Thursday, 21 December 2017

(Qicong Lin - Flickr)
The Phillips Brothers : 
                                                     American Showmen Down Under

Brothers Herman, Leon and Harold Phillips were leading showmen in the Australian entertainment industry from the Edwardian era through to the 1950s. Their diverse interests included cinemas, amusement parks and dance halls.

Starting in Sydney, their commercial activities eventually extended nation wide. However, they quickly shifted their headquarters to Melbourne and specifically to the bayside suburb of St.Kilda where they owned the Palais Pictures (now the Palais Theatre), Palais de Danse Ballroom and Luna Park. They were also part owners of the Capitol Theatre and office building in the CBD. Later, they established a second fun fair at Milson's Point on Sydney Harbour.


Luna Park (top left) Palais Pictures (top centre) Palais de Danse (top right)
Same attractions from street level (lower photo) (St.Kilda Historical Society)


Luna Park, Sydney (Pinterest)

As concert promoters, they imported a number of popular jazz and big band artists from the United States to perform exclusively at their venues.

Phillips family home in
Spokane, WA (Megan Duvall)
They spent their early years in Spokane, Washington. Herman studied to be an opera singer and a report in The Spokane Press, dated January 20, 1906 indicates that Leon and his father, Abraham, were directors of the Havana Cigar Company.

https://www.newspapers.com/image/194690316/?terms=Leon%2BPhillips

Harold, who was considerably younger, doesn't enter our story until later. 

But, not much else is known about their background in the US. It seems likely, however, that Leon and, possibly, Herman were also involved with picture theatres around the North West and it was there that they became associated with another aspiring movie mogul by the name of James Dixon (“ J.D") Williams.

Deciding to try their luck across the Pacific, the trio headed for Australia in 1909. Wasting no time, they formed the Greater J.D. Williams Amusement Company with the Phillips as partners and directors. 



Sydney Morning Herald, October 19 , 1911

After building several, prestige cinemas in the heart of Sydney which included the Colonial, Lyric and Crystal Palace, they also launched a film exchange and a newsreel production unit.



J.D.Williams (top left) (Wikipedia) Herman Phillips (top center) (Table Talk, February 10, 1921) Leon Phillips
(top right)  (Table Talk, February 14, 1929) Colonial Theatre (lower left) (Cinema Treasures)
 Lyric (lower center)  (Wikipedia) Crystal Palace (lower right) (Dictionary of Sydney)

In those pioneering days when most showmen presented the “flicks” in rough – and – ready, makeshift surroundings, the newcomers from the States were more service orientated. Offering comfortable, pleasant and convenient entertainment at low prices, they also introduced the concept of continuous screenings which gave the public even better value for their money. It proved to be a winning combination and business boomed.

Melba Theatre (left) Britannia (right)
 (Cinema Treasures)
In 1911, they moved into the Melbourne market with the luxurious Melba Theatre in Bourke Street. The following year they unveiled the even grander Britannia right next door - a venue so advanced that it featured an elaborate ventilation system together with a child minding centre that was supervised by a trained nurse. 

http://caarp.edu.au/venue/616/view

During this period, Williams and Leon Phillips started to reconnect with their commercial origins back home. Setting off on an extensive business trip, they traveled to North America, England and Europe. They began their tour in  Canada. Having built Vancouver's first permanent movie theater several years earlier, Williams return visit attracted considerable interest , particularly as he raised the possibility of giving the city a dazzling new picture palace. A lengthy article that was published in the local press outlined the duo's travel itinerary as well as their plans to open an office in Great Britain. Despite being an American (born and bred in Ceredo, West Virginia), Williams was billed as an "Australian photo - play magnate". But, there again, he's also been described, more than once over the years, as being a "Canadian" here in Australia.



Vancouver Daily World,
August 24, 1911

https://www.newspapers.com/image/68369254/?terms=JD%2BWilliams

Back in Melbourne, things were rolling along at a cracking pace and the company decided to diversify into the area of outdoor amusements with the construction of Luna Park . Obviously not put off by superstitious beliefs, the place was officially opened on the evening of Friday, December 13, 1912. Welcomed amidst a blaze of electric lights and following weeks of publicity, around 22,000 thrill -seekers bustled in through the giant neon - lit “Mr Moon” face at the entrance.

