Friday, January 24, 2014

THE INCREDIBLE SEA FOX SAGA –Continuing biog of Crusading Editor,”Big Jim” Bowditch

SURPRISE ARRIVAL : Sea  Fox  in  Darwin   and  chain  smoking Chimp , Jimmy .A hose is seen hooked  through the cage , just  in  case he  set  fire to  the  straw.  Photographs by Peter  Simon  
Without  any   advance Hollywood-type  publicity, a   large  luxury yacht , the Sea Fox , sailed into  Darwin  in  June  l959 ,  bound for Sydney. The  exotic crew  included  a  chain -smoking  chimpanzee  who  was supposed to have been   Jimmy  the Chimp  in  a  Tarzan  movie.  Skipper of the  vessel, which had sailed down  from Singapore,  was  B  grade  movie  star  John  Calvert ,   billed as  America’s  greatest  magician.
Calvert  had  played  Michael Waring ,a Hollywood  detective, in   a series called The  Falcon.  According to  modest  Calvert , he  won plaudits  for  his outstanding  portrayal of the detective.  However, The  Falcon  had  been played  by other   actors , including    George Sands  during the  l940s   , and  Calvert was said to have made  a couple of  inferior Falcon movies  for a small independent company in the l950s.    It was not the first time  Calvert had been  to Australia  , he having  been star billing  in   Fantasy  , a  l950 magical show  in  Sydney.  He had   piloted  his  own DC3, the Mystic Lady, about America putting on magic performances,which included  lots  of  leggy  female assistants. 

By Peter Simon 
Also aboard the  yacht,  said  to have been specially built  for  Edsel Ford (not so), was  Mrs  Calvert”, a  young  Filipino singer  named Pilita .  During  the voyage to  Darwin  the  poor caged  chimpanzee  had  been  let out for a bit of exercise.  He had  gone  berserk , chased  crew about the   vessel  and  some locked themselves in  their cabins  while others  jumped overboard .   Jimmy had  then  climbed a mast  and refused to come down.  Brave  Captain Calvert , supposedly a Golden Gloves  boxing  champion, according  to his  scrapbooks , stood  at  the bottom of  the mast  and ordered  Jimmy  to come down .

Jimmy  mutinied , ignored instructions from the captain, and  just hung there  in  the rigging.  Not  to  be outsmarted by  a  chimp, Calvert  produced a  bunch of  bananas and  Jimmy began to salivate.  Just as  Adam  was brought undone  by an apple in the Garden  of Eden,  Jimmy  succumbed to the seductive  bananas.

Down the mast he  came ... and just when he was about to  grab the fruit , Calvert took to him with a belaying  pin.  Calvert  reportedly  hugged the stunned   chimp like a baby  for a time  before  the groggy  animal was  dragged back to the  confines  of his  cage.   When he  arrived in  Darwin , the chimp   morosely  peered  out  from his  cramped  cage ...and  tried  to set fire to the  rigging  with   cigarettes  given  him  to smoke.

One of the  people  to board the  yacht soon after it arrived in  Darwin was  marine   expert Carl Atkinson of  Doctor's Gully , who gave the vessel a thorough  going over ; no doubt , he   gave the   female  crew members  some close  attention as  well . Once the word got  about town  that there was a yacht with  a  monkey and  a film star  in  port people  flocked to  the  wharf .


The Sea Fox had only been in port a short time when  two young crewmen  arrived , naked,  at Bennet Street  Police Station .  They  told  an  amazing story . One   of  them claimed that  Calvert  had  warned  him to keep away  from Pilita  and threatened to  cut off his “ nuts ”  if he did not  obey orders.  The  nuts he referred to were not the ones  consumed  by  chimpanzees.   The man , only  wearing shorts , had  made a  pass  at Pilita, and Calvert pulled out a knife ,  apparently intent  on nut removal .

The police were told   the actor   had grabbed the  crewman  by his shorts  whereupon   he  quickly slipped out of them , ran along the deck and jumped into the sea .  A friend of  his, also only wearing shorts, had  jumped overboard with him , and in the process lost his  trews.   The two men  were  taken back to the  yacht  by the bemused police and  after  diplomatic negotiations   Calvert   allowed  them  back  onboard. 

