Viola Tait

  • Betty Pounder: The centenary of a remarkable life (Part 4)

    Promises bannerScene from Promises, Promises, which had its Australian premiere at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne in August 1970

    During the 1970s and beyond Betty Pounder moved successfully from choreography to administration, with stints in television and music hall. KEVIN COXHEAD concludes his personal tribute to a much loved woman of the theatre. Read Part 1»Read Part 2» | Read Part 3»

    ‘I was a little daunted at the thought of having to teach Cyd Charisse anything, but I just had to do it. It really did set me back a couple of paces!’

    From 1967 to 1976 Betty would reproduce the original choreography, adapt original choreography and devise her own choreography for an incredibly wide variety of musicals. 1967’s Fiddler on the Roof,starring Hayes Gordon as Tevye, Mamein 1968 with American Gaylea Byrne in the title role. It was Australians Sheila Bradley and Mary Hardy who absolutely stole the show as Vera Charles and Agnes Gooch, however. I Do, I Do with American Stephen Douglas and Jill Perryman proving yet again to be a favourite with Australian audiences. Although not directly involved with Canterbury Tales in 1969, Betty was certainly present to help out in any area of production as always. She would also work on the second season in 1970 and choreograph Promises, Promises, and stage revivals of My Fair Lady,and Man of La Mancha. 1776proved unpopular with the Australian general public although it had a stellar cast which included Lewis Fiander, Bruce Barry, Rod McLennan, Jon Sydney, James Smilie, Gordon McDougall, Alwyn Leckie and Geraldene Morrow. Although not directly involved in the show Charlie Girl, Betty was certainly ‘present’ during the rehearsal and pre-production period, taking young Johnny Farnham, as he was then known, under her wing to teach him his dance routines.

    No No Nanettein 1972 was a great success with its 1920s brilliantly colourful costumes and settings, flapper feel and innocence; a period that was sweeping the country at the time. Cyd Charisse was brought in to replace Betty Grable who became very ill before her contract started. Lacking strong vocal abilities, Musical Director Brian Buggy added two numbers just for her. ‘Cyd hated to tap. She felt it would ruin her ankles and would only tap for half an hour a day, and then off would come the tap shoes. She threw them at me on her final day and I have them to this day. We became good friends’, Pounder would later say. At the end of her contract she was replaced by Yvonne De Carlo. ‘Yvonne was more of a hoofer and she took to the Happy Tap like a duck to water. She was the exact opposite to Cyd, where Cyd was so elegant, Yvonne was a real belter but also a lovely lady.’ Paul Wallace, who originated the role of Tulsa in the Broadway production and movie adaptation of Gypsywas also in the show, later replaced by Kevan Johnston. Bobby Limb, Rosie Sturgess, Jill Perryman, who won an Eric Award for her performance, Jon Sidney, Rosalie Howard were perfectly cast as were Pamela Gibbons, Anne Grigg and Geraldine Turner whose performance launched her career.

    A Little Night Music showed just how incredibly versatile Betty could be, reproducing and adapting Patricia Birch’s original choreography with its elegant waltzes and period charm. Night Musiconce again demonstrated Betty’s eye for the perfect cast. Glamorous Finnish actress Taina Elg and English comedienne Anna Russell were perfect in their roles as were the Australian members of the cast. JCW favourites Jill Perryman, Bruce Barry and David Gilchrist completed the main principals while new-comers Anne Grigg and Geraldine Turner returned to The Firm after the successes in No No Nanetteproving Betty’s ability to store people in her mind for just the right role for them later on. Geraldine’s ‘The Miller’s Son’ being one of the show’s high points. The support cast and five Lieder singers completed what was surely a perfect night of theatre. Sadly the show proved too sophisticated for the Australian audience who weren’t quite used to Stephen Sondheim’s style yet.

