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.



Published in General articles


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 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.

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.


Published in General articles


During the 1930s, scenic artist J. ALAN KENYON worked on film sets for legendary Australian film maker Ken G. Hall. In addition to designing sets for several George Wallace feature films, he returned briefly to the theatre for Beloved Vagabond. Read Part 1» | Read Part 2» | Read Part 3»

Film Interlude Number Two; or, Just Let George Do It!

In ken g. hall’s (cinesound) 1939 Dad rudd mp production, the script called for a dam to burst and overflow the semi-constructed retaining wall. This never happens in reality, the engineers are always building above water level.

Again, it was a model, but this time the simulated dam wall was of rather large proportions and it was constructed on the studio lot at Pagewood, Sydney. The wall was twenty-five feet long and every detail of a real dam was exactly copied on the model. The uneven wall construction, showing the mortising of the poured concrete, the gangway and catwalks, the flying foxes and the surrounding terrain were faithfully copied, because the camera went from an actual dam to the model. A tank holding 100,000 gallons of water was constructed, out of camera range—a sluice and race leading to the platform behind the wall. There would be enormous pressure on the platform when the water was released for the flooding.

We used steel scaffolding for this platform. Incidentally, I used the very first imported experimental consignment in Australia. Below the wall the creek bed was dug out with the outlet pipes etc. built in. A hundred feet or more below the wall was a bridge which had to wash away just as the last car made it to the other side. The bridge was constructed in its wrecked condition, then joined together and held in position with wires.

The sequence of events was—first rain pouring down over the area, then the collapse, with the foundation being washed away with the flying foxes. Then the water in the tank was released, filling the dam behind the wall until it overflowed in a great cascade of boiling turbulence. Logs, let loose at intervals, were washed over the wall, rushed down the creek and finally banked up against the bridge, forcing it to capsize and be swept away. The six inch model car was pulled down a slope and over the bridge by silk threads. It was a breath-taking spectacle on the screen—but still a fake! The calculation of strength, stresses and strains of the wall, the platform and the judgement of water from the tank needed to be absolutely exact. The timing of the car pulled over the bridge so that its wheels ‘feathered’ the rising water was precisely timed, and at the right moment, I, myself, axed the holding wire which allowed the bridge to float away down-stream.

We did have one rehearsal with the water flowing over the wall, which emptied the tank. It then took all day to fill it again. The Director Ken Hall was, I think, hypnotized and forgot to call a halt, or—it could have been the ‘take’.

This spelt ‘finale’ to our struggles with storms and floods and washed away bridges—with the advent of rear projection within the studio. The next collection of odd bits and pieces belonged to a picture starring George Wallace and Alec Kellaway, Let George Do It—1939. Naturally this was a comedy with Wallace in the principal role. The script called for a motor-boat to vanish up a big outlet pipe into Sydney Harbour. We searched for days for a suitable hole but had no luck. We simply could not find one. Finally we overcame the difficulty without a great deal of trouble. A large circle of black velvet was stretched over a fairly smooth cliff face, and the edges 'modelled' into the rocks. By simply running the boat up to the apparent hole, represented by the black fabric, and then, when sufficiently close, cutting the camera, we got our effect. The actual entrance into the tunnel was done in the studio.

The same motor-boat cut a racing eight in halves in the middle of the harbour. Also, when the waves became somewhat rough and high, a few fish found their way on board. Just to cause the maximum amount of disturbance, a confused fish was to dive down Letty Craydon’s blouse. When the desired effect was obtained, the screams and contortions as the cold little fish wriggled frantically in its unfamiliar element inside Letty’s blouse, were frightfully funny to everyone—except poor Letty.

A gorilla was needed in the 1939 film—again with George Wallace and with John Dobbie—Gone to the Dogs. We obtained a batch of skins and gave them to a leading taxidermist with instructions to make them up into a suit. It was intended to transform one of our top heavyweight wrestlers into a reasonable facsimile of a gorilla. I duly picked up the finished job and opened it out in the studio, but to my dismay, found it to be a skin-tight fit. When worn, it would simply look like a man in a fur suit. In no way would it resemble a gorilla. Two of my property men, along with myself, worked non-stop over the weekend, unpicking the skins and remaking it nearer to requirements. We had to lengthen the arms, and make false 'hands' as well as false feet. It had to have a mobile mouth, with teeth and eyes that could roll. At least it no longer looked like an ad for the well-dressed man at the North Pole. Then we finally dressed the actor who was playing the part of the gorilla. The two men who had assisted me in the remaking of the skin were his dressers. They were in sharp contrast to each other: one was an international rugby player, the other was a dyspeptic with a hacking cough.

Before the skin was put on, shoulder pads, pads for chest and abdomen—altogether roughly four pounds of kapok—had to be put in place. With the temperature around 80 degrees the man inside was anything but comfortable. Getting the legs and arms into the skin was comparatively easy, but fastening the long zippers up the back was far from that with Fred Adkins, our gorilla, fidgeting all the time. Except for what was possibly unavoidable, wrestler Fred was an extremely fit and co-operative bloke. With much fumbling with the zipper, accompanied by a lot of mumbling, the small thin dresser finally lost his patience. In tones of extreme exasperation he muttered “Listen Fred, if you don't stand still, I'll drop you, I will.” Fred further complicated the situation with his laughter from inside the head.

When final shots were taken, except for a few incidental bits and pieces, it was the custom to hold a party in the studio to celebrate the successful completion of yet another picture. This particular party with George Wallace and John Dobbie turned out to be one of the best we ever held. These two performers who had played together many times on the stage performed a little sketch, especially written for a private party. George asked me to dress John up in a sheet. He was supposed to be the Mother Superior of a convent. George dressed himself. We rigged a flat of scenery with a door in it and George, when he was ready, came and knocked upon it. He wore a black straw boater, with a long-stemmed rose stuck in the crown, and a feather boa which circled his neck and trailed on the floor. A tight-fitting black coat, women's size, was buttoned up cock-eyed over his big paunch. His skirt was pulled up to show red—what in a bygone age were called—drawers. His face was made up and his lank hair flapped in all directions.

After knocking a few times, Dobbie, as Mother Superior, appeared at the door to see what the trouble was. Dobbie was a huge man, well over six feet and weighing at least twenty stone. The following patter ensued after some pantomime of Dobbie’s, pretending to be unable to locate his caller, always looking over George’s head. Eventually George grew impatient and pulled hard at Dobbie’s sheet to draw his attention down to him.

“Hi Mum,” said George.

“Well, you tramp, what can I do for you?”

“You see Mum, it’s like this. I've had a bit of bad luck.”

“You always do,” returned the Mother Superior. “What is your trouble my girl? Don't tell me—let me guess.”

“You couldn’t this time. It so happened I was walking down Little Bourke Street, minding my own business, when ...”

“All right, all right.” interrupted the Mother Superior, “I know the routine. I'll give you refuge, but you will have to behave yourself. Please proceed through these holy portals.”

“Oh, goodoh! Ta ever so Mum! You're a real lady.” And George walked through the door. Then John turned to follow. There were horrified shrieks from the girls and loud laughter from the men, when everyone saw the sheet only covered the front of Dobbie. It was quite indecent.

Back to things theatrical and the next episode also concerned George Wallace (1895-1960). On the opening night of The Beloved Vagabond at The Princess in April 1934 George was doing a ‘Napoleon number’. In those days the chorus men had to be tall as well as having to possess good voices. At this point in the show they were all lined up on the O.P. (Opposite Prompt) side of the stage when George made his appearance on the verandah, having walked through the French windows at the back. He stood at the top of six or eight steps making a comic speech, finishing with “Men! Forward march!” He tripped over his sword and somersaulted down the steps to land in the middle of the stage. At rehearsal he had always got up in time to march at the head of his soldiers, but alas! He was still down when the marching men reached the centre of the stage, and they marched all over him. The audience loved it and screamed with laughter. The unfeeling management implored George to keep the incident in, but he was adamant. There was to be no repeat performance. He swore that he was bruised all over and that he could not be bribed to make it happen again. After this he timed his fall more accurately.

