Shannon Bolithoe : A Writing Life

Chapter 1 – May 1950


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PART 1

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between.

Chapter 1 – May 1950

‘Next,’ he called wearily.

Pulling at his tie to loosen it, he rolled his shoulders, trying to relieve the tension in them. It had been a long, hard day. He’d been dreading this day ever since his secretary Blanche announced her engagement. She hadn’t handed in her resignation right away, but he’d known it was inevitable.

‘That’s the trouble when you employ young girls,’ he had complained to his wife at the time. ‘Just as you get them worn in, they go and get married.’ He didn’t like the older “Misses” either. They were less decorative in the office, and too set in their ways. He reserved the right to be the crotchety one. He was the station manager, after all, and deserved to be the difficult one.

 There’d been so many applicants. Every silly young woman who thinks she can type must have applied for the job.

That was the problem with running a radio station. Too many young things applied for jobs just for the chance to see, up close, their favourite radio stars. Maybe they thought they might catch the eye of one of the young and handsome men working there. Or at a pinch, even an old one would do, as long as he was wealthy and successful. He smiled, ruefully remembering the offers even he’d had. He was too scared of his wife Dot to take them up, though. He wasn’t totally crazy.

He heard the door open and quick steps approaching him. He looked up with a fake smile, trying to suppress a sigh, expecting another pretty, simpering young face.

His face froze. He stared at the young woman who stood in the doorway smiling slightly, her white-gloved hands clutching a tiny black handbag. She was neatly dressed in a navy dress with a white Peter Pan collar and a navy hat on her neat shoulder-length black hair. Nothing unusual there, but it was her face that transfixed him. She reminded him of a little doll; a little Chinese doll. He’d never seen anyone like her before; at least not in real life.

He was surprised by her appearance, but relieved that at least she wasn’t another very young girl. Too many of the applicants had been barely out of their teens. This girl looked more mature than the others did. He thought she was probably in her late 20s; immaculate, well presented and tiny.

‘Please come in.’ He stood up as she entered the room, and smiled stiffly, trying not to let his astonishment show.

‘Good afternoon. Should I sit down here?’ she asked, indicating the chair in front of his desk.

Another surprise. She spoke in an ordinary Australian accent, not the Chinese one he was expecting.

‘Yes Miss, Mrs. …?’ he let the question hang in the air.

‘Miss King.’ She sat down; her hands held neatly together on her lap. ‘I’m here to apply for the secretarial position.’

‘Yes, well Miss King. My name is Mr. James Martin, and I’m the manager of the radio station.’ He cleared his throat as he sat down. He shuffled through his papers, looking for her application. ‘Ah yes, here it is. Miss Lucy King.’ He scanned the application quickly, to remind himself of its contents. ‘I can see you’ve had lots of experience and I’ve noted here your references are excellent. Why do you want to work here?’ he asked, beginning the interview.

***

In contrast to the previous applicants, and despite his initial negative reaction to her appearance, as the interview progressed Mr. Martin found himself warming to her. Her replies to his questions were very straightforward and pleasant. She conveyed a simple confidence in her abilities, without appearing conceited. Despite their short acquaintance, he quickly realised that he felt comfortable with her. After the formal interview questions had been asked and answered, they sat chatting for a while.

‘Where do you come from Miss King, and how did you end up in Sydney?’

‘Hornsby,’ she replied promptly. With an undertone of humour in her voice, she added ‘Did you mean where was I born? China, of course. I came here with my parents when I was a baby. They were missionaries there in the ‘20’s. I was an orphan, and they had no children, so they decided to adopt me. When they came back to Australia, they brought me with them. I hope this,’ she gestured towards her face with an expressive movement of her hand ‘isn’t going to be a problem for you?’

‘No, why would it?’ he blushed self-consciously. It had been a problem at first, but he wasn’t going to admit it. He had already decided to hire her and didn’t want them to get off on the wrong foot. He stood up and came around the table towards her, his hand extended.

‘When can you start?’

‘As soon as you want.’ She stood up and smiled delightedly as she shook his hand. ‘My previous boss retired last month, so I’m ready to start whenever you need me.’ They discussed her starting date, and she left his office with a jaunty step.

***

On Lucy’s first day at work, Mr. Martin took her on a tour of the radio station, introducing her to the “real” people behind the voices on the radio. He met her at the entrance on the ground floor and, after a quick hello, launched into his spiel.

‘You mightn’t realise it because they usually keep out of the headlines, but the lesser known announcers have more listeners than the top-liners do, in particular among the housewives.’ Mr. Martin looked at her expectantly.

She guessed he was hoping for a reaction, so she obliged him with a murmured ‘Really?’

‘That’s right, with radio’s big names, like Jack Davey, Roy Rene, and Bob Dyer the listeners change the dial from one station to the other just to listen to their particular favourite’s time slot. It’s like that with the disc jockeys too. Their listeners are only interested in the type of music they play. They don’t stick with any particular radio station. But even though they get the top headlines and top the bills, the showmen, and the disc jockeys are only a small part of the radio’s “on air” programs. The ordinary commercial announcers take up much more time, and their listeners are very loyal. They are a radio station’s bread and butter, so to speak. There are about a hundred or so “regular” commercial broadcasters in Sydney. They do the breakfast sessions, the early morning wake-ups, and the long stints during the dead daytime hours.’

