Life in the Land of Oz

Philadelphia Inquirer – November 9, 1986

FOR MOST AMERICANS, AUSTRALIA IS SORT OF ANOTHER, albeit somewhat oversize, South Sea island in this sense: We have a fairly good idea where it is - but we aren't at all sure just what goes on there.

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BETTY BOBBITT

Melbourne, Victoria

Anyone who ever followed the syndicated TV series Prisoner: Cell Block H, which ran on KYW-TV (Channel 3) in Philadelphia until 1984, is sure to remember Judy Bryant. She was the dumpy, lesbian prisoner known for her kind, motherly ways. In the five years that she "lived" in Wentworth Detention Centre, she was raped, almost murdered, escaped, found out she had a long-lost daughter, and finally was paroled.

No one knew her better than Betty Bobbitt, the actress who portrayed her in the Australian-made TV series, known there as Prisoner.

How did a nice girl from Philadelphia ever end up in a part like that? It was largely luck, along with a willingness to take chances. A fluke of an opportunity more than 25 years ago led Betty to Australia.

The country's second-largest city is actually a lot like Philadelphia. Both are cities of neighborhoods. And like Philadelphia, Melbourne's border lines are fiercely drawn. Its downtown has the bustling World Trade Centre, state government buildings and fashionable Collins Street, with its "Paris end" (a row of exclusive designer shops similar to those on Walnut Street near Rittenhouse Square). But away from the downtown there begin to appear shop signs in Greek (Melbourne has the second-largest Greek population of any city in the world after Athens), Hebrew, Turkish and a variety of Slavic and Asian languages. Across the Yarra River is trendy Toorak, with its boutiques, townhouses and cult-movie theaters.

Like Philadelphia, Melbourne has a Richmond section. (It's mostly Vietnamese.) Some homes in the city are attached wooden-and-brick structures, resembling those in Olney or West Philadelphia. Others are ornately Victorian. Public housing high-rises loom over North Melbourne.

Linking all these neighborhoods are green-and-cream electric trams that look strikingly like the older SEPTA trolley cars. And MetRail, Melbourne's commuter rail line, is almost the spitting image of the Paoli or Chestnut Hill locals. These silver trains go to similar suburbs with such wonderfully English names as Hurstbridge, Sandringham and Glenhuntly. (A little farther out, by the way, are Horsham and Daylesford).

Disgruntled SEPTA riders, take heart: Things could actually be worse. MetRail passengers have become inured to strikes every few months and to trains being canceled daily without explanation, often during rush hour. Labor unrest is almost unremitting. During what one could call a typical week in the Land of Oz last year, the MetRail trains were on strike; Melbourne's tram and bus drivers were also threatening to walk off; a labor dispute had crippled operations at one city hospital, and workers at two others walked off their jobs in sympathy. There was no telling when any mail would get to or from Sydney - its postal workers were on strike. And yet another dispute had bollixed TV programming at the Australian Broadcasting Corp., the government owned network similar to America's Public Broadcasting Service.

Betty's working-class community, Clifton Hill, could almost be mistaken for Norristown, where she spent her teenage years. It is a stop on the rail line. Graffiti mar the station sign. But instead of "Kool Earl," the scrawl declares "Free Norm!" ("Norm" is Norm Gallagher, a powerful union leader imprisoned after a bribery conviction.) Betty lives a block from the station in a one-story house that blends into the neighborhood.

There's still a lot of the little girl left in the vivacious, well-spoken 47-year-old. Over a lunch of bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches - a carryover from her American childhood - she talks wistfully, with an acquired Australian accent, about what it was like growing up as Betty Ann Bobbitt in North Philadelphia.

Furrowing her brow in concentration, she recalls Catholic grammar school in Philadelphia, moving to Norristown, and frequent trips to downtown Philly. She remembers the Reading Terminal's being the gateway to all things fun and fascinating: Horn & Hardart, Gimbels, the Art Museum. Her mind was set on acting when she graduated from Norristown High School.

Her aspirations drove her to Los Angeles. And that's where she was in 1962 when she was "discovered." She was in a production of Auntie Mame, and an Australian producer approached her after the show. He "asked me if I wanted to come to Australia and be funny," she says, cackling. She would be doing this on a nighttime TV variety show.

