the doyen of all paint room assistants. The brushes were scrubbed and even scraped with a knife to remove any caked bits of colour. He usually came up the stairs two at a time, generally humming one of the current hits. He ate heartily and to all appearances was completely happy and content and in full enjoyment of his life. At this particular time, I had engaged a new pupil who was straight from Art School. Being the first to arrive, he had opened up the paint room only to get the shock of his young life. Bob was lying outside the door of my room—it was only too obvious that he was dead.

    We left the body where it was until the police had duly arrived. When the remains of poor Bob were turned over, a gun was discovered. Bob had shot himself. No-one was able to supply or suggest a reason and all we could offer in reply to police questioning was a puzzled “But he always seemed so happy … ” Someone very aptly remarked “The heart knoweth its own bitterness”. This was especially true in the sad case of Bob.

    He left us in somewhat of a hole—I had to get a new carpet for my room and we were very hard-pressed at the time and the loss of his valuable help was felt keenly. They say that no-one is ever really missed: Bob gave the lie to this, because we undoubtedly missed him.

    Most people who work in the theatre are superstitious. I have known some to have a horror of the colour green, others are scared of peacock feathers. We were working on a picture with Bert Bailey [Dad and Dave Come to Town, 1938] and the script required him to put his foot in a sling trap. The trap consisted of a loop on the end of a rope, which was tied to a bent-over sapling. When a fox or any other animal disturbed it the holding peg allowed the sapling to fly back, and the noose at the end of the rope to tighten, holding the animal suspended in the air. It was a comedy act, calling for Bert to be caught in the trap and hang by his leg, upside down off the ground.

    To prevent any great chafing of his ankle, the property man had a piece of felt to do the job. Unhappily it was, of course, green, and Bert gave tongue with loud and long protest. Green was unlucky! Everyone in the profession was aware of that …! The props man searched but could not come up with anything of another colour. It was only when everyone had expressed themselves pretty freely concerning the idiocy of wasting time in this way, that Bert said he would take the risk of breaking his ankle or his neck. His courage was rewarded by his breaking neither. After stoically hanging upside down from the sapling, he returned to terra firma safe and sound.  So much for superstition.

    It was during the shooting of this picture that the rear projection screen got damaged. The cameraman had a piece of three-ply nailed on the top of the frame holding the screen firm. The screen was my responsibility but I was out of the studio when this job was done—the three-ply nailed to the top of the screen frame by two one-inch nails. I had had the experience of many accidents to my ‘credit’, so I was beginning to be very careful and certainly I would have used more nails. In this case, with the moving of the screen into position, the ply at last worked loose from the frame and together with the two nails, fell down the screen, tearing a long gash at the bottom. When I returned to the studio I stepped straight into the ensuring shemozzle. Naturally I was prepared for the inevitable question “What are you going to do about it?”.

    What I had to do took me all night—I really had to perform what almost amounted to a miracle, using special cement to join the torn edges together. The join was successful enough, but there remained a halo around the join which meant that for every shot I had to have something in the foreground to camouflage the join. We managed quite well until such time as another projection screen was sent over from America. They were pretty costly items too, somewhere in the region of three hundred pounds—a lot in those days.

    One more accident happened, and to this new screen, when the plug from a blank double-barrel cartridge went through the cage of wire netting and perforated the top corner of the screen.

    During a production of Shakespeare, the producer wanted to speak with one of the actors. Calling to him, what in those days was the Call Boy—today he is the Assistant Stage Manager—he gave him the name of the character, not the actor’s own name, and to request his presence in the prompt corner. The Call Boy went on his rounds, having no idea who was playing the particular part, asking various men if they happened to be the one the producer required. Eventually he came to a character leaning up against a stack of scenery, learning his lines with suitable actions.

    “Are you,” asked the Boy, “Appias Claudius?”

    “No,” replied the actor, “I’m as miserable as hell.”

    The set for Cicely Courtneidge’s Under the Counter (1948) was a four-wall interior, with a fourth wall, the one which was supposedly missing, taking its place as the set rotated the stage. One wall had a very big fireplace in it, and above the mantle a framed picture. This picture, an original by Charles Meynell Withers (son of Walter Withers) ‘Girl in a White Hat’, I had hired from Anthony Hordern’s. It was valued at three hundred guineas. When the scene was changed and the walls moved onto the next position, it was necessary to un-toggle the fireplace from the flat. Over the mantle were two candlesticks with candles.

    One night, the man un-toggling the lines holding the fireplace, forgot to hang onto the flat. The man with the fireplace moved it downstage—the flat with the picture screwed on it fell, crashing forward onto the fireplace with the candlesticks on the mantle shelf.  The result was very nearly disastrous—the candles went through the canvas flat, missing the picture by just one inch each side of its frame. They could have gone right through the painting.

    Next morning, I was met by the props man, Bill Lincoln, and told him the story. The outcome of this was my measuring up the canvas, procuring an exact frame as per the original, and copying Withers’ painting of ‘Girl in a White Hat’. The portrait’s copy deputized for the remainder of the show’s run, and on the very last night when everyone was happily saying their goodbyes and thank you’s, Bill told Miss Courtneidge of the deception. She had never suspected the change, but really went to town on poor old Bill because she had not been told.

    Speaking of portraits, this calls to mind another portrait that gave me a lot of trouble. Whilst reproducing the White Drawing Room of Buckingham Palace for the investiture of Kingsford Smith by King George V (for the film Smithy), I borrowed a lot of pictures from the National Gallery for the passage outside one of the doors. Over one of the three fireplaces in the Drawing Room was a portrait of the Prince of Wales, in full regalia. Of course, it was not permissible to depict Royalty, even though it was within an exact replica of the room. The Duke of Gloucester, who was Governor General at the time, came into the studio and gave his approval of the set. My trouble was—try as I might, I still ‘got’ the features of the Prince. Eventually I managed to alter the face.

    And on another occasion another portrait was a headache. In this film featuring an English ancestral home there existed a portrait gallery. I had painted about a dozen full-size portraits, each having a descriptive line below, appropriate to the period. The last portrait I recall had the tag line—told by the butler—showing the new master around his inheritance, “I die that England might live.” This was as he was led away to be beheaded. Just as we were ready to shoot his segment, someone—who should have known his history better, to wit, Winchester-educated Frank Harvey—asked if 1700 was too late for beheading in England. The portrait was of a nobleman about this period. [The film referred to is It Isn’t Done (1937).]

    Asked if I had made a thorough check, I could not answer that I had actually gone to a library in that endeavour, so had no concrete proof. I had to do something about producing another picture. Going to the workshop I had another stretcher made and covered with canvas. A coat of thin shellac dried quickly—this was at twelve noon. I drew the outline of the portrait and whilst one of my assistants filled in the background, I painted the face and figure. It was one of those things which come out right first time! The paint was still wet when it was put into the frame and restored to the set of the picture gallery by two o’clock. Two hours!  One of my people, a sculptor, remarked, “What a bloody fool you are—that full-sized portrait is worth a few hundred guineas!  Its value is two hours of your time.”

    Next morning I made a call to the chief librarian and asked him if he could tell me when they ceased beheading in England. He could not tell me offhand but did ring me back later telling me as late as 1800: according to the character of the crime the person had the option of hanging or of beheading. I went on the set and said to Frank Harvey “I had a whole bloody hundred years to spare on that portrait!” This happened to me at the finish of a picture—my holidays were due and the production was about to go out, so I could conveniently leave with an easy mind.

    During the time of production, I had received a substantial increase in my salary, but when I looked at the cheque, found that my holidays had been worked out at the old lower rate. I wrote a letter to the producer—an American—pointing out the discrepancy and mentioning that I knew I was a highly skilled technician I did not feel inclined to be ‘wiped off’ or pushed around. 

    From the time he received my note in the morning, until the time he arrived in the studio, there could not have been more than half an hour. I was then challenged with sending a very ‘pertinent’ letter to him: I agreed that it was pertinent, though not impertinent. We argued long and heatedly regarding the merits and economics of business as applied to my demands of payment at the increased rate.  Neither would give in until at last I said “Okay. I couldn’t care less about a few paltry pounds.” “Oh!” said my American friend, “You give in. Well, in that case I’ll pay at the increased value of your salary.”  Such is life...!

    However I’ve never worried too much about money—I feel I’ve never been paid my full value, but there was always enough to live comfortably and send my sons to private schools, and unlike the Shakespearean character I have been as ‘happy’ as—well, not hell—but happy in a job done for the job’s sake, and if I had an Aladdin’s lamp which would work, I’d give it a rub and start all over again.

    It was the practice of Melbourne’s State Theatre when I was employed there, in the 1940s, to have a weekly pep talk with the staff. This kept everyone up to scratch—any small indiscretions or off-the-toes slackness were dealt with at these meetings. Technique in handling crowds and any disgruntled patrons, etc., were discussed, also a very important aspect of what was known as ‘dressing the theatre’. That was a routine the usherettes had to be conversant with when the house was not particularly full. It was a matter of seating the people in such a way that an illusion was created whereby the house looked actually better, number-wise. This applied of course to patrons who did not have reserved seats.

    One afternoon I answered a knock on my office door—a lady was outside and she had a complaint. She had been asked to sit in a seat but had refused. The usherette gave her explanation and I backed her up and took all the responsibility, having of course instructed the girls to do exactly as told. What the usherette did not know, but the lady did, was that the last patron to occupy the seat had been violently ill...!  The lady was—as then—Mrs. Casey, later to be Lady Maie Casey.

    On yet another occasion one of the usherettes came to my office and told me a gentleman wished to see me. I went out to the foyer and found Norman Rydge, the Chairman of Directors of Greater Union Theatres (who has since become Sir Norm), standing at the entrance to the Stalls. He complained that he had been refused entry to the auditorium—the girl on the door would not let him pass because he could not present a ticket. Although he may have been initially annoyed, he would have to acknowledge the effective discipline of the staff. Mr. Rydge made his way through the door, but not before my competent usherette had told him firmly “Put your cigar out please. No smoking is permitted in the auditorium.”

    Another disagreeable aspect of theatre management has now disappeared—I suppose the advent of DDT and better conditions are the reasons. In the days I have been speaking of the theatres were troubled by imports of various crawling, biting little insects—lice and bugs. They were very difficult to control because they could manage to infiltrate inaccessible places—under the arm rests, in the screw holes and such like. I finally devised a means of combating the pests.

    Each night the cleaners would put an envelope of canvas over six rows of seats, starting at a given row and from then on doing the next six rows the following night. Under the seats and the canvas sulphur candles were placed which burned—I did hope this would suffice. We even had the pest exterminators in from time to time, but this was a major operation. After the night’s show they would totally take over, covering all and every seat with huge tarpaulins. Then cyanide was pumped into the theatre—which guaranteed every living thing was dead by the time the tarps were removed. All the doors were opened and the air conditioning turned on at six o’clock the following morning—no-one was allowed in before 9.30 am. Drastic measures indeed!

