Don Bethel, August 2009


Before Gore Hill

I was working at 2GN Goulburn as an announcer when I got a call from June Salter saying "get back to Sydney soon - the buzz is television". So late in 1954 I was back in Sydney working at the Sydney Trocadero Dance and Concert Venue as a maintenance carpenter also doing relief work in the evening backstage at The Philip St Theatre.

Locating TV training outlets was hard, books were available and gave clues to 'systems', - but!

I was fortunate to have a discussion with Rudy Bretz an American Author and TV consultant visiting Australia and a guest speaker at the Trocadero. I asked for advice and also his autograph on my copy of his book - ahh - networking.

I did the rounds checking on job possibilities - no one was interested in production persons - but technicians -! a different matter. TV was "radio with pictures" and techs allowed the pictures to happen. Most of us who eventually became 'crew' were impressed by the skill of technicians and the Technical producer was akin to God!

The ABC Head Office was located at 250 Pitt St, within easy reach from "The Troc" and I routinely visited there. The Personnel Department always advised "watch the press". I understood their problem. All effort to meet the deadline of the Olympics in November 1956 had to be met: building studios in time - (no Channel achieved that challenge) transmitters - OB vans- links - all the hardware - and training the techs!

Midway through 1956 an ad for Floor Managers (ABC) appeared. I applied, citing my association with Stage Managers at the Tivoli and Philip St Theatres. Not even an interview.

Then weeks before the proposed opening night, four 'Staging' personnel ads. appeared. I applied for each 'skill' area (I'd held all positions in theatre work).

Within days I got the dreaded "We regret to inform you" response to all of them. I arranged another meeting with T.S. Duckmanton (Coordinator TV). He told me that "no interviews had been arranged, so how come I had four rejection letters"? He told me to bring in the letters. Next day all was sorted. A temp in personnel had sent rejection' slips to all applicants, instead of the "Thank you for your application" etc. This created some panic in the ABC office. (I understand heaps of telegrams and phone calls.) Anyhow, I was appointed to Propsman.

Gore Hill at last

Day one. I was based in Lanes' Building, a double story (shop front) on the corner of Greenwich Rd and Pacific Highway. I was met at the front door by Sid Bowers and ushered into a bare interior. The questions flowed. Sid had the answers (he'd been on site one week earlier) - The dialogue ran very much like this:

Don: Who is the Property Master?
Sid: Jack Singe
Don: No, he's the Staging Sup
Sid: No, he's both
Don: Can't work - Even amateur productions have two people - Who is the Props buyer?
Sid: The designer - Denis Grafton
Don: Who is the Props Storeman
Sid: Could be you!
Don: Where is the store?
Sid: Right here
Don: Bloody Hell!

No shelves - nothing! There was no departmental structure - no system for cataloguing - support was needed. I went upstairs to Jim Hall, Supervisor Service and Supply (my Section Head) - a brief exchange followed - a realisation and I was instructed to "make it work". This situation was unlike a film being made, or a theatre production with several performances using the same props, - this was the start of a change of sets and props every day - 7 days a week. The thought of 2 - 3 programs a day (even small)!!

Money was allocated and Sid and I assembled Dexion shelving (Meccano style steel) - visited the 'Arcon' Studio - gathered plans and elevations and assessed the 'weight' of opening night - news set - drama "12 Pound Look" and the OB setting in Studio 227 Kings Cross - plus the schedules for the next weeks. We 'lived' on site.

Opening night came and went. Live TV was so like theatre - a buzz. (but it took years for me to accept the "ruthlessness". Build exciting sets and dismantle after one performance!

Back to the Arcon Studio and the lack of working space: It became quite evident that turn around time was never enough. Strike props/furniture - then scenery - re point lights - a new set in, dress set and so on. Through discussion, technicians were allowed to move some props off set and place them in the 'runway'. (We were all in the same Union - so there was no demarcation disputes. This allowed the techs extra minutes to attend to their needs. As we moved into Period Dramas, valuable antiques became common. They were hired, so our reputation for safe return was paramount. On one occasion I had just set in a rare and 'delicate' chair, when a lighting person, armed with a lighting rod stood on the chair - and banged away on a stubborn barn door! An immediate training session went on. It was not his fault. With little or no theatre/film experience "do not sit on or handle props" had to be taught to all the crews.

We were adding new staff constantly. Not necessarily in numbers - but all staff at our level were auxiliary staff - not 'permanent', so 'weekly' resignations/transfers were not uncommon. Sid and I made up 'induction' training check lists to assist newcomers with protocol and safety issues.

New staff: We did not choose - we inherited them. Drivers for the props pickup and delivery car came from the Dispatch Department. (A first rung on the ladder of an ABC career). The Dispatch Department had a big turnover of drivers. We were rostered one driver called Karl Novac, a professional wrestler who joined the ABC hoping to get a Sporting Department appointment. Monday of his second week Jim Hall received a telegram from Mr. Novac advising he had taken on a contract to tour 'the islands' on a wrestling trip - and would be back in a few weeks. Jim Hall, after reading the telegram to us added, OH YEAH!! - (most drivers were characters).

Local residents noted the furniture activity in and out of our 'shop' store and sure enough one day, I returned from a phone call upstairs, to discover two ladies inspecting the stock. The Pacific Highway from Crows Nest to Chatswood was dotted with second hand furniture and antiques shops. We'd made it!

Oh, a note on phone calls upstairs: Jim Half had the only phone which handled the need for Design - Graphics and us. Two foot thumps on the floor from upstairs meant for Graphics, three thumps for us in Staging. Jim just shouted for Design, who shared other space on the first floor. Design always heard, as he had no door on his 'office' space. We'd removed it and used it in a door flat for a drama. The first winter in 1957 was cold and Jim Hall begged for the door to be returned. In the end, a formal memo saw some action!

