Today, Australia farewells an icon of the silver screen: “Moonface” Bert Newton AM MBE in a state funeral. The Very Reverend Werner Utri, Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, is overseeing proceedings, in east Melbourne, as the nation watches on from their lounge rooms and small screens.
Bert was a self-taught professional and devout Catholic. His wife Patti Newton, daughter Lauren Newton, and extended family are all in attendance. Bert’s son Matthew and daughter-in-law Catherine Schneiderman were unable to attend, however, due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.
“I’d like to warmly welcome you here today, those in the cathedral and joining us from afar,” Reverend Utri said. “I’d like to begin by acknowledging those with us today, first and foremost his wife Patti, daughter Lauren, son-in-law Matt, and grandchildren. Bert’s son Matthew and his wife Catherine were unable to join us as they are in New York.”
Although he was unable to attend in person, Matthew still gave Bert a touching goodbye, in a speech read on his behalf by TV and radio announcer Peter Smith.
“I’m very sorry but due to the pandemic I am unable to be with you all there to celebrate Dad. Growing up, I never really watched Bambi or Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs or a lot of other kids’ movies you could name. I didn’t want to. What fascinated me were the movies that created that black-and-white glow radiating through the doorway of my dad’s home office. That’s where I wanted to be. So by the age of 10 my dad had introduced me to Humphrey Bogart, the Marx Brothers, Elisha Cook Jr, Abbott and Costello, Katharine Hepburn, Frank Sinatra, and on and on.
“They were our buddies and Dad and I began a back-and-forth conversation about them that would continue without a break for the next 34 years. Swapping old showbiz stories and legends was how he and I, two Catholic Australian men of different generations, expressed our love and affection for one another, without having to actually say it all the time. We’d exchange the same stories and bits hundreds of times over and over, not caring that we already knew them, just loving to hear them again and again. More importantly, hearing the other person tell them again was the conversational equivalent of playing our favourite songs. We were jamming together and we loved it. It was our secret club.
“I remember proudly telling Dad when I was a kid, ‘Hey, the books on my shelf in my bedroom and the books on your shelf in your office are all about the same sort of things, Dad.” To which he replied, “Haha, absolutely, of course, the other way of saying that, Matthew, is that you stole half my library!
“A lot’s been said about my Dad’s sharp wit. But my two personal favourite off-the-cuff lines of his weren’t said on television, or even in front of a proper audience, in fact, there was only one single person present. One was a doctor, the other was an 11-year-old me. Now, these lines don’t have a place in today’s proceedings, as both edge towards being a little risque. Good morning archbishop. But what I love about them is that they were said to people who weren’t going to further his career or write a great review, Dad purely wanted to pop the tension of an awkward situation and see another human being light up and laugh. I honestly believe that that was the first thing, apart from his family, that made Dad the happiest. It was a superpower, and he always tried to use it for good. Over the past 10 years, while I’ve lived abroad, Dad and I would play our conversational songs over Zoom and Facetime. Tools that allowed me to connect and, in a way, reconnect, with my whole family. But especially with Dad.
“Everyone knows he was a great entertainer. But what a lot of people don’t know about Dad is that he wouldn’t just be around for the laughs, those close to him experienced how he’d show up in the tough times too, no one more than me. One final conversation, a few days before we lost him, was different from the usual. And we both knew it. The change was never directly stated, but we paused the stories and the laughs, and just said how much we loved each other.
“During this wonderful chat, my mother was pottering around in the background adding her two cents every now and again and doing lovely things for Dad as usual. At one point, she took something into another room and the second she left, Dad leaned into the phone camera and whispered ‘I think she’s poisoning my food, Matthew’. Well, we both laughed and laughed until we cried. Although given why we’re here today Mum, perhaps I should’ve taken him more seriously. Well now as much as Dad would have loved that tag, it really doesn’t work, does it, Mum? Because, you know, there’s not a lioness in the world who loved, supported and cherished her lion as much as you did Dad. You two were a team, are a team and even though your partner isn’t on stage anymore, the show goes on, and you’ll be OK. Mainly because you’ll have Lauren’s 97 children to take care of you. Truly thorough, his grandkids became Dad’s new favourite thing on the planet, and Sam, Eva, Lola, Monty, Perla and Alby gave him a new lease of life in his seventh and eighth decades.