Betty, then 22, thought of the six-month contract as an adventure and took the free cruise to Sydney, then on to Melbourne. As she tells it, the next thing she knew, there was Betty Ann Bobbitt on television, transformed into a "female Victor Borge, singing off-key and just plain acting like a dumb brunette." Her Australian audience believed she was straight from a place called "Big Bear, Pennsylvania."

Betty played dumb for a year to rave reviews - all in her scrapbook. Her next "act" upstaged any immediate thoughts of returning to Philadelphia. She married an Australian artist. Her first vision of him was at a party, "standing on his head. He proposed on the first date. I didn't quite know what to do." She says it took her another year to really get used to subtle changes. Making due without maple syrup at breakfast. Learning to like Vegemite, the bitter spread that Australians put on bread. It can really assault a Yank palate, much to the glee of the Aussies brought up on it. Vegemite looks like coagulated motor oil, but it is a protein-laden yeast extract that Australians swear by. In the hit tune Down Under from a few years back, Men at Work sings, "Do you speak-a ma language? / She just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich."

The slower pace also took some getting used to. Here Betty was in a city of more than two million people, and life was "so laid-back . . . I realized I didn't have to get things done in an hour anymore."

(Even in high-pressure settings such as the newsroom at the Melbourne Age, one of Australia's biggest and most respected newspapers, things have a mellow aspect. When the first edition is finished, journalists of both sexes promptly get up from their computer terminals and head straight for the men's bathroom. The lounge area has been converted into a makeshift pub, complete with dart board and a fridge full of beer. There's no need to feel guilty, because the boss is downing a can or two as well. Then everyone just as promptly heads back to work.)

In 1979, Betty, now divorced and with two sons, got the break that was to make her a worldwide TV star: the role of Judy Bryant. She says the part was so believable that "people on the street used to ask me for advice." But after five years of 13-hour days, she begged off. Supposedly, Judy wrote a love song about her girlfriend, and it was such a hit that the prison had no choice but to parole her. "So off I rode into the sunset," she laughs. Now, the actress has turned playwright.

Betty says she likes her life in Oz. Outside, it's a misty, raw spring day in October, but inside her French doors, it's cozy. Lots of plants, books and prints. But she says she misses Christmas in Philadelphia - Melbourne swelters in the heat of December - and she calls the Quaker city "part of my heritage." She craves "hot pretzels with mustard slopped on them." And Australia's Cadbury's chocolate just isn't the same as Hershey bars with almonds. "Oh, my God!" she exclaims, rolling her eyes.

But she has a bone to pick with America. She says she's always irked by the American attitude that "the United States is the best" and with the country's turning a blind eye to how the rest of the world lives.

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EPILOGUE

The interviews for this story were conducted during an extended visit to Australia in the fall of 1985. As this article went to press, each of the people was re-interviewed to see what changes, if any, had occurred in their lives. For Janet Giblett, as well as for Steve and Marietta, life had continued more or less in the same groove. But, surprisingly, two of the expatriates had returned to the United States.

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Betty Bobbitt is back in Philadelphia. The former soap-opera star says an intense longing to see her brother - her only living relative – brought her and her 12-year-old son back to America in September. "I wanted to finally meet his wife and three daughters, and he couldn't come to Melbourne. I was in a better position to go there."

"There" was Wayne, in northern New Jersey, but Betty wasted no time paying a visit to Philadelphia. One look at City Hall, and she was gripped by nostalgia, "right in the gut." And it seemed just like Melbourne, peaceful. "Not like New York, which scared me to death," she says.

At age 47, more than a quarter of a century later, the Australian celebrity is learning an important lesson: People - and memories – are what's really important about a place. She immediately fulfilled a fantasy that nagged her the entire time in Melbourne - finding and renewing a friendship with her "best" girlhood friend. And she decided that after traveling such a long way, she might as well stay and experience the winter she's missed for decades. A real Philadelphia winter reminiscent of childhood. In December, not June. Downright cold and snowy at times, not just raw and misty like the Melbourne winter.

She's got an apartment in Center City - outfitted with a case of Vegemite that traveled with her - and she figures she'll try her new-old home town for about a year, acting and writing plays. "It's going to be bloody hard. I'd better learn to speak the language if I'm going to be an actor here," she declares in an Australian accent that's as pronounced as ever.

"Some people might think it crazy to make such a big move," she says. "But at my age, I felt it was important to tie up all the emotional ends."

Laura Lippstone

This article also featured interviews with other Americans living in Australia, but that text has been omitted.

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