As everyone knew, the baggy trousers, tartan shirt and slouch hat were the trademark of this really great comedian. Sometimes, however, he told his inimitable stories in a dinner suit, but I always thought that when he dressed in conventional fashion something was missing. His wonderful tale of little Aggie playing with a death adder in her backyard, and the one of Grandpa accidentally setting fire to his beard, causing a bushfire. These were funny.

During the making of one picture with Wallace, he had to fall from a plane and come to earth by parachute. The actual fall was produced in the studio. But it was one of George's bad days—the fall was so lacking in reality that it took very many takes before the director was satisfied. In the same picture was a cockatoo. It was a most grotesque looking bird. Although it was quite young it did not look a day less than eighty as it was entirely denuded of feathers. To add to its unfortunate appearance its beak had a malformation. Really, it was a very miserable specimen of the ornithological species. The upper and lower portions of its beak were overgrown and crossed into the bargain. The feet of this wretched bird were badly deformed, the claws being unduly long as well as tangled. It was an attraction as a freak at a Fauna Flora Park and because of this was very valuable to its owner, and it took a great deal of persuasion on the part of the production manager before he would consent to part with it. Great care was taken of this sinister bird.

The idea in the picture—George Wallace was supposed to have wandered by mistake into a laboratory and drunk a certain brand of spirit. The result of this was to give him uncontrollable hiccoughs. After leaving the lab and passing a garden wall, he saw a parrot perched upon it. The simple act of breathing on it was supposed to transform a perfectly ordinary feathered bird into the hideous freak we had borrowed. The transformation was affected by means of a puff of smoke. That seemed to be quite simple, but the property man who had undertaken the care of the bird had put a mattress on the other side of the wall so that if the bird took fright and toppled from the wall, it would not injure itself on the hard floor. As an extra precaution this careful props man lay down on the mattress himself in readiness to catch the bird if it became frightened when George hiccoughed at it. The bird was undoubtedly startled but the result was quite unforeseen. It did not fall but its droppings found a perfect target on the face of the outraged props man. The same crew member was given the job of keeping the highly polished floor in that same pristine condition. Unhappily a milkmaid, leading a real cow over it in one of the sequences, left a cowpat behind her charge. After cleaning up several times, he just stood with a bucket, until the camera was ready to roll. A day in the life of a property man was rarely without incident.

Talking about cows, I had never heard the expression ‘It's a fair cow!’ before I came to Australia, but I can still remember an unintentional use of the same word which to Australians would have been hilarious. It happened during a confirmation service in the Orkneys, where the Grand Fleet had its home and where the scuttling of the German fleet took place after World War One. The Bishop of Aberdeen was giving the address and he emphasized the greatness which originated in small beginnings. He gave as an instance the acorn as one of the small things which later attained greatness. He said “It falls from the tree and then, some cow treads it into the earth.” Imagine the mirth of an Australian congregation on hearing that pearl of wisdom. It just goes to show that the colloquialism of one country may be a profundity in another.

In 1937 we, Cinesound, made a picture called Broken Melody. It was a story of people living in the area known as ‘The Rocks’, in Sydney. A violinist is practising before an audience of down-at-heel inhabitants of the rock caves, grouped sitting round the mouth of their habitation. As he plays, he sees the figure of a girl coming towards the group down a flight of steps cut in the rock. She is singing as she descends. The violinist pauses to listen. For some time the music for the finale of an opera he was creating had been eluding him. Now he thinks that the sight of this beautiful girl will give him the inspiration for which he has been searching in vain.

For the finale of his opera, which of course is set on a stage, I had erected in the studio a flight of steps that divided two rows of houses of European architecture. These steps reached right to the studio ceiling. Diana du Cane came down these steps, singing the final number with the chorus lining the steps outside the houses where they lived. Some of them stood on little balconies with their wrought-iron balustrades.

This is only the introduction to the story. I had also designed Diana’s costume for this scene and, as I remember, it was a gown which had a figure-fitting undergarment buttoned from neck to hem, a full tulle overskirt with appliqued bands of dark velvet at decreasing intervals from the hem to the waist. Her head was framed in a starched lace collar. The frock was designed to fit in with the set and its architecture. I was very pleased with it. But—she never wore it. It was considered too sombre, too out-of-date. The one she wore was a Dolly Varden flouncy affair with a large picture hat.

The picture was previewed at the State Theatre in Sydney. As I parked my car outside Farmer’s I looked across to the show windows. They were completely curtained, while they dressed them for their Autumn show. At that time Farmer’s were definitely ‘on top’ for their window displays. After the show and supper, my wife and I strolled to our car. The curtains on Farmer’s had disappeared and the display was fully lit, showing their imported models of Autumn gowns. There, in a prominent position, was a model wearing my dress. I had had no previous view, and of course no contact with the designer, Molyneaux, but there it was, exactly as I had designed it. I had dreamed up an up-to-the-minute frock, with the added virtue that it blended with my scenery.

Occasionally something happens in the theatre which could very easily have turned into a tragedy. One such event occurred after the Gladys Moncrieff Company had taken a great many curtain calls at the finale of a performance. At last the applause died down as the curtain descended for the last time. The company moved off to their dressing rooms and just as the last member left the stage, the huge crystal chandelier parted from its straightener hook and fell with a mighty crash onto the stage. It actually hit the spot where only a few moments previously the company had been standing. It was very nearly the last curtain call for some of them.

Sometimes things do not happen in such a ‘fortunate’ way. After the 1929 fire in Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, there was a great deal of dismantling to be done. I happened to be standing near an electrician who had his arm resting between the bars of the switchboard. I suppose it was a case of familiarity breeding carelessness—perhaps he pushed his arm in too far, or maybe the screwdriver slipped. Anyhow, there was a blinding flash, and his arm a horrible mess. Another electrical fatality took place in the studio which was used by Efftee Films at Wattle Path. An electrician was on top of a high gantry securing a connection to the overhead wiring system which was simply suspended along the ceiling. He had the misfortune to take hold of a live wire and he was powerless to let go. The head electrician was faced with a shocking choice—if the current was switched off, there was the merest chance of his falling back onto the small gantry platform, but without all the luck in the world he would crash twenty feet down onto an ironized floor. The alternative was electrocution. The main switch was pulled, but the poor fellow was out of luck. He fell to the floor and although he lived, he never walked again.

I remember another incident—it was not very serious, but the result was a truly remarkable example of technicolour. The occasion was the Pacific Crossing in the 1944 film Smithy, a film owned and financed by the Americans but directed by Ken Hall. It was during the night when the Southern Cross was winging its way across the Pacific. This was, of course, a sequence where a replica of the plane was used in the studio. The reaction of the crew during a storm made it necessary for the film to be shot when the studio was in darkness, except for the lights in the cockpit. The area was roped off as a precaution against anyone walking into the revving propellers. It has often been noted that when the call of action comes, people are apt to forget all danger warnings. This happened at this time to the Assistant Art Director. Someone yelled out “Something's wrong!” Something was very wrong. An electrician had picked up a wire that was lying in a pool of water that had been made by the rain machine. As a consequence he received some unplanned ‘shock treatment’. The Art Director unthinkingly went to his aid, actually rushing beneath the rope and into the whirling propeller. Miraculously the blades skinned up his arm, pushing him away at the same time. He was not too badly hurt, but from hand to shoulder his arm was a wondrous medley of yellow, green and mauve.

