Chapter 8: The Magic Box — Television

In 1956 television came to Australia.

On the 13th July, 1956, Channel Nine in Sydney and Channel Seven in Melbourne began a series of test transmissions.

It would be the 19th of January before the sixth television station began regular programming. That was when Channel Nine in Melbourne was officially opened.

In August 1956, Colin Bednall, General Manager of Channel Nine, interviewed me as a result of my letter to him.

He offered me the position of Assistant Programme Manager, working as a back-up to Norman Spencer, who was Programme Manager.

I commenced work at the Bendigo Street, Burnley Studio Complex on the 3rd of September 1956.

Studio Complex is not a very accurate description of Channel Nine as it was then. There were eight other people on the staff at the time.

We were all working in an old tin shed just inside the main gate to what had been until a few weeks earlier, the Heinz Tomato Sauce factory. Prior to the Heinz occupancy, it had been the Wertheim Piano factory.

There were not many vestiges of the Wertheim era when we moved in, but the pungent effluvium of tomato sauce hung heavily in the air for months after we commenced operations.

There were other legacies of the Heinz empire — like a series of basement vats, access to which was through large circular unprotected holes about four feet in diameter on ground floor level.

Although some attempt had been made to cover these, the workmanship was not the greatest, and we had not long been in occupation with our art director, Trevor Ling, attempting to traverse the derelict section of the factory at night, fell through one of the holes, fell a distance of about fourteen feet and broke his right leg in several places.

The hazards were numerous in those early days — worn stairways, rotting floors and not much security.

So it was understandable that it would be four months before the building could be transformed into a modern television station.

That was the job of the building contractors and our engineering staff.

Those of us in the programme department had other things to worry about — devising programmes and finding talent to present them, whilst the minuscule sales staff had the job of finding sponsors willing to sponsor these as yet untried and untested concoctions which we had devised.

Between September ’56 and January ’57, apart from our programming and staffing activities, there was another hurdle to be conquered — the 1956 Olympic Games staged in Melbourne in November. Although Channel Nine was not officially on the air at that time, we were given permission by the broadcasting authorities to conduct a series of test transmissions, the times of which would coincide with the Olympic events being staged at the Melbourne Cricket Ground or at the new Olympic Swimming Pool.

It was a very convenient arrangement.

We had no studios in operation at that time, so with our Outside Broadcast Van stationed alongside the wall of what was then the new stand on the northern side of the ground, we made our temporary headquarters at the top of the stand, and hoped for fine weather. In that we were lucky.

To fill in moments when there was a lull in activities on the oval, we had some famous visitors who more or less adopted us, and who would step in front of one of our cameras with an extemporary performance until events were underway again.

I vividly remember famous American impressionist Stan Freberg, comedian Joe “Fingers” Carr, and world renowned American athlete Jesse Owens bridging the gaps on many occasions.

They were entering into the spirit of the occasion just for the hell of it, and we were very grateful.

(Jesse Owens was the coloured American runner who had angered Hitler so much during the German Olympics by winning many of the races. The Fuhrer’s plan was for the Nazi athletes to be supremely successful in all the events, but Jesse Owens was inconsiderate enough to win some of the track events for himself and the American team.)

With the Olympic Games over, it was back to our normal duties. Norman Spencer had handed me the task of producing the Children’s Programme, which was to go to air Monday to Friday, 5.00pm to 6.00pm.

By this time, we had added to our work-force. The young ventriloquist whom I had met at the Heidelberg Military Hospital thirteen years previously had joined us.

Ron Blaskett had just taken delivery of a new doll, carved by the same man who had created Charlie McCarthy for Edgar Bergen.

Ron’s new figure was christened “Gerry Gee of G.T.V.”!

Happy Hammond had joined the team, and our children’s programme was to be called “The Happy Show” — with the old United States depression popular hit “Happy Days Are Here Again” as the theme tune.

The wonderful Margot Sheridan, pianist and accompanist extraordinaire joined us, and we welcomed Ernie Carroll, a cartoonist and versatile all-rounder as part of the team.

The “Happy Show” first went to air from Channel Nine on the 21st January, 1957.

For the first few weeks we were producing the show from a basement window of the Myer Emporium in Lonsdale Street. We had our Outside Broadcast Van parked in the Myer basement.

A regular who appeared in the “Happy Show” from time to time and who was in our first programme was country and western singer Stan Stafford whose repertoire was not extensive but good kid’s fare. We heard frequently about the “Little Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly”, “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and that desirable “Home On The Range” — but Stan was a likeable fellow who worked well with our juvenile studio audiences. He was a paraplegic — the result of a spill from a horse during a training gallop. At the time he had a promising career ahead of him as a successful jockey.

As stated, our regular children’s programme, “The Happy Show”, began on the 21st January 1957.

