Bendigo and John Laws

Frank Avis by | November 7, 2007 | 1950s

I’ve just looked back on some of my previous entries and realised the rapid onset of senility is white-anting the product. For example, I did my army training at Holsworthy, no “e”. Please make the necessary alterations as you see fit and accept my apologies for any other errors you may find especially in the spelling of people’s names. That being said, let us press on with life post-army. I didn’t take up the offer to resume my career at 2LF, agreeing instead to join Lawrie Shaw and the doyen of 2GB "voices", Richard Gaze. Barry Michael also joined the team late in my tenure and, if I remember correctly, I also met Barry late in my time at 2LF.

Less said about this period the better, although Lawrie introduced me to a lot of terrific literature and music while Richard was just wonderful to be around. Just hearing him do a time call on 2GB was worth turning on the radio.

I spent a pointless year in Sydney trying to break into radio acting but I just didn’t have the voice for that job and should have realised this much earlier. I did a stack of auditions including one with Lyndal Barbour, who kindly took me aside afterwards and warned that it might take a few attempts before I broke through. This was extremely kind of her. Sadly, I never broke through and—down to my last 10 shillings (whatever they were)—I went down to AWA to see if they had any openings on their network. Luckily, they needed somebody at 3BO, Bendigo, and so I boarded a train and went south with the ducks. Down to Melbourne and then on to Bendigo. The Manager there was a Frank McManus, I think Eric Pattison was his deputy and I remember Russ Pilley, Al Scown, Des Nicholas, Campbell Spain (from his fields of waving corn), Ted Bell, Des Tocchini, Graeme Turpie, Bill Moore, Dick Turner and Doug Richards.

I ended up doing breakfast with Ted Bell which became highly successful but which was, not to put too fine a point on it, at times decidedly weird. One morning he saw a workman fixing the roof of an adjacent building and took a mike with 20 metres of cable to continue the show outside with the builder. A lot of this stuff really came off. Another time we had a pie and treacle fight in the front window of a homewares store. I can still smell the treacle in my hair. Ted was also a hypnotist and ventriloquist. I saw him one night doing the warm up for Frank Ifield and he was absolutely brilliant in a routine with the ventriloquist’s doll. Whatever happened to Ted?

I remember taking my trusty recorder up into a helicopter when (I think it was) TAA was introducing helicopters to the public with a series of flights across Victoria. The pilot was a captain Neil McMillan. It was my first and only chopper flight.

A week later I picked up the morning Sun to find that Captain McMillan and a Miss Australia entrant had died when the chopper crashed in a provincial city. One week earlier and it could have been me.

I actually followed not far behind John Laws, who had had a brief career in Bendigo. It did give me the opportunity to read one of his old announcer’s logs which had remained in the studio. Apparently, at one time, John had left the studio and accidentally missed the opening of the 7PM news bulletin from the ABC.

The manager was so incensed that he issued a firm memo, directing that the duty announcer must remain in the studio chair from 6:55 'til he took the ABC landline. Nothing was allowed to interfere with this directive... Not severe illness, mayhem, even an earthquake. The memo made it clear that there was no option. Stay in that chair 'til the news went to air or face the ultimate punishment.

This time it seems somebody had wandered into the studio about 10 to 7 and thrown a cigarette butt into a waste bin. Mind you, it’s 50 years ago so my memory is going to be tested but the announcer’s log book, signed by John Laws, went something along these lines:

    6:56 Noticed smoke starting to come out of the bin, but noting the Manager’s memo of (whatever date) the undersigned remains in the studio chair, unable to take any action.

    6:57 Flames can now be seen coming from the bin, but I remain seated in the studio chair as directed.

    6:58 The flames have now taken hold of the studio curtains and are threatening to extend to the wall. The undersigned remains seated as directed.

    6:59 The fire has now taken hold of the studio wall.

    7:00 Put ABC news to air and ran into kitchen to get a water bucket.

    7:05 Outbreak contained. Rang Fire Brigade just in case.
Funny, a short time after the announcers were seen in the library, laughing hysterically at John’s report, it magically disappeared, never to be sighted again. Who has it? It’s worth a fortune. Maybe we can find it and could get Lawsie to sign it again?

There is another wonderful story out of 3BO in the 50’s. When John laws moved on to try his luck in Sydney, a senior executive with the station is alleged to have taken him aside and advised him to try another career. John was advised that he’d "never make it in radio". This remains one of the most famous lines in radio folklore.

I actually happened to be in Sydney the night John got his breakthrough gig. I think it was either 2UE or 2SM, but I remember hearing the news at 6PM and the opening bars of Eydie Gorme’s Frenesi. The music dropped and the voice said, "Hello world, this is Long John." Straight into Frenesi. Bang. It was like a tsunami had rolled across the industry. You knew from "Hello" that this man was going to be a superstar. The mike loved him and he obviously loved being there.

John laws dominated the Sydney radio era from the mid-to-late 50’s right through to 2007. That puts him up there with the greatest names in the business including Jack Davey, Roy Rene, Tony Withers and Eric Baume. You can fill in your own nominations.

Next time we meet, or rather next time I manage to stop daydreaming and actually do something productive, I’ll tell you about a very strange incident—oh no, not another one!—which happened in Bendigo in the late-50’s.

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About me

This is the history of radio newsman Frank Avis who worked in the Australian electronic media from 1954 to 1996.

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