Whilst on the subject of the Southern Cross it was at the time of a show (in 1931) called Sons o’ Guns that the Southern Cloud, a three-engine aircraft, was lost. The girl playing the lead was Bertha Riccardo. The news leaked out during the performance—Bertha's husband was on the Southern Cloud. Like a real trouper, she finished the show—but fainted as the show ended.

Published in General articles


Scenic artist J. ALAN KENYON continues his account of his life working in Melbourne and Sydney during the 1920s and 1930s. In this chapter, he recalls his time working on film sets for two important Australian film makers of the 1930s, Ken G. Hall and Frank W. Thring. Read Part 1» | Read Part 2»

Film Interlude: Cinesound and Efftee Films

A GREAT MANY PEOPLE HAVE deplored the making of ‘Dad and Dave’ films by Ken G. Hall, Cinesound's producer-director (1931–1956). They are needlessly embarrassed by them—they fear that wrong impressions abroad could be created by their showing. I am certain they do not give the Australian a poor image, as is feared. Just consider how many ‘silly ass’ English pictures have been made for export. The English, however, have never been averse to laughing at their own eccentricities; hence their unrivalled success in comedy plays and films. (On Our Selection was the first Dad and Dave film, made in 1920, and Rudd's New Selection appeared a year later—my involvement, when I moved from Melbourne to Sydney, was not until 1935, when Grandad Rudd was produced.)

Entertainment value is undoubtedly the chief ingredient of any Show presented to the public, be it stage or film. These old films certainly had that, however corny their productions may have been. Two of these films with Bert Bailey and Fred McDonald as leads in the ‘Dad Rudd’ series played with a change of titles on Broadway and in the West End of London. These films were Dad and Dave Come to Town (1938) and Dad Rudd MP (1939/40). By this time we had learned that perhaps the old image of Dad Rudd should be presented differently. In the MP picture Dad Rudd was shown ploughing—a long straight furrow. When he went into Parliament he was still—straight—and any Australian could be glad and proud of their image in Dad Rudd.

Apropos of Broadway—I saw in an issue of the American theatre publication Variety that our Orphan of the Wilderness (a film made around the same time as the above films) with its cast of twenty kangaroos had been the main feature of a program with the second release of The Great Waltz as its support. At that time the picture of the life of a joey kangaroo was recognized as the finest film of animal life made up until then. The film was made in 1936 and had its American release in 1938 entitled Wild Innocence. (The original film was initially banned in the UK but released after cuts also in 1938.) It is interesting to note that when the human element was introduced, ratings dropped abruptly.

The actual shooting of the animal scenes took months of painstaking work. Every action of each animal ‘star’ followed the script faithfully. Because these were of course completely natural reactions on the part of the kangaroos, with no rehearsals possible, scenes were shot over and over again until perfection was attained. Only two definite actions had any human assistance: in order to produce an appearance of reality, the mother of the young joey which was supposed to be killed by the hunters was given an injection by a veterinary surgeon under RSPCA supervision. The script called for a certain completely spontaneous action by a huge buck too. When the hunters made their entry onto the ‘outdoor set’ in the studio the leader of the herd had to give warning and communicate it to the resting does. They were supposed to react violently, jumping into the ‘scrub’ for shelter. This big buck ’roo was seven feet tall and required every available man on its tail in order to manoeuvre it into position on the set. It was a case of 'never the time and the place' and the kangaroo ‘at any moment jumping out of camera’.

It was an impasse. Then I had the idea of concealing a sheet of iron under the leaves on which the ’roo stood or sat in position for the reaction shot. Then, at the required instant, a very mild electric current from a shocking coil did the trick. It would sit up startled and shoot off giving warning to the herd of does which were peacefully sleeping. At least that was the general idea, but we again struck trouble. The sleeping does who were, by this time, so accustomed to any noise we used to rouse them in order to cause them to scamper off, slumbered on. Neither shotguns, kerosene tins hammered vociferously or drums banged disturbed their dreams of the silent bush. They slept peacefully on. Help came from a visitor just as we were almost passing out with fatigue and frustration. He was a big bluff hearty man and when he had sized up the situation let out a loud bellow of laughter. This was a completely new sound which had a magical effect—the does awoke from their dreams and scampered off.

On the set we had used an emu which had been hired from a Fauna and Flora Show Garden down the coast from Sydney. When it was no longer required, the Production Manager was asked to return it to the Park. It was a Saturday afternoon and the shooting was almost finished. He asked me if I would drive him—he wanted some human companionship, he said. We had made a cage trailer for the purpose of transporting animals and we judged this would do for our long-legged passenger. We put him in and away we went.

The Production Manager, Jack Souter, kept an eye on the emu and trailer, turning around every now and then to check. Souter had a round face, big eyes, altogether the face of a cherub, which belied his keen efficiency. As he turned to make another inspection I was startled to hear him shout ‘Stop the car George! We’ve lost the bloody emu!’ I pulled up and sure enough the big bird was gone. It had managed to force the conduit bars apart. Apparently it had just stalked off because we found it a quarter of a mile down the road, holding up the traffic. Cars in a hurry had to drive around it, a few had pulled up out of curiosity. We hastily reloaded his birdship before worse befell us. We had horrible visions of him walking haughtily into a car.

More about film but for a different company and in the early 1930s, and before I left Melbourne to work in Sydney—Frank W. Thring’s Efftee Films. When preparations for rebuilding His Majesty’s Theatre were under way, after the 1929 fire, we had to vacate our temporary studio there and move to the Wattle Path Dance Palais in St Kilda. There Efftee made more films. For one set, for Aimee and Philip Stuart’s Clara Gibbings (released in 1934, this was the last film shot at the studios), we had to have the interior of a stately home of England. I had borrowed from a department store a terrestrial globe, on condition that I would be personally responsible for its safe return. Whilst backing the utility out of the lane, I was staggered to see this valuable antique go over the side with a crash. I felt as if my comfortable world had smashed along with the mahogany frame which was splintered into a hundred pieces! What is more, the globe had flattened where it had hit the ground. That seemed to be disaster enough, even if it was ever to be put right!

I personally undertook the repairs for the globe. I had first to get out the dent, then it needed patching in order to return it to its spherical shape. The faded old parchment effect was very difficult to match up, but finally I was overjoyed to see that the damage was now practically undetectable. But I was still not out of the woods. There were figures still to be drawn—Neptune was half hidden under my patching—and lines of latitude and longitude. There was very fine lettering to be done, and only the apprehension of the wrath to descend on my head inspired me with the genius of the original draughtsman.

Meanwhile, the head carpenter was doing his best with the frame, and what a best it had to be! A game of hide and seek developed with tiny splinters of wood—the quarry of the seekers. He had to try infinitesimal pieces here and there and—everywhere! Where did a piece of inlay half-an-inch by one-thirty-second fit? Infinite patience was required but at last the job was done. This time we made sure the precious antique was safely tied down. Then I wheeled it from the store's lift as nonchalantly as my quaking bones and shaking nerves would allow. One final push landed it in front of the floor manager who regarded it casually and murmured ‘Oh, thanks.’ It seemed like walking a hundred miles through purgatory as I walked away from him to the lift.

