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Friday April 9, 1993
He was the Big H, then he hit hard times. HArry Beitzel is still battling the odds. PETER WILMOTH reports.
ON 13 February 1991, the morning after he was declared a bankrupt, Harry Beitzel, then 62 years old, woke up and wondered whether it was worth going on living. His temporary accommodation was a two-room bungalow behind his mother-in-law's Sydney house, a come-down from his rented flats in Sydney's Darling Point and Surfers Paradise. Next to him lay his second wife, Karolyn, 22 years his junior. Beitzel decided to go for a walk and clear his head. He took a tape with him to record his thoughts.
``On the tape I'm breathing deeply and feeling very sorry for myself.
Ooooh, I'm saying, this is the worst day. And I really felt terrible.
You sort of think to yourself, well, what's it all about? And how much more are we going to take of this? Don't forget you have to go back and somehow encourage your wife that it is all worthwhile. I was thinking that I understood why people do all sorts of stupid things, you see.
``In the greatest depths of despair, and wondering what my next move would be, a bat flew out of the tree above me and, by gee, I jumped about five feet in the air, and this tape goes on to say `Well, this could be the turning point', because if I was thinking about doing anything it's obvious I'm still too frightened to do it, so I better start to get positive. It was a sign from the tree, the bat saying `H, come on, lift your game a bit'." A FRIEND'S luxury flat in Middle Park is a long way from his mother- in-law's bungalow. Beitzel is staying here while he settles back into Melbourne. He makes Japanese tea and admires the tap that dispenses ready-boiled water. There's the old Harry amiability, the theatrical rolling of the ``R"s and the football expressions applied to life (he recently got to a function ``before acceptances", which in sport- speak means a bit early).
We talk about romantic evenings, because he says he's had a few with Karolyn, whom he married in 1982. His first wife died in 1978 ``of women's problems". ``She was coming up 50," he says, his voice dropping away. ``She suffered a lot from that change of life. You do your best, all you can ever do. You gotta look ahead." Beitzel felt a little awkward about the age difference between him and Karolyn. Initially, he says, he felt like ``this silly old bloke sitting there" with an attractive young woman. He calls it the thing blokes get in their 40s. ``I thought these sort of things don't work out, they don't last," he says. ``So we wasted a few years before getting married. She is a real fun bird. In the tough times, she's stuck. Many would have probably thought that that might not have happened." For young football fans thrilling to the excesses of Rex Hunt on 3AW, let it be said that someone came before him. For years the ``Big H", a former football umpire, was the voice of football, first on 3KZ, then, as the doyen of commentating, on 3AW. He was number one in the ratings and was paid $100,000 a year. He owned a successful public relations firm that turned over $350,000 a year, he gave hundreds of motivational talks and made up one of football's most entertaining cult double acts with the eternally aged Tommy Lahiff, a man who took technological incompetence into a comic stratosphere.
BEITZEL also worked as a promoter for Soccer Pools, giving advice to winners after toasting their success with glasses of champagne. In 1975, he was described as ``the happiest man in Australia", playing Santa Claus to struggling people ``who deserved luck like that".
And then the ``blessed life" went bad. In January 1991, he was arrested after police alleged he defrauded a Melbourne couple of their $1.8 million Soccer Pools winnings. He is still to face charges of fraudulently inducing people to invest money, receiving property by deception and conspiracy to defraud between 31 August and 11 November 1986 and obtaining a financial advantage by deception.
It is alleged that Beitzel fraudulently induced Jeffrey Doherty, who died in 1989 in an accident while trying to fix a microwave oven, and Margaret Doris Woolnough, to invest their winnings. Beitzel allegedly conspired with Neil Robert Russell to cheat and defraud the couple of their money, to have misinterpreted details to them and, unauthorised, used their money to finance a deal.
In Parliament, a then senior Labor Government minister, Steve Crabb, called Beitzel ``a blood-sucking parasite". In a news conference outside Parliament, Mr Crabb said, away from the privilege of the house, that he stood by what he said. Beitzel initiated a defamation writ against Mr Crabb, which is still pending.
