From the mid-1960s, Anne Wills became part of our lives as the wise-cracking glamour girl on TV. After a few quiet years, the 76-year-old performer talks to SALIFE about her new cabaret show that recreates the golden age of television.
Anne Wills: Wills power
Anne Wills jokes that you’ve made it in showbiz when you’re known by one name, like Kylie, Madonna – and Willsy.
Anne has simply been “Willsy” ever since she burst onto our tiny black and white TV screens in the mid ’60s.
She was our first ever weather girl, equal parts beauty and brash, in an era when women were supposed to be more eye candy than entertainment. But Anne was the full package, quick witted and able to hold her own with the blokes in the double-entendre banter of the early days of live television.
Viewers connected with her relatability and her willingness to send everything up, including herself.
The public also lived through Anne’s personal ups and downs, which she often shared openly on TV. From the fantastic high of 19 Logie awards to the devastating low of her husband’s death in a plane crash, Anne’s triumphs and tragedies were part of South Australian life for decades.
“They’re not just my tragedies, I’ve had the whole state go through my marriages with me, all my divorces, my widowhood, and I’ve been very lucky with the media in this town, they’ve been lovely to me,” she says.
Today, at 76, (she describes herself as “70 plus GST”), Anne still wears her signature huge earrings and perfectly made-up face every day. Despite a bad knee at the moment she’s in great shape and retains the sparkle; that cheeky glint that first caught the eye of Channel Nine executive Rex Heading back in 1965.
Heading spotted the young hopeful when she entered the Miss Telethon Quest, quickly recognising her natural talent and gift of the gab. She was the obvious choice to fill the new role of female weather presenter.
“I thought, after three weeks I’ll hate it or they’ll hate me,” Anne says. “I said to Mum it will all be over in about a month.”
Anne was not totally new to performing. She and younger sister Susan performed concerts for ships coming to and from Ocean Island, a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean where she grew up.
The family moved there from Wangaratta when Anne was 18 months old, as her father Harry ran the provisions store. It was an idyllic lifestyle; Anne didn’t wear shoes until she was 14.
When her older sister Margaret married an Adelaide man and moved to SA in the early 1960s, the whole family relocated. Harry got work as an accountant with Holden while Anne’s mother Queenie ran the home in the sparkling new suburb of Para Hills.
Sadly, not long after the move, Harry passed away while taking part in the ANZAC Day March in 1965. He was a World War ll veteran who fought on the Kokoda Trail.
“He finished the march on Anzac Day, got to the Cross of Sacrifice and dropped dead,” Anne says. “Thank God he didn’t do that at home because we wouldn’t have been able to pick him up. It was a huge loss.”
Anne, who dreamed of becoming a movie star, threw herself into her new role on the television. She began presenting the weather alongside iconic news reader Kevin Crease and their funny, genuine rapport proved a winning formula with viewers.
“I would stuff up every day but I would laugh about it and Creasy would laugh about it,” she says.
“I think having Creasy beside me was the greatest gift because he made light of everything. You’d have doom and gloom in the news but he made so much fun of things. I remember the time he had to talk about a new building in North Adelaide and say it was ‘a major erection’. He said it and couldn’t go any further, just collapsed. And I’m standing beside him ready to do the weather – commercial break!
“He was so good to me. When I think about how fabulous that time was, there was no sexual tension or anything, he just took me under his wing and taught me how to relax in front of a camera.”
Establishing herself as a local celebrity, Anne was regularly in the paper, described often as “bubbly”, “vivacious”, and our “Logie-winning sweetheart” with “a bright countenance”.
In 1966, she caused a sensation when she famously wore a bikini while presenting the weather. She’d promised to wear it if the weather reached 100 degrees (fahrenheit).
“Look at the bikini,” she laughs. “It was about six inches wide, very boring.”
And yet, this was in an era when it was deemed acceptable for Nine management to ask Anne to unbutton her blouse and reveal more cleavage while presenting the weather.