Created by a team of American fun park experts who were brought Down Under especially to do the job, it was designed, at least in part, by English architect T.H. Eslick who had extensive experience working at similar parks in the UK and Europe as well as at Coney Island in New York. Eslick went on to dream up the La Monica Ballroom on Santa Monica pier in Los Angeles

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Monica_Pier

Attractions at "St.Kilda's Mecca of Merry makers" (as it was advertised) included the River Caves, Scenic Railway, Palace of illusions, Pharoah's Daughter and a Whitney Bros "while - u - wait" photo booth together with live performers such as Ardo the Frog Man who appeared in the River Caves. Still going strong, more than a hundred years later, it remains a Melbourne icon.



Opening season of Luna Park, St.Kilda  (The Argus, November 30, 1912)
 (top left, centre and right)
T.H. Eslick (lower left) La Monica Ballroom (lower center and right) (Flickr)

                       https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s5F5xX04Gsw
                                http://rainbowrobstravels.blogspot.com/search?q=T.H.Eslick
J.D.Williams (left) Actress 
Edna Purviance (center)
 and Charlie Chaplin (Pinterest)
But Williams was particularly ambitious and, returning to the US, he became a key figure in Hollywood's burgeoning film industry as the co - founder of First National Pictures ; a major studio and cinema chain. By 1920, he had two of the biggest box office stars of the day - Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford - on his payroll. He also made movie history when he signed Chaplin to the first ever million dollar contract . A few years later, he established Elstree Studios in England where the 1970s science fiction blockbuster Star Wars was filmed.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Dixon_Williams

http://www.herald-dispatch.com/wcn/wc_news/forgotten-ceredo-native-a-silent-film-mogul/article_aef9588c-5bac-55c0-a00c-ab2610986528.html

http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p97101/html/ch10.html 

The Phillips, however, decided to stay in Australia, primarily  to take over Luna Park but also to get additional projects up and running as well.   

After trying a few, smaller, venues in various locations around the St.Kilda foreshore, they built the vast and quirky Palais de Danse ballroom in 1919. Capable of accommodating nearly 3,000 patrons, it had an eclectic and magical interior that was conceived by Chicago - born husband and wife architectural team Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin. On sultry nights, the louvered wall panels could be hinged up to allow the sea breezes to provide the dancers with a touch of balmy exotica. It soon became the epicentre of Melbourne's rapidly expanding jazz scene and a string of American band leaders such as Roy Fox, Jay Whidden, Ray Tellier, Frank Ellis and Phil Harris appeared there ....

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGsz7kJR9U0

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/23306506?searchTerm=Phil%20Harris%20Palais%20de%20Danse%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20&searchLimits=l-state=Victoria

It's opening marked the beginning of the Phillips third stage of intense entrepreneurial activity.


Palais de Danse exterior (top) Interior (middlle)  (Flickr) Visiting American band leader Jay Whidden
 (left in black dinner suit) with pianist Theo Walters (standing at far right)
 with the resident band at the Palais de Danse around 1938 (Geoffrey Orr collection)

Sadly, the old ballroom caught fire around 1970 and was gone within an hour
https://www.flickr.com/photos/78453720@N06/albums/72157651244004416

http://www.r2ok.co.uk/whidden1a.htm

Perhaps exerting his authority as the eldest brother, it seems that Herman Phillips started to take a much more dominant role in regard to steering the course of the family “show” business. And, in February, 1921 he embarked on a film related trip to the US with fellow St.Kilda showman and cinema pioneer W.A.Gibson just as Leon and J.D.Williams had done ten years earlier. Like the Phillips, William Alfred Gibson had been in the movie industry since the beginning. A former chemist, he had co-produced The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), believed to be the world's first, full length feature film. The production was a huge financial success and it made Gibson a wealthy man. However, his main interests always remained the exhibition and distribution side of the business and by the ' 20s he had become joint managing director of the national Union Theatres cinema chain. 

W.A.Gibson (Left -Les Reynolds artist - NLA Collection) Table Talk (February 10, 1921)


http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gibson-william-alfred-6312

In 1923, Luna Park was completely refurbished with many new rides being installed which included the carousel, Big Dipper, Whip, Giggle Palace, Noah's Ark and Water Chute. Later, such favorites such as the Ghost Train, Rotor, Jack and Jill, Dodgem and U – Drive cars and a large tank which contained live sharks would also be introduced. Acrobats, jugglers, clowns and marionette shows provided further fun for patrons. 

