The Bendigo Street Studio has a long history: it was a piano maker’s, a Heinz factory, and the most famous TV location in Australian history.
Hugo Wertheim was born in Lispenhausen, Germany, in 1854.
The son of a successful businessman, Wertheim came to Melbourne in 1875. The city at the time was in an extended, post gold rush economic boom, and ripe with opportunity. Wertheim took a junior position with his father’s cousin, a wealthy manufacturer of sewing machines.
Hard working and frugal, Wertheim was soon able to go into business for himself.
He copied his patron’s business model, selling sewing machines, but also mangles, knitting machines, bicycles, and even pianos. His business expanded rapidly.
By the 1880s, Wertheim had established a presence across eastern Australia, and then expanded into Europe and America. He travelled extensively, and was well known for staging elaborate demonstrations at trade shows.
Wertheim returned to Germany in 1885 to be married, and then settled with his wife in a magnificent 17 bedroom mansion – ‘Gotha’ – on the banks of the Yarra.
Pianos had, by this time, become one of Wertheim’s most profitable products.
In the 19th century the piano was a fixture in many Australian homes. They were a source of family friendly entertainment, and learning to play was considered a proper pursuit for young people, women especially.
Despite their popularity, no pianos were manufactured locally. They were all imported, mostly from Europe (Wertheim sourced his from his native Germany).
In 1900, Wertheim decided to change this, and sent his son abroad to study piano manufacture.
He acquired a large industrial site in Richmond, and commissioned architect Nahum Barnet to design an extensive complex, with 50 000 feet of floor space.
The factory included iron and brass foundries, wood curing facilities, and its own power generator. It even had a dedicated tram stop. The project was significant enough that Prime Minister Alfred Deakin laid the foundation stone, in October 1908.
When the Wertheim piano factory opened it was one of the largest industrial sites in Australia, capable of producing 2 000 pianos a year. The distinctive chimney was visible across the eastern suburbs.
Hugo Wertheim died in his South Yarra home in July, 1919.
Hugo’s son Herbert then took over the business, and for much of the 1920’s things continued as before. But the Great Depression, and the growing popularity of the wireless, greatly reduced the market for pianos.
Herbert cut costs and reduced output, leasing space in the enormous piano factory to other manufacturers, but to no avail. The Wertheim piano factory closed in 1935, having produced 18 000 pianos over 27 years.
The purchaser was food producer Heinz, who chose it as the location for their first Victorian plant.
Heinz commenced business in Bendigo Street in March 1935, with a staff of 75 producing Heinz Horseradish.
Baked beans, tomato sauce and canned soup were added shortly afterwards, production increasing dramatically during World War II. Tough economic times increased the demand for cheap food.
By 1948, the Richmond factory was producing 13 million cans of Heinz food a year.
The company was so successful that they eventually outgrew the facility.
In 1955, Heinz needed more factory space to meet demand, and so decided to relocate to Dandenong, on the outskirts of the city.
The factory was sold again. And, much like the 1930s, the new owners would again use the premises for a very different purpose.
The first television station to broadcast in Australia was TCN 9 in Sydney, in September 1956.
This was followed by HSV 7 in Melbourne. Both stations had scrambled to commence operation so they could show the Melbourne Olympic Games, which opened on November 22.
Other stations would follow.
Melbourne’s second commercial station would be GTV 9, which was established in the former Wertheim/Heinz factory on Bendigo Street. The factory received a new name to match this new incarnation: ‘Television City,’ a homage to the famous CBS studio in America.
At 8 pm, on January 19, 1957 (coincidentally, the day the last issue of ‘The Argus’ went on sale in Melbourne) then Victorian governor Sir Dallas Brooks welcomed viewers to the new station… and advised that if they didn’t like the programming, they could simply switch off.
A new era in local entertainment had begun.
And, almost immediately, it found its first big star.
Quick witted and manic, Graham Kennedy was a larrikin, a rabble rouser and an iconoclast.
From May 1957, Kennedy headed up ‘In Melbourne Tonight‘ on Channel 9, a local variety show that mimicked the popular ‘Tonight Show’ in the US. With live music, interviews, and Kennedy’s own take on the day’s events, the show became a smash, Australian TV’s first locally produced hit.
Kennedy’s comic jabs were much discussed and imitated, he would later be called ‘The King of Television’.
Initially accompanied by straight man Geoff Corke, in 1959 a young TV presenter named Bert Newton was lured from Channel 7, and installed as Kennedy’s offsider.
