12 June 2015, Circus Oz Spielgeltent, Melbourne, Australia
Jane was the MC of the Melbourne memorial event for friend and theatrical colleague John Pinder. She introduced other speakers, in between her own thoughts and memories.
We’ve come to say goodbye to John. To tip our collective hat to his many qualities and give thanks for how fortunate we all were to have known him.
John has already been given a spectacular send-off in Sydney.
Shot out of a canon. Well, of course, he was.
We wouldn’t have expected anything less.
It was a great farewell and there are many of us here tonight who wish we could have been there too, to wave goodbye.
Because we feel a great sense of ownership of John, here in Melbourne - even if he was originally a Kiwi. He’s inextricably woven into the cultural fabric of this city, into our comic and theatrical DNA.
Many of us owe him a huge debt of thanks, not only career-wise, but also for the bloody ol’ good time we had of knowing him.
So, tonight, Melbourne, in, where else, but a great big tent, we extend the wake, in a way, we enlarge the tribute, we rack up the testimonials and share our stories of John Pinder.
So, to start with, let me say…
It is good to die without enemies. A glance around this room is testament to the fact that John Pinder had only one -- and that was boredom.
To hear the word ‘Boring!’ issue from his mouth was to send a chill down the spine of any performer. His was a lifelong struggle against the boring, the complacent, the mundane, the ordinary.
In the late 60s Melbourne – musically speaking - was a boring town.
Boring with a capital B, and that stands for Blues.
Yes, brothers and sisters, the heavy hand of the Blues was upon us. We had it bad and that was not good.
The Blues – in the key of either E or C - in 2 distinct forms, fast or slow – was one, long endless hompa-bompa, 12’y, featuring guitar solos so long that some of them are still being played today, posthumously.
The Blues - delivered to us by squadrons of grim-faced men in, flared jeans, pony tails and grimy t-shirts, and blasted through Marshall stacks so high and wide they were visible from the moon, and at an ear-shattering volume that could be heard on Jupiter.
If there was more than one band on the bill the changeover time between acts was longer than Michael Gudinski’s face on pay day.
The Blues - was a chick-free area because, ‘my baby done left me this morning, man, and I forgot to look in the mirror and ask myself why’.
So, when young Pinder rocked into town he started a band agency.
Well, of course he did.
Let It Be was an agency for bands who did not have the Blues. Bands who were as far from Boring as Tony Abbott’s speech patterns are from conventional English.
A newly graduated from the Pink Finks, Ross Wilson, was currently at the helm of the Sons of the Vegetal Mothers but he was about to strap a foxtail to his arse and plonk a set of furry ears above his curly locks. His buddy, Ross Hannaford had an Archie ‘n Jughead-style helicopter cap at the ready. Daddy Cool was about to bring back the bop, the doo-wop and the sweet harmonies of the 50s to our town.
Mike Rudd and Bill Putt had an ethereal, hard driving unit called Spectrum which featured not only the first Hammond Organ I’d ever heard played live but also - the recorder!
MacKenzie Theory had a chick in the line-up, and she wasn’t wearing satin hot-pants or singing oo-wah-oo with one finger stuck in her ear.
Cleis Pearce was a musician! And her instrument was a very small guitar called a violin – an electricified violin, with a wah-wah pedal.
These were bands who’d heard of The incredible String Band and Country Joe and the Fish, Captain Beefheart and King Crimson. Musicians who yearned for whimsy and eccentricity – bands who were anything but boring.
Where was Pinder gonna get gigs for them?
Before the Chinese, most of Melbourne was owned by the Roman Catholics. Part of their vast real estate portfolio was a rambling old joint up the footy end of Brunswick St, opposite the Sisters of Mercy, called Cathedral Hall (they called it Central Hall for a while but I drove past the other day and it’s back to Cathedral – you should take the tour…)
In 1970 this part of town was in no way hip. You could get stabbed just for walking past the Champion or the Builders Arms. And the only other reason you went to Gertrude St in those halcyon, pre-AIDS days was to visit the clap clinic (where Charcoal Lane now stands)
Well, Pinder threw a party at Cathedral Hall and it was a Too Fucking Much Ball. The hippie freaks and love children of this town flocked to Brunswick St in their droves.
You would walk through the foyer of Cathedral Hall in your rainbow crochet and face-paint, past Benny Zabel and his dancers – incredible what that one man could do with a simple set of bed sheets - and watch Pinder’s party unfold before your half-closed eyes.
Up on the balcony Hugh McSpedden and Ellis D Fogg were hard at it projecting the kind of light shows they do with computers these days. Back then it involved a complex array of colour wheels and glass dishes and paint and slides.
They needn’t have bothered.
By the time most TF Much patrons had walked through the door and paid their $2 admission they could have stared at the floor and seen Disneyland on Ice.
Pinder and Bani McSpeddon –- of the famous Leaping McSpeddons -- created something extraordinary with these events.
The bands like Company Caine, were eclectic and wild. The band I sang with was a vast and sprawling ensemble of sometimes 12 or more members, called Lipp and the Double Dekker Brothers and the Fabulous Lippettes featuring the Fantastic Crystal Tap Dancer.