    Also in 1974 Channel 7 asked Betty to produce and choreograph the musical numbers for their Gershwintelevision special at their Tele-theatre in the old Fitzroy Regent Theatre. A number of JCW chorus favourites were dancers in this show including Laurel Veitch, Jill Hough, Jenny Tew, Carole Rogers, Barbara Warren-Smith, Greg Sims with Ian Turpie as the lead singer. Great friend Anne Fraser was the designer. 1973 also had Pounder directing as well as choreographing the shows Salad Days and Godspell and was assistant to Director and Choreographer, Sammy Bayes on Two Gentlemen of Verona and Pippin. Next came Irene in 1974, launching Julie Anthony to stardom as she had done with Jill Perryman and Nancye Hayes. Old friend Noel Ferrier, Robert Coleman, Doreen Warburton, Joan Brockenshire and Pamela Gibbons, later replaced by Nancye Hayes, and veteran performer Connie Hobbs proved Betty’s impeccable casting sense yet again.

    Gypsy would follow in 1975 with Gloria Dawn being given the coveted role of Madam Rose, later sharing it with Toni Lamond due to Gloria's declining health. Graham Rouse as Herbie, Sue Walker as Louise/Gypsy, Pamela Stephenson completed the principal roles while Jack Webster was given the plum featured dancer role of Tulsa. 1975 would also see Betty choreographing a musical number for the Crawford Productions movie of the television series, The Box with Graham Kennedy in the centre spot in song and dance for an imaginary television variety show.

    With 1976 came The Wiz, seeing Pounder again performing the dual role of Director and Choreographer. A revival of Man Of La Mancha came next with her also directing and choreographing. ‘I was to have done the choreography for the London production of Irene, and was all set to go when they decided to revive Man of La Mancha here, so I had to stay and do that. I was disappointed. I would have liked to have gone to London.’ This was to be the final production for J.C. Williamson in its original form after having been in operation for 102 years and having gained the reputation as the largest and greatest theatrical company in the world. With the closure of The Firm, so came the closure of the longest chapter in Pounder's working life. Kenn Brodziak would take over The Firm and rename it J.C. Williamson Productions and Pounder was hired on a contractual basis for their first venture, the much troubled More Canterbury Tales and also for 1978’s Annie for which she is credited as ‘Assistant to Director’, who was George Martin.

    ‘Even the people from New York and London agreed that the productions done here were as good as what was done overseas.’

    As well as working as Ballet Mistress and later Choreographer on most of the musicals staged by Williamson’s from the mid-40s to the mid-70s, Pounder was also their official Casting Director for many, many years, the first mention of this in a theatre program being in 1967 for Sweet Charity. ‘I also did a lot of casting for plays and got them into rehearsals. I worked with two of the greatest British actors, Sir Michael Redgrave and Sir Ralph Richardson. I remember watching Michael Redgrave rehearse A Voyage Around My Father. I had to go to London to learn it; all the moves for the actors and come back and block in the Australians in the cast so when the English Director arrived, they knew exactly what to do. Both those great actors were wonderful people and so professional.’

    With The Firm having sold its theatres in 1976, Pounder was basically out of a job. ‘I squatted in my office at Her Majesty’s Theatre. I was still giving classes in the rehearsal room. No one asked me to go or said I must go, and I just squatted there. I don’t know why I stayed—I was not being paid. The new management engaged me on a show-to-show basis to assist with some of their shows like Annie and More Canterbury Tales.

    ‘The realism of productions today has taken away a lot of that lovely magic that people come to see.’

    1977 and 1978 saw the world of opera and Pounder join forces once again when she directed critically acclaimed productions of La Belle Helene and Orpheus in the Underworld for the Victoria State Opera at the Princess Theatre. Glowing reviews for both operas came thick and fast with one critic writing of La Belle Helene: ‘For all-round excellence the performance should take some beating. The whole presentation had snap and the sort of clock-work precision that producers dream about. Director Betty Pounder no doubt is resting comfortably on a bed of laurels.’ As well as working with the Victoria State Opera, Betty also staged The Gondoliers in a joint production for the West Australian Opera Company and Channel 7 in 1978 at the Perth Entertainment Centre.

    Betty was also choreographing shows for The Naughty Nineties Music Hall in Hawthorn from around the time period of 1978 to 1981, occasionally reproducing her own routines from JCW shows.

