Chapter 9: The Channel Nine Pantomimes

As Christmas 1957 approached, I thought it might be a worthwhile addition to our Children’s programming to produce an end of the year special — we called it a pantomime.

As I was producing the “Happy Show”, the only person I had to convince of the value of such an idea was myself.

Those of us working in the children’s area — Happy, Ron and Gerry, Margot Sheridan, Susan-Gaye Anderson, Elaine McKenna and Ernie Carroll — were fortunate in that we had a reasonable free rein in what we did.

Normal Spencer, Nine’s Programme Manager, was fully occupied with In Melbourne Tonight. Colin Bednall, the General Manager, had his time fully occupied running the station and trying to defeat Channel Seven in the ratings race.

Yes. Even back in those pioneering days, “Ratings” were the great God that everybody, from the lowliest cleaner to the Chairman of the Board, worshipped.

In those early days, it was hinted that sometimes the published ratings could be “fixed” — but this was never proved and station managements regarded them as irrefutable indications of “viewer” or “audience” numbers.

But children’s show time was not very saleable to sponsors. We were fortunate in having a loyal backer in “Tarax” — and so long as Tarax showed no sign of withdrawing their support, station management left us largely to our own devices.

So in December 1957 we embarked on our first pantomime.

I wrote it. It was terrible. It was called “Princess Joybelle”. Princess Joybelle was an attractive eleven year old, Diane Thorington. We thought she was fourteen. If we had known she was eleven, or rather, if the Child Welfare Department had known she was eleven, we could not have used her.

I wrote some almost un-sing-able lyrics for the songs in the show, and Margot Sheridan, with her consummate skill as a musician, wrote the music.

The cast included Happy Hammond, Ron Blaskett and Gerry Gee, Bernard the Magician (Alf Gertler, a tower of strength in the show in a regular weekly “Magic Spot”), Stan Stafford, Eric Pearce, and a very unrehearsed junior “ballet” provided by the Eugene Utassy Ballet School.

Ernie Carroll was cast as the King, father of Princess Joybelle, but he took ill on the day before and I had to play the part myself.

We had another hurdle to overcome. Ron and Gerry were being hired out to various shops to make personal Christmas appearances, and Ron had not had the time to learn his and/or Gerry’s lines.

So he pinned his script on Gerry Gee’s back, hoping that he would be able to read it without too much trouble or it being obvious what he was doing. But unfortunately as another successful writer, Robbie Burns, once observed “the best laid schemes of mice and men gang astray” and when it came to the crunch, Ron was not able to quickly find his “lines” on Gerry Gee’s back, and there were long pauses in the dialogue whilst he searched the script — pauses which Happy Hammond valiantly filled with inspired ad-libs which had very little to do with the plot.

Add to that the fact that I was most unsure of my lines, as I had never intended to be one of the cast, and the junior ballet performed with all the assurance and finesse of a group of chooks battling a high wind — and you can understand that the entire enterprise was a debacle.

But to give him his due, Colin Bednall, our G.M. was kind enough to walk all the way from his office down to the studio to tell us that it was a wonderful effort.

In those days everything went to air live, although a kinescope was made of it for archival purposes, and to enable us to re-live our mistakes.

We knew, in our minds, that we couldn’t do worse. We could only do better — which we did!

Our 1958 effort was called “Sleigh Bells” and it was a decided improvement. It was notable for a “gaffe” or “blooper” by Gerry Gee.

Part of the plot entailed Ron and Gerry and Elaine McKenna venturing out into the snowy wastes of the north pole to track down the villain Bernard the Magician who had stolen the rocking-horse paint from Santa’s workshop.

They spied Bernard mixing up some horrible brew in his cave hide-out, but were careful not to be seen.

When they returned to Santa’s Workshop, Santa (Jack Little) asks, “Did you find him?” and Gerry Gee has to answer, “Yes! We could see him, but he couldn’t see us!”, but in the heat of the moment Ron had Gerry say, “Yes! He could see us, be we couldn’t see him!”

That played slight havoc with the plot from then on.