The interminable breaks between bands were papered over by the remarkable innovation of bringing the curtain in and, in true vaudeville style, putting acts on in front them.
Sometimes there was a pit orchestra – no pit, just a band on floor level, but a pit orchestra nonetheless.
There was always an MC. Usually Ian Wallace -– aka Pudding. Talking in his Pudding voice, reading aloud from Nick Carter novels, ridiculing everyone.
Jenny Brown -– now Jen Jewel Brown -- in buckskin bikini and peasant skirt would recite her own poetry. Tribe would do sketches. Colin Talbot wrote and performed sketches.
It was the whole kit and kaboodle a la Pinder, and it set the bar very high.
How do I know all this? Because I was the only person in that room who was not stoned.
Yes, I am the exception that proves the rule: I can remember and I was there.
It was a miracle I remained straight in that den of hallucination. The smoke was so thick you could barely see the naked bodies through the haze. And, no way was I buying a lentil burger….No matter how delicious they smelled.
Cathedral Hall held about 2000 people, all paying $2, the rent was 50 bucks. You do the maths. A number of pretenders sprang up. Sunbury borrowed a lot of the structure and over in Toorak Rd, Sth Yarra, at the beautiful old Regent Theatre –- where we used to flock for supper shows in the 60s to see black and white foreign films like the Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Last Year at Marienbad –- an American guy named Joe Monterosa tried to mount his own version of Pinder’s TF Much.
The pay was better but the vision came from a very different place. It was not a success. They were forced to burn the joint down to pay the bills….allegedly.
Years later, Michael Roberts would continue the model Pinder created with the Reefer Cabarets down at Ormond Hall. But by then John had moved on.
He and Gini and Katie had tripped around Europe in a Combi van and like Toad of Toad Hall he’d fallen in love with a whole new toy called cabaret…..In early 70s Melbourne if you mentioned the word cabaret, you’d be thinking some ritzy tits and feathers show in St Kilda.
If you mentioned theatre restaurants, you’d be thinking Dirty Dicks. Or the famous Swagman Restaurant –- with the smorgasboard that we’re famous for’. You might even think of the old darling Tikki and Johns.
You wouldn’t be thinking young people or pop culture or Berlin.
But John was. He moved a few blocks down Brunswick St to a tiny venue where the bar swung very low. It was called the Flying Trapeze and it changed, forever, the way Melbourne would think of cabaret and, indeed, comedy.
A few years after that he moved back up Brunswick St but took a left turn at Gertrude, heading for the corner of Smith where he opened a bigger and better cabaret venue.
The first time I walked into that building at 64 Smith St on the cnr of Langridge, it was still the Collingwood Dole Office.
Light streamed through the unpainted windows onto the dull public service green walls and open plan desks.
And as I stood there in one of Malcolm Frazer’s dole queues I had plenty of time to look around –- and up, to the gorgeous band shell, and wonder what the hell the history of this building was.
Next time I walked through its door John had let his cousin Phil Pinder loose with a paintbrush and the place would never be the same again. The whole joint was transformed into the most extraordinary, magical interior I’d ever seen.
He’d done it again, John Pinder, this time with Roger Evans at his side, they’d hocked themselves to the back teeth to set the bar really high. And this time it was high enough to swing a trapeze from –- as Circus Oz would go on to prove.
I’m proud to say I waitressed at both the Flying Trapeze and Last Laugh. In what we like to refer to as John Pinder’s Academy of Performing Arts and Sciences, I was proud to strap on an apron and wield a tray alongside the likes of all the Sallys -– Sliffo, Sbootler, Smill -- Amanda Smith, Richard Stubbs, Bryce and Stewart Menzies, Deborah Hoare, and Mark ‘Cutsie’ Cutler, the vacuum-cleaner-wielding terrorist David Swan and Glen Elston with his purple t-shirt that just said ‘Rosemary’.
We, the survivors of Andre Snr and Junior’s hell’s kitchen, we who know the difference between sprinkle and sprig! Amanda and I reminisced briefly the other day about how fit we were when we waitressed at the Laugh, not just because we were young and working hard but because we danced our arses off before and after the show!
And, ladies and gentlemen, the greatest dancer, the man who put Bobby Blue Bland on for us to set up the tables to and the Stones’ Respectable on 11 for us to dance on stage long after the last patron had left the building. The man who has carried the flame of the Last Laugh, long and high, is here tonight. Please welcome, Last Laugh waiter supremo, and co-host of RockWiz, Brian Nankervis!
Let me finish my part of the story by saying that the city of Melbourne owes John Pinder a huge debt of gratitude for the force of his vision and his great leaps of imagination. He taught us all to think big, think global, to recognize that entertainment is a universal thing, it knows now borders. It’s either exciting or it’s boring.
Furthermore, if Adrian Bloody Rawlins can have a statue in Brunswick then surely Pinder deserves some kind of permanent memorial, too. Maybe not a statue, maybe something more abstract, a giant pair of yellow glasses, maybe -– a new kind of Yellow Peril.