The Gaffa Tapes
22 Jul 2022
The Gaffa Tapes: Kidz Biz
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Snippets from the archives of a bygone era
Inspired by the awe kids exhibited at children’s concerts, I once toyed with the idea of an animated motion capture character on a screen performing a live interactive children’s show. However, after only a couple of telephone calls I was made aware that the technology was in its infancy and not commercially available. After all, this was 1991, pre Wiggles, the Hooley Dooleys, and Hi-5. Today you can do facial capture with an iPhone app.
Years later I put together a zany children’s pantomime called Captain Aldo, which featured an eccentric Circus Boss as the villain whose circus in Antarctica keeps a performing seal, Aldo, and a walrus, Wilberforce in captivity. I played the walrus—goo goo goo joob!
The hero is Natalia, who after falling asleep on a flight to Tasmania, lands in Antarctica, and earns the ire of the Circus Boss when she tries to free the captives from their cage; a prop made from PVC pipe.
I wrote eight songs for the show, but couldn’t resist putting in The Beatles’ Octopus’s Garden. During practice at my residence, a neighbour, who had complained bitterly about my guitar practice during my 70s rock ‘n’ roll days, dropped by to compliment me on one of the songs. “I really like the one about the octopus,” he said.
Rick and Charmaine Connelly from the Makeup FX Team in Sydney, who worked on prosthetics for The Matrix and later The Matrix Reloaded, created our masks. Charmaine went as far as visiting Taronga Park Zoo to study the facial characteristics of seals more closely. The mask making entailed the process of life casting, which means your face is cast in alginate, and you are left breathing through a straw. The prosthetics cost $3000 each, which, in hindsight, I can’t believe I committed to considering I was warned they only had a limited life-span; but I was totally driven to get the show into production.
The seal and walrus characters used Sennheiser MKE miniature microphones, which were taped onto the skin inside the masks. The unmasked performers wore Sennheiser head-worn microphones. The seal and walrus also used Sennheiser IEMs (in ear monitors). But with players requesting different levels on the IEMs, and juggling this with microphone levels for the FOH, things got complicated. And after seeing Bananas in Pyjamas live with painted smiles on non-moving mouths performing to 100% playback, I did feel our show was somewhat over-engineered.
Yet another component of over-engineering was the backdrop. Since 24 feet (7.3m) was a typical stage width, I designed the backdrop to be 8m x 3m. Quotes for this backdrop came in at around $5000, so I had it made in the Philippines for around $350. The backdrop was hung on a truss between two lighting poles, but it was too big and cumbersome for most shows.
For playback of the backing music and sound effects we used a Sony MDS-E58 mini disc recorder/player. Although the magneto-optical mini disc was soon to become a casualty of the digital audio age it was a brilliant medium for live performance. The MDS-E58, which I still have, features a window that displays the song title, and it cues at the end of the song, flashing the title of the next song. The playback operator sat with a script and only had to push one button.
The idea of the show, in typical pantomime, was to get the kids to boo the villain when he made his entrance. I did go a bit overboard in scripting this animosity, and at our first performance the kids invaded the stage and physically attacked the Circus Boss who was somewhat shaken by the onslaught. The club apologised for the unruly behaviour, but I revelled in getting the response I had strived for.
Sometimes we’d use our own PA and Par 56 lights. In club gigs we’d do a sub-mix and send the feed up to the in-house console via the stage box. To give the in-house sound engineer control over the individual levels the four stage microphones were sent from the sub-mixer via channel inserts converted to microphone level using Shure impedance matching transformers.
We were able to pull a few gigs from a Sydney agency, but they were few and far between. Even before the last gig, the Circus Boss pulled out and I asked a mate to fill in. He’d done some bit part acting in Australian films, and he magically turned the Circus Boss into a bumbling comedic character, which really went over well with the kids.
Our last gig was October 2001 at the Asquith Leagues Club. We were featured on the front page of the journal for a Saturday morning show, which was free with free ice cream and sweets for the kids. Few turned up. This drove home the realisation that if you weren’t a known headliner act you weren’t going to succeed in the big city. So the curtain had come down for the last time on Captain Aldo.
I brooded over this dissolution for a year or two before downsizing to a 2-person act with my wife, who was a singer and who had been our playback operator. The budget didn’t allow for a replacement playback operator so everything had to be meticulously timed with cues to sync to the mini disc, which ran from start to finish.
The act became Wendy and the Walrus. Aldo (the seal) got cut and the Circus boss morphed into a recorded voice-over, which children would sometimes go looking for backstage after the show. We ditched the IEMs for a single foldback wedge, and I decided to paint a smaller backdrop 4m x 2m. Devoid of any talent in this field, I entered the dark world of the tortured artist. However, despite the fact that my wife sometimes found me dancing around slightly unhinged with paint brush in one hand and a glass of red wine in the other, the painting miraculously turned out OK, and I did stop short of cutting off my left ear.
Once again it was the marketing that became a mountainous task. I’d spend hours every day on the phone just to get a single gig, or none! One agency told me they didn’t accept acts with a narrative, kind of like a kid’s storytelling cancel culture.
The last gig was July 2003 at the annual Stroud Brick and Rolling Pin Throwing Competition, which is attended annually by about 2000 people. We marched in the annual parade then did a 30 minute show for which we received a glowing letter from the committee thanking us. But future bookings were scant, and the curtain was now coming down on Wendy and the Walrus.
In 2006 we revived the act for a one-off regional charity Christmas show. The town had a regular Santa Claus who’d been doing the rounds on the back of a ute for many years. So, my ingenious idea was to incorporate him into the show. I met with him to coordinate his exact entrance time. The idea was that at the end of the show we’d do our final song and then the walrus would say, “I think I hear bells jingling in the distance. Could this be Santa Claus?” And Santa Claus was scripted to make his entrance and give the kids their toys.
But, you see, Santa used to imbibe a bit during his Christmas rounds, and drunken Santa never arrived, which left me standing on stage repeating my line trying to adlib. Then in a scene reminiscent of our very first show, the frustrated kids invaded the stage, attacked the walrus and wrecked the set.
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