The Spring 2023 issue of On Stage saw the last instalment of J. Alan Kenyon’s 14-part memoir in which he told of his long and fulsome career painting and designing sets for stage and film productions. We are grateful to his grandchildren Miles and Lisa Kenyon for providing access to the manuscript and many of the images used to illustrate the text. By way of an ‘afterword’, we publish a 1968 article by journalist Martin Collins to show George from another angle—and some additional words by the man himself.

Meet a Man Who Can Really Take You Behind the Scenes

by Martin Collins

From The Australian, 6 February 1968    

Not far from Chinatown’s Ancient Times House in Little Bourke Street, Melbourne, lies a lane of tall begrimed redbrick buildings from which, on ground level, brown wooden doors sit like blind eyes.

Somewhere up the lane a small sign says J.C.W. Hire Service. Attack the right door (they all look the same), enter a high-roofed shed that’s part of the back precincts of Her Majesty’s Theatre, vault flights of wooden stairs, ignore the notice that says ‘Strictly Private’ and you’ll unearth George Kenyon, Williamson’s scenic designer, then scenic artist, for 45 years in toto.

I unearthed George, a gentle-faced bloke who looked diffident and a bit dismayed: “It’s an illusory world, the theatre, and a fascinating one ... But I suppose you want anecdotes, do you?” he asked. “Heard of the tenor in Lohengrin who mounted the swan the wrong way round and came in clutching its tail, singing My Trusty Swan?”

“What about your work?” I enquired, looking at the charts, the books, the easel, the brushes, the long wide desk, and the view of the rooftops.

“My work?  I’ve nearly finished writing a book about my work and the entertaining things that have happened in theatre life. You’re welcome to dip into it if you’d like to, though it’s still in longhand: Behind the Velvet Curtain.

“It’s the unrehearsed comedy or drama, and sometimes tragedy, that the audience never sees, that gives the job behind the scenes its fascination. Actors are usually unbusinesslike, being governed mainly by their emotions like the children they really are ... Though the old superstitions are dying out: I’ve known some actors to have a horror of green, while others might be afraid of peacock feathers. There’s a marked difference in character shown by the actors before and after they pass from the proscenium onto the stage: two may be shouting insults at each other, another may be sunk in gloom over his lack of bank balance, yet another may be happily dwelling on where to spend the weekend.

“But the moment they pass through the magic portal, they become real heroes and real villains. Vulgarity, bathos and pathos all belong to the comedians of the theatre. George Wallace was a great comedian: his story of little Aggie playing with a death-adder in the backyard, and the tale of Grandpa accidentally setting fire to his beard and causing a bushfire, were ...”

“Please stop talking about other theatre personalities,” I begged. “What about your own work? What do you do?”

Blue eyes glinted; smoke curled from the Kenyon pipe. “When people lose their tempers with me, I can’t resist grinning at them, though it’s never had much of a calming effect ... I was just about to tell you of the chandelier that dropped one second after a cast headed by Gladys Moncrieff had left the stage, and ...”

 “Your work?” I insisted. Kenyon grinned. “I recall standing on stage and scratching a flea-bite, thanking God that the theatre was empty ... suddenly a burst of applause came from the cleaners.  They’d thought that I was practising a native dance ... I recall Melba’s thrilling Grand Opera season in 1924, with a galaxy of talent that included Toti del Monte, John Brownlee, Dion Borgioli. I recall chasing an emu we’d needed for a set, then finding it staring haughtily at traffic; we caught it before it stepped into a stray car. And I recall Borovansky, who merited accolades for putting Australian Ballet in a top class but yet never forgot nor forgave even a fancied slight, insisting that the sky of the backcloth of a new Swan Lake (for the 1954/55 seasons) that I’d designed was too light; then too dark; then—reluctantly—right. I’d never repainted the cloth: later I told him so.

“There are few designers who have had the paint-room experience, and served a long apprenticeship which enables them to achieve a standard in painting realism. Sixty years ago a scene took three months to do. Now? From the many who’ve offered themselves I have taken one pupil.  He has the ability to take care, to digest instructions ... yes, I think I could say he is gifted. The pupil goes through a rigorous training, with the master being a sort of Simon Legree, the idea being that the pupil will eventually take over. The continuity of handing over accounts for the exclusiveness of the job.