    ‘I’ve really had a marvellous experience in the theatre and I doubt if anyone will have that opportunity again.’

    The latest smash hit musical on Broadway was A Chorus Line and Pounder was sent to notate the show and bring it back in 1978. She was at all the auditions, taking the hopefuls through their paces with the choreography for the show. Very sadly that was about as far as things got. The Americans would continue the job without Pounder being on board. This was surely one of the hardest and toughest blows in her working life. ‘I helped with the auditions in Melbourne and Sydney and I really would love to have been more involved in it, because it was a show that was so close to my own life. I remember the day it opened in Sydney and I was in Melbourne, and I really felt that my career had come to an end, that there would not be anything for me because they had started bringing people here from overseas to stage the shows. That day I sat in the Botanic Gardens under a tree and watched the leaves fall and I thought, “That is like my life. The leaves are falling.” I think that was my lowest moment. It was a show that was so much a part of my life and it was not to be. But I eventually got over that and have had a very interesting life since.’

    The Aussie farce, The Ripper Show in 1979 had Pounder act as choreographer at The Playbox Theatre. The cast included Evelyn Krape, John O’May, John Paramor and Deidre Rubenstein.

    ‘Now I’m with another group of people who are just as exciting and fun to be with and I think myself very fortunate.’

    Crawford Productions was the next ‘adventure’ for Pounder as their Casting Director, and after that she would work for the Victorian Ministry for the Arts, arranging the summer concert series at the Myer Music Bowl. She would also arrange Dance Expo, Weekends of Dance and Let’s Dance ’84. In 1985 Betty was asked to act as ‘Advisor’ on the new musical/rock opera MacBeth, A Contemporary Rock Opera at The Victorian Art Centre.

    Turning 65 in 1986 meant she could no longer be a full-time government employee. She was still, however, a consultant for the Ministry and one of the activities she arranged was what she called the ‘Theatre Walks’ for parties of school children. ‘I take them backstage at all the theatres and explain what theatre is all about. What the proscenium arch is, about the flies and counterweights.’ She would take the children to Her Majesty’s, the Comedy and Princess Theatres, to the Salvation Army headquarters which was a music hall, to Tikki and John’s where they would be shown the curtains and sets and lights and be given a rundown on what the venue was and how it all worked. From there they would all walk to the Athenaeum Theatre and end up at the Arts Centre where Pounder would show them the three theatres. Being able to educate and work with children, Betty was in her element.

    The Morning Melodies series for the Victorian Arts Centre was something Pounder worked on part-time from the time of its inception in 1985. It was Pounder’s and Victorian Arts Centre producer Sandy Graham’s idea to start them to make use of the Melbourne Concert Hall that was sitting doing nothing on Mondays. ‘I oversee the productions in the way a producer would. Engaging the artists and seeing that everything is right—lighting, sound etc. The shows last for one hour, from 11.30am to 12.30pm. They are happy shows with good music and tunes that people like to hear. It’s not all nostalgia by any means, but it is good quality entertainment. Suzanne Steele and June Bronhill were favourites.’ The Melbourne Show Band, Jill Perryman, Julie Anthony, Simon Gallaher, Chelsea Brown, Dennis Walter, Barry Crocker and The Kevin Hocking Band were all regular Morning Melodies performers. Evening productions were also presented such as the one which was titled Puttin’ On The Ritzwhich featured The Ritz Company; Martin Croft, Jackie Rees and Gary Young,  Simon Gallaher and Jackie Love.

    ‘We were all so interested in the theatre and what had gone before us and the history of Australian theatre.’

