Early Television in Melbourne; Vale Bro Ron Blaskett (1922-2018) who gave life to the Gerry Gee Doll
From WBro D Hudson, Editor.
Above, an image in Melbourne's Herald Sun of Ron Blaskett about to raise Gerry Gee
In a time of more rigid gender roles, there were a few dolls parents might purchase for their son. GI Joe, the Lone Ranger, but there was one uniquely Australian doll than many Aussie children dreamed of owning – the ventriloquist’s doll “Gerry Gee” who was make famous by his puppeteer – Bro Ron Blaskett. Ventriloquist and star of The Happy Show (later known as The Tarax Happy Show, 1958- 1964) on Channel 9 Ron has a long and notable career from which he (and Gerry) did not retire from until 2012.
Ronald William “Ron” Blaskett (1922-2018) was a Freemason; Initiated in Lodge Companionship 513 UGLV 17 April 1947, Passed 19 June 1947, Raised 18 Sept 1947 and resigned 17 Nov 1966. His Grand Lodge certificate Number was 124,577. His UGLV’s membership card appears at the end of this article.
Born in Brunswick, Melbourne, in 1922, Blaskett saw his first ventriloquist at age 7, and was given his first doll, a papier mache Cheeky Boy, by his grandmother at 13. Using books and practise as his guide, he perfected his art and performed for friends and family. During World War 2, he served overseas, and often entertained his colleagues with a performance.
Soon after the war, he developed a successful stage act which toured Australia, including the famed Tivoli circuit through the capital cities. When television was introduced to Australia in the mid 1950s, Blaskett was one of a number of stage acts recruited to the new medium to appear in various variety programs. Blaskett was hired by Melbourne station GTV Channel 9, where he and Gerry Gee, would feature.
These were the very early days of television in Melbourne. In late 1956, Channel Nine had eight people on staff in its Richmond Bendigo Street studios with Norman Spencer as Program director. Blaskett said “Norm Spencer had asked me to join GTV9, and while work progressed on the old Wertheim piano factory (following that it was the Heinz factory) in Bendigo Street, Richmond. Norm arranged for me to do a test broadcast from the transmitter at Mt Dandenong. In this test broadcast, I used “Willie Ross”, “Adolphus Twerk” and my wife Merle (Merle June Capper) operated “Sandra Simpkins”, but I felt the need for a character made especially for me.”
Blaskett knew of a Chicago wood carver named Frank Marshall who had made Edgar Bergen’s “Charlie McCarthy” doll years before. Edgar Bergen was a famous American comic, ventriloquist and radio performer who started in Vaudeville with his dolls Charlie McCarthy & Mortimer Snerd – all of them were very famous in the States. Bergen was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame with three stars in 1960 and appeared in films from 1938-1979. Blaskett corresponded with Charlie McCarthy’s creator, Frank Marshall and he agreed to carve a special figure for Blaskett which was soon imported from the US at the cost of £200. In conference with Norm Spencer they arrived at the name “Gerry Gee” because it was an alliteration and appropriate — “Gerry Gee of GTV”.
The “Happy Show” first went to air from Channel Nine on the 21st January, 1957. The station had been opened just two nights before, on the 19th January, by the popular Governor of Victoria, Sir Dallas Brooks. Of course, Sir Dallas was the longest serving Grand Master of Grand Lodge Victoria (1951-63) – so Channel Nine was another Melbourne Institution opened by one of our Grand Masters, albeit not in his Masonic Capacity.
It would be interesting to know if Norman Spencer was a Freemason. Another Freemason large in early television who was introduced to the medium by Spencer was Graham Kennedy (initiated in St Kilda Lodge in 1955), who would later become known as the “King of Television”. He won 5 Gold Logies for the Most Popular Personality on Australian Television (1960, 1967, 1969, 1974, and 1978), tied for the most wins with Ray Martin who also holds five (1987, 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1996). As one source describes; “Kennedy's apprenticeship in broadcasting and comedy owed much to radio legends such as Roy "Mo" Rene, who had won fame throughout Australia in vaudeville and radio comedy from the 1920s to the late 40s.” Roy Rene was also a Freemason (Lodge Thespian No 256 NSW NSW Australia).
Baskett said “My first impression when I saw Gerry Gee was one of disappointment. The slotted jaw, almond eyes and general modelling didn’t really grab me. Then as I started to work with him, although he seemed to weigh a ton on my arm, I realised the great expressions I could extract from him. One particularly good movement was the way his eyes could be rolled upward with a look of disgust. Not many figures have been made around the world with this ability. The fact that he could poke his tongue out was also an advantage — particularly for ice-cream commercials that came later. On trying him out on kids and adults, they liked his cheeky look and personality. Gerry Gee had certainly arrived.”
Blaskett continued “On Monday 21st January 1957 we started what was to become the most talked about children’s show ever, from Myer’s Lonsdale Street window. The crowd looked from the street into the “studio”. In the basement was our Outside Broadcast Van, which supplied the link to enable the show to beam out from the transmitter at Mt Dandenong.”
