In Part 13 of his memoirs, J. ALAN KENYON recalls numerous events from his career as a scenic artist in both theatre and film, ranging from the gay to the grave.

The Masks of Comedy and Tragedy

During the course of thirty years, assistants in the paint room have been many and varied. The junior member—who is of course not necessarily the youngest—has the task of keeping the room neat and orderly. He had to wash the brushes and pallets, and there was one man who kept the place spotless. Bob was regarded as being the doyen of all paint room assistants. The brushes were scrubbed and even scraped with a knife to remove any caked bits of colour. He usually came up the stairs two at a time, generally humming one of the current hits. He ate heartily and to all appearances was completely happy and content and in full enjoyment of his life. At this particular time, I had engaged a new pupil who was straight from Art School. Being the first to arrive, he had opened up the paint room only to get the shock of his young life. Bob was lying outside the door of my room—it was only too obvious that he was dead.

We left the body where it was until the police had duly arrived. When the remains of poor Bob were turned over, a gun was discovered. Bob had shot himself. No-one was able to supply or suggest a reason and all we could offer in reply to police questioning was a puzzled “But he always seemed so happy … ” Someone very aptly remarked “The heart knoweth its own bitterness”. This was especially true in the sad case of Bob.

He left us in somewhat of a hole—I had to get a new carpet for my room and we were very hard-pressed at the time and the loss of his valuable help was felt keenly. They say that no-one is ever really missed: Bob gave the lie to this, because we undoubtedly missed him.

Most people who work in the theatre are superstitious. I have known some to have a horror of the colour green, others are scared of peacock feathers. We were working on a picture with Bert Bailey [Dad and Dave Come to Town, 1938] and the script required him to put his foot in a sling trap. The trap consisted of a loop on the end of a rope, which was tied to a bent-over sapling. When a fox or any other animal disturbed it the holding peg allowed the sapling to fly back, and the noose at the end of the rope to tighten, holding the animal suspended in the air. It was a comedy act, calling for Bert to be caught in the trap and hang by his leg, upside down off the ground.

To prevent any great chafing of his ankle, the property man had a piece of felt to do the job. Unhappily it was, of course, green, and Bert gave tongue with loud and long protest. Green was unlucky! Everyone in the profession was aware of that …! The props man searched but could not come up with anything of another colour. It was only when everyone had expressed themselves pretty freely concerning the idiocy of wasting time in this way, that Bert said he would take the risk of breaking his ankle or his neck. His courage was rewarded by his breaking neither. After stoically hanging upside down from the sapling, he returned to terra firma safe and sound.  So much for superstition.

It was during the shooting of this picture that the rear projection screen got damaged. The cameraman had a piece of three-ply nailed on the top of the frame holding the screen firm. The screen was my responsibility but I was out of the studio when this job was done—the three-ply nailed to the top of the screen frame by two one-inch nails. I had had the experience of many accidents to my ‘credit’, so I was beginning to be very careful and certainly I would have used more nails. In this case, with the moving of the screen into position, the ply at last worked loose from the frame and together with the two nails, fell down the screen, tearing a long gash at the bottom. When I returned to the studio I stepped straight into the ensuring shemozzle. Naturally I was prepared for the inevitable question “What are you going to do about it?”.

What I had to do took me all night—I really had to perform what almost amounted to a miracle, using special cement to join the torn edges together. The join was successful enough, but there remained a halo around the join which meant that for every shot I had to have something in the foreground to camouflage the join. We managed quite well until such time as another projection screen was sent over from America. They were pretty costly items too, somewhere in the region of three hundred pounds—a lot in those days.

One more accident happened, and to this new screen, when the plug from a blank double-barrel cartridge went through the cage of wire netting and perforated the top corner of the screen.

During a production of Shakespeare, the producer wanted to speak with one of the actors. Calling to him, what in those days was the Call Boy—today he is the Assistant Stage Manager—he gave him the name of the character, not the actor’s own name, and to request his presence in the prompt corner. The Call Boy went on his rounds, having no idea who was playing the particular part, asking various men if they happened to be the one the producer required. Eventually he came to a character leaning up against a stack of scenery, learning his lines with suitable actions.

“Are you,” asked the Boy, “Appias Claudius?”

“No,” replied the actor, “I’m as miserable as hell.”