The place even had its own ghost .........

http://www.theparanormalguide.com/blog/the-joker-ghost-og-luna-park




Big Dipper track outlined in red (top left) Giggle Palace (top center) Water Chute (top right)
Ghost Train (middle left) Rotor (middle center) Jack and Jill (middle right)
Luna Park in the 1960s (Flickr and St.Kilda Historical Society)
Luna Park today (Luna Park.com.au - left image Melbourne Point - right photo) 

https://www.flickr.com/photos/78453720@N06/albums/72157645525566759
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kATyrbtWU_w
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l7zWcdloqpg
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QG-Z6876aAI
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tvXRXJ6WM6U
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bZLepWm6oGo 


While that work was going on, the Phillips were also busy overseeing the construction of the Capitol Theatre and office building (1924) in Swanston Street ; a project in which they were partners with Anthony Lucas, another prominent Victorian identity. An outstanding example of art deco architecture, its cinema remains famous to this day for its unique and spectacular “ceiling of lights”.Indirectly lit, it was used in conjunction with original orchestral scores in the silent era to add extra dramatic impact to the presentation of movies. Thousands of lamps of different colors producing light that changed through all the hues in the spectral range were hidden among the plaster panels creating a crystalline cave effect. It was another tour de force, handled with great skill and imagination by the Griffins in association with the local firm of Peck & Kemter. The Capitol also included the first, full sized Wurlitzer Organ to be installed in an Australian cinema. 

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/2065316?searchTerm=Herman%20Phillips%20-%20Capitol%20Theatre&searchLimits=l-state=Victoria

And it was around this time that two of the Phillips made rare appearances in the Australian press. 

Herman granted a short interview to a reporter from Table Talk magazine who, apparently, went into the Capitol to have a chat to the entrepreneur who was Governing Director of the theatre. Then, Harold rated an exclusive mention, somewhat incongruously, in a Perth newspaper when he made his first visit to Melbourne, prior to joining his brothers in the business on a permanent basis. 

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/146595986?searchTerm=Herman%20Phillips%20-%20Capitol%20Theatre&searchLimits=l-state=Victoria

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/76451276?searchTerm=Harold%20Phillips%20-%20Luna%20Park&searchLimits

The Capitol Theatre's "Ceiling of Lights"  created by Herman Phillips and
Marion Mahony Griffin (2014 ) (Flickr)
Souvenir programme for the 1925 Charles Chaplin film The Gold Rush  (top left)
  Original light from foyer (top centre) (MASS) Introduction page to 
The Gold Rush programme (top right)
Capitol Swanston Street exterior (middle left) Foyer (middle centre) Lounge (middle right and lower left)
Auditorium (lower centre and lower right) (Simon Brand) 

Although the interior has been greatly reduced in size, the Capitol has survived and is
 now owned by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology
(Hidden Melbourne.com ) 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PA-Kbm4NnL8

The Phillips final, significant undertaking in Melbourne was another solo endeavor that reached its stellar climax in 1927 with the completion of the Palais Pictures. Situated between Luna Park and the Palais de Danse and with a seating capacity of 2, 896 people, it remains the largest, venue of its type in Australia.

A previous movie house, once again designed by the Griffins, was in the process of being built on the same site when it was destroyed by fire. As Walter and Marion had to relocate to Sydney for urgent work commitments, the Phillips commissioned a replacement architect, New Zealand's Henry E. White ,to create a more substantial and palatial structure.



Grand opening (top left) (Herald, November 11, 1927) The Palais has stood like
 a sentinel at the top of Port Phillip Bay for ninety years (top right) (Flickr) Ticket boxes (lower left)
Lounge (lower centre) Original chandelier (lower rightt) (Flickr)

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/223310604?searchTerm=Phillips%20-%20Palais%20Theatre%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20&searchLimits=l-state=Victoria


https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/202276370?searchTerm=palais%20pictures%20st%20kilda%20opening%20night&searchLimits=

The Palais was somewhat unique in comparison to most other cinemas in as much as it featured a reasonably big stage. Also equipped with a full range of theatrical equipment and behind the scenes facilities, it regularly presented its own musical variety shows. These productions ran prior to the screening of the main feature film and were part of an even bigger program which also included newsreels, shorts and trailers.