    October of 1980 brought a wonderful and much deserved surprise to Pounder. As she stepped out of a car to get to what she thought was a meeting, she was approached by a beaming Roger Climpson who was holding a large red leather covered book. To her surprise he spoke those famous words, ‘Betty Pounder, THIS Is Your Life!’ Fast forward to the Channel 9 Studios in Richmond where a fully sequined, floor-length dress designed and made for her by long-time friend and JCW chorus member and later wardrobe master, Robert ‘Bridie’ Murphy, was waiting for her. Gold, bronze, silver, and orange sequins glistened as she walked onto the This Is Your Life set where an audience of friends and associates met her with applause and a standing ovation. Among the surprise guests who came out to speak of their friendship with her were Jill Perryman, Edna Edgley, Toni Lamond, Nancye Hayes, John Newman and Tikki Taylor, Stuart Wagstaff and Bunty Turner, Hayes Gordon, Bill Newman, Lady Viola Tait, Danny Davey, Evie Hayes, Johnny Ladd, Queenie Ashton, Wendy Blacklock, Dame Peggy van Praagh, Kevin Miller, John Mascetti, Phyllis Kennedy and Tommy Tycho. A host of family and friends who were in the audience included her aunt, Dora Sainsbury and cousin Jean; Brian and Linden Buggy, Laurel Veitch, Kevan Johnston, Geraldine Turner, Barry Kitcher, Alton Harvey, Albert Arlen, and Peter Condon.

    ‘I come alive when I’m dancing. I love it. It’s my hobby as well as my job.’

    Betty Pounder was honoured for her vast contribution to the Australian theatre world in a number of other ways as well.

    On 30 March 1983, she was awarded the Order of Australia for services to the theatre. An afternoon tea to celebrate the award was held on the stage of Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne. Her second home! Lady Viola Tait, Tikki Taylor and John Newman, Nancye Hayes, Dawn Spry and Graeme Bent, Sue Nattrass and John Truscott were among those there that day, along with her beloved John, of course. A Footlighter Award from the Footlighters’ Club came next. She was given the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Greenroom Awards Association in 1987, the award being presented to her by Lady Viola Tait at the Victorian Arts Centre. Both Pounder and Lady Tait were involved in the initial steering committee, foundation and executive committees. The GRAA also has the Betty Pounder Award for Best Original Choreography. ‘The Betty Pounder Studio’ was at the back of Her Majesty’s Theatre in Quay Street, Sydney, consisting of two large rehearsal studios and a large Green Room. It was demolished in 2001 along with Her Majesty’s to make way for an apartment block. In June 1991, an exhibition in Betty’s memory opened at the Arts Centre’s Performing Arts Museum, curated by Frank Van Straten titled ‘Pounder! A Great Lady of Australian Theatre’. Finally one of the function rooms in the Dress Circle Foyer at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne was named ‘The Betty Pounder Room’ in her honour, although it’s had a name change since its redecoration in 2019.

    In 1985, Betty was appointed Associate Director to Lindy Hume on the return season of the combined Victoria State Opera/Victorian Arts Centre/Elizabethan Trust production of The Pirates of Penzance. It was presented at the Melbourne Concert Hall, as Hamer Hall was then known, and was a huge hit. Simon Gallaher and Jon English reprising their incredibly successful roles.

    The last production Pounder worked on was My Fair Lady at the Victorian Arts Centre for the Victoria State Opera in 1988 with old friends June Bronhill, Lewis Fiander, Noel Ferrier, Madge Ryan and Warren Mitchell, Simon Gallagher, Faye Donaldson, in the leading roles. Pounder would recreate her original choreography from the 1959 production, although some changes were necessary to suit the new set and costume designs.

    Just a few weeks before her death, Betty worked on the Morning Melodies Memorial for Suzanne Steele at the Victorian Arts Centre.

    ‘I didn’t really see myself as a star which, of course, I wasn’t. I just loved to dance.’

    The Australian theatre world, and the lives of those who were close to her, were robbed of an extraordinary person on Friday 7 December 1990. The lights of theatres of Melbourne were dimmed to honour the passing of one of the true great souls of the Australian entertainment business. Theatre God, mentor and inspiration to so many; dear and beloved friend to those who were especially close as well. Admired by performers, theatre staff, and management alike throughout the country. Held in high regard by dancers and actors all over the world. Known by name to countless admiring theatre goers, Betty Mildred Pounder Baines lost her life after a short battle with breast cancer. She was survived by her husband and soulmate, John Ellis Baines, who would pass away on 5 March 1992 peacefully at home aged 87. Betty’s ashes were scattered on the sea at Queenscliff, Victoria, one of the places she loved to go to get away from the busy theatrical side of her life. Both Betty and John’s memorial plaques are at the Fawkner Memorial Cemetery in Melbourne.

