Kiss and sell: The story of the Sydney Opera House

Helen Pitt tells the extraordinary story of the 20th century's most recognisable building.
Kiss and sell: The story of the Sydney Opera House

Image: unsplash.com

‘Is this some kind of joke?’ Premier Cahill deadpanned when he got a sneak peek at the meticulously created model of the Opera House  during  Utzon’s  first visit to  Sydney. To be displayed in a glass  case in the Town  Hall, it was the centrepiece for the launch of the Sydney Opera House  Appeal to raise money for the construction of the building.

Completely  unsolicited,  Peter  TC  Chow   of  Pymble  had already  made  the first contribution to the Opera House  Appeal (£10)  in February, the month after  Utzon’s win. Like Mr  Chow, many Sydneysiders were eager to contribute. As well as the Labor Party  caucus  pledging  to fund  the  Opera House  with  a lottery, Sydney’s Labor Lord Mayor Harry Jensen also pledged to launch a fund-raising appeal.

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This  is how  Jørn  Utzon  and  Erik  Andersson came  to  be seated under  the flags of Sweden, Denmark and Australia on the stage of Sydney Town  Hall on the afternoon of 7 August 1957.

With  them  were the chairman of the Opera House  Committee, Stan Haviland; the chairman of the ABC, Sir Richard Boyer; Premier Cahill; Lord Mayor Jensen; the leader of the state opposition, Pat Morton; and the vice-chancellor of Sydney University, the distinguished historian Professor Stephen  Roberts.

A  wildly  enthusiastic crowd   of  2500   people  packed   the Town  Hall,  stamping their feet, clapping  and cheering  as Harry Jensen  read  out  a  list  of  first  contributions that  included  the Sydney City Council  with £100,000 over five years.

Town Hall officials said the audience  was  the  most emotional they had ever seen at a public meeting. Hundreds of people  waving  banknotes swarmed the clerks who  were receiving donations. Pens were passed around to write cheques.

Cover image of The House by Helen Pitt, published by Allen and Unwin on 15th August, 2018.

An emotional premier told the applauding audience: ‘We are determined that  this  building  shall  be finished.  We need  only  a continuance of this  present  mood  to ensure  that  in the not  too distant future  a mighty  Opera House  will stand  on  Bennelong Point,  to  prove  to  the  world  that  we Australians have  pride  in our culture second to none.’ The building would be the most outstanding of its type in the world, he said. ‘However, the name Opera House  has  given rise to  a misconception that  it will be used only for grand  opera,  which would  interest  only a fragment of the community. The facts are that  the two halls which  will be included  in this project  will be used for opera  performances for a maximum of only two months a year. The use of the title Opera House  has become  so widespread and  general  in recent  months that  we thought it best to preserve that  name. I hope that  it even- tually  will become  known as the  Royal  Sydney  Opera House. Representations will be made  to Her  Majesty  for permission to use the prefix Royal and it is our hope that  she will approve.’

‘I want to impress on everyone that  this  building  will be available  to all members  of the community,’ Cahill continued to the wild  support of the audience. ‘The ordinary working man from the day will be able to go there just as well as those in more favoured circumstances. There will be nothing savouring—even remotely—of  a  class-conscious barrier  and   this  project   will stand  as  a  monument of  democratic nationhood in  its  truest sense. I will give you my complete  assurance that  the money for this building  can and will be found  without any prejudice  in any degree to education, housing  and health.’

Utzon  took  to the  stage,  his speech  frequently interrupted by  applause. ‘My  partner and  I have  difficulty  in  expressing how  welcome  we  feel here.  I hope  we  have  answered all  the letters we have received from the day we got the message telling us we had  won  the  competition; those  letters  showed  us how much  you wanted this Opera House  deep in your  hearts. Now it’s up to you to pay for it—that’s  the easy part.’

Opposition leader Pat Morton chipped  in with the first donation and he was followed  by the premier  himself, who gave a cheque of £50. Mayor Jensen—popularly known as ‘Headline Harry’  because  of his keen  eye for  what  we today  would  call a  ‘photo  op’—announced that  the  Elizabethan Theatre Trust would  donate the profits from the gala performance of Toscaon 13 September  to the appeal.

Joan   Hammond—the  Pymble   Ladies’  College–educated, 1929  NSW state junior  golfer turned opera  singer—took to the stage to sing the aria ‘One Fine Day’ from the opera Madame Butterfly to the rapturous applause. ABC chairman Sir Richard Boyer paid  tribute to the role played  by Goossens in furthering the cause of the Sydney Opera House.