On another occasion I had borrowed a very large vase. It was extremely costly—but this one was exactly what I wanted for an interior. There had once been a pair of these vases, but one had been purchased by a client of the store. Right in the middle of a shot of the interior, with the vase absolutely vital as a focal point, this client arrived at the store saying she desired the second vase. Then ensued a period of masterly delaying tactics: somehow, responsible people were unable to come to the telephone because they could not be located. Meanwhile, we worked feverishly to complete shooting. Finally, we had used up all our obstructing resources and we could put the lady off no longer. She duly arrived at the Studio to be met by wreathed smiles, explanations and assurances that her precious vase was quite safe. She succumbed, and we were able to finish the sequence with the owner watching.

We also had stage productions to get ready. We did Christa Winsloe’s Children in Uniform with Coral Brown (no final ‘e’ at this stage of her career) at the old Garrick Theatre across Princes Bridge. The play was produced by Frank Harvey and was an outstanding success. Even in those early days Coral Brown gave evidence of her extraordinary ability as an actress. No one who saw her in this play doubted that she would have a great career, which has indeed been proved in many, many later plays.

Then we did Dion Boucicault’s period melodrama Streets of London and after that Patrick Hamilton's Rope which was played at what was the Metro (Palace Theatre) in Bourke Street. Then Efftee, Frank W. Thring, decided on a ‘grand coup’. He brought out Alice Delysia, a famous French star, to play in the Princess Theatre. She opened with A.P. Herbert’s Mother of Pearl (1934) and enchanted large audiences with her performance. She had had Paris and London at her feet for years, and Melbourne was quick to respond to her charm. Soon everyone was singing the play's lyrics—you heard ‘Every Woman thinks she likes to Wander’ and ‘When Anybody Plays or Sings I Think of You’ being whistled in the streets, a sure sign of the success of a production. What a superb actress Delysia really was.

On the opening night I was standing on the stage when the star left her dressing room. As I said ‘Good evening’ to her, she smiled. ‘Please hold these for me.’ I was left clutching two handfuls of her personal jewellery. From then on a guard was put at her dressing room door.

The previous night, at the dress rehearsal, I had collided with one of the male leads as we both tried to enter the stage door at the same time. He seemed to be in a frightful hurry, but our collision caused sufficient delay for his taxi driver, in full pursuit of him—to catch up and demand his fare. The driver flatly refused to accept the proffered overcoat as a deposit, alleging that he had been caught that way before. To end the impasse and save the actor further embarrassment I paid the amount owing. He thanked me with a nonchalant ‘Much obliged, old boy’ and went on his way, quite unruffled.

The curtain went up and this actor, who was playing the part of a press correspondent, was awaiting Delysia. As they came in close contact during the interview, the lady drew back and administered a sound slap to his face, all the while assaulting him verbally in rapid and explosive French. I knew enough French to understand the epithets she was applying to him, but could not grasp what had aroused her anger. Curiosity impelled me later on to ask him. ‘Oh,’ he said in an indifferent manner, ‘She resented me breathing stale beer and garlic all over her.’ That was Campbell Copelin, an English actor who had come to Australia in 1923 at the age of 21.

The first show which Efftee produced at the Princess Theatre (in 1933) was Varney Monk's Collits’ Inn. Gladys Moncrieff, Claude Flemming, George Wallace and Campbell Copelin starred in the cast. It was the very first time a revolving stage was used in Australia. It was thirty-five feet in diameter and was motivated by manpower, with just one man under the stage turning it. It was constructed of angle iron with castors turning on iron tracks. Signals were given by word of mouth. As a matter of fact, it worked like a charm. There was never any over-shooting as later happened with electric motor control.

The set for the opening scene was all bushland. There were saplings and tall gumtrees, and as those tree set-pieces came to the back, others replaced them, and for the first five minutes the audience saw only a changing scene. Then the soldiers marched on from the back of the stage with very short steps and then were very slowly brought round to the front of the stage. Additions and changes were meanwhile being made behind, even though the stage was still revolving. Naturally, timing was all important. At last the Inn appeared and with perfect and precise timing, the troops caught up. The command to ‘Halt!’ rang out, and there they were, right outside the exterior of Collits’ Inn. Throughout the production the revolving stage worked most efficiently as a means of changing scenes.

The librettist was Thomas Stuart Gurr (Varney Monk wrote the music and lyrics) and he was the father of Thomas Johnson Gurr, journalist and documentary film maker. I came in for a lot of publicity as Scenic Director (the designer was W.R. Coleman). I thought it was somewhat exaggerated but was told to pipe down and take what I was given. Anyhow, I knew that by any standards Collits’ Inn was good, and as I had painted most of it, I felt I had earned at least some of the plaudits, and let it go at that. This publicity was given an extra boost by some very spectacular shots of a horse race in a picture (the film was Thoroughbred with Helen Twelvetrees in the lead). This was obtained by a simple arrangement: the cameraman had his camera on a toboggan, towed by a car. The toboggan was practically under the horse’s hooves. It was also my responsibility to find a way of safely ‘crashing’ the leading horse in the race as in the script it fell dead just as it passed the post. Somehow we achieved the miracle of managing this, without injuring either the horse or the catapulting jockey.

After each picture was completed it was always the custom to have a cocktail party and a ball in the Studio. Everything was cleared from the floor, but any decorative sets were distributed around the walls to give the place some atmosphere. The capacity for tables around the sound-stage and the size of the dancing area determined the number of guests who received invitations. Applications for invitations were always double the number it was possible to accommodate. They were always highly enjoyable affairs—everyone came with the intention of enjoying themselves—and I guess everyone did just that.

Often I have taken in the milk, still dressed in tails, my wife in her evening gown, cooking breakfast, eggs and bacon for some friends. For one party we chartered the new ‘Curl Curl’—the new Sydney Harbour ferry, just arrived from England—all night, up and down the Harbour. It was a most successful party.

For the party which came after a Dad Rudd picture had finished, leaping ahead to my later ‘stint’ with Cinesound, we asked the guests to come in fancy dress. The costumes had to have a definite Rudd family flavour. The following doggerel constituted my special invitation to our guests. The date was Saturday, August 5th, 1939. World War II had not yet cast its shadow over everything and we could all still be gay on occasion.

Hey! Coming to Town with Dad and Dave?

Don’t bother to dress, don’t even shave.

Wear a beard or Dave’s ‘Clark Gable’,

Pad up for Mum, or slim down for Mabel.

We’re all to meet at Cinesound’s Place,

Ebley Street, Waverley, and just in case

You come to Ruddville minus a ticket,

There ain’t no chance of being admitted.

We’ll hop off at eight to this grand shivoo,

And drive the cows from the paddock round about two.

The Rudd family supplies the tucker to youse

But if you think you’ll be thirsty,

Bring your own booze.

RSVP This is urgent so please remit

Because 400’s the limit we're going to admit.


Published in General articles

header 1200Cover image: Programme cover for Rhapsodie of 1935 at Wests Theatre, Adelaide. State Library of South Australia. 

Scenic artist J. Alan Kenyon continues his account of his life working in Melbourne and Sydney during the 1920s and 1930s. In this chapter, he recounts his association with maverick theatre producer Ernest C. Rolls. Read Part 1»

The Importance of (being) Ernest C. Rolls


In the early 1930s before I went to Sydney and began my involvement with film-maker Ken Hall and Cinesound, Ernest C. Rolls made theatrical history in Australia with his revues and pantomimes. Ernest (Josef Adolph Darewski) Rolls emigrated from Warsaw to England in 1907 at the age of seventeen and in 1925, after several years as a theatre producer, travelled to Australia to stage his production of Aladdin for J.C. Williamson’s. His productions were most lavish in conception, and working eighty or one hundred hours a week in order to carry out his ideas was the rule rather than the exception. For the smallest black-out, there had to be a scene. There was one in particular that I really resented. It included a back-cloth and a cut-cloth, two wings aside and borders. As the lights faded in/up, a garden was revealed and an old lady sitting in an armchair with a handkerchief over her face. Her grand-daughter enters and asks solicitously “Grandmama, how are you today?” She repeats the question twice, whilst Grandmama slowly comes awake. She removes the handkerchief, regards her grand-daughter and snaps “Bloody awful!” Black-out.