    Robina Beard wrote: ‘In December 1990, our industry lost one such individual. Miss Betty Pounder, alias Mrs John Baines, alias “Pounder”, left us here on earth to manage without her. In the history of Australian, nay I dare to say, world theatre there has never been anyone like Miss P. She was known and respected by many, many people in New York and London. She had a spirit, enthusiasm and a charm that enchanted everyone. She had no pretension, no big ego—she just knew her job, she loved it and she did it superbly.’

    Those who worked under her direction will remember her words if they got a bit complacent about things, doubted their own abilities, or if things started to get a bit shabby on the stage ...’Smarten yourself up!’ she would say as she left a dressing room after giving some notes. And I bet it’s something everyone still uses to this day when things seem a little too much. ‘BE READY!’was another phrase instilled in those who were in her charge. Always be ready for that phone call. For that audition. For that show! And of course her famous catch-phrase that she would say so very often after a visit to a dressing room pre-show or at interval, or as she would pass someone as they made their way to the stage. Her catchphrase that lives on thirty years after her passing, and each time it’s mentioned today her light flickers and her spirit returns to a theatre or a celebration: ‘Sparkle, Darlings!’

    The Memorial Service for Betty Pounder was at St. Michael’s Uniting Church, Collins Street, Melbourne on Tuesday,11 December 1990 at 3.30pm. The introduction was given by Canon Albert McPherson. The Eulogy and readings were given by Sue Nattrass, John Trustcott, Paul Clarkson and the poem, ‘Who Am I?’, written by Pounder herself, was read by Nancye Hayes. ‘If You Believe’ from The Wiz was sung by Australian Opera Company principal and Betty’s God-daughter, Christine Douglas. A lovely ‘Full House’ with standing room only.



  • Event: Tait Memorial Trust 30th Anniversary Concert in Melbourne

    The tait performing arts association (tpaa)recently marked the momentous occasion of the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the Tait Memorial Trust by Isla Baring OAM in the UK. To commemorate this significant milestone, a special concert was held at the prestigious Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School on 27 April 2023, during Isla's visit to Melbourne.

    Caroline Almonte, the Artistic Director of TPAA, curated a captivating program featuring renowned artists who have been supported by or involved with the Trust, all eager to perform and honor this momentous occasion.

    The evening commenced with a warm welcome from Hilary Bland, Principal of VCASS, setting the stage for an enchanting musical experience. Marshall McGuire, an eminent harpist, teacher, conductor, and administrator, mesmerized the audience with his captivating performance of Hasselmann’s “La Source” on the harp. Caroline Almonte, an exceptionally gifted, versatile, and sensitive pianist and artist, enthralled the audience with her rendition of Listz’s “Gondoliera” from Venezia e Napoli.

    The program continued with the spellbinding vocals of Rebecca Gulinello, who delivered a breathtaking performance of Puccini's “Mi Chiamano Mimi” and Cilea's “Io son l'umile ancella”. David Meng Xia, a talented student from VCASS, showcased his prodigious skills by playing Rachmaninov’s Etude op. 39, no. 9 on the piano. The acclaimed pianist Stefan Cassemenos took the stage, enthralling the audience with his captivating interpretation of Rachmaninov’s compositions. The evening culminated with an unforgettable performance by Meow Meow, accompanied by the illustrious Paul Grabowsky. Meow Meow’s captivating singing and enthralling stage presence left the audience mesmerized. The concert reached its grand finale with a heartfelt rendition of “Happy Birthday”, the perfect ending to a truly remarkable evening.

    Reflecting on the event, Isla Baring, President of the TPAA, expressed her pride in supporting young performing artists from Australia and New Zealand and shared her admiration for the remarkable work being done at VCASS.

