In an industry where talent turns over at a rate of knots, loyalties are traded and retrenchments are commonplace, Smith has stayed the distance with one network for five decades.
In that time he has been an announcer, warm-up man, community liaison and ‘second banana.’ It’s the latter that he attributes to his longevity.
“Nine has an innate talent for picking the right people. I was never given the chance to star and that’s saved my bacon and set me on the right path,” he told TV Tonight.
“I’ve always just run along on the surface as a supporting player.
“I’ve been able to do what I enjoy doing and make my living out of it.”
At various stages, Smith has been the voice of the network, a variety show stalwart, the sound of Sale of the Century, Mr. Copperart, a genial warm-up host and a cool cat pal to The Late Show team.
He began at Nine on April 13 1964, but he started out with ABC Radio in Melbourne.
“I started as a messenger boy at the ABC, just as Graham Kennedy did before he went to 3UZ. TV hadn’t started. I drove them mad until they let me get on the air as a junior announcer. Being 17 or 18 I did the disc jockey programs, the 10 top tunes of the week,” he recalls.
With the introduction of television he was given a job hosting Sportsview Hit Parade, doing voice overs on music during Saturday afternoon sport.
“I said ‘What are we going to do while the records are playing?’ There was no such thing as a video clip, they hadn’t been invented. So they put the sports results on! Randwick, Moonee Valley, the football…. they were on a crawl while I introduced the songs!” he laughs.
“Finally I pushed the sports results out and cut out of newspapers and magazines –never mind the copyright- pictures of Elvis, The Rolling Stones, Roy Orbison, and clagging them down onto pieces of cardboard and flipping them in front of the camera! I had about 20 for each song and I was flipping them by hand.”
At Nine he worked with an array of talent: Graham Kennedy, Paul Hogan, Don Lane, Ernie Sigley, Tony Barber, Joff Allen, Johnny Ladd.
“When television started they came from newspapers, theatre, radio, and from nowhere. Jack Little came over for (stage musical) The Pajama Game and stayed. Tim Evans married the girl-next-door, Elaine McKenna,” he says.
“Tommy Hanlon Jr. was doing It Could Be You, which was a live studio show at Studio 1 in Melbourne… it was like This is your Life every afternoon.
“These people came out here and we learned so much from them, because they’d already been on the stage, in movies, in theatre. It was a wonderful time to learn from these sort of people.
“All these things wouldn’t probably stand up today. They were rough around the edges, but it was an era when people were watching TV, such was the novelty. People were staring at test patterns when we started. So how could we miss?”
While much visual archiving has been lost from the era, Nine has managed to retain more than most.
“People were too busy doing shows 5 nights a week with no thought of ever retaining anything they did the night before. The only reason we have so much material at Nine is because during the Vietnam War, Graham Kennedy did a Best of Kennedy series in which the whole week was encapsulated, kinescoped onto 16mm black and white film and sent to the boys in Vietnam. When they came back, lo and behold we had a record.”
In its heyday Nine had a string of announcers on the payroll, along with a full orchestra and dancers. But television is an evolving business model. Eventually Smith’s role included being the warm-up man. With the key attribute being ‘likeability’ it was a perfect fit.
“The warm-up originally was just 10 minutes, get ‘em in out of the cold, hit ‘em between the eyes and create a ‘warmer’ atmosphere for the compere to come in and perform,” he remembers.
“With Sale of the Century we did 5 shows an afternoon. So the warm-up became an entertainment piece with gags and quizzes.
“At the height of Sale, such were the fans that they would come in and stay for 5 shows. So you couldn’t let them go stale, they were very important to us.”
His famous ‘Sa-a-a-a-ale’ call emerged from his audition. Before the days of computerised credits, a title card filmed in close up was turning so slowly that Smith slowed his voice over to match the vision. The rest is history.
A call from The Late Show team introduced him to a much younger audience, when he was invited to perform Aerosmith’s ‘Dude Looks Like a Lady.’
“It was a fabricated mistake between Tony Martin and Mick Molloy. When they thought they were going to get Joan and the Jetts they were really getting Joan Kirner –the Premier of the State of Victoria!” he says.
