In Part 12 of his memoirs, J. ALAN KENYON recalls amusing episodes working on sets for Nellie Melba’s grand opera season in 1924 to Joan Sutherland’s in 1965, plus a few local and international stars of musicals and dramas in between.

Ready, Set, Go!

It was the Grand Opera Season of 1924 (I had been with JCW for just one year). The cast was headed by Nellie Melba and included quite a galaxy of talent: Toti dal Monte, Dion Borgioli, Apollo Granforte and Lina Scavizzi. It was tremendous fun watching, and trying, without understanding the language, to interpret the arguments, the actions and the antics which were constantly waged between the producer, the chorus master, the prompter, and the musical director. It was a battle which never seemed to end. In the ‘Nile scene’ in Aida with Franco Paolantonio, the chief maestro of the orchestra conducting, there were three notes on the timpani the drummer just could not get right.

To you and me, ‘da-da-da’ just means ‘da-da-da’ and nothing else. To Paul Antonio’s super-sensitive ear, they were either off beat or out of tune—which, I never did discover. After three attempts and three failures to satisfy him, and after holding up the orchestra three times, Paul’s rage and frustration reached the point of explosion. With arms stretched above his head, he broke his baton in halves, tore at his hair, and burst into loud sobs. Astonishment kept everybody silent.

It always came to my mind along with memories of Hamlet ‘It then draws the season—Wherein the spirit held his want to walk’ whenever I crossed the darkened stage of the Princess Theatre. It was necessary to put out all the lights before leaving the paint room, the switch being at the top of the stairs. In total darkness, with a loose board creaking eerily, one watched one’s step, particularly if one had once crashed over a chair in the line of travel. It is quite an experience crossing one hundred feet in total darkness, recalling the ghost of the Princess. During one Grand Opera performance of Faust at Melbourne’s Princess in 1888 Federici (Federick Baker) as Mephistopheles, in a puff of smoke, falls through a trap from the stage to the cellar. Nothing seemed amiss during the performance, everything had gone according to plan, except that when he reached the cellar he was later found to be dead.

Again about Grand Opera, and now in 1965, the Joan Sutherland Season will always be memorable for the repercussions on my department. There was a terrific amount of unnecessary work and worry which were all the result of inexperience. A very charming girl (Tonina Dorati, daughter of the great Antal Dorati) did the designs for all that season’s operas and although her charm was undeniable, alas, so was her inexperience. The first batch of designs came from London and they were for the first opera to be presented, which was Lucia di Lammermoor. The heads of departments were all called up to the Director’s office and were shown the sketches. As inevitably happens with such drawings, they had not been done to scale. This in itself was a frightful mistake and caused no end of complications.

The sketches showed sets of such gigantic dimensions that I remarked, somewhat sardonically I’m afraid, ‘If the curtain goes up at eight o’clock, the house will come out at two am.’ This sally received only a disdainful look. The design for the ‘mad scene’ was of such huge proportions that it swept from Opposite Prompt (OP) to Prompt Side (PS) and nearly touched the stage’s back wall. Everybody who knew the theatre (Her Majesty’s) and stage agreed that the set-up was completely and utterly impossible. However, some semblance had to be kept to the original in any of the alterations which we made.

The only yardstick for measurement was the recognized height of a step, which was about six or seven inches. Then, by counting the number of steps at these increases, it was possible to arrive at the height of the rostrum where the steps finished. From memory, I think I made this height to be seventeen feet—utterly impossible at the distance at which the back of the set was placed. Only the first rows of stall seats would see any action up there. All these sketches had been passed by the powers that be, so we had to get out of it as tactfully and safely as was possible. It was quite out of the question to use the drawings for construction and after a bit of anxious consultation, we eventually agreed on a ten-foot-high platform. This set, along with the others, was then constructed.

At one rehearsal, the Prima Donna made her entrance onto the platform from the OP side (left from the audience’s point of view). She was singing in full voice—the Mad Scene—and Joan Sutherland was at her truly magnificent best. The cast was standing gaping in amazed admiration. At the balcony, before descending the steps, Sutherland bent her knees and made the long descent in the same attitude. Arriving at the bottom, she waved her hand and asked ‘Can you see me at the back of the stalls?’

Each scene was rehearsed for setting and striking. Then the day arrived for a full rehearsal of all scenes and with the entire company. After cutting down the wall surrounding the platform of the first scene three times, both it and the platform were scrapped. The platform in the second scene was also thrown out—there simply was not time to set and strike it. Following that, one whole scene was thrown onto the scrap heap. Two thousand pounds worth of work and material careered merrily down the drain.

There was the incident concerning a designer, with an extremely lofty and quite unjustified idea of his own importance, being especially imported from England to do an opera. He came with his sketches prepared and announced importantly to the quite mystified carpenters that his style was ‘free’! In spite of this blithe explanation, they continued to regard his drawings of bent columns and falling-over walls—doubtfully. He would come up to the paint room, pick up his sketch and insist that every brush stroke and variation of colour be faithfully copied. Incidentally, while he was in the paint room one night, putting some artistic touches to a cloak which needed to look old and rain-sodden, he had practically flooded the floor. I’m afraid I told him a few home truths.