The set for Cicely Courtneidge’s Under the Counter (1948) was a four-wall interior, with a fourth wall, the one which was supposedly missing, taking its place as the set rotated the stage. One wall had a very big fireplace in it, and above the mantle a framed picture. This picture, an original by Charles Meynell Withers (son of Walter Withers) ‘Girl in a White Hat’, I had hired from Anthony Hordern’s. It was valued at three hundred guineas. When the scene was changed and the walls moved onto the next position, it was necessary to un-toggle the fireplace from the flat. Over the mantle were two candlesticks with candles.

One night, the man un-toggling the lines holding the fireplace, forgot to hang onto the flat. The man with the fireplace moved it downstage—the flat with the picture screwed on it fell, crashing forward onto the fireplace with the candlesticks on the mantle shelf.  The result was very nearly disastrous—the candles went through the canvas flat, missing the picture by just one inch each side of its frame. They could have gone right through the painting.

Next morning, I was met by the props man, Bill Lincoln, and told him the story. The outcome of this was my measuring up the canvas, procuring an exact frame as per the original, and copying Withers’ painting of ‘Girl in a White Hat’. The portrait’s copy deputized for the remainder of the show’s run, and on the very last night when everyone was happily saying their goodbyes and thank you’s, Bill told Miss Courtneidge of the deception. She had never suspected the change, but really went to town on poor old Bill because she had not been told.

Speaking of portraits, this calls to mind another portrait that gave me a lot of trouble. Whilst reproducing the White Drawing Room of Buckingham Palace for the investiture of Kingsford Smith by King George V (for the film Smithy), I borrowed a lot of pictures from the National Gallery for the passage outside one of the doors. Over one of the three fireplaces in the Drawing Room was a portrait of the Prince of Wales, in full regalia. Of course, it was not permissible to depict Royalty, even though it was within an exact replica of the room. The Duke of Gloucester, who was Governor General at the time, came into the studio and gave his approval of the set. My trouble was—try as I might, I still ‘got’ the features of the Prince. Eventually I managed to alter the face.

And on another occasion another portrait was a headache. In this film featuring an English ancestral home there existed a portrait gallery. I had painted about a dozen full-size portraits, each having a descriptive line below, appropriate to the period. The last portrait I recall had the tag line—told by the butler—showing the new master around his inheritance, “I die that England might live.” This was as he was led away to be beheaded. Just as we were ready to shoot his segment, someone—who should have known his history better, to wit, Winchester-educated Frank Harvey—asked if 1700 was too late for beheading in England. The portrait was of a nobleman about this period. [The film referred to is It Isn’t Done (1937).]

Asked if I had made a thorough check, I could not answer that I had actually gone to a library in that endeavour, so had no concrete proof. I had to do something about producing another picture. Going to the workshop I had another stretcher made and covered with canvas. A coat of thin shellac dried quickly—this was at twelve noon. I drew the outline of the portrait and whilst one of my assistants filled in the background, I painted the face and figure. It was one of those things which come out right first time! The paint was still wet when it was put into the frame and restored to the set of the picture gallery by two o’clock. Two hours!  One of my people, a sculptor, remarked, “What a bloody fool you are—that full-sized portrait is worth a few hundred guineas!  Its value is two hours of your time.”

Next morning I made a call to the chief librarian and asked him if he could tell me when they ceased beheading in England. He could not tell me offhand but did ring me back later telling me as late as 1800: according to the character of the crime the person had the option of hanging or of beheading. I went on the set and said to Frank Harvey “I had a whole bloody hundred years to spare on that portrait!” This happened to me at the finish of a picture—my holidays were due and the production was about to go out, so I could conveniently leave with an easy mind.

During the time of production, I had received a substantial increase in my salary, but when I looked at the cheque, found that my holidays had been worked out at the old lower rate. I wrote a letter to the producer—an American—pointing out the discrepancy and mentioning that I knew I was a highly skilled technician I did not feel inclined to be ‘wiped off’ or pushed around. 

From the time he received my note in the morning, until the time he arrived in the studio, there could not have been more than half an hour. I was then challenged with sending a very ‘pertinent’ letter to him: I agreed that it was pertinent, though not impertinent. We argued long and heatedly regarding the merits and economics of business as applied to my demands of payment at the increased rate.  Neither would give in until at last I said “Okay. I couldn’t care less about a few paltry pounds.” “Oh!” said my American friend, “You give in. Well, in that case I’ll pay at the increased value of your salary.”  Such is life ...!

