Early Film Career
John Heyer was interested in films from an early age. His parents bought him a toy film projector and, when this began to play up – the little man did not always wave his arms when he should – his father suggested taking it to Eric Boardman who printed the local paper, The Sunbury News, and who ran a circuit of three country cinemas in local town halls.
This meeting marked the start of a long and close friendship. Eric invited John to work as his projectionist assistant at his weekly cinemas at Sunbury and Woodend, which was a valuable experience – especially when the ‘talkies’ arrived soon afterwards. John recalls his memories of projection technology at that time. “As the sound discs (large records) only ran for ten minutes and the film on the projector ran for twenty minutes – and we only had one projector – it meant that in the middle of the twenty minute reel, you had to whip off the disc, put on the next one and make sure it was synchronised; bearing in mind, while you were doing this that the film was going through the projector at 90 feet a minute! However, we soon became quite expert. The trick was to watch the screen and listen to both the film’s sound and the audience. If sound effects or music were coming from the heroine’s mouth, or the audience were stamping their feet, you pushed the disc on or held it back with your finger until the foot stamping stopped and you got it right”.
John clearly loved his work in Eric’s cinemas and he loved working with his hands but, by this own admission, he was not doing very well at school. His father, recognising this and conscious of the fact that he had lost control of some of his inventions because he was unable to make the prototype himself on which any patenting was based, took him out of school to work as an apprentice with a major scientific instrument maker in Melbourne, Charles Alger and Sons, who had made instruments for some of his inventions. This provided John with experience and qualifications which would prove invaluable in his future film career.
When he was about 15 or 16, his father thought it would be a good idea to try formal education again so John went back to school for eighteen months, this time to Prahran College (now part of Melbourne Polytechnic), and managed to get six ‘0’ levels and four ‘A’ Levels – mostly studies in the area of maths and science.
John’s father really wanted him to learn filmmaking and so, in 1934 he took him to meet Frank Thring, the impressario and theatrical promoter. Frank had converted an ice-rink at St. ‘Kilda into a film studio which he hired out to independent producers such as Charles Chauvel and where he also made films of his own with Frank Harvey including Streets of London and Clara Gibbings.
John became a general dogsbody at Efftee Film Studios – the name deriving from Frank Thring’s initials – doing whatever was required from sweeping floors and cleaning the editing room to working as an assistant to the cameraman, soundman or editor and learning his trade on the job. His first credit was as an assistant sound recordist on Heritage , Charles Chauvel’s expansive historical drama filmed in 1934.
While John was working at Efftee Studios, a young freelance photographer, Damien Parer, was making regular visits to the studio in the hope of taking photographs he could sell for publicity purposes. Damien and John became close friends and went regularly to see films by directors whose work they both admired: e.g. Serge Eisenstein, Joris Ivens and Robert Flaherty: At the same time, they devoured two specialised cinema magazines – Experimental Cinema and Cinema Quarterly – with articles by Eisenstein, Marie Seton and other film makers who recognized cinema as a creative art and not merely as a recording for theatrical performances. John particularly admired the work of the British Film documentary legend, John Grierson.
In December 1934, tragedy struck the family again when his father had a cerebral haemorrhage and died a few days later. John recalls: “Although Fay and I contributed to mother’s living expenses, I have always admired and remembered the initiative with which, within two or three months of Dad’s death she raised a loan, purchased a small shop in an outer suburb of Melbourne and started selling bread and milk and groceries:- a very different environment from the one she had enjoyed as a girl in an affluent family, at a private girls’ school and as a doctor’s wife”. The shop was in East Brunswick and, when Efftee Studios closed down the following year as the full effects of the depression became more apparent (only two feature films had been made in nine months) John helped his mother in the shop and started a radio repair service from it. He recalls that, if he knew the customer could afford it, he always found lots wrong with the equipment they brought in for repair but, if he thought they couldn’t, he usually just did the basic necessities free of charge.
For his birthday that year, his mother’s gave him a miniature camera – a Foth Derby – with which John went around the suburbs taking family photographs or photographing any subject he thought might lead to the sale of a print (pets and babies were the best sellers) and developing and printing them in trays from his Dad’s old surgery.
He also managed to make a few pounds by putting into practice a simple formula his father had told him about; how to clean domestic silver by immersing the article, a spoon for example, in an aluminium pot half filled with a solution of washing soda; the resultant electrolysis removed the black/purple stain – the silver sulphide – more effectively than using polish which wore away the silver. John got hold of some aluminium sheets, cut them into intriguing shapes and sold them as a “Heyer’s Magic Cleaner”. “Unfortunately,” he recalls, “my customers soon caught on that they really didn’t need my Magic Cleaner after all. They could use their own aluminium pots!"