It was inevitable that a man of his tyrannical type would wait his opportunity to catch me out. One day he decided that the time was right for getting his own back. Joyfully, he picked out a blob in the corner of a design, saying triumphantly, ‘This very nice piece of variation has been left out. Why?’ His triumph was short-lived. I explained to him very happily that that particular piece of decoration was simply a smear of colour we had put on ourselves when matching the hue. One hoped that his ego was at least a little dinted.

Wildflower Acts 1 3 1Wildflower (1924), Acts 1 & 3 set. JCW Scene Books, Book 07-0016, Theatre Heritage Australia.

We were taught never to try and get self-publicity by the design of our sets. If the sets are meant to produce atmosphere, they should take their place, do their job perfectly, and be forgotten. If they are so blatant that the audience is attracted to them, they are not serving their purpose. But sometimes the show opens with an empty scene, and it is then the scenic artist may let himself go, and maybe receive a round of applause. The opening scene of Wildflower (1924) with Marie Burke reproduced a village square at the foot of a range of mountains. As the lamplighter makes his rounds, putting out the lamps, the sun is rising. The effect achieved by Mr. Coleman was really spectacular. As the sun rose it hit the top of a mountain, then slowly illuminated the whole side of it, the lighting slowly fading in on the scene at the same time until the sun was fully up and the scene fully lit. Of course, in those days the scenic artist lit his scenery—today there are lighting experts who use, I think, dozens of spots in a less effective way than that of the old floods and light battens. Also, there is too much building of architraves, cornice moulds, etc. There are very few designers who have had paint room experience and served a theatre apprenticeship. The audience is of course aware that the background is only painted canvas on a wooden frame and accept it as such. This supposes always that the painting of the scenery is up to a standard. In my experience, not one person in a thousand cares two hoots about art in the theatre—they want entertainment, good acting and good music. (Editor’s note: I hate to think this is still true to this day!)

One of the best sets I ever painted was the result of a disagreement between a team consisting of a husband and wife. The husband, John McCallum, was the producer, and he talked to me about the set for the show, its locale Scotland. It was decided that the timber interior should be painted a honey colour to represent Scotch Fir. This was done, and a lot of careful, very nice work went into the painting. When the scenery was set up on stage, the following dialogue took place:

Googie Withers: It should be grey.

John McCallum: But it’s a Scotch interior of pine wood.

GW: (Very decidedly) It should be grey.

JMcC: But it’s such a lovely set.

GW: (More decidedly) It should be grey.

JMcC: (Resignedly) Okay. But it will have to be repainted.

So it was repainted although there was scarcely any time to have it back on the frame, as it was wanted for rehearsal. So, I had it laid out flat on the trestles, one piece at a time. We mixed a bucket of grey glazed colour and hurriedly slopped it over the flats. Before they were dry, they were taken off the trestles and stood up. The colour settled in puddles in some places, then it ran off here and there, occasionally missing some areas. By accident and without design, the set was wonderful. If we had spent weeks on the painting, the result would never have been half so effective.  Such lucky accidents do sometimes happen.

Perhaps the most outstanding, and the best of all the producers, was Oscar Asche (1871-1936). As well as being a superb actor and producer, he was a master of lighting. He disliked giving what he considered to be ‘unnecessary explanations’. For example, he would say to an electrician, ‘Put a row of lamps up here on the fly rails, and don’t ask me if I need any on the other side. The sun only shines one way.’

He was a big man in every way. His completely authentic thoroughness in production was evidenced at its best in The Skin Game (1925). In this play the script called for him to be drowned in a canal. The dour North Country man was drowned, and he stayed drowned—he never took a curtain call at the end of the show. This piece of realism added considerably to the play’s impact on the audience. He produced Chu Chin Chow (early 1920s) magnificently. Then there was Cairo (1922) and Julius Caesar (also 1920s) in which he was an unforgettable Marc Antony. Julius Caesar was presented in black drapery. I remember him coming up to the paint room to consult Mr. Coleman about the black velvet for the surround and he was shown three or four samples of velvet. Then he enquired, ‘Which is the most expensive?’ He was told and he said, ‘Well, that’s the one I want.’ He was indeed a perfectionist.

nla.obj 148804720 1 2Gladys Moncrieff, centre, and full cast onstage in A Southern Maid, 1924. Photo by Talma, Melbourne. National Library of Australia, Canberra.

When he produced Southern Maid (1923) starring Gladys Moncrieff the rehearsal was not up to his standard of perfection. It was a rehearsal of the orange-groves scene and had been painted by Coleman. Oscar Asche ordered all the cast into the stalls and when he had them all there, he pronounced, ‘Take a look at that scene. Now, go back and act up to it.’ He never asked—he ordered. He was even known to use his not-inconsiderable weight to emphasize his meaning. He stood no nonsense from anyone.

