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

Out on a Limb

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

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

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

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

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

‘Well?’ I inquired.

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

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

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

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

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

I said ‘What are you talking about?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


To be continued