On top of this, legal fees and the winding down of his promotions firm, Harry Beitzel and Associates, led to his bankruptcy. ``My income stopped," he says. ``My biggest client was the State Government and it proved a little difficult to carry on doing business with them under the circumstances." Beitzel says he is innocent of all charges. Outside the Melbourne Magistrates Court on 12 August last year, he told the media: ``It is true I am broke, but I am not broken." The bankruptcy broke Beitzel down like nothing else. He had managed to avoid it twice before. In 1961, his office equipment company lost $120,000 when it expanded too quickly. A decade later, the `Sunday News', a newspaper he helped to launch, collapsed after just 26 editions with debts estimated at $215,000.
``I'd beaten it so many times," he says. ``I felt maybe I could have done it again. The bankruptcy thing was very symbolic for me. You sit there and tell your story and you feel as though no one believes you.
You stand in the dole queue ... You've been used to helping other people get a job, and now here you are. When I would hear about friends who were down, I would do something to fix it. That hasn't happened with me. Although I wonder whether I've given them a chance or not. We've all got busy lives.
``I tried to fight my way out of this one. But it's a different world today. Executives look at things differently. It's more of an economic, faceless-type decision rather than the warmth of people sitting opposite each other." After five years in Sydney, commuting down for Saturdays and staying in five-star Melbourne hotels, Beitzel has decided to move back to the city of his birth, his heartland, and the land of real football. The son of a Fitzroy wood and coal merchant knows that in Melbourne, footy matters, that everyone is a student of the game. And Beitzel wants a part of that.
And he will try to resurrect his life. ``Being brutally honest about it all," he says, ``the anonymity of Sydney has been helpful in overcoming these problems." You've been in exile? ``Yes." Do you feel you're coming home? There is a long pause while Beitzel fights back tears.
``I am home," he says.
BEITZEL has returned to call the football on a new community radio station called 3WRB, which services parts of Melbourne's western suburbs, describing all of Footscray's games. In 1989, he had left AW for 3AK, which began broadcasting football. He left AK at the end of 1989 and the station dropped football the following year. He concedes going to AK ``wasn't the best move I ever made". Football followers have not heard his adenoidal calling since.
To football fans, the move is pregnant with irony, as 3WRB takes on Rex Hunt and the might of 3AW, whose football coverage was recently boosted by the arrival of the Coodabeen Champions from 3LO. It's a David and Goliath show, except the difference is that David once was Goliath. ``It's the biggest single challenge I could take on," Beitzel says. ``I've been at the top, number one ratings, and here I am helping to mould the (western suburbs) community, bringing in different cultures who are at this stage not involved in football. The Footscray Football Club is the most important focal point in that area." The difference in the styles of Beitzel and his successor, Rex Hunt, is like comparing Sir Ralph Richardson with Bugs Bunny (a comparison enhanced by Hunt's affection for the catchcry ``Yibbida yibbida, that's all folks"). While Hunt bases his act on vaudeville, having no hesitation telling his fellow commentators to shut up and that they're idiots, Beitzel's calling card was geniality and a reverence for those who had gone before him in football.
What does Beitzel think of his successor? Privately, he's known to believe that Hunt ``borrowed" a lot from him and that Hunt is a poor man's Beitzel. Publicly, though, he is generous. ``I think his style is great," Beitzel says. ``The man had the foresight to realise he had to do something different, which took him a couple of years.
``He says in interviews he owes everything to Harry Beitzel, blah, blah, blah. The reason for that is political, because while Ron Barassi liked him, Bill Jacobs didn't. People say there's been animosity between us. I don't know of any. I congratulate him. Anyone who has success deserves it." If the old-time sports headline writer were set loose on this saga, he may describe Beitzel's return as a ``shock selection". Riding on the coat-tails of Footscray's effort in saving itself from extinction in 1989, the rebirth of Harry Beitzel and his side-kick is being painted by Beitzel and 3WRB as the romantic story of community radio bringing the west together and taking on the big boys. But the station that ``rediscovered" Beitzel was actually his old employer, 3AW.
Beitzel's return was instigated by a telephone call from 3AW's Clark Forbes, the producer of the Neil Mitchell program. Forbes wanted Beitzel to appear on Friday mornings on Mitchell's show with Ron Barassi for a weekend preview. ``I thought it was somebody sending me up," Beitzel says. ``When I found out that it really was 3AW calling, Kaz said `That's marvellous, what an honor'. To this day I still don't know why they asked me. I often thought `Why have they given me this chance?"' Radio 3AW is wondering that, too. Beitzel did a nine-week stint before he was approached by the solicitor Peter Gordon to front 3WRB's new line-up, which Beitzel accepted. 3AW is bitter about Beitzel leaving.
