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FRANKSTON THEATRE GROUP: Early Days

Updated: Nov 21


By David Copeland – 2015, updated 8 March 2021


At 73 years Frankston Theatre Group is one of the oldest continuously functioning organizations on the Mornington Peninsula and while many of us are familiar with its beginnings in 1942 the circumstances of its beginnings, its relevance to the community and the personalities of those involved perhaps are not.


Frankston started as pastoral runs around 1854 and the establishment of Mr. Stone's Hotel near the outlet of Kananook Creek probably provided the earliest social interaction and entertainment for the area. Not quite the venue for the more temperance minded citizens and so the Mechanics Institute Hall came to fruition by 1880. As early library and civic hall it seems to have hosted many events designed for the entertainment and erudition of the locals: Matt Vowell's “100 Years Ago This Week” in the “Mornington News” recalls some of the now quaint articles of the day - visiting entertainers, lecturers, magic-lantern slides and a 'mystifier', however, to date, I have not noticed any reference to an established theatre group before that of the 1920's.


We were not the first theatrical group in Frankston but were preceded in the late 1920s by a small group calling themselves “The Passers By” who staged “Ambrose Applejohn's Adventure, “Mr. Pym Passes By”, “Ba Ba Black Sheep” and “Murder on The Second Floor”. Good meaty stuff. However, while that group lapsed and apparently with no organized group existing in the intervening years what is significant is that some members of “The Passers By” ultimately carried on to The Players and FTG – three names that I recognized from our early productions were Nelson Morris, 'Gobbie” Amor and Hugh Cameron - perhaps waiting in the wings?


Perhaps the group was overshadowed by the “talkies” at the new Art Deco Plaza Theatre, but it seems unusual that once bitten by the performing bug they did not continue through the intervening years in one form or another.


Frankston at the beginning of WW2 was a small town of 4000-4500 people, the terminus for the Melbourne suburban electric network and the start of the steam train/tin-hare rail service to the lower Peninsula. There was also a rudimentary bus service with “service cars” that ran to Mornington and the lower Bayside towns. Nothing has really changed; the suburban electric rail service has not extended further and is no quicker, but the buses are bigger and more numerous.


The kids can no longer try and drop pebbles down the funnels of steam trains from the Cranbourne Road bridge.


For the uninitiated:

  • “Service Car” a type of bus with rows of cross bench seats entered from side doors, with running boards like a car.

  • “Tin hare” as in the fable “The Hare and the Tortoise” - a sort of a rail car much like a bus, very slow like the hare but very noisy.


Recreational activities were sparse by our current expectations, The Plaza Picture Theatre screened from Wednesday to Saturday with a Kids' matinee on Saturday afternoon, dances in odd halls on Friday or Saturday nights, tennis, football or cricket on Saturday afternoons and a double dose of church service on Sunday: Apparently some of the local clergy waxed lyrical during their sermons but when I asked a female acquaintance what the sermons were about she couldn't remember - “but he spoke well”.


Obviously, the entertainment was not in the text of the message but in the power of the delivery. So, for all who aspire to be actors, project with confidence and force – never mind the content of the script


The kid's matinee films of Hopalong Cassidy of “Bar-20” days probably had more influence than the sermons – good always triumphed over bad and the good guys always wore white hats. (Subliminal advertising – white for purity?)


The radio filled in the bits with the 3AR's Children Session (later called the “Argonauts”) “Dad and Dave”, Martin's Corner”, “Christies' Radio Auditions” and so on, as well as the various circuses that trekked through the town, particularly “Wirths” - the biggest and best.


The War restricted many things, circuses were mothballed, the “motor camp” on the foreshore which was a summer money spinner for local trade was closed and The Sunday Observance Act took care of most of the other legitimate/socially sanctioned forms of entertainment. However, Community Singing and Amateur Theatre to raise money for the War Effort must have been regarded much like the church services and their collection platters.