However I’ve never worried too much about money—I feel I’ve never been paid my full value, but there was always enough to live comfortably and send my sons to private schools, and unlike the Shakespearean character I have been as ‘happy’ as—well, not hell—but happy in a job done for the job’s sake, and if I had an Aladdin’s lamp which would work, I’d give it a rub and start all over again.

It was the practice of Melbourne’s State Theatre when I was employed there, in the 1940s, to have a weekly pep talk with the staff. This kept everyone up to scratch—any small indiscretions or off-the-toes slackness were dealt with at these meetings. Technique in handling crowds and any disgruntled patrons, etc., were discussed, also a very important aspect of what was known as ‘dressing the theatre’. That was a routine the usherettes had to be conversant with when the house was not particularly full. It was a matter of seating the people in such a way that an illusion was created whereby the house looked actually better, number-wise. This applied of course to patrons who did not have reserved seats.

One afternoon I answered a knock on my office door—a lady was outside and she had a complaint. She had been asked to sit in a seat but had refused. The usherette gave her explanation and I backed her up and took all the responsibility, having of course instructed the girls to do exactly as told. What the usherette did not know, but the lady did, was that the last patron to occupy the seat had been violently ill ...!  The lady was—as then—Mrs. Casey, later to be Lady Maie Casey.

On yet another occasion one of the usherettes came to my office and told me a gentleman wished to see me. I went out to the foyer and found Norman Rydge, the Chairman of Directors of Greater Union Theatres (who has since become Sir Norm), standing at the entrance to the Stalls. He complained that he had been refused entry to the auditorium—the girl on the door would not let him pass because he could not present a ticket. Although he may have been initially annoyed, he would have to acknowledge the effective discipline of the staff. Mr. Rydge made his way through the door, but not before my competent usherette had told him firmly “Put your cigar out please. No smoking is permitted in the auditorium.”

Another disagreeable aspect of theatre management has now disappeared—I suppose the advent of DDT and better conditions are the reasons. In the days I have been speaking of the theatres were troubled by imports of various crawling, biting little insects—lice and bugs. They were very difficult to control because they could manage to infiltrate inaccessible places—under the arm rests, in the screw holes and such like. I finally devised a means of combating the pests.

Each night the cleaners would put an envelope of canvas over six rows of seats, starting at a given row and from then on doing the next six rows the following night. Under the seats and the canvas sulphur candles were placed which burned—I did hope this would suffice. We even had the pest exterminators in from time to time, but this was a major operation. After the night’s show they would totally take over, covering all and every seat with huge tarpaulins. Then cyanide was pumped into the theatre—which guaranteed every living thing was dead by the time the tarps were removed. All the doors were opened and the air conditioning turned on at six o’clock the following morning—no-one was allowed in before 9.30 am. Drastic measures indeed!

A very short time after one of these expensive fumigations I received a complaint from the Health Officer of the Melbourne City Council. A mother had been shocked by the condition of her daughter, after attending the theatre—she had been attacked by some gluttonous bug, and had passed a sleepless night. The inspector who came to see me was very sympathetic, understanding the problem we faced and even giving me a most descriptive reason how it could have happened. He told me how, together with a new man he was training, they had gone to a house in answer to a complaint, one of a row of villas. Knocking on the door of the complainant, and whilst waiting, the next house front door opened and out stepped a very attractive well-dressed girl. The young man said “My company ...” And my friend the inspector replied “Very enviable company to take out to dinner and the theatre!”

After a thorough inspection of the house and the people making the complaint, they were convinced that the bugs were actually coming from the house next door—from which the girl had emerged a few minutes earlier. “So you see,” said the inspector, “how these things can be transported!”

After all these years I get a kick remembering a document from the Admiralty and associating it with Cicely Courtneidge’s sketch of ‘Reading the Will’ [i.e. ‘Laughing Gas’], where the sum of some small amount like three shillings and four pence-halfpenny was left to an expectant relative. The form I have is headed:

Naval Prize Fund

Final Distribution

Flt.S.Lt.  J.A.Kenyon, R.N.

