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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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".
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
show officially opened the following week. However, Pat Thomson had a
car accident while driving 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, 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.
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!
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.
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.
Cross sold The Canberra Rex late in 2003. 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
disasterous 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 Gadlys (who attracted a punk audience in
those days) to the wonderful big band Shaved PITS (put together by
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.
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 President Obama when he
visits Australia. Perhaps the big deals will be done again at
The Canberra Rex .
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.
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 ...
often drive past The Canberra Rex and recall those few years of The
PITS. Seeing the controversy and the excitement at the recent
Multicultural Festival Fringe reminded me of the same vibe that was
around the PITS in 1982 - 1984. But it's been a long time between drinks.