Lunch with John Newman
'For every week of the past 50 years,' John Newman says, 'the Newman family has had a show running in Melbourne somewhere.' Photo: Penny Stephens
THE previous morning, veteran Melbourne showman John Newman says, he had a daydream: he saved a little girl's life. ''She had tripped and was falling in the way of a taxi,'' he says. ''But I dived on her and pulled her back. She was an Indian girl and her name was Oberoi and her father owned the Windsor Hotel and told me: 'You can go and stay anywhere in the world where I own a hotel.' ''
Newman - outrageously theatrical in a pink jacket, striped shirt and bold blue necktie - confesses to being a Walter Mitty. ''I have a great imagination. Every day I will imagine something magnificent is going to happen.'' He has always done so, he says, but particularly now because it helps deaden the pain of losing his wife of 57 years, the vivacious actor Tikki Taylor, who died in 2011 aged 83.
He calls his daydreams his ''safety'' and later, having coffee at the high-rise apartment in Spring Street where he and Tikki lived for more than 40 years, he will show me the lounge room window through which you can see the room at Her Majesty's Theatre where they first met. ''We were both auditioning for South Pacific in 1952,'' he says, ''Tikki as a nurse, me as a sailor.'' And now he bursts into a spontaneous snatch of There Is Nothing Like a Dame.
At 82, Newman's blue eyes still dance with mischief, his memory for gags and lines from long-gone shows still phenomenal. But the loss of his perfect partner has not been an easy thing. She had a stroke two years earlier, and the energetic, elfin lady he adored lost most of her mobility. He fitted motorised tracks to the apartment ceiling with a harness to help her get around. He bought the latest and most sophisticated wheelchair, but she rarely used it. Life was never the same again.
Just around the corner from Grossi Florentino, the restaurant he has chosen for lunch, is the first location of Tikki and John's, the pioneering theatre restaurant that the pair made a Melbourne institution. It was in a building he leased at No. 165 Exhibition, which is now a driveway to the Paramount car park, and occasionally he has stood where the stage was, where they entertained so many, and has felt a tear come to his eye.
At this point, with all the timing of bad slapstick, I knock over his glass of water reaching for a notebook. But that's OK; half an hour later, the young waiter bumps over my white wine. Newman is most amused - after all, he's the one in his 80s - but age does not seem to be a factor here.
Grossi Florentino's line-caught barramundi. Photo: Penny Stephens
We are lunching (in stereo, as it happens, because we both order line-caught barramundi with our Isabel vino blanc) to inquire about Newman's latest venture, and to toast his clan's remarkable achievement. ''For every week of the past 50 years,'' he says proudly, ''the Newman family has had a show running in Melbourne somewhere. No one else has ever done that. People say, 'What about the circus?' But they close for four months each winter. We started around the corner there on September 13, 1962. When our lease ran out and they decided to pull the building down, I decided to bid for the vacant site at 169 Exhibition.''
As ever, he was colourfully dressed that day and the auctioneer knocked the property down to the ''man in the purple suit'' for $109,000. Newman erected a new building and Barry Humphries laid a time capsule in the foundations. ''I put things inside that I thought would eventually disappear,'' Newman says. ''A Gem razor blade. The [contraceptive] pill had just come out, so I put a condom in there. Some cork-tip cigarettes, newspapers of the day and Ron Barassi's jockstrap.''
Newman still owns the building, which is now occupied by the bar 1806. With their three showbiz children - Paul, Marc and Haydie - the dinner-theatre business evolved into Draculas, a horror-themed concept that's now in Victoria Street, Carlton. In the 1990s, John and Tikki spent time on the Gold Coast, where they set up a cabaret restaurant named Newman's, and later they created Haunted House, a schlock-horror walk-through open 12 hours a day, seven days a week. It gave Newman an outlet for his lifelong obsession with collecting weird stuff - Queen Victoria's knickers, a stuffed vampire bat, Lon Chaney's mask. So his new venture is a Melbourne version of Haunted House, but Newman has been having trouble finding a venue. ''We bid $8 million for the old Fletcher Jones building in Queen Street but we were outbid by a Singapore group with $11 million. However, if we can't buy, we'll lease.''
Newman's father, Ted ''E. J.'' Newman, was not in showbiz but owned nine hotels in regional Victoria and was so keen on entertainment that he offered free accommodation to performers appearing nearby. Of course, they flocked in. ''I was born in the Sir Charles Darling Hotel in Geelong,'' Newman says, ''and there was an area nearby where circuses would pitch their tents. A two-man team from the Tivoli once taught me a song that starts: 'I've got a feeling I've found her, it was something she said.' My brother Bill and I a few years later performed that in a variety show on 3AW and won first prize. We were given a Mickey Mouse radio. My sister Marion still has it.''
After that love-at-first-sight moment in 1952, John and Tikki's careers took off. It was the era of the stage musical and they did them all - Oklahoma!, Brigadoon, Song of Norway. ''But the days of musicals are really over,'' Newman says. ''People don't want fairytales any more. I don't know why.''
He says the same fate befell the Footlighters, the theatrical lunching club he hosted in Melbourne for a quarter of a century but which got too serious and fizzled out after he and Tikki moved north. When I attended a Footlighters function in the 1980s, Newman was brilliant as MC, trading sparkling banter with comedian Maurie Fields, among others. For some time Newman needed a radio mike because of throat nodules. He recalls the day he left the lunch and grabbed a taxi.
''The cabbie said he'd just been listening. Said the cabs could pick up my mike signal on their channel four, and when I looked up I saw a long line of cabs parked up St Kilda Road. Seems they would park outside each month to hear us. The cabbie said, 'You'll find most of them are on their day off!'''