Early Australian childhood

Early Childhood Down Under in Australia

Italy Pompei Simkin Family 1964After I was born in Chalfont, St. Giles, England, my family returned down under on the SS Oriana ship to settle in Canberra, the Australian capital city of circles.

Australian Childhood

CANBERRA

It was in Canberra at our newly built home in Red Hill at 137 Mugga Way that I have vivid memories of watching on our tiny B&W TV man first landing on the moon, and my father driving away from the house in a military staff car heading off to Vietnam.  It was at this house that I learnt to swim, and it was at this house that my brothers almost killed me knowingly having me sit on a log atop a red back spiders’ nest in a game of hide and seek. The red back spiders are one of the most lethal in the world.

This was the only time in my life with normality. Family, school, playing, holidays. It was a memorable time for me, likely because it contains most of my earliest memories.

My best playmates at the time were a pair of adopted orphaned twins from Vietnam, the children of Tran Kim Phuong, who was the Vietnamese Ambassador in both Canberra and later in Washington D.C. My closest friend was Phoebe Fraser, daughter of Malcolm Fraser, who later became Prime Minister.

In January 1968 we had a lovely family holiday on board an “Aquavan”, a type of houseboat, on the nearby Hawkesbury river and we all had a ball. If memory serves, this was the only holiday we had with everyone together.

Mugga Way Toby 1st day of Red Hill School from CanberraI walked to the local Red Hill primary school every day. I remember enjoying that school, participating in sing-a-longs, playing dress up, and doing typical little boys’ things.

In 1968, we built an extension to the house, and large dining room, family room and bedroom for my oldest brother Richard. From his new bedroom away from the rest of the home, I used to watch my oldest brother Richard being naughty and ‘mooning’ the cars driving past.

This home was the only time in our family life that all my family briefly lived under one roof, so in 2017 when my mummy died, we spread a portion of her ashes on Red Hill across the street from where our house once stood.

BRISBANE

When my father returned from service in Vietnam, in 1971, he was elevated to CBE, and then we moved to Brisbane, when my father was posted to head Northern Command for the Australian Army. My sister Mandy chose to stay in Canberra at the Girl’s Grammar School, and my oldest brother Richard at the Boy’s Grammar School.

The Brisbane home was one of my favorites, called ‘Beau Rivage’, it was on a huge piece of land sitting at the top of a steep cliff filled with thick tropical flora over the Brisbane river at the very end of Dewar Terrace.  Strangely the home did not have its own pool. We were banned from using the tennis court without a parent supervising. So, my brother Tim and I used to play in the front yard on an old tire hanging from a tree. My Grandfather headed Dunlop Tire in Australia, perhaps my father got the tire for free.

Against my mummies strict rule, we used to secretly keep a cubby house inside an old anti-Japanese air raid bunker from World War II, that was halfway down the hill amongst very thick and razor-sharp lantana.  Beau Rivage was also the home of deadly snakes, poisonous spiders and other creepy crawly‘s that made it an equally dangerous place for young inquisitive boy to play.

Two or three times a year I participated in ‘rag drives’ where I would walk door to door to collect unwanted clothing from as many homes that would give my cute little face begging for anything, then carry these items inside very heavy large netted bags to my Sherwood State School where they would be sorted, cleaned and given to charity. This was my first act of charity in my life and the reward of knowing I was making a difference in other people’s lives made up for the sweat and exhaustion of dragging and lugging these heavy bags through the streets.

I remember there was a quarry between the school and our home, and often, when walking home with my brother Tim, we would get through the fence and play army. One day, he locked me inside the quarry, and hours later, once my mummy found out, she came to my rescue.

Surfers Paradise 1973 Mum Toby Mandy night before leaving for USA at Pizza PalaceAfter Beau Rivage, we moved to any child’s fantasy, the home of Disney, color TV and snow… the USA. My brother Tim stayed behind at Brisbane Grammar School. Prior to flying over on the magnificent B747, we spent a couple of weeks living on the Gold Coast, and a special farewell dinner at our favorite pizza place to save bye too my sister Mandy.

Thanks to the history preserved in my mothers memoirs, here are a few fun moments:

June 1965

July 1965

November 1970

July 1971

Most interesting family home Beau Rivage (Brisbane, Australia)

Beau Rivage was an interesting home -- nestled behind iron gates at the very end of Dewar Terrace, on it's own 1¾ areas of land, it included not only the house and a self contained cottage, but also a jungle that poured down a steep slope to the Brisbane River.  Halfway down the slope was a bomb shelter, built during the WWII, to provide protection from Japanese air raids.  

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Return down under

Australian Youth

BRISBANE (again)

Rolling the clock forward 3 years after our time Washington D.C., I returned down under to settle in Brisbane.

Toby at Brisbane Grammar School (1979) with drama awardsI was sent to Brisbane Grammar School where I had an absolutely hideous time. I skipped a year of school since the USA education was better than Australia at the time. My older brother was captain of the rugby team.