    The proceeds from the concert will be allocated in assisting students during their studies in London. The event proved to be both enjoyable and highly successful, reaffirming the commitment of TPAA and Tait Memorial Trust to nurturing young talent in the performing arts.

    2023 VCASS TAIT Concert 25(left to right) Meow Meow, Paul Grabowsky, Rebecca Gulinello, Stefan Cassomenos, Isla Baring, David Meng Xia, Marshall McGuire and Caroline Almonte. Photo by Dylan Breninger.


  • I Have a Song to Sing by Viola Tait—e-book launch

    TaitLaunch 001Cover, I Have a Song to Sing by Viola TaitIt was a great thrill to launch the e-book version of Viola Tait’s memoirs, I Have a Song to Sing, at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne on Wednesday, 17 July 2019. Thanks to Matthew Peckham and the management of the theatre who made the Hayden Room available to us including access to a cash bar. First published in December 2018, the complete book is now be available as a free download from the THA website.

    Diana Burleigh, the head of THA’s events committee, organised a full afternoon of speeches and songs. The first guests arrived at 3pm. In the background archival recordings of G&S stars from the 1930s, 40s and 50s, courtesy of THA member Rob Morrison, could be heard until the hum of the crowd drowned out their voices.

    Proceedings kicked off at 3.30pm with an introduction by Simon Piening, THA President, who began by saying:

    Today is a very special day for Theatre Heritage Australia—the e-book we are launching has been literally decades in the making, and represents the culmination of a number of years work by members of the committee.

    He went on to note:

    For those of us interested in the field of Australian theatre history, Viola Tait stands as a huge inspiration—she dedicated a large part of her life to researching and documenting Australia’s theatre history, and indeed published two very important books on the subject—one of which, A Family of Brothers, remains to this day, the definitive account of the Tait family’s involvement with the J.C. Williamson company.

    In addition to being a theatre history buff, Viola Tait was a performer, and in fact we will hear a snippet from a recording of her singing, a little bit later.

    Viola’s knowledge of Australian theatre wasn’t just learnt from books or from digging through old newspapers—as a performer herself, and through her marriage to Frank Tait, Viola was at the very centre of Australian theatre during a most important period. Which is precisely why her memoirs are such a valuable record.

    Following Simon, Mary Murphy, the honorary archivist at Her Majesty’s, spoke briefly and screened an in-house film on the history of the theatre, the JCW and Tait years to now under Mike Walsh’s management. The film also included a short clip of Viola when she appeared on the television show This is Your Life to celebrate the achievement of JCW choreographer Betty Pounder.

    Viola’s daughters, Isla, Ann and Sally, who were in Europe celebrating Sally’s birthday, sent a message of support, which Simon read out:

    It is thrilling that Viola Tait’s book is being launched as an e-book at Her Majesty’s theatre today. Viola’s daughters, Isla Ann & Sally, her own ‘Three little Maids’ are no longer her ‘Three little maids from School’, as the youngest sister Sally is 70 today! Sally’s celebrations are in Sicily in an idyllic location far, far away from Her Majesty’s. We sisters sincerely regret that we are unable to be with you today. We will raise our glasses to toast and congratulate Theatre Heritage Australia with utmost praise and heartfelt thanks. Elisabeth Kumm, Judy Leech and their wonderful team have been so dedicated in making our Mother’s memoirs come to life. We can picture the scene at Her Majesty’s. The theatre was our second home, and the venue for Viola’s previous book launch, Dames Principal Boys etc. In her speech in 2002 she declared it was the happiest day of her life. We know how elated Viola would be on this occasion, as we are In its fruition. Thank you dear Theatre Heritage Australia for your faith in making her dream come true.

    Isla, Ann & Sally

    We were also treated to a couple of songs from Viola’s repertoire. Two talented young singers, Jane Magao and Ella Broome, both members of the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera Victoria, performed a song each: the ‘Laughing Song’ from Die Fledermaus and ‘Poor Wandering One’ from The Pirates of Penzance, accompanied on the keyboards by Tim Wilson.

