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Bobby Limb

My life has fallen into a few stages.

As a child, I lived in Box Hill when it was village. I then became pastor to the slums of inner Melbourne for eight years. I was then a country parson and a teacher at a one teacher bush school out at Jackson Creek in Western Victoria and then for 13 years, I was a suburban minister in one of Australia’s largest suburban ministries.

And then, for more than 27 years I’ve been Superintendent in Sydney of Wesley Mission, Australia’s largest church ministry.

I’ve told you stories of people in each of these places.

Tonight I want you to come with me into the heart of the city.

Shortly after arriving at Wesley Mission in the close of the 1970’s I made an acquaintance of a man I had much admired for his skill on television. It was Bobby Limb: the remarkable entertainer who had won so many Gold Logies. Bobby had been born in South Australia and at a very early age had become an entertainer. He went to the top of the entertainment business in Australia with his long running television programs.

I had met with principal players in the conflicts over the development of Darling Harbour. When I arrived, Darling Harbour was a collection of old warehouse, derelict buildings, purpose served within this whole site. A remarkably innovative man, Mr. Tom Hayson saw the potential of the whole site. He was to expend his entire fortune in trying to develop the site and then develop all of the hotels, shopping complexes and entertainment centres around it. He had the vision that Darling Harbour would become the population and tourist centre of Sydney. He was 20 years ahead of his time in one way because the cost of development became so great that eventually he was overwhelmed by cost.

One other protagonist who came to see me at the time was the owner of a portion of the land, Mr Ian Yates. He was to fight a long battle against the Darling Harbour Authority to get proper compensation for what seemed to be the resumption of his land by the newly formed Darling Harbour Authority, which was established by the then Premier Neville Wran Q.C. It was in the midst of all of these legal actions and hullabaloo that Bobby Limb was appointed the Entertainment Director of Darling Harbour and came to see me about the use of Wesley Mission resources, musicians and entertainers to help provide entertainment at Darling Harbour from it’s earliest stage. We immediately struck up a very close friendship and over the next 15 years that friendship meant a great deal to me.

Later on as Darling Harbour developed, Bobby held his office in one of the Merlin buildings and I frequently had a cup of coffee with him and talked about new developments we wanted to undertake. In the late 1980’s we were to develop with Mary Lopez Productions An Australian Christmas at Darling Harbour, and for the last dozen years this has been one of the most successful and well-attended Christmas functions. It is the only Christian Christmas production held in the centre of the city. Each year we have over 1,000 singers, dancers, actors, musicians portraying on the huge stage the true meaning of Christmas with all the best carols and the story of Mary and Joseph coming the Bethlehem where Jesus Christ was born in a manger. Over the years, I have had a succession of wonderful co-hosts, usually from the entertainment and media industries, who have joined with me in compering the program. Frequently, Bobby was a guest on my radio and television programs.

Bobby was always a visionary and as the founder of The Showman Limited he organised nation-wide tours of some of Australia’s greatest artists. He also had an interest in developing young talent, and on these tours took some of the most competent up and coming young talent and exposed them to huge audiences. Bobby was man who developed the Aqua Shell. Anchored in the centre of Darling Harbour, the Aqua Shell housed an orchestra plus singers who would put on a wonderful performance for crowds of people who lined the wharf and the foreshore. Bobby Limb had been honoured by the Queen with an OBE and was certainly one of the most loved and outstanding Australian entertainers.

His life, however, was not an easy one and was frequently touched with tragedy.

His strong desire to develop his musical gift meant that he left Adelaide for Melbourne in 1946 where he joined Bob Gibson’s Big band at Palm Grove, Earl’s Court. Bobby played the saxophone and enchanted people. After a couple of years with Bob Gibson he was invited to form his own band at a well-known Melbourne nightclub called Ceros. Consequently as a very young man, he was playing nightly in his own big band in a nightclub as well as giving concerts on Sundays. When he came to Sydney in 1950 he was the youngest bandleader in Australia and possibly in the world.

Three years later he married Dawn Lake. Dawn was to become the love of his love. He was playing at the Colony Club and had a singer named Babs McKinnon who left him to go into a play. He needed another singer straight away and went down to the Celebrity Club to see one who had a good reputation. She was Dawn Lake. She left the Celebrity Club and came to the Colony Club and sang with Bobby. They fell in love and twelve months later they got married. As part of their honeymoon they went to London and there Bobby made a name for himself on the new media of television. In 1953 he became a musician and presenter on Benny Hill’s Showcase. He was soon making a name for himself when he was invited to come form London back to work on the Tivoli circuit here in Australia. It was while he was doing that that Ken Hall, the manager at TCN9, asked him to put a 90-minute musical special together to celebrate the first birthday of TCN9.

It was a beautiful program with some sketches, good music and starts such as Johnnie O’Connor. It was such a success that on that day Ken Hall went to Bobby and signed him up to produce a program called The Bobby Limb Show. In turn that same show which ran for many, many years became The Mobil Limb Show and then became Bobby Limb’s Sound of Music. Dawn featured in a comedy routine known as “Here’s Dawn”. Dawn developed her skill in comedy and become Australia’s foremost comedienne. Her role as a housewife gossiping over the side fence became an icon of Australian television recognisable anywhere. Although they were both extremely busy with their own television careers, they were also doing some legitimate theatre, treading the boards. Bobby starred in a musical comedy called “No No Nannette” with the Hollywood dancer Cyd Charisse. Then he played the lead role in a drama called “Norman, is that you?”