The sum of six pounds, 7 shillings and 6 pence

These stories of mine are, in the main, concerned with the theatre, but having mentioned the Naval Prize Fund, I think it might not be out of place altogether, because of the close association of the masks of comedy and tragedy, to include two episodes, one was comic, the other was tragic. Here I am really turning back the clock, to around the time at the end of the First World War …

My particular companion on HMS Commonwealth was George Oates, a nephew of that very gallant gentleman who walked to his death from that tent in the Antarctic on the ill-fated Scott Expedition. Before the introduction of oil burners in ships, shipping coal was a business in which all but the ship’s complement, with the exception of the captain and the surgeon, participated. One’s uniform and body became impregnated with coal dust—it was in one’s hair and everyone’s eyes were rimmed with something resembling mascara. Periodically, the bugle sounded, and the commander notified the crew whether plus or minus tons of coal had been shipped. Lunch in the wardroom was as usual, with snow-white tablecloth and napkins. We ate, and when we had finished Oates walked out, without a word to me. I pursued him and after a prolonged silence radiating disapproval I asked “And what’s biting you?” To which Oates replied “You cad! You didn’t use your napkin at the table!” So much for the comedy.

The mask of tragedy stared me in the face on my return from Stamford Bridge in London, where I had been competing in the Service Sports. I took two lads with me, and we each won an event.  In the long jump I had trained with a Surgeon Lieutenant who was the Champion of Ireland—the Northern Area competitors (that was us)—did their training at Sheffield where I played some rounds of golf with W.W. Wakefield of Castrol Oil. But on my return to Scapa—this is, of course, well before my move to Australia, in fact August, 1919, and at the age of 21—I arrived just as a guest (I do not recollect the name) was departing, which turned into a tragically unfortunate circumstance for Captain Roscoe C. Bulmer, USA Navy, Captain of the Black Hawk, the mother ship of the American Mine Sweepers engaged in clearing the North Sea of enemy mines. The old man, after congratulating me on my win, insisted that his guest return to the wardroom where they would both drink to my health. He would not take “no” for an answer and so they duly returned. It was then 4 in the afternoon, and it was 4 in the morning when he collected his driver, Ensign Nicholls, and was loaded into his Cadillac. Nicholls was an excellent driver, but afterwards he told me he drove his car “along the centre of a rainbow” and was totally unaware of anything being wrong, until the back door noisily parted from its hinges.

He stopped, looked inside, and was horrified to find the back seat empty. He walked back along the road and eventually found his skipper lying in a ditch. Captain Bulmer was a big man, and it was quite beyond the strength of Ensign Nicholls to get him back into the car. Nicholls, now fully sober, drove like one possessed to the Kirkwall Jetty. He recruited two guards and raced back to where his captain still lay in the ditch. With the help of the other two he got the captain back into the car, after summoning the doctor by signal from the pier, but getting the stretcher by pinnace from the Black Hawk took some time. But it was all to no avail—Captain Bulmer had broken his back in the fall from the car. His body was shipped back to America and we were put out-of-bounds for all American officers. I got the blame—unofficially, of course.

I have written before of the marked difference in the manifestations of character demonstrated by actors, before and after they pass through the proscenium onto the stage. Two, maybe, are exchanging insults, another is telling the latest joke with his own embellishments, another may be dwelling gloomily on the unhealthy state of his bank balance, and yet another happily meditating on where to spend the weekend. But the moment they pass through the magic portal, they become the heroes or the villains of the play with everything else forgotten.

During the run of White Horse Inn at Her Majesty’s Theatre (1934), starring Strella Wilson and Sydney Burchell, the usual bantering and laughing was going on between them. Just before his entrance, Burchell capped all that had gone before by saying “Well, here we go! I say, couldn’t we give the customers something quite different?”

“What do you suggest?” asked Strella Wilson.

“Well, what about an exhibition …”

“That would be lovely,” was the calm reply.

“But what would you do for an encore?”

Subtlety and coarseness, they both have their place in theatre humour, and an example of the latter was derisively supplied by Clarkson Rose, a very well-known English comedian. After his return to England, at the end of a season with Ernest Rolls, he sent a toilet roll to the stage manager. Printed on its wrapping was the slogan ‘Every time you tear one off, think of me.’ Vulgarity, bathos and pathos all belong to the folk of the theatre.

IMG 2490 whitehorse inn 1934 strella wilson HMTJosepha (Strella Wilson), the landlady of the White Horse Inn, welcomes Emperor Franz Joseph II (Leslie Victor). View full souvenir program.