I died a week ago
About the time you left me
But no one has seemed to notice
I’ve been haunting some familiar bars
Speaking to strangers without getting an answer
I guess they’re dead too
There’s a lot of this going around
I think it’s called Limbo
The waiting room
Before we can move on
I’ve heard we are stuck here
Until we can make sense of it all
The room of the lost
I guess heaven is reserved for the winners
So that won’t be such a change
From what I’m used to
I don’t know what I did
Or didn’t do
To lose you
I hope I work it out soon
Because I can’t move on
Without some closure
Me, the one who vowed to love you
May be here a very long time
In this place where nothing grows
This grey place
I kept my vow to you
And now there’s all hell to pay
What room are you in?
Where do you find someone
Who’ll give you their heart?
And won’t take it back
Just to tear you apart
Someone who is
Everything she seems
A dream you wake to
When you wake from dreams
I’ve been searching so long
And learned to live alone
You kinda park your life
In a holding zone
But I believe one day
If you keep on giving
You’ll stumble in the dark
And find your reason for living
For it’s a contradiction
That in the darkest night
We see in the faraway distance
The brightest light
Down here on this barren battleground
We have been issued no orders
We don’t even know who we are fighting anymore
Yesterday the fog was so thick
We mistakenly shot our own leader
And laid him to rest ‘neath a tree
Perhaps we should withdraw
Which is not a surrender
We mustn’t surrender
For there is too much to lose
But we’ve forgotten what
Send word back
That we have not thrown down our weapons
But we need back up
It seems we have gone weeks without sleep
As we sit in the dark every night
Waiting for the enemy to attack
But they never come
This is a very sophisticated strategy
That we have not been briefed on
For our leader is dead
And his family have not received word
For they will only grieve
And too many tears have been shed
Too many hearts broken
Too many roads taken
Too many widows haunting us
In the mists of dawn
But we are holding our position
And ready for action
Eager to do him proud
To fight to the last man
We have burnt our white flags
So we wouldn’t be tempted
Our enemy has a lot to answer for
We just haven’t been informed of what
But we’ve been told to hate them
I wonder if they’re scared like us?
I wonder if they sleep?
I wonder if they just want to go home
Like we do?
I wonder if they’re still there?
Perhaps the war is over
I wonder who won?
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 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.
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 suggested that we visit one of his old haunts, his childhood home in the adjourning street – 51 Fawkner Street – to trigger some memories. So as we strolled down the street, accompanied by our ever reliable photographer, our conversation back to those years and 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 them I 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 was 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 a smile 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 Number 1 – nicknamed The Beast (Norm Bradshaw) for good reason lived there when he was not on the run. “Next door to 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 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 Dulcie with a broken leg and her hoodlum ex-boxer boyfriend Gavin 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 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 mum, Pearl, 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 trees to attack Santa Ana’s soldiers at the Alamo, and re-enacting every John Wayne movie. At the sweet age of seven he started his life in show business as a singer, tap dancer and actor. His first public appearance was at 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.” Later, the first book he actually managed to finish all by himself was ironically “Little Women” then came, of course, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, The 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 Radio 3UZ. Soon he was promoted to panel operator and worked on “Radio Auditions,” Johnny McMahon’s extraordinarily long-lived talent show in which participants were awarded up to three “gongs” – if it rained and there weren’t enough acts for the program, Frank was called upon to perform under made-up names. When he was invited to perform on a TV talent show pilot by (the late) Jimmy Hannan and told to come up with a mad act he became known as “Magical Frank” – a singing and tap dancing magician who’s tricks all went wrong. Eventually he acquired a record deal and produced and performed on his first Top 40 hit “Seventeen Ain’t Young.” This was followed by other singles “This Night” and “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter.”
Before turning twenty-one, Frank had already appeared in over twenty-one major productions. Two highlights during this prolific period were notable Australian productions of “Oliver” in 1966 at Her Majesty’s Theatre with a young John Diedrich, Toni Lamond and the (late) Terry McDermott; then the legendary original production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at the Palais Theatre with Marcia Hines, Robin Ramsay, Reg Livermore, Stevie Wright, John Paul Young 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, 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 and Kim Gyngell and was nominated for 7 AFI Awards including “Best Film” and won 2 – Waters for Best Actor, and Gyngell for Best Supporting Actor. Others films followed, including the AFI nominated “Heaven Tonight” that was Guy Pearce’s debut as a movie actor and sold to the giant American Broadcasting Corporation; the AFI nominated “What The Moon Saw” which became the first Australian film sold to Miramax; “Hunting” screenplay and direction by Frank and starring American actor John Savage, Kerry Armstrong (nominated for an AFI as Best Actress, and Guy Pearce, sold to Paramount Pictures; “Beyond My Reach” starring David Roberts, American actress Terri Garber (whom Howson would later marry), and Alan Fletcher, sold to Warners; and “Flynn” starring Guy Pearce, Claudia Karvan, internationally acclaimed stage & movie actor Steven Berkoff, and John Brumpton in his first screen role. The film depicted the early life of Errol Flynn, and was directed and co-written by Howson. In 1989, he was awarded the Producer of the 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 and for such talents as Martin Landau, Mark Rydell, Helen Mirren, Sharon Stone, Amy Ephron, Arthur Hiller, Michael Richards, William Friedkin, Ryan O’Neal, Eric Idle, Joe Eszterhas, Jackie Chan, Patricia Clarkson, Heath Ledger, Jacqueline Bissett, Whoopi Goldberg, Sylvester Stallone, Bernard Fowler, and many others elevated him to a whole new level. He was commissioned to write several screenplays, and script doctor some script written by others. His beloved screenplay on the tragic life of the Australian boxer Les Darcy entitled “Winter In America” was put on hold by Heath Ledger for three years as he desperately wanted to play the lead. It has not, to this time, been made, but was described by the Age as “the best unproduced screenplay in Australia.” 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 a self-imposed exile from his homeland he arrived back to no job offers, a tattered reputation, and found no opportunities whatsoever at his feet. So, he began again.
Ever restless Frank began writing his own songs which were ultimately performed and/or recorded by Little River Band. Richie Havens, Eric Idle, Stephen Cummings, Marc Jordan. Bernard Fowler, Judith Durham, Keith Potger, Andre Rieu and many others. In September 2005, Frank was approached by a producer to direct the Melbourne premiere of Caryl Churchill’s play “A Number” at fortyfivedownstairs and received the best reviews of his career. He was back. Shortly after, he ghost wrote Rhonda Burchmore’s best selling memoir, “Legs 11” and then Rhonda toured with her hit one woman show “Cry Me A River – The World of Julie London” that was specially written for her by Frank. He then wrote and directed two sell-out seasons of “Genesis To Broadway” at Chapel Off Chapel, and was asked to direct the two music videos to celebrate The Seekers 50th. Anniversary. One of the clips opened their show on their international farewell tour and was screened at their Royal Albert Hall performances. 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:
Q) Why do you do the work that you do, Frank?
A) “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 power it is no doubt purposely conceived to be that way. Almost like God removes all happy distractions from our life so that we are forced to save the very best of us for the page, or the stage. Or as Dylan said, “Blood On The Tracks.” Looking back on Fawkner Street, I think all that young boy 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 to wake and find that the woman he loved still loved him. But none of that was to be. Well, not in any lasting sense. So he just keeps writing and occasionally directing and hoping that somehow that will get him home. Wherever that is.”
Q) Which people inspired you to work in showbiz?
A) “The biggest and most 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 was born into. My dad was the loveliest man in the world – up to ten drinks! After that he would wander the house looking for something to blame. I guess, for 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 51 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 there was a place for those who didn’t fit in. The camaraderie, the risk taking, the loyalty of a long business partnership between two men 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 I have lived to experience some amazing things, and people. At a cost. 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.”
Q) What happened after “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”?
A) “After that, I made so many films, it almost killed me. You know the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for?” Well, my business partner and I had spent five years trying to get into the film industry 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 Australian movie. But Peter and I were the two most determined bastards and finally by sheer youthful energy, determination and perseverance we gate crashed the party and they hated us for it. After “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” there was “What The Moon Saw,” “Heaven Tonight,” “Hunting,” “Beyond My Reach,” “Flynn,” “The Final Stage,” “A Slow Night At The Kuwaiti Cafe,” “The Intruder,” “Crime Time,” “Blue Roses,” “Guy Pearce – The Music Videos,” “The Making of Heaven Tonight,” “The Making of Hunting,” “The Making of Flynn,” and “A Thin Life.” Five of those films were made in virtually a year. When the stage & screenwriter Patrick Edgeworth read about my schedule he told his wife, “That man will either be dead or insane within a year.” I’m still here, so I guess I’m the latter.”
Q) Do you think you might have been a casualty of the tall poppy syndrome, Frank?
A) “I think there was a great love of our films by the Australian public but the fat cats in the industry and their associates, especially in Sydney, influenced or pressured local critics to be so much harsher on our films than any other homemade films (and let’s face it, some of these other films by approved producers who were in the clique were appalling but received good reviews.) When I returned home from living in Los Angeles for 9 years, I was out somewhere and a young filmmaker came up to me and told me how much he’d been influenced by my movies and believed there had been 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 focussed conspiracy to destroy us. But the industry did nothing to help us. Perhaps that was the conspiracy.” And if so, they should hang their heads in shame. These films I made were all sold to Miramax, Paramount, Warners, Disney, etc., at a time when you couldn’t give Australian films away on the international market. Some of those films also played at every major film festival in the world, except Melbourne. Everywhere except the place where they was made. They also garnered rave reviews overseas and awards, but were savaged by most local reviewers. When one of them received a scathing review in The Australian, I wrote to the critic Evan Williams and asked him why there were so many inaccuracies and misquotes of dialogue in his review, to which he replied, and I still have the letter, that he’d been unwell that day at the press screening so had to leave 10 minutes into the film but asked a colleague some days later how it ended. Based upon that he wrote a horrible review that no doubt turned potential customers away from a local film that went on to be lauded and praised overseas. Alan Finney of Village Roadshow also stated to witnesses that he hated all my films. This was before the first five were even finished and no one had seen them yet. So, he had a negative opinion sight unseen. But those idiots are all gone now and their power diminished to nothing and yet my films continue to be re-released on DVD worldwide. So I guess I win. I sometimes think I get more respect in L.A or London than I do in my own country. David Mann of 3AW asked me recently if I’d been honoured by my country yet. Again, I laughed. No. Just bloodied, humiliated, spat on and shunned. They even came at me with a trumped up charge that because a film of mine had changed from the original synopsis to the final cut that it was somehow a different movie and I’d somehow done something illegal. It was like a Franz Kafka absurdist nightmare I had to live through and the pressure of defending myself against this insanity took a huge emotional toll on my last marriage and ruined it. I had to try and explain to public servants that Art is an ever evolving process. I also named over 1000 Hollywood films that started as one thing and ended up quite different from the original concept. This is the same government that were later happy to steal my original idea and concept of “G’Day L.A” which went on to become the most successful promotion in the history of Australia. The “Honourable” John Olsen, the then Australian Consulate in Los Angeles, whom I presented my idea to, later received the highest award the Australian Government can bestow on one of its citizens for this superb idea of “his.” 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.”
Q) What do you think have been some of the negatives in your work?
A) “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. And there it is. 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 to be 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, and 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 couldn’t understand, and depart leaving others to clean up the mess. Light attracts darkness unfortunately.”
Q) What’s been the positives in your work?
A) “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 I was 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 intrusion into their lives they didn’t speak to my mother and father 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 and will never end. So, in effect, I was given a good grounding to become level-headed about myself. Everything I did my sisters considered crap, and everything I did my mother thought was genius. The genius thing was a very heavy burden for a young boy from St. Kilda to carry on his shoulders. Looking back now I realised I strived so hard to live up to her exulted view of me and not let her down, that I denied myself a normal youth. It’s interesting to note that when my mother died, so did a lot of my ambition. I guess in my mind I had no one to impress anymore. So I relaxed and went about becoming a human being.”
Q) Whats been your favourite achievements up to this point?
A) “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 Jonathan 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 shot. I was embarrassed to have any part of it. Hardy sold out and compromised but not me. 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 by me, I just wanted to ensure that anything that had my name on it contained some resemblance to what I had written. The latest thing I have written, the big budget theatre musical “Dream Lover” which tells the Bobby Darin story and starred David Campbell, I think is my proudest moment. Simon Phillips, the director, and I worked so closely and so well on two workshops and then an intense rehearsal period that it became the dream working relationship we always hope for. We’d only had 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 in Sydney and then broke the all-time historic attendance record at the State Theatre in Melbourne. It had taken years of frustration waiting for the production to happen, but when Darin’s son, Dodd, flew into Sydney with his wife to see it, he walked up to me afterwards, 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, “What you’ve just said to me was worth the whole 9 years.”
