Woman’s Day (Australia)
50 YEARS ON MEMORIES FROM THE MIKE WALSH SHOW
Laughs were aplenty, as Mike’s flamboyant sidekicks reveal
With his trusty clipboard in hand and perched in his swivel chair, Mike Walsh shot to fame as the king of daytime TV in the ’70s and ’80s, presiding over a 90-minute mix of compelling interviews and guests so entertaining that millions of viewers tuned in each weekday.
“Rarely a day goes by that someone doesn’t mention
The Mike Walsh Show to me,” says former showbiz reporter John-michael Howson, 86, from his Melbourne home. “It was such a fabulous era of true variety television, and I’m blessed to have been part of the magic,” he enthuses.
John-michael found a legion of fans as Mike’s champagneswilling, globetrotting showbiz and royal reporter. He recalls first meeting the former radio DJ, now 84, at dinner parties in the ’60s. “I wrote some comedy for Mike in his early TV career, then shortly after the Walsh Show started, I was invited on to tell stories of old stars and obscure royals because Mike found them hilarious. One spot turned into a twice-weekly appearance.
“It was Mike who christened me ‘Hollywood Howson’. I still pinch myself to think I was paid to travel the world, attending the Oscars, covering royal weddings and interviewing legends like Bette Davis, Barbra Streisand, Roger Moore and Paul Newman.
“On the flip-side, I remember interviewing Tommy Lee Jones, who was so uninterested I got up and walked out.
“Mike was cheeky, witty and wonderfully nonchalant on camera. He was the first to laugh at himself. Viewers loved him because he was like everyone’s favourite son.”
The Mike Walsh Show, which garnered 24 TV WEEK Logie Awards, including a Gold Logie for Mike, first aired on the 0-10 Network on February 5, 1973.
“I remember those first days vividly,” recalls Mike “Shirley Temple” Williams, 71, who’d been working on the legendary soapie Number 96, before being assigned Mike’s floor manager.
“We’d record a week’s worth of shows in two days. There were various technical
difficulties in those first weeks and sometimes Mike would get extremely irritated.
“That’s how I began ‘warming up the audience’ – by telling jokes and playing the clown, to defuse awkward situations. My geeing up the audience continued when the show went to air live. A girlfriend had convinced me to get a perm. Mike seized on that, and sent me up on air, dubbing me ‘Shirl the Curl’.
“From there I went on to sing on the show, do interviews and generally get into all sorts of mischief with music maestro Geoff Harvey,” smiles Mike.
“The show was a kaleidoscope of interviews, from hard-hitting, taboo topics like politics, sex and religion, to chatting with a galaxy of the world’s biggest stars, from Katharine Hepburn to Johnny Cash, Lauren Bacall to Kirk Douglas. I got to dance with Debbie Reynolds.
“Into the mix came ‘Merry Medic’ Dr James Wright, who’d talk haemorrhoids and bunions. It was true variety, with the likes of Simon Gallaher or Jade Hurley playing piano and singing.
“Not everything went smoothly – legendary Danny Kaye had a bee in his bonnet, so he grabbed Mike’s clipboard, threw it across the studio and said, ‘You don’t need questions – just talk to me!’
“Then there was the time Cher was guesting, and because of the hot studio lights, Mike’s hair colour began to run down his face, to everyone’s horror. Cher was gobsmacked.
“Mike had a secret button on the side of his chair. When pressed, it meant he wanted to wrap an interview and throw to a break.”
John-michael bursts into hysterics when recalling the time he was guest hosting for Mike. “It was 1974, and in sweeps an unknown seamstress named Jeanne Little.
“She was seven months pregnant with her daughter Katie, and was modelling her outrageous pregnancy smocks. I thought producers were playing a joke on me, and that Jeanne was a drag queen!”
With her raucous voice, signature greeting of “Helloooooo daaarling!”, huge fluttering eyelashes and her outrageous personality, Jeanne became an instant TV sensation, winning her millions of fans and a Gold and two Silver Logies. “Mum loved doing Mike’s show,” says Katie, now 48. “It didn’t matter that in those early days she was only paid $25 a spot. She’d work feverishly until two in the morning, whipping up crazy dresses out of garbage bags or pieces of toast. She was so incredibly creative.”
When Mike’s show moved to Nine in 1977, Jeanne, John-michael, Geoff and all the regulars went with him. All up, The Mike Walsh Show
ran for around 2000 episodes before ending in 1985.
“Mike wanted to do a prime-time version, and so he handed the reins of his daytime show to Ray Martin. It was rebranded Midday,”
Mike’s night show was taken off the air as network owner Kerry Packer wanted to air World Series Cricket. This constituted a breach of contract and Mike successfully sued, winning a $7.5 million payout. “The Mike Walsh Show
was like a crazy circus, and Mike was the quintessential ringmaster,” smiles Katie.
‘It didn’t all go smoothly... Cher was gobsmacked!’