    We then heard from Elisabeth Kumm, the Editor of I Have a Song to Sing, who spoke about the background and development of the book, the joy and privilege of working with Viola back in the early 2000s, finishing the book with Sally Bell after her mother’s death, reviving the manuscript in 2018 and the eventual realisation of the project with the assistance of Judy Leech and Simon Piening and a small team from THA.

    Very fittingly, the last song of the afternoon was performed by Viola herself singing an aria from The Dancing Years, a rare recording that first came to light on one of Frank Van Straten’s Nostalgia programmes on ABC radio in the 1990s.

    Our final speaker was Charles Tegner, a grandson of Charles Tait, the eldest of the five Tait brothers, and a nephew of Viola by marriage. We were extremely privileged to have Charles as our special guest and to launch the e-book. Charles regaled us with memories of Viola and her family and their generosity when he first arrived in Australia from England, landing at Brisbane Airport in April 1967.

    I did not stay in Brisbane but went straight to Sydney and after catching up with our E.J. Tait cousins and working there for a few months I moved to Melbourne. The Charles, John and Frank Tait families again made me very welcome. At one time I spent few weeks staying with Viola and her family in Hopetoun Road. It was then that we really got to know each other and I remember hearing her still magnificent voice as she played her piano. Through Viola’s amazing network of friends, I rented a miniature self-contained bedsitter in Toorak Village.

    He went on to say:

    I will always remember Viola for her wonderful welcoming hospitality, enthusiasm, generosity and enjoyment of life and her interest and encouragement in what we were all doing. IHave a Song to Sing is a wonderful read which brings to the fore all of these lovely qualities. We read of her brilliant career sprinkled with many amusing anecdotes and recollections of times with the artists of opera, ballet and theatre. Undoubtedly she was an outstanding and loving support to her husband, Frank, throughout their married life; a loving mother to their children and a great friend to many.

    At the conclusion of his speech, Charles hit the switch on the computer and the cover of the book appeared on the screen behind him. And with that, the I Have a Song to Sing e-book was launched on the THA website.

    As Elisabeth noted in her address:

    And now it’s the turn of Theatre Heritage Australia, here in a theatre that meant a lot to Viola —and to her family. The scene of many a first night—and the place where she launched her first two books.

    It has been quite a journey—and I think Viola would have been delighted that her story is now available to be enjoyed by anyone visiting the THA website.

    Formal proceedings were finished by 5pm and as guests mingled and sipped on their drinks, the THA Committee congratulated all involved on a highly successful and enjoyable launch.

    The e-book version of I Have a Song to Sing by Viola Tait is available for free download from, in pdf, epub or mobi version.


    TaitLaunch 001

    Cover, I Have a Song to Sing by Viola Tait

    TaitLaunch 002

    Mary Murphy

    Jane Magao

    Ella Broome

    Audience members

    Elisabeth Kumm

    Charles Tegner

    Viola’s daughters, Isla, Ann and Sally

  • Tait Memorial Trust Turns 30

    Tait Trust First concert 1993 Austrlai House Taken Angus Forbes 1Liane Keegan (mezzo soprano) with Antony Giantomasso (piano), Exhibition Hall, Australia House, 1993. Photo Angus Forbes.

    On 29 may this year I went to the best birthday party ever. It was an eightieth, and there were eighty-one people there, although the birthday girl (and girl is the word) Isla Baring, told me that she could have filled the beautiful David Lloyd George Room at the National Liberal Club three times over with her friends. The ones in attendance were uproariously pleased to be there. Dressed obediently in ‘something violet’ (because violet is Isla’s favourite colour, and because the mauve-wigged Barry Humphries had so recently died, and because Isla’s beloved mother’s Christian name was Viola), we were there to celebrate a woman about whose cause we all felt passionately.