“Dad was the ultimate host, or as he preferred to be called, compare, never presenter, a term he loathed, and if he were here today, he would be entertaining, moving, sincere and mischievous, expertly saying all the feelings of awkwardness and embarrassment, saving them from us, and that’s how he’d want this day to be. With a wink, not a tear. So with that in mind, I’ll get out while the going’s good, and say to the man himself, Albert Watson Wilburforce Thomas Patrick Belmont Francis Archibald Kenneth John Aloysius Peter Newton, I’m gonna really miss jamming with ya, mate. Here’s looking at you kid.”
Peter Smith then also read a letter on behalf of Bert’s daughter Lauren.
“I’m not sure where to even begin, or if I could ever put into words how much I love my dad. From the love I felt as a child, to watching him laugh and play games with my own children, he made us feel so special, and always brought laughter and fun to everything we did. When I was a little girl, I always felt I was so lucky I had two dads: one on TV and one at home. He was the same funny, warm, wonderful person everyone watched on TV but, at home, he was even better, and I’m so grateful for the relationship I had with him.
He was such a fun dad, and one of my favourite games with him when I was a little girl was called Donald Duck. He would put me on his shoulders, and run around the house yelling “Donald” every time we came to a doorway, and I’d drop down and yell back “Duck”. It always involved squealing and hysterical laughter and was so much fun until one day he got distracted and forgot to yell “Donald”. Obviously Mum never let us play this game again. But it is a memory I’ll have forever and I can still hear the laughter from us both.
“Family always came first for Dad, and he included us in everything he did. He and Mum were a team, and he wanted all of us around and to be part of everything he did. He always made me feel very special, and I knew I could always count on him. When my car broke down on the freeway and I had to wait hours for a tow truck, Dad raced to be by my side and wait with me, with a Diet Coke in hand for us both. That was him, he was always there when I needed him. And he was always interested in everything I did, no matter how small. He was the greatest Dad I could’ve wished for. And he’s been such a huge part of my children’s lives as well.
“We had so many special times together, and I’m so glad that he had the chance to get to know Sam, Eva, Lola, Monty, Perla and Alby. They love their Poppy so much, and his love for them was very clear to see. He spent hours playing games with them. His name in the games for years has been Bill Brown, and they played everything from Mums and Dads to Schools. His favourite games were hospitals and hotels and, you know, Mum and I wondered why it was always those two games he liked the best and then we realised, it was because all he had to do is lie on the bed, and rest, while the kids played around him.
“The kids also loved doing concerts for him, and he was their most captive audience. He even got the job of introducing them, and I’d laugh to myself thinking they have no idea how lucky they were. He even put his good voice on, as if he was doing the Logies. He loved it, and I can tell it was one of his favourite gigs ever.
“Although the past year was hard, he was so brave through it all. None of us wanted to see him suffer, anymore, but we also couldn’t imagine life without him. He was so well looked after by his wonderful doctors and nurses at Epworth Hospital and were also very grateful for O’Neill House where Dad spent his last few weeks. They looked after him so well, and it was a lovely place to be, even though they weren’t the circumstances we wanted.
“He was happy to be there with Mum by his side. I will hold close those memories of sitting outside with him, watching the kids play around the fishpond, and singing songs with him. We were lucky. They allowed us to be with him so much, and it felt like the next best thing to having him at home. Saying goodbye has been heartbreaking for us all, especially Mum. They loved one another so much, and I know how he waited until she left the room to take his last breath. Because while she was with him, he couldn’t have gone. My beautiful Dad will be with us forever in our hearts and memories but life will never be the same without him. I love you Dad.”
Other notable funeral attendees include:
More to come.