Rolls was in the habit of handing me a list of perhaps twenty-five or thirty scenes. Knowing that all of them could not be used, I would whittle them down to the openings and finales of the first and second acts. Then I would concentrate on those I felt to be the most important and so on, leaving to the last those scenes which were most likely to be scrapped. These I never painted!

On one occasion, a chance remark of mine, to the effect that I was really concerned about the work which still remained to be finished, got round via the grapevine to Rolls. With his temper at boiling point, he came rushing up three flights of stairs to the paint room, at full gallop. Coleman’s stepson Jack, who also worked with us, chanced to be with me. Before Rolls could get started on his tirade of abuse, he solemnly warned him about the foolishness of rushing upstairs at his time of life. He spoke earnestly of the danger of a sudden heart attack. But Jack’s kindly consideration for his health was completely wasted on Rolls who threw himself into the attack. We were quite aware that his edged remarks were mainly due to his well-known early morning liverishness. It was 3 am—one attribute of Rolls was that he truly put in the hours—but Coleman and I began to get annoyed.

I was engaged in painting the Battle of Balaclava with masses of infantry and cavalry. Strewn about were the dead bodies of men and horses along with smashed guns—a lot of drawing and very realistic painting. At that exact moment I was painting life-size horses and was fully extended. Rolls finally decamped when I handed him the brush, with the suggestion that if he thought he could paint better and faster than I was already doing, he was more than welcome to try.

Another incident which happened just after breakfast (having worked all through the night): Coleman and I were on a scaffold working at painting an arch in black and gold. I was quite unaware that we had a spectator, until a startled yell from below broke the silence. Coleman had flicked his brush full of metallic gold paint and it had left a trail down Rolls’ waist-coat. It was an episode we were both very happy to remember. And another incident which centred around Coleman took place a bit later. While we were crossing the stage at the Princess one morning at 4 am we saw the property shells for one of the scenes I was working on belonging to Pearl of the Pacific lying about the stage. We had a good look at them and decided they were not good enough for the scene, so then and there we got busy with glue and glitter. We did endeavour to find something to cover the stage before we started—this we thought we had done satisfactorily.

We went off to a cafe in Bourke Street for breakfast, feeling righteously convinced we had done a good job. When we arrived back, a great commotion seemed to be going on around some glue spots on the stage. A lot of harsh words were being said about the thoughtless so-and-so’s who were giving the cleaners so much extra work. We said we were terribly sorry but we simply couldn’t find anything better to put beneath the shells. Nothing seemed to pacify anybody. In the theatre, temperament can spill over—even to the cleaners. Tired of the abuse, we exhorted them to get on with it and clean up, for heaven’s sake. Then Jack Coleman began a whistling rendition of Ramona. This so infuriated the head stage man that he threatened to commit mayhem if Coleman would not shut up.

Later Coleman went down on the stage with two buckets of colour, one of blue and one of green, to ‘lay in’ some rocks. He was still whistling Ramona, in spite of the warning given him, when this mechanist came up to Jack Coleman and landed a punch on his ear. Shaking his head, and glaring through his spectacles, Jack took careful aim and emptied the blue paint over the bloke. Taking his time, while his audience watched spellbound, he flung the green paint over the blue. The unfortunate mechanist was drowned in colour; but he got little sympathy from most of the hands who thoroughly enjoyed the somewhat different stage entertainment. It took a lot of time and solvent to clean up before the opening matinee.

There were mutterings about a stage strike, when Rolls intervened. He told the boys they could do as they damned well pleased. He reminded them that he could replace them immediately, but that he could not replace me and my staff. This cooled everybody down.

Quite a number of idiotic things happened in this period. I was standing in the middle of the stage, soon after midnight, going through intricate contortions trying to rid myself of a flea from around the waistline—which was driving me crazy. All of a sudden the midnight silence was abruptly shattered by gales of laughter from the fly-tower. The wardrobe women who had been watching, quite fascinated by my solitary acrobatics, had suddenly divined the reason for them. I was not, as they first thought, practising a native dance. I had a flea devouring me.

I had made it a condition that anyone who worked with me must first have their salary verified by the management, that they must negotiate that pay arrangement independent of me.  In that way I could not possibly be blamed for any discrimination. When Jack Coleman came to me and asserted he was worth more than he was getting, I said “All right, you speak to Rolls about it.” He came back from lunch one Wednesday with a smile from ear to ear, absolutely exuding joy and confidence. I regarded him sourly and grunted “What the hell have you got to grin about?” I added “This will wipe the smile off your face—we've got forty hours work to cram into ten!”

Then Jack related his story and the reason for his smiles. Turning the corner from Bourke Street into Spring Street, he had immediately been swallowed up by a tremendous crowd, absolutely swarming around the theatre. Pushing his way to the entrance of The Princess he saw the Full House sign going up. As he got closer, he spied ‘the great man himself’, Rolls, standing on the step with a smile of Federal Territory dimensions, and by his side, Joe Lyons, the Prime Minister. Never a one to emulate the angels when treading might become a fearful business, Jack Coleman pushed his way through to Rolls and tapped him on the arm. Rolls turned and, with what amounted for him a beatific smile, asked “What can I do for you, Coleman?” “I was just wondering if perhaps it had slipped your mind about the salary increase you promised me?” beamed Jack. “Absolutely not, Coleman,” replied Rolls, fairly radiating benevolence. “It will be there on Friday night.”

It was not long after that that Rolls was heard referring to Jack as that “bloody Coleman, asking for a rise when I was talking to the Prime Minister ...”

Ernest Rolls and I were quite good friends. He was an exceedingly shrewd man where his pocket was concerned and he was well aware that in employing me he really got his pound of flesh. He always knew that sort of thing, which probably had a great deal to do with his tremendous success as a producer.

During a lull between two productions, I had put a whole week into painting a garden cloth. When I arrived on stage one morning, I discovered the stage staff putting top and bottom battens in the pockets of my cloth. They were not taking the slightest amount of care and my cloth, a week's work, lay crushed and crumpled in a heap in the middle of the stage. I was so infuriated at the evidence of such stupidity that I outdid myself.

As I gazed at the ruined result, I really surprised myself with my powers of invective. I even went back a generation or two as I succinctly described these idiots. The result was they wrapped themselves in offended dignity and went on strike. When they put their grievances to E.C. Rolls he once again came in on my side, and reminded them that they were expendable, and I was not. A triumph maybe, but I still mourned my spoilt cloth.

Rolls had a name in the business as being extremely tough, but his worst detractors could not deny that he really knew his theatre. He could not be imposed upon. Once I overheard him say to a very brash imported artist who had foolishly disputed his ruling “As far as I'm concerned, you can catch the next boat back, old boy. I can easily do without you.”

On the only occasion when I had a week off with a bout of influenza I was accosted by Rolls “Where have you been? What's happening to the scenery and the new show?!” I did explain the reason and expressed concern that I had not been able to drag myself to the theatre, having a temperature and a few aches and pains associated with a dose of the ‘flu’... Maybe I was a little sarcastic! Perhaps it sank in through Rolls's rough hide—I felt a little put out and when he uttered what he thought would be the last word “Y’know, you're not an R.A.” I got in very smartly “No, and you're no bloody Cochran.” Rolls’s dead-pan suddenly broke into a smile. Irrespective of what people thought of him, I had proof of his stage genius and respected him as a showman.

