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.