To support the War Effort we were encouraged to contribute by the purchase of the Government's “War Savings Certificates” or make monetary donations to The Red Cross, ACF (Australian Comforts Fund), the Salvos, food and clothing parcels etc.: One favourite option for Friday and Saturday morning shopping days was in the “mile of pennies” and penny towers in pubs where loose change either ended up on a white line on the footpath or in a coin column on the bar counter. (There was something like 10 or 11 pennies per foot, so work it out @ 5280 feet per mile!): either that or from rattling tins in the street, house to house visits by fervent collectors, to organized community events.


One such event was Sunday Night's community singing in the Frankston Plaza Theatre which led to a sort of Talent Quest which then evolved into the production of a Revue - “The Locker Fund Ballet” directed by Rupert Scott, aka “Scotty”.


An article in Frankston's “The Standard” on 4th October 1949 recalled those earlier events favourably and noted - Rupert Scott's genius as a comedian was noted publicly for the first time in Frankston and the stage was set for meatier fare” The “meatier affair” led in 1942 to the formation of a committee to stage plays with “Ten Minute Alibi” under the banner of The Frankston Players hitting the stage in early 1943. Proceeds went to The Red Cross; other plays quickly followed, -“Rookery Nook” then “Thark” - and by then it became evident that success was in their grasp. On 9th December 1945 at a meeting in the Mechanics Hall the articles of The Frankston Theatre Group” became publicly and firmly established.


The first production of Frankston Theatre Group for January 24th, 25th, 26th, 1946 had the following cast: -


Gobbie Amor, Stephen Flitton, Elizabeth Galbraith, Leon Swift, Hugh Cameron, William H. Iredale, M Hope Gibson, Maree Tomasetti, Honor Allfrey, Ethel Chadwick, and Hal William;


Produced (directed) by Stephen Flitton, Stage Manager Robert Amor, Technicians- Don McLardy and R Lesley. Business and Publicity were W. Hope Gibson and Charles Parnham.

President R A Scott and Hon. Secretary H. Cameron


At that time Nelson Morris, Barnet Rockman and Alan Taylor were Trustees.

These people could be called our Founding Parents.


So, when did we start? 1942 for certain but perhaps we could be a bit cheeky and say our roots go back to the mid-1920s!


Why was the Group successful? Perhaps because it was community based with members prominent in the community and it filled a community need.


Apart from those actors from “The Passers By” other members/participants in those early productions were well known names associated with local businesses such as Rupert Scott who worked with the local State Savings Bank, Nelson Morris of “Morris's Melray Store” (later the owner of “Ritchies Stores” with his wife), W “Bill” Hanton (Hanton's the Chemist) Barnet Rockman Solicitor, Leon Swift an estate agent, A E Eadie of “Eadies Menswear”, Alan Taylor of “A. W Taylor's The Old Tin shed” in Elizabeth Street Melbourne, Bill Williams whose wife Kath was Frankston Library Head Librarian, Gerald Hirst one-time Councillor and Shire President, Alex McRae, an artist and author of the “Ben Bowyang” comic strips in “The Sun” and John Bowes of the fledgling “Frankston Passenger (Bus)Service” and so on with some serving as our Trustees.


Maree Tomasetti the daughter of the local Councillor Thomasetti was also known in later years for her professional stage career as a fine actress having won the “Erik” award in 1959 and later a “Logie”. Jock McLorinan was a chemist and with his wife, a flamboyant redhead, a notable couple. Ray Hanby of “Hanby Interiors” and the Byrne sisters of “Byrnes Frocks” also came along later.


The names of Reg and Olive Chaffey were also there in the early 1950s and while not familiar to most now they were the parents of Judy McLorinan – Judy herself appearing in the 1960 production of “Anastasia”. One of the early members I noted was Ron Potton a barber reputedly known for his customer “entertainment” and who in later years was immortalized by the newspaper cartoonist, Dudley Gordon, in a painting framed by a wooden toilet seat.


No further comment!


End of Part One.

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