Current Issue #488

Good Country:
Port Augusta, Hollywood outpost

Steve McKitterick (and Bill)

Port Augusta, a small city in the Flinders Ranges, has hosted some of the biggest stars from Old Hollywood.

These include Robert Mitchum, Maureen O’Hara, Deborah Kerr and Peter Lawford. O’Hara best matched the down-to-earth culture in rural SA. But not all of the guests played nicely (yes, I’m looking at you, Bob Mitchum).

O’Hara and Lawford came to Port Augusta in 1950 to make the 20th Century Fox film Kangaroo. Incredibly, O’Hara and colleagues stayed in former Housing Trust accommodation, which became known as Hollywood Park. According to local resident “Pam” , 79, “O’Hara lived in a temporary transportable home. She used to frequent the town just like everyone else.”

Another resident, Marlene Wright, also admired O’Hara: “I saw Maureen several times. Typical redhead. The make-up would have hid the freckles. She was vivacious and beautiful.”

As a 10-year-old, Steve McKitterick sat on O’Hara’s lap in the Port Augusta Hotel. He recalls, “She’s Irish. She got onto my name, and she asked where I was from. I said my great grandparents were from Carrickmacross, a little village. She was from near there.”

McKitterick, now 80, was an extra in Kangaroo, receiving five pounds for mud-wrestling with two other kids. He remembers the trees the studio set up on the banks of the Spencer Gulf: “They tied crows to the branches. They had bands around their wings, so they wouldn’t hurt them.”

Seven years later, while making The Sundowners, Robert Mitchum was living on a luxury yacht, Corsair III, in the middle of the same harbour.

Port Augusta
Port Augusta harbour

Pam recalls that “boys swam out and tried to get onto the boat. Mitchum very unpolitely told them to leave.” Wright confirms that her sister Joy Baluch (ex-mayor of Port Augusta) said that “Mitchum could swear like a bullock driver. From my sister, that was a fair recommendation.”

Each morning, Mitchum and the other actors would gather at the temporary Warner Brothers office in Port Augusta’s Tassie Street. They’d then be driven to the nearby filming locations, such as Corunna Station, near Iron Knob.

The Sundowners is a meat-pie western, with Mitchum playing a restless Irish-Australian drover and shearer. Its main setting, Corunna Station (Wattle Run in The Sundowners), is still a working sheep station, run by Graham and Jo French.

John “Herbie” Herbert, 84,was working at Corunna as a musterer when The Sundowners was filmed there. Herbie remembers seeing Mitchum and Peter Ustinov playing chess on wool bales. Although he thought Ustinov was all right, he describes Mitchum as “an arrogant bastard”.

Herbie’s cousin, Ron Collins, was around nine during the making of The Sundowners. A film company car picked up Collinsand buddies from Iron Knob to take them to the set after school.

Collins says, “There were half a dozen of us, black and white. We all got treated the same way. They all talked to us. Peter Ustinov tried to kick me in the arse. But he was joking. I probably cheeked him.”

Jan Noden was around 15 when Mitchum travelled to Quorn to film some scenes for The Sundowners in the Austral Hotel.

Noden says, “One afternoon, he was propped against a wall of the railway station, sitting there relaxed. Mitchum had bottles of beer everywhere. I got an autograph and message. He did it and smiled. That smile he had—made my day, I can tell you. But he told one older kid to go home and come back when she grew up. We were shocked. He was arrogant. They had trouble with him in Port Augusta. He kept falling overboard.”

While Mitchum was falling off Corsair III, McKitterickand his mates were trying to get on it.

They swam up to the white yacht. McKittericksaid to Mitchum, “We just swam out to have a look at the boat.” Mitchum said, “Climb on the ladder and have a look around.”

“We were walking around. It was done out in nice timber. He didn’t let us go down below though. The yacht was from Adelaide and had ‘Port Adelaide’ on the back of it.

“Mitchum had seven or eight women on board and a big ice box with beers in it. He was drinking longnecks of West End. He said, ‘Take these,’ and gave me a packet of Lucky Strike cigarettes. I said, ‘I can’t put them in my fuckin’ mouth.’ So he gave me a long plastic bag. It was the first one I’d ever seen. He gave me a piece of string and said, ‘Put a knot in it, guy.’ I tied the string around my neck and swam back.”

The moral of the story is either a) never meet your heroes, or b) only meet your heroes if they’re drinking South Australian beer. Thank you to all the lovely people I’ve met in my many country adventures. And thanks to my travelling companion and muse, Margarita. Please explore SA’s regional areas. They’re damn good country.

Michael X Savvas

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