Bobby always loved the live stage and over the years featured in many plays. One that he did in about 1980, as I remember, was a play that Jack Lemmon had done in New York. It was called:”Tribute”. “Tribute” was a remarkable story of an entertainer called Scotty Templeton was in show business but who got cancer. Struck down by cancer, he had to find deep reserves within himself in order to enable him to cope. The ironic thing is that Bobby Limb had been struck down with cancer himself in 1967. That cancer was going to bob up again in his life over the next 30 years and was a source of constant worry. After his fist bout with cancer he recovered and went on just as busy as ever.

One day in 1984 Bobby was my guest on my television program “Turn ‘Round Australia”. It was a remarkable interview and one that played a part in turning Bobby’s life right around. While I was talking to him about his trial with cancer Bobby said, “I believe that there have been three trials in my life. The first was my battle with cancer in 1967. Before that I had always been aware of God, but God played no part in my life. But 1967 when I was struck down by cancer I didn’t know whether I was going to live or die. Neither did my team of doctors or anybody else. It was then that I became aware of things like frangipannis and flowers and bees and sunshine. While I was in hospital I became very aware of the beauty in the world.”

I asked him what was the second trial in his life. He replied with tears welling up in his eyes, “The second trial that came upon me was when Dawn and I split up. It was there I experienced dreadful loneliness, but I experienced forgiveness. We had been married for 20 years, but because of the business of show business we drifted apart and did not learn how to communicate with each other. We separated and went our own ways. We were apart for 14 months. There were times when I would come and visit Dawn and stand at the door and knock, being totally tongue-tied and not knowing what to say. It was during these 14 months that our hearts began to grow together again and we were reunited. Now we have a marriage deeper and richer and stronger than ever. God sort of said to me, although I didn’t realise it was God, “OK, you have learned your lesson. Now the pair of you get back together again.”

Bobby said to me that he regarded the coming back together again of himself and Dawn as being really a miracle. “We realised how much deeper our love was and how much more we just respected each other. It was just a lovely warm feeling from there on.”

I said to him what was your third trial? Bobby looked at me and a sad look came over his face. “My third actually started last year in 1983. At the beginning of the year I had a terrible business experience. I had miscalculated a number of things and I suddenly realised I was going to lose everything: My name and my trust, and my home and all the material things I had. It was just a gigantic mistake.”

Bobby had invested heavily in some new developments and like Tom Hayson, Bobby had thought big and put a lot of money in a couple of ventures. They were not successful at that time, although later on they grew to become very successful. One was the development of the Sydney Harbour Showboat. This huge paddle steamer, today accompanied by a second identical craft, plies through the water of Sydney Harbour with hundreds of tourist on board every night. There on the stage is one of the most wonderful singing, dancing vaudeville programs that you could imagine. On one occasion I took two American friends on the cruise. They met Bobby during the course of the evening. They were so impressed by the boat, the show, and Bobby that when they returned to the America they searched for a special gift for him. It was a miniature gold saxophone in a leather box. Bobby was deeply impressed when I presented it to him and always kept it in his office. But like many new enterprises the “Showboat” took a long time to catch on. He had been most anxious to tap into the Japanese tourist market and I remember him talking to me about the design of a big woolshed where tourist would sit down for a typical Australian meal and there would be whip cracking, sheep shearing, Australian songs and music and a bush band. These projects, magnificently executed, failed to make money and there was Bobby Limb: entrepreneur, showman, musician, and television personality, with a bookcase full of Logies, facing the crisis of bankruptcy.

In early 1984, someone asked Bobby to come and speak at a Christian men’s meeting. He said, “I went along with an open heart planning to tell them about my life in show business. As I was speaking I thought, “I don’t know what’s going to happen to my future”. I said simply, “Lord I am in your hands”. I had ever committed myself to God before, I simply spoke about similar things that have happened in my life and suddenly I became aware that I had to say to God, “Lord, I am in Your hands.” All of a sudden I felt a sense of great joy flow over me and looking at the people in the studios I said to them, “Would some of you please come forward and help me right now to commit myself to God.”

And the Christian businessmen swarmed up onto the stage and Bobby knelt down and people laid their hands on him and prayed that he might have the indwelling presence of God.

Bobby said to me, “It was a marvellous feeling. It’s true. Gordon that there have been people like myself who for 16 or 17 years have hung on the brink, believed that God existed but never committed themselves to Him. I was thinking, “I might have to give up something, I might have to do something” and I never stepped over the brink. But then on that day I stepped over the brink and said to those men, “Please help me commit myself to the Lord” and they did. I felt that I was washed and cleaned and the joy that I felt inside I can never explain. As you said, Gordon on your television program last week, saying how simple it is and what joy there is. I can remember listening to people talk about that joy and I used to think, “I can’t get that”. Boy, believe me—it is there for anyone if you take that step just over the brink and trust God.”

Bobby’s whole life was changed. His love with Dawn, his wife, grew deeper. His closeness to his family became more meaningful and his whole purpose in life began to be enriched. Dawn and he grew closer to his daughter and the family became an integrated unit, worshipping God regularly and serving people in the community.

Bobby was to have one more trial in his life. It was the onset of diabetes and eventually Bobby died with this disease. The Bobby Limb Foundation continues to help people suffering from diabetes.

On many occasions Bobby helped me at Wesley Mission and we developed a firm friendship. He and Dawn were the first couple of the Australian entertainment industry and I was privileged to be part of his life.

The city of Sydney would grow to be one of the world’s great cities and Wesley Mission would grow to be one of the world’s great churches and I was privileged to spend each day in the heart of both.

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