The Hole of the Truth …
It is the unrehearsed comedy and drama of the theatre that the audience never sees that gives the job behind the scenes its fascination. One becomes absorbed to the exclusion of everything else in the rush and scramble of a scene change, especially during a blackout, for example, when the stage is in complete darkness.
On the opening night of Annie Get Your Gun (1948), Claude Flemming, who starred as Buffalo Bill and had an exaggerated fear of heights, even at the slightly absurd height of six or seven feet, always wanted a helping hand. The finale of Annie was a cloth with two painted horses, one on each side. A hole was cut above each horse and reinforced to carry a saddle, etc. One side was for Buffalo Bill, the other was for Pawnee Bill. On the other side of the cut there was a platform and each Bill, when on his platform, cocked a leg over the saddle and put a foot into the stirrup. On the platform for Buffalo Bill was also another foothold, plus a hand-grip to be held by the hand not holding the reins. To make assurance double sure, one of the stagehands had hold of one of Flemming’s arms, off stage. Shades of Buffalo Bill …!
This finale was set after a blackout of the previous scene. If you have never seen an 18 foot high by 6 foot wide flat handled by one man, you would be amazed to see one of these flats folded, then man-handled off the stage and thrown against the wall into what is known as a pack. On this particular night, one of these flats did not quite make the wall in the blackout. It overbalanced away from the wall and naturally, fell back onto the stage. A piece of scenery of such dimensions does not fall quickly but it falls quite sufficiently hard enough to do some damage when it makes contact. Very unhappily the contact turned out to be Pawnee Bill’s head, and he was knocked out. There was not time to bring him round—and it was too near the end to consider dropping the curtain. So the unlucky actor was carted up the steps onto his platform to take his place on his steed.
His inert leg was manipulated over the saddle, his foot placed in the stirrup and his hands on the reins. Supported by stagehands this gave some semblance of being in the show, although he was still unconscious. Buffalo Bill was of course being held, because of his phobia about heights, on the horse across the way at the other side of the cloth.
Another incident concerning flats happened during a scene change. These flats are held together, that is, one to another, by toggle and line. At the top of one flat is attached a length of sash cord and on the same place on the flat that is to be joined is a piece of 4 inch by 1 inch square timber with the top cut away, so that the sash-line when flicked into the mouth, is held and pulled tight, at the same time clamping up the two flats. The two flats are held approximately 6 to 8 inches apart. The sash-line is then flicked up and if luck is with you its loop falls into the mouth of the toggle. It is by no means easy to accomplish this and as a matter of fact it requires a sleight of hand only achieved after a lot of practice. On this particular night a man was being given instructions how to achieve this—but he was having no success at all and time was running out. The man in charge, made careless by impatience, put his head between the flats in an attempt to discover what was causing the holdup. Then of course the unexpected did happen. The new man threw again, and this time he made contact—the line was at last in the toggle. Having everything in line to close up, he happily pulled the line and the two flats came—or rather should have come—together.
Full of pride in his accomplishment, he gazed upwards, quite unaware that the unfortunate mechanist’s head was still between the flats. He pulled harder, and the harder he pulled the nearer he came to choking the poor man. When the mechanist was finally set free, the stage hand had to listen to some very choice things about himself.
The person who enjoys more importance and usually gets his way about most things on the stage is the producer. Some have more suitability and ability than others. In Oklahoma (1949) there was a ballet scene consisting of a simple cut-cloth of trees. It was my opinion that this would certainly need framing after it had been cut out. The mechanist had objected ‘Aw, we don’t want to frame it—it’s such a ruddy nuisance when it has to travel.’ This was strictly true—all the 3-ply has to come off and be tacked on again before the next opening. I was sure, however, that the producer would not wish to see the trees waving about, as they certainly would, with the action of the dancers weaving in and out of them. Ted Hammerstein (cousin to Oscar Hammerstein II and Stage Manager on the original Broadway production) came to produce the show. We showed him all the scenery and we were very gratified when he told us it measured up to anything he had seen anywhere. ‘There is just one thing,’ he said. ‘I would like to have the tree cut-cloth framed.’ The mechanist said we never did such things—it wasn’t done! This was sheer pig-headedness. ‘Okay!’ agreed the director. So all through the week the cast rehearsed the scene.
