A LIFE IN THE CIRCUS: FRANK HOWSON

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By Roberto Chuter

 

“In my opinion, one of the most creative minds Australia has yet produced…” – Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum

 

It is Sunday.  A sweltering day in St. Kilda.  I am seated under a shaded canopy in pink paradise – ‘Good Love’ on Acland Street . I‘m chatting over tea and banana bread with the imitable Frank Howson – Screenwriter. Producer. Theatre Director. Film Director.  Artist. Performer. Poet and the list goes on…  I first met Frank way back in 2007 in a fleeting hallway passing during his rehearsals for the short play ‘The Replacement Son’ he was directing for Short and Sweet.   I recognised his name – Howson, because I knew his cousin, the entertainment personality John Michael Howson. Frank’s colourful life has had more dips and turns than Luna Park’s Scenic Railway – so my chat with him was highly energetic and elaborate to say the least.  I suggest that we visit one of his old haunts, a house in the adjoining street – 51 Fawkner Street – to trigger some memories.   So as we strolled down the street, accompanied by our ever reliable photographer, our conversation rewound back to 1952 on onwards.  “When I was a small boy, I began to dream.  These dreams weren’t like normal ones in my sleep, these were my awake hours.  Some of these dreams were bigger than me, he said adding: “And a few would turn out to be so big they would eventually run me down. In some of was Davy Crockett and others Peter Pan, Robin Hood and Zorro. All you had to do was find a park bench, close your eyes and lift your head until  you felt the warm rays of the sun, and let your mind go off to exotic locations. I dreamed that I would be bigger  than my dad  in height, temperament and wealth, and I lived to achieve all that only to discover how meaningless it all was.”  

 

As our photographer snapped photos of Frank in front of the house, I was thinking to myself: “I wonder how he is really feeling about being here again?“  He didn’t give much away, but there where smiles and no  revealing emotions except for a few tales of yesteryear. “Living in Fawkner Street back then, the neighbours were just ordinary battlers: sly grog salesmen, gangsters,” he remembered.  In that street Public Enemy No. 1 – nicknamed The Beast (Norm Bradshaw) for good reason lived there when he wasn’t on the run. Next door to the us lived the Aussie equivalent to Bonnie Parker, the gangster’s moll pretty (but deadly) Dulcie Markham (known as ‘The Angel of Death’ reported The Truth).  One evening several rival gangsters kicked in pretty Dulcie’s front door and sprayed gun shots. One bullet came through our wall,” said Frank with delight.  But to be expected pretty Dulcie got a bullet right in the thigh!  “There’s bloody blood everywhere Bastards!” she spurted to The Truth reporter.  Apparently another altercation left pretty Dulce with a broken leg and her hoodlum ex-boxer Gavan Walsh was shot dead during the six o’clock swill at the Barkly Hotel.

 

Henry (Jack) Howson, Frank’s dad, was in charge of the O’Donnell Gardens for thirty or so years and was promoted to being the overseer of the entire St. Kilda Foreshore not long before his death.  His tiny office was under the biggest dip in Luna Park’s Scenic Railway. His mm worked across the road “in the best lolly shop in the world” – Candy Corner. Young Frank spent his years hiding in the O’Donnell Garden’s Sherwood Forest, climbing the trees to attack the cavalry in the Alamo and re-enacting every John Wayne movie.  At the sweet  age of seven he started life in show business as a singer, tap dancer and actor.  His first public appearance was the St. Kilda Town Hall performing a rendition of ‘Give My Regards to Broadway’. 

 

“When I was at school I just couldn’t concentrate on anything.  I was hopeless.” His introduction to books was by his old Irish grandmother who would sit him on her sturdy lap and read aloud:  “Noddy  in Toyland”. Latter, the first book he actually managed to finish was ironically “Little Women” then came, of course, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, Secret Seven and then graduated to Biggles. In his later teens it was “The Great Gatsby”, Dickens, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Huxley, Wilde and many others.  After leaving Christian Brothers College in 1967 his first job was office boy at 3UZ.  Soon he was promoted and worked on “Radio Auditions”, Johnny McMahon’s  extraordinarily long-lived talent show in which participants were awarded up to three “gongs”  If there weren’t enough acts for the programme, Frank was called to perform under made up names.  When he was invited to perform in a TV talent pilot by (the late) Jimmy Hannan he became known as ‘Magic Frank’.  Eventually he acquired a record deal and produced and performed on his first single ‘Seventeen Ain’t Young’. The Top-40 smash hit ‘Hide and Seek’ followed with others ‘This Night’ and ‘The Heart is A Lonely Hunter’.  