One morning he told me that he had thought of a wonderful title for a presentation. This happened, he explained, in his bath. It was The Birth of Melody. Could I think about it and evolve something around the motif. I planned a fantasy and made a model. When I took this up to Rolls, I explained it was of course in conjunction with the story and presentation that I had come up with. “Okay, let’s have it.” So this is how I explained it should work.

Open up in a black-out, with just a glow from a small camp fire. Crouched over the fire a native beating a drum or tom-tom. Meanwhile the orchestra producing similar tones. To get away from the tom-tom, a roll of thunder, some lightning, etc. Fade in some ‘blue light’ which would show (on the model it did just this) clouds rolling by. The clouds revealed a nude—such as The Birth of Venus—and at the same time another cloud exposed a piano with an early composer getting an inspiration from the figure. The music by this time had taken up a melody. Another cloud showed The Three Graces and another pianist at a grand-piano following on with more music. Four groups of figures, four grand-pianos, until a large cloud in centre stage exposed a jazz band, playing jazz music. The lighting was full up and the stage full of the sounds of jazz.

Then from a flight of steps at the back of the stage came the chorus and the showgirls, dressed in silver lame and carrying silver trumpets. As they descended the steps the jazz music would fade out until complete black-out. Then bring back the camp fire and the tom-tom. Curtain.

“That’s fine, but not that end—the black-out would kill the applause!” Effect NOT got! That’s the commercial theatre for you.

At the rehearsal, it was very evident what would be a cause of great disappointment for me—not all the audience could see everything! That was to be understood with ten cut-cloths of mosquito-net cut like clouds. Some would interfere with the sight-line for some seats. Rolls pointed out the obvious, then called for a pair of scissors and started to cut away the offending parts of the netting so that the pianos were revealed to all parts of the auditorium. When he had finished, all semblance of clouds had disappeared, the set ruined, my sense of humour somewhat frayed, but I just sat and watched. Then Rolls handed the scissors to me saying “I seem to have mucked it up—I'll leave you to put it back.” Then he went home, whilst I repaired the damage.

Perhaps, along with me, only one man ever got the better of E.C. Rolls. I had told him I was the only one who knew how sets came together, because I painted them in bits and pieces—“So don't push too hard.” Although I never was sufficiently paid for the amount of work I did, Rolls never owed me a penny. I was paid ten to fifteen pounds during the Depression, according to the house takings, getting a reduction if they dropped. Many people and firms suffered.

One man who did get his pound of flesh was a tailor in Bourke Street, a little London East End Jew, by name Davis. He was my tailor and made me especially well-cut suits as an advertisement—sometimes not letting me have them out of the display window, where they were on show. The finale of one of Rolls’ Spectacular Revues was to the music from Tannhauser—the men were in green tail-coats, top-hats and canes.

It was opening at the Saturday matinee. Just before Davis the tailor closed on Saturday morning, Rolls sent someone down for the suits, promising to pay on the following Monday. That was not to be—Davis demanded payment before delivery. No argument was to alter this arrangement. Rolls hadn't got the money and a cheque was not acceptable. So it was only when the whole of the matinee takings were in that there was ready cash to pay for the suits—in time for the finale.

Possibly the most spectacular show Rolls produced was Flame of Desire (1935). I was told to make the scenery most elaborate, because if it failed here it would be shipped to New York and played there!

There were twelve full scenes with only one front set of flats, these representing a foyer and opening out into a ballroom. Each set touched the back wall and practically each side wall. This was Melbourne’s Apollo Theatre aka The Palace, later the Metro Nightclub … John Leigh Gray wrote the story and Maurice Gutteridge the music. I designed and painted the scenery and Joan Scardon and Erica Huppert were the costume designers.

The first scene was the Palace Courtyard. The flats were twenty-four feet high and there were one hundred and twenty people on the stage. The last scene—the Ballroom—had massive built columns in a circle around the stage. A platform surrounded the columns with ornate ornamental balustrades and steps down to the level of the stage. Mirrors hung at the back gave the set massive proportions. The rehearsals began at seven o'clock—they ended at three or four in the morning. This went on even to the very last rehearsal on the Friday night.

I cornered Rolls and explained to him that although it was none of my business setting up the stage and getting rid of the scenery, I thought we should concentrate on some practice doing just that. I suggested he come in on Saturday morning and run through the routine with the stage staff. He agreed. Rolls came in to the theatre in the morning with the announcement that he was going to the races! So, no rehearsal! I commiserated with Les King, the Stage Manager, who admitted that it would be chaos that night.

Anyway, I finished my last job at seven, painting a ten foot chandelier on three-ply, and I lowered it over the fly floor to the stage where the mechanist hung it on a pair of lines. Having a wash in the paint room sink, I changed into a dinner suit, pushed my way through near-naked ballet girls in their dressing-room to reach my seat in the stalls where I grabbed forty winks, waking to a roll of drums and seeing a spotlight on the stage pass-door, with Rolls coming through. He went into the orchestra pit where Maurice Gutteridge handed him the baton—Rolls conducted the orchestra. He was a musician, Herman Darewski his brother. The overture finished, Rolls took his bow, went back through the pass-door, back on stage, and in a few minutes the curtain went up—it was a quarter past eight—the miracle had happened. The show went rolling on with no hold-ups, and the final curtain came down at eleven twenty. Three hours: every rehearsal had taken six or eight hours. Rolls was the genius behind the stage—he directed the striking and setting of the scenery, which had to be carried out into Little Bourke Street in order to get rid of it and the next set brought in. How it was done I do not know, but I do know it happened.

The last time I saw ‘The Guv’nor’, Rolls, was on Bondi Beach. My wife and I chatted with him for some time. He died in London, in 1964, very much down at heel.


Published in General articles

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In early 2019 I was honoured and delighted to be contacted by one Lisa Kenyon, grand-daughter of J.A. Kenyon, scenic designer, artist, props-maker and special-effects man extraordinaire! She owned a copy of his memoirs and having recently come across THA articles on the designers and painters in Her Majesty’s Theatre paint room, felt this material should be shared.

She put me in touch with her cousin Miles who is the custodian of many examples of his grand-father’s work, models, designs, sketches, etc. Miles’s father John (who had also worked in the Paint Frame alongside his father, J. Alan, or George as he was also known), died in March 2019 at 90, another incredibly gifted, inventive and creative individual.

Thank you Lisa and Miles for your generosity and patience—I hope the following will meet, at the very least, with your joint approval!


It was a tall building—sixty feet high, sixty feet long and fifteen feet wide. Three flights of stairs led up to a floor halfway up. On this floor there were two pallets—seven by two feet—with pie dishes filled with colours mixed to the consistency of cream. A brush-box showed dozens of brushes ranging from six inches across to one quarter of an inch. There was a glue urn, urns for boiling water and gas jets to heat up buckets of colour. Stencils lined the walls each side of the stairs. Off the ’big room’ was another room called the ‘model room’ where the Master did his designing and made the set models. This was the paint room of the theatre—also known as the Paint Frame.

Hung on each side wall was a huge frame, suspended on cables and in turn joined up to winches, for taking these frames up and letting them down so that all painting was done at shoulder height. This is where I found myself one day in February 1923.

It all started in London at one of the Chelsea Art Balls. I had met an Australian girl at the Ball who was in London studying at the Royal College of Music. She of course knew of J.C. Williamson Theatres. She even remembered the name of the Scenic Artist—W.R. Coleman [William Rowland Coleman].