    A very short time after one of these expensive fumigations I received a complaint from the Health Officer of the Melbourne City Council. A mother had been shocked by the condition of her daughter, after attending the theatre—she had been attacked by some gluttonous bug, and had passed a sleepless night. The inspector who came to see me was very sympathetic, understanding the problem we faced and even giving me a most descriptive reason how it could have happened. He told me how, together with a new man he was training, they had gone to a house in answer to a complaint, one of a row of villas. Knocking on the door of the complainant, and whilst waiting, the next house front door opened and out stepped a very attractive well-dressed girl. The young man said “My company...” And my friend the inspector replied “Very enviable company to take out to dinner and the theatre!”

    After a thorough inspection of the house and the people making the complaint, they were convinced that the bugs were actually coming from the house next door—from which the girl had emerged a few minutes earlier. “So you see,” said the inspector, “how these things can be transported!”

    After all these years I get a kick remembering a document from the Admiralty and associating it with Cicely Courtneidge’s sketch of ‘Reading the Will’ [i.e. ‘Laughing Gas’], where the sum of some small amount like three shillings and four pence-halfpenny was left to an expectant relative. The form I have is headed:

    Naval Prize Fund

    Final Distribution

    Flt.S.Lt.  J.A.Kenyon, R.N.

    The sum of six pounds, 7 shillings and 6 pence

    These stories of mine are, in the main, concerned with the theatre, but having mentioned the Naval Prize Fund, I think it might not be out of place altogether, because of the close association of the masks of comedy and tragedy, to include two episodes, one was comic, the other was tragic. Here I am really turning back the clock, to around the time at the end of the First World War …

    My particular companion on HMS Commonwealth was George Oates, a nephew of that very gallant gentleman who walked to his death from that tent in the Antarctic on the ill-fated Scott Expedition. Before the introduction of oil burners in ships, shipping coal was a business in which all but the ship’s complement, with the exception of the captain and the surgeon, participated. One’s uniform and body became impregnated with coal dust—it was in one’s hair and everyone’s eyes were rimmed with something resembling mascara. Periodically, the bugle sounded, and the commander notified the crew whether plus or minus tons of coal had been shipped. Lunch in the wardroom was as usual, with snow-white tablecloth and napkins. We ate, and when we had finished Oates walked out, without a word to me. I pursued him and after a prolonged silence radiating disapproval I asked “And what’s biting you?” To which Oates replied “You cad! You didn’t use your napkin at the table!” So much for the comedy.

    The mask of tragedy stared me in the face on my return from Stamford Bridge in London, where I had been competing in the Service Sports. I took two lads with me, and we each won an event.  In the long jump I had trained with a Surgeon Lieutenant who was the Champion of Ireland—the Northern Area competitors (that was us)—did their training at Sheffield where I played some rounds of golf with W.W. Wakefield of Castrol Oil. But on my return to Scapa—this is, of course, well before my move to Australia, in fact August, 1919, and at the age of 21—I arrived just as a guest (I do not recollect the name) was departing, which turned into a tragically unfortunate circumstance for Captain Roscoe C. Bulmer, USA Navy, Captain of the Black Hawk, the mother ship of the American Mine Sweepers engaged in clearing the North Sea of enemy mines. The old man, after congratulating me on my win, insisted that his guest return to the wardroom where they would both drink to my health. He would not take “no” for an answer and so they duly returned. It was then 4 in the afternoon, and it was 4 in the morning when he collected his driver, Ensign Nicholls, and was loaded into his Cadillac. Nicholls was an excellent driver, but afterwards he told me he drove his car “along the centre of a rainbow” and was totally unaware of anything being wrong, until the back door noisily parted from its hinges.

    He stopped, looked inside, and was horrified to find the back seat empty. He walked back along the road and eventually found his skipper lying in a ditch. Captain Bulmer was a big man, and it was quite beyond the strength of Ensign Nicholls to get him back into the car. Nicholls, now fully sober, drove like one possessed to the Kirkwall Jetty. He recruited two guards and raced back to where his captain still lay in the ditch. With the help of the other two he got the captain back into the car, after summoning the doctor by signal from the pier, but getting the stretcher by pinnace from the Black Hawk took some time. But it was all to no avail—Captain Bulmer had broken his back in the fall from the car. His body was shipped back to America and we were put out-of-bounds for all American officers. I got the blame—unofficially, of course.

    I have written before of the marked difference in the manifestations of character demonstrated by actors, before and after they pass through the proscenium onto the stage. Two, maybe, are exchanging insults, another is telling the latest joke with his own embellishments, another may be dwelling gloomily on the unhealthy state of his bank balance, and yet another happily meditating on where to spend the weekend. But the moment they pass through the magic portal, they become the heroes or the villains of the play with everything else forgotten.

    During the run of White Horse Inn at Her Majesty’s Theatre (1934), starring Strella Wilson and Sydney Burchell, the usual bantering and laughing was going on between them. Just before his entrance, Burchell capped all that had gone before by saying “Well, here we go! I say, couldn’t we give the customers something quite different?”

    “What do you suggest?” asked Strella Wilson.

    “Well, what about an exhibition …”

    “That would be lovely,” was the calm reply.

    “But what would you do for an encore?”

    Subtlety and coarseness, they both have their place in theatre humour, and an example of the latter was derisively supplied by Clarkson Rose, a very well-known English comedian. After his return to England, at the end of a season with Ernest Rolls, he sent a toilet roll to the stage manager. Printed on its wrapping was the slogan ‘Every time you tear one off, think of me.’ Vulgarity, bathos and pathos all belong to the folk of the theatre.

    IMG 2490 whitehorse inn 1934 strella wilson HMTJosepha (Strella Wilson), the landlady of the White Horse Inn, welcomes Emperor Franz Joseph II (Leslie Victor). View full souvenir program.


  • 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!


  • The Memoirs of J. Alan Kenyon or Behind the Velvet Curtain (Part 5)


    Scenic artist J. ALAN (GEORGE) KENYON’s memoirs continue. In this installment, after taking time out from film work, he returns to the studio where among other things he is tasked with the creation of an underwater reef for the film Lovers and Luggers. Read Part 1» | Read Part 2» | Read Part 3» | Read Part 4»

    J.A.K. of All Trades

    It so happened that I did again forsake the theatre, fairly early on, to take up an entirely different job. I had been introduced to the game of lacrosse by a friend, a Doctor Callister who lived next door to me in Brighton, Melbourne. We did our practice by throwing the ball over the fence to each other. Going out onto the field one afternoon to play a match against one of the senior grade teams, I found myself marking a player who introduced himself as Stanley Myers, and we found time for a chat as the play was not coming our way too often. He was a business-man, running an advertising agency. He asked a lot of questions. How long had I been in Australia, whether I had ever been interstate, did I know many people, etc.? He advanced the opinion that a man should not settle down in the first place at which his ship dropped him. The sensible thing was to see as many of the states and cities as he possibly could, and then decide which appealed to him most as a good place to settle.

    He came forth with a very attractive proposition. He told me he had a vacancy for someone to go up North on his business. As luck happened, it was again a slack period in the theatre and there seemed nothing to prevent me from taking advantage of his offer. Anyhow, I went along to Mr Coleman to get his advice. He agreed that it would suit him if I took some leave right then. So I made arrangements with Mr Myers to commence work for him the following Monday. I was first of all to go on a training tour with him. We drove to Ballarat, and I stood at his elbow whilst he did his ‘sales talk’. There was a great variety of clients—some old, some new and we dealt faithfully with all except one, whom he said was ‘rather difficult’. He said he thought it might be personal antipathy, so suggested I should have a go and see how I worked it out.

    Myers himself was in the top bracket class as a salesman, so I tried to imitate his approach and general manner. Whatever the reason might have been, the ‘difficult client’ listened to my spiel and allowed me to book him up for twelve months. Mr Myers voiced his congratulations and departed forthwith to Melbourne. I was on my own, with a long list of people to interview in a dozen different towns. During the next two weeks the result was better than I had anticipated—evidently the routine I had been at pains to learn, worked. My teacher was very definite about the importance of three things: before approaching a new client, you must get a dossier on him from the local press, who seemed to be always willing to co-operate. You paid particular attention to what was said about the client's business, his background, his solvency and general reputation as a man who settled his debts promptly. The second rule was that you stayed in the best hotel available, in whatever town you were in, and the third was that you always travelled first class on a train.

    I thoroughly enjoyed my coverage of Victoria and New South Wales—I even got as far as Bourke. My figures continued to be quite satisfactory. My last client was one of the original tough guys, so I was jubilant when I booked him up for five years. By this time I was saying to myself “Enough is enough”. So when I returned to Melbourne and was offered the job of going to New Zealand and opening the business there, I turned it down. Instead, I went back to the theatre.

    However, I remained exceedingly grateful to Stanley Myers for putting in my way such a wonderful opportunity of seeing the country, and meeting a lot of Australian people. With all expenses paid.

    For some reason connected with one’s regenerate self, it is always a source of pleasure to remember that one was not found wanting and tongue-tied when it was necessary to make a suitable rejoinder to a hurled insult. Because I was not prepared to ‘play ball’ with a lady, I incurred her very considerable displeasure. Then something happened to persuade her that her enemy was delivered into her hands. We were on location and someone, with an idiot’s sense of humour, hid her handbag. Unfortunately in the bag were the pay envelopes of all the other women. When it had gone long past time for the bag to be returned by the joker, I told her not to worry because it would be sure to turn up, as someone must be playing a practical joke. She was a charming girl—before everyone, with all the dignity she could muster, she opened up with all guns going full blast! 

    “Oh, so now I know,” she said scornfully. “I've wondered about you, what you were before you had this job. I imagine you have a shady past, just a common thief and pickpocket.” My reply “Don't be so damned meretricious.” I wondered a bit grimly if she would have to look up the meaning of the word, and what she would think when she did. We never spoke to each other again and I did not even get an apology when the fool who hid the bag in the first place decided the ‘joke’ had gone on long enough, and confessed to his stupid prank.

    Just to try and set my story straight, as I realize I have jumped around quite a bit, due to memories resurfacing in unexpected places, in 1935 Efftee Films folded, after the death of its founder, Frank Thring. The following year I found myself joining a team at Ken Hall’s Cinesound, along with a newly appointed assistant director, Ronald Whelan, the Australian architect Eric Thompson—who had Hollywood experience, and chief of cinematography George Heath, who had succeeded Frank Hurley, now heading up a new documentary film unit. And in 1936 back projection was being used for the first time, and after an enormous amount of trial and error, somehow we manage to master it. Since I had first moved into motion pictures, in the early 1930s, I found I was able to paint to a standard of detail which was photographable, and get away with it. I painted backgrounds, even buildings, that were filmed from ten or twelve feet, my early training had certainly paid off—with ‘glass shots’ particularly, and also with ‘matting’. When production costs could well be prohibitive with the building of a very elaborate roof or ceiling, the glass was used as a means of getting the result, at very small cost. I shall explain!