 

Before turning twenty-one, Frank had already appeared in twenty or so major productions.  Two of the highlights during this prolific period were notable Australian productions of “Oliver” in 1966 at Her Majesty’s Theatre with a young John Diedrich with Toni Lamond and (the late) Terry McDermott then the original production “Jesus Christ Superstar” at the Palais with Marcia Hines, Arthur Dignam, Robin Ramsay, Reg Livermore and (the late) Jon English.

 

Standing around, we talked a little about his film career.   The photographer kept snapping away with me avoiding getting in the way.  Apparently, during its heyday, Boulevard Films was one of Australia’s most successful film production companies.  Numerous people became resentful of the company’s success and worked against it unfortunately.  Left to its own devices, the company became undone by the relentless pressure and enormous responsibility to keep bettering the last film and raising the bar amidst disappearing money. In 1997, after a very prolonged falling out with his business partner Peter Boyle, Frank dissolved the company in order to extricate himself from the situation.

 

The company’s films included: “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” which starred John Waters, Kim Gyngell and Guy Pearce won two AFI Awards – Waters for Best Actor and Gyngell for Best Supporting.  It was also nominated for five other awards including Best Picture.  Other films followed ‘Heaven Tonight”  – screenplay by Frank as well as songs for the film was nominated for an AFI Award, Guy Pearce in “Friday On My Mind”,  ‘Hunting” screenplay and direction by Frank starring American actor John Savage and Kerry Armstrong was nominated for an AFI Award for Best Actress and finally Guy Pearce, Claudia Karvan and Steven Berkoff in ‘Flynn’, a feature of the early life of Errol Flynn was also directed and co-written by Frank.  In 1989, he was awarded the Producer of Year Award from Film Victoria and since then has received several Hall of Fame Awards and Lifetime Achievement Awards at numerous international film festivals.

 

Frank relocated to Los Angeles where there the experience he received working with the talents as Martin Landau, Ryan O’Neal, Whoopi Goldberg, Jackie Chan, Sylvester Stallone, Helen Mirren, Heath Ledger, William Friedkin and others elevated him to a new level.   He was commissioned to write several screenplays and his script on the life of Australian boxer Les Darcy entitled: “Winter in America’ was put on hold for three years as  (the late) Heath Ledger wanted to play the lead. It is “‘the best unproduced screenplay in Australia”, described The Age.  Between 1998 and 2001, Frank served on the board of the L.A. branch of the Starlight Children’s Foundation. 

 

Returning home to St. Kilda after nine years of self-imposed exile he had no job prospects and a tattered reputation and found no opportunities whatsoever at his feet. Ever restless Frank began composing his own songs which ultimately were reordered by The Little River Band, Kate Ceberano and others.  In September 2005, he directed the Melbourne premiere of Caryl Churchill’s acclaimed play ‘A Number’ at fortyfivedownstairs. Rhonda Burchmore toured her hit show: “Cry Me A River – The World of Julie London’, that was specially written for her by Frank. He then also wrote and directed two sell-out seasons of “Genesis to Broadway’ at Chapel Off Chapel.   And this isn’t even a quarter of his astounding creative accomplishments! So, there were so many questions I wanted to ask, so I did:

 

Why do you do the work that you do Frank?

 

“Because it’s the only thing I ever wanted to do, and the only thing it seems I was any good at.  It can be a very hard, very lonely life. But if there is a higher being, it is not doubt purposely conceived to be that way. Almost like he removes all happy distractions from our life so that we are forced to save the very best of us for the page. Or as Dylan said: “Blood on the tracks.” Looking back on Fawkner Street, I think all he ever wanted was to have a happy family where no one fought and had terrible degrading arguments, and have a nice little house, and be friends with all the neighbours and know that he was safe and that tomorrow would be just like today. And he’d wake to find that the woman he loved still loved him. But none of that was to be. So he just keeps writing and occasionally directing and hoping that somehow that will get him home. Wherever that is.”

 

Which people inspired you to work in showbiz?

