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

State of Play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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