The chemistry between the two was immediate, and the popularity of the show surged further.
Recorded live four nights a week at the Bendigo St studios, IMT (as it became known) became the place to find out what was going on in the city, and what people were talking about. The cultural influence of the show was enormous, and helped entrench TV watching as part of people’s daily routine.
As shows like IMT drove the popularity of television, the GTV 9 Studios expanded as well.
By the 1960s, Bendigo St had its own recording studio, radio station, in house band and dance troop, the largest prop department in the southern hemisphere, and more than 2000 staff (IMT alone employed 300).
More studio space was added, as the station’s live output increased. Many thousands of locals made their way there each week, to join the audience and watch these shows being recorded.
In Melbourne Tonight finished in 1970, but live variety remained a key part of GTV 9’s local production roster.
In 1971, a nineteen year old named Daryl Somers started hosting his own kids show each Saturday morning.
His initial co-host was former Collingwood footballer Peter McKenna, but the station soon replaced him with a life size ostrich puppet, Ozzie Ostrich, operated by Ernie Carroll.
From these humble beginnings, ‘Hey Hey It’s Saturday’ built an audience. Somers proved himself a versatile performer, also hosting his own talk show and game shows, while ‘Hey Hey’ expanded its audience steadily.
The show moved into prime time on Saturday nights in 1984, and suddenly became a ratings juggernaut.
It’s mix of live music and comedy, celebrity interviews and sketches, was nothing new, but it was energetically performed, and had an appealing, madcap atmosphere.
‘Hey Hey’ would eventually run for 28 years, finishing in 1999 (briefly returning in 2009-10), and was one of the most popular shows in Australia across most of that time.
Even more popular was ‘The Don Lane Show’.
Don Lane was a moderately famous American singer, and occasional TV personality, who struck a chord with Australian audiences. He had guest hosted a number of local shows, when he was given his own prime time talk show, ‘Tonight with Don Lane’, in Sydney, in 1965.
The show was popular and ran for four years, before Lane returned to America to pursue his singing career.
But his popularity in Australia was such that he was able to be lured back.
In 1975 he returned to host a new talk show, ‘The Don Lane Show’, in Melbourne.
Now partnered with Graham Kennedy’s old sidekick, Bert Newton, the new show would be recorded live at Bendigo St. It was an instant success, and so popular that two episodes a week were produced, screening on Monday and Thursday nights.
Similar to IMT, ‘The Don Lane Show’ took an already standard formula, celebrity interviews and chat, and added an irreverent spin. The show’s best ratings were among the highest recorded by any show in Australian TV history.
It was still popular in 1983 when the station ended its run, a victim of cost cutting rather than declining ratings.
Other popular shows recorded live at Bendigo Street included ‘Sale of the Century’, ‘The Paul Hogan Show’ and ‘The Footy Show’, all highly rated and long running.
The address, 22 Bendigo Street, became synonymous with Melbourne television. If you watched Australian in this era, you might remember sending an envelope there, to enter one of the station’s many competitions.
In 2010, Channel 9 management decided to leave Bendigo Street, and relocate to a much smaller premise in Docklands. Then managing director Jeffrey Brown was unsentimental:
‘We have been part of a great history at Richmond, but it is time to move on.’
– Jeffrey Brown
The high cost of running the giant site in Richmond was the primary reason for the move, but tastes had also changed.
Live television, the essence of Bendigo Street, had waned in popularity, and overseas shows now dominated local ratings.
The nightly news, and ‘A Current Affair’ would be produced at the new Nine studios, everything else would be done off site, outsourced to independent studio space. Another cost cutting measure.
Once the decision to move had been made, things advanced pretty quickly:
‘It’s amazing how post apocalyptic it looks.
It’s only been a week since this was the home of Channel 9, already it looks like Prypiat, the Russian town evacuated after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded.
In the corridors are vast piles of tapes marked, ‘These tapes to be destroyed.’
– Eye witness account of the relocation
The move was completed by December 2010, and the site was sold in March the following year.
Local construction giant Lend Lease acquired the property, and developed it into an apartment complex, comprising 175 residences, a community centre and a restaurant. The re-development took two years, with the first occupants moving in, October 2013.
A visit today shows a quietly prosperous street, dotted with well kept houses from the 60s and 70s. The restaurant at 22 Bendigo St bustles with customers, the premises was otherwise quiet.
An enormous sign on the building’s exterior, GTV 9, is the most prominent reminder of the building’s rich history.