May 6, 2021

Television City: Channel 9 at Bendigo Street

22 Bendigo Street has a long history: it was a piano maker’s, a Heinz factory, and the most famous TV studio in Australian history. Welcome to Television City.

Television City Melbourne
Television City Melbourne

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, but sold not only sewing machines, but also mangles, knitting machines, bicycles, and even pianos. His business expanded rapidly.

Hugo Wertheim
Hugo Wertheim

By the 1880s, Wertheim had established a presence across eastern Australia, and expanded into Europe and America. He travelled extensively, and was well known for staging elaborate demonstrations at trade shows.

He 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. Hugo Wertheim had become one of Melbourne’s most successful, and well known, businessmen.

A Wertheim piano
A Wertheim piano

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. But despite their popularity, no pianos were manufactured locally. They were all imported, mostly from Europe (Wertheim sourced his from his native Germany).

Wertheim's Melbourne factory
Wertheim’s Melbourne factory

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 private 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.

Wertheim piano, Melbourne
Proudly made in Melbourne

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 site was taken over by food producer Heinz, who chose it as the location for their first Victorian plant.

The Heinz Factory, Melbourne
Heinz takes over

They commenced business in Bendigo St 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, as tough economic times increased the demand for cheap food. By 1948, the Richmond factory was producing 13 million cans of Heinz food a year.

1940s Heinz Ketchup ad
Red Magic! Heinz ketchup ad from the 1940s

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.

GTV 9 opens in Melbourne
GTV 9 opens in Melbourne

The first television station to broadcast in Australia was TCN 9 in Sydney, in September 1956, 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 St. The former factory would be dubbed ‘Television City,’ a homage to CBS’s famous studio in America, which went by the same name.

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.

Graham Kennedy on 'In Melbourne Tonight'
Graham Kennedy on ‘In Melbourne Tonight’

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 was 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’.

Graham Kennedy and Burt Newton
Graham Kennedy and Burt Newton

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 TV, the GTV 9 Studios expanded as well.

On the floor of Channel 9 studios
On the floor of Channel 9 studios

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, and many thousands of locals made their way there each week, to watch these shows being recorded.

In Melbourne Tonight finished up in 1970, and Kennedy moved on to other projects. But live variety remained a key part of GTV 9’s local production roster.

Daryl Somers and Ozzie Ostrich, early days
Daryl Somers and Ozzie Ostrich, early days

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, and ‘Hey Hey’ expanded its audience steadily.

The show moved into prime time on Saturday nights in 1984, and suddenly became a ratings juggernaut.

Hey Hey It's Saturday: 90s Cast
Hey Hey in the 90s

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.

Don Lane
Don Lane

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.

Don Lane and Bert Newton
Don Lane and Bert Newton

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, and Hey Hey, ‘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.

The Paul Hogan Show
The Paul Hogan Show
Sale of the Century
Sale of the Century
The Footy Show
The Footy Show

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.

Dismantling GTV 9 studios
The dismantling process

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.

Channel 9 studios Docklands
Channel 9 studios Docklands

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.

Channel 9 Bendigo St apartments
For sale: Channel 9 apartments

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 bustled with customers, the premises was otherwise quiet.

GTV 9 Bendigo St

An enormous sign on the building’s exterior, GTV 9, is the most prominent reminder of the building’s rich history.

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