In 1959 we produced “Merry Make-Believe”, and this time Alf Gertler was not the villain. He was a kindly magician who transports our team (Ron, Gerry and Happy) to “Merry Make-Believe”.

The was an appropriate character twist, as a more kindly and generous person than Alf Gertler it would be difficult to find.

“Merry Make-Believe” had an ambitious setting. We installed a canvas pool measuring about 9 metres by 9 metres in the studio, and our intrepid heroes had to traverse this pool in a small boat to reach “Merry Make-Believe”. Unfortunately, with a full load aboard — Ron and Gerry, Happy and Jack Little, playing the role of a miserly old Uncle — the boat tended to scrape on the bottom of the pool and capsized once.

This prompted Jack Little to proclaim loudly from that point on, “I’m not going to get in that goddam rotten boat again!”

But he did. Jack was a true professional — a fact which he announced to all and sundry on numerous occasions.

Another side-light to the pool setting: In order to make it look mysterious, we needed ghostly fog to be rising from it. This was easily achieved by dropping dry ice into the pool. But dry ice is dangerously cold and must be handled with care.

Max Morrison, chief mechanist and in charge of settings, performed beyond the call of duty on that day.

He spent several hours wandering around in the pool, bare-foot, dropping copious quantities of dry ice into the water.

His feet must have been frozen, but he never complained.

Our 1960 pantomime was Dick Whittington — and this time, in addition to Gerry Gee, we had another puppet in the cast.

The role of Dick Whittington’s cat was played by “Candy Cat”, a marionette who appeared regularly in the children’s show.

Christmas 1961 saw “The Magic Mirror”. This was a story set in London of the 18th Century, and was the pantomime debut of a very talented young lady — Patti McGrath — as our heroine.

By this time, word had got around that the end of the year pantomimes were fun to be in, and we had no shortage of talented performers wanting to be part of something other than an under-rehearsed comedy sketch on In Melbourne Tonight.

So in “The Magic Mirror”, in addition to our lead personalities, we had Alan Rowe, Rosie Sturgess, Jack Bowkett, Frank Rich, and a wonderful Junior Ballet trained by former lead dancer in the station’s senior ballet, Valmai Ennor.

When Valmai unfortunately broke her ankle during a ballet routine, her dancing days were over. She then turned her attention to forming and training a junior ballet for the children’s show.

Our 1962 pantomime was an Arabian Nights type fantasy, called “The Golden Princess”, with top-line Australian actor Frank Wilson. We also cast Ken Warne (ex 3YB personality), Frank Rich, Alan Rowe, Patti McGrath and Joff Ellen.

A Melbourne journalist of the time was kind enough to write “The Golden Princess was a smooth presentation of just the sort of fantasy panto-story that all children up to 75 enjoy”.

But we hit the jackpot with our 1963 pantomime, “Marianne”, set in the tiny Swiss village of Tiefencastle. This was the final pantomime produced by Channel Nine. Apart from Patti McGrath, two other stars of the show were Ormond Douglas, former leading man with Gladys Moncrieff, and Frank Wilson.

“Marianne” was shown on an Australia-wide network of fourteen television stations.

I resigned from Channel Nine at the end of 1963 to take the position of Programme Manager at AMV4 Albury. So “Marianne” was the last panto, because no-one else on the Channel Nine staff was silly enough to take on the task of writing and producing them.

Once on the studio floor, the pantos were directed by top Channel Nine director, Russell Sefton.

They were fun, and we were fortunate in the fact that the costs of production were conveniently hidden in general overhead expenses. We never knew or worried how much they were costing, and as mentioned earlier, the front office were not terribly interested in what “the kids’ show mob” were doing.

It was an indication of Ron Blaskett’s genius as a ventriloquist and Gerry Gee was such a star in his own right, that no-one ever queried the bizarre fact that Gerry was always the hero in these shows, and always won the hand of the beautiful heroine, Patti McGrath.

Apropos of that, I heard Bert Newton say recently that in those days, Gerry Gee was his greatest rival, because Patti was engaged to Gerry no less than three times!