 

“The biggest and most initial influence on me getting into showbiz was the movie “Yankee Doodle Dandy” starring James Cagney. I was only seven, but that movie showed me a whole new world to the one I’d been born into. My dad was the loveliest man in the world – up to 10 drinks! After that he would wander the house looking for something to blame, I guess, the emptiness within himself. So, there were most nights some horrible ego destroying verbal abuse that effected and infected those of us who lived at Fawkner Street. When I saw “Yankee Doodle Dandy” its influence on me was profound. I saw that you can invent a new world through creativity. The movie’s depiction of showbiz was, of course, highly romanticised but very intoxicating to a boy from St. Kilda whose whole world at that time was Fawkner Street, the O’Donnell Gardens, Luna Park and the occasional trip to the city with my mum to patiently watch her shop at Myer. That movie told me that there was a place for those who didn’t fit in. The camaraderie, the risk taking, the loyalty of a long time partnership where the only contract had been a handshake, the opening nights of triumph.  Yep, it hooked me on its bullshit and although it wasn’t all champers.  But along that hard long and winding road of showbiz I have seen the very best and the very worst of human nature. And thus it gave me much to write about.”

Why happened after making “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”?

 

“After that, I made so many films, it almost killed me. You know that old saying: “Be careful what you wish for?” Well, my business partner and I had spent five years trying to get into the film business and knocked on every door there was and got most of them slammed in our faces. The industry at that time didn’t want any new blood competing with them. It was virtually a closed shop with the same old guys getting all the grants and making the same old types of movie. But Peter and I were the two most determined bastards and finally by sheer youthful energy, determination and perseverance we gate crashed and they hated us for it.  After “Boulevard” there was: “What The Moon Saw,” “Heaven Tonight,” “Hunting,” “Beyond My Reach,” “Flynn,” “A Thin Life,” “The Final Stage,” “A Slow Night At The Kuwaiti Cafe,” “The Intruder,” “Crime Time,” and “Blue Roses.” Five of those films were made in virtually a year. When the stage and screenwriter Patrick Edgeworth read about my schedule he told his wife: “That man will either be dead in a year or insane!” I’m still here, so I guess I’m the latter.”

 

Do you think you might have been casualty of the tall poppy syndrome Frank?

 

“I think there was a great love of our films by the Australian public but the fat cats in the film industry especially those in Sydney who also influenced critics to be so much harsher on our films than any other local films (and some were appalling but received good reviews). When I returned from living in L.A., I was out somewhere and a young filmmaker came up to me and said he believed there was a government conspiracy to destroy Boulevard Films. I laughed as I’d never thought in those terms, but after considering the question, I answered that: “I don’t think there was an official focused conspiracy to destroy us. But the industry did nothing to help us. Perhaps that was the conspiracy.” And if so, they should all hang their heads in shame. Those films were all sold to Miramax, Paramount, Warners, Disney, etc., when you couldn’t give Australian films away. Some of them played every major film festival in the world, except Melbourne or Sydney or Adelaide. Everywhere except the place they were made. They also garnered travel reviews everywhere and awards, but were savaged by most local reviewers. But those idiots are gone and the films continue to be re-released on DVD worldwide. I sometimes think I get far more respect in L.A. than I do in my own country. David Mann of 3AW asked me recently if I’d been honoured by my country yet. I laughed. No. Just bloodied, humiliated, spat on and shunned. But you know something? It’s made me all the tougher, and that’s why I’m still here. They have, in fact, empowered me.”

 

What’s do you think have been some of the negatives in your work?

 

“Probably revealing too much of myself in it. It’s amazing but even though you come up with what you think is a piece of fiction from your mind, you look back later and realise it was in some ways autobiographical, sometimes in a symbolised way, but there it was. I can look at some of these films now and tell you exactly what I was going through at the time. They are almost like a diary to me. The spookiest thing is that some proved a premonition of what was to come. But apart from that, my work has supplied me no negatives, in fact it has been my friend, my family, my saviour, my way out of the darkness and confusion. It has been the various people my work has attracted into my life that has on occasion been a severe negative. Perhaps because they were attracted by the wrong thing. The idea of a quick buck, rape what they could and depart leaving others to clean up the mess. Light attracts darkness unfortunately.”

 

What’s been some the positives in your work do you think?

