Recently, I was asked to recall and record some thoughts about a genuine, almost (we thought) indestructible, Melbourne identity. Kevin Dennis. AKA, Dennis Gowing. He was a man who once (as Kevin Dennis) bought more TV advertising on more TV programmes than any person then or since.
And I thought:
Aah, Dennis, you frustrating old bleep. And you left us far, far, too soon.
I remember my early days in Melbourne in the late 1970s. I rented an
apartment in Grange Road in Toorak. It was opposite a place called Toorak Tarts. I thought it was a brothel. It turned out to be a cake shop.
It was also within a short stagger of the then-current and popular Gowing
establishment called Jackson’s.
The stars of 3AW dined there a lot, celebrated regular ratings wins there,
argued late into the night there and (barely) tolerated Mr. Gowing’s
“walking ashtray” behaviour. He was a revolting ashtray on legs.
Then came Gowing’s in East Melbourne – off Fitzroy Gardens. That became our regular ratings win celebratory nosh house. It became a tradition, God knows how, that I would celebrate another ratings win with serve after serve of Beluga caviar and a shot of chilled vodka.
One night, after an exceptionally big ratings win, I think (and I am not proud of this) I had nine servings of Beluga and chilled vodka shots and tiny blinis, before the inimitable and wise Ms.Weaver (to whom I happened to be luckily married) convinced Dennis to convince me that they had run out. And in the 1980s they cost $50 a serve!
Then there was the night of confrontation that made Page One of the
now-defunct Melbourne Herald.
The Headline said something like: The Night of the Long Knives. The night when our Radio Stars had each other for breakfast.
The background was that both 3AW and the fledgling (was it ever thus) 3AK had both (coincidentally) booked tables at Gowing’s for ratings parties.
The legendary Brian White had defected from 3AW for Packer’s $60 million 3AK and taken most of the 3AW team with him: John Blackman, Mark Day, etc. My, main memory of the night – apart from being punched on the arm by Brian White – was circling the room, fuelled by that vodka, shouting “take no prisoners”. And we didn’t.
I spearheaded a shameful and shameless campaign against the Packer camp with ads that said: “If I want to listen to Sydney radio, I’ll live in Sydney”. It worked. They never got more listeners than the Embassy Cab radio room. And, sadly, it never changed for 3AK.
Gowing’s was magic. Sophisticated stuff. Clever food. And crazy fun.
Dennis once convinced me to share in the buying of a dozen bottles of 70-year-old Lafitte Rothschild (half a dozen each) for $300. This was early Eighties. I didn’t realize that was $300 per bottle. And then somebody stole them from my farm anyway. Still, the wooden box was impressive.
It was at Gowing’s that Dennis and Lloyd Williams boasted to me that What a Nuisance would win the Melbourne Cup. I convinced one to give me ten per cent of his winnings for Save The Children and convinced the other to give me ten per cent for The Variety Club. What a Nuisance won. They honoured their commitments and gave me $130,000 for charity.
The night of that Melbourne Cup win Gowing and I were at Maxim’s to honour the traditional winners’ dinner commitment. He started to get grumpy. “Why aren’t I at my own effing restaurant?” I told him to watch me and follow the bouncing ball.
While Lloyd Williams’ wife, Sue, was distracted by the waiters I grabbed the Cup off the table, nudged Dennis in the ribs, and said “let’s scarper”. Language the English-born Gowing understood.
We dived into the limo and burned down Toorak Road with me waving the cup out the window. It could have been hit by a tram. I didn’t know how much it was worth.
Gowing and I owned a boat together with his doctor and friend Richard Ward It was called the “Johnny Mathis” because it looked like the African Queen.
Some of my fondest memories are of dinners with Dennis and a clique of talented friends. I have several sketches done across the dinner table by the multi-talented Clifton Pugh.
And remember, I I did not live here when he was the omnipotent Kevin Dennis. Back then with New Faces and the Don Lane Show and Hey, Hey and other TV stuff his car yards were buying more advertising space on Channel Nine than anybody had ever done before or has ever done since.
Gowing was a scrappy scrapper. An impoverished Limey who came out here and made good. Made fortunes. Lost fortunes. Know the feeling.
He once owned a mansion at Mt. Macedon. He owned the Mt. Macedon pub. He dreamed about classy restaurants and he delivered.
I just wish the bugger had stopped smoking.