Calvert  called into the  News office and  spoke to   Bowditch  from time to time.   When he asked to use  an   office toilet , one of the  staff  suggested  putting a plaque  on the door saying  JOHN  CALVERT PISSED HERE .   Despite the  exotic  aura  created  by  the   Hollywood star  and  the luxury yacht , it was  obvious  that Calvert was  not flush with money .    After receiving  a  bill for  some  laundry, Calvert  winced and told Bowditch  he might  marry  a  washerwoman.


To improve his financial position , he decided to  put on a magician’s show in  Darwin.  To promote the event , he announced he would drive  blindfolded down the  main street.  When the  police heard  this  they  were concerned . Calvert subsequently went  to police  headquarters, this writer in tow, and spoke to Inspector Jim Mannion and Chief Inspector Clive Graham .

At first Calvert did a few sleight of hand  tricks with coins  and  got them amused.  Then  he asked  Clive Graham for the time.   The  inspector loooked  at his wrist , could not  find  his watch , so looked at  his other wrist- no watch.  Calvert had slipped the watch off  without him  knowing.  After that, Calvert  had the police eating out of his  hand.  He assured them that he had done the  blindfolded  driving stunt in many places  and guaranteed  he would not run  down  any pedestrians or  collide with  cars.

 True to  his word,  with Inspector Mannion watching and  filming  the event  with   his  movie camera, Calvert   drove  blindfolded   down Smith Street watched  by  a  big crowd. At  the town hall  , his magic  show , which  included  a display of  mental  telepathy  and hypnotism ,  attracted a  medium crowd . At one stage  Bowditch was invited up on stage  and participated  in  the performance  . 

Calvert  picked up  Bowditch  “ like a feather ” with one hand .  The entire  Sea Fox   crew , even the one threatened with removal of a vital part of his anatomy , worked   as  stage  hands  and wore  elaborate  costumes.  Pilita, of course, drew a lot of attention   and  in  a  levitation  demonstration   Calvert  caused  her to rise  about five  feet into the air . One  of  Calvert’s acts  was  a  Dr Jekyll and Mr  Hyde  performance  which had a  gory scene in which a  person’s head was cut off ,causing  a terrified  member of the audience to run  from   the  hall.


Not long  after  the stage performance  , the  Sea  Fox, much to the sorrow   of  Darwin because it had brought a  touch of Hollywood to town,  set  off for Sydney. However,  a dramatic situation soon developed.  Off Arnhem Land, the yacht reported it was taking water and  likely to sink.  Calvert  made things difficult by not being able to give his exact position.   News reports went  overseas  about  a  yacht carrying  an American  film star, his wife  and  Tarzan’s monkey  sinking off the Australian coast.  In America , a woman took particular  interest in the news  and   wanted to know exactly   who  this “ Mrs Calvert ” was   on the  yacht  as  she was   Mrs Calvert.

Furthermore , she said her  son, John  Andrew  Calvert, only 13 months  old, was  fretting  for  his daddy. She also  revealed that something  similar had  happened to the yacht before  when it had been  damaged  by  a cyclonic storm . On  that occasion she  had left  the  yacht   while it underwent repairs  and  returned  to  America to  give birth to John Calvert Jnr.  The  yacht  then   had  been called  Thespian , not  Sea Fox.
The  story grew more  interesting  by  the  hour.  AN  RAAF  Lincoln Bomber  flew out  from  Darwin  to  look for the  Sea  Fox  and  this writer, above right , was   aboard  for the  NT News . [ Cameraman ,Chris ?, ran a shop in Smith Street ].   The yacht was  found  on the second  day of  the search ,  but  did  not seem  very low in the water .    When  the plane  dropped  a container with a  bilge   bump inside there  was much embarrassment .  A  new cylindrical   container  was   used  to  house the  pump and when  the  parachute  opened , with  a  jerk ,  the  vital  bit of equipment  shot through the  bottom ...into the sea .  The  same  thing happened  when  supplies were dropped .   Calvert  came on  the radio and screamed for another  pump  to  save  the yacht .  In a  bright  idea, he  suggested  a  pump from  the  Darwin  sewer  system .  


The  bomber  circled the yacht  and guided in other  RAAF    aircraft  from Townsville.  Throughout  the  event   Calvert  took  movie  pictures of the  crew manually pumping  and  ordered  them to  work faster to make it  look more  dramatic.  Back in Darwin , Bowditch was  kept  busy supplying  a running  account of  the  Sea Fox  saga.   Eventually a  naval tug, Emu ,   was  sent out  and  took the  Sea Fox in tow , heading for the  Methodist  mission at Elcho Island .   Bowditch  and  Doug  Lockwood  flew  to  the  island  from  Darwin . 
News of the  impending arrival of the  yacht with a monkey  aboard created great interest  on  the island.  Aborigines  living  inland   rushed to  the mission  centre   hoping  to  see   the  monkey  and   called the  yacht , the Monkey Ship.   Some were  even told  they would  have to  have a good wash and  dress up in their  best  clothes to see  Jimmy.   Refrigerator  philanthropist  Sir Edward  Hallstrom  announced  that if  the  chimpanzee   survived he would give  him  shelter  in  Taronga  Zoo Park, Sydney.  