“What do I think about Australia’s motion-picture industry? You did say ‘industry’? It was thriving here in the 1920s, but production stopped with the finality of a beheading, even though it was a commercially profitable proposition. Today, in countries like Sweden, the motion-picture industry is thriving … our financial pundits didn’t know what they were doing ... How creative am I?” Kenyon leaned forward, took out his pipe, and beamed.

“I’ve told you, surely? You could perhaps epitomize the whole thing by saying that if I had an Aladdin’s lamp I’d give it a rub and start all over again.”

A modest artist, George Kenyon. I rather envy his pupil.

And George continues, with his thoughts regarding the film industry circa 1968, written, along with other recollections, to be included within his memoirs:

Had the building-up process been allowed to continue, we would not be today in our isolated position of a rich progressive country without a film industry. Each picture production was an improvement on the previous one, and I firmly believe that had it not been dumped so stupidly the industry today would most certainly have been in the top bracket of profit-making investments. Documentaries and television would have coined money for an investing public.

The foresight shown by Australian financiers has been chiefly remarkable for its absence in more cases than one. Such people are popularly supposed to be able to ‘smell money’, but maybe the olfactory senses of these gentlemen are no stronger than their sense of nationalism.  It is a fact that the studio at Rushcutter’s Bay was erected and production begun, before Hollywood was even a cross on the map. This is to the everlasting discredit of everyone concerned in the smashing of the young and thriving Australian film industry.

The Immigration Department is an important connection for the theatre. Imported foreign stars all have certain dealings with the Federal Department. The Secretary of the Immigration Department once asked The Firm (through the General Manager, Claude Kingston), if it were possible for them to lend some aid to the staging of the Immigration Convention. I was asked to think about some form of stage presentation—it must primarily concern the participation of the work of the migrants as it blended into the life of the Australian people. In the main, these entrants to Australia were drafted into heavy industry: they worked on the Railways, in mining, or in construction plants. This was one occasion when I did actually have a joyride at the Government’s expense—I went to Canberra, staying at the Canberra Hotel, meeting the then Secretary of the Department, Sir Tasman Heyes, and discussing with him my ideas. 

I looked over the Albert Hall and assessed its possibilities in regard to the stage, lighting, etc. Back at the theatre I made a model which illustrated what I proposed to do. This was composed of cut-out figures of men, showing them working in various industries. On the back-cloth I had a pale blue sky which, when lit from the back, revealed a map of Australia. In front of this cloth and behind the other figures was a rock set-piece with a figure wearing an artist’s smock, just finishing a carved inscription cut into the rock—‘From their efforts shall arise a greater Australia’. This was meant to represent the cultural skills people from abroad were bringing to the country. Possibly it was pretty corny, but once you venture to be sentimental, you are almost certain to end up ‘corny’.  It seemed necessary to reach the people to whom we were trying to convey a message of welcome and appreciation.

At a given signal, a figure was to rise slowly from behind the rock, and shading his eyes he would watch the map of Australia, now visible as the sky changed to gold. The impression I wished to convey was that a golden future awaited all migrants. The general idea met with approval by the Department Head. There was, however, one provision: could I guarantee that the man would slowly rise from behind the rock? Some anxiety was exhibited—was it possible he may stick half-way, or perhaps topple over? Was there any other way in which disaster could overtake him? asked the Department Head. “If that man does not rise up or if anything happens to him, I’ll cut your throat!” He then proceeded to acquaint me with a rather painful chapter of ancient history, by very untoward happening.

Before he became Secretary of the Immigration Department, he was in charge of the National Museum in Canberra. He related the following story: “I was responsible at the official opening for the success of a function. In a much smaller degree than what you are now proposing, I had arranged to feature the playing of the National Anthem. I had a dais built with a surround of red velvet curtains and these hangings concealed a grand piano. The Duke of Gloucester, who was then our Governor General, was to perform the opening ceremony. The Duke was late and in consequence the pianist I had engaged, now tired of waiting, slipped out for a smoke, leaving the dais quite empty. The inevitable happened.

“The Duke arrived and I gave my pre-arranged signal to the men on the curtains to pull the cord which would slowly and dramatically open. The men and the curtains played their parts perfectly with all the dignity such an occasion demanded. To my utter horror and consternation there was revealed an empty seat before the grand piano.” He looked at me grimly and asked “Do you know what happened next? I got up there and played God Save the King with one finger.”