Palais interior (top row) (Flickr) Production equipment (middle left) Stage (middle center)
Film projection / lighting room (middle right) (Flickr) Jay Whidden's 1938 Palais stage show
(lower image) (Geoffrey Orr Collection)

English maestro Harry Jacobs was contracted to be the permanent musical director for the Palais and, under his leadership, its orchestra quickly established a reputation for excellence. 

Leon Phillips (left) signs Harry Jacobs to an
 exclusive  contract  appointing Jacobs as Musical
 Director  in charge of  the orchestra at the Palais Pictures
, St.Kilda (Table Talk February 14, 1929)

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/3901386?searchTerm=Palais%20Theatre%20-%20orchestra%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20%20&searchLimits=l-state=Victoria


By the 1950s the theatre had become increasingly sought after by promoters as a live performance venue for top overseas stars such as Johnnie Ray, Bob Hope, Tom Jones and the Rolling Stones.It also staged Broadway shows such as Jesus Christ Superstar and La Cage aux Folles together with the Bolshoi and Kirov ballets.

 Bob Hope visiting Australia in 1955 (left and center) (archival) 
The Rolling Stones also did concerts at the Palais in the 1960s  :
pictured back stage (right) with 3UZ disc jockey Stan Rofe (second from left) (Miles ago)


Now undergoing restoration, the Palais is currently leased by the Live Nation company of Los Angeles and it hosts around one hundred events a year .


Palais Theatre as it looked for many years (top left) (Wikipedia) Show time (top centre)
(Australian Arts Review) New color scheme (Palais Theatre)
The Monkees in concert at the Palais 2016 . View from the stage (lower left)
 (John Billings) Pre show lighting and staging (lower center) (BC)
Mickey Dolenz (lower right) (BC)
https://www.flickr.com/photos/78453720@N06/albums/72157645940552505

https://www.hutchinsonbuilders.com.au/projects/hospitality-and-tourism/palais-theatre

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9T7LDmCrH6A

Rounding off more than two decades of continual business development, the Phillips came full circle and returned to Sydney where they had started.

In the early 1930s, they experienced one of their few failures when they attempted to establish a second fun fair at Glenelg beach in Adelaide. Although it did happen, the venture was plagued from the outset by on-going disputes with near-by residents and the council. Also, the small South Australian population made it difficult for the owners to generate an adequate profit , particularly in the midst of the severe economic downturn that had been brought on by the Great Depression.


Luna Park, Glenelg, South Australia (1930s) (Wikipedia)

Determined to stick with his plans to try another park outside of Victoria, Herman Phillips hit the jackpot by securing the best possible location in the country.

When construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge was completed in 1932, the area at Milson's Point which had been used for workshops, railway sidings and the storage of cranes became available. The North Sydney Council called for tenders and in March, 1935 Phillips got the nod. The ink had barely dried on the contract when the Adelaide park was swiftly placed into voluntary liquidation. Its rides were dismantled, loaded onto a ship and taken to Milson's Point. After three months of reassembly , Sydney's Luna Park was opened with much fanfare. Proving to be an instant hit and a most profitable enterprise for the Phillips, it continues to this day just like its Melbourne counterpart. As an extra bonus for Sydney patrons, a “Floating Ballroom” was moored on the harbour beside the park.

https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/17232208?searchTerm=%22Luna%20Park%22&searchLimits=dateFrom=1935-01-01|||dateTo=1935-12-31|||l-advstate=New+South+Wales


Luna Park, Sydney : Under construction in 1935 (left) (Sydney Morning Herald) In the 1960s (right) (You Tube)
A view of Luna Park's Milson's Point location - note proximity to
 Sydney Opera House (Pinterest)


Luna Park, Sydney takes on a special magic at night (Flickr)

All the brothers regularly visited the US until they retired and it's likely that they stayed in touch with George and Leo Whitney, two of their fellow countrymen who had helped to establish Luna Park in Melbourne and went on to become the owners of Playland in San Francisco.

Playland, San Francisco (1940s) (Flickr
J.D.Williams died in 1934


Sydney Morning Herald, August 31, 1934

Herman Phillips in 1938.

The Argus, April 28, 1938

Leon and Harold passed away within a few months of each other in ' 57. A brass plaque, still in place, at the Palais Theatre bears a tribute to Leon from the American community of Victoria.


