His best girl: John-Michael Howson at home with Suzie the Chihuahua. (A Man for all Seasons / by Margo Vigorito (2007) REPRODUCED WITH PERMISSION)
“Was that the pool man?” asks John-Michael Howson, angling his cashmere-clad torso towards the window.
The 76-year-old’s Cheltenham home might not match Hollywood proportions, but the revered celebrity reporter, writer and 3AW co-host retains elements of his former Californian lifestyle – his Guatemalan partner Alfie has sculpted a vibrant garden; their pool house is a hub for summer parties.
West Hollywood was, after all, where Howson lived from 1988-2005 and he covered 23 Oscars, 15 Emmys and six Tony awards ceremonies. It was also where the Hollywood Press Club conferred on him three “Personality of the Year” gongs.
But, like all respectful guests, Howson knew when it was time to leave. “I’d been at the fair long enough,” he says.
His primary reason for a 2005 homecoming was Shout! The Legend of the Wild One, the musical he had co-written with Australians David Mitchell and Melvyn Morrow.
Triumph followed and the trio penned biopic Dusty: The Original Pop Diva (2006), which grossed $25 million. Canada, the US and Britain are its next venues for production.
Howson’s latest “entertainment” (a series of events linked by parody songs), is More Sex Please … We’re Seniors! This time, instead of focusing on pop legends, he has chosen his own demographic.
Set in a retirement village, the story centres on two couples who brazenly confer on topics such as ailments, global warming, greed, families and Christmas. Sex figures in the comedy’s title but, due to physical impediments and its decreased priority, theirs becomes a wistful imagining rather than a pressing need.
Amid the guffaws, however, Howson highlights society’s relegation of older people.
“In many ways we are the forgotten generation,” he says. “We are given a pension and then told to go away, as we are old and had it. In Australia we do have a form of ageism. In America they have people like Barbara Walters who in her 80s is still working.
“They don’t see people as disposable, like they do here. The show touches on that, but above all, I want people to come and have a good laugh.”
As a boy growing in the 1940s, Howson was entranced by the movies. Saturday afternoons would find him at the St Kilda Hoyts Victory for the latest black-and-white serial. He was mad on cowboys, and so his jockey father, Billy, bought him the suits.
“With all the costumes he gave me I had a bigger wardrobe than MGM,” he says. “My father and his brother had a deprived childhood, and so he lavished on me everything they didn’t have. Dad also lived in a fantasy world and he told terrible lies, like when he told me he knew Buck Rogers. When I asked him if I could meet him, he said he had left last week on his rocket ship. I believed him. I was six and he was my dad.”
When his parents divorced, John-Michael relocated to Western Australia, where he lived with his mother, Mary, and publican stepfather, Dan. He went to boarding school and, excited by adventure stories, knew he wanted to write.
A distant relative organised a cadetship on Mildura’s Sunraysia Daily, where he learnt his journalistic craft.
Howson’s first job in Melbourne was for ABC Radio. In the 1950s he also began writing for theatre revues. At that time the city boasted an energetic nightlife, where venues such as the Rainbow Room existed, which had a glass dance floor that changed colours.
Tight liquor laws meant patrons often drank wine from teapots. He disputes that the decade was dull and that gays were persecuted.
“Of course there was homophobia; it’s always existed. But you still had a good time,” he says.
“… above all, I want people to come and have a good laugh.”
“Every Queen’s Birthday there was an enormous gay picnic at some oval in the country. Thousands would turn up and there would be an egg-and-spoon race and high-heel shoe races. And somebody dressed as the Queen Mother would arrive by helicopter.”
Like most ambitious Australians, Howson tested his skills in London and in the 1960s worked for a men’s fashion magazine.
He also moonlighted as a comedy writer, and befriended, among others, Kenneth Williams, who took him on to the Carry On set.
But after four years, and having outgrown the gratis Savile Row tailored suits, he returned to Melbourne, where joined ATV Channel 0 (now Channel Ten). He wrote the children’s show The Magic Circle Club and for four years wore the suit of FeeFee Bear, as no actress could endure the claustrophobia of its head.
Most famously, Howson wrote sketches for The Graham Kennedy Show and later for the comedian’s radio show on the now-defunct 3DB.
“Graham was amazing,” he says. “He would get all the show LPs and within a week he’d know all the Broadway tunes. More than once I told him he must do a musical but he said he’d get bored. If he’d done what Bert (Newton) had and broadened his repertoire, he might be alive today. I think he got utterly bored living in NSW, and so drank and whatever.”
In the late 1970s, Howson interviewed celebrities for The Mike Walsh Show, his defining coup the flicked-hair trio from Charlie’s Angels.
From 1988 he was based in Hollywood and filed for the Walsh show and its successor, The Midday Show with Ray Martin. Interviews ranged from Bette Davis, who, despite two strokes, was “sharp”; Paul Newman, with whom he spent a day watching the televised fall of the Berlin Wall; and Barbra Streisand, with whom he sat on the floor of her art deco-themed house and
He also met Elizabeth Taylor at her fragrance launch. She struck him as “stunning” and a “good belly-laughing woman”.
A memorable meeting was with Bette Midler, whom he interviewed at the Beverly Hills Hotel. When she wasn’t the Divine Miss M, he noted she was a quiet middle-class Jewish lady who didn’t use bad language.
“I told her I’d walked down the hotel corridor and had noticed the maid’s tray,” he says. “It had all this beautiful soap and so I put some in my bag. ‘Oh darling,’ said Bette, ‘I’ve lived off that for years.’ She said she’d never bought soap, never bought shampoo, that it had all come from the maid’s tray. But she warned me to be careful with shampoo; that if I stole from a cheap hotel, my hair would fall out.”
In Howson’s bayside living room, signed photographs from stars such as Sylvester Stallone, William Holden and Patrick Swayze are not on view. His Logies stand in another room on top of the bookshelves.
Privately stored are his 2009 Order of Australia Medal and the 2006 Variety Club Heart of Show Business Award for charity work with children. He is proud of his achievements and treasures every award.
“I burst into tears when I got the OAM letter,” he says. “When I hear of people keeping their Oscar in the toilet I’m like, ‘Why?’ Put it on the mantelpiece and be proud. It’s a dreadful thing to do and I don’t understand it.
“Don’t be cavalier with any honour, because it means people think that much of you. I’m in Who’s Who (in Australia) and I’m thrilled about it.”
» More Sex Please … We’re Seniors! starts at the Comedy Theatre on October 26.