“I had never even heard of Aerosmith! My disc jockey days were long gone.
“When Jo Bailey was replaced on Sale of the Century, the Working Dog creatives in all their brilliance, sent the whole team of The Late Show marching down Bendigo Street in protest, ready to burn a Tony Barber effigy outside Channel Nine Studios.
“I went down in my car and they were at the boom gate, not letting anyone in or out. So I went up to the boom gate, because I knew the guys.
“I said ‘If you don’t get out of the way I’ll force you to watch reruns of The Don Lane Show!’”
He later assumed GTV9’s Community Affairs duties, following in the work of the late Sir Eric Pearce which he continues to this day.
“I was no longer the announcer, so I was put in charge of the GTV Foundation, which is a benevolent association which looks after our staff,” he remarks.
“I’ve taken on what he was doing without the title. I don’t think I will be getting anything from Camilla. Let me put it that way.”
These days Smith enjoys semi-retirement, but still has views on the industry. I’m curious as to what he watches and whether the past can teach us better ways to do things today?
“I still love TV drama. I’d watch more Variety if I could. My favourite shows are Love Child, A Place to Call Home, Fat Tony. I love Graham Norton, he’s terrific. He has this wonderful talent. He’s so relaxed, and I know people who have met him. He’s a lovely bloke,” he says.
“Today (stars are) in a more rarified atmosphere. You don’t get to meet the stars of The Voice unless they crack it on the pop scene in a big way, like Guy Sebastian. He’d be more approachable, I’m sure.
“But I can’t sit back and criticise. I love the way they do the shows these days, they’ve reached a level of sophistication that we couldn’t possibly match.
“Back in those days people would take a risk. The productions didn’t cost that much to put to air. But such is the demand now of people watching television with such sophistication, that you have to put a lot of money into something. If it doesn’t work it’s a very costly exercise.
“So a lot of it is follow the leader. ‘That works, we’ll go with a variation.’”
While nostalgia can be sentimental, he remains shrewd about the commercial side of television.
“Show business is first and foremost a business. You really do have to pay you’re the rent and the shareholders. So anybody who criticises that aspect is in airy-fairy land because it’s got to work economically,” Smith insists.
“Nobody wants to make a crap television show. Nobody sets out to do that. But the mortality rate is pretty great. Hence we only see the big successes and the others fall by the wayside.
“I think Nine, and I’m sure Seven are coming round to it –maybe TEN– are prepared to give things a go. In the past it wasn’t always so. But Nine are prepared to give something a chance.
“But now there is so much more competition. There wasn’t the world wide web. The most sophisticated thing I had in my possession was a beeper and I had a bigger beeper which gave 2 different sounds: one when it was my mother ringing me and one when it was urgent and I had to get back to the station.”
Still the company man, Smith stayed with Nine even after it vacated its beloved GTV studios in Richmond, where so many live shows were beamed around the country. The heritage-listed building has since been turned into apartments.
“I go past a lot. They’ve done a wonderful job with what they’ve done there,” he says.
“I guess if you want to have a sense of those wonderful black and white years, the spirit of In Melbourne Tonight, Graham Kennedy and all those marvelous people we grew up with… I reckon their spirit is very much alive down in that area. ‘Television City.’ It’s still up there on the building.
“The heritage of the business, our channel, our industry, is locked up in an electronic memory bank. That’s what the business is.
“And in the people, who are all very alive and well with people like me who remember those golden years.”
As he marks five decades with Nine, Smith represents a glorious era in Australian television production -and he does it all with a wealth of charm and generosity.
“Announcers are a special breed. All we wanted to be –the Mike Walshes, the Philip Bradys, the Pete Smiths– was radio announcers. There was no TV, but it was a natural extension.
“So the founding fathers like Bruce Gyngell, we looked up to them, and idolised them along with the greats like Jack Davey, Bob Dyer, Norman Banks.
“I’ve been very blessed. That’s the word that comes to my mind. Very lucky indeed,” he smiles.
“Pete Smith speaking.”