Harold Phillips (left) and Leon Phillips (right) in 1956 with their
 god children William and Helen Kemter of Brighton
(Photo courtesy of Helen)
The Age, May 1, 1957



The Age, November 28, 1957


Phillips brothers grave, St.Kilda Cemetery, Victoria, Australia (BC)

The Phillips' initiative was largely responsible for boosting and consolidating St.Kilda's status as being one of the key focal points for arts and entertainment activities in Victoria.

Across the space of fifteen years, they got three of the State's most prominent amusement attractions up and running - namely Luna Park (1912), the Palais de Danse Ballroom  (1919) and the Palais Theatre (1927). Situated side by side on the foreshore, directly opposite the beach, these famous landmarks became the hub around which Melbourne's aquatic playground has revolved ever since, drawing vast crowds of pleasure - seekers, especially in the warmer months. Even more importantly, their success lured other showmen and leisure entrepreneurs to St.Kilda, making it one of the most dynamic seaside resorts on the Pacific rim.

The results of their astute business acumen, sense of adventure and sheer hard work continue to be of substantial ,direct benefit to the Melbourne economy. The enterprises that they founded have provided a countless number of employment opportunities for more than a century. But, perhaps, less well known, was their long and largely anonymous  history of giving financial assistance to many charity and non profit groups, particularly within the local community during those dark days of the Great Depression.

Back on the West Coast, their family had also prospered and relocated to Southern California. Considering that the Phillips had enjoyed such an enduring and productive association with the cinema industry, it seems somehow appropriate that their parents, Abraham and Gertrude, were laid to rest in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery alongside some of the most legendary names of the silver screen.



Los Angeles Times, February 20, 1938

Los Angeles Times, August 11, 1954


Grave of Abraham and Gertrude Phillips at the
 Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles
 (Find a Grave photo)




The author would like to thank Ms Megan Duvall - Historic Preservation Officer for the City of Spokane and Spokane County, Washington - for the assistance she provided during the preparation of this article 

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Interview

 Bruce Corneil chats to veteran TV and radio personality Peter Smith OAM about his memories of the Palais Theatre and his friendship with Harold and Leon Phillips


________________________________________________________________

Bruce : Peter, thanks for making yourself available to share your memories of the Palais and the Phillips brothers

Peter : My pleasure Bruce. Nice to speak to you again

Bruce : Likewise . Peter, are you from St.Kilda originally?

Peter : Yes, indeed. I grew up in Longmore Street back in the 1940s and ‘50s. In fact, I lived down there until the early ‘60s.

Bruce : So all of those iconic foreshore venues such as Luna Park, the Palais and the Palais de Danse provided a backdrop to your daily life?

Peter : They did,. But, of course, they were much more than just a backdrop, particularly on Saturdays when I made a “b-line” for the Palais Theatre, or the Palais “Pictures” as it was originally called. That place was the centre of both my social life and my fantasy world... as it was for many people.

Bruce : The Palais was your “big deal”?

Peter : Absolutely, mainly because I was mad about the movies and it was a real picture palace in the grand American style. It was unusual to have a theatre like that in the suburbs. We were lucky to have something so impressive close to home. But all those other places you mentioned were great too. Luna Park was magic in the old days.

3AK Good Guys at Luna Park, St.Kilda in the 1960s
(Left to right) Pete Smith, Grantley Dee and Bill Howie (3AK photo)

Bruce : What about the Palais de Danse?

Peter : That was a bit racy, strictly for the "fast set" or the “dancing crowd” as the flappers and their beaus were called back in the 1920s when it was at its peak.


Bruce : In her autobiography, Helen Reddy, who came from Hawthorn, said that she always envied her cousins who lived in St.Kilda. She described it as being the most exciting and cosmopolitan suburb in Melbourne, at a time when both those qualities were a bit thin on the ground in this city. Would you agree with those thoughts?

Peter : Yes, I would. There was, definitely, an international, or, perhaps, more specifically, a fairly Americanized ambience about the area, certainly around that part of St.Kilda near the amusement precinct... with the Canary Island palm trees, Spanish Mission architecture etc.. I think that might have been deliberate or maybe it was simply due to the influence of important local Americans such as the Phillips brothers. Perhaps, they were trying to recreate memories of the States. It looked like Santa Monica as we used to see it in all those Hollywood movies


Edgewater Towers apartment block on Marine Parade built in 1961 (left)
Poster for the WWII St.Kilda Carnival (center) Santa Fe flats (right) (Bruce Corneil)


Bruce : At the Palais of course?