    When the walls of the set have been constructed and put up on the sound stage, the camera is placed in position and in front of the camera, at about nine or ten feet, a sheet of optical clear glass of roughly seven by four feet. The procedure from then on is very exacting. Looking through the camera and using the thinnest of silk threads, the vertical lines of the set’s walls are projected upon the glass. Remember, you are looking through a 35mm aperture and one hundredth of an inch error will be magnified enormously upon the screen. When all the lines are marked on the glass, the artist then draws the ceiling or top part of a building, for instance, on the glass, matching exactly to match up with the under structure. It is then painted. With the people on the set, and of course behind the glass and also below any painting, the result can be remarkable—relying on the quality and realism of the painting’s execution.

    Another technique is to matt in on an enlargement such additions as required. This is the routine: the cameraman matts off the top of the film so that having exposed the bottom half, the top half is still unexposed. The scene required may be of a building in another country, or a landscape. In a building scene the walls would be built only sufficiently to be above the heads of the actors. After shooting, an enlargement is made from a frame of the film, which shows the scene with a blank top half. Into this top part is painted whatever is required to complete the building. Landscapes can be altered similarly—very careful drawing and painting is necessary, but it saves much in costs.

    Reverting to 1929, when the Regent Theatre in Collins Street was about to open, Frank Thring (Senior) asked Mr Coleman to lunch. When he came back to the Paint Room at His Majesty’s it had been arranged that I was to take over the scenic department at the Regent. For six months I painted non-stop stage presentations, which got bigger and better, competing with the State Theatre (now the Forum) in Flinders Street—but which eventually were scrapped. I still had six months of my contract to run.

    The manager Bert Cowan (Louise Lovely was his wife) asked me to colour some photographs of the banners in the Plaza Theatre. Asking why, I was told they were to be sent to America for reproduction of similar banners for the New Plaza Theatre in Sydney. Saying that there were artists in Australia who were very capable of the execution of these, I requested the cost of getting one made, with the idea of painting it myself. It was agreed and I had a banner made and I painted a knight on a white charger with a castle background. Bert Cowan didn’t believe it, because the original banners had been executed by a famous studio in America. It was shown to Mr Thring who immediately said “You paint them for Sydney Plaza!” They hang in the theatre today.

    With the completion of this job, Frank Thring suggested that perhaps I would like to manage a theatre—and that is how I was made assistant manager of the Gardiner Theatre in South Camberwell. One very hot night I was standing outside, getting a little of the slight breeze that had come with a change, and one of the supervisors caught me in this ‘frightful disregard for the rules’. He started to remonstrate, but before he got too far I told him I had the last word in the matter. He disputed this until I made it quite clear that I hadn’t really wanted the job and that I had resigned. I left and went home.

    Shortly after I joined John and William Rowell at Luna Park, where we were involved in the rush production of a Luna Park for Adelaide. All the animals, props, etc. were made in Melbourne, and I painted all the lions, tigers, polar bears and suchlike. When construction of the site was ready in Adelaide we went over to supervise the building of the caves and other departments. Anyway, the park was eventually finished and opened, but it was not a financial success and was dismantled and shipped to Sydney, where it was re-erected and still operates.

    Perhaps my time sequencing may be at fault but it was back to the theatre then, but to make moving pictures. His/Her Majesty's Theatre in Exhibition Street in Melbourne had been burnt out. Efftee Films (Frank Thring) took over and the first production was Co-respondents Coursewith John D’Arcy and Elaine Hamill. It was followed by The Haunted Barnwhich had Brett Randall, of St Martin’s Theatre, in the cast, along with several other old timers. Then came Pat Hanna’s Diggers(1931) and Diggers in Blighty(1933). For the latter I had my first experience of making a model which was actually to be used on location. This was erected in front of the camera and then merged into the unmade road. With a deploy of troops moving up this road, my ruins and the models of a bombed church and dwellings were really quite effective.Arthur Higgins the camera-man did some very successful running matt shots.

    After the Diggerfilms, we made, I think, four with George Wallace. His Royal Highness(1932), Harmony Row(1933), Ticket in Tatts(1934),etc.—they may not have been top Hollywood class but they were damned funny and when shown the audience thoroughly enjoyed them.

    In 1937 we made a film called Lovers and Luggers—often referred to as Buggers and Boats—a story of pearling luggers. The exterior sequences were concerned with four or five luggers lying ready to set out for the oyster fields. Shooting—always dependent on the weather—was held up by the sun sulking behind clouds. Everything got behind, including the underwater scenes, which we had arranged to shoot in an Olympic Pool. Because of the delays, by the time we got around to these shots, summer had come and the pool was open to the public—consequently full of swimmers and bodies. This was the reason for the decision to build a tank in the studio. It was quite a big one—thirty feet square—and unfortunately I allowed myself to be talked out of what I believed to be a necessary addition—some sort of filtering system. When the tank was half full of tap water, it became evident that shooting scenes in it was impossible: penetration was practically nil!

    It was suggested by someone that sea water could be the answer—it was very clear. Remember—I had wanted to filter the tap water. To transport the sea water to the studio, we hired a petrol wagon, and at the end of the day it suddenly dawned on me that I had a problem. What to do—leave the sea water in the tank overnight or pump it out of the tanker into our tank? Whichever I did—the inside of the tanker would rust—so we emptied the water into the tank. Sure enough, next morning, the inside of the tanker was rusty and useless for further transporting of water—or anything else! So, another rush job, making a wooden tank which was fitted to a lorry. It was something like 14 feet by 4 feet by 3 feet. This was trundled backwards and forwards to the sea and the tank gradually filled to the required level. And - when it was full we could see right through those thirty feet. Of course everyone was happy and arrangements were made to shoot the underwater scenes the following morning.

    Alas, next morning when I looked through the glass windows the water was as opaque as the previous tap water had been—but instead of a murky colour, it was a nice green. The infinitely small marine-life had grown again and again the works were clogged up. A little knowledge of chemistry helped: I made a solution of magnesium sulphate (Epsom Salts) and sodium carbonate and when this was thrown into the tank of sea water it formed a layer of ‘snowflakes’ which gradually sank, taking with it all the impurities in the water to the bottom. We could again see right through to the other side of the tank.

    Everything was set—arrangements for the divers to come in tomorrow—our troubles would be over. They were —until next morning when the divers entered the tank when they, of course, stirred up all the sludge on the bottom. It was hopeless! Another fiasco and I’m left again ‘holding the baby’—what do we do now?

    I was very dogmatic—scrap the tank and cut our losses—because without a filter it was useless persevering. So back to the original location—the Olympic Pool. I went out to see the Manager of the baths—he was a retired Navy man. It was a long argument for the baths were open and it was not anyone’s intention to close down so that we could use the pool. After all kinds of suggestions, the Manager was persuaded to rope off half of the baths, giving us use of the deep end. Then another major problem presented itself! Somehow I had to build a thirty by forty foot platform and get it to the bottom of the pool. The only entrance to the venue was a standard doorway and no space for building on the surrounding edges of the pool.

    I remember going back to the studio, sitting quietly and thinking out the possible ways and means of doing this particular job. It came eventually—I located the architect and borrowed the plans of the pool from him. We drew on the studio floor the curved bottom of the section and from this drawing, ‘legs’ were made to fit the shape of the pool floor to the height required—ten of them thirty foot long. These would go through the door and together with planks, rocks, etc. they were transported to the site. Before putting the legs into the water, a sandbag was tied to the end of the central leg which ensured that the leg would float upright. All the legs were placed in the pool and tied off at equal intervals along the side. Then with a dinghy, the other ends were evenly and similarly spaced. The planks were then placed on the upright floating legs, the tarpaulin then stretched over this platform and the rock pieces put into position. From the dinghy we emptied dozens of bags of sand onto the platform so that it gradually sank, and eventually when the sand equalled the buoyancy, it came to rest gently on the bottom of the pool. The set was then dressed, the fish dumped in and the camera bell lowered into position.

    All the shots with the divers, including the fight underwater, were photographed—all had been successfully completed. It was then that the director, Ken Hall , had an additional—not in the script—shot he wanted. He would like a shot of a completely flat sea bed, minus the rock pieces. I explained that the rocks were holding the platform on the bottom and without them the whole thing would float to the top. Well, he insisted—so I was to try and give it to him. I sought the help of the divers who, when I explained the idea to them were by no means happy, but would do their best to help. I suggested that they went below and with the greatest care, try to manoeuver the rock pieces off the platform, but so that they caught on the edge of it and held it down.

    They went into the water and I got into the dinghy so that I could watch from above. They staggered along with the first rock and moved it to the edge where it held the platform down, but they were out of luck with the next, and the next—then things did happen... The platform started on its see-saw journey to the surface—the cameraman left his camera and dashed up to the top of the bell—the divers were lying flat on their backs, their air-pipes and life-lines all a-tangle. My dinghy overturned and I got shot into the churned up mess of sand, seaweed and fish. But, within minutes the crew had the divers on shore and their helmets off—only slightly ruffled.

    When all the excitement was over, I looked around, but everybody apart from my crew, had silently stolen away. It took a long time to dismantle the platform, clear the rocks from the bottom of the pool and then clean up the mess on the pool floor which was thick with sand and dead fish. This the divers did with a vacuum cleaner. I would like to mention that the filtration plant of these particular baths was constructed of many tanks of different sands, coarse to fine, and the water pumped through them at the rate of 12,000 gallons per hour. It took at least six hours of pumping and filtering for the water to be sufficiently clear for shooting underwater. After that it would start to cloud up.

    Late that night my dinner was interrupted by the Assistant Director, Ron Whelan, phoning to say—the set as intended was wanted for nine o’clock next morning. After a few seconds, I told him the pool was cleaned up, everything had been dismantled and was back in the studio. I then rang off and continued by delayed dinner.

    We faked the shots in the studio with miniature divers in a tank. Because there was acting on board a pearling lugger, I had built a full-size one in the studio. This was to be wheeled in front of the rear projection screen where action on the lugger was to be photographed. During the move onto the sound stage, things started to happen. Trying to economize, I had used sets of cheaper castors, and these were too flimsy to cope with the weight and one by one they collapsed, until the lugger was sitting flat on the stage. It was quite a job to lift that whole boat up, using jacks, and to then replace the castors with more expensive but much stronger ones. So much for false economy.


  • The Memoirs of J. Alan Kenyon or Behind the Velvet Curtain (Part 6)


    In this installment of his memoirs, scenic artist J. ALAN (GEORGE) KENYON  returns to the theatre, painting sets for David N. Martin and J.C. Williamson Ltd., and trying to appease the likes of Robert Morley and Edouard Borovansky. Read Part 1» | Read Part 2» | Read Part 3» | Read Part 4» | Read Part 5»

    Tempers and Temperaments

    When david N. Martin opened the Minerva Theatre in Sydney, I was with him as designer and scenic artist. I designed and painted Room for Two (1940)—described in one paper as ‘one of those gaily furnished bedrooms—so seductive in tone as to seem almost wicked. One cannot imagine anyone of aggressive respectability being comfortable in it for a moment, but the people in the play are not exactly that’. (H.A. Standish) Some other shows were Reunion in Vienna (1941), By Candlelight and Design for Living (1941), and for this last named the script took us from a garret studio to the respectability of a Bloomsbury boarding house. The last scene was a modern interior and David Martin and I did not see quite eye to eye over this—he said it was not sufficiently modern. Very portentously he said ‘In that box on Saturday night will be sitting a man whose ideas are extremely modern. In fact they are “avant garde” as far as any other playwright is concerned.’ He was talking about Noel Coward—it was, of course, his own play.