The appeal  raised £235,500 in just over half an hour (a sum the equivalent of nearly  half a million  dollars).

Inspecting  Utzon’s  model  in  the  Town  Hall  foyer,  actress Ursula   Jeans  declared  to  a  Herald   reporter,  ‘I  think   it’s  a 21st  cultural birthday present  to the people  of Australia.’ Her enthusiasm matched the warm  mood  of the crowd  as they filed out  of the  Town  Hall  and  down  its sandstone stairs  into  the windy  August  evening.

• • •

Later  that  night,  beneath the  glorious  crystal  chandelier in the Lord Mayor’s reception room, an impromptu ‘kissing party’ took place  where  kisses  were  traded for  cash.  Among  those  selling their smooches were soprano Joan Hammond, her manager/lover Lolita Marriott, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s flautist Elaine Shaffer and the wife of its American violinist,  Ruggiero  Ricci.

Erik Andersson started off proceedings by offering  £50  to kiss Miss  Hammond. The two  of them  kissed  each  other  deli- cately  on  the  cheek  before  Andersson hastily  wiped  away  the lipstick  mark.

Jørn Utzon was next, topping his partner’s effort by offering £100—£50 each to kiss Miss Shaffer and Mrs Ricci. As the tall Dane bent down  to kiss Mrs Ricci, she quipped: ‘I am reducing the fee. The normal price is £100.’

The mayor—also known as ‘Handsome Harry’  (when  not making  headlines)—announced Opposition Leader Pat Morton had  given 15 guineas  to kiss him.  ‘I’ll see you later  about that, Pat,’ he joked.

‘Very much  later,’  replied  the  opposition leader  above  the laughter.

This was a most  flamboyant kick-off  to a fund-raiser for a public  building, but  it raised  £295  and  showed  the exuberance so many had for the idea of the Opera House.

And it wasn’t  just Sydneysiders.  A Melbourne resident  sent along  a donation, commenting: ‘Here  is an opportunity for us to repay Sydney for its generous  attitude to our Olympic  Games effort.  Let us make a gesture of goodwill  to show them that  our interstate jealousies  don’t really count  in matters of this sort.’

Indeed, the opera  house captured the imagination of people all over  the  world. A week  after  the  fund-raising launch, film producer Mike Todd  announced he would  be visiting Sydney in October with his wife, actress  Elizabeth Taylor, and planned to donate half the proceeds  of the Australian premiere  of his film, Around the  World in  80  Days,  to  the  Opera House  Appeal. In what  was  dubbed the  ‘Party  of the  Year’ by the  Australian Womens Weekly, guests ‘in satin  and  mink  mingled  with  New Australians in  brightly   coloured national dress’  at  the  Mark Foy’s  Empress   Ballroom to  celebrate   the  film’s  release—and raise £7604 for the appeal.

Utzon  had  received  more  than  800  letters  since  his  win, mainly  from  Australians and  mostly  congratulatory. But  one, a  love  letter  of  sorts,  offered  a  warning as  well.  Penned  by Lis Utzon,  she knew  her husband and  how  intensely  he threw himself into projects. She was worried that  this  one would  break  his  heart.   Writing to him  in  Sydney  from  their home  in  Hellebæk, she  warned him  that   building   an  opera house on the other  side of the world  would  not be ‘a breeze’.

That  blustery  nor’-wester during  his first glimpse  of Bennelong  Point  may well have  been  a harbinger of what  was to come. But Sydney were buoyed  by Utzon’s first visit, so much so that  it was willing to place a bet on him.

• • •

Out in the bush the bottlebrush was flowering, and farmers were preparing for a long dry summer. In Melbourne the talk  of the town was Straight  Draw,  the horse that had won the Melbourne Cup,  the race that  stopped the nation. But in Sydney it was all about how to get a ticket in the upcoming Opera House  lottery.

On 25 November 1957,  the queue outside  the Lotteries Department snaked  down  Barrack  Street  when  the first tickets went  on  sale.  More  than  1250  tickets  were  sold  on  the  first day alone. Lottery  office workers answered over three thousand telephone and  mail  inquiries, and  there  hadn’t  even been  any advertising. Within  a month, the 100,000 £5 tickets  in the first Opera House  lottery  had been over-subscribed.

‘This  indicates   a  special  public  response   to  the  purpose for which  the lottery  is being conducted,’ declared the director of  NSW   State  Lotteries,  Charles   Theodore  Tallentire, who had   previously   been  Premier   Cahill’s  private   secretary.  And in a newspaper interview just  after  the  lottery  was  launched, he commented: ‘For many  people  a lottery  ticket  represents a contribution to the Opera House  appeal.’

