Q&A Michael Salmon

Welcome Michael to Just So Stories!

I know you were born in windy Wellington, New Zealand. Perhaps you could tell us a little about your childhood. Were you always interested in drawing and creating?

My first memories are of the magnificent snow-capped volcanoes viewed from our kitchen window in miserable Waiouru Military Camp in the middle of the north island of New Zealand. My Father was just finishing his NZ military service. He graduated from Duntroon in Canberra as WW2 was ending.

I remember the smell of wax crayons and coloured pencils from those days. I don’t know whether I was drawing with them … or eating them! (As you do)

We returned to Wellington then soon sailed off to England. My Father was doing post-grad work at St John’s College, Cambridge. He spent the rest of his life entrenched within the walls of academe … his specialty was French Religious history.

The UK was a magic place, Enid Blyton monthly magazines, Famous Five Club membership, and brilliant programs for children on early TV, a large collection of toy soldiers and castles and walking past cordoned off bomb-sites on London visits. Camping trips around the UK and into France, couldn’t believe it, those spoilt French kids were given watered down wine to drink!

I loved painting battles between British frigates and Spanish Galleons. After four years we returned to NZ … I was soon lost in the worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth. My room was a total world of imagination; Airfix model planes hung from the ceiling, my soldiers occupied an entire wardrobe. I constructed and painted my own scenery, battle field settings and dioramas for them. I read voraciously.

We moved to Sydney in the early 1960s ….. Bondi Beach, Twist parties and first dates finally enticed me from my room. But I still always read and painted. Our Family fell apart when my Father left my Mother, myself and my three younger siblings … and went off with another woman and remarried. She turned out to be Malcolm Turnbull’s mother, he was my step-brother for a while, we never met. He will without any doubt, be a future Prime Minister of Australia.

I wasn’t trained to do anything so I worked in a road-gang for Woollahra Council, lived in Paddington just behind the old Rushcutters’s Bay Stadium. Often sat at ‘illegally’ on the grass inside the White City Tennis courts at night and listened to Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan and more artists as they played ‘over the fence’. I wasn’t interested in the local drug scene … I just painted!


I moved to Canberra, worked hard in sawmills in Kingston and Fyshwick. I was finally brave enough to ask dear Gus Petersilka if I could display some of my paintings in his coffee lounge in Thetis Court, Manuka. Couldn’t believe it when someone actually paid money for my artwork for the first time!

I booked the Theatre Centre Gallery in the Civic complex in September 1967 for my first one man show. It was a sell-out on the opening day. I hastily rebooked it for another show in December 1967. It also was going well, however in the middle of it all on December 17th, Canberra suddenly stopped, the streets were deserted, our Prime Minister had disappeared whilst swimming at a dangerous Victorian ocean beach …. Never to be found.

The Capital shut down.

The ‘Tintookies’ Marionette Troupe were presenting a show in the large Canberra Theatre opposite the Gallery at that time. They offered me a job as a stage-manager and trainee set designer. I accepted and within a month I was learning the ropes of stage management at the old Her Majesty’s Theatre in Brisbane as they presented ‘Little Fella Bindi’

It was a truly magnificent apprenticeship into Children’s Entertainment as we toured all around Queensland in the converted Redline bus.

In a career that has spanned around 47 years of entertaining children in one way or another – from The Tintookies Marionettes in 1960s (remembered vividly by this blogger who grew up in Sydney!!) to Alexander Bunyip’s Billabong on ABC TV to the present day extensive touring and school visits – you have been bringing joy, language and learning to thousands of young Australians. Perhaps you could share some of the highlights of this extensive career, what has thrilled you most/what brings you the most personal satisfaction and what is the secret of your seemingly inexhaustible energy ;-)?

Some highlights that immediately come to mind would be:

1. When I self-published my first little amateur book in 1972, ‘The Monster that ate Canberra’. It struck a chord with the Canberra populace and was then reprinted several times. Local ABC-Radio dramatization soon occurred, and then a pantomime based on the book was presented by The Canberra Children’s Theatre in 1974.

2. The central book character, Alexander Bunyip, was then contracted to ABC-TV and in 1978 first appeared with Ron Blanchard in their own national afternoon show … ‘Arvo’. Other shows featuring Alexander were made over the next decade. The final format was ‘Alexander Bunyip’s Billabong’. The Aussie-animal puppets were made by some of the old puppet makers from those earlier days.

3. In 2004, A Federal Government Dept published a new edition (32nd Anniversary) of ‘The Monster that ate Canberra’. Every Federal Politician received a copy! (some didn’t deserve it)

4. The ACT Government commissioned a 500 kilogram bronze statue of the Bunyip in 2010. Unveiled in 2011, Alexander now stands happily in the Gungahlin Town Square next to the new Public Library, he has come back home ….

5. Another highlight was the co-invention and design of ‘Buddy Bear’ a spokesfigure for the Alannah and Madeline Foundation (The two Girls and their Mother who died in the Port Arthur massacre, 1996). It has an anti-bullying program for Schools backed by a bank and Federal/State Governments.

6. I’ve now been visiting Primary Schools around Australia for 42 years and have spoken to over 1.25 million young Aussies. Still love to entertain the kids, I’ve always considered it a privilege to be invited into the Schools.

I’ve always had lots of energy and love ‘performing’ to large groups of Students, lightning quick cartoons appear on the board, it always gets the audience right in, every time!

Love to have fully mixed age-groups in each session.

… It also helps lots if you are a bit of a show-off!!

Out in schools and for events, you seem very comfortable working with on a vertical surface, but when you are at home what does your working space look like?

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With such a crowded life, touring and writing/creating, you might not have much to time for relaxing, but if you do what are your preferred activities?

I played Rugby Union for 22 years (in the front row) so consequently now have all the bad joints and aching limbs! These days I sit for hours in front of the TV, watching current games and trying to relive past glories!

I love to travel (anywhere) and visit restaurants. Also like to cook big summer barbeques for my mob. I have a beautiful garden here in Kooyong, Melbourne … which is a source of constant enjoyment.

With several millions of your titles sold world-wide, you could be reasonably expected to be now resting on your laurels. I know that is not the case, but can you tell us what’s happening now and next with you?

Still lots of new books planned, three titles came out this year, three last year (Including some new editions)

I’ve enjoyed the last four years presenting themed sessions for School Students at the National Library of Australia in Canberra.

Next year I’ll be presenting ‘Alexander Bunyip’s National Curriculum, HISTORY IS FUN’ (for Years 3-6, early June 2015).

I’ll also be attending the 2015 Ipswich Festival of Children’s Literature (September)

I’ll be visiting NSW Riverina Schools the week before Book Week, in Sydney for Book Week then the following week up in the Central Coast, Newcastle.

Other Interstate trips planned to Western Australia, Far North Queensland, Brisbane/Gold Coast and hopefully South Australia.

Finally Michael, how would you best liked to be remembered?

I never really grew up, children recognise this very quickly and so we get along famously ….

I’d like to be remembered for this.

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Michael Salmon, thank you so very much for the great pleasure of having you as my guest on Just So Stories!