Conversation with Sam Leon 25 June 2005
One day in December 1956, I decided to pop in to the ABC office on the corner of Forbes St and William Street to see whether I could get a job as a singer. I saw a lady in the Personnel Dept. and asked for a singer’s job. She told me "Sonny, we don’t employ singers, we only audition for singers! – would you like a job in television?" That’s how I got the job as a studio-hand at ABN2. She asked me if I could start "today", and I said sure; so I went home to change. I put on my suit and polished my shoes , and then caught a train to St Leonards. Then, as directed, I then went to the corner of Greenwich Road and Pacific Highway, and found myself at an old-looking 2 story terrace building. I thought what a strange place to have a TV Studio. I went in and introduced myself, and in no time I was told to take off my coat and tie, and to start sweeping up the office! So this was my introduction to television.
The building was in fact a temporary props/staging store and workshop. All the props and staging sets had to hauled from this building to the Arcon studio and then set up – after the show the reverse happened – it all had to moved back to Greenwich Road. I remember my first job was to move this unbelievably heavy structure called a news-set. So the two of us had to cross the Pacific Highway at Greenwich Road, past the Cemetery and up the hill past the Tech College, and then to the Arcon on the ABC site. The set was so heavy we had to stop every 20 steps or so. Nothing was kept at the Arcon – the sets had to be moved to and from Greenwich Road! This went on all the time until the new studios were built – it seemed to go for a lifetime.
We had a segment called "To Market To Market", just after the news. I was given a pair of overalls to put on and my job was to hold a piglet – they were going to talk about the price of pork. One day, off camera, just as I was going to hand it over to the presenter, the piglet was scared stiff and crapped all over me and the floor. All the crew burst out laughing.
Another memory I have is after Sputnik was launched by the Russians. In the middle of the News Jim Dibble read that it was about to pass overhead. Spontaneously, all the available people in the Arcon, somehow managed to get the cameras outside the studio in the rough area outside. One of the cameramen located Sputnik, and we were able to show it on-air before the completion of the news. It was an amazing effort.
The show before the News was the Micky Mouse Club. Every night the studio crew and control room crew watched the off-air monitor, and singed along with the end titles of the Micky Mouse Club. There was a great team spirit in those days.
I was quite fortunate in my position as studio-hand; both the technical staff and production staff adopted me, and I got terrific grounding in all the aspects of television.
When I finally became a floor-manager, this early grounding really helped me. I think I was the first employee who came through from the bottom. All the other production people seemed to come from the Elizabethan Theatre Trust ie people who new production. Some people from ABC Radio tried to get television jobs via their seniority –but many were just not suitable for work in that new medium.
My memory of working in the Arcon is that it was so hot there. Because of the very low ceiling, the lights were just above our heads. The build up of heat, coupled with the closeness of sets/people, meant that to move around the studio, we had to tap people on the shoulder or hip, to get past them to do our job. We got so used to making non-verbal signals.
I caused quite an incident in the Arcon. We were issued with flat brown shoes, so that we could move silently in the studio. The shoes had no arch supports, and I got some relief by standing on the cables and rocking. There was mysterious flashing in the cameras, and the technicians could not work out what was causing the problem. The day that they caught me standing on the cables, I thought they would lynch me!
I remember when the ABC brought out Rudi Bretz from America. He designed what is known as the Bretz Box, an aid to planning studio production. It was a black square box with different size holes to represent different angle lenses. I used to hold the box at production meetings, and as the director was talking to the crew, here I was looking through the different holes in the box. They were all wondering what I was up to.
Another American director who was brought out had brilliant creative techniques - I remember he had a water tank built, and he put a sailing boat in the water. He got a cameraman to go close in, and I was there creating waves – on air it seemed like the boat was in the middle of the ocean.
Tom Jeffery & I actually piddled in the cement for the foundations of the new Studios - not out of any disrespect at all - but so that we could 'permanently' leave something of ourselves in the buildings, we truly loved them so much. Honest!
An early opera I remember was Pagliaci. I was Floor Manager in Studio 21. Suddenly I noticed that one of the sets was falling over – so I rushed over to hold it – otherwise it would have fallen over on to the singer. Of course it was all live in those days.
Another memory I have was when Frank Ifield was singing "I remember You". We had chickens to release during that number – they were in elevated coops. It worked well during rehearsal. However, we turned the lights off to keep the studio cool, and went to have dinner in the ‘greasy spoon’ – our canteen. When we went on-air, and the stage-hand was cued to release the chickens, we found that the they were all asleep in the cool air, so instead of them flying down they all were falling down like bombs from their coops. It was so funny.
I remember doing the first TV Studio Techniques Course at the Gore Hill Tech College. I remember doing the course together with my boyhood heroes – people like Howard Craven and Gordon Hayes. They were there learning about the new medium.
Working on the floor with John Buttle as director was interesting – he used to bring in his apples and tape them on the console. During the show he started eating them, and I can still remember the very loud crunching of his apples through the headphones.
Tom Jeffrey and I were both there as studio-hands; we seemed to get our promotions together. We become great friends – and still are friends. It was great time in our lives. We were creating something; people were committed to the one cause. There were no industrial squabbles. There was a commonality of purpose that drove us – it was a terrific feeling to know that everyone else who was there was also giving 100% to the job. It was much more than a job.
There was a guy there called Roy – who lost his leg in World War II – he had a terrific sense of humour. He painted a canvas; it was a snapshot of the people involved in the first 12 months of ABN2. I hope that canvas is still around – it should be in the National Museum.
Another staff member went on to become one of Australia’s top artists – John Coburn. He was a scenery painter in those days.
Some people I worked with in the early days : there was the producer Ray Menmuir, the Staging Supervisor Woodridge, Geoff Powell and Jim Lyons – both of them worked in Presentation and were great guys. There were some fabulous women working there – Helen Lockhart who went on from floor managing to become a producer. Also the wardrobe mistress, Zilla Weatherby, who always was looking after the cats. She had a circus background, and she often used to show me how to contort a body. Also I remember, Bill Philips, who was a top floor manager. Don Bethel was there in Props – a great guy.
Part of my job was to look after celebrities – on one day I remember showing Liberace around the studios.
It was so sad for me to leave the ABC in 1960. My bosses wanted me to
stay, and I wanted to stay. But my father, who was a World War I veteran,
died suddenly from a massive coronary, and I had to look after the family
business in Darlinghurst.
Sam Leon worked at Gore Hill from the end of 1956 to 1960. He then
left the ABC to run his family business.