In 1934, Brisbane prepared to become a film mecca. Politicians, leading businessmen and journalists excitedly welcomed the launch of the Sound City studio at Camp Hill, the Hollywood of the South Pacific.
Every so often, the Queensland media announces Queensland’s latest Hollywood movie shoot. Places like the Gold Coast, Cairns, Hervey Bay and even Winton have taken a turn at being the latest Hollywood Down Under. But the lust for a local film industry started way back in 1934 in suburban Camp Hill.
Thousands of Brisbanites caught the train to Camp Hill to watch a film shoot for The Man from Wodonga. Radio stations broadcast live from the scene. Cinemas enjoyed packed houses on Friday and Saturday nights when, instead of the latest Hollywood movies, they showed screen tests shot at Sound City.
Academy of Motion Picture Arts
Wannabe movie stars took acting lessons and enrolled with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts, the official casting office for the studio.
Mr Leonard Parish was the director of the derivatively titled Academy. According to gushing newspaper tributes, he was “late of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon, England.”
Late alright! Very late. Leonard had departed Stratford-on-Avon over a decade ago. The year before launching the Academy, he was a broke farmer on the Sunshine Coast.
Leonard Parish moved to Australia after an undistinguished career in English theatre. He took work on a Sunshine Coast farm and became the leading light of the local cultural scene. The recitals and amateur theatricals orchestrated by the bard of the Bald Knob Memorial Hall provided the locals with some respite from the everyday drudgery of farm life.
At 39, the former actor plighted his troth to the 20-year-old daughter of a prominent local family. He acquired a farm from her relatives soon after. But then came the Great Depression. With the Agricultural Bank threatening to foreclose, Mr and Mrs Parish headed into Brisbane.
Leonard launched the Academy. With little else to sell, he would sell dreams.
Motion picture players earn big money
“Motion picture players earn big money. Australian producers are searching the Commonwealth for film types; you may be a type. Call and see Leonard Parish, Academy of Motion Picture Arts (Reg’d).”
In a press release, Leonard alluded to potential stars just needing their innate talent honed.
“Who knows? Bundaberg or Toowoomba may yet produce a Joan Crawford or a Clark Gable. The ability is certainly present and has only to be brought out.”
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts could bring out that ability — for a price!
But what of cinematic aspirants stuck out bush at Bumfucknowhere? No problem! A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step — or stamp. Bushies could reach for the stars via correspondence. Leonard’s ‘new direct mail course’ would do the trick.
Want your kid to become the next Shirley Temple? Just two shillings, sixpence per lesson for class tuition. Priceless individual instruction? Leonard put a price on that.
Sadly, none of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts students ever achieved Hollywood stardom. Not so much as a Vegemite commercial. But the business prospered. It might have for years to come. Except that Leonard Parish allied himself with a shyster whose monumental Brisbane scam came undone.
The Hollywood of the South Pacific
Roy G Nelson was the son of a famous Aussie comedian and previously worked for Hollywood movie studios as their Australian ‘director of exploitation’. The job title should have been warning enough.
After losing jobs with both MGM and Fox, Nelson came up with the idea of Hollywood in the South Pacific.
He convinced investors to partner in a proposed Motion Picture Colony, supposedly a ‘milestone in Queensland’s Industrial History’.
He bought a paddock at Camp Hill to build Sound City, the studio that would take ‘Queensland pictures to the world’. Brisbane Deputy Lord Mayor Nixon-Smith threw council resources behind Sound City, including rerouting an inconvenient local road. He soon came on board as a director of the studio.
The Man from Woodonga
In late October 1934, thousands of Brisbane’s citizenry made the trek to Camp Hill for the historic first day of shooting.
Roy G Nelson and Leonard Parish shot scenes for The Man from Wondonga featuring the ‘Hollywood-ready talent’ of the Parish Academy.
“Two dozen men engaged in a fight, tender loves scenes and a riotous welcome home to a returning son.”
A clumsily worded sentence, and misleading. Because, although unmentioned, women undoubtedly joined the men for the love scenes. That was a given. This was not 2010 Prague. It was 1934 Camp Hill, and Camp Hill was not that camp. The fisticuffs did not presage a 24-man orgy.
Leonard Parish singled out some of the male leads for special praise when he spoke to the press. J Ross Skerman was a particular favourite. Young Mr Skerman grew up in the Sunshine Coast hinterland within a few miles of the Parish farm. A violinist and amateur actor in his youth, Leonard Parish also featured him in advertising for the Academy.
“Mr J. Ross Skerman. Typical juvenile lead. A player of distinct possibilities.”
Distinct possibilities, hey?
Afterwards, messy divorce proceedings would reveal that the main thing Roy G Nelson had in common with Hollywood producers was a propensity for bedding buxom blondes. It appears Leonard Parish was equally tempted by his male leads.
Another young acquaintance from the Sunshine Coast also featured in the Academy lineup. Dalham Affleck was the second son of Sir Frederick Danby James Affleck, 8th Baronet of Dalham Hall, a Buderim orchardist. Praised by Leonard for his matinee-idol good looks and speaking voice, Dalham proved popular in radio plays.
Australian radio preferred posh, upper-class accents — for posh — read English. Dalham could affect a plummy BBC cadence. His upbringing was exceedingly English, his father the beneficiary of a fine English education. In the words of his lady wife, the baronet was a scholar and a gentleman. The refined and cultured Lady Affleck, ‘herself a direct descendant of the aristocracy’, also spoke faultless English.
Dalham Affleck would go on to future fame for his work in front of the camera. In 1937, he used skills learned at Sound City to take a hidden photo of himself giving a blowjob to a young man he’d knocked unconscious. He and his brother then attempted to blackmail John Wilson with the pic. But Wilson went to the cops and the brothers’ gay brothel and extortion racket both closed down.
Meanwhile, newspaper articles eventually exposed Nelson as a shonk. He tried the same ruse down south a year before when he set up British National Films in Sydney. Deputy Lord Mayor Nixon-Smith failed to win reelection after voters discovered he’d secretly sold the land at Camp Hill to Nelson for the Hollywood of the South Pacific. The government ensured investors got their money back and Roy G Nelson fled south.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts was collateral damage, its empty promise laid bare. Sniffing the wind, Leonard quietly closed up shop. Following a failed attempt to launch a local Shakespearian Company, he moved out to Sunnybank and opened a flower nursery.
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