The following are edited excerpts from the book “You, Me and Gerry Gee” by Ron Blaskett.
Sir Arthur Warner of Astor Radio and others had gained the licence for the proposed new television station GTV9. Colin Bednall, formerly of Argus Newspapers, was to manage it and Norm Spencer was appointed Program Manager. Denzil Howson, who I hadn’t seen since Heidelberg Hospital during the War, was employed as a producer and Assistant Program Manager.
Norm Spencer had asked me to join GTV9, and while work progressed on the old Wertheim piano factory (following that it was the Heinz factory) in Bendigo Street, Richmond, Norm arranged for me to do a test broadcast from the transmitter at Mt Dandenong.
In this test broadcast, I used “Willie Ross”, “Adolphus Twerk” and my wife Merle operated “Sandra Simpkins”, but I felt the need for a character made especially for me.
I knew of a Chicago wood carver named Frank Marshall who had made Edgar Bergen’s “Charlie McCarthy” years before. I corresponded with him and he agreed to carve a special figure for me. In conference with Norm Spencer we arrived at the name “Gerry Gee” because it was alliterative and appropriate — “Gerry Gee of GTV”.
My first impression when I saw Gerry Gee was one of disappointment. The slotted jaw, almond eyes and general modelling didn’t really grab me. Then as I started to work with him, although he seemed to weigh a ton on my arm, I realised the great expressions I could extract from him. One particularly good movement was the way his eyes could be rolled upward with a look of disgust. Not many figures have been made around the world with this ability. The fact that he could poke his tongue out was also an advantage — particularly for ice-cream commercials that came later. On trying him out on kids and adults, they liked his cheeky look and personality. Gerry Gee had certainly arrived.
We had done a “test run” of the The Happy Show at the GTV9 studios and this was kinescoped so that we could view it. When I saw the kinescope, I could see that Gerry Gee would work successfully for TV and, as I had spent years collecting gag books and ideas, I felt I was well prepared.
On Monday 21st January 1957 we started what was to become the most talked about children’s show ever, from Myer’s Lonsdale Street window. The crowd looked from the street into the “studio”. In the basement was our Outside Broadcast Van, which supplied the link to enable the show to beam out from the transmitter at Mt Dandenong.
Denzil was a gem to work with — patient, understanding, diligent, with a great sense of humour and he worked tirelessly. Others who appeared from the Myer window were: Happy Hammond, with his checked coat and hat who was compere, the singer Stan Stafford and pianist Margot Sheridan.
Alf Gertler (Bernard the Magician) also began in the Myer window. He had the best-known magic shop in Melbourne, “Bernard’s”. He used to say “The Post Office is Opposite” and he provided many gimmicks and tricks for The Tarax Show.
When we needed time in the confined space of the window to set up another act, we would pan to a fish tank to fill in.
Tarax Drinks sponsored the show from the start. So much Tarax came to be sold through this program, that they made increasing capital outlays to cope with the demand for their product.
Following this period in the Myer window, we shifted to the GTV9 studio, which allowed us to have a large audience attending and participating.
Public acceptance was fantastic. I had hit the jackpot with the Gerry Gee character and people today still give me warmth and acceptance because of my TV persona.
Susan-Gaye Anderson was added to the cast and she made a very well accepted “hostess”.
Always supporting, encouraging and honing our song numbers was Margot Sheridan. This great lady who had helped me so much pre-war at 3KZ devoted her best to TV.
We went from strength to strength, eventually making Margot Sheridan musical director, with Laurie Wilson on Hammond Organ and Billy Hunter on drums.
Joining us later was a girls choir tutored by Margot and a great group of dancers trained by Valmai Ennor. (Previously we had used dancers from the May Downs School, the Utassy ballet and Mrs Gretorex.)
Each member of the nightly audience would receive a bag full of sponsor’s products after the show. “Big Tom” in the prop department would prepare the bags and the children would line up and all of the cast would participate in “contact”.