“It was all sexual back then, there was a lot of double-entendre, if not straight out dirty, but we all responded the same way,” Anne says.
“But I always say I slept my way to the middle, because no one wanted to do the casting couch that I’d heard about. That never happened.”
There was one famous liaison, however, with American actor William Shatner. Anne sat next to the Star Trek star at a dinner at Lido restaurant and became completely and uncharacteristically tongue tied.
“This was Star Trek, Captain Kirk; he was beautiful,” she says. “He’d heard about the lights of Adelaide and asked if I had a car and could show him.”
They drove to Windy Point, then went back to William’s room at the Airport Hotel where, Anne jokes, “He beamed me up a couple of times”.
As her profile grew, so too did the public interest in Anne’s private life. When she began dating soldier Graham Smith, his return from service in Vietnam made the papers as “Anne’s boy is home!”. So, too, their wedding made the front page of The News and, sadly, their divorce a few years later.
By 1967 Anne had been named as the new barrel girl on variety TV show Adelaide Tonight, hosted by Ernie Sigley.
The fun format allowed Anne more freedom, more room to shine as herself, the funny sidekick.
“Ernie taught me everything I didn’t know about television,” Anne says. “He taught me to be a bit cheeky and disrespectful, to respond as quickly as I could, and he’d tell me to say a joke, that was my job.
“He said, ‘G’day Willsy, how are things?’ and I said, ‘Mine are fine, how are yours?’. That was just the way we talked back then, but I realised it was a bit naughty. But he was laughing and the audience were laughing.”
The duo worked well and the Logie awards for Most Popular Female Personality soon followed. All up, Anne won 19 Logie awards throughout her career, an Australian record to this day.
An album release in the early 1970s, Colour My World, was non-eventful. “I always say it wasn’t released, it escaped,” Anne laughs, showing off the LP.
By 1974 the popular personality had scored a new role, co-hosting Penthouse Club with Bob Francis. The show was an unusual mix of Globe Derby trotting races, interspersed with musical acts.
“We would cross to race one, then come back and have someone do a song. Barry Humphries came in the early days of Dame Edna,” Anne says. That show, too, resulted in a host of Logie awards, but was canned because, by 1975, colour television was on the way and the show was deemed too expensive to produce.
By 1976 Anne began her “afternoons hosting” role, introducing soap opera Days of our Lives. She famously became close friends with Days of Our Lives stars Susan and Bill Hayes after interviewing them in 1977. It is a friendship that exists to this day and Anne has made several visits to stay with them in the US.
A night out with friends at the Old Lion Hotel in 1976 led to an introduction to a dapper insurance broker named Michael Fenwick. Michael would become Anne’s second husband and, she says, the true love of her life.
“He had the most wicked sense of humour and he was very confident,” she says. “He had his own business and I suppose I was just ready to be swept off my feet by this man.
“The public went through the whole romance with me when I was doing the afternoons show. I remember saying on air, ‘He’s asked me to marry me and I think I said yes’.”
Sadly, just a few years later, tragedy struck when Michael was killed in a light plane crash. He was flying the plane, the only person on board, when it crashed into the side of a mountain near Halls Gap. It’s a night Anne will never forget.
“I was on my way to pick Michael up from the airport and I remember feeling like I was being immersed in warm butter or oil,” she says. “It was like being wrapped up in a blanket, it’s hard to describe, but I’ve never had that feeling before or since. I was driving Michael’s beautiful black Porsche and I felt fabulous. I was thinking, ‘You know what, I’ve got a great life, I’m on the TV, I’ve got a lovely husband and a lovely house in Walkerville and a dog and cat’. So, all of this was me thinking how nice my life was, but I believe that warm feeling was Michael telling me to get ready. It happened at the time his plane went down.”
The Adelaide public mourned with “Willsy” as news of Michael’s death hit the headlines.
