From Scream No.39:  March 2009

Although the third floor of the hotel was completely booked by the Vice President and his entourage, and the hotel was unofficially off -limits to the public, our rehearsal at the PITS had been over-looked. I can only imagine what these CIA type body guards must have made of Greg and I. We had been rehearsing George’s Peepshow and simply walked into the bar and ordered beers. At the time, there seemed no big deal. It was only next morning that I got an ear-full from Lyndal who told us we were followed home that night and were under surveillance with all kinds of security checks being quickly undertaken. Lyndal told me she was nearly sacked as a result.

Bill Cross, the owner of the Canberra Rex, had suggested he liked the name PITS. It abbreviated the full name of our venue, Pie In The Sky. David Bates and I had been told by Jim Leedman (Deputy Chair of the Canberra Theatre Centre in 1981) we were “pie in the sky” for thinking we could set up a professional theatre venue without subsidy. So when Cross decided to accept our offer to refurbish the old Mariner’s Tavern and turn it into a theatre and bar with a strong live music component, we were delighted to place Leedman’s picture in a toilet seat on the wall to remind us of the misgivings of the theatre establishment at the time.

The President’s Suit

It was risky for Cross. The Hotel was a major feature of Canberra. This was made clear to us and when I was offered the President’s suit to stay in one night, I could almost feel the presence of President Johnson who slept there in the mid sixties when Australia was “all the way with LBJ”. The PITS couldn’t be further removed from the world of US presidents and international diplomacy. Two years later, new owners of The Canberra Rex were less adventurous and took great pleasure in seeing the end of David Bates and Joe Woodward from The Rex.

But in mid 1982, The PITS was vibing and providing professional theatre without subsidy while being kept afloat by the drawing power of The Naughty Rhythms who played to over four hundred people every Sunday night. While the theatre sometimes broke even with the help of the bar, we were paying everyone. We had a new show every six weeks. While The Naked Vicar Show (4500 paying audience) and Union Soup (over 1200 paying audience) did very well at the box office, the more radical and controversial productions like Brother Ape , Falstaff Scenes from Shakespeare’s Henry plays and George’s Peepshow had paying audiences of only about 700 each. While in today’s difficult theatre market, these figures were respectable, they meant we ran at a loss on those productions. But still a far cry from the over 6,000 who saw our production of Don’s Party at The Parkroyal a couple of years earlier!

Fred Daley and Michael Hodgeman

Lyndal Clancey had been extremely helpful for us in January of that year. She had managed to fill our opening night of Union Soup with a paying audience of dignitaries. King of Canberra, Fred Daley, and his dog opened the show for us by knighting our audience and actors. Fred donated his service to us for free of charge. He could easily have demanded thousands of dollars for his appearance and speech. Later that night Michael Hodgeman, the Minister for the Capital Territory, played the drums in an after party. How ironic. For those who knew the referencing in some of our shows, he might have seemed the last person who would be joining in the spirit of The PITS.

Greg Silverman and the Lindsey Kemp connection

Greg Silverman was approached in his Hermit’s tent under a large tree near Boonah, west of Brisbane, to come to Canberra and join our company for four shows: Flextime, Brother Ape, Falstaff Scenes and George’s Peepshow. I was afraid of Silverman since working with him at La Boite Theatre in Brisbane. But he had an amazing power and presence that I felt was needed in clinical Canberra. Facing him was like peering into the precipice of one’s fears. He agreed to come down. David Bates, on meeting Mr. Silverman, suggested that I got him here; I better control him!

This wasn’t going to be easy. On one trip to the Snowy Mountains, Greg decided to strike out at me with a karate move that stopped a millimeter from forcing the bridge of my nose into my skull. He pointed out that a centimetre further and I’d be dead. While he didn’t try the same trick with anyone else, he did constantly refer to Lyndal as a witch and later while working with Dianne Eden in Brother Ape, she too was a “witch”.