 

“Finding myself. Realising I was at last good at something and could relax all those inner fears that I was the idiot my school teachers thought I was. Because I was a ‘change of life baby’ and a big surprise to everyone, my mum considered me a miracle and that everything I did was genius. On the other hand, my sisters were so angered by my impending arrival they didn’t speak to our mum and dad for a year! As there was a twelve year gap between me and my youngest sister, and I was the only boy, the chill and resentment still continues to this day. So, in effect, I was given a good grounding to become level headed about myself. Everything I did my sisters thought was crap, and everything I did my mother thought was genius. The genius thing was a very heavy load for a young boy from St. Kilda to carry on his shoulders. Looking back now I realise I strived so hard to live up to her view of me and not let her down, that I denied myself a normal youth. It’s interesting to note that when my mum died, so did a lot of my fierce ambition. I guess in my mind I had no one to impress anymore. So I relaxed and went about becoming a human being.”

 

What’s been your favourite achievements up to this point?

 

“The only reason I became a producer, a job I in fact hate doing, was to protect the integrity of my work. I’d had a very bad experience, or introduction to movie making with a film called “Backstage” starring (the late) American singer Laura Branigan. I co-wrote the script with Jonathon Hardy and it was sold to a large production company.  They tampered with my original vision so much that I walked off the movie before a single frame was sold. I was embarrassed to have any part of it. My instincts were right and it was, in my opinion, one of the worst films ever made. Becoming a producer wasn’t some lust for power for me, I just wanted to make ensure that anything that had my name on it contained some resemblance to what I had written. The latest thing I wrote, the big budget theatre musical “Dream Lover” which tells the Bobby Darin story and stars David Campbell, I think it  is my proudest moment. Simon Phillips, the director and I worked so closely and so well on two workshops and then an intensive rehearsal period that it became the dream working relationship we always hope for. We’d only have to see something being acted out and we’d exchange a look and I’d know what he was thinking and visa versa. And of course, the topping on the cake is that the people responded. We were a smash hit in Sydney and then broke the all-time attendance record at the State Theatre in Melbourne.  It had taken years of frustration waiting for a production, but when Darin’s son, Dodd, flew into Sydney to see it. Afterwards he walked up to me with tears in his eyes to hug me and said: “You got every detail right. All my life I’ve wanted a legacy for my father and you’ve written it.” And I, replied (tearing up!) : “What you’ve just said to me was worth the whole nine years.”

 

What are you currently working on?

 

“Another theatrical work. This one is about the last very sad, and revealing years in the life of Elvis Presley. It is a piece of pure theatre. We have already had one workshop on it and ‘The Seekers’ Bruce Woodley attended and afterward said to me: “I teared up about six times and for the first time I feel I really knew him.” Alex Vass the owner of the Alex Theatre was also there and he stated that was he saw was “musical theatre genius.” I loved Elvis so much that I have really worked to get it right and cut right into his very heart, soul  and mind. I think it will be a very cathartic night in the theatre for all those who loved him and will explain a lot about what happened.”

 

If you couldn’t do this anymore, what career path do you think you would have followed Frank?

 

“Well, I’ve had two very successful art exhibitions at Fad Gallery over the last few years, and I must admit that painting seems to relax my restless mind. I find peace and comfort in it. I guess I’d be a painter. The only two subjects I was any good at were English and Art. So there you have it. If it wasn’t for those two things I’d be fucked. Of course I would love to do another film, but no one offers me anything, even given my stellar track record, so I guess I’m still blacklisted from that closed shop.  In a perfect world though, I guess I’d have a very happy life writing a book a year and having a couple of exhibitions of my artwork. I wouldn’t have to deal with business partners, financiers, horrendous deadlines, producers and actors asking me:  “What does this mean?””

 

Tell us a funny story or joke that involves your work or life:

 

“I remember when I was seventeen and I’d recorded a single called “Seventeen Ain’t Young” and the record label (without permission) had credited me as Frankie Howson. I don’t remember anyone before that ever calling me Frankie but there you have it. Anyway, a few months had passed since that record slipped out of the charts and I was on a tram one day. A girl walked up to me and said: “Didn’t you used to be Frankie Howson?” That’s how tough this life in showbiz can be. A few months can go by and you’re a has been. Yes, I used to be Frankie Howson.”

 

  • Undoubtedly, Frank Howson is one of St. Kilda’s most precious icons. He is blessed that creatively has been his life. His lifelong and prolific contribution to the arts and for our entertainment  is simply phenomenal. The fact that he and his work has been underrated, undervalued, belittled and ignored is also phenomenal. It is truly shameful, truly disgraceful and most of all – embarrassing.  When I thanked Frank for his time and bid him farewell he certainly left me with an indelible mark.  On the journey home I thought to myself,  this man’s dazzling talent is only outshone by his humanity and accomplishment. Thank heavens, we have him. 

 

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