The early years

 

John Truscott was born in 1936 in the Melbourne suburb of Caulfield and, throughout his life, regardless of all the achievements and accolades won elsewhere, returning to Melbourne was always, for him, ‘coming home.’ He loved everything about the city; its lush public gardens, grand Victorian architecture, eclectic restaurants, abundant markets, hidden laneways and secret spaces and, above all, its people. He would say that ‘a friend in Australia is quite different from a friend elsewhere. It is a warmer, much more open and direct friendship than I’ve encountered anywhere else in the world.’

John’s intuitive feeling for design surfaced early. At sixteen, while still a trade student at Caulfield Technical College, he send a folio of drawings to the director of The National Theatre, the formidable Gertrude Johnson, enquiring after work. She responded immediately with an offer for him to design the company’s next production, Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’

 

St Martin’s Theatre and Camelot

Word soon got around about this young, new, talented designer and directors Irene Mitchell, Peter Randall and George Fairfax were quick to invite him to join them at St Martin’s Theatre, a company with a reputation for a wide-ranging, thought-provoking repertoire. John spent six years as resident designer at St Martin’s and designed more than eighty productions. He would say later that it was here, under the exacting eye of his ‘theatrical mum,’ Irene Mitchell, that he truly learned his trade.

During this time John met Garnett Carroll, owner of one of Melbourne’s oldest and grandest theatres, the Princess Theatre. Carroll was impressed by what he had seen of John’s work and began to commission him to design for the big shows he was bringing in from overseas; The King and I, West Side Story, The Music Man and The Most Happy Fella.

In 1963 the other major production company in town, J. C. Williamson’s, approached John to design what would be its most lavish production to date, Learner and Lowe’s Camelot starring Paul Daneman and Jacquelyn McKever. Produced by the legendary choreographer and producer Betty Pounder it marked the beginning of a remarkable life-long friendship.

Soon after completing Camelot and aided by funds raised by Irene Mitchell, John set out for London. Such was his reputation in Australia by this time, the Herald critic was prompted to write ‘that while John goes to London for experience, I hope England profits from the experience.’

 

London

Arriving in London, John was immediately approached by Robert Helpmann, who had seen his work at St Martin’s Theatre, and asked to design the London production of Camelot. It was a major success and from then on John found himself plied with commissions from Sadler’s Wells, the Festival Ballet and from the West End. Eighteen, exhausting months later, he received a phone call from Hollywood producer, Jack Warner, inviting him to America to design the film version of Camelot.

 

Hollywood

John now found himself in control of a design studio and production workshops covering several acres of the Warner Brother’s studio lot in Hollywood and loved it. His close friend and collaborator, Graeme Bennett, observed that ‘John slipped into the Californian way of life like the true film fan he had always been. He loved the warmth, the space, the optimism and being surrounded by beautiful people. For the rest of his life John never lost his fascination with America and the best it had to offer: its energy and enthusiasm, its brashness and optimism and the belief that absolutely everything was possible. True to the spirit of the place he even owned a leopard for awhile!’

In 1968 John won two Academy Awards for costume design and for art direction for Camelot. Joshua Logan in a letter to him wrote, ‘you’ve made this picture have the kind of beauty I dreamed it might have, but never really believed it would.’ Two years later he was nominated once again for art direction on Paint Your Wagon.