Strangely, he was an excellent person in the rehearsal room and accepted direction while contributing ideas. He was the first person I knew who took seriously some of Jung’s dream theory and applied it to his work. We had many fascinating discussions into the night about dreams and archetypes. He revealed how he worked with Lyndsey Kemp in England in the 1960s. This was in itself a synchronous point. It was Kemp’s production of Flowers by Jean Genet in 1975 that hooked me on theatre and changed the direction of my life.

Greg got on well with Ralph Wilson who directed him in Falstaff. Playing Prince Hal and then the husband in Brother Ape with Denis Mackay and Dianne Eden was a significant achievement. Greg Silverman’s performances were among the strongest I have seen Canberra. His portrayal of George The Sheep in George’s Peepshow was frightening. After a number of verbal altercations and my having to pull rank as the Director, Greg began to become very tame off stage and even displayed a calm that I hadn’t seen from him in the previous years. He said he dreamt of me as his “master”. What a strange thing to say to me! But such was Greg’s way of viewing the world.

During Brother Ape, he would leave out a glass of wine each night for the Trickster to take during the night. He would always claim that the Trickster took a sip. But that if we didn’t appease the Trickster, it would reign calamity on us all. Such were the forces unleashed on our stage with the Ape Of God in Brother Ape.

Drinking beer at the bar with Vice President George Bush Snr

So here was Greg Silverman with me drinking beer out of the stylish glasses from The Canberra Rex main bar with Vice President Bush only metres away. Greg wore his leather bushman’s hat as we drank. We had a second and a third beer. And all the time, we could hear the Vice President speaking and others around him responding. Bush seemed so relaxed and at ease. No one in that room on that late night could have imagined the significance of George Bush in later years.

We didn’t even pay for our drinks. Lyndal covered us on her VIP tab. We couldn’t really afford to pay for beers. In effect, we were part of the Vice President’s party. Why Lyndal couldn’t just tell us to piss off or that we shouldn’t have been there, I will never know. Perhaps by having our drinks on the tab, it made it seem we were part of the whole Canberra Rex set up and so had a right to be there.

Ralph Wilson, tumultuous days and walk-outs

Artistically, these were tumultuous days. Over the Brother Ape season, probably upward of a hundred people walked out off the performances. Some expressed dismay that there wasn’t a mechanism for banning such work. Then on the Freedom From Hunger preview night of George’s Peepshow, there was a riot with shoes thrown at the stage, our doors being defaced with obscenities, our waitresses abused and a constant heckling during the second act. Even Pat Thomson’s magical voice and performance couldn’t hold back the venom of the crowd expecting a tits and bums type comedy of fluff and bubble. This was very dangerous stuff and rarely have I felt so threatened.

Ralph Wilson was the dramaturg on George’s Peepshow and he watched in disgust as people he knew perpetuated a constant attack on the cast, staff and the venue itself. Some of these people had worked with Ralph when he was Principal of Canberra High. Among the crowd was a shoe throwing School Principal from Kaleen High School. 

The show officially opened the following week. However, Pat Thomson had a car accident while driving Rodney Hall and some Chinese students to the ANU campus. She was badly injured but still performed. That night Lady Hope Hewitt reviewed the production and wrote the most favourable and glowing review I had ever received. Yet, Ralph told me that at Interval, she was so disturbed by some of the scenes that she wasn’t sure she could stay in the theatre. By the end of the show and after speaking with Ralph, she had become totally engrossed. Pat’s courage on that opening night lifted everyone to another level. The whole side of her body was black from bruising and she had to be helped on to the stage.

A not-so-fictitious brothel and the PITS

As the characters from the fictional brothel in the play progressed into the political sphere, so also were some audience members raising questions. Some wondered if we were at risk of being sued for the content of the play. Afterall, it was no secret that Diamonds Escort Agency were on call as Commonwealth drivers circled the Canberra Rex on the streets of Dickson and Braddon as their high profile clients would spend periods of time at the hotel … for whatever reason! The idea of a political morals campaigner also having secret shares in a brothel while organizing raids on such establishments and putting in managers who were paid extra while arrested … hmm … it seemed such a naive idea back then!