What better way to fund major infrastructure, it was reasoned, than  to profit from punters’  penchant for playing  the odds?

• • •

The first Opera House  lottery  draw  took  place  on 10 January 1958.  Lotteries  had been conducted in NSW since the 1930s  to help fund hospitals and to commemorate special events like the opening  of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but this was the richest lottery  ever held in the state,  with  its three  prizes of £100,000, £50,000 and £25,000.

A brand new wooden barrel  made  from  Queensland maple bound in leather  straps  and  with  glowing  brasswork had  been donated to  the  Sydney  Opera House  by  the  Tatts  Group  es- pecially for the occasion. It was brought into the new auditorium of the Lottery  Office in Barrack  Street with great fanfare  for this much-anticipated event.  ‘Silent Stan’ Haviland was  chosen  to draw  the three main prizes. Broadcast live on radio  and TV, the giant  barrel, loaded  with  100,000 wooden marbles  numbered one to 100,000, began to spin to an enormous din. On the table in front  of Havilland were a large long-handled spoon, several little  trays  and  a  long-handled set  of  tongs.  Lottery  officials were on hand  to help.

Haviland was handed the tongs.  The barrel  ceased  revolv- ing, the straps were released, and the trap was opened. Haviland dug in the tongs  and withdrew one of the wooden balls.

Before  the  hushed   crowd, he  held  up  the  winning   ball and  dropped it into  the spoon, which  was offered  to the State Lotteries  Director. He picked up the ball between  his thumb and forefinger,  held it up and read out the number.

Reporters raced  to find the winner. The chase  led them  to a  harbourside home.  Fifty-two-year-old Oswald Sellers’ two- storey  brick  mansion was  on  one  of the  city’s most  desirable streets,  Wolseley Road, Point  Piper. One of the city’s wealthiest residents, Sellers already  had  a housekeeper, a gardener and  a chauffeur. He was a company director in a host  of enterprises, most notably the Hoadley’s chocolate empire,  famed  for giving Australia the marshmallow-filled chocolate wafer delight known as the Polly Waffle as well as the Violet Crumble. According  to his ward,  sixteen-year-old Caroline Edwards, ‘He  went  white when  he heard  the news and raced  out of the house.’

‘A hundred thousand quid is a lot of money,’ Sellers said at the impromptu press conference outside  his house that night. He had  bought several  tickets  and  he wasn’t  sure which  had  won. The well-known businessman was deeply suspicious  of journal- ists, so the reporters were surprised by his initial response.

‘Now,  boys, you have got the story.  Ask me any questions,’ he proclaimed. But when  asked where  the winning  ticket  was, Sellers replied, ‘Who do you think you are quizzing? Go to hell!’ The minutiae and  melodrama of each lottery  draw  became perfect fodder for the front-page  splashes of the afternoon tabloids. Reporters from the Mirror, the Telegraph and The Sun would find themselves in hot pursuit of the winning  ticket holder. Company cars would be stationed ready north, south, east and west of the city to be despatched to the winner’s address for the doorknock interview.

The Barrack Street draws were broadcast live on radio station 2KY. The punters who listened  to the station for the horse  races loved it. Rice-paper-thin Sydney  Opera House   lottery   tickets sealed in an envelope  as a Christmas or birthday present  became as ubiquitous as a lucky  jade  plant  at  the  front  door  of many Sydney suburban homes.  (‘Jade by the door,  poor  no more,’ the saying went.)

In a period that ultimately spanned almost  thirty  years, the Opera House  lottery  raised  $102  million.  That’s  496  lotteries. And 496 winners. A lot of potential front  pages.

Meanwhile, back  in Denmark, Utzon  was about to take  a gamble  himself.  He  sat  down  at his desk,  took  out  a pen  and paper, and began to write a letter asking for help from one of his heroes:  Cher Monsieur Le Corbusier . . .

Edited Extract from The House by Helen Pitt, published by Allen and Unwin on 15th August, 2018.

Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Pub Date: August 2018
Pages: 432
Format: Paperback 
 

Helen Pitt

Thursday 16 August, 2018

About the author

Helen Pitt is a Sydney Morning Herald journalist who has worked as the opinion and letters editor at Australia's oldest daily metropolitan newspaper where she began her career in 1986. She has worked as a writer for The Bulletin magazine, in California for New York Times Digital, and as a television reporter at Euronews in France. Her feature writing has won the Austcare Media award and been highly commended in the UN Media Peace prize.