Another producer who was a character in his own right was George A. Highland (1870-1954). He was another man who really knew his job, and how to get the best out of everyone. He himself was an arrant exhibitionist and invariably on a first night when he took his curtain call, he would partially undress and appear in a state of collapse. Though on one occasion his roughed-up appearance for his curtain call had been acquired the hard way. There was a platform which moved up and down the stage, pulled by a wire. In his haste to take his call, George forgot about the wire and tripped, falling headlong onto the stage. The boys rushed to pick him up and help him to take his call, but he was very shaken and had no need to simulate distress that night.

The stage staff who see all the shows, watching with the closest attention a tremendous variety of performers and performances, get a real education in the theatre, and they are never at a loss for an answer. Their repartee is usually terse and very much to the point. They develop over the years a very particular sense of humour, typical of and peculiar to, the stage. With a sprinkling of profanity, their descriptions are usually both trenchant and apt—they pounce on the funny side of any development and are always quick to turn any situation into a joke.

The Russian Osipov Balalaika Orchestra was rehearsing on stage for the first time (1937) and I stayed to listen for a few minutes. Going back to the paint room I was followed by one of the stage staff. He asked if I had heard the Russians playing, and was I there at the end of the number which happened to be the finale of the show ...? I told him I had come away before the end. He grinned, then said that they had begun very softly, making only a faint sound and then worked up to a great crashing crescendo, only to stop abruptly. The conductor cut them off suddenly with a lightning fall of his baton. Then he turned around dramatically to the audience and roared ‘Ooos-a pop!’ A small voice from the back squeaked ‘I am.’ This bit of typical humour was apparently conceived on the spot.

An imported producer was rehearsing a show which contained a children’s ballet within its production. The kids had jacked up for some reason only known to themselves and were making no progress whatever. They seemed too dumb-struck and listless to try and get anything right. The producer made them go over and over the same thing with no appreciable results and, driven desperate by their non-co-operation, he made them an offer of two shillings each if they only got somewhere near the effect he wanted. He said, ‘Now let’s try it again.’ This time it was nearly perfect. The producer was heard to mutter, ‘I’ve come 12,000 miles to be taken in by a lot of bloody Australian kids ...’

One very satisfactory painting job (in films) was the reproduction of an all-black marble hotel foyer—the St. Francis—in, I think, Los Angeles. On a sheet of glass, with various tones, from black to white, of plaster, we turned out slabs of very creditable and credible imitation marble. Pouring on the black, cracking the glass, we then poured on the grey and white mixtures. Viewing the job by a mirror under the sheet of glass, we were able to control the effect. The large round columns were more difficult, but we made them on a form quite successfully. Whilst on technique, practically anything from brick walls to palm trees can be replicated using plaster moulds, made from casts of the job.

As an example of the futility of building features of interiors I give the opening scene of Lady of the Rose (1925) as a classic. This set was completely fabricated by Wunderlich in pressed metal. All the columns’ bases and caps, cornices, friezes and architraves were in this pressed metal and it was an utter failure as the lighting flattened it all. Mr. Coleman gave me the job of climbing all over the set, painting in the darks and the highlights, on this reproduction of the entrance to the Royal Academy in London’s Burlington Arcade. This meant I had to paint between the acanthus leaves and volutes of the capitals, the ornamentation of the friezes and the flutes of the columns. Then I had to add the highlights for the lot—it involved my going up and down a ladder all day long, until the work was finished. This building of separate parts in set construction never works out successfully, because always, and I emphasize always, it becomes necessary to paint in the darks and lights afterwards. If this is not done, it all appears to be completely flat. Painted moulding is unquestionably the best way for stage presentation.

From my workroom I had a clear view of the hiring department, when I once spied someone handling a lion’s head—which brings me in on cue. One of the important people I had with me in the Production Studio was a man called Max Krumbach. He was the modeller and plaster expert, and a complete master of his job. He could extricate a plaster mould from a cast, nearly as thin as cardboard. His father was a sculptor mason, and Max related to me the following story. Incidentally, I later had the opportunity to verify every word he uttered. His father and another man were the sculptors who modelled the lion’s heads which adorn the base corners on each side of the Sydney Town Hall. The foreman builder on the job was an irascible old Scot and when he was making his rounds it was his habit to contort his face into a leering mask of disapproval as he observed the progress. 

Eventually the building was completed and ready for the opening ceremony. The last job was of course the cleaning up. At the end of the building, against the last corner, had been stacked a huge heap of timber. This was the last thing to be removed and when the workmen pulling the leaning boards away, there was the lion’s head. No-one seeing it could doubt that it was a clever caricature—there was the characteristic leer and grimace of the old Scot, carved into the lion’s visage.

The same Max Krumbach had modelled a huge whale for one of the floats in Sydney’s Sesquicentenary Celebrations. He had finished the wire netting and the plaster-work on the whale, and it was ready for painting. The man whom I deputized to paint the job was a rather bumptious type who had managed to get under Krumbach’s skin. Every time this chap attempted to commence painting, a stentorian voice would boom out ‘Keep off that bloody whale!’ In the interests of peace and progress, I had to replace this painter with someone more acceptable to Krumbach, the master.

To be continued