    It was my argument that if I did modernize the scene in the boarding house, it would not contrast enough with the last scene in the way it should. I added that I very much doubted whether Noel Coward would appreciate it if I did modernize a run-down London Adams interior which, left as it was, was easily recognised as such. Anyhow, I won the argument and later Mr. Coward expressed himself as perfectly happy with the sets.

    We had another disagreement over a particular colour in the set of Reunion in Vienna. This scene had necessarily to be a very elaborate salon with panels of figures and lots of Baroque ornamentation. A certain lady who ran an interior decoration shop supplied all the furniture for the show, which we hired. It was David’s expressed opinion that one colour was not in harmony with the tapestry of her settee. I refused to paint the colour out and told her it would be much easier to change the settee, even if it meant reupholstering it in different fabric. So the battle raged back and forth, each of us refusing to budge from our entrenched positions. Then David entered the lists—he told me I was acting like a temperamental actress. This was too much—so I grinned and surrendered.

    At this time I had a very young girl assistant in the paint room. I gave her the job of drawing the figures in the panels. and how rapidly and beautifully they were drawn. Today, Lesbia Thorpe is best known for her printmaking. She has exhibited her work at the Royal Academy.

    One of David Martin’s chief attributes was his wide knowledge of advertising. He was extremely able in ‘putting it over’ effectively. During the time I was with him, I came in for my share of the publicity and in fact, was given as much as the producer. The first time I was made aware of this I was so startled I nearly lost control of my car. I was driving past the stadium in Rushcutter's Bay at the time and my eye was irresistibly attracted to not one, but two, 24-sheeters over the entrance to the stadium. In the traffic I only had a split second to concentrate on what I saw—my own name in huge letters. On my return journey I pulled into the opposite side and allowed this startling sight to sink in. I was extremely bewildered, but very happy and most amused—I could only think that someone had goofed, and I profoundly hoped that the mistake would not be rectified (or at least, not too quickly). I wanted to have a little time to wallow in my glory. On these 24-sheeters, which are the largest of the posters, was the title of the show Room for Two and underneath, in twelve inch letters, was proclaimed ‘Produced by Gerald Kirby and Directed by J. Alan Kenyon’. I supposed the writer had misread 'Decor' for an abbreviation of ‘Director’. Anyhow, there it was, and there it remained, not only for Room for Two but for all the other shows I did at Minerva. The denouement came many months later.

    David Martin gave me the script of a show called French for Love. After carefully going over it I designed the set. It was an outdoor scene in the courtyard of a French chateau. The set was constructed and painted; but there was no word of rehearsals, and no production date was named. Then, one day, intrigued by this odd situation, I asked David what was happening to the show. It was an extremely entertaining comedy, with a very exciting plot and would, I firmly believed, have packed them in for a long season. His answer was evasive—'I'm not sure,’ he said, ‘It must be superlatively done and I don’t know if (mentioning an actress by name) she is strong enough. I doubt very much if she could play the part successfully and also, I’m afraid it is rather out of Gerry’s field.’ He continued with very heavy sarcasm, ‘Of course you have been directing the shows for so long, perhaps you could take over the production.’

    I first made Borovansky’s acquaintance in 1946 when he directed his company in the dance sequences for Ivor Novello’s musical play The Dancing Years. This was some time before I became more involved with the Borovansky Ballet Company in the early 1950s. He undoubtedly put Australian ballet in a top class and even his enemies, of whom I possibly was one, could not deny him an accolade for that. It was unfortunate that his personality was so unattractive—he had the disposition of being always ready and willing to pick a fight with anyone over anything at any time. Like most people who came in contact with him, I had my share of trouble. It arose from a perfectly simple situation which anyone but Boro could have resolved quite easily.

    London’s Joseph Carl was the original designer for The Dancing Years, but George Upward, along with myself, Cecil Newman and assistants, and one of my sons during his school holidays, were all working on the very elaborate sets. Boro yelled at my son, bawling ‘Hey you painter—get off the stage!’ ‘Are you talking to me?’ asked John. He was ordered again very summarily to get off the stage. But John answered ‘I'm sorry, but I have been told to paint this balustrade (which was at the very back of the stage in any case) and I’m going to finish the job.’ And finish it he did! Boro of course marked him down for further trouble. One of his less charming traits was his vindictiveness—he never forgot or forgave even a fancied slight. He could not endure any brooking of his imperious will. So he accused John of whistling in the paint room during a performance—at the Theatre Royal in Sydney the paint room is at the back of the stage. John was assisting Bill Constable who did much of the painting for Boro. When taking up the frame with a winch, one of the pulleys squeaked. ‘What do you mean by whistling during a performance?’ he snarled at the boy. ‘I was not whistling,’ said John. ‘I tell you, you were!’ Boro insisted, with some added abuse. John then threatened him with a punch on the nose. The result was Boro complained to the management—they refused to take the matter seriously but told me to keep John out of Boro’s road in future. The boy’s defiant attitude had actually been provoked by Boro’s very shabby treatment of one of the girls.

    From that time on, I was in his black books with a vengeance. Boro knew every spiteful trick in the book—he was probably responsible for the inclusion of many of them. No matter how trifling the matter, he blew it up if it could possibly cause me trouble. When I designed and painted a new Swan Lake (Act Two) in 1954, he at once expressed himself as dissatisfied with the sky of the backcloth. He asserted that it was slightly too dark and he wished it to be altered. On the next inspection he considered it to be too light, and he was only satisfied when he had had the sky changed three times, when he reluctantly gave his approval.

    Then one day when I was in the Director’s office and had just remarked that ‘although no one wanted any trouble, if Boro looked sideways at me I was going to let him have it’, he came mincing in, making some derogatory remark about me not being on hand when he telephoned. Enough is enough, and I took a deep breath. When I had finished my oratory, M. Borovansky was literally shaking with rage. I was sufficiently detached from my outburst to become quite objective and to note that he was quivering like a jelly. I reminded him of his infantile persecution over the Swan Lake backcloth, which I told him had never actually been changed, knowing that his objection to the colour had no real basis but was the result of purely personal spite. I had never repainted that cloth at any time. I was sorry that the altercation had to take place in the Director’s office but Boro’s spiteful habit of pin-pricking and of bringing personalities into the business made working with him too much of a liability. I detest scrapping with anyone and have to consider myself in the last ditch before I decide to take up arms.

    There is no doubt there is a great variation in people's temperaments. There was the case of technician Jack Kingsford Smith—a scrap of any kind was meat and drink to him.  One time I passed the office of the General Manager of a film unit and issuing from it were the unmistakable sounds of combat. Abuse was being shuttled back and forth between the belligerents. In a few minutes the identity of the combatants was made plain by the emergence of Jack Kingsford Smith, wearing all the outward signs of victory.  Rubbing his hands, he said, with a triumphant beaming smile, ‘Cripes, I enjoyed that!’ As the philosophers truly remark, ‘It takes all sorts’, or if one recalls the Latin tag ‘De gustibus non est disputandum’!

    Before the restaurant became known as Mario’s, Poppa Becker had established himself at the tavern opposite Her Majesty’s in Melbourne. As Mine Host, Poppa was a well-known character in Melbourne’s cafe society. His home had been in Vienna and he always wore what a well-dressed Viennese gentleman would wear, he was sartorial perfection. He sported a trilby and spats, and had a beard which resembled the tail of a partridge, divided in the centre and then carefully brushed to the sides. We had a brush in the paint room which was divided exactly like Poppa’s beard and someone stuck a paper trilby on the handle to further the resemblance to the genial maître d’hotel. Poppa Becker lived to the ripe old age of eighty plus. He was often heard attributing his long life and good health to good wine, and his many theatrical friends.

    Then there was Fasoli’s cafe in Lonsdale Street, founded in 1897, and a mecca for artists, journalists and writers during the early years of the century. The walls were lavishly decorated with signed samples of the artists who frequented the establishment. Rather than washing up, some poverty-stricken artists painted for their suppers - no one was ever denied this privilege. At least that is how the story ran.

    There was once a Lord Mayor of Melbourne who ventured as far as the paint room. He was a sufferer of gallstones and having no mind for surgery, he drank gallons of olive oil which he thought would keep his condition under control. During one visit he expounded what he considered to be a brand new theory to do with making money. It was to go into business and supply gravel for road making. We considered that, with such an off-beat sense of humour, he might have a future as a comic and make some money that way. Another character who had apparently frequented the paint room was John Ford Paterson, the artist. He used to say about scene painting ‘It's not art. It’s mechanical contrivance.’

    The following is a story of a well-rehearsed reply to a demand for an explanation—something which I had fully expected. The play was Edward My Son (1949). Some of the sets were painted in Melbourne by me, and some in Sydney by Bill Constable. The show opened in Sydney and was then to open here in Melbourne. By some mismanagement, the railway truck from Albury—with the scenes on board—got shunted to a siding at Montague. To make matters worse, the tarpaulin came adrift, it rained for days, and when we at last got the scenes to the theatre, we were aghast at the mess we were presented with.  Everything was completely saturated, flats which had been packed face to face had become glued together and when we separated them found that the image on one had been transferred to the other. It was a frightful job to get them into some sort of presentable shape—by the fast approaching opening night.

    There was one particular scene which had been painted in Sydney by Constable, and much beloved by the producer. When the stage manager arrived and was shown the extent of the disaster, he expressed his amazement at the result of my efforts to reproduce this particular interior. I did not know whether he meant what he said, or whether he was simply deriving some enjoyment by watching my discomfiture. However, I accepted his assumption that ‘His Lordship, the Producer’ would really hit the roof when he saw the transformation of his favourite set into what I had done my best to restore.

    Because the flats and wings had been stuck together most of the paintwork on them had been lost. The ornament of this French bedroom set was absolutely non-existent. I had to scrape off one side, put thick colour on the other, stipple and repaint. In my mind at least the result was satisfactory, I had quite honestly considered we had done an excellent job. The set had appeared damp and water-stained and altogether dilapidated when we saw it first, but when the mouldings were repainted the whole scene looked to be what it was supposed to represent. But the stage manager continued to needle me, assuring me that ‘His Lordship’ would never in this world accept it as a substitute for the glory it had been. By this time, I was completely fed up because of all the trouble and worry—and the many late hours—this extra work had given me. I was prepared to do battle—I was quite determined that I would have my say and that if there was any unpleasantness, it would not be altogether one-sided. So I awaited the arrival of 'His Lordship' with a large-sized chip on my shoulder, going over my lines like an actor, what I was going to say—I was word perfect. By the way, the gentleman happened to be Robert Morley.