Its station manager, Steve Price, said the audience share ``would be minuscule, like broadcasting from your lounge room to the street outside".
Price now calls Beitzel disloyal and regrets giving him a chance. ``I brought Harry back from the dead," he said. ``I've done him a favor which I wish I hadn't done. His loyalty was in question when he left the first time and I guess it has to be questioned again. I wish I hadn't thought of it." Rumors are flying about Beitzel's -return to commentating, including one that Peter Gordon's firm, Slater and Gordon, would help pay Beitzel's legal fees. Peter Gordon denied this. ``I have agreed that Slater and Gordon will take up some legal work for Harry, but it's separate from any remuneration he'll be getting," Despite 3AW's anger _ and the station's claim that 3WRB is ``nothing more than an arm of the Footscray Football Club" _ one thing is for sure: the move reunites Beitzel with Tommy Lahiff, who at 82 is quite possibly the oldest sports broadcaster in the world.
ON SATURDAY at Princes Park, Lahiff stood on the boundary line, the inevitable chords and equipment trailing behind him. Today, as he was 10 years ago, Lahiff is the most amazing sight in football, a shrine to equal opportunity in the workplace and football's ability to celebrate the imprecise. But football commentary is becoming increasingly specialist and Lahiff's presence is a little like George Burns still telling jokes: it doesn't matter that they're not funny, it's just incredible that he's still there.
Lahiff's job is to get interviews after the Footscray and Melbourne match. Up in the commentator's box, Beitzel was throwing to him. ``Are you there, Tommy?" Lahiff is a stooped, frail man who still sounds like a chook being strangled, a key reason for his enduring cult status. His hearing isn't quite what it was, but Beitzel insists his mind is sharp as ever, even if he recently described a player called Liberatore as Liberace.
At their peak as a double act, Harry would throw to Tommy who would invariably get something wrong. The technology was always breaking down and it was not uncommon for football players to bend over and hold the microphone for Tommy while he sorted things out. It was a chill-hearted training room doorman who refused entry to this extraordinary figure.
``I was hoping that Tommy could be part of it again," Beitzel says.
``I visited him and felt he'd slowed down. I guess he's entitled to, he's 82. I said to (Lahiff's 82-year-old wife) Freda, `What about this bloke, he seems to have all the bugs, he's got arthritis and everything else', and she said `Yes, you're right, Harry, he should do it'. And Tommy's face lit right up. I said later `Freda, I reckon Tommy's shed about five or 10 years' and she said `He's got the spring back'." ``It's great to be back," Lahiff says. ``After the game we couldn't get the line over to the rooms, though. We had a few teething problems, like it didn't work." Is he happy to be back working with Beitzel? ``Oooh, my word. I said to him, `There are plenty of people in Melbourne who like you'. It's a new life for him. He got that depressed. We used to talk on the phone and he'd be very upset. Now he's back and doing what I think he does best. He's got something to do and he's right back to his old form'." At Princes Park, Beitzel sits at the controls surrounded by football experts. He throws to Footscray premiership player, coach and western suburbs legend Charlie Sutton. ``He's Mr Footscray, I think that's a great name for him," Beitzel says. The former Footscray player Rick Kennedy says to Sutton, ``You know Charlie, when you shook a player's hand, it stayed shook". On the boundary, five children have been lined up for their predictions. Who's going to win? ``Footscray," they chant.
It's a long way from being number one.
IT WAS a strange experience for Beitzel, a man unused to defeat, to stand in a dole queue for the first time in his life. He had put it off for two years, but no money was coming in, so he went and applied for a job ``anything really, maybe public relations".
He had put it off because ``I was prejudiced _ I thought people on the dole were bludgers. Self-esteem was a tremendous problem. It teaches you how tough it is out there. I'm a far better person for it." Aside from the humiliation, it was the queue aspect that really irritated him. ``I walked in and there was this big, long queue and they were all going up to get a form. I stood back and watched, because I was a bit embarrassed. When they got the form they filled it in and then got back in the queue. It went into a basket and eventually they'd get called. I thought `What a stupid idea, why don't they put a whole pile of those forms somewhere so you wouldn't have to queue twice?' ``So I saw some girls working in this department having a cup of tea, standing around talking. I said `Excuse me, can you help me, this is a bit embarrassing for me, I had my own business for 36 years', and I don't think they were at all interested but I ploughed on. The problem was beyond them. I went to the front door and said `Aaaaah!' and left.
