The Skyshow: How a baseball game in California changed Australia Day in Perth forever.
“Whatever you do, don’t look down”
It was the unmistakeable line from 96FM’s Fred Botica to tens of thousands of Perth people with their FM radios and torches, to turn their eyes up to the night sky.
Since 1985, the Skyshow has been an institution in Perth.
Before that, it was a different story.
“Our only Australia Day celebration was a concert on the Esplanade and, if they were lucky, they got about 3000 people and they’d drag out some tired old acts,” 96FM’s Managing Director Gary Roberts said.
“It was an embarrassment from the country’s point of view – we weren’t standing up and celebrating.”
It was a baseball game in California that changed everything.
“A good mate of mine was the program director of a station called KGB in San Diego and he told be what they were doing on July 4,” Roberts said.
“I had been in America and had seen what happens, every American stands there, puts their hand on their heart and sings the anthem and does all the things that makes them proud of their country.”
The event in San Diego had something to do with a fireworks show, so he went along to check it out, but he had to sit though a baseball game first.
“I gotta tell you, that takes a long time,” he remarked.
“At the end of it, the fireworks would go off and they had a tailor-made soundtrack for it.”
There was, however, a fair bit of wind that night, which turned out to be somewhat unfortunate.
“It blew the fallout of the fireworks over the carpark and they had to repaint the cars,” he said.
While there were no such fireworks show in Australia, Roberts was convinced it could work in Perth… and he had just learned his first lesson.
He sussed out the pyrotechnic crew and asked if they were prepared to come to Perth and do the show but in a different form, on a river.
“They thought it was a fantastic idea.”
Upon coming back to WA, Roberts got in touch with Syd Howard, one of the best pyros in the country and had already worked with the same San Diego crew at the Olympics.
Roberts laid out exactly wanted to do and if Howard could do it. Thing is, there was a lot to learn from the San Diego pyro crew, and they were only going to use them once.
“If we were going to continue with this and keep building it and we wanted him at the core.”
“Syd was fabulous, he said ‘yep, we’ll do that’.”
Thing is, at the time, the 96FM board had yet to even approve it.
“Kerry [Stokes] was OK with it, Brian Treasure was OK but Jack Bendat was most unhappy with the amount of money I was spending to stage the show,” Roberts said.
Stokes had pulled Roberts aside and said he had to go see Bendat personally about it.
“Jack’s pissed with you that you’ve spent too much money,” Stokes had said.
“It’s going to be a big event,” Roberts had replied.
“I know,” said Stokes, adding that Roberts had his full support but he needed to get it over the line with Bendat.
Roberts said he headed down to Bendat’s office to talk it through.
“He went on and on and on about the money,” he recalled.
“I then said, ‘mate, it’s too late, I’ve already sold it’… which I hadn’t.”
Roberts laughed as he recalled leaving Bendat’s office… and promptly sold it to Big M.
Then there was building the narration… and the incredible soundtrack.
Roberts said the narration was very much about telling a story and celebrating either what had been achieved by Australians in the last 12 months or the history of the country and why that was significant.
“A lot of those things were never discussed, and it was important that we did that,” he said.
It was, of course, also about the music… and getting music that worked well with fireworks, something that is “actually bloody hard to put together, but when it’s done well, it kills.”
It was also pretty easy to get the first Skyshow’s green light from the City of Perth. I mean, nothing like this had ever been done before in Australia.
“They asked how many people we thought we’d get, and I said about 30,000 and they said ‘oh, that’s OK, that’s fine’,” he said.
“But we got 170,000. We didn’t have any toilets or bins or anything.”
On January 26, 1985, for the first time, Perth didn’t look down.
Roberts had been so intensely involved in the planning of the Skyshow, it was difficult for him to properly gauge how it was received.
There wasn’t much time to think about it as, straight after the show, he had to face the board again, who had been in a nearby apartment watching the show.
“There was about 50 people in the apartment who stood up and applauded,” he recalled.
“I then thought, ‘I think it went OK’.”
One of the first to congratulate Roberts was Kerry Stokes.
“Mate, no sponsors next year, we’re doing it ourselves, that’s it I don’t care what it costs,” he had said.
The next goal for 96FM was to make the 1988 Skyshow, the Bicentennial year, a monster.
“We got half a million people out to see it, it still holds the record.”
“You look back on that and go, ‘well, that was a bit significant’, it changed a lot of things and got people to actually be proud about being an Australian… and how they look at themselves.”
“And that was the intent.”