Peter : Of course.

Bruce : Sounds like you’ve given all this a lot of thought over the years?

Peter : I have actually. I’ve got some very vivid and happy memories of those early times that I spent in St.Kilda

Bruce : Like to paint a couple of word pictures?

Peter : OK....for example, I can remember when I was very young walking around to the Palais from Longmore Street with my parents on balmy summer nights, riding on my dad’s shoulders, past the Catani Gardens and the pier. I can still feel the gentle breezes blowing and rustling through the wispy branches of the palm trees, the splashing and laughter of the swimmers in the twilight air and the myriad colored lights from the forsehore attractions streaking the roads and the beach...


Beaconsfield Parade (1930s ?) (State Library of Vic) (left) Catani Gardens Rotunda (centre) (City of Port Phillip)
 Amusements corner Lower Esplanade and Jacka Boulevard (1950s) (SLV) (left)

Bruce : And the Palais rose up behind all this..

Peter : Well, the Palais was never behind anything. It was so massive and imposing, it dominated the head of the bay. Still does. It was quite awesome.

Bruce : When and how did you come to know Harold and Leon Phillips?

Peter I probably met them around 1954 or ' 55 and I got to know them quite well. In fact, they used to take me to dinner every Saturday at a terrific Chinese restaurant in the Village Belle called the Tientsin Cafe. It all came about through my friendship with Albert Wright who was the projectionist at the Palais. As a teenager, my ambition was to work in the bio box down there. Anyway, I was just a local kid with stars in my eyes but Albert befriended me, particularly when he realized that I was serious about a career in the business. I started to frequent the theater 


Albert Wright at the Palais during the theater's
 50th anniversary celebrations in 1977
 (Age newspaper photo)

Bruce : So did you end up getting a full time job there?

Peter : Not really, I stayed on at school and, unfortunately, by the time I was ready to start work, Harold and Leon had both died and the Palais had been sold. But what they did do was allow me to have some involvement and a whole lot of fun at the place as a stepping stone. I mean, they were big time operators and the Palais was a real hot spot of show business, particularly from the ‘50s onwards when all those huge American stars like Bob Hope appeared there.

Bruce : What was the involvement you had?

Peter : I established a couple of informal groups, or “activities” I suppose you would call them, which were based at the theatre. One was called the Palais Junior Film Club and the other was a comic swap shop which was set up in the foyer. Harold Voight, who, as I recall, was the scenic artist there at that point, built a brilliant Dickensian type of shop... like a sort of theatre set where the local kids used to exchange their comics.

Bruce : Did you get to appear on stage and face an audience ?

Peter : Yes, I did. That was where the film club came in. I used to host little stage presentations. I’d introduce the films, run competitions. Then I got my big break when I started to mime Top 40 records. That was a peculiar fad in the ‘50s which, of course, became highly popular on television when Channel 7 launched the Hit Parade. Miming was all the rage for a while.

Bruce : Presumably you never knew Herman Phillips, the eldest of the three brothers?

Peter : No, Herman died long before I came on the scene

Bruce : What were Harold and Leon like as men and as managers. What was their personal style?

Peter : Well, as I've already mentioned, I was  just a kid at the time so I didn't have any significant dealings with them as either a senior employee or as a business acquaintance. No doubt, they were tough negotiators to have been as successful as they were. However, as far as I was concerned , they were thoroughly nice blokes and very generous, as evidenced by the fact that they took all of us to dinner once a week ! In regard to their personal style, I do remember that they always wore great suits, even on the weekends. I suppose they bought a lot of their clothes back from the States. But, in some ways, they didn't fit the standard image of glamorous showbiz moguls. They weren't particularly flamboyant in themselves. Actually, they were quite reserved and conservative.

Bruce : You mentioned to me once that they drove a Cadillac?

Peter : Yes, that was one of their few personal extravagances. I can remember riding in that car into the GPO where Harold and Leon had a private mail box *
1955 Cadillac Fleetwood similar to the one that was owned by the Phillips (Bruce Corneil)

Bruce : So did they remain emphatically American, despite all the years that they had been in Australia?