Lucy listened attentively, as they strolled along the narrow, brown-carpeted corridors. She guessed it wasn’t the first time Mr. Martin had conducted this tour since he fired off the facts and figures with such practiced ease.

‘They’re the workhorses that make commercial radio possible and profitable. Day in, day out they plug “cosy corsets” and “dandy disinfectants”. They sell sewing machines and dancing instruction, permanent waves and margarine. They tell their lady listeners what phone number to ring if they want to bury their husband or find a five-pound loan. They talk directly to the housewives all day because they know who controls the family’s purse strings, and that’s when they’re most receptive – or at least that’s what we hope,’ he added with a smile, ‘since that’s how we make our money.’

‘”That fruit bowl you knocked off the sideboard,” they might say, “you can get a new one. Pure cut crystal with silver feet for nine and nine pence at Big Bill Barney’s Bargain Basement, at 123 Tom, Bill or Harry Street in the City. Do it now, do it tomorrow, do it when the old man brings in the pay envelope. Everybody knows Big Bill Barney opposite the Bowser. Fruit bowls. Nine and nine pence. Don’t say I didn’t tell you … Here’s Charlie Walker with “Succulent and Soothing” and don’t forget to dust that dresser, dearie.’’

‘You sound like one of the announcers.’

‘Thanks. That’s how I started out, as an announcer that is, before I was sucked into this management lark. Sometimes I wish I’d stayed in the booth. I might have more hair.’ He chuckled as he rubbed his hand over his balding dome.

‘Of course, the announcers have to play music as well as talk, but it can’t be too highbrow or too lowbrow. What they need is personality. After all, they’re in their listener’s houses all day, and they don’t want to upset anybody. They don’t even need to be consciously listened to; they just try to be a regular part of the day’s work. For many housewives it would be almost impossible to wash up, make the beds, or hang out the baby’s nappies without them. Whenever an announcer sits down in front of his microphone, he knows he’s in thousands of homes. He shouldn’t change or be too smart; he just wants to be the housewives’ friend.’

As they worked their way through the various floors, Mr. Martin introduced her to the other staff. Lucy followed along beside him, nodding and saying hello to the stream of faces. She knew she’d never remember their names and their faces became a blur. She noticed how they all studied her face, intent and apparently curious. She never knew how strangers would react to her appearance when they met her for the first time. Unfortunately, some of them stared at her unsmilingly or turned away from Mr. Martin’s introduction, but she was used to that reaction. Much to her relief, though, most were very friendly.

The tour ended on the top floor, at the central recording booth. They stopped outside the booth and watched a small grey-haired man speaking animatedly into the microphone.

‘Johnny Miles here is an excellent example of the kind of announcer I was telling you about,’ Mr. Martin said, indicating the man inside the booth. ‘He’s probably the oldest friend to anybody who listens to a wireless in Australia. Miles is one of the best. He’s been here since 1929 and men like him made the station what it is. He roams the housewives’ homes with them and helps them polish the floor. He plays them music, enlists their sympathy for an unfortunate, tells them where to buy bootlaces or calls a cheerio to their aged, bed-ridden great aunt. While he sits there at his desk, he’s keeping them company through the day.’

Lucy peered into the recording booth where Mr. Miles sat, with a gramophone turntable at his right hand, another at his left, and a microphone on the desk in front of him. Beside him was a set of shelves, with a few records that he could reach without getting up. There was a telephone on the wall beside him, and in front of him, there were about half a dozen switches. A sheaf of typewritten papers littered the desk.

‘Are they scripts?’ Lucy asked, indicating the papers.

‘No, they’re for the advertisements, but he rarely bothers to look at them. He’s such a pro; he usually ad-libs them all. He knows all the commercials and what he wants to say by heart, without even thinking about it. While he’s playing the records, he answers the telephone or yarns with visitors in the booth. Then in the same voice, and often in the same breath, he clicks a switch and tells the listeners which tomato sauce is best. It’s funny watching when he has people in the booth. They always look nervous so, never sure whether the “on air” switch is on or off.’

‘That’s incredible.’ Lucy watched the announcer work, amazed at his skill. ‘What time does he broadcast? I never listen to the radio during the day, so I haven’t heard him.’

‘Nine to eleven, and three to five on weekdays and for a long spin on Sunday afternoons. But for all the time he’s on air he hardly gets any fan mail. It’s the showmen and disc jockeys that get the fan mail.’

‘That doesn’t seem fair,’ Lucy interjected indignantly.

‘I agree. You’d never know it, but he and his kind are the biggest force in commercial radio.’

Lucy found this fascinating. She had never thought about the men and women who worked the airwaves day in, day out, constantly talking to keep their audience company. The recording booth was their last stop before they headed towards Mr. Martin’s office, which was also on the top floor.