It has always been the custom to check all scenes and props on the Saturday morning of the opening at night. It is routine to go through everything backwards, as the set for the last scene is the opening scene ready for the show at night. On this particular Saturday the procedure was unvaried and the mechanist had just dismissed the stage staff, telling them they were free until they were due back at 7.30 pm. Just then a voice came from the stalls—‘Charlie, I want the cut-cloth framed.’ There was no argument—it was framed: but it took until late Saturday afternoon to do it.
I had redesigned sets for a well-known imported actor. Because they were unlike those he had worked with overseas, he threw a tantrum and became very disagreeable indeed. The scenes were set up. Then Edward J. Tait and Harald Bowden, director and manager, along with myself, looked at the sets from the stalls. No one spoke. It was left to Mr. Tait to make the opening gambit. He took up the challenge and asked ‘Well, what about it?’ The actor, with quite a degree of petulance snapped that they were not the same as he had had in the London production. He was then asked what difference did that make? He made no reply. ‘Well,’ said E.J. Tait. ‘I think they are most attractive.’ Then the actor found his voice ‘They are too attractive—I couldn’t act in front of them.’ Actually, he really did have a point there—no scenery should be so intrusive as to draw attention away from the actors. It is a cardinal sin for it to assert itself. This is one of the hard and fast rules which a set designer must obey.
I recall an instance where a certain actor was discovered to be seeking an excuse for a project of his own. It emerged after a few days when he brought one of Sydney’s women painters to check on my painting for a show whose title now totally eludes me. We did not see eye to eye on anything—we completely disagreed on technique—and the result led to something of an altercation. When people lose their temper with me I cannot resist the impulse to grin at them. It has never had much of a calming effect on anyone.
This particular actor stamped his foot on the stage and shouted ‘I’m the boss and I’ll have things the way I want them!’ I told him he could most certainly have his own way, and at the same time take a ‘running jump in the lake’. Up to the office he rushed to make his complaint to management. I went back to the paint room and went on with the job. Some time later I heard a voice calling me from the stage. I looked down through the cut in the floor and saw E.J. Tait: his exact words were ‘You alright, George?’ ‘I’m fine,’ I answered, and I felt fine—hearing his voice and sensing the warmth in it. ‘Well, never mind … (naming the actor) he’s here today and gone tomorrow. We hope that you will be with us for a long time.’ That is the kind of attitude which inspires the people of the theatre to go all out to do their best in this strange industry. It is so unlike any other that an occasional boost to one’s ego is most welcome.
My ego was not always uplifted by happenings in the theatre—sometimes entirely the opposite occurred and I was very badly deflated. On one occasion I had been called into consultation with the management of an Italian Opera Company about the forthcoming season. During discussions of matters pertaining to the scenery, I was always referred to as ‘il scena artista’—which seemed alright to me. So I designed and painted the sets for their two operas and they were duly performed. This was a private job. I sent in my account but after a few weeks had gone by and nothing had happened, I heard from somebody that a meeting was to be held at the Princess Theatre. Hoping that I could get some finality from the directors, I wandered up to the foyer just before the meeting was due to commence. Alas! The atmosphere had lost its warmth—there were no nods and becks and wreathed smiles and murmurs of ‘il scena artista’. Instead, I distinctly heard a ‘stage whisper’ from someone ‘Look out—here comes the bloody painter.’ However, eventually I was paid.
Although there was a job for which I never did receive just payment. This happened when I did some work for a certain religious sect. I was approached concerning this job by a very well-known singer who had sung in opera overseas. I was asked if I would handle the production of a show, celebrating the centenary of this Order. I made my estimate of the cost, but was told that it was quite out of the question. Couldn’t I suggest a much cheaper way of doing things, thereby reducing the cost? At length after a lot of talk it was decided that instead of using expensive canvas we would make the ‘cloths’ out of brown paper. The two men I had with me got busy on the stage and glued lengths of brown paper together. There were at least six of them, plus a painted scrim. This was depicting a decorative frame of angels and cupids and so on. In regard to the financial aspect of the job it was arranged that my assistants were to be paid on a weekly basis, rent of the paint room was also to be charged and I was to receive a percentage of the takings on each of the three nights the show was to run. The show actually had its season extended to six nights, because the whole show was such a huge success!