    When at last he actually did arrive, we began the customary procedure of going through each scene, the props and the lighting. The curtain was lowered on each scene until it was set and then raised so that the producer could see the scene from the stalls. I had my speech fully rehearsed and when the fatal moment arrived and the bedroom set was about to be revealed, vowed to myself that I would not retract a word. Everyone was in front and when the curtain went up, there was complete silence. Then Robert Morley, in his most peremptory voice, asked ‘And who painted the set out?’ No one answered, but every face turned to me. Then Frank Tait stepped into the breach and explained ‘George Kenyon did his best with the mess it was in when it arrived from Sydney.’ I opened my mouth to say my piece but failed to get started because Mr. Morley was speaking. ‘It is much better than it was originally.’ For a few minutes I did not know whether I felt deflated or inflated!

    Brigadoon (1951) and South Pacific (1952) were two shows I completely re-designed. The producer of the former (James McGregor Jamieson) was quite definitely not afflicted with false egoism. He informed us that he had danced as one of the ballet in the American production. He was an excellent producer and played a leading part in the show. Actually the show stayed on an even keel from the opening night until the last performance.

    When he arrived from America he wished to see, quite understandably, what we had done. We lowered the cloths and other scenery for him to inspect, and I heaved a sigh of relief when he gave his unqualified approval by saying ‘Now you have really given us something—we can really be seen.’ He went on to say that the American production had mauve and yellow skies, also a lot of bright reds and greens, and on the stage the kilts of the performers just faded into the scenery. I was of course gratified to hear him say that he liked my treatment much more.

    The producer of South Pacific, Charles Atkin, had a completely different personality. When he arrived the models were all made and set out in the paint room. This is the moment of truth for the set designer and painter! Frank Tait brought him up to the room and made the introductions and he and the producer walked slowly along inspecting the models I had constructed. Nobody uttered a word and in spite of my efforts to appear detached and give a convincing display of sang-froid, I began to sweat. Then the producer broke the silence by announcing ‘Well, when I get back to America, I shall tell ‘so-and-so’ he hasn't a clue how to design scenery.’ This speech had the effect of increasing my confusion, because for the life of me I could not decide whether he meant it as a compliment or it was just his way of being sarcastic.

    Anyway, the scenery was made from my models and it was duly painted. At regular intervals the producer, who turned out to be a very nice person, came up into the paint room. He generally had some comment to pass—‘You must love palm trees,’ he remarked one day. ‘As a matter of fact, I loathe the things. I must have painted thousands of fronds!’ I answered. The house I had designed was, to my way of thinking, quite suitable for the Frenchman who was one of the leading characters in the play. I had decided on a style of architecture which I felt would follow the lines of this particular character’s taste—Emile, a cultured Frenchman—I gave it a suggestion of French as well as jungle construction. I considered it had to appear sufficiently solid to enable it to weather monsoons and tropical storms. When speaking, Mr. Atkin never lost a certain bantering way he had. ‘What a truly magnificent house,’ he exclaimed, gazing in mock admiration at my structure. He continued with this kind of badinage right through the entire period of production.

    On the final rehearsal night, he informed me in a frightfully condescending manner that he thought the scenery was ‘very good’. Somewhat piqued, I made a reply both adequate and dignified—I told him that if the scenery was really atmospheric to the needs of the play and did not intrude, but was subservient to the actors, then I was happy and satisfied, had simply done my job and did not look for any applause. Maybe that was the reason why, on opening night, I never received any. After the curtain calls the producer thanked everyone, but failed to mention the scenery. Next day I went on holidays, as I had some leave owing. When I returned and duly reported to Frank Tait, he let me know about the thanks and best wishes for a successful season left behind by the producer of South Pacific. After making his farewells, he left the office, but as he went through the door turned around and said ‘Oh, and by the way, he said to tell George Kenyon that his production makes the New York show simply look shoddy.’ He was a funny man.

    In Brigadoon there was a tree cut-cloth. This is a cloth that is painted with foliage, branches and trunks. When the painting is finished, the portions between the foliage etc. are marked for cutting out. At that time, I had a most efficient pupil and I showed him what to do with the cloth and left him to it. He really was efficient—he marked that cloth for cutting until it looked for all the world like lace. Then it was removed from the frame and carried to the workshop beneath. When it was opened up on the floor, the boys gazed at it in astonishment.

    I was in the paint room, very busy painting, when one of the lovable characters from the workshop came up into my work space. Walking straight up to me, and towering over me by about twelve inches, he said quite simply, ‘Kenyon, you bastard!’ Then he walked out.

    They did cut every small marked piece of that cloth, and the result was really something. Personally, I would hate to have been responsible for such a job, lacking the time, the patience and the audacity. My pupil possessed an ample supply of all three. Eventually, he decided to leave me, and I considered I had wasted four years of my time. He finished up teaching art at a secondary school.



  • The Memoirs of J. Alan Kenyon or Behind the Velvet Curtain (Part 7)


    In late 1936, production started on Tall Timbers, Ken G. Hall’s tenth feature for Cinesound. J. ALAN (GEORGE) KENYON  recalls some of the incidents surrounding the making of the film in this instalment of his memoirs. Read Part 1» | Read Part 2» | Read Part 3» | Read Part 4» | Read Part 5» | Read Part 6»

    George Pulls the Strings; or, TIMBERRRRRR!!!!!

    For the Ken Hall film Tall Timbers (Cinesound, 1936) Frank Hurley was responsible for the storyline, Frank Harvey was the screenwriter (and actor) and George Heath was the Director of Photography. The script called for a Timber Drive and the location chosen was thirty miles or so outside Gloucester, in New South Wales.

    Viewing a small mountain that appeared thickly covered with big trees, we agreed it should be ideal for the purpose. The Production Manager was to engage sufficient men to cut away all the scrub and small trees, leaving, we hoped, only the big ones to give us our Timber Drive. On our drive out of Gloucester to this location, called Craven Plateau, we came upon an extensive plain in the middle of which radiated five tracks. Not knowing which one to take we stayed put until we saw a puff cloud of dry track made by a car coming over the hill. We sat and waited. Eventually a car, an old model Ford, pulled up at our outstretched hands. You may believe it or not, but from that moment hysteria overtook the five of us in the car.

    As the old Ford stopped, we saw the exact duplicate of Bert Bailey’s Dad Rudd at the wheel. He switched off the engine, put his head on his hand at the wheel and apparently fell asleep. From the car then stepped Fred McDonald’s representation of Dave. With not a word spoken, our car was trembling with the suppressed laughter of five people nearly in convulsions. It must have been market day—Dave was dressed up.  He took off his porkpie hat and the effect was staggering. Dave had his hair plastered down with grease, brushed forward and then up in a quaff. He was cross-eyed and sported a Clark Gable moustache, a butterfly collar with a shoe-string tied in a bow. I for some reason was still able to speak—the others were nonplussed. I asked the way to Craven Plateau.

    “Well,” said Dave, “Yer take that track. Yer go a mile or so and y’ come to a gate. Don’t worry about shuttin’ it, it’s been off its ‘inges for years. The next gate y’ come to y’ won’t have to shut—it’s open with a dead cow jammed up against it. Another mile or so y’ go through another gate. Be careful of that one, I did me courtin’ on it. Another one has a bit of history—old man O’Malley swallowed his false teeth tryin’ to open it one day—he choked.”

    So did I at this point, and I have never been able to put together the remainder of Dave’s descriptions of the other gates to be encountered on the way to Craven Plateau. As Dad and Dave drove off, there was an explosion of laughter from our car. It was ill-mannered but it was also one of the funniest things that ever happened: and we had discovered our Dad and Dave in real life.

    Returning to the Timber Drive, I went to the location a few days before the unit was to leave to make sure everything was ready for shooting. After climbing the very steep hill and arriving breathlessly at the top, I could only second the conclusion of the foreman of the timber-cutters that there could not be a Timber Drive. The trees, when revealed after the cutting away of all the small ones and the undergrowth, were so far apart that the drive was impossible. On phoning Sydney, I was dismayed to hear that the unit was already on its way.

    We did not attempt the Drive but we felled, dynamited, etc. many individual trees and got some magnificent shots which were later of great use in the film. To take these shots was a precarious job for after we had set off the explosive, the tree had not always fallen. As we proceeded through the forest, one would hear a crack or a creak and look around wondering which tree, and which way the erring monster would fall, and would we be clear. They were big trees. One gigantic mahogany we had put six charges of dynamite around the base and it was still standing. Some trees persisted to lean at a dangerous angle but to not fall, but we got all we wanted of trees crashing. And we had to have a Timber Drive, and, being the Art Director and Special Effects, it fell to me to produce one. No sapling or small tree will deputize for a two-hundred foot Black Butt, so they had to be manufactured. Lorry loads of small trees and branches were collected from the bush and in the studio we went to work building tapering trunks from many pieces, attaching branches to them—making miniature trees four feet high to represent two-hundred foot ones! Eventually a few hundred trees had been created. For foliage I sliced up small sponges which I had dyed various strengths of green and attached them to the trees’ branches. To the camera they resembled branches of eucalyptus leaves.

    Next, a platform eighty feet long by thirty was built at an angle of about thirty degrees. This was dressed with undergrowth, boulders and a small waterfall. The trees with a scar cut in them were then fixed on the ramp, spaced so that each row when falling would hit the one below—the domino effect. Each tree had a wire attached and this wire, with five other wires, led to a single one which, in its turn, was made fast to a lever. A series of levers each side of the platform would control the felling of the trees. In addition, each lever had a length of cord attached to the next one to be certain—as calculated—that when one row of trees had been pulled down, the next row would fall.

    When it came to it, the miniature trees would not of course fall naturally and the requirements of slow-motion photography had to be worked out for speed purposes.

    On each side of the platform a slide had been built and this was to take a toboggan with cameraman and camera riding down, photographing the trees from the side as they fell. Eventually the job was finished—all trees in position, wires checked, the slides greased and the cameras and operators in position. There were ten slow-motion cameras in use. Any rehearsal was out—it had to be right the first time. With a final check we gave the okay, and the Director gave the words—“Cameras—action!”

    The explosion of the top row of trees—called King trees—was the signal to start pulling the levers. The toboggans were released down the slides. In six or eight seconds the weeks of work lay in a tangled mess. This was all a fake, but on the screen it was a magnificent spectacle with the individual trees added and a separate shot of some larger modelled trees crushing all about it. It was all worth the headache and the painstaking work of playing Mother Nature and creating trees.

    The film got rave notices from the Press, one critic going so far as to add “Nothing to surpass this has come out of Hollywood.” A letter of complaint was published by an indignant timber-cutter who, stating he had been cutting down trees all his life, was very critical and deplored deceiving the public into believing hardwood timber could be crashed by a drive—but he never mentioned that it had been faked!

