A First Taste of Live TV Variety

By Frank Pagram

This contribution was received by email and is published with permission of the author.

The Tarax Show, named after the soft-drink sponsors, gave me my first taste of live TV variety, albeit aimed at children. When as a five-year-old I began watching, it was hosted by Geoff Corke (“Corky, King of the Kids”), but it wasn’t long before he was replaced by Norman Swain (“Uncle Norman”), who was introduced on the first show in a grand manner when he slid down a slide. However, he must have slid down too fast, for when he reached the bottom he yelled in pain, and it turned out he had broken his leg. Viewers were encouraged to send get well cards care of GTV9, 22 Bendigo Street, Richmond (this was the first time I ever sent something by post, and I received a thank you letter and fan cards in return, which was very exciting for a little boy!).

After some time Uncle Norman, who wore a striped jacket similar to but not as loud as that of Happy Hammond (who hosted the Happy Show on HSV-7), recovered and returned to host the show, but my favourite character was Joff Ellen (“Joffa Boy”), who was always introduced with the song, which children were encouraged to sing as well:

“Who’s that a peeping ’round the corner?
Not Jack Sprat or Little Johnnie Horner.
‘I’m that chap who always has a grin!’
Joffa Boy, Joffa Boy, please come in.”

Joffa would say “I will” then emerge from behind a curtain or part of the set (the first part of his intro was later drawn as a cartoon) and, standing on his left foot with his right hand in the air, yell “Howdy doody boys and girls!” to which the live audience of children (and, no doubt, many of those at home) would reply, “Howdy doody Joffa Boy!” He and Uncle Norman would then exchange jokes, with Uncle Norman being straight man.

Being a Part of the Studio Audience

On two occasions, I was in the studio audience for the Tarax Show. I remember walking with my mother down the southern side of the Channel 9 building and waiting outside the entrance to Studio 1. Studio 1 was GTV’s main working studio at the time, and virtually all the station’s live shows came from it, from It Could Be You (hosted by American Tommy Hanlon Junior) to the Tarax Show to In Melbourne Tonight (hosted by Graham Kennedy).

When we were ushered into the studio, it was not quite as I imagined. The sets themselves were nice, but at that age I still believed in fantasy, so I found it odd that a barnyard set, for example, with hay bales on the studio floor, was not a real barn but simply painted, flimsy timber that a strong gust of wind would probably knock over. Surrounding the sets were the cameras, crew, cables, boom microphones, and uninspiring (even grotty) studio walls and ceiling, complete with the busy lighting grid. What you saw on TV was quite different from the cluttered and chaotic reality of the real studio.

The second time I went my school friend Geoff accompanied me. At one point during the show audience members had to come down onto the studio floor (I can’t remember why), and Geoff and I took a little longer than the others to resume our seats. I was a little embarrassed when Uncle Norman held the show up for a few seconds and announced live to the “world” that two children were having trouble finding their seats!

The other embarrassing moment was at the end of the show when we were given show bags of goodies to take home. A young Patti McGrath, one of the regulars, gave me two hot Four’n’Twenty pies because the child in front missed out. I was shy and didn’t feel comfortable giving a pie to someone I didn’t know, so I kept the two pies myself. I’ve felt guilty ever since, and wanted to apologise to Patti at her wedding to Bert Newton which I attended a dozen or so years later, but it was probably not the most appropriate time!

I also won a prize on another episode of the Tarax Show. Children were invited to send in tongue twisters for the Magic Mirror segment. My father wrote a tongue twister about a wobbling wagon and sent it in under my name. The tongue twister was selected, and when the magic mirror (outline of a mirror superimposed on the screen as a camera panned the studio audience) finally stopped on a girl, she was asked to recite the tongue twister. Unfortunately for her, she was unable to do so without giggling and making mistakes, so I won the prize: a seventeen-jewel Swiss watch from the House of Hawke. I was very proud of my watch and at first wore it only on special occasions. However my school friend Richard said that because my father wrote the tongue twister I did not deserve it. I guess he was right!

Gerry Gee Juniors

One year, Father Christmas brought me a Gerry Gee junior ventriloquist doll. Gerry Gee (Gee for GTV), operated by Ron Blaskett, was a regular on the Tarax Show and, like many child viewers, I wanted my own. The L. J. Sterne Doll Company was commissioned by GTV to make mini Gerry Gee dolls, and when I woke to find the large gold box with the Channel 9 logo at the foot of my bed, I was ecstatic. I got the “special” doll, which had moving eyes. It came with a small booklet with tips from Ron Blaskett about how to throw your voice and I practised in front of the mirror. Years later, when at teachers’ college, I brought my doll along to a class and did a routine, which went over well, but I never had the courage (as did some other children) to appear on the Tarax Show with it. I finally sold the doll for several hundred dollars in the 1990s when I had no further use for it. These days the dolls are collectors’ items.

The nightly Tarax Show eventually devolved into a much smaller production with some of the regulars including Uncle Norman introducing cartoons and short films such as The Three Stooges, Keystone Cops and Bomba the Jungle Boy.

During school holidays, when GTV9 opened around 9am (TV channels weren’t 24/7 in those days), the station’s programs would start with a live children’s show that ran for two or three hours. These shows were more like the old Tarax Show in that they featured characters such as Professor Ratbaggy, but still they were predominantly cartoons and film clips. Uncle Norman was also a GTV9 booth announcer and would announce upcoming programs over GTV9’s clock (all channels, except perhaps ATV0, showed a clock counting down to the start time of each program). Apparently, Mr Swain was eventually sacked via a phone call, the equivalent of an SMS today.