For bulk delivery from Lanes Building to the studio we used the large flat top or covered vans of Ron and Wal Liddle. They normally handled the large SSO equipment -tymps, bass cases, harps etc and knew how to handle 'delicate' items.

Christmas Day 1956 an afternoon religious program scheduled. We arrived - flat top, mid morning to discover the gates onto the site locked. On normal days, the P.M.G. (now Telstra) 'owned' the site and usually had staff working early shifts, so gates were always open. A small gate which allowed transmitter staff in was locked also - it was too early for them. So back we went to Lanes Building for some extra carpet and bits of gear. By standing on the flat top we carpeted the barbed wire and someone? scrambled over - unlocked the studio, returned with a ladder and we passed the small demo and coffee tables and chairs over the fence and started setting up. The Technical Producer had a private phone number of a senior PMG Officer and the gate key was collected from him (during his Christmas lunch).

The Leaving of Lanes Building

As the main building became slowly available Tech Services moved in gradually. The Staging section moved into the Arcon area and props left Lanes Building and took over the single car garages that Staging had survived in for months. Running hand props down to the studio involved negotiating the weather - and mud. (We were short on sealed roads but not clay). The PMG had storage sheds on the eastern side of the road down to the studio. I followed Michael one day. He'd swathed himself with some curtains, held a vase in one hand; a plastic rose (sideways) in his mouth and 'minced' downhill. The blue singlet crews at the entrances of the sheds were 'reacting'. I enjoyed the scene.

Props people who were 'buyers' were always well dressed. The standard white shirt and tie was fine for public display, but risky in delivering props to the studio. The image orthicon cameras were very sensitive to excess reflection. Walk in front of a camera lens in a white shirt and the image peeled. Techs were upset. They got more upset when an item (silver tea pot) reflecting light for a period, 'burnt in'. It took time to get the 'burn' out. Most reflective props were given a squirt of dulling spray before placing on set.

Everyday items, packets of tea, containers of sauce - butter, you name it were labeled with a brand name - and you couldn't allow what was deemed to be advertising! It was annoying - but!! (we continue)

All of this in monochrome / THE GREY SCALE. If colour response registered level 2 and background also level 2 -the subject blurred into "not there". The natural 'colour' of an object was measured on this scale. Designers were well aware of this translation/transition - tentative (learners) saw sets in shades of black - white. The studio atmosphere - sometimes depressing.

Eventually this "translation" became understood and lighting. CCU, Design all contributed to a better image (in black and white) transmission.

Later on (I discovered as a Floor Manager) that a properly "graded" pointer (usually black and used in a close up) allowed the system to 'register' the scale in balance and revealed better detail!

By now props had a 'staff, myself and Don Shephard (ex Tivoli props) also buyer/set dresser/maker, - Peter and Michael (dresser/maker) and a regular driver Roy Lane - and a Kombi van!

All of us were inveterate scroungers of "set dressing" props; I had stripped the area, including the brick pit behind the studios of green vegetation by mid 1959. Then we made arrangements" with the caretaker of the nearby Gore Hill Cemetery, for 'weeds' and the 'banana' trees, which had invaded the central road into the cemetery.

We all worked shifts, but most days the department routine was - 0730 planning day. Pack vehicle for deliveries, accounts, balance the petty cash float - plot future purchases etc. Then morning tea and the buyer leaves for the city 0845 (less traffic) - but not on 'scrounge days'. Roy Lane would pick up Don Shephard on the way to work. They would spot a council clean up and fill boot with "goodies" then come to Gore Hill, get the Kombi and return to the suburb and collect the larger 'treasures'.

Most of the departments had limited budgets - even drama, so a variety of 'stock' was always handy, besides it cost nothing, if scrounged and once used, could be tossed.

Images of the Lanes' Building accomodation and the beloved Kombi show how life was in 1957.

Talented People

In those early years, everyone was well focused. There didn't appear to me that anyone wasn't committed to the challenge. The team in Props, all had different skills and experience. Michael and Peter left the ABC and started a costume hire place in North Sydney. Eventually moved to London and became more successful there. John Manara arrived with overseas director credits! Don Shephard took over the Department when I moved on to Floor Manager and ran the Department until he retired. Jim Earle worked the store and 'knitted' chain mail. I still remember Elaine, our part time typist, sitting in gumboots, tapping away, whilst a half inch of water ran across the garage floor. The Kombi van bogged at the 'new' building entrance. The 'garage' canteen with the 'gas ring' stove. Zilla Weatherly (Wardrobe Mistress) who perceiving you wanted something, hand held up, saying, "now don't start me! Getting a phone call at home from the evening shift saying - "Don, the kid (small goat) has escaped and is now stranded in the middle of the road (Pacific Highway!), any ideas?"

Why these just come to mind? I wonder - there are so many.

Oh yes there's this one. We were still in the garages. Everyone was out. Phone call - extra prop needed. It was a nice day, just right for a stroll. Blue sky - not a cloud in sight. I moved out from under the awning and felt a 'rain drop' on my head - or a bird? I glanced up and saw more rain? coming from the top of the almost finished main Transmission Tower. I retreated - back under the awning! A rigger was producing the 'rain', - so you have just heard from a man who actually - has been "pee'd on from a great height".

Don Bethel joined the ABC at Gore Hill in September 1956. He first worked as a Propsman, then Props Buyer and then Floor Manager. He left the ABC in 1982 to join the Australian Film, Television and Radio School


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