Then I thought `Damn it, I have to go back in'. Now I am not racist, but there was not one Australian in that queue. So I just shouted out, really at the top of my voice, like I was calling a Jesaulenko goal, `IS THERE ANYONE HERE THAT SPEAKS AUSTRALIAN AND IS AUSTRALIAN?' ``And a fella came up and said `Yes, can I help you?' I said `Yes, just stand here with me so I can talk to you'. He said `But I have to go to the back of the queue'. I said `No you don't, you're with me'.
We got quite friendly. He said `What have you got against queues?' I said it was a waste of time. `Don't queues worry you?' He said `No, this is my first day out of jail, I'm used to queues'.
``After he gave his form in _ he'd been inside for armed robbery _ he went over to a young bird and actually bought her a pie and I thought `There's a bit of decency in this bloke'. It turned out to be his wife, who wasn't coping with the trauma as well as he was. I said to her `It's not the end of the world', even though I thought it was.' Beitzel spent some time at the CES, counselling people looking for work. ``The ones I had the most effect on were blokes of about 45 who'd been in executive jobs. One bloke was going to commit suicide. I chatted to him and he took me out to his home. His wife was very worried about him. I was able to ring a friend and say `You ought to give this fellow a bit of a chance' and he's still working for my friend. I should have said to my friend I needed a job myself." Several times a day, Beitzel says a prayer out loud, the Alcoholics Anonymous catchcry. ``I say it over and over and over: `God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.' ``My friend in AA said `You've got to get people through the next minute, not the next day'. I'd given all these motivational talks. I said `Harry, you need to take some of your own advice'." Harry's back. Or rather Hally's back. Hally Beitzel. When he recited the alcoholic's prayer, the word ``courage" was pronounced with Beitzel's characteristic ``l" for ``r", so it came out as ``coullage". It sounded very familiar.
When Harry met Tommy `THE LAST year I worked I was the oldest sports broadcaster in Australia," Tommy Lahiff says. ``They thought there was someone in America older than me, but I understand he's gone into retirement, and I've just come out." Another first for Australian football.
Harry Beitzel and Tommy Lahiff first worked together in 1966 on Beitzel's Sunday morning football radio show on 3KZ. Their professional and personal friendship since has been so strong that Beitzel stipulated in his contract ``No Tommy, no me". It always worked.
Beitzel's favorite Tommy Lahiff story involved the after-match summary at a Grand Final.
``It was Richmond and Carlton, I think. I did this big build-up that we were going down to the rooms for Tommy Lahiff to talk to Tommy Hafey, so I throw down there. Nothing. So, um, what were you saying about the match, Ron? On the fourth build-up I was getting a bit dirty, so I've thrown a little tersely to Tommy and again there was nothing, but you could sort of hear Tommy breathing. You sort of think he might have been in the wrong rooms. So I said `Where are ya, Tommy?' and Tommy says `Can you hear me, Harry?' `Course I can hear you. Where are you?' He says `You won't believe this, I'm locked in the toilets with Tommy Hafey'. I said `Has Tommy got a cup of tea?' He said `He's drunk it already.' That made us, that call." Lahiff is a well-loved Port Melbourne figure. On weekdays he worked as a storeman at the Dunlop tyre factory in Port for 20 years and on Saturdays he played for the local football club. He notched up 220 games for Port from 1929. Later, he coached them and was secretary of the club. Ten years ago, he and his wife, Freda, had to move to Vermont because the noise from an overpass in Graham Street was disturbing Freda.
He still writes about football and cricket for the local Port newspaper the `Emerald Hill and Sandridge Times', which he has been doing for 13 years.
Lahiff's favorite moment was in the rooms after a Melbourne victory when he managed to get Jim Stynes's mother on the phone from Ireland.
Given that he could barely make contact with the central commentary position, this was some achievement.
``His mum said, `Is that you, Jimmy love?' and he said, `It's my mother!'. And he had tears rolling down his cheeks. And I must admit I was a bit teary, too. It was a great piece of radio work."