No matter how far away his career takes him, comedian Steve Abbott, AKA the Sandman, is still a Broken Hill boy at heart.
Comedian Steve Abbott is better known as The Sandman, his much-loved character that rose to national acclaim through television shows like Good News Week and In Siberia Tonight, as well as breakfast radio on Triple J. But few people know that Steve was born in Broken Hill, and fewer still will know that The Sandman is a character based entirely on his mother, born to Russian and Croatian parents in Broken Hill back in 1930.
Although Steve left Broken Hill at a very young age, he returned to spend every school holiday in his Siberian grandmother’s home in Cobalt Street. She had arrived in 1922, after giving up work in Bundaberg due to the heat and the inordinate number of snakes. “Someone told her and my grandfather that they could get alternative work in Broken Hill, and not to worry about the heat, because everyone worked under large tarpaulins,” he says. “I think something was lost in translation there.”
When they arrived, they found that their background was not a hindrance for them – quite the opposite. “Broken Hill even back then was one of the most multicultural places in the country, long before anywhere else – they had Croats, Serbs, Greeks, Turks, Afghans, Muslims. It was a genuine melting pot.”
And it is both to that melting pot, and to his mother, that Steve and The Sandman owe a very large debt. “When I created the character, I was really just impersonating my mother,” he says. “As she’s of Russian-Croatian heritage, she meets every situation with a healthy sense of doom – she shares that idea that the pursuit of happiness is entirely fruitless. So Broken Hill shaped my mother’s life more than mine, but I’m definitely carrying the baton of everything that happened to her there.”
After spending decades away, Steve returned a few years ago for his uncle’s 80th birthday. “I started to think: ‘Wow, this is a really great place. If I was rich, I’d have a weekender here.’” By chance, a call came to work on a series of television commercials for Broken Hill Community Credit Union. “Pro Hart is gone, June Bronhill is dead, Tex Walker is busy. So I guess they needed someone else and I probably came up on the list as someone from Broken Hill,” he says, only half-jokingly.
“At first I thought: ‘I’m a bit of a sham really, because I haven’t lived here for so long,’ but then I really wanted to do it – more to reconnect with Broken Hill than anything else. And it was for the Community Credit Union, which to me typified what Broken Hill has stood for – everyone’s a stakeholder in an organisation, and politically I felt good about that.”
Shooting the commercials in various locations around Broken Hill afforded Steve the chance to fall back in love with the town, and its inhabitants. “People would say to me: ‘You’re a local,’ and I’d say: ‘Well, not really, I live in Sydney,’ and they’d say: ‘But you’re an A-grouper’ [local slang for people born in the town]. You realise it’s a badge of honour to be an A-grouper – it elevates you to a position of being a local. I do feel that maybe I’m not worthy, but because my mother was born and raised in Broken Hill, I also feel that I do have a stake here.”
And his mother, the proto-Sandman, will never let Steve forget it. Back in town for the St Patrick’s Day races, he had a very clear set of instructions handed to him. “I went over to take a photo of the old house that Dad built here back in the 1950s. My mum lives in Sydney now, but she wants to see how it was doing – she’s very keen to ensure that the house is still being well looked after.”
Even though he was disconnected for many years, his mother’s innate sense of Broken Hill pride has most certainly been passed down through the generations. “It blows me away when I come back here. You have an incredibly tolerant, multicultural community, and you have amazing architecture, next to slag heaps and old mining towers, all sitting in what looks like a Martian landscape. I’m pretty proud to say that this is where I come from.”