1955 The guest books of Fred and Julie Wenkart
Being surrounded by wonderful music and musicians is a marvellous way to start one’s life!
I was almost a postwar baby, born in St Kilda Private Hospital in Hornsby in February 1944 as the son of Austrians. My mother was Hungarian by birth but when married entered into Austrian citizenry by default.
Escaping the devastating World War Two about to unleash in Europe, on a ship from Genoa, arriving in Sydney in May 1939 was for my parents like a rebirth into a special place. My father was rather visionary and intuitive. Even though they had visas for the USA or Australia, he said ‘we are going to Australia as it is as far as possible away from Europe’. This decision was in late 1938 while he was interned in Hungary after leaving Vienna following the Kristallnacht in November 1938.
My parents followed the lead of many other new arrivals, the “reffos”, or more formally refugees. First they lived near the city in McMahons Point and then for my parents, Fred and Julie (Juliska), the suburbs called in about 1941/2. After the Japanese Sydney Harbour submarine attack on 31 May and 1 June 1942, many others also moved to the suburbs.
A LIFE OF CULTURE
By the time I arrived, we lived in Wahroonga. Not quite the hallowed home of the musicians’ guest books to come in Grosvenor Road, but the precursor rented home not far away of a young couple making their way far from their homeland and wanting a happy balancing side rather than just survival as part of their normal life.
The middle European reffos were cultured and mostly well educated, in professions, industry, business and politics. The arts, music, performances, theatre, even cake and coffee, became ingrained into making this new world akin to some distant memories and experiences – those same experiences that were struggling to survive on the other side of the world.
From the earliest days of arriving, efforts were made to entertain and maintain cultured events. Home activities dominated. I recall being told about small gatherings for music, poetry, even homespun plays. So much talent came with these self-starters. I guess crossing the globe self-selected the characters and personalities that were to give so much to establishing and adding to the cultural life of Sydney. The Viennese Theatre (also known as The Little Viennese Theatre) and Musica Viva were born from these talented and proactive Austrians.
There is no doubt that in these first years in the city and then the suburbs, these gatherings became the norm, and my parents lived with open arms and an open home.
THE FABLED WENKART HOME
In 1947 we moved to Grosvenor Road Wahroonga. One of my earliest memories is being driven in the old Hillman with our red setter on the back seat, from Churchill Avenue to Grosvenor Road about a mile away. There to greet us was this huge old home in a rather derelict state on a large block of land which included a paddock on the edge of a famous bushland.
It was post war. Dad was a keen horse rider and had found a riding school nearby. On one of his rides around the district he had chanced upon 102 Grosvenor Road. Ever bold, he talked the elderly lady owners into selling. Special deals were needed to close the sale, due to price and other controls being in force. Cash plus, I recall, was the order of the day!
The ravages of Europe and its aftermath meant that my parents expected relations and others to want to come to Australia to regroup and start over again in the new world. So accommodation and assistance was the motivator to buy a big enough property to provide facilities to meet the demand.
Grosvenor did this in spades and I recall my parents assisted in some way or other more than 70 people to live here.
Mount View, as it was called, became my dad’s castle. He loved it for what it was and became. I too felt likewise then and now.
Being on the edge of Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, I became one of the first greenies as my friends and I criss-crossed the bush over the years. We had chooks, cats, dogs, sheep and horses which became more famous when the Vienna Boys Choir rode them when visiting. Yes, the compulsory vegetable garden adjourned the neighbouring paddock as well. Only much later did a swimming pool arrive adjacent to the house. Fire-fighting every few years was inevitable too.
Soon after settling in, my parents renovated and restructured this home internally to allow it to become an entertainment mecca. They had enough space to fit more than 100 people at sojourns, functions, concerts, and light and heavy entertainment. Yet it was still warm and cosy as a home should be, for all who came.
Over the years there were thousands who travelled from all over Sydney to our wonderful occasions. There was a parade of artists who were stars on the world stage visiting Sydney for the ABC or the SSO, and even private tours, who became regular visitors and friends to the Wenkarts. “When going to Sydney contact the Wenkarts” was a byword to many who came postwar up to the 1980s.
My upbringing was enhanced by the interaction I enjoyed with such stars of music, stage and the arts.
THE GUEST BOOKS TELL THE TALE
I am unsure how the guest books started. Perhaps it was a simple fact that my mother had such a visitor book from somewhere. Whatever, they are now a magical tour of an amazing period in my family’s life. One which has inculcated in me so many memories, attitudes and efforts to continue support for the Performing Arts as best I can.
I have all of them as kept by my mother. Now as the guardians of written memories of an era long gone, perhaps there is a home for them still to be found.
They contain hundreds of entries of famous and not-so-famous visitors. But all the entries reflect good times and wonderful happenings at 102!
Musica Viva figures prominently in the musical history anecdotes and entries as people, concerts, recitals, musicians and staying guests were often linked to its schedule of activities. The Musica Viva Younger Set was a wonderful youthful support to the main organisation. The Musica Viva history is well recorded regarding the founding efforts of Richard Goldner, who remained as a good family friend until he died.
I was too young to recall the fledgling start Musica Viva had at the Con under generator lights at the end of 1945. But apart from our home involvement, I do have a vague recollection of the Selbys’ home in Warrawee being a guest house to artists and a parallel home to Musica Viva happenings and recitals. Chamber music was Musica Viva’s theme and this was ideally played in more intimate settings. Having a swimming pool in the grand back lawn at the Selby home was an attraction in the 1940s and especially for overseas artists in our hot summers. I guess with no modern cleaning it required a refill whenever used!
So Musica Viva and its recitals and concerts was a major part of my privileged world and one which was paramount in my parents’ lifestyle. Yes there were rough edges along the way and stories to tell on another day about personalities and attitudes, which were covered up as Musica Viva grew into the world-famous organisation it is today.
PLAYING A PART
My mother in later years complained about the late start of concerts in the city. As always being very sensible she had suggestions. The one I instigated and which has been a huge success are the MV Coffee Concerts held at midday at the old Independent Theatre. Fortunately my mother experienced those over some years.
The other irritant was the late starts to concerts. Unfortunately she can only relish the 7pm start nowadays from another place!
But back to the guest books, to the right of this article are some extracts to savour.
Reflecting on these and so many not copied here is a walk down the memory lane of life. Visitors might be here today, gone tomorrow but always there as a written memory for those who shared the experience as it happened. May the guest books find a permanent home to retain a major living record of the Sydney postwar cultural development for any era that lies ahead. For it was these guest Europeans, mainly Austrians, who rapidly advanced the classical music scene in Sydney to international levels over the decades since World War Two. We are all the better for this, as is readily seen in the standing of Sydney on the world stage of Performing Arts.
Dr Tom Wenkart
Dr Tom Wenkart is a life-long Musica Viva subscriber and patron.