    Other incidents I recall from the time: the camera I had been using was at the top of a hill. When the day’s shooting was over, I sent one of the boys up to cover the camera up for the night. Sitting down to dinner—I remember it was good Captain Salmon that the cook had turned into a fish stew—awful—and it was evident that one of the crew was missing. It was the chappie I had sent up the mountain.  There was absolutely no hiding place in the uninhabited and dilapidated hut in which we were dining. We finished our meal, having decided to give Tommy Dalton another half hour, but still he failed to materialize. So, as it was dark by this time, we had to organize a search party and go find him.

    First going to the timber-cutters’ camp, we told them of a man lost. The foreman was an ex-soldier with a Distinguished Conduct Medal, and had left a leg in France. He assured us that there was no need to worry, we’d find Tommy okay. He got a torch and we fell in behind him, arriving at the starting point, the place where I’d sent Dalton up the hill. Flashing his torch on the ground now and again, we made progress by the clues only he, the old bushman, could see. We kept up a yell and a coo-wee/coo-ee when after half an hour we heard a return shout. The foreman said “He’s in the creek!” Losing his way, Dalton had reasoned that the creek meandered past the camp, therefore, if he followed it he would come out eventually at the camp. It was a very hot night and Tommy had stripped off for a cooler and when we found him—in the beam of the torch—he was frantically trying to pluck off hundreds of blood-sucking leeches that had nearly totally covered his naked body. We were all very sorry for him, but he had given us a lot of trouble—although it did break the monotony of one night.

    These timber-cutters are a valiant breed of men, usually skinny, but with unlimited stamina and energy to swing an axe all day without showing tiredness—no job for weaklings. I stared at the lunches which they drew out of their sugar sacks at midday—the bread of their sandwiches was an inch thick and the filling a great slab of meat. On the last day of shooting we had sent the lorry into Gloucester for a cask of beer—this was for the timber men. When we were packing up we sent it over to them and the last we saw of it was balanced over a head, with the last dregs dripping into a mouth.

    All packed up and ready to move off, we started on the journey back to town and our next location at Stroud, where we were to take shots of the timber mill in action. As we started off, every timberman mounted his pony—consequently they were all just ahead of us on the one-way bullock track.  They cantered ahead, we were behind in a cavalcade, until after a mile of slow progress we tooted the horn. The horsemen moved over to the side—but not the safe side—over to the edge of a five hundred foot drop. I don’t suppose anyone has ever seen a display of horsemanship to equal that last run before they were passed.

    Bareback—everyone of them—with rope halters and their sugar sacks slung over their shoulders, they rode the edge of that track at the gallop and in single file. I am still convinced that only two of each horse’s legs were on the ground—the other two were thrashing the air over the edge!

    To conclude, an episode—which still gives me a belly laugh—occurred during the filming of what was intended to be the Timber Drive described earlier. We had engaged a cook for the camp, a nice, polite young man with no knowledge at all of the culinary arts. As I have explained, the Drive was the most ghastly failure and when this had been proved beyond all doubt, and we were all dismally surveying the wreckage, each occupied with his own gloomy thoughts, a small polite voice cut across the silence. “Shall I serve afternoon tea now, sir?” piped up the cook. With an explosive “Christ!” Ken Hall took off his hat and, reminiscent of a well-known sea captain named Kettle, jumped on it. He was heard to mutter “God forgive me for what I am thinking.”

    IMG 0729 Tall Timbers 2 bigger


  • The Memoirs of J. Alan Kenyon or Behind the Velvet Curtain (Part 8)


    In Part 8 of J. ALAN KENYON’s memoirs, he recalls (among other things) working on the 1940 epic film Forty Thousand Horsemen, the story of Australian Light Horsemen, directed by Charles Chauvel.

    We'll Give It a Go, Mate!

    The teahouse of the august moon (1956) had sets which were quite complicated and heavy. When it went on tour, it cost so much in transport and time that I was asked if I could reduce the sets without losing the spectacle. I first scrapped all those that had been built, then painted them on the flat, and was very gratified when I was told they looked better that way. This might possibly have been so, but the important thing, and this is very much so from a business angle, the costs for transport and erection were infinitesimal compared with the original costs. Maybe that fact gave a valeur de la rose to the statement that the appearance of the sets had improved. Incidentally, the man in charge of the transportation and building of the sets, after it had left Sydney, rushed to Newcastle for the opening. There he had a heart attack and died on his way home. Percy Reid was a fine and conscientious member of the profession.

    Perhaps this is the right place to mention some of the real people of the theatre who received no fanfares, no curtain calls, but who gave everything they had to the theatre. They were humble people, but they had a gallantry and high spirit all their own. One of these was an old property man named Bill Lincoln, who had an accident falling from a high rostrum, injuring his feet so badly that they were permanently deformed into little more than stumps. To make matters worse, he insisted on continuing to do his job, thereby ruining any hope there was of his feet healing into normal shapes. He helped set out props, crawling on his knees, dragging his mutilated feet behind him whilst they were still in bandages.

    Another property man was Bill Richards. He suffered from lumbago and when he was in the throws of a severe attack, which made any bending exceedingly painful, he would get one of his boys to tie a length of board up his back and around his thighs. Which meant he was prevented from bending and his part of the show could go on.

    One of the electricians truly had the sense of humour William Locke has described as the ‘bubble on the cup of courage’. This man, another Bill, surname Hunt, had undergone a major operation for cancer. Directly he was out of hospital he was back at the theatre and on the job again, and never missed a day—until the end came. It must have taken a lot of guts for him to say at the end of one particular night’s performance ‘Well boys, you’d better get your two bobs ready’. He died two days later.

    Another electrician, Reg Jones, who never missed a day or a performance, had the worst kind of heart trouble. It never prevented him from rushing home at 5 pm and back again at 7.30, although he was head of his department. I remember saying ‘Cheerio’ to him one lunch hour as he was off to Adelaide. He arrived there, but in the middle of greeting his conferees/confreres he dropped dead.

    These are the unsung heroes of the theatre. I wonder—does any other job have such a hold on its servants …. My old master, William R. Coleman (1864-1932), in hospital with a cancer just removed from his throat, had only one worry. ‘I must get out of here soon. I have Waltzes from Vienna to paint, and it is only a month to opening night.’ He never saw the opening night and George Upward was the one to paint those sets. It is not easy to understand so much devotion beyond and above the call of duty. There is no glory attached to it, and not much money; but there it is. If one is bred in the tradition of the theatre, one is irrevocably of it!

    I have never been conscious of any change in my attitude since the day I first began in the theatre, but something happened to give it a boost in rather odd circumstances. It happened to me at Cinesound the first week I was there. At that time Stuart F. Doyle was the chairman of directors of Greater Union Theatres. One afternoon I received a telephone call from his secretary saying Mr. Doyle would like to see me at his Point Piper flat at seven o’clock that evening. I went along, rather mystified, and after the usual sherry and small talk, I was handed a document. ‘This is my itinerary while I am overseas,’ he said. ‘If you ever run into any trouble cable me to the address here, opposite the date.’ I did not in the least understand but I was profuse in my thanks. However, I never had any cause to do any cabling to the address he had indicated. Maybe my guardian angel had stood guard during the period and averted all evil.

    At one time, during my early days in the theatre, in the 1920s, we were very slack. The forthcoming show had already been painted—there was a lot of standing about, or cutting numerous stencils—so I answered an advertisement by an American Motion Picture Director who required a secretary and assistant.  I got the job and found that he was hoping to start production in Australia. He was Gerald F. Bacon, and he was married to a one-time actress Lilian Meyer. They had brought, by cargo ship, their son and daughter, all their furniture, their car and a large collection of films which had been directed by Mr. Bacon. They settled into a large house in Caulfield that Mrs. Bacon owned, opposite the race-course. I was given a room there, in case pressure of work made it necessary to stay overnight.

    Our first job was to produce a script. Just about this time, the Tye-Corteen scandal concerning the racehorse Purser, winner of the 1924 Caulfield Cup, was occupying a lot of space in the newspapers. We made this the leitmotif of our story, but giving it a Melbourne Cup background. I accompanied Bacon to all his meetings with business men whom he was endeavouring to interest in investing in picture production. On occasional nights, we arranged with certain people—who had considerable social value—to loan us the grounds of their stately homes as settings for Gerald Bacon’s films. We would have a screen erected in the garden and the underlying idea was to interest the guests whom each host had gathered together in the prospectus of a company which Bacon hoped to form.

    It was all very charming, very dignified, very much appreciated—and a complete waste of time. Melbourne was not ready to start up a motion picture industry. It seemed doubtful it would ever be. You can lead a donkey to water...

    The Bacons threw in the towel, decided to fold their tents and return home. One day before their departure Gerald said to me ‘Let’s drive down to the Docks. I want to see the ship which brought us over from the States.’ We drove to the Docks and found the captain in his cabin. We had a drink and arrangements were made for the transportation of the entire Bacon household back to America. When we left to return to the house in Caulfield, Gerald said ‘I’ll drive. You sit in the back with the captain.’ After chatting about this and that for a few minutes, I nearly shot through the roof at his next remark. ‘I hear that you are thinking of going to America. If you do decide to go, keep an eye on my ship’s movements and then come and see me when I am next in Melbourne. I’ll sign you on as something and you can have a free passage.’ I suppose I should have known what to expect, because both Gerald and his wife had quite strongly expressed the wish that I should go back to the States with them. They seemed to consider that I had some potential which, with Gerald’s help and influence, would launch me on a career in the American theatre or picture production. I was in my late 20s at this stage and I have, naturally enough, often though of what might have been, if I had been able to establish myself in the rat race of Broadway or Hollywood. Both Gerald and Lilian Bacon came back to Australia during the Second World War. He was in an official capacity, and she was in the uniform of the American Red Cross. They stayed on permanently, and I attended, much later, their respective funerals.

    When we were making the film Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940) we had an original Sergeant of Light Horse on the job, in charge of the riders and their horses. These men were recruited from absolutely anywhere—quite a number were found hanging around pubs, willing to take a chance on anything to earn a few shillings. Most of these men had never been on a horse before but did not seem to mind risking their necks in what to them was a new adventure. They were, naturally, not among the elite who rode in the production’s famous Charge of the Light Horse segment.

    These men were only used for trekking across the desert at a slow pace. All they had to do was to stay on their horses. If they could manage not to separate themselves from their mounts they were doing all that was required of them. One day Charles Chauvel, the director of the film (for ‘Famous Feature Films’), told the sergeant that he wished him to gather all the men and horses together at dawn the following morning. He wanted to get a silhouette effect by taking them up a great sandhill and down the other side. The route upwards was not steep, just a long and easy ascent. That involved no difficulties for our warriors, but when it came to the other side, it required horsemen of another calibre. This descent involved an angle of perhaps 45 degrees.

    ‘Blimey!’ exclaimed the sergeant, dismay clearly visible on his face. ‘Have a heart! These blokes can only just manage to stay on—you’ve seen what they can do. They’d never make the climb up without falling over backwards, and as to going down that steep decline, it will look like the Battle of Waterloo—men and horses lying all over the place. It will be a shambles...’ He concluded.