“I had thousands of letters from viewers and Channel Nine said in the end you won’t be able to reply to them all, so I put a big thank you message in the newspaper,” Anne says.
“I also spoke about it all on air. I said, ‘Hey, I’ve been through a lot but not this before’. When you had people sending you lovely letters, and the occasional bad one, that was our only social media back then.
“So many people were kind enough to share their stories with me. I don’t know how I would have gotten through that otherwise.”
Anne says children have never been part of her plan and she is still “not a baby person”.
“When my sisters and friends had babies they’d say, ‘Hold the baby’ and I’d back away,” she says. “I’m a great aunty and I love them all. Susan has two children and my sister Margaret, who has passed away now, had three.
“Maybe I was shirking responsibility but once I started my career, I wanted to put everything into that.”
Despite the personal tragedies, Anne’s career continued to soar and she began hosting shows such as The Movie Show, Movie Scene and Clapperboard, interviewing all the movie stars of the day. Other shows included AM Adelaide alongside Steve Whitham, and Beauty and the Beast hosted by John Laws.
A blind date led to husband number three, but Anne prefers not to reflect on that “disastrous” time too much. Suffice to say she felt depleted, emotionally and financially, when that marriage ended in 1995.
By 2003 the regular television gigs began to dry up and, after a brief stint on 5DN’s breakfast radio with Jeff “Sundo” Sunderland, the media work stopped. For the first time in decades, Anne was no longer in the public eye.
“I felt it was the end of an era when I wasn’t on the telly anymore,” she says. “I thought, well after all I am in my 50s, I’ve had my day in the sun. That my career lasted on and off for so many years and made me a household name is wonderful.”
Through local talent agent Terry Lindblomb from Vegas Promotions, Anne began emceeing quiz events, appearing at The Enfield Hotel and The Castle Tavern, something she still loves to do. She also regularly hosts classic movie screenings at various cinemas, giving the gossip on the movie and its stars.
“I will never be able to thank Terry enough,” she says.
To make ends meet, Anne also took a job as a secretary at a physiotherapy clinic which lasted for eight years. She laughs that she would introduce herself to younger clients as Willsy and they’d stare blankly.
“They don’t know who I used to be,” she laughs.
“I’ve got this huge lot of people around me who have always looked out for me, and I look out for them,” she says. “When I was rich and famous, I shared, now they’re rich and famous, they share with me.”
One of those friends, comedian Mark Trevorrow, aka comedian Bob Downe, is responsible for Anne’s latest triumph. She and Mark will appear in their own variety show at this year’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival in June.
The show is a re-creation of Adelaide Tonight, the show that thrust Anne into the spotlight all those years ago.
“Mark rang me last year and said Alan Cumming is curating the next Cabaret Festival and he wants me to do this show and I’m going to call it Adelaide Tonight,” Anne says. “I was thrilled for him and then he said, ‘No, you’re missing the point. You’re part of the show, you have to be my barrel girl.’
“I was so excited I had to pull over. I said, ‘Are you sure?’, and he said, ‘Who else would I have?’ I guess it helps that I’m actually still alive. Then I said ‘Do I get to sing?’ And he said, ‘Of course!’
“This is like being handed a national show as far as I’m concerned. I didn’t care about the details, I just said, ‘Yes I’ll do it’.”
The show will be an hour of variety entertainment and include interviews with three guests per night, all stars of other cabaret shows. Anne says audiences should prepare to see some flashbacks to a few old Adelaide television commercials, plus plenty of off-the-cuff gags and a dash of bawdy good humour.
“We’re going to send it up of course and be naughty, just like the old days,” she says. “If we can spark memories of what television was like that would be great because that era will never be repeated.
“We will be bringing back the golden age of television. There’s something very satisfying about that.”
Adelaide Tonight will be on in The Famous Spiegeltent throughout the Adelaide Cabaret Festival.
This story first appeared in the May 2021 issue of SALIFE magazine.
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