With a Royal Navy Commission, I, as hundreds of others, had been retired to the unemployed list, with the Seely-McDonald retrenchment. (See British Capitalism at the Crossroads, 1919-1932.) Having always wanted to do some painting, and at the age of 25, I took the bull by the forelock, writing to W.R. Coleman in Australia. He replied that although he would not promise me anything, if I came out, something may eventuate.

Leaving Scapa Flow—a body of water in the Orkney Islands—I spent a week or so travelling around saying goodbye to my relatives. I sailed from England, landed one day in Melbourne, saw Mr. Coleman the next day and started as his pupil the day after—and I have been flat out ever since.

During my over-forty years in the Entertainment Industry, I have worked eighty-one hundred-hour weeks, and one week even, one hundred and twenty hours.

The motto of my mother’s family was ‘Che sera, sera—What will be, will be’. One of her ancestors had at some time in the past thus acknowledged the immutability of fate. As far back as the life and times of my maternal great, great, great grandfather, who flourished in the early part of the 18th century, this probably worked out very nicely indeed.

This great, great, great grandfather was the father of four boys who were all suitably settled in their station of life by him. They squired their estates at Eynsford, Otford, Hawley and Plumstead, all in the County of Kent. I just remember my great grandfather and recall his brougham with the painted crest. He gave me half-a-crown if I could repeat ‘Che sera, sera’. My father attended a school where the boys wore yellow stockings, knee britches, and the two-tongued bib which is still worn by barristers.

My father was one of the school of hard-livers and hard drinkers, well known for various exploits which involved both. In addition, he had a Welsh temper, and was always involved in some argument or other, generally one with a religious basis. He took pride in being an agnostic and delighted in bringing Catholic or Protestant clerics home to do battle with him. The arguments always ended in the same way. As a child, wakened from sleep by the noise of crashing furniture, I would creep out onto the landing and peep through the bannisters to watch Father in an exuberant mood working havoc with the hall tables and chairs. In those days a man’s home was his castle and if he wished to wreck it that was his undoubted privilege.

My paternal grandmother was Welsh. I used to watch quite fascinated when she literally danced with temper having been teased by the menfolk of her family, who liked nothing better than to incite a display. There was an occasion when I decided it would be fun to provoke her just as my uncles did. It was Christmas and the whole family was coming to dinner. Grandmother was in the kitchen beginning preparations for the feast. I loved the huge kitchen with its tiled floor and gleaming brass and copper pans hanging over the massive fireplace, and went there as often as I was allowed. Grandmother was at the table busy with the biggest turkey I had ever seen. She was disembowelling it, practically up to her elbow in turkey. I was sufficiently ill-advised to start sniping at her with what I considered to be choice witticisms. Her arm left the turkey with the speed of an arrow and with deliberate aim threw the entrails right in my face. My discomfiture was not lessened by the delighted shrieks of everyone present.

My father had seven sisters. They were all very lovely to look at and great fun to be with. One married a Master Potter at Stoke-on-Trent. He supplied the market with—of all things—china jerries. They ranged from plain to highly ornamental. In the paint room at Her Majesty’s there is an unique collection of these useful objects. They are invaluable for using as receptacles in which we keep moist colour for the supply of colours on the pallets. Visitors invariably are moved to ribald comment when they see them for the first time.

My father was able to give my sister and brother a satisfactory education. I was a day-boy at George William College in London. These years were of tremendous help to me later on in Motion Picture production, particularly Maths, Chemistry’s ‘Light, Heat and Sound’, etc. My brother spent some years at a boarding school in Norfolk—my sister studied Art at South Kensington.

My mother’s destiny was considerably less happy than that of her fortunate forebears. Her life was shortened by the hardships she suffered during the hard winters of World War One. A combination of insufficient war rations for which she had to stand interminably in queues in the freezing cold, and the struggle to do her bit as a war-worker caused her to contract the pneumonia which resulted in her death. This happened while I was still at school.

The old aphorism ‘The Show Must Go On’ I found out, years later, and irrespective of circumstances, meant just that! It was one of my blackest days, standing with my wife, hearing the mournful words ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust’, pronounced over the tiny casket of our adored two and a half year old daughter. Then—back to the paint room to work all night. By this time I had built a house and turned a bedroom into a studio. I constructed a large frame that carried a canvas on which I practised painting—everything. Anything at all which grew or came somehow into the painting of scenery was grist for my mill. I joined the class at the National Gallery in Melbourne. I went into the bush every chance I got. This, however, is the paradox.

Chapter 1: In the Steps of Giants

Ihave often wondered what would be the personal reaction of some of the old scenic artists, if they could come back today, and see what we moderns had made of it. It would probably not be very complimentary. They all had the reputation of being tyrants, and were of course very conscious of the dignity of their profession. I distinctly recall a story told me by one of the very old members of the fraternity. His name was John Hennings and his father (also John) was a scenic painter and at various times a co-partner in the management of Melbourne's Theatre Royal, during the Coppin era. The story concerned one John Gordon (1872-1911), the son of George (1839-1899), who was the scenic artist at the Princess Theatre. He happened to also be an architect. His own son was in the paint room with his father. Arriving as was customary late in the morning—in those days the theatre and the paint room kept the same hours, everyone being there until the curtain fell at 11 pm—John Gordon enquired the whereabouts of young John. On being told he was up on the fly floor he demanded his instant return to the paint room. He then delivered a stern lecture on the undesirability of looking over the fly rails at the people on the stage below during rehearsal time. He particularly forbade any association at all with the ladies of the chorus, and he ended his diatribe with the solemn injunction to ‘uphold the dignity of the paint room at all times’.

One of the first modern scenic productions to be staged here in Melbourne was Noel Coward’s This Year of Grace produced at the Theatre Royal in 1929 in Melbourne's Bourke Street. We were given somewhat childish outline drawings which had been slightly tinted. W.R. Coleman had said to the mechanist “Any old canvas will do for this stuff.” When the first frame of scenery was ‘put on’ by the boys and the frame was being taken up, there appeared an assortment of really old flats, but one of them was entirely different. It was most beautifully painted—a piece of scenery from a set of an old castle. The painting of the weather-beaten stone was—well, old stonework. The creeper hanging between the castellated walls was so real one could pick off the leaves, and the moss was alive and damp. Mr. Coleman was painting on the other frame opposite—I called his  attention to this flat coming up through the cut. His face mirrored his astonishment. For a while he regarded it in silence and then muttered “Well! Well! Well! I remember that being painted—by a man called Stafford Hall.” He went on to say that Hall had worked for three months on this scene. It was then set up on the stage and lighted. Hall then had it returned to the frame and worked on it for another few weeks. The end of this story came when I found a box of old programmes in an office after Her Majesty’s had been burnt out, in 1929. One particular programme was for A Midsummer's Night Dream. It was beautifully printed in green and gold. It had come out (to Australia) with the complete production of the original painted scenes. I turned over the cover, and there on the front page was a list of the five scenes and the five different painters. They were painted by the greatest scenic artists of the time. They were household names in the profession. There they were—Stafford Hall (1858-1922), Hawes Craven (1837-1910), Conrad Tritschler (1868-1939), Joseph Harker (1855-1927) and William Rowland Coleman himself (1864-1932)—one scene represented the work of each painter. The ‘splodger’ primed out this beautiful painting and we settled down to draw up the rubbish which was requested for the next show.

George Upward (1880-1951), from whom I took over the paint room at Her Majesty's, had been articled to Walter Burley Griffin. Amongst much else, he had designed Melbourne's Capitol Theatre. The Capitol has such a really magnificent ceiling that it was decided to retain it during subsequent alterations. He was also an articled pupil of Phil Goatcher (1851-1931), another very famous English-born scenic artist, where his reputation as a ceiling painter ranked among the foremost of his time. One of the Collins Street shops has a ceiling which was the work of Goatcher. His draughtsmanship and his masterly treatment of detail put him in a class by himself. As a matter of fact, some of his scenery is still in store. Following in the footsteps of my predecessors, I was most grateful to ensure that when any of Goatcher's work was brought out to be used, it should be dusted and sized with great care. This process which had been followed over the years had, inevitably and unfortunately, dulled the colours.