    The Tait Memorial Trust sprang into being in December 1992 when Isla’s notoriously kind heart responded to a plea from her mother. Could she help to look after a young singer from Rosebud, Victoria, called Liane Keegan, who had just won the Covent Garden scholarship but had no network support in London? Knowing the entrepreneurial spirit that Isla had inherited from her father, Sir Frank Tait, Lady Tait said: “Perhaps you could put on a concert for her.” Isla had absolutely no experience in this field, but she and her husband, Julian Baring had some generous contacts and a wide social circle. Trevor Baldock, the agent General for Victoria, lent her the Downer Room at Australia House imagining she would only conjure a small audience. “I made a list” says Isla, “of all the Australians I knew and before long I’d collected a three hundred strong crowd with their partners and friends.”

    Start as you mean to go on. And go on she did, first to the substantial bigger Exhibition Hall, followed by numerous other venues both grand and intimate. The tally stands today at 170 fundraising concerts, all of them show-casing the remarkable talents of the Tait awardees.

    The Trust’s remit expanded pretty quickly to include New Zealanders as well as Australians, instrumentalists as well as singers and dancers as well as musicians. Which is where I came in. About five years ago Leanne Benjamin brought Isla to meet me and they asked if I would help audition the candidates for the Leanne Benjamin ballet awards. How could I refuse? In Sydney, in 1959, I had won a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School, and the head judge, the person who had handed me my cheque was none other than Viola Tait, Isla’s mother. Karma or what?

    Never having sat on a committee, I was cautious at first. But no need. While spending much of her life in Britain and Europe, Isla had perfected the art of remaining stubbornly and gloriously Australian. The meetings, conducted mostly at the Chelsea Arts Club are deeply unpompous get-togethers of witty, down-to-earth sponsors and helpers who just happen to find themselves, by dint of work or marriage or children or something, ten thousand miles from their beloved homeland. Conducting the meetings is usually James Hancock—an original awardee from the early days and one of what Isla calls her ‘three boys,’ the other two being Jeremy Vinogradov, now her P.A., and Ross Alley who acts as Master of Ceremonies.

    Among the gifted women round the table you might spot June Mendoza (who, having painted Queen Elizabeth II five times has embarked on a portrait of Isla), the pianist Rosemary Tuck, the actress Joanna McCallum and another noted artist, Isla’s beautiful younger sister Ann Seddon whose illustrative flair contributes to the design of the programs. And what concerts these programs proclaim! I was not around in 1996 for perhaps the most star-studded of all: a Gala to celebrate the 70th birthday of Dame Joan Sutherland, with Prince Charles as guest of honour. But last year I did attend the dinner and concert at Australia house for the 30th Anniversary of the Tait Memorial Trust. As well as a roll-call of exciting performers, both established and budding, we watched something unexpected and rather astonishing; unearthed fragments of a black and white silent movie, The Story of the Kelly Gang, first shown in Melbourne in 1906, a signal event in the history of cinema and, at over an hour in length, the longest film the world had ever seen. Made on a thousand pound budget it was directed and produced (and in one case performed) by four of the Tait brothers: John, Charles, James and Isla’s father, Frank. These young men, aged between 34 and 22, who were to become such a world-famous ‘Firm’, were four of the five sons of John Turnbull Tait, who in 1862 had made the five-month voyage by windjammer from the Shetland Isles in Scotland to Castlemaine, Victoria, where his wife-to-be Ann Sarah Leeming, joined him. The family moved to Richmond, a suburb of Melbourne, and one day, the second son, Charlie, aged 14, was walking down Collins Street when he saw a sign in the window of Allan’s music warehouse: BOY WANTED, FIVE SHILLINGS A WEEK. He got the job and proceeded to deploy his brothers at the concerts held at the Town Hall, Athenaeum Hall and Exhibition, as ushers, bookers and stage managers. There they managed to meet and watch great performers from all over the world, and it was from these humble, penny-pinching beginnings that the Tait Brothers Concert Bureau was founded. Charlie became director of Allan’s and, in 1920, J.H. Tait, J. Nevin Tait, E.J. Tait and F.S. Tait took control of the mighty J.C. Williamson’s.

    Robert Helpmann wrote: “I wonder how many people, particularly the younger generation, appreciate the fact that the Taