Conversation with Larry Sitsky
Larry Sitsky was interviewed by his brother Bob in April 2005
Ken Middleton interviewed me after I applied to join ABC TV in early 1957. I saw an advert for ABC vacancies. The main qualification required was the BOCP (Broadcast Operator’s Certificate of Proficiency) - I did a course with AWA at the Marconi School of Wireless and got most of the First Class Operators Certificate (all except the Morse code!) i.e. it included the BOCP. They also wanted someone with a musical background, and as I had just finished my Diploma at the Sydney Conservatorium I had the right qualifications to work as a sound operator. In those days of course, there was no differentiation between 'technicians' and 'operators'. Anyway, I got a job as a Technicians Assistant. They knew of course, that I was pretty useless as a maintenance person - my main value to them was as a sound person with a good knowledge of music. I only could perform basic technical work.
My main work during my 2 years with the ABC was working on music shows, as well as doing general sound work on News etc. Occasionally I was allowed to operate a camera. At the beginning of 1957 my main job was operating the boom. It was quite a challenge as the Arcon was basically a small shed - once you got several cameras, talent, sets, floor manager, etc there was hardly any room for a boom. Looking back I don't know how we managed -we had some fairly large productions, like the Johnny Gradula Show with a number of musicians and singers. We also did live plays - I remember actors like James Condon. We achieved a lot for a rather primitive small studio. I also remember the religious programs we used to have – the producer used to swear a lot, which we all had a good laugh about.
My first day at work was actually at an OB - there was a cricket broadcast from the SCG, and my job was to help with all the cabling. Once that was done I had nothing to do. I was then allocated to the Arcon Studio.
I learnt a lot about sound in the Arcon Studio. I was given the opportunity to operate the small sound control panel as well as setting up the microphones for the various shows. I remember the great team work at the time. Broadcasting hours were fairly short, so we did not need a huge team, so everyone got to know each other. It was pioneer work and very exciting time for all of us. We were experimenting with lighting, sets, sound, cameras etc. so we were all dead keen to do a good job.
My first bosses were Dave Tapp, John Hicks and John Garton – they were the TPs. I got on well with Dave Tapp as he had an interest in Music. John Garton was a real gentleman. John Hicks was a tougher character. I think Les Weldon joined up a bit later, and I enjoyed talking to him about music.
The staff I remember from the Arcon include Bill Boonzager who was on the same level as myself and Eddy Berlage who was the cameraman (I used to get a lift to work with him), Roger Catchpoole who was a very knowledgeable technician, Phil Pearson who did CCU and Fred Haynes who seemed to do a variety of jobs. Later on after Studio 21 opened, I remember Len Richardson the top cameraman, and Barry Quick who did CCU. Some early producers I remember include Peter Page and John Buttle. I have very warm memories of all the crew.
I also remember the announcers like James Dibble, Michael Charlton and Barbara Potter.
I remember once when I had to change into a suit quickly from being a boom person to playing the piano - Barbara Potter announced that I was on the studio staff. This did not happen for long, as management decided that crew could not be performers! It was all done very politely. I only appeared several times ‘on air’ as a pianist on some musical shows.
In those early days crews used to take notice of the comments made by Master Control via the intercom. I remember various arguments between the studio and master Control.
We used to have a lot of problems with microphonics with the early TV cameras. There was a battle with the pop musicians, who wanted to play at maximum level.
One had to be alert operating the boom in a live situation – looking out for boom shadows, knowing what sort of shot was being taken so not to get the boom in the picture, the key lights and their position, etc.
During the News, we had 2 or 3 turntables operating, so they all had to be cued up – many of the discs were 78 rpm. For example we used to cue up a disc for the Newsreels to time it for the titles.
I remember being criticised by Fred Haynes after an early broadcast of ‘6 O’clock Rock’ Apparently he used to watch all the shows at home, so as to comment about them the next day. He complained to me that I was not lifting the sound level of the artists when they were on close-up.
I remember that we had many sound operational errors on the Opening of Studio 21 in January 1958. At one stage the microphone failed on Michael Charlton, and it was most embarrassing. At one stage the movement of the microphone boom I was operating failed, and I had to pull the ropes in order to shift the position of the mics. Peter Tkachenko was dollying me at the time.
I remember Lindley Evans coming in for the Childrens TV Show, he was known as Mister Music Man. I knew him from the Con, and he was surprised to see me as an operator in the Studio.
After the change from the Arcon to Studio 21, my role changed from being a boom operator to being a sound control operator. I think they trusted my ‘ear’ by then.
I remember an early live opera we did with the singers in the Studio but with the orchestra located in Studio 22 which still an empty shell. I think they were 2 short operas by Arthur Benjamin, the Australian composer. One was called ‘The Devil Take Her’. The singers had to hear the orchestra via a foldback arrangement.
When I came back as a composer several years later, it was much more sophisticated; with pre-recorded segments, etc. This was the broadcast of my opera ‘Fall of the House of Usher’.
‘6 O’clock Rock’ commenced early in 1959 and it took us all day to set up. I remember being rostered at 10am. The mic set-up was very complicated. There were two bands in the studio as I recall - The Johnny O’Keef Band and The Australian All-Stars. It was a big show. The only pre-recorded material was the clock at the start. It was my biggest show in terms of the numbers of artists, microphones used, numbers of sound staff, etc. It was quite scary; there was a lot of pressure on us, as it had a huge following. The band played very loud. Once I went down to ask Johhny to get his band to play less loudly - his response was "I can’t sing if I can hear myself" – he was quite serious!
In a similar vein, I once went to get the trombone player to play softer as I was having trouble with balance, as his sound was leaking into other band players mics. He knocked me out by saying "I can’t play if I can hear anyone else"
The producer was usually Peter Page for the Rock Show. I also remember working with Greg South, who was also very interested in classical music.
Michael Charlton was always making rude finger gestures at the camera just before we went to air. I remember when he was caught doing that on air – he was completely unabashed – he just said "I was just telling you that you are on Channel 2".
Jim Gussey from the ABC Dance Band was renowned for his rude language – he often used to let fly, but never on air.
One day they let Spike Milligan loose in the studio and he created real havoc during the news and weather. He talked during the news distracting Jim Dibble, and fooled around with the weather board by sticking his head through the board, as if checking the outside weather. He was there for a ‘People’ program and for some reason he stayed on. Once he used a pencil to give marks to the people who were mentioned at the end of his show e.g. 6 out of 10, 8 out of ten, etc. He was genuinely a bit mad, and completely unpredictable.
I remember visiting classical musicians stumbling across me playing the piano in a studio during a lunch break They could not understand what I was doing there! I think it was Igor Hmelnitsky from the Conservatorium who came in to the studio one day and found me playing Rachmaninov – he was astonished that here was a techo playing quite well!!
At the end of 1958 I applied for 1 years leave, as I was going to continue study music in USA. I saved up enough money to go there – working shift work made a huge difference. I actually preferred to work nights. Ken Middleton knew I was not going to come back, so he suggested that I just resign. He was quite supportive and I liked him, although I know other people didn’t.
So overall, I remember fondly those early days of television at Gore Hill in 1957, 1958 and 1959.
Larry Sitsky worked at Gore Hill from 1957 to 1959. He then embarked on a classical music career. He is now Emeritus Professor of Music at the ANU in Canberra.