Peter : Oh yes. They were great believers in the value of good old American know – how. They always looked, sounded and thought like Americans. In fact, I think they remained American citizens

Bruce : Did they ever tell you much about their early years in the States. 

Peter : As I remember, their parents were quite well-to-do. I think they owned a chain of grocery stores or supermarkets... some sort of retailing venture. 

Bruce : Where did Harold and Leon live when you knew them?

Peter : In South Yarra.

Bruce : Did one of them seem to be the overall boss?

Peter : No, from what I saw of them, they seemed to be very much an equal partnership. They had managers who did most of the day to day hiring and firing for them. But, as, I said, before, no doubt, they could be very insistent and tough-minded in the boardroom when they needed to be.

Bruce : I have heard that they were the local distributors for Paramount movies. Do you know anything about that ?

Peter : I haven’t heard that one but it’s quite possible. They had a lot of interests.


Paramount did lease the Capitol Theatre, Melbourne (above) at one point. 
The movie being shown when this pic was taken was 
Blonde Venus with Marlene Dietrich and Cary Grant  (1932) (Simon Brand photo)

Bruce : Did Harold and Leon show any preference for one, particular area of the business?

Peter : I don’t think so. Although, Luna Park was probably their sentimental favourite because that’s where it all started as far as their involvement with St.Kilda was concerned.

Bruce : Bearing in mind that they were such big operators they seemed to have kept incredibly low public profiles, certainly in comparison to other, earlier, showmen such as J.C. Williamson and Frank Thring senior. Photos of the Phillips, for example, are hard to find. Do you have any by the way?

Peter : Sadly, I don’t have any photos. They weren’t into personal publicity. But there would have to be photos around somewhere because they were important businessmen in St.Kilda and they would have had a lot dealings with the council, if not the media.

Bruce : What did they do in their spare time? Were they members of any clubs, play sport etc.

Peter : I don’t know. Again, I was just a teenager, not an adult contemporary of theirs. You should try to track down the family of Garnett Curwen. He was their main manager.

Bruce : What happened at the Palais and elsewhere when they died. Were you at their respective funerals by the way?

Peter : I was .... I attended both of their funerals. When they died it was quite strange. Some very business-like woman flew over from America. I think she may have been their sister or perhaps a niece. Anyway, the story goes that she got off the plane at Essendon, was driven down to St.Kilda, walked through all three venues in about ten minutes, she might have gone into the Capitol as well.... if they were still involved in that place...... then she turned around and went straight back to the airport. All of their interests were sold immediately. Maurice Sloman, who was a friend of Harold and Leon, and some others bought everything.

Bruce : How would you sum up your memories of  the Phillips brothers and the time that you spent with them

Peter :  I have nothing but overwhelmingly happy memories of that early association that I enjoyed with Harold and Leon. The Phillips did everything on a grand scale and with great style. They made a huge contribution to the local entertainment scene and they deserve more recognition.

Bruce : Let’s hope that they get it. Thanks again Peter.

Peter : Thanks Bruce

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* The Phillips' niece , Aileen, was married to Leslie R Lumley, who owned one of the largest Cadillac dealerships in Southern California. The couple's futuristic home in San Marino was designed by the legendary LA - based architect Paul Revere Williams

http://www.paulrwilliamsproject.org/gallery/residence-mrs-leslie-lumley-san-marino-ca/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-EMQdkRD7o

Further, more recent, information has come to hand via the discovery of an Australian newspaper article about Mrs Lumley that was published during a visit that she made to this country in November, 1957 - around the time of Leon's death. Although no reference was made to the Phillips. it now seems that she was the mystery woman who made the flight over to supervise the sale of the Palais, Palais de Danse and Luna Park. It's also likely that she handled Leon's funeral arrangements and organized the construction of the grave site at St.Kilda Cemetery which appears to have been modeled on Abraham and Gerturde's grave in Los Angeles.      

Sydney Sun - Herald, November 17, 1957


https://www.newspapers.com/image/123533006/?terms=Aileen%2BLumley


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The above was written as a blog post but the style qualifies it to be included under the label "magazine feature articles"

This work remains the intellectual property of Bruce Corneil 2017








2 comments:

  1. A great tread, Bruce

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks. Although my "tread" isn't what it used to be !

    ReplyDelete