But the first night almost ended in tragedy. In those days lighting, in what is now the Metro Theatre in Collins Street, Melbourne (see note below) was not all that could be desired. Hanging, as part of the general lighting, was a naked 1000 Watt globe, a working-light for the stage. There were tiers of seating across the back wall of the stage, crammed with children. The screen, on which was a portrait of the Founder of the Order, was hanging there, until the concert was due to start. It was then rolled up like a verandah blind. Unfortunately the rolled-up screen came in contact with the 1000 Watt globe and the inevitable happened—it caught fire. At first the two hundred children just made frightened noises—but these soon swelled to panicked screaming. They left their seats and milled around the stage in a yelling mob. All hell broke loose! I shouted instructions in a voice rivalling a sergeant major in the Irish Watch ... They could not even hear me. In any case we had enough trouble getting the burning screen and the painted scrim down and off the stage. When they were halfway down the house curtains parted slightly and the audience saw the fire for the first time. I grabbed the fabric and pulled them closed. I got singed a little and lost some hair as the burning screens came level with me. Somehow we got a clear passage from the stage to the back and at last smothered the fire although the screens were completely ruined. After the show we worked all night painting a new show curtain and it was hung ready for the following performance. The offending lamp was removed. There had been no protests from the Fire Brigade and the six performances showed ‘House Full’ every night. The theatre was given free, and nothing was charged for the management— actually expenses were very few. Six shows must have shown a very handsome profit. I received a cheque for 25 pounds. My estimate was 125 pounds. Well, one lives and occasionally learns.
Evelyn Laye and her husband Frank Lawton first played in Melbourne in a show called September Tide (1951). In the play they lived above a boat-house and at the end of Act 1 Lawton was to go through a trap in the stage down to the boat-house below—the carpenters were busy cutting the trap set-up. Evelyn rang me, asking me over to see her. Her first words were that she would buy me two double whiskies because she simply ‘adored the set’. It was her favourite colour—but she said, ‘Do look at the frock my dresser is holding—I bought it specially and it cost me such a lot of money.’ It was the exact colour and tone of the scenery: we repainted the set!
Evelyn Laye was beautiful, charming and the epitome of elegance and she spoke to all and sundry in her beautiful speaking voice. As she left the stage to go to her dressing-room, the boys having finished cutting the hole for the trap, it was a revelation, simply amazing, to hear a pure cockney voice saying ‘Blimey, what a bloody awful ’ole!’
Apropos another hole, Dion Boucicault was producing The Admirable Crichton at the King’s Theatre in Melbourne in 1926. He was always immaculate in black coat, striped trousers and spats. The effects for a thunderstorm were made up in the flies by means of cannon balls rolling down steps and onto a sheet of tin. Boucicault wanted the thunder louder so he called up to the property operator—one Bill Richards—‘A little louder Billy—do it again.’ It was done again but of course there was no control over the method and it sounded exactly the same as before.
‘No Billy, a little louder!’ But it was of no use. Dion left the stage and climbed up the steel-runged ladder attached to the side wall of the stage, and up through the floor of the flies. As he arrived at this hole, he poked his head through. ‘My God! What a dirty hole…’ and he came back down again.
A hole with a difference comes to mind.
During the filming of a comedy which took place on location, a haystack was to catch fire when the fire-engine dashed through it. The structure was merely a frame shell with wire netting, covered with straw. A props man was to saturate the interior with petrol, then make a trail to a safe distance so that he could throw a match from his end. This of course should happen just as the fire-engine emerged.
For some unknown reason this man lit the match whilst he was still in the ‘haystack’. Although he was making his trail through a hole left for that purpose, he was not prepared for the extra boost he got when the petrol exploded. He shot out so rapidly that he avoided being burnt but unfortunately, he also misjudged this timing. The fire-engine was too far away to give the desired effect and he was in the picture, being catapulted through the air!
Of course it had to be done again but the stack was a tangled mass of ashes and wire netting. To add to our troubles the clouds had started to bank up and blot out the sun. Also—it was Saturday afternoon and all the shops were shut. We needed extra straw for another haystack.
Going into town we discovered the owner of the hay and corn store was playing in the local cricket team and was batting. Hoping he would get out smartly, we just had to wait. He was caught out soon after and we persuaded him to open up his store to supply us with some bundles of straw. Back on location we rebuilt the haystack and the sun peeped through the clouds sufficiently enough for us to get the shot.
