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

Written by J.A. Kenyon; edited by Judy Leech


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.

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 Course with John D’Arcy and Elaine Hamill. It was followed by The Haunted Barn which 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 Digger films, 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. Ken Hall was the director.

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.


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