I discovered fandom in the early 1980s. Or rather, I invented it, and then it found me.
Oh, I'd read about it in SF encyclopaedias and such, but I thought it was something that only had happened in America back in the `50s. I didn't know it existed in Australia. When I discovered that friends of mine were also interested in a particular aspect of science fiction, I formed the Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy Fan Club and people began joining -- and bringing word about other clubs. It was all downhill from there.
But this isn't that story. This is about where I was before fandom. I was part of a youth Gang. A rather large Gang, The Scouts. (Not the Boy Scouts, because at the time Australian Scouts were already going co-ed.) It was the mid `70s, and I was a teenage Venture Scout when a friend took me backstage at the annual Scout's Gang Show -- the hustle and bustle immediately overwhelmed me. I was hooked. The next year I joined the Publicity and Publications Department as a cartoonist and general roustabout. My first fanzine, Scraggy's Scandal Sheet, cranked out on mimeo during every performance and rehearsal, featured scratchy illos drawn direct to stencil by yours truly. I wasn't on stage, but I was part of the Gang, and I've got my Red Neckerchief to prove it.
The Gang Show has been running for decades in various cities around the world -- a motley collection of corny sketches, songs, dances, and big production numbers. Melbourne Gang Show was, and is, one of the oldest and biggest. It usually had a cast and crew of 360 people ranging in age from eight to sixty. Only the set designer ever got paid -- the rest were volunteer amateurs -- so it was often said that putting on a show anywhere near this size would otherwise cost millions.
The only theatre in Melbourne big enough to hold us was the slightly rundown Palais in St. Kilda, a beachside suburb known for its Jewish cake shops and Luna Park (which was across the road -- you could hear the rollercoaster screams during scene changes). Nowadays it's a popular resort with backpacker hotels and yuppie cafés, but in those days, prior to the legalisation -- and clean-up -- of brothels, it was a notorious hang-out for prostitutes, pimps, street kids, and drug dealers. After the matinee performances we were always told to go out in twos and threes to grab a meal. We had to wear the full Scout uniform because of a clause in our insurance, but there was always one dire warning: "For God's sake, make sure you've removed all your make-up!"
Having such a large show, the Production Team often got grandiose ideas for spectacular production numbers. Each year there was always one big number, just after the interval, that saluted some foreign country or other. The Production Team always had a penchant for having live animals on stage. They started small with the odd cute sheepdog and such, but gradually they got more and more ambitious, oblivious to the inevitable result that something would Always Go Wrong.
The year they did the Norwegian Market Scene, one of the three goats got stage fright and released the contents of its bladder. There was a slight slope on the stage, so the audience couldn't help but giggle as a thin river of goat's piss slowly meandered towards the orchestra pit. The next two items, involving kids sitting around a storyteller and dancing trolls, featured some unique stage placements and innovative dance steps as cast members avoided getting their costumes wet. The following item, a sketch about Norse Gods, saw Thor and Odin with mops and buckets. The audience cheered.
The first night they did Zanzibar, the monkey panicked when the lights went out and ran up the nearest kid, who screamed and leapt offstage. The two-week run was almost over before the Publications typing pool realised that the carton stored in their office -- the warmest place in the theatre -- and picked up by someone from Props each night during interval, in fact contained an enormous boa constrictor. They refused to work in the same room after they found out.
The year the show featured an Israel number, they naturally included a full-grown donkey for the occasion. A stubborn beast, it frequently required half a dozen husky cast members to get it on stage, hold it still, and then load it back into its trailer. On one occasion, the pushing from behind must have got the beast a tad excited and it developed a huge erection. The animal was -- how can I put it? -- hung like a donkey. One cast member, Bradley Miles, should have received a medal for nonchalantly leaning on an aroused donkey in order to obscure the view from an audience of several thousand Brownie Guides, parents, and grandmothers, while still managing to sing in key without cracking up.
The Hillbilly sketch was an old favourite. It started with Paw sitting in a tin bathtub on wheels ("Gawsh, Clem, yuh took me unawares!" "No, ah never, ah saw 'em hangin' on the clothesline, but ah never touched 'em!"). The guy who played Paw always complained that the bath was too cold -- he had to leave stage before the end of a Prehistoric Rock dance number, tear off his caveman costume while running through the backstage corridors, grab his floppy hat and leap into the bath and be pushed on stage to start the skit. One night they pushed too hard and knocked a poor caveman into the orchestra pit. On the closing night of the run, the Props boys filled the tub with ice cubes. Paw -- and the Director -- were not amused.
Other practical jokes occurred. The spiking of stage drinks... Hilarious signs in places only cast members could see... When one prima donna bawled out his dance partner for upstaging him, he failed to take into account that her husband worked in Lighting. The ham had a green spotlight on his face in every finale that week.
There were technical difficulties, too. On one occasion, a new and enthusiastic fog machine made it impossible to see anything on stage. And then there was "I Like Walking in the Rain." A full cast first act finale with day-glow raincoats and umbrellas and actual, live rain on stage (with just a hint of washing powder so it would show under UV light). The rain was achieved by gravity -- a water tank would be raised into the flies and rain would flow out of a series of shower heads. All very well until someone left a stage door open on a windy day and some ropes got tangled. The curtain went up on the Opening Number and the tank went with it. The dance team were rapidly drenched and their thin, cotton overalls suddenly became translucent.
But by then, I had seen cast members exchanging pirate copies of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio episodes backstage, and it gave me the idea of inventing fandom. Soon, I had been found by a much safer, saner group of people.
- - - - - - - - - -Ian's article also brought back memories for some of our readers of small amateur ensemble performances they had been part of. William Bains wrote us of a middle-school skit by him and a friend that involved a mad scientist and a strange new machine that 'exploded', with the aid of some strategically placed gunpowder in the device's innards: "The powder burned brilliantly and odorously, sending an increasingly frightening pillar of purple flame towards the lighting guy in the rafters, and a teacher with a fire extinguisher ran out with quite indecent haste. [Most of] the rest of the sketch was performed in front of the curtain to give us time to clear the smoking remains, [but] when the curtains rose again, an almost solid wall of sulphurous fumes rolled out across the audience and the dialogue was lost in a scattered volley of hacking coughs. We were not forgotten!"
Real-world pyrotechnics was actually the subject of another article in M22, "10-70 Structure" by Virginia fan Curt Phillips (the title derived from the '10-70' emergency radio code designation for a fire). Here it is again:
All illustrations by Julia Morgan-Scott