It was to a fire in a barn that the fire-engine was driven through the haystack—the firing of the actual barn on location was to be faked. A very careful detailed model was constructed of this building, complete inside as well as outside. This model was taken on location and positioned on cantilevered arms about six feet away from the camera. It was on a base, surrounded by old carts, fencing, etc. This merged into the distant landscape several hundred yards away. It was set on fire and filmed in slow motion. As the walls collapsed, the interior with horse-stalls and so on were seen, until it burned to the ground and we finally got the result that we desired.
I had become very friendly with Mr. and Mrs. C.T. Lorenz of Sydney. Carl Lorenz had a flourishing business with shops—he was an optician and optometrist—in practically every suburb in Sydney. I had designed and fitted out for him a three storey shop, after gutting the original premises. The lower ground floor was for general examinations, etc., the next floor was for offices and the next housed the workshops.
Clarice Lorenz had bought a very large house at Bathurst. This rambling blue-stone mansion required some renovations—which I planned and had done for them. Wallpapers and carpets had been selected, with no emphasis on cost. Unfortunately an accident had happened to the wallpaper at one top corner in the master bedroom—water had entered from a blocked gutter and spoilt it completely. I got rid of the segment which had been ruined and patched up the blank space, not with the same costly wallpaper but by painting matching colours into the missing patch. It was remarkable how successful this was.
A very long and high corridor ran right through the house. Carl had arranged for a painter from Bathurst to come in and paint the ceiling. Leaving my room one morning on my way to breakfast, I came face to face with two very high trestles, topped with a narrow plank. An odd character who could have modelled for Fred in the ‘Right, said Fred’ comedy routine, was standing by the trestles surveying, in a contemplative fashion, a full four-gallon petrol-tin of paint. Wishing this character ‘Good morning’ I inquired if he really intended to take the tin up onto the plank—and a 9 inch plank at that. Regarding me sourly, he assured me that he had had many years of experience. ‘I know me job,’ he said, with an air of ‘And you can mind your own bloody business’. Shrugging aside my misgivings I continued on my way to breakfast. Several ghastly events came in quick sequence—as I sat down at the table the seat of the antique chair slipped and the end of my vertebrae, where the tail was once joined, scraped down the wood of the seat.
Shutting my eyes and shuddering while electric thrills were rushing round my body, I was subconsciously prepared for the unholy clatter and din which suddenly shattered the early morning silence. Clarice and I dashed out into the passage, to be confronted with a most horrifying (if not all that surprising) sight. Fred had maneuvered his full pot of paint up onto the plank, only for disaster to overtake him. He overbalanced, knocking over the tin, and four gallons of paint splashed onto the walls, forming a river of paint which crossed the fantastically expensive carpet and flowed to the door of the billiard room and into one of the bedrooms. It seemed incredible that a mere four gallons could cover so much space. There was only one redeeming feature to this stupid, stupid incident. It was a water-based paint and after many days and much labour, and with dozens of buckets of clean water, most of the paint was washed out of the carpet and off the walls.
It should be of interest to note here that Clarice Lorenz was the power and guiding force behind the forming and financing of the opera company in Sydney. She spent huge sums of money keeping opera going in Sydney, and was possibly the most persistent advocate responsible for the building of the Sydney Opera House. It is rather sad to have to state that nowhere will anyone be able to discover any evidence that her tremendous output of money and energy were in any way appreciated. Both Carl and Clarice Lorenz were musicians of concert standard and I felt highly privileged to attend a performance by Carl on his grand piano, accompanied by his wife on her harp. Together they made music of an enthralling quality.
NOTE: Melbourne’s first concert hall, the Auditorium, located at 171 Collins Street, opened in 1913. Built and managed by J. & N. Tait, the complex comprised an eight-story office building with a three-tiered performance space on the ground level. Though principally a venue for live concerts, it was also used for the screening of silent movies. By the 1934, under the management of MGM, the venue was remodelled into a ‘modern’ cinema and renamed the Metro Collins. In 1975, Greater Union took over the cinema and it became known as the Mayfair Theatre. This closed in 1982 and the space was remodelled as Figgins’ Diorama, an exclusive department store. This venture lasted only 19 months and another short-lived retail venture took over. In 2010, the building was demolished and the facade was incorportated into a new 17-story office development.