At school, I was bullied badly by another student for being a year younger, not into sports and for topping highest grades in Australia in the new drama subject which at the time automatically made me a “poofta”. I could not live up to my sportsman brother, my school peers, nor to my parents’ expectations. In a school solely focused on sport and manliness, I felt hopeless and worthless.

I maintained friendships with really only 3 other students – a brilliantly minded sarcastic history expert that went onto be a career professor in his own right, a quick-witted horse racing gambling radio jockey thespian, and a brilliant son of a surgeon with a mathematical mind, none of which were into sports, all of which enjoyed dabbling in the school theatre programs. I guess, in retrospect you could say we were the outcasts.

We collectively produced, directed, designed, stole the props, made the costumes, marketed, technically managed, swept the floors, sold tickets for and acted in various school productions including SWEENEY TODD; HOTEL PARADISO; CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA; TOAD OF TOAD HALL; DARK OF THE MOON; CHARLEY’S AUNT (I played the foppish Col. Sir Francis Chesney Bart) and THE REAL INSPECTOR HOUND in the schools Centenary Hall. My first “resident” theatre.

During my Grammar School years my parents then went through a messy divorce (I found my Dad in bed with our neighbors’ wife) – my brother sided with my Dad, I with my Mum, which clearly, in retrospect, had a long-lasting profound effect on me.  As a result of this, coupled with the bullying, I was sent for counseling to the schools psychologist… but that’s another story.

XII Commonwealth GamesWhile at school, I started my lifelong love of volunteering with the Royal Flying Doctor Service, and shortly after spent years volunteering with the Queensland Theatre Company Guild, assisting in subscription sales, PR, administration, rehearsals and backstage.  Later, working for the then upcoming XII Commonwealth Games and took great pride in being volunteer 0001, working in a variety of functions.

Elizabeth Bequest Scholarship to Toby Simkin (The Courier Mail)But, my real lifelong career began with winning the Elizabeth Bequest Scholarship affording me the tremendous opportunity to work with the TN Theatre and Queensland Theatre companies, finally in paid positions.  These in turn, led me to work with the Queensland Marionette Theatre, the all new Lyric Opera of Queensland, The Australian Opera and the Melbourne Theatre Company.

These, gave me the foundation, training and confidence to head to Broadway, London and globally.

All of this, gave me the incredible thrill to work over 4 decades with a huge variety of iconic stars.

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My temporary pivot away from theatre.

Toby Australian Army PaycheckMy father detested my obvious love of the theatre and did a lot of things to try to change it. From using his influence to bug my apartment (which my mum told me about), and a telephone campaign with my theatrical peers to defame me (which my TN Theatre Company Artistic Director, and Director at the Arts Theatre told me about). Twice that I can vividly recall, I seriously contemplated suicide.

I was ‘forced’ by my father to join the army (after about 6 months in army intelligence, I found a way to get out of it, on the advice of another Brigadier, and family friend (whom I secretly wanted to adopt as my own father), and received my final paycheck for 0.03 cents which was framed — the postage was 0.25 cents.

Toby Diploma Hospitality ManagementI was pressured by family into a quick education in hospitality management, which led me to being the lead cocktail barman at then brand new Sheraton Hotel & Towers in Brisbane where I had the awkward honour of asking Bruce Springsteen to leave the bar for wearing jeans (against our dress code policy), and where I met Queensland’s “mafia” investors.  Maybe subliminally, I wanted to push back on my father’s pressure, but when the investors invited me to create a uniquely theatrical bar, I jumped at the chance, and the bar is still in operation today, 30+ years later.

The pendulum swing back to theatre.

Eventually, with too much parental, government and media pressure on me, I chose to buy a one-way ticket to the USA, with no visa, no money and no plan, other than to aim for Broadway to attempt to reacquaint myself with my feelings from my Queensland Theatre Company days.

All’s well that ends well.

After my success on Broadway my father and I made amends on the encouragement of his then (3rd) wife who had him admit and apologize for his behavior decades prior.  I introduced him to Broadway leadership, theatre owners and actors.  I gave him behind the scenes tours of theatres, and house seats to see many shows.  Indeed, in the months preceding his death, and after apologies from him “I did anything I could, and what I thought was right at the time, to stop your homosexuality by getting you away from the theatre life, clearly I was wrong“, we reconciled — indeed, he thanked me for providing for my mum (his 2nd wife) over the years, and congratulated me for finding a good career that suited me.  He accepted DJ as his son-in-law, and we spent a fabulous Christmas together at my farm.

April 1976

July 1976

January 1978

May 1978

July 1981

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Now, nearly 4 decades and a couple of hundred shows later, happily partnered for well over 3 decades, I remain eternally grateful to my family of fantastic people of the Queensland Theatre Company who lifted me out of my doldrums, particularly the administrators, executives and creative leadership and set my international career on a fabulous trajectory.

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In 2007, I hosted a very special 80th Birthday party for my mother in Canberra

Mum 80th Birthday

December 29th, 1972|Reference, Travel, World|
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