The fan cards of the day became much sought after; everyone who wrote in received one. Eventually the cost of this became prohibitive and it had to be limited to suppliers of a self-addressed envelope.
The children’s show was treated as a prestige show. Norm Spencer and Colin Bednall had the sense to realise that children could build station loyalty that would last through to adulthood.
During this period at Channel Nine, I was a “Monday Whistler” — I whistled when I was going to work on Monday rather than when I knocked off on Friday night. This was one of the happiest periods of my life with satisfying rewards for hard work. I felt that television was a just reward for many years of hard work and I threw my life into the output it required.
I realised that my figure Gerry Gee had to be accepted as an integral and live character in the children’s show. (I succeeded well enough at this as Gerry Gee received far more fan mail than I did!)
Gerry Gee had to be loveable, quick-thinking, smart and appeal to children of all ages. His humour had to be relevant to what kids thought and felt at that time — and always had to have the humour so directed that adults would feel involved and favourably disposed towards the character. I knew that our influence would be immense and Gerry Gee therefore had to be a vehicle through which we could establish attitudinal concepts to society. So, if he stepped out of line, I was the person to quickly show him the error of his ways. Any infraction and it would be “off to the woodshed”.
In checking back on some of the scripts in the “Gerry Gee” segments, I can see that we certainly did our best while entertaining to improve the attitudinal behaviour of school kids. Scripts covered topics like: treating “coloured” people or people with accents respectfully, awareness for other people’s property rights, and pedestrian safety.
No child wrote to Gerry Gee without receiving a written reply or a “Fan Card”. I was careful to see that our sponsors, Tarax, were well served, even to the point of not going into hotel bars. I made their interest mine and had an excellent relationship with the Pethard family (who owned Tarax) and their advertising agency, Hughes-Satchwell.
It was decided to test our appeal before the public and the Melbourne Zoo was chosen as the venue. After our show, we spent the day signing our fan photos with children milling around. We escaped to the privacy of the café for a short lunchtime and then the “assault” was on again signing thousands of autographs. I did this with good grace because I have never lost sight of the fact that these autograph hunters were your bread and butter. But the promotion was too successful for the few staff available — it took the Zoo Gardens six months to recover from our visit.
Maurie Kirby, who had organised successful Pedal Clubs for enthusiastic cyclists, was given the job of running “The Gerry Gee Tarax Club” with his assistant Mary Ferguson. This hugely successful club raised money for the Spastic Children’s Society and all our appearances at various locations attracted record crowds.
The original Gerry Gee song was:
You’re tuned right into Channel Nine
Of course you know the viewing’s fine
And now the chap we want to see
Is that rascal Gerry Gee
Gerry Gee, Gerry Gee
Who and what and where is he?
I’ll tell you so you all will know
H’e not a jolly Eskimo
I’m that fellow, yes that’s me
I’m that rascal Gerry Gee
This was sung by the studio audience and after a few years developed a certain quaintness. The Channel Nine promo words “the viewing’s fine on Channel Nine” were losing relevance and becoming dated, so I wrote a new song with graphics showing fingers turning the TV dial through numbers until reaching 9. The song was recorded with Margot Sheridan’s Girls’ Choir:
One two three four, a song to make you merry
Let’s turn the dial some more, gee whizzer Gerry
Five six seven eight, now we’re getting hot
Let’s sing it louder and give it all you’ve got
Now we’re on the channel
Where the viewing’s fine
Gerry Gee, Gerry Gee, we’re tuned to Channel Nine
I approached L.J. Sterne early on in TV and sold him on the idea of producing a toy reproduction of Gerry Gee with a moving mouth. This would be sold in all toyshops and we arrived at a deal with GTV9. The Nine logo was used on the box and everyone purchasing a doll was able to fill in an enclosed coupon and become part of the studio audience for The Tarax Show.