    ‘That’s exactly what I’d like to film, Sergeant,’ the director surprised him with. ‘You go and have a talk with the men. Tell them what I want and ask them if they think they can do it.’ The conversation among the temporary troopers when the message was passed on to them could best be described as ‘very flowery indeed’. Eventually the bolder among them overcame the protests of the more timorous and finally all the blokes made a decision. ‘Okay, we’ll give it a go, mate!’ And contrary to all expectations, they made the journey up the hill without mishap; but the descent was quite unforgettable. The horses came down in every conceivable way—on their rumps, their noses and their knees—but by some miracle those inexperienced riders stayed with them. It was wonderfully effective.

    I recall the end of shooting Forty Thousand Horsemen: we had begun to film at dawn and had gone straight through without lunch, hoping to finish up everything that day. The horses, as well as the men, had had nothing at all and were both hungry and thirsty. When the last shot was in the camera, the sun was sinking below the horizon and everyone’s thoughts were turning gratefully towards making camp for the night. There is always a feeling of thankfulness when all the location shots have been taken. The sand-dunes on Botany Bay’s Kurnell had been blown so far inland that practically every acre of ground was covered in sand. This was where we had made our camp and had corralled the horses.

    After work was over, it was the accepted thing to grab yourself a horse and ride back to camp. By ill-chance, I happened to be standing on the offside of a big black which must have been all of seventeen hands. Without thinking, I swung myself up into the saddle only seconds before intuition told my mount it was a case of ‘Home, James!’ and with a snort, it wheeled on its hind legs, making for the camp and nourishment. It was now almost dark and the terrain was anything but level or safe. My mount was thirsty and starving and off we went, with me clinging frantically to the pommel. My only concern—staying in the saddle. As the camp had been made at the base of a high sandhill we both simply slid down and at the bottom I disassociated myself from my mount by slipping off his rump. I hastened to do this before he rose from the sitting position he had adopted to descend the hill. He then went on his way, and I went on mine—with no regrets.

    We had tents—one was for dining, the other served as a kitchen. The plumbing had a certain simplicity.  One day during the lunch period there was a feminine shriek from outside. As I was nearest the entrance I rushed out to find Betty Bryant, our leading lady in Forty Thousand Horsemen, lying in a drain which was a ditch dug outside the kitchen tent where the used water could run away. After he had washed the dishes, the cook simply threw the water into this ditch.  It was both smelly and slimy, and as Betty had attempted to jump across the ditch she had slipped and fallen headlong into this ill-smelling slime. She was wearing her fur coat over her costume of drab rags at the time and she was covered with grease. I stood her on her feet and hosed her down. Later in the shoot, during the bombing of the set, Betty Bryant had a very narrow escape. Charges of explosives had been set in the houses, to simulate bomb hits upon them. One of these was placed within a solid arch which threw lumps of concrete over a very wide area. One large piece just missed Betty by inches.

    Another incident, years before, which even today, just recalling, makes me shudder—it happened at the theatre in 1925 during the show Kid Boots. This was a musical with a golfing story. The golf sticks were kept at the top of a ramp, leading down to the backstage door.  One day when I was walking across the stage, I took an iron down from the rack. I had almost finished a cigarette which I upended on the floor at the top of the ramp. The big doors, which opened onto the street through which the scenery was unloaded, were closed. A small wicket gate in the doors was used when the main doors were shut. I addressed the butt on the floor and took a mighty swing with the club. At that exact moment the wicket door opened and a man came on through and at that identical split-second of time when his head was silhouetted in the opening, with only a few inches to spare either side, the head of the club left the shaft. It was propelled with the speed of a bullet towards the door, and by the greatest luck, passed between the man’s head and the narrow opening in the door. If there had been a deviation of only one inch towards his head, well... as I say, I still shudder to think of what might have been the outcome.

    But back to film production and Forty Thousand Horsemen.One afternoon the director Charles Chauvel changed horses in mid-stream. He decided he would prefer a white Arab pony to the roan he had. After telling this to the production manager, he said it was to be ready on the set at 9 o’clock tomorrow morning. The production manager, Jack, looked at me saying ‘Coming?’ I fell for it and we both got into a car, had our dinner and then set off, now quite dark and raining. We called on all the riding schools and racing stables around Sydney, at last arriving at the outlets of the city. We now had the open country before us. All Jack Souter’s contacts had no idea where we should find a white pony—Arab strain! Eventually we were miles out in the country—our torch given out, we were wet, fed up, and had little hope of finding our pony.

    We were at least thirty miles from Sydney when we got a lead from an old circus hand. He had a white pony in a paddock—if we could find it—and he was also fed up, being pulled out of bed at one in the morning. With no torch, some damp matches, our task was becoming worse and worse. Tramping over uneven ground, over fences, and stumbling in ditches in the dark was just too bad, but luck was finally with us when a white blob appeared before us. Striking our last matches, we saw more or less what we wanted—a white pony, and by all the luck, it did have an Arab strain!

    Returning to the house we got the help of the owner who assisted us to catch the horse and to tie it up. Next we had to find a horse-float—which meant knocking up someone else at this ungodly hour. Anyway, we thought, horse people are early risers and at four o’clock we found the owner of a horse-float who was nearly up. Telling him the whereabouts of the pony and stressing the fact that it was wanted in the studio before 9 o’clock, we got back into our car and went home to an early breakfast.

    The white Arab pony was on the set at nine precisely—just another night in the life of picture production.

  • The Memoirs of J. Alan Kenyon or Behind the Velvet Curtain (Part 9)


    In the ninth instalment of his memoirs, focusing on the period 1938 to 1944, J. ALAN KENYON demonstrates his versatility when he oversees the construction of floats for the Australian Sesquicentenary in Sydney, creates patriotic displays for the Royal Agricultural Show in New South Wales, and designs sets for live shows presented as part of a film program at the New State Theatre in Melbourne.

    State of Play

    In 1938 I was art director for Sydney’s Sesquicentenary—a celebration for 150 years of European settlement. I am certain that the only artists and sculptors who did not work on that undertaking were those who simply failed to apply for a job. I had to mobilize every one of whom I could get hold—to see if they could contribute in any way in the making of dozens of floats for the procession. As in all such undertakings, we were pressed for time. One morning three girls arrived to apply. They were all three of them sculptors—one had received a gold medal for her work—she was an instructress at Sydney Art School. I told the girls it would be impossible to have three women around as they would seriously cramp the literary style of all the men, plumbers, carpenters and electricians whose language was lurid when things went wrong.

    They told me nonchalantly that they were quite familiar with the argot of them all, and that it would take something very out of the way to shock them. Beaten on that point, I shifted my ground. I pointed out that there was nowhere in the building for them to change—there was not a corner that could be made private. I thought I had them there, but they said anywhere behind a float would do very nicely, thank you, as they were all quick-change artists. I knew when I was defeated and told them they could start work that same day.

    I gave them the life-size figure of Henry Lawson to model in an extremely non-academic medium—this material consisted of wire-netting, canvas and plaster. They were quite honest about it and admitted that they were entirely ignorant of this method, so I explained to them what had to be done, and showed them how to make an armature of the wire-netting. This had then to be covered in canvas which had been impregnated with plaster. When this had set, pure plaster was to be added. This was roughly modelled and allowed to dry. When all this had been done, it was carved to portray reality.

    The three girls made a wonderful life-size model—it really was a magnificent life-like statue of Henry Lawson. This happened at their first try, with not a single mistake. The finished detail was absolutely perfect.

    I listened to three male art-instructors applying, after broadcasts for help, and who had apparently been talking matters over with the girls. They were quite confident that they could cope with anything I could hand them. Being a little bit dubious, I asked them to make me a full-size jersey cow. I emphasized that they must spend sufficient time on the armature, telling them that this correct foundation was all-important for success, making it as near to the finished job as possible. They assured me that, after talking to the girls, they quite understood the method of direct plaster modelling. So I told them to go ahead.

    It would appear they had not really profited by their talks and observations because, after using a ton of plaster, they succeeded in producing a cow which was undersize and overweight. I might have overlooked the former attribute, but it was impossible to ignore the latter. We could not shift the thing, so it had to be scrapped. They had completely failed to grasp the secret of this method—that is, to model the wire-netting as closely as possible to the object being modelled, only allowing for the thickness of the plaster layer for the final modelling.

    My job was a 24 hours-a-day affair. I held a sandwich in one hand, and a pencil and sheet of paper in the other—I was responsible for continuous supervision, providing a great deal of help, offering suggestions for construction and painting, and trying to cope with any problem at all which might happen to turn up. Towards the end of the job, I developed a carbuncle on the back of my neck. It was a carbuncle to end all such horrors, and almost knocked me out. But I managed to keep on my feet long enough to see the wall of Sydney’s old Exhibition Building demolished to enable us to get the floats out. It took all one night to get them into position for the parade next day. With a splitting headache, plus a variety of explosive pains everywhere in my body, I at last thankfully made my way home, first waiting for all the floats to pass. It was like heaven to be able to crawl into bed and oblivion.

    One of the many small worries on this job occurred only a day before it came to an end. I was inspecting the finished floats and noted that the one entitled ‘Industry’ needed brushing up. It was a mass of cogs, cylinders, pistons, etc. On its pinnacle was a cylinder. It had been painted a brilliant red and had collected an appreciable amount of dust. One of the chaps I had with me happened to be a studio stunt man. In his time he had been in many difficult and dangerous situations. He had been lassoed off bolting horses, and suspended over a cliff by a pickaxe, for example, and so far his reflexes had functioned perfectly.

    I told Tommy to get a ladder and a tin of red paint. He was to repaint the red cylinder on top of the ‘Industry’ float. To me it seemed a very simple job, after the hair-raising stunts I had seen him do. He followed instructions, but unfortunately he over-stretched himself on the ladder which started along the cylinder’s side. There was now nothing for him to hang onto, what with a tin of paint in one hand and a paintbrush in the other. The ladder continued its merry slide off the float, with Tommy still on a rung near the top. He rode the falling ladder, until he was only a few feet from the ground when he dropped the tin of paint and neatly somersaulted onto his feet. With a beaming smile he assumed the pose of an acrobat who has just successfully performed a difficult feat. Tommy looked for a burst of applause, as he bowed, and remarked with satisfaction ‘Never even hurt myself.’ I said bitterly ‘No, but just look at “Motherhood”….’ This float was a beautifully modelled ‘Mother and Child’ and now absolutely smothered with red paint. I was much afraid it could never be removed. When we did get most of the paint off, it had to be repainted in white paint to conceal any remaining red stains. It was previously in stark white plaster.

    I have just recalled another accident, but of quite a different nature. One of my Art Staff had an engineering degree and as a hobby did modelling and sculpture. I had given him the job of creating a Corinthian capital, afterwards to be moulded for the production of a number of these for columns.

