The art of being Frank

Frank Wilkie. Photos by Rob Maccoll.

By Phil Jarratt

Frank Wilkie, deputy mayor of Noosa and a man who wears many hats, is sitting in the front row of his happy place, the Noosa Arts Theatre, telling me about growing up in the Brisbane northern suburb of Ashgrove with his best mate, Keith Urban.

“Keith lived across the street,” he says. “We were both about nine or 10, but he was already pretty good with the guitar. He’d hang out on the corner in his embroidered shirts and denims with a bunch of girls surrounding him, and he’d start to play Creedence’s Bad Moon Rising, and the girls would all be swooning. I remember thinking, I want to be able to do that. So I started learning guitar, and my first song was ‘What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor’ because it only had two chords.”

I tell him my first song was ‘Tom Dooley’ for the same reason, but I never progressed much beyond that. Without warning, the deputy mayor leaps out of his seat and bursts into song. “Hang down your head, Tom Dooley, hang down your head and cry, hang down your head, Tom Dooley, poor boy you’re bound to die.” His rich, powerful baritone fills the small, cosy theatre. It’s an attention grabber. You wonder why he doesn’t use the technique to enliven the drone of debate in council meetings, but in fact Cr Wilkie takes his political career very seriously, and although he doesn’t perform as a musician, he regards his 50-plus roles in Noosa Arts Theatre productions over 20 years as simply “food for the soul”.

The Urban family moved to Caboolture and Frank lost touch with his mate, who went on to become a musical megastar and still has girls swooning in his late middle age. But inspired by his musical dad, who used to play the Brisbane folk clubs with swimming coach Laurie Lawrence, Frank jammed with his mates and busked his way through uni, opening his guitar case on Queen Street and nodding his Afro and earrings appreciatively as coins were dropped in response to his renditions of Bob Dylan and Eagles’ songs.

He qualified as a teacher and then did post-grad journalism, but adventure beckoned and he ended up in the Whitsundays, working in tourism. The human resources manager on South Molle Island, an attractive girl named Palmyra, gave him a gig and they became an item, buying a house near Noosa and moving to town in 1996. They were married in 2000 and have a 19-year-old daughter, Zigi.

In Noosa, Frank worked as a journalist, first at the now defunct Noosa Citizen and later for the Sunshine Coast Daily and the Noosa News, where he was the editor for a couple of years. One evening, in his role as film and theatre critic for the paper, he sat in the Noosa Arts Theatre watching a production, and, he recalls: “The hairs on the back of my neck just stood up, and I thought, I want to do this. And I followed through on that idea, joined the group, took acting lessons and worked with a really good director named Mary-Ann Vale who was from the Griffin Company in Sydney, and she started me on script work too.”

At that time there was a dressing room audition for a production of Hotel Sorrento, and Frank read for the role of Dick the journalist and got it. He says: “I had no previous acting experience or training, just a sense I could do it. Soon after I joined Noosa Arts I was reading some David Williamson plays over the Christmas break and loving them, thinking, wouldn’t be great if I ever got a role in one of these. Well, within a month or two of that I was in a Williamson play with David and Kristin at the inaugural Noosa Long Weekend. So dreams do come true. Because I’ve been so lucky in that regard, I’m now trying to give back and help young actors achieve their dreams.”

Frank Wilkie, now 57, is into his second term as president of Noosa Arts Theatre, and having played an important role in the second half of the company’s colourful 50-year history, he takes great pride in showing me around the memorabilia on the walls, pointing out his own inspirations amongst the revered writers, actors, directors and producers who have flourished under patron David Williamson.

Plans for a 50th anniversary celebration last year were scuttled when Covid closed the theatre for a long period, but it bounced back earlier this year with a sell-out season of Mamma Mia, with Frank in yet another leading role. And the Queensland premiere of Williamson’s latest (and possibly last), the “R-rated” Up For Grabs, with David and Kristin’s son Rory directing, will play next month as part of the NoosaAlive! Festival.

But what I find really fascinating about Noosa Arts is its humble beginnings when Noosa was still a village and the people who did all the heavy lifting, from writing and performing to selling tickets and beer and putting out the bins, were the same pioneers who were busily saving Noosa from mindless development and the rule of the bulldozer. Environmental warriors like Dr Arthur and Marjorie Harrold, Nancy Cato, Emma Freeman and Cecily Fearnley dominate the early history because they had a dream of preserving the natural beauty of this place while making it a hive of cultural activity, but to be fair it was realtor Roy Osment who got them a shed for $500, and car dealer and footie fan Len Daddow who arranged a lease on land adjoining the AFL ground.

Be it ever so humble, Noosa Arts Theatre had a proper home by 1976, when it was opened by the company patron and former Queensland treasurer Sir Thomas Hiley. The tin shed theatre has seen many expansions and improvements since then, but at the start it immediately became the hub of Noosa’s cultural life. Says Frank Wilkie: “When the Noosa Arts Theatre was established it was the entire arts centre of Noosa, everything from art exhibitions to film society nights to music concerts and plays. Now it’s more egalitarian, I think, with all of the groups and associations that have formed since working together.

“We don’t want the arts to be exclusive, we want to throw open the doors and keep it fresh. There are a lot of retirees involved in the arts, of course, and they’re living rich and fulfilling lives through that involvement, but also there are so many more young people keen to get involved, and there’s no longer this stigma about it – like are you going to play footie or be in the school play? Now they’ll do both, and come to rehearsals straight from footie practice or doing patrols on the beach. That’s what I love about what’s happening in the arts in Noosa. Post-Covid, people are craving arts and entertainment, cultural enrichment because they’ve realised what’s important – storytelling and music.”

Meanwhile, Frank has this other life. After a decade of reporting on Noosa Shire Council, in 2007, when the inspirational Vivien Griffin resigned, he decided to try to get inside the tent, and won the by-election convincingly. Just as well, because his newspaper told him he could run for council or be a journalist, but not at the same time. But then Premier Peter Beattie announced that Noosa was on the target list for council amalgamations. He fought tooth and nail against amalgamation, but within a year he was out of a job. Deciding you had to be in the game to win it, he ran for Noosa representation on the Sunshine Coast Council, but was defeated by Russell Green.

He recalls: “It was the blackest night of my soul! Not because it was close – it wasn’t –it was just devastating, but in retrospect it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I took a job teaching at the Noosa Pengari Steiner School, and for me it opened up a way into education that was a two-way process. At Steiner you learn from the kids as much as they learn from you. It was humbling and enlightening at the same time.”

After Noosa won de-amalgamation in 2014, Frank was elected to Mayor Noel Playford’s caretaker council, then won again in 2016 and was appointed deputy mayor under Tony Wellington. In 2020 he became deputy mayor under Clare Stewart.

Of his political philosophy he says: “I think that teaching experience (at Steiner) led me to realise that there’s a better way to get things done in politics than kicking heads. Outside the party system you can get so much more done for the community, as Sandy Bolton has shown. In council there are always stoushes happening or about to happen, but the apocalypse never seems to arrive. And for me it’s always about the issues, not the personalities. You can be robust about the issues but you have to remember that the people you are dealing with are members of this community, so you have to be gentle and understanding.”

Ambitions for the future? “It’s an honour to be deputy mayor, I’m happy where I am. Let’s leave it at that.” Beyond politics? “Well, I hope I continue to win roles at the Arts Theatre, but maybe later in life I’ll put a little band together. It’s fun to play music with your friends.”

Watch out, SandFlys!