The children’s program, sponsored by the Tarax Drinks Company, quickly caught on with the kids, thanks to the likeable and irrepressible personality of Happy Hammond, and the brilliance of Ron Blaskett, who very quickly established Gerry Gee as one of the major stars of the show. Following this period in the Myer window, the shown shifted to the GTV9 studio, which allowed a larger audience to attend and participate.
Blaskett said “Public acceptance was fantastic. I had hit the jackpot with the Gerry Gee character and people today still give me warmth and acceptance because of my TV persona.”
“During this period at Channel Nine, I was a “Monday Whistler” — I whistled when I was going to work on Monday rather than when I knocked off on Friday night. This was one of the happiest periods of my life with satisfying rewards for hard work. I felt that television was a just reward for many years of hard work and I threw my life into the output it required.”
Ron & Gerry Gee with a sponsor’s product placement of Tarax soft drink
The Baskett/Gerry Gee duo became a hit, appearing on both adult programs, such as In Melbourne Tonight (IMT) and the later the Don Lane Show and children's programs, not just in The Tarax Happy Show but later Young Talent Time. After the Happy Show, Blaskett spent several years in Perth working in local television. He also made thousands of live entertainment appearances at clubs and functions and at events such as the 1975 Toronto Expo, for cyclone victims in Darwin and Diggers in Vietnam.
In 1962 “Around the World with Gerry Gee” was conceived, and through the assistance of Air India, the Australian Department of Trade, and Tarax, Blaskett was given a six-week world trip to produce this series. They visited places like Singapore and Rome “On our later arrival in London, Customs at Heathrow insisted on me opening one of my cases. It was the one containing Gerry Gee and soon the whole Customs hall was in uproar as I brought him out talking.” Gerry was filmed in London at all the famous locations.
Again in Blaskett’s words “Gerry Gee had to be loveable, quick-thinking, smart and appeal to children of all ages. His humour had to be relevant to what kids thought and felt at that time — and always had to have the humour so directed that adults would feel involved and favourably disposed towards the character. I knew that our influence would be immense and Gerry Gee therefore had to be a vehicle through which we could establish attitudinal concepts to society. So, if he stepped out of line, I was the person to quickly show him the error of his ways. Any infraction and it would be “off to the woodshed”. In checking back on some of the scripts in the “Gerry Gee” segments, I can see that we certainly did our best while entertaining to improve the attitudinal behaviour of school kids. Scripts covered topics like: treating “coloured” people or people with accents respectfully, awareness for other people’s property rights, and pedestrian safety”
Above and below; Gerry Gee was extremely popular with children
Gerry Gee captured the hearts of many young and older Australians and would give birth to one of the first Australian born television merchandising campaigns where viewers could buy their own Gerry Gee doll or one of the “Gerry Gee Junior Family”..
There were smart commercial brains behind Gerry Gee – for instance enthusiasts could purchase the doll dressed in football team colours, and ‘Geraldine Gee' doll, Gerry's sister, was added in 1960 to cater for female viewers. Throughout the early and mid 1960s several new styles of 'Gerry Gee Juniors' were produced to reflect contemporary fashions, interests and events – these included the Football Supporter, Cowboy and Cowgirl, Beatles Gerry, Space Gerry and Geraldine. Dressed as a Richmond Football Club barracker, the doll shown to the right, is part of the Museum Victoria’s “L J Sterne collection”, one of the few surviving collections relating to Australia’s once thriving toy and doll manufacturing industry – Gerry Gee became an Australian Icon and tapped into and amplified a zeitgeist of ventriloquist dolls for children. Lionel Sterne arrived in Melbourne as a refugee from Austria in 1939 at the outbreak of World War II. Noticing a wartime shortage of imported dolls and toys in Melbourne, he began experimenting in his East Malvern garage with various forms of papier mache to produce partial and complete dolls. The enterprise was so successful that by 1946 the business was expanded to a full scale factory in Carlton. Blaskett and Sterne collaborated to see Gerry Gee on department store’s shelves & in the hearts and homes of Australian children.
Blaskett officially retired in the mid 1990s, and then sold Gerry Gee at auction in 1998 for $17,500, However he was coaxed back into performing at retirement and nursing homes and Rotary and Probus clubs, doing ventriloquism and showing footage of Graham Kennedy and The Tarax Show. In 2012 he said “I’m nearly 91 and I’ve just had 10 solid years of darn hard work. I think I can retire now,” he said. In another interview Blaskett, aged 90, joked in 2012 "I had to give up because Gerry Gee is starting to think I'm real,". "While I'm at the peak of performing, it is time to rule the line." TV tonight reports “Ron now has almost as many artificial parts as Gerry and is thought to be the world's oldest working ventriloquist“.
At the age of 96, Bro Ron Blaskett, the legendary performer and television pioneer, passed away on 14 April 2018 in Bulleen, Melbourne.
Rest in peace Brother.
And Thank You.
Ron Blaskett's Masonic Membership Card