    The clay model was simply perfect, beautifully done with the precision of engineering application and artistic appreciation. With the clay work finished, I told him to take the mould out with glue, saying ‘Get a bucket of glue from the carpenters and simply pour it around the capital and its retaining sides.’ I then made a tactical error, mentioning the fact that for the figures, etc., they used gelatin. This of course started my engineering friend thinking: if there is a right strength for the mould he would like to do it using the correct method. Asking if I objected to him experimenting, and my giving in, I left him to it.

    Over the weekend he informed me he had been reading up the subject. He made mixtures of various strengths of glue and gelatin—none of them set hard. He tried again with more glue. On his own initiative, he made up a batch of diluted glue and/or gelatin and poured it over his beautiful piece of modelling. Days passed and the stuff never set—it succeeded in gradually melting the clay and ruining his work. The spiral scrolls and acanthus leaves simply turned to sludge. He spent many days recreating the job again, this time using nothing but carpenter’s glue.

    During the Second World War I was employed as Art Director of the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales. I was commissioned to design an exhibition called ‘Homes of Freedom’. All the countries which were then fighting against Hitler were represented. As I designed and completed a drawing of each country’s representative home, I would take it along to the Consul of the country concerned to ask his advice. This was always given most graciously. I wanted detailed information about the correct furniture and interior goods with which to furnish each particular set. The various interiors were peopled by every country’s Nationals, and in many cases they were to lend me authentic furniture from their homes.

    This was the routine I adopted in the case of all participating countries. However, so as not to appear wholly ignorant, before making my call on a particular country’s representative, I did some homework. I spent some hours at the Mitchell Library in Sydney, with books which contained any reference at all to the country’s culture, art and furniture, etc.

    I made my sales talk so convincingly to the French Consul, for instance, that he overwhelmed me with ‘Well, I am a Frenchman, but you know more about my country’s art than I do!’ I felt rewarded, and did not grudge the time and pains I had taken to gather my information. To myself I admitted that perhaps the fact that what I had read, only the day before, certainly did help.

    Back in Melbourne and also during the War years, I was standing one night in the foyer of the State Theatre (where I was now employed, to present live shows as an introduction to the screening of a film) along with hundreds of patrons jammed in so tightly that they formed an unyielding mass. (The State [now The Forum] was the largest theatre in the Southern Hemisphere.) I heard a voice behind me asking, ‘Where is it, mate?’ I was wedged in so completely that I could not turn to locate the owner of the voice. For some idiotic reason, the predicament of the unseen prompted me to say, ‘It’s over on your left, if you can get through,’ and then added, a thought vulgarly I’m afraid, ‘If you can’t make it, you can use my pocket.’ This elicited a guffaw and a ‘Thanks mate.’ That was another satisfied customer.

    A few nights later, a fight broke out in the foyer between some returned soldiers and a few civilians. I looked around wildly, intending to call reinforcements of ushers. They, however, quite unaware of the trouble, were bowing people into their seats. To my surprise the voice of my friend of the other night sounded in my ear. ‘Want a hand, mate?’ he asked. This time I was able to turn and identify the voice—it was Red Maloney, a gentleman very well known in the boxing world and in certain circles of the underworld. The fight ended, so Red’s kindly meant intervention was not needed.

    One evening I answered a knock at the office door to find an American officer outside. ‘Are you the manager?’ he enquired, and presented me with his card. It was, he explained, his card in civilian life. He was a Wurlitzer Organ Company’s expert. He said he would esteem it a great privilege if I would allow him to play the theatre organ after the show. I agreed, so after the show we went down to the console, where he switched on, pulled out all the stops, and gave a magnificent performance to an audience of one. We had opera, symphonies, lullabies and a full-scale battle-piece with guns, bugles—the whole works. There was so much noise that I eyed the plaster ornaments and statues in fear. I thought that any minute an especially loud salvo would set them toppling. The vibration was quite frightening. I felt quite dazed when at last I staggered out of the theatre with him.

    Some weeks later the same officer called on a very different mission. Because of his reputation as a musician, he had been given the task of forming a combined orchestra of American and Australian musicians. What he needed from me was permission to go backstage where he wished to speak to our musicians and, if possible, obtain their co-operation. I explained gently to him that the Musicians’ Union in Australia was powerful, exclusive and very conservative. In the past they had been imposed on for so long that they had made hard and fast rules which were totally unbreakable. ‘Nothing for nothing’ was the watchword. I communicated to him my serious doubts that they would give their services free. My visitor listened in silence and then took out his wallet. He extracted a card which he handed to me. ‘This is my American Union card,’ he explained, adding apologetically, ‘We are the same the world over, a lot of bastards.’ I have forgotten what the outcome was, and how he actually made out.

    With each change of the program I had a stage set which formed a background for the singer. There was a presentation of ‘Ave Maria’ with Freddie Goldman, billed as the boy soprano, singing the number. With lights fading in slowly, similarly the candelabra, at the top note of ‘Ave Maria’ a high cross of light was thrown from the bio-box onto the back wall of the stage drapes above the altar—the presentation was very ecclesiastical. Believe it or not, on two different nights a woman went into the aisle, knelt down and prayed!

    Freddie possessed this wonderful freak voice, but it could not fill the large State Theatre. To encompass this, he had to use a microphone and a loudspeaker system—he concealed the mike in the hymn book he carried.

    I had sometimes wondered how my own voice would sound over the air, using a mike. So one night I went backstage and switched on the speaker. I took the mike out to the centre of the stage and tried out my singing voice in the empty theatre. I went through two or three numbers in what I felt to be fine style. In my biased opinion, I sounded quite professional, and was very well satisfied with my effort. After my ‘performance’, I returned the mike to the prompt corner, feeling rather smug about the whole thing. I had quite forgotten the cleaners who must have been much amused by my impromptu concert. They were sitting in the back of the stalls, thoroughly enjoying the interlude. As I walked off, they gave me a hearty round of applause.

    There was a particular feature about the staging of Women in Uniform. For the change, showing the various occupations of women during the war, I had huge cogwheels which turned the big central one which was acting as the stage. As each aperture between the spokes came into place, a new figure appeared, representing departments of industry, nursing, the service, and so on. Freddie Goldman, who was supposed to be the engineer engaged in oiling the machinery, sang an appropriate number as each woman in uniform appeared.

    With the picture Eagle Squadron (1942 war film) I had painted a backcloth showing the Houses of Parliament, the Thames and the Embankment. This time Freddie was a paper seller and sang ‘Old Father Thames’ and ‘There’ll Always Be an England’. It was as corny as hell, but the audiences lapped it up.

    The last show I did before going to Sydney for the making of the film Smithy in 1944, was the production Warsaw Concerto.Bill Tinkler, who was the General Manager for Greater Union Theatres in Victoria, wrote the script, and this was narrated during the presentation. I did the production, with only one rehearsal in the morning on the day of the opening, and as was expected, it was chaotic. Nothing went right and a big flop was predicted by everyone; but with proper cues and organization, it was eventually a spectacular success.

    The show opened with a cloud machine throwing clouds onto a scrim—a transparent cloth. The backstage was in complete darkness. Above the actual stage was a floating stage, ten feet up, with the Wurlitzer Grand Piano aboard. A spot picked up Desmond Tanner (a musician of some note) at the piano—he would play a note with one finger and then write it down. He was supposed to be composing the Warsaw Concerto. He played only the suggestion of the melody, accompanied very softly by Aubrey Whelan on the organ, and the orchestra under the conductor, Tiny Douglas. Then from the projection box a huge swastika was projected onto the scrim. With gunfire effects from the organ, the audience was made aware, by the commentator, that Warsaw was about to fall. This was the cue for the film’s hero, Richard Addinsell, to flee Poland.

    The commentator continues with the story—Richard Addinsell leaves Warsaw and begins making his way to England. In the darkness, the boys had erected representative cutouts of the countries through which Richard passed and the orchestra and the organ played the National Anthem of each particular country—on the stage was a cutout of a recognized feature of each particular country, for example, the Eiffel Tower for France, St. Stephen’s in Vienna, and so forth. Each piece was spot lit, fading out as the imaginary journey proceeded. Eventually Addinsell arrived in England, which was represented by Big Ben and the V for Victory sign, thrown from the bio-box onto the scrim, superimposed over the slowly fading swastika.

    The tide is about to turn. Addinsell joins the Royal Air Force, he has a period of intensive training and is one of the crew of a plane sent on a mission to bomb Warsaw. I had made set pieces of buildings which toppled as the gunfire and lightning stocks made night flashes, as Warsaw was bombed and reduced to ruins. With the dying away of the sounds of battle, the spot faded in on the piano up on the floating stage. Then you saw Richard come back and sit at the piano, where he had left off so long ago. He was striking a note with one finger, writing it down, and then playing a chord. Then playing another, and another, and finally using both hands. At last the orchestra and the organ took up playing the theme, until at last, as Des Tanner played the Warsaw Concerto, the orchestra and the organ were at full volume.

    It was a damn fine performance and the applause lasted three whole minutes, before we could get the orchestra-lift down and the picture, Dangerous Moonlight, on the screen. 

    As I have mentioned, the rehearsal for this production had been ghastly but had muddled itself through to an end, and I had then gone backstage to speak to Tiny Douglas. Standing in a group with him were Des Tanner and Beatrice Oakley, who sang ‘Lonely Heart’ during the show. All three had very long faces. Tiny Douglas, who was just a little over six feet, muttered lugubriously, ‘Oh well, if the worst comes to the worse, I can get fired and play the fiddle on street corners, I suppose.’ Des said, ‘Whatever happens, I’ll play the thing through and Beatrice will sing her numbers—even if they aren’t in the right places.’ I duly applauded their spirit and determination not to let the side down. With an almost certain flop on my hands, I tried to put as good a face on things as possible. Making my voice as optimistic as my inner quakings would allow, I exhorted them not to worry, that it would be ‘all right on the night’! The good old stock theatre phrase did not seem to have much effect; but oddly enough, it was all right on the night. In desperation I had typed a number of very simply timed procedure sheets and everyone was handed one. I hid myself in the folds of the drapes on the floating stage and yelled out the changes. The performance began at the matinee; it finished and—there was applause. When I went backstage this time there were no long faces to depress me, and no atmosphere of concentrated gloom. Instead three people were hugging each other and chattering excitedly about the success of the show.

    It was a very happy theatre. Twenty-four usherettes and sixteen ushers came on at night. There was only one rule: it had to be ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’, accompanied by a bright smile. We had a great many letters from patrons expressing their appreciation of the courtesy of the staff. One in particular was indicative of the thoughtfulness and instant action on the part of the men. It came from someone who was hobbling along on crutches. He wrote that he was not given time to protest but was picked up by two ushers, carried up the stairs, and deposited in his seat. A smiling usherette then told him that his crutches were in safe keeping.

    I was very proud of this staff and treated them as they treated me—with respect. If anyone had a birthday, we had a party after the house was out. When my last night arrived, all the staff threw a party in the grand foyer. They presented me with a set of drawing instruments. I was returning to Sydney as Art Director for the Columbia Pictures’ 1944 film Smithy.