‘Do the broadcasters usually stay for a long time, like Mr. Miles has?’ Lucy asked.

‘Some do. We’ve been pretty lucky with our staff at this station, especially the old timers like Johnny Miles and Jo Smith. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s been a lot of industrial action this year at many of the other stations. Even 2KY, which is owned by the NSW Trades and Labor Council, had a strike by their technicians in January, and the technicians are just as vital to keeping the station running as the announcers. Lucky for me our men kept working. I think the worst union I have to deal with is Actors Equity.’ He grimaced with apparent distaste.

‘What about? I didn’t know that they were a union.’

‘They’re definitely a union. They’re either complaining to me about announcers working free for charity events – can you imagine it – or trying to get higher wages or better conditions for their members.’

‘Why would they have a problem with people appearing at charity events?’ asked Lucy. ‘I thought it would be free publicity for the actor and their station.’

‘Goodness knows. I suppose Equity thinks if one announcer works for free, they’ll all be expected to work for free.’

‘I guess so, but if it’s for charity you’d think it would be different.’

‘I agree. You know, I think I spend more time discussing union and staffing issues than I do making programming decisions,’ he grumbled. ‘And I’m the one who has to find the money when they get a pay rise. For example, the FCC recently gave in to Equity’s claim for higher wages for the announcers. They want 20 pounds a week for A Grade announcers, 17 pounds for B Grade and 15 pounds for C Grade. It’s unbelievable. They also get penalty pay for holiday work and sick pay. What else do they want, my blood? None of the station owners are happy about it, but what can I do? I still haven’t worked out how I’m going to pay for the raises yet,’ he added, with an anxious frown as he opened the door to his office suite.

Mr. Martin showed Lucy to her office desk and chair, which guarded the door to his inner office. She sat down at the desk, and Mr. Martin perched his bulk on the edge of it, evidently wanting to continue the conversation. He had a captive and interested audience, and he seemed to enjoy being able to unload all his problems on her.

‘There’s also a drought of radio actors at the moment, especially the male ones. It can be tough making up the cast for the radio plays. And I have to referee fights between the old timers and the new up-and-comers trying to break into radio.’

‘Where have all the radio actors gone?’ asked Lucy pleased he felt comfortable enough to confide in her.

‘In the last year, there’s been an absolute exodus of big name radio stars overseas. It’s all very well for John Cazabon. He’s reaping the benefit of being one of the few actors left who can play a range of roles. But for the rest of us, it makes life difficult finding male voices for the radio serials and plays.’

‘Who, and why have they gone overseas? Why doesn’t John Cazabon go too?’ Lucy asked.

‘Well, there’s Peter Finch, Redmond Phillips, Edward Howell, John Sykes.’ He ticked them off on his fingers. ‘Not to mention John Bushelle, John McCallum, Ron Randell and John Mallory. They’re trying their luck in England and the States, on stage and in films. Don’t get me wrong, I wish them well, of course, but isn’t Australia good enough for them? As for John Cazabon, he says he’d go too if he could save enough money, but personally, I think he’s enjoying all the attention and the money of course.’

‘But aren’t there any new actors and announcers coming through?’ she asked.

‘There would be, but that’s another problem with Actors Equity,’ he sighed. ‘They insist on a flat rate of pay for everyone, whether they’re experienced or not. The established actors don’t think it’s fair the “amateurs”, as they call them, are getting paid the same money. Take Gladys Mowell, for example. Do you know what she said to me the other day? “In my opinion, the theatrical profession is overcrowded by people who perhaps shouldn’t be in radio at all because they have inadequate experience.”’ Lucy laughed at his perfect mimicry of Mrs. Mowell’s high pitched, upper-class voice.

‘I think it would be better to pay the new ones at a lower rate; like an apprenticeship system, but Actors Equity won’t agree to it, and the youngsters don’t help themselves. They want to be stars overnight and aren’t willing to work their way through the ranks. That’s where you come in.’ He rubbed his hands together, finally getting down to business.

‘Although I hired you as my secretary I’ll need your assistance with screening new job applicants. People pester me all the time, wanting to be on the radio. They brandish their resumes at me, assuming that because they’ve worked in some amateur repertory theatre, they’re bound to be the next big name in radio. I’ll teach you what I want you to look for, and I want you to be the “superior young lady in the outer office” to protect me. Some of them are so pushy. The women especially can be absolute harridans.’

‘Of course, Mr. Martin, I’ll do my best,’ promised Lucy. ‘I’ll have to practice my “inscrutable Asian” look I think. Will Miss Ming the Merciless do?’ she asked with a grin.

‘That’s the ticket.’ He laughed back at her.

***

Lucy and Mr. Martin soon established a comfortable working relationship. She was quick, efficient and cheerful and was soon running his life in the office as efficiently as his wife Dot did at home. He liked being surrounded by capable women since it made his life so much easier. Another advantage for him was that Dot never felt threatened by Lucy, as she sometimes was by other young women at the station.

‘She’s a charming girl, for a slope head,’ he often heard her say to her friends.

 

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