The station had been opened two nights before, on the 19th January, by the popular Governor of Victoria, Sir Dallas Brooks. Opening night involved everybody on the staff in some vague capacity.

I was “floor manager”. What that entailed I wasn’t certain, but in the official photographs of the opening ceremony I appear as a smudge bulging out from behind a curtain.

The official opening night programme was a local variety show with artists like Toni Lamond and Frank Sheldon and comedian Red Moore from the Kiwi’s Concert Party. One time Melbourne radio personality Terry Dear compered it and the commercials advertising the “Age” newspaper were handled by John Casson, well known theatrical producer and son of Dame Sybil Thorndyke.

Frankly, the “Age” commercials were unbelievably woeful as was Mr Casson’s performance. Shortly after the opening night our General Manager appointed John Casson as reader of the Epilogue — a short religious homily which marked the close of our night’s programming.

Probably Colin Bednall didn’t have high hopes for the Epilogue as an audience grabber, and thought John Casson, with whom the station probably had some sort of contract, couldn’t do much harm in that spot.

But our children’s programme, sponsored by the Tarax Drinks Company, quickly caught on with the kids, thanks to the likeable and irrepressible personality of Happy Hammond, and the brilliance of Ron Blaskett, who very quickly established Gerry Gee as one of the major stars of the show.

Within a few months we had added two lovely ladies to our complement — Susan-Gaye Anderson and bubbling songstress, Elaine McKenna.

Several years later after a tremendous success with the Melbourne audiences of “In Melbourne Tonight”, our nightly variety programme, Elaine went to the United States at the suggestion of Frank Sinatra, who had seen and heard Elaine on I.M.T. during the time he was in Melbourne on a concert tour.

Unfortunately, when Elaine arrived in America, Frank Sinatra’s support did not prove as valuable as we had all hoped, and after numerous and fruitless appointments with theatrical agents, Elaine returned home believing that perhaps it was better to be a “big fish in a small pond” rather than a “little fish in a big pond”.

The most significant event which occurred at Channel Nine and in fact the whole of the Melbourne television scene for that matter took place on the 6th May 1957.

That was the night that Norman Spencer, Nine’s programme manager, introduced “In Melbourne Tonight” to Melbourne audiences.

Down the years “In Melbourne Tonight” became the longest running five nights per week variety programme presented in Australia — and possibly anywhere in the world.

Much of its success was of course due to the amazing talent and versatility of Graham Kennedy, who compered the programme. But a large number of outstanding performers were introduced on the programme, and became “family friends” of thousands of television viewers.

People like resident comics Joff Ellen and Buster Fiddess, singer Bill McCormack, Bert Newton, Rosie Sturgess, Johnny Ladd, Toni Lamond, Philip Brady, Hal Todd, Elaine McKenna — the list goes on and on.

I was fortunate to have an association with I.M.T. from time to time.

Some time in September, I was writing, producing and sometimes appearing in a series of short comedy films with Graham as the lead. I later appeared from time to time as a character called Brigadier Brendon Fortescue — or “Old B.F.” and sundry other characters in the nightly comedy sketches, and in 1963 I was producing all the I.M.T. comedy.

It was a pioneering era, when we were exercising our little self-indulgences at the viewers’ expense — but they seemed to love the somewhat “ad hoc” presentation, when anything could go wrong — and sometimes did!

There was no electronic wizardry, no psychedelic images, and fortunately very few talentless individuals with long greasy and matted hair, a guitar and no singing voice, who nevertheless would sing!

It was simple but entertaining variety fare — and it was a great revenue earner for the station. Once Graham had established himself as Australia’s greatest television talent, sponsors were clamouring to advertise on the programme.

Mind you, they had to be prepared to submit to Graham and Bert Newton’s irreverent approach to commercials — like the treatment meted out out to Rauel Merton shoes, quote “Of discomfort you’re certain when you’re wearing Rauel Merton Shoes”.

Bill Muddyman, the Managing Director of Rauel Merton Shoes, loved that approach. The more Graham, Bert and others derided his shoes, the more Bill sold. He believed in the old “show-business” axiom — “It doesn’t matter what they say about you as long as they spell your name right!”

I look back on “In Melbourne Tonight” and my slight association with it as one of my happiest working experiences. I believe I was very fortunate to be a part of it.

But my association with the Childrens’ Programme at Channel Nine resulted in a series of events and associations I regard as the highlights of my whole working life.

Before moving on, a brief reminiscence.

Mention should be made of Frank Zepter, an ex-Luftwaffe pilot, one of the best floor-managers that Channel Nine ever had, movie cameraman for the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, and a wonderful person.

Frank’s love of flying and his expertise as a pilot eventually killed him.

Flying an ultra-light over the Eildon Weir, he flew into some newly erected power lines which the Euroa Ultra-light Club had not been told about, and he and his passenger were incinerated.