I’m sure Vice President Bush would never have imagined that at such an establishment hotel existed such a sub-cultural venue as The PITS. It certainly signalled the demise of The Canberra Rex as THE “establishment” hotel in Canberra. The Hyatt and Ridges and a multitude of others emerged in the 1980s to supplant the old beacon of middle class aspirations.

As months passed and thousands of people passed through the doors of the PITS, the theatre side of the operation continued with varied seasons of co-productions and entrepreneured shows. The live music gradually supplanted the theatre as the main focus for Bates and Woodward. Literally thousands of people began showing up for live music each week. By early 1983, “full house” signs were placed up for periods on most Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. With no work for Silverman, he returned to Brisbane where he apparently performed again at La Boite for a while before disappearing again from Theatre.

Sale of The Canberra Rex and the demise of the PITS

Bill Cross sold The Canberra Rex late in 1983. Over the year, The PITS saw new problems as the music scene attracted different audience clusters including brief periods of punks and oi-skin-heads. This was most disastrous on the night when an old friend, Janet Mahoney (also known as Janet Fielding from Doctor Who) called in to see the venue and catch up. The punks were joined by oi-skin-headed punks from Sydney and went on a rampage. Later that night I saw Janet for the last time as she was walking past the main doors to the Canberra Rex as I was talking with Police and security from a military wedding that was taking place in the main function room of the hotel while punks ran amuck from The PITS and damaged cars belonging to military officers. I still feel the fury of that night. We banned anyone who even looked vaguely like a punk (any black leather, studs etc) from entering the venue after that and we had to change bands on Friday nights from the terrific Gadflys (who attracted a punk audience in those days) to the wonderful big band Shaved PITS (put together by David Bates).

The Women’s Theatre Workshop (Later called Women On A Shoe String) attracted a lot of “alternative” women’s audiences. This trend disturbed the new owners in 1983 who seemed threatened by “women of that persuasion” as one of the owners said while trying to define what he meant. Alternative looking people coming into the main foyer of the Rex wasn’t appealing to the image of a once mighty Canberra Rex … the place where presidents stayed. Inevitably, we had to go. With over 70,000 having been through the doors of the PITS, it closed on June 2nd. 1984.

In 2008, the area of the Canberra Rex where the PITS was located was reduced to rubble and is marked for the construction of a new hotel complex. Perhaps it will be up to housing future Presidents when they visit Australia. Perhaps the big deals will be done again at  The Canberra Rex .

Split personality

In the early eighties, the hotel had a split personality. It had lost its vibrant bar trade that once kept it’s four public bars crowded. The Mariners Tavern, The Jet Bar, The Scotish Bar and The Hitching Rail were four of Canberra’s leading drinking holes through the seventies. By 1981, only the Hitching Rail and The Scotish Bar were operating. The PITS was the last gasp for The Rex as a popular Bar and Venue location.

The split personality of the hotel was never better illustrated than on the night that Greg Silverman and Joe Woodward were drinking in the stylish main Foyer bar with Vice President George Bush and his associates and security. Lyndal Clancey left the Hotel in 1983. Bill Cross bought a major hotel in North Sydney. The PITS became a bus stop and later an empty room for selling occasional Persian carpets. Throughout the remaining 1980s and into the 1990s, the old PITS area and the adjoining empty bars were ear-marked for demolition. It must have been scary being around there over those twenty-five or so years when the ghosts of so much in the past were lurking in the empty spaces of lost aspirations and simply waiting … waiting … waiting …

I often drive past The Canberra Rex and recall those few years of The PITS. Seeing the controversy and the excitement at recent Festival initiatives reminded me of the same vibe that was around the PITS in 1982 – 1984. But it’s been a long time between drinks.

Joe Woodward
(2009 / revised in 2019)

Featured image reveals Lol Dudley fronting The Shaved PITS Big Band from 1983; unknown photographer