When  the  yacht  finally got to  the island  it was  taken into the shallows and  beached, shored  up with timber.However , the tide swept the supports away  and the  yacht crashed over on its  side  and stove in  some planks, causing flooding of the interior. Calvert collapsed.  Sir  Edward  came to Darwin  to personally organise the  travel arrangements for the chimp which took an instant liking  to the industrialist and gave him a hug. It  is not  known  if    Sir Edward   cut  off  Jimmy's  cigarette  supply or gave him a  cigar  to  soothe  his  nerves  after  all  the  drama .

Flown back to Darwin,  Calvert was confronted    by  some  former   crewmembers who said  they   had  had very little  to eat ,  mainly potato  soup,  on  the  voyage from Asia to  Darwin .  Calvert  retorted that the soup had been so thick  a  spoon  would  stand up in it .  They also claimed that  Calvert had  been  surprised  to  sail into  Darwin because he thought he  was somewhere near  Geraldton in  Western Australia.

Carl  Atkinson  went to  Elcho island  to patch up the  yacht and  brought it  back to Darwin.   Calvert and his circus  flew off  to Sydney to perform his  magician’s show for Harry Wren , the  showbiz entrepreneur . Soon after  , Bowditch  put  on a  fine  stage  performance  himself - he won the impromptu speech section at the  North Australian Eisteddfod.   He  also received the Walkley Award  for Journalism   for  his coverage of the Sea Fox  saga.  Years later , in a rage , he  would throw the  award  against  his  loungeroom wall  and   bend  it   out  of  shape.


Down south , Pilita  became  a popular TV singer and also signed  some recording  contracts.  As the months went by  she and Calvert   were involved  in many hi- jinks.   Pilita  said she had  been married to a   Spanish “ beast”  who had mistreated  her , caused her  to work  hard  and took all her money . 

Calvert made  the headlines when he  barged into a  room and accused a  consular official of “ kidnapping” Pilita. The   consular man  denied the charge and said they were just  good  friends. Another  newspaper report  said  Pilita was  brandishing a  large  ring  and  said she was  engaged to marry Calvert, his wife having divorced him. Calvert announced that  he was planning a number of  dramatic  one hour  films called The Sea Fox.  Footage he had taken  during the  drama off Arnhem Land   was  to be used  in the series.    Also,  he said  the  mock  up of the  nuclear submarine  which Stanley Kramer had used  in the movie  On The Beach,  shot  in Melbourne , had been bought and would  also  be used  as  a  set .

A dispute  developed over the  proposed  Sea Fox series  and  Calvert  performed  another  vanishing act- he left  the country , making a brief  stopover in Darwin  to inspect the Sea Fox at   Doctor’s  Gully  .  The  yacht inspection  took place  at night ,   after looking at the battered yacht  Calvert  told  a reporter   he  ought  to  issue a writ  against  “  this  guy Atkinson”.

Atkinson had  not been present  when  Calvert went to Doctor‘s Gully   because he was at the  movies  and there was no advance warning of his visit.   When told  what  Calvert had  said about him ,    Atkinson  replied :  “ If I knew he was  coming, I would have hit  him   with a writ.” By this time  Calvert was  out of the country and a Tasmanian film company  claimed he had taken  some  valuable  film with  him  which  belonged  to them .

Atkinson researched the  history of the yacht and discovered she had been built in  1917 and was  79ft long, not  120 ft , as stated  by Calvert. The yacht was in such bad shape in  l962 , above,  that  harbour authorities told Atkinson  that if   he could not  refloat the vessel  she would have to be  removed from the foreshore.  Once more the Sea Fox  took to the waves, but  she was a  sorry, battered sight.   An Adelaide businessman , R. Carr, said he  intended  restoring the  yacht  and sailing her in the Sydney-Hobart race. Despite these intentions, the yacht  apparently  rotted   away .NEXT : Bowditch and  mayor struggle in rose  garden .