Saturday, June 4, 2016

Television City

Bendigo Street, Richmond runs from behind the local Officeworks down to the busy hubbub of Swan Street.

The houses are mostly from the 60s and 70s, and look well kept. At the top of the street is a community garden, and about half way along, at number 22, a substantial red brick factory complex, which has been renovated and turned into apartments. There are a couple of upmarket cafes, and a swanky looking bar.

It's the very picture of successful, hip, inner city Melbourne.

It's hard to believe, visiting today, that this street has had other lives; that it was once part of the industrial heartland of the city, that pianos and baked beans were manufactured here. That, even more astoundingly, this street even has a glamorous past, and was a second home to many local celebrities. But some embossed lettering that remains on the re-modeled factory frontage confirms this unlikely history for us.  It reads: Television City.

But our story doesn't start in the age of television. Instead, it starts in  eastern Europe.

Hugo Wertheim
Hugo Wertheim was born in Lispenhausen, Germany, in 1854. The son of a successful businessman, who himself came from a merchant family, Wertheim came to Melbourne in 1875 to make his fortune. He took a junior position with his father's cousin, a wealthy manufacturer of sewing machines, and soon established himself as hard working and dedicated, with a flare for and promotion,

Saving money diligently, Wertheim was soon able to go into business for himself. He sold not only sewing machines, but other mechanical devices popular at the time; mangles, knitting machines, washing machines, bicycles, and even pianos.

Wertheim's business expanded rapidly, and by the 1880s he had established a presence in  Europe and America. He traveled extensively, and was well known for staging elaborate demonstrations at trade shows. He returned to Germany in 1885 to be married, and then settled with his wife in a magnificent 17 bedroom mansion - 'Gotha' - on the banks of the Yarra. 

Hugo Wertheim had become one of Melbourne's most successful, and well known, businessmen.

The Wertheim piano factory.

Pianos had, by this time, become one of Wertheim's most profitable products. Well before television, and before even radio had taken hold, the piano was a fixture in many Australian homes, as a source of light entertainment. But despite their popularity, no pianos were manufactured locally. They were all imported, mostly from Europe (Wertheim sourced his from his native Germany).

Around 1900, Wertheim decided to change this, and sent his son abroad to study piano manufacture. Meanwhile, he acquired a large industrial site in Richmond, and commissioned architect Nahum Barnet to design an extensive complex, with 50 000 feet of floor space. The factory included iron and brass foundries, wood curing facilities, and its own private power generators and tram stop. The project was significant enough that Prime Minister Alfred Deakin laid the foundation stone, in October 1908.

When the Wertheim piano factory opened it was one of the largest industrial sites in the city, capable of producing 2000 pianos a year. The distinctive chimney was large enough to be visible across the inner east.

The Wertheim chimney, viewed from Richmond racecourse (also long gone).

Accused during World War I of being a German spy, Wertheim denied the allegations and vigorously defended his reputation. Ultimately, the charges were found to be groundless. Hugo Wertheim died of hepatitis in his South Yarra home in July, 1919.

After his father's death, Hugo's son Herbert took over the business, and for much of the 1920's things continued much as before. But the great depression, and the growing popularity of the wireless, greatly reduced the local market for pianos. Herbert cut costs and reduced output, leasing space in the enormous factory to other manufacturers, but the writing was on the wall. The Wertheim piano factory closed in 1935, having produced 18 000 pianos over 27 years.

The site was taken over by food producer Heinz, who chose it as the location for their first Victorian factory.

Heinz takes over, 1935.

Founded by Henry John Heinz in Pennsylvania in 1869, by the 1930s Heinz was on its way to becoming one of the world's largest food companies. It's cheap products were particularly popular during the Great Depression and so, while many companies struggled in this time, Heinz was able to expand, opening a number of new factories across Australia and New Zealand.

They commenced business in Bendigo St in March 1935, with a staff of 75 producing Heinz Horseradish. Baked beans, tomato sauce and canned soup were added shortly afterwards, production increasing dramatically during World War II as the company became one of the Australian Army's major suppliers. By 1948, the Richmond factory was producing 13 million cans of food a year.

Heinz tomato sauce workers, Richmond factory, 1940s

Ultimately, the company was so successful that they outgrew the facility in Richmond. In 1955, Heinz needed more factory space to meet demand, and so decided to relocate to Dandenong, on the outskirts of the city 

The factory was sold again.

And, much like the 1930s, the new owners would again use the premises for a very different purpose.

Channel 9 comes to Melbourne.

The first television station to broadcast in Australia was TCN 9 in Sydney, in September 1956, followed by HSV 7 in Melbourne, in November. Both stations had scrambled to commence operation so they could show the Melbourne Olympic Games, which opened on November 22.

Other stations would rapidly follow.

Melbourne's second commercial station would be GTV 9, which was established in the former Wertheim/Heinz factory on Bendigo St. From the moment it was reincarnated as a TV studio, the former factory would be dubbed 'Television City,' partly due to the size of the premises, and partly in homage to CBS's famous studios in America, which went by the same name.

At 8 pm, on January 19, 1957 (coincidentally, the day the last issue of The Argus went on sale, before the paper closed) then Victorian governor Sir Dallas Brooks welcomed viewers to the new station... and advised that if they didn't like the programming, they could simply switch off. 