Gerry Gee Juniors came out in varying outfits — as the Beatles, in football colours, cowboy suits, spacemen, etc. We were always coming up with different ideas and when a store bought the required number of dolls, they were entitled to a free appearance from Gerry and myself. Wherever we went we attracted crowds and it’s nice when a burly 40-year-old comes up to me shyly and tells me he was a Gerry Gee fan.
We also ran a talent competition each year with heats, semi’s and a grand final to find the child who could best perform a ventriloquial act. Some of the children came up with great ideas and gimmicks for their acts.
Gerry Gee Juniors are now collectors items and fetch a big price when they come up at auction or on the open market.
L.J. Sterne, the maker of the Gerry Gee Junior dolls, was a refugee from Austria. He arrived in Australia in 1939 penniless and began making bride dolls of papier-mâché in his garage. He was a loveable, wonderful character who lived a long life and died when he was well into his nineties. Trips to his home in Hedgeley Avenue, East Malvern, were a delight, as he was such an entertaining and enthusiastic man. People of his ilk help make your life as a performer.
The requirements of one hour of TV per night were rigorous — all possibilities for segments had to be mentally explored then brought to fruition. But the satisfaction gained from the job made it all worthwhile.
Each week Susan-Gaye Anderson had a segment for the “littlies” called “Tiny’s Story”. In this she visited a miniature “prop” house and Tiny would appear in the window. This was a small figure that I worked by “remote” using a pneumatic bulb. Susan-Gaye would relate a story to Tiny with appropriate responses from the character. I think she probably received the most fan mail of anyone in the cast.
Ernie Carroll had a popular segment called “Joybelle”. He would do a cartoon type storyline on a large board along with a recorded voice. His skill as a cartoonist led to TV Week negotiating with him to produce a weekly comic on Gerry Gee’s adventures.
The most popular segment was entitled “The Girl Next Door”, in which Gerry Gee would talk over the back fence to the girl neighbour who was in his class at school. Various topics were discussed and an appropriate song finished the segment.
Elaine McKenna was the original “Girl Next Door” and she brought a great deal of charm and singing ability to her role. Later when Elaine was unavailable, we cast Patti McGrath (now Mrs Bert Newton) as the new girl on the block. She had been known for years in “Swallows Juniors” and she brought to the role a different approach, speaking with a slight lisp, and being as different a girl next door as Shirley Temple was from Jane Withers. (I think Patti would agree I taught her dialogue and comedy and she went on to achieve greater performing glory. I will always be grateful to her for the enthusiasm and ability she brought to all her work in The Tarax Show. A delightful, sincere and charming person who never failed to give of her best in any show.)
We would also do various “once a week” spots. Gerry would visit the fish and chip shop of “Luigi” (played by Frank Rich) and go for a singing lesson with Professor Ormonde Douglas, who had been a singing star for as long as I could remember.
The friendly policeman, the lady from the Zoo and religious instruction (under the title of “The Friendly Road”) were entertaining of course, but always with purpose, responsibility and direction.
We tried to entertain with responsibility and coated the educational pill with fun.
Denzil Howson came up with the idea for a film series entitled “The Adventures of Gerry Gee”. In these stories, Gerry would be seen flying a real aeroplane, driving Puffing Billy, and doing all sorts of clever stuff within a story line. This was accomplished by using a boy wearing a face mask of Gerry and dressed the same as Gerry in all the long shots, intercutting these with close-ups of the real Gerry Gee. The effect was remarkable and many titles were filmed.
[Editor’s Note: The latex mask of Gerry Gee is now in the collection of Museum Victoria.]
We used lots of well-known actors in this series and the standard was very good, when you consider the work had to be interspersed with the necessity of coming up with fresh material for an hourly show each night.
My favourite story was “Pimpernel Gee”, in which Gerry played the part of the Scarlet Pimpernel, based on the book by Baroness Orczy. Gerry wore a coiffured wig and velvet frock clothes of the period and had available a coach and horse which we used to simulate the saving of the French aristocrats from the guillotine.
