The Drevers took the day off work and rose before dawn to drive from Ballarat clear across Melbourne just to catch a glimpse of their idol.
“Even though we knew it was a private performance and we probably wouldn’t get in, I knew we’d always regret it if we didn’t try,” Toni Drever confided as she waited anxiously on the steps of the Knox Club for a nonagenarian with a telltale suitcase.
Ron Blaskett was the first act when the Knox Club opened in 1971 and now, before the fragrant assembly of the Boronia Ladies Probus Club, the famed ventriloquist and his wooden-headed side-kick were about to give their final performance.
At 56, Gerry Gee is still the image of the cheeky lad carved by Frank Marshall in the same studio where he produced Edgar Bergen’s Charlie McCarthy.
Blaskett, almost 91, jokes these days that he feels like the one made of teak.
“I’ve got an artificial knee, only one kidney still doing its job, with a pacemaker going. But up here’s still good,” he says with a tap of head.
Blaskett’s flawless recall across 76 years of the Australian entertainment industry from the Tivoli Theatre and its radio broadcast heyday through the advent of television, contrasts sharply with the erasure of whole decades endured by Merle, his beloved wife of 68 years.
Her advancing Alzheimer’s means Blaskett must now remember for himself and the bright-eyed girl who was the first woman on Victorian television and worked her own doll, Sandra Simpkins, as part of Gerry Gee’s extended family.
For those who grew up in another time and place it’s difficult to fathom the adoration and affection those weaned on The Tarax Show of the ’50s and ’60s hold for the old man and his “doll”. But as the earliest stars of the television age, they enjoyed a cult-like devotion.
“They were golden times because it was a brand-new medium, which had tremendous impact, much more so here in Melbourne than Sydney,” Blaskett recalls.
“It was the sole talking point. You would go to the barber shop and the whole conversation was about what was on television the night before.”
When Graham Kennedy, the man who would be dubbed the king of television, quipped in one early interview “what I want for Christmas is Ron Blaskett’s salary” he wasn’t joking.
At that point in his career, Kennedy was earning £6 ($12) a night to compere In Melbourne Tonight while Blaskett was clearing £150 ($300) a week.
As a painfully shy child, Blaskett scarcely exhibited the makings of an entertainer, but the stage was set when at seven he encountered his first ventriloquist.
“Professor Turner’s doll was called Sailor Jim and it was going into a trunk just as we got there. I could hear this voice coming from inside the trunk saying: ‘Let me out! Let me out!’
“I was totally knocked out and I asked my father how it worked and he said: ‘I really don’t know, son’.’’
Some years later Blaskett took himself off to the Malvern library to learn the ventriloquist’s art.
“I practised in front of mum’s dressing table, which had those side wing mirrors, and for the first time caught sight of myself in profile and realised I had a very generous proboscis. So for a time I slept with a handkerchief tied around my head to try and flatten it, but it didn’t work.’’
Blaskett’s first doll, Willie Ross, was bought with £5 generously supplied by his grandmother who – if at all worried about her 15-year-old grandson wanting a “doll” – didn’t let on.
The young man had found a metier that would win him many talent contests and take him through WWII in the relative safety of the concert party.
Willie Ross was joined by other characters, but as television dawned Blaskett hankered for a dummy made just for him.
When he eventually took delivery of Gerry Gee, it was not love at first sight. “When I first saw him I wasn’t impressed, but when I showed him to kids, those Nefertiti eyes had an instant response.
“I couldn’t do all these clever things that my idol Clifford Guest could do.
“But where his figures were adjuncts to show off the wonderful things he could do with his voice, Gerry Gee was a live part of my show and that was my success. I looked on him like a good violin player would look on a Stradivarius.
“People believed in Gerry Gee. I always said I would give it in when Gerry Gee started to believe I was real,” Blaskett says, laughing, packing away the old doll ostensibly for the last time.
But as he walks slowly from the room, the suitcase has the last word. “Ron Blaskett, you let me out!”