A new era in local entertainment had begun. And, almost immediately, it found its first big star.

Graham Kennedy
Smart, funny and quick witted, Graham Kennedy was also a larrikin, a rabble rouser and an iconoclast. And, perhaps most importantly, he didn't immediately look, or act, like a celebrity. While people were still getting used to the medium it helped, perhaps, that our first bona fide local TV star resembled the bloke next door.

From May 1957, Kennedy headed up 'In Melbourne Tonight' on Channel 9, a local variety show that mimicked the popular 'Tonight Show' in the US. With live music, interviews, and Kennedy's own witty take on the days events, the show was a smash, almost from it's inception. Initially backed by straight man Geoff Corke, in 1959 Channel 9 lured a young TV presenter named Bert Newton from Channel 7, and installed him as Kennedy's offsider.

Kennedy and Newton.
The chemistry between the two was immediate, and the popularity of the show surged still further. Recorded live four nights a week in the Bendigo St studios, IMT (as it became known) became the place to find out what was going on in the city that day, and what people were talking about. The cultural influence of the show was such that if firmly helped establish TV watching as a central part of everyday life, our first proper smash hit show.

You can watch an episode of IMT, from December 1961, here:

And as shows like IMT drove the popularity of TV, the GTV 9 Studios expanded as well.

By the 1960s, Bendigo St had its own recording studio, radio station, in house band and dance troop, the largest prop department in the southern hemisphere, and more than 2000 staff (IMT alone employed 300). More studio space was added, as the station's live output increased, and many thousands of locals made their way each week, to watch a live recording of the station's popular shows.

In Melbourne Tonight finished up in 1970, as Kennedy moved on to other projects, but live variety remained a key part of GTV 9's local production roster.

Daryl and Ozzie, early days.
In 1971, a nineteen year old named Daryl Somers moved from 'Cartoon Corner', to hosting his own kids variety show each Saturday morning. His initial co host was former Collingwood footballer Peter McKenna, but the station soon replaced him with a life size ostrich puppet, Ozzie Ostrich, operated by Ernie Carroll.

From these humble beginnings, 'Hey Hey' built an audience, that expanded far beyond children and into the wider mainstream. Somers proved himself a versatile performer, hosting not only 'Hey Hey' but his own talk show, game shows (including Family Feud), and even a live music show, 'Bandstand.'

'Hey Hey It's Saturday' moved into prime time on Saturday nights in 1984, and proved a ratings juggernaut. It's mix of live music and comedy, celebrity interviews and sketches was nothing new, but it was energetically performed, and had an appealing, madcap atmosphere, that proved enduringly popular. 'Hey Hey' would eventually run for 28 years, finishing up in 1999 (before returning briefly in 2009-10), and was one of the most popular shows in Australia across most of that time.

Don Lane with Robin Williams.
Don Lane was a moderately famous American singer, and occasional TV personality, who struck a chord with Australian audiences. He had guest hosted a number of local shows, when he was given his own talk show, 'Tonight with Don Lane', in Sydney, in 1965. The show was popular and ran for four years, before Lane returned to America to pursue his singing career.

But his popularity in Australia was such that he was able to be lured back.

In 1975 he returned to host a new talk show, 'The Don Lane Show', in Melbourne, now partnered by Graham Kennedy's old sidekick, Bert Newton. Recorded live at Bendigo St, the show was so popular that two episodes a week were produced, screening on Monday and Thursday nights. Similar to IMT, and Hey Hey, 'The Don Lane Show' took an already standard formula, celebrity interviews and chat, and added an irreverent spin, with proved very popular. The show's best ratings were among the highest recorded by any show in local history.

It was still popular in 1983 when the station ended its run, a victim of cost cutting rather than declining ratings.

Other iconic shows recorded at Bendigo St.
But to discuss IMT, and Hey Hey, and The Don Lane Show, and their famous hosts, is just to scratch the surface.

For five decades, the Channel 9 Studio in Richmond was home to any number of famous local programmes; variety shows, and kids shows and game shows and panel shows and sports shows. Not all of these programs were recorded live, but it was truly a golden age of live television, and the countless numbers that attended the red brick studio in Richmond to watch a show being taped, enjoyed a close up view of TV and local celebrity that is now quietly disappearing.

The dismantling process.

In 2010, Channel 9 management decided to leave Bendigo St, and relocate to a much smaller premise in Docklands. Then managing director Jeffrey Brown was unsentimental:

'We have been part of a great history at Richmond, but it is time to move on,' he said.

The high cost of running the giant site in Richmond was the primary reason for the move, but the network was also looking for a more up-to-date location, as TV prepared to enter a  new digital age. The nightly news, and 'A Current Affair' would be produced at the new Nine studios, everything else would be done off site, in independent studio space, another cost cutting measure,

Once the decision to move had been made, things advanced pretty quickly:

Channel 9's new HQ, Docklands.
The 9 network stopped using the Bendigo St studio in December 2010, and the site was sold in March of the following year. Local construction giant Lend Lease acquired the property, and developed it into an apartment complex, comprising 175 residences, a community centre and cafe/restaurant. The re-development took two years, with the first occupants moving in, in October 2013.

Three years later, and 22 Bendigo St seems well established in its fourth incarnation.

IN a restless city like Melbourne, it is impossible to tell it this will be its last.

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