Fans of Baroness Orczy’s series will recall the English lord, Sir Percy Blakeney (who was made out to be a thick, foppish English aristocrat, but was in reality the Scarlet Pimpernel), whisking away people to the sanctuary of England from the French Revolution. The story was originally made on film with Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon and Raymond Massey as the villain, “Citizen Chauvelin”, a part played by Frank Rich in our version. Gerry, acting as the English lord Sir Percy, was a riot. Raising the monocle to the eye and reciting the famous lines:
They seek him here
They seek him there
Those Frenchmen seek him everywhere
Is he in heaven?
Or is he in hell?
That damned elusive Pimpernel!
Denzil Howson wrote, directed and produced all of these films and they were a success due to his effort and talent.
(Denzil and I were called to GTV9 in October 1991, as some old film had been found in the archives — and here was the series that had been missing for 25 years — what treasures! Now we’ve had them transferred to videotape.)
When Happy Hammond moved to HSV9 in 1960, we were left without an effective compere and after a few weeks, Geoff Corke was offered to us. I was at the Danish Club with Alf Gertler (Bernard the Magician) one Sunday night and came up with the idea of dressing Geoff as a King and calling him “Corky, King of the Kids” with Gerry Gee as the Court Jester.
And so it was that we entered the next and most successful phase of the children’s show. I don’t think that Geoff was entirely comfortable in the role, but the kids loved him and he was an imposing figure in his robes and gold metal crown. We used a cute gimmick at this time. The prop department made a small throne to go alongside Corky’s and a real boy poked his arms through a specially made shirt which enabled Gerry to hold Tarax drinks, tickle Corky with a feather duster and generally add a new dimension to the character. The lad supplying the hands had a TV monitor behind the scenes so he could observe and place his movements.
Next to Gerry, my most popular character was Rags the Dog. He emerged from his basket to talk to Geoff Corke and the main theme was that he had to learn to wag his tail. Corky would send him off to get the idea from watching tennis matches, wig-wag signals at railway crossings; he even resorted to obtaining a metronome. Rags the Dog moved to and fro but his tail wouldn’t. The Rags character became so popular that he was used in the Husky Dog Food launch and was eventually sent around the world by Qantas with his own passport containing an ID footprint. Once Rags featured in the Moomba parade on a float with Tarax Show stars and created enormous attention.
Other characters that I developed for TV were Sammy the Snail, Hetty the Hen, Misery Marshall, and the Lazybones Skinny Jones. These were in addition to my main characters, Gerry Gee, Adolphus Twerk and Sandra Simpkins (operated by my wife).
We were fortunate to gain the services of Joff Ellen for the Tarax Show. “Joffa Boy” took to the Tarax Show like a duck to water. I wrote a song for his entrance, recorded by our girls choir with Margot Sheridan. It went like this:
Choir: “Who is that peeping round the corner?
It’s not Jack Sprat or Little Johnny Horner.”
Joffa, peeping around the corner:
“I’m the chap who always has a grin”
Choir: “Joffa Boy! Joffa Boy! Please come in.”
Joffa (speaking): “I will, I will.”
Then the famous call: “Howdy doody boys and girls”
With the thunderous audience response: “Howdy doody Joffa Boy!”
His Little Tramp sketches each week were Chaplinesque classics.
I had very high regard for the radio expertise of “Billy Bouncer”, Norm Swain. I had worked on his live radio shows from various locations and saw that children loved him; however, I had reservations about his TV persona. He had a lack of direct eye contact with the viewer in the home.
I wrote a song called the “Uncle Norman song” and his TV debut was well promoted. The whole night was built around him and for his entrance he was to come down a large slide from high up in the studio. Although his entrance had been rehearsed successfully, on air, when he reached the bottom of the slide, he clutched his leg and started groaning. We went to a commercial break. Joffa Boy and I continued to muddle through the show and we discovered that Norman had been taken away by ambulance. It was months before he was able to return to The Tarax Show, as his leg was badly injured.