One very beautiful scene which had originally been painted for Maritana (one of the most popular operas ever performed in Australia) was used for one of the scenes in Tosca. It was during an opera season when this particular scene came on the frame. Its beauty was still arresting, in spite of the passage of time since Goatcher had painted it (obviously not that of the first Australian production). Even after the passing of years, it still possessed all the magnificent draughtsmanship of ornament for which Phil Goatcher was so superbly a master. It had to be admitted that this work of art had faded, and I decided to touch it up. With the utmost care, and approaching the task with due reverence, I repainted the depth of the ornament and the highlights. It lived again, its beauty restored. At least so I thought. Unhappily, my pleasure and gratification were not shared.

George Upward, who after a stroke, had been told by Frank Tait to take things easy and keep out of the theatre, persisted in climbing the stairs to the paint room almost every day. The three flights would take him ten minutes of puffing and panting to make it upstairs. He was always exhausted when he arrived and was in no condition to be confronted with the horrible sight of me touching up one of Goatcher's masterpieces. Such sacrilege was enough to give him another stroke. Watching me must have been sheer hell. With measured steps and menacing frown, he approached within one foot, and in a savage tone he snarled “You bloody vandal!” There was another of Goatcher's famous cloths which I liked to think I had restored to something like its pristine beauty. This was the opening back-cloth depicting Venice in The Gondoliers. I not only repainted it, to bring back its lovely colours, but I had the colossal nerve to pull the sun around a little, and thus shed more light on the facade of the Chiesa della Salute in Venice. George was spared the sight of this piece of impertinence, otherwise it might really have meant heart failure for him. George died in 1951.

There was—perhaps it is still there somewhere—another cloth of this scene from The Gondoliers. It was painted either by George Gordon or Phil Goatcher. It was different in as much as it had hundreds of people coming down the steps out of the church. Each of these figures, though some were only an inch in height, was beautifully drawn. This cloth was hidden away in store by the head store-man. He was fanatically determined that it should not get into the hands of some philistine who would be unable to appreciate how unique it was. The thought of someone failing to treat such a masterpiece with the reverence due to it filled him with horror, and he was going to make every effort to prevent such a catastrophe.

George Upward was, as mentioned, the pupil of Goatcher, and what a task-master he was. Of course all the fine and finished work was executed by the master. The assistant was only allowed to help with the laying in. All day long the pupil had to copy ornamental and architectural drawing. Goatcher would never look at the work done by Upward until it was time to go home to dinner. If he did not consider the work to be absolutely perfect, George would have to go without his dinner and do it all over again. He would then finish up at about 11 pm. This procedure certainly aided the struggle for perfection on the part of the pupil.

Sunday was instruction day. There was no let-up for the unlucky pupil. As well as being driven into the ground by hard work enforced by the tactics of a brush-wielding Simon Legree, he had to pay a large premium for the privilege of getting into the paint room. There was a good reason underlying this. The master takes only one pupil out of all who offer themselves. This pupil goes through a rigorous training. The idea is that he will eventually take over from the master. This happens when the master retires, or as occasionally occurs in the theatre, he dies on the job. This accounts for the exclusiveness of this job, because it involves a continuity of handing over.

Any mention of ornament brings back vivid memories to me. I was extremely proud of a French interior which I had designed for a certain film production. The modelling staff had modelled it, only to take out all the plaster modelled ornament of the Louis XVl period reception room. I had a slight disagreement with the cameraman about this production. He demonstrated his cleverness to me by over-lighting every scrap of ornament on the walls. This gave them the appearance of being quite flat. I put a stop to any more funny business of that kind by having all ornamental detail at least an inch high on all future jobs.

Early on in my career I was working on the stage touching up the scenery of the operetta Cousin from Nowhere, in which Maud Fane and Claude Flemming were the stars, when Maud, who was a very whimsical lady, had the idea of perpetrating a joke on her co-star. She should have known that nothing could disconcert that gentleman once he was on stage, but she tried nevertheless. Because of his complete control, the joke fell flat. Because a certain common bedroom utensil is most convenient for mixing colour, and the enamel variety if very easy to clean, we made a lot of use of them. On this particular morning, I had one or two containing colour on the job while a rehearsal was in progress.

At the time, I was painting a panel above the door depicting a nude, when a voice, which I recognised as belonging to Miss Fane, floated up from below the ladder. “Just be careful what you are doing to that girl,” she laughed. She went on to discuss the girl's anatomy with an entire lack of inhibition. Then she requested the loan of one of the enamel pots. One of the sets of Cousin from Nowhere had two house exteriors. One house had a flight of steps leading up to the entrance. Maud Fane, chuckling to herself along with some girls in the cast, watched Claude Flemming coming up the steps. He was singing “I'm a wandering vagabond” in true romantic troubadour fashion. Maud's impish humour had given her the idea of setting the pot on the top landing. So she waited in the delighted expectation of the breakup of the ‘vagabond’ when he climbed high enough to catch sight of this object, so singularly lacking in romantic appeal. But true to his profession, he completely ignored its existence and continued to sing his number.

Recalling another amusing incident: on the opening night of The Cingalee, in 1930, the leading man had a song to sing but did not know his lines. He held a piece of paper with the words but was unable to read them. So he took out his spectacles and got on with the song. Then these started to fog up. You can imagine the state of the audience by this time—but when he got out his handkerchief and wiped the lenses, everyone was near collapse.

I recall the very first job I was given at the theatre, in the 1920s. It was to touch up a stage-cloth which was laid out across half the rehearsal floor. Minnie Everett (1874-1956), dancer, choreographer and producer, was rehearsing the chorus. The colour I was using had been made up out of old stock, and it was very smelly—just like rotten glue. “Take that stuff away from here!” snapped old Min. “It has a horrible smell.”

“I'm very sorry,” I told her, “but this is what I have been given to use.”

“We'll see about that!” she said angrily, “I'm not having that stinking stuff here!”

But I finished the job, smell or no smell. This was somewhat of a triumph, as Minnie Everett was a lady who seldom failed to get her own way with things.

And rolling forward to the current day, I recently took part in an interview with one of the radio stations. The session was conducted by Lois Lathleen. We found that we had quite a lot in common, as she had been involved in the theatre for a period. She told me that when she left the Conservatorium she did an audition for the Gilbert and Sullivan seasons in the 1930s. She made the grade, and sang in the chorus. In those days, the indomitable Minnie Everett was the producer. Minnie, who had also been for a very long time a ballet mistress (and a soloist with Madame Phillipini's Royal Ballerinas at the age of 19), always carried a stick with which she was wont to tap the ankles of offenders. All the girls regarded her as a holy terror. At one of the first rehearsals of The Mikado she came up to Lois and barked “Just what the hell do you think you are doing with that fan?” “I am left-handed,” explained Lois. Minnie glared at her and snapped “You'll be bloody ambidextrous by the time I've finished with you.” By the time Minnie and the stage reluctantly parted company, she was well on her way to becoming a legend.

The ultimate of painting is simplicity, but this can only be attained by having a thorough training in detail, knowing what to leave out and what to put in. Arriving at one's degree of this, it is very hard to force oneself to neglect the production of a finished detailed work. Eventually, one reaches a level of perfection, demanded in those days, which is only checked by one's own limitations.


To be continued ...

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