Q) What are you currently working on?
A) “After “Dream Lover” I took 12 months off to travel and not think about anything. And it’s hard for me to not think about things and new ideas, but I did. I shut it off. And just roamed around and took in new experiences. I also didn’t want to make the mistake that many do after a huge hit by quickly cashing in with a new show. I wanted to make sure that whatever I did next was as high a standard as “Dream Lover” had been. So, now I’m back at it full steam and I have another theatrical work ready. This one is even more emotionally moving. It’s about those last, very sad and revealing years in the life of Elvis Presley. It is a piece of pure theatre. Not one of those lookalike, soundalike shows. This script goes deep, way deep, into Elvis’ soul. 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 felt I really knew him.” Aleks Vass, owner of The Alex Theatre, was there and publicly stated that what he saw was “musical theatre genius.” I loved Elvis so much that I have really worked hard to get it right and cut to the very heart, soul and mind of the man in those final confusing years. I think it will be a very cathartic night in the theatre for all those who loved him and it will explain a lot about what happened.”
Q) If you couldn’t do this anymore, what career path do you think you would have followed, Frank?
A) “Well I’ve had two very successful art exhibitions at Fad Gallery over the past two 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 school subjects I was any good at was 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 even given my stellar track record, no one asks me, so I guess I’m still blacklisted from that old brigade closed shop. And they’re the reason the Australian film industry has been woeful for so long, because those old power brokers never encouraged new blood. They never encouraged anything other than more money into their bank accounts and now live in mansions in Tuscany. In a perfect world though, I guess I’d have a very happy life writing a book a year and having a couple of art exhibitions of my paintings and sketches. I wouldn’t have to deal with business partners who take care of the business so well there’s no money left, financiers, horrendous deadlines, producers and actors asking me, “What does this mean?””
Q) Tell me a funny story or joke that involves your work or life?
A) “I remember when I was seventeen and I’d recorded a single called “Seventeen Ain’t Young” and the record company (without asking my permission) credited me on the label as Frankie Howson. I don’t remember anyone before then 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, when a girl walked up to me and asked. “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 creativity has been his life. His lifelong and prolific contribution to the arts and 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.
The boy called me old man but I pitied him and his youthful arrogance, for I knew the pain that waited ahead for him. Life humbles us all. Even the ones who think they are Superman in those summer days of our lives. There will be plenty of time for him to look back at how much he squandered his power on those who let him down. Like an incessant drum beat that slowly fades and diminishes altogether till there is only the relief of silence that comes to those old enough to appreciate it. Some will rage against the unfairness of the inevitable but will fall where they stand as young men step over their bodies in their excitement to enter the ring.
When we are young we dream of running away with the circus. When we are old the circus runs away from us. But by then we can see through the grandeur to the sweat, fear and blood of the performance. And the toll it takes from us all.
It is unjust that we amass some experience and wisdom that gets us nowhere but a park bench in the sun. For no one is interested in listening to what we know because they’re too busy rushing around making all the same mistakes we did. And good advice is only met with resentment from the young, like telling someone how a book ends and spoiling it for them.
Some young men have so many women they don’t know what to do with them. Eventually the women realise this and leave for greener pastures and something more substantial than big talk. Or a big car. For they were never really interested in the car.
Time is a serial killer that picks its targets indescriminantly but will eventually come knocking for us all in the dead of night.
Even for those who were once arrogant young things who thought they knew it all
I’ve been holding out
Thinking you’d let go
But your shadow tails me
To faraway parts of my heart
I’ve stopped waiting for our Messiah’s return
And watch the football
And all the moves you make
In your quest to break me with jealousy
Trouble is I don’t get jealous
But it’s cool
I ain’t complainin’
The crops look good
And it’s rainin’
Nothing to fear
Unless it floods
I watched another cowboy movie
But it came out all wrong
The good guys got away with murder
Then the credits rolled and they played a song
And I got to wondering
Just who the savages were
History is rewritten by liars
Then exaggerated by Hollywood hacks
And given awards
For burying the facts
Me? I don’t know nothin’
Except you love me