I did three of these conventions before the idea was scrapped but it had been very nice for my wife and myself. We always stayed at the Canberra Hotel and attended the opening of each convention. We attended Government House and Parliamentary garden-parties, and at one of these parties we were chatting with Sir Robert Menzies and Dame Pattie, together with a Scot who was with us. The PM and he were endeavouring to discover whose knowledge of the poetry of Robbie Burns was the most profound. They kept capping each other’s quotations.  I remember the Scot kept on insisting that ‘Menzies’ should rightly be pronounced ‘Minges’.

During one of these conventions, I was told by one of my friends who laid claim to inside information, that during the next few days a certain job would be advertised in the daily papers. He thought it would be ‘right up my alley’.  It was for an appointment as Technical Officer in (if my memory serves me right) the Trade Department. I was advised to go and see the officer in-charge and I duly went along. The interview did not go very well as I was far from encouraged by the pompous manner of the officer, and the questions he posed.

What qualifications had I got? What experience did I have? Why did I think I could do better than the outside architects whom they usually employed? He said “We do it this way. We get ideas from people and if one is not satisfactory, we get someone else. Naturally, they all get their fees whether we use their ideas or not.”

I thought that could be a bit hard on the taxpayer, but refrained from commenting. This pompous, patronizing little man was beginning to bore me. I pointed out to him, as politely as I could, that he and his Department were really in Show Business, and Show Business was my business, my preserve and my occupation. He became quite ruffled and remarked very seriously “You cannot possibly make a comparison between a Government Department and commercial theatre.” I painstakingly explained to him that his immediate preoccupation with finding a suitable applicant for the position he was advertising was closely connected with show business. This was necessarily so, because it concerned the design of Trade Pavilions for overseas—used purely to stage and advertise Australian Exports. It was surely the idea to show these exports to their best advantage. Grudgingly, he admitted that there was some connection with the work and stage presentation.

By this time I had lost all desire to produce any further explanations but asked him if he would like me to show him some of my drawings. He graciously gave me his permission and next day I took along some plans and sketches, which included the drawings I had made for a show I had just completed. I had had to create these designs, for The Teahouse of the August Moon, from the least possible source material. Whilst I had been talking to Mr. Frank Tait, together with the director Harald Bowden who had been overseas and acquired the show, the latter remarked airily “They wanted four thousand dollars for the plans, but I told them I had a man in Australia who would soon nut it out.” This accounted for the sparseness of the reference material I had been handed! I had got to work on them and the resultant plans and drawings were some I was very proud to claim responsibility for. And—these were the drawings that I took along to the Director of the Department. He barely glanced at them but said “Yes, but who does the actual drawing?” “I do,” I replied. “Oh, perhaps we can talk about it further, then. These are excellent.” It gave me a certain amount of mean satisfaction to say smugly “I’m sorry, but I am no longer available. Yesterday I signed my contract with J.C. Williamson’s again,” and I bowed myself out of His Pomposity’s presence,

to go back to where I really belonged—

to the theatre—

and the world I knew best.

KENYON: Editor’s Postscript

J. Alan (George) Kenyon—born February 1, 1898—died March 11, 1972

He arrived in Australia in February 1923 and two days later, found employment working for William R. Coleman, J.C. Williamson’s head scenic artist/designer.
He married Miss Anne Leonard in 1926—their son John joined his father in the Paint Frame at Her Majesty’s in the 1950s.

Kenyon was involved in well over one hundred productions, shows and displays—for theatre, ballet and film, as scenic artist and/or designer, set and/or props maker, and as production manager for Cinesound Films.

Theatres included:

Melbourne—Her Majesty’s; The Comedy; The Princess; The Royal; The Apollo and the old State Theatre (now Forum)

Sydney—Criterion; Minerva; Empire; Tivoli and The Royal

Adelaide—The Royal and Her Majesty’s

Perth—His Majesty’s

Brisbane—Her Majesty’s

Canberra—The Canberra

Newcastle—The Victoria

His name began to be included in theatre program listings in the early 1930s.


AusStage provides a list of productions worked on by Kenyon. Given the confusion around his christian name, his work is listed under:

George Kenyon

J. Alan Kenyon