Denzil Howson came up with another novel idea in 1962. He suggested that, with the right sponsorship, we may be able to make a mini-series of films on location around the globe and use the title “Around the World with Gerry Gee”. Management was approached, and through the assistance of Air India, the Australian Department of Trade, and Tarax, we were given a six-week world trip to produce this series.
When we arrived in Singapore, en route to Rome, the airport was a seething mass of people. Singapore was then just a village compared to the modern city it is now and a visit to the airport seemed to be a major form of entertainment for the populace.
Mr Grigsby, the Australian Trade Commissioner in Singapore, led us through the crowd to a VIP room for a quiet drink and conference. He detailed plans for our appearances in Singapore on our return journey.
When we arrived in Rome and were checking into our hotel, little Clare Howson, six years old and very blonde, lost sight of us in the hotel foyer and she apparently wandered outside the hotel. We had a terrifying couple of hours searching the hotel foyer and street until eventually she was returned by the local carabinieri. Being so blonde, she was greatly admired by the Italians. But we were all in a state of nervous shock at the happening. Dorothy Howson kept close tag of her two little ones from then on.
On our later arrival in London, Customs at Heathrow insisted on me opening one of my cases. It was the one containing Gerry Gee and soon the whole Customs hall was in uproar as I brought him out talking.
Gerry was filmed in London at all the famous locations and with Cornel Wilde (the film star) at Pinewood Studios.
We visited the English ventriloquist Peter Brough and Archie Andrews at his home. Peter had purchased Diana Dors’ home and, apart from the famous mirrors on the bedroom ceiling, it had a swimming pool that you could enter inside the house and swim under a glass wall to the outside. Peter was a gracious host and we made a good episode with him showing us the old English garden after we arrived in his Silver Ghost Rolls Royce.
On September 7, 1962, Peter Brough with Archie Andrews, Dennis Spicer with James Green and Gerry Gee and I appeared at a giant food fair at the Earls Court Olympia in London. The Australian Department of Trade displayed export canned Aussie fruits and we had hundreds of little gold kangaroo brooches. These were given away on request to all the visitors at the food fair and it was probably the first time three professional ventriloquists had worked together.
Our Tarax Show Christmas Pantomimes, produced annually from 1957 to 1963, meant a lot of extra work. Denzil Howson worked endlessly writing, producing and directing these with tremendous backup from Margot Sheridan.
The first attempts were live to air — any mistakes just had to go to the viewer as they were. When videotape became available in 1959, our pantomimes improved year by year. By the time the last one was put to air, the standard was a knockout.
Valmai Ennor mentioned to me before one of our pantomimes that one of the May Downs dancers was a real comedienne. We used this talented young lady in our Christmas Pantomime as “Tom Piper” and she certainly did a great job. This was Denise Drysdale, later partnering Ernie Sigley in a daytime show on TV and also appearing live at many locations.
I recently did an interview on radio with the multi-talented Colette Mann. She informed me that she also was a dancing girl in The Tarax Show.
In 1964, right on Christmas time, I learned that The Tarax Show was not to be continued the following year. It was a terrible shock to be told that there was to be a new kids show and I was not going to be part of it.
This, in fact, was a lie, because they wanted to replace costly live shows with films, saving lots of money. The papers were full of speculation, but I knew that the days of elaborate live kids shows were over and so it proved to be. A test run of “Bomba the Jungle Boy” showed wider appeal and a great cost saving. It took only one press of a button on a telecine machine to put to air.
Taking the show off at Christmas was a masterstroke. We would have been in recess anyway and it gave the public a chance to get used to a change without protest.
Viewing footage of those early children’s shows, given that they were black and white, shows an astonishing professionalism was evident.
The technical side of TV was certainly amateurish by today’s standards — none of the wonderful effects were available to us. But every performer was a seasoned professional who gave their best to the new medium.