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Newton, Kennedy - The first words spoken

Updated: Apr 3

Bert Newton’s first ever conversation with Graham Kennedy.

By Simon Owens.

It’s with great sadness that I write this story because for the best part of two years I yearned to record Bert telling this story himself. Sadly, with his passing in 2021 all I can do is piece what the great entertainer once told me together, with the help of others.

This is the story of how it came to be that Bert told me the story of the first conversation between himself and Graham Kennedy.

Bert told me the story in the loungeroom of the Newton Household in 2019. Before covid hit.

I happened to be there because occasionally Bert and Patti Newton would receive requests to send cheerios to people for their birthdays, milestone anniversaries etc etc. Most of these were simply done with a phone call on the day, or sometimes the person who was asking happened to be a friend and could film it themselves on their own phone.

I’m sure it happened a lot. Several times over the years when Patti was in the 3AW studio for her weekly segment I would record one of these cheerios during a commercial break and email it off to the relevant person.

On two occasions though, Patti was asked for Bert to appear in a video which was to be sent off to form part of a larger compilation. Patti wasn’t sure how to do it, so I told her I would happily pop by the house, film it, send it off and it was not a problem.

On a side note, Patti always seemed to feel embarrassed, like it was asking a lot of me. It wasn’t.

So on this day, on my way in to work I dropped by Palace de Newton, phone in hand and knocked on the door.

The door was answered by Bert himself who said that Patti wasn’t home, but he was most grateful that I was kind enough to do him this favour.

Not wanting to keep the great man waiting, I suggested a spot where he could stand where the lighting was good and the shot framed well. I hit record and to no one’s surprise he perfectly ad-libbed an impressive monologue. He nailed it in the first take.

We watched the video back for his final approval, he asked if I thought it was okay. It was great.

So I said to him. “Well I’ll get that off then and I’ll get out of your hair.”

I immediately wished I hadn’t said that to the bald legend in front of me but he thought I had inteded to be witty and he laughed heartily.

He then said “are you in a hurry?” to which I replied “No, I have to get to work eventually but no one would know if I didn’t turn up until 10pm”.

“Sit down.” he said pointing at the couch nearby. “Let’s chat about your uncle”.

My uncle, by the way, was Geoff Corke. Christened “Corky King of the Kids” by Ron Blaskett. Uncle Geoff was an original sidekick to Graham Kennedy on the TV show “In Melbourne Tonight” before he and Graham had a falling out and Graham had him taken off the show. It was then that he became King Corky on the Tarax Show.

Geoff Corke was my uncle via marriage. His first marriage to Val Ruff had ended, and during a bout of ill health Geoff was in hospital and met my mum’s sister Sue Harris, who was a nurse. They later married in the garden of my parents family home at Chirnside Park.

Over the next half hour, Bert told me how much he loved and respected Uncle Geoff. He spoke of his years listening to him on the radio on 3DB, watching him on TV and finally getting to meet him and then work with him at Nine. He spoke of drinking at Uncle Geoff’s pub, he inquired about Aunty Sue (and even remembered her name) and told me how sad, but honoured he was to have given a eulogy at Uncle Geoff’s funeral. It was a lovely conversation and my head was spinning the whole time.

The topic drifted to other personalities and to Graham. Then Bert said “Have I ever told you about the first time that Graham and I ever spoke to each other.

He then spent the next few minutes setting up the story and ended it by revealing the first words they ever said to each other.

I was blown away. It was such a great story.

I said “I have never heard you tell that story before”. To which Bert replied “Actually I don’t think I’ve ever told that story before”.

I didn’t want to be rude but I was immediately fixated on getting him to tell that story on camera or in recorded form. I figured that would be something for another day. This had been a delightful free flowing chat with a man I greatly admired and I didn’t want to suddenly become the fanboy asking the famous man to put on a show.

That’s for another day I told myself.

Sadly I never got the chance. I did ask Patti twice in the coming year if it were possible to get Bert to tell that story, but his health was beginning to suffer and I couldn’t keep pressuring her or him.

I just held on to the hope that that day might come. It never did.

Now the hard part about this for me was that whilst I remembered the end of the story where Graham and Bert first spoke. The set-up was integral and I could not remember the exact detail.

I asked Philip Brady to clarify some information. And he in turn asked Henry Gay. Both gave me some background which helped to clarify what I remembered. But there were some gaping holes.

These holes were patched when Frank Pagram, a listener to our radio program sent me an extract from one of Bert's books reflecting on Bert's days at 3XY and Graham's at 3UZ.

Here's the extract from "Bert! His Own Story"

"Graham Kennedy was also working in radio. We had not met but you could say we were aware of eachother. I say 'aware' because I used to travel to work by tram for 3XY's morning programme to compere the Win-A-Car Quiz, the first show in Melbourne incidentally, to give away a car.

Graham parked his Vauxhall, a convertible, up the road from 3XY, in the Exhibition Buildings carpark. He'd walk about half a mile to join Nicky and we would pass in the street."

Henry Gay was at 3UZ at the time and he wrote…

“Bert lived about two or three blocks from the bus stop at which the Bourke St tram stopped at Holden St, North Fitzroy.

The Bourke St tram travelled along Nicholson St which was about two blocks from Bert’s house.

From the north Bert approached the 3XY studios, which were located in the building attached to the Princes Theatre in Spring St, a block from the 3UZ studios, located at 45 Bourke St , Melbourne.

If Bert used the tram service he would have got off at the top end of Bourke St, about 10 yards from Spring St. To reach the studios Bert would have to cross the road at the end of Bourke St , walk across Spring St, and another 75 yards to the studio of 3XY.

If Graham was early arriving at the 3UZ studios and Bert was ambling toward the 3XY studios, there was every possibility of the two meeting as Bert walked in a northerly direction and Graham in a southerly direction on the same street."

It is on this stretch of Spring St that Graham and Bert may have seen eachother.

But it is not where they had their first conversation.

ABOVE (thanks to Melway for the map) Graham parks at exibition buildings and walks south along Spring St (red dots) then turns into Bourke St to get to 3UZ.

Bert travels by tram down Nicholson St to the Bourke St stop (blue dots) then walks back up to 3XY.

So what follows is my recollection of Bert’s telling of the time that he and Graham first spoke.

"Most days I would see him, and I knew who he was. And I’m sure now that he also knew who I was.

One day after we passed each other I stopped and turned around to look at him. But at that same moment, he also stopped and looked back at me. We both froze for a second, embarrassed to have been caught looking at each other, then hurried on our ways. But we didn't speak.

By this stage, as well as our morning duties, we were each hosting a Saturday night party programme on our respective stations. So I was at work one Saturday night all alone, doing my show when the phone rang. I answered the phone “Hello 3XY, this is Bert Newton”.

Then this softly spoken voice at the other end of the line said “Do you think we’ll ever stop and say hello?”

We both laughed, and that’s where it started."

BELOW : Bruce Mansfield, Philip Brady, Bert Newton and Simon Owens circa late 90s

Footnote. After publishing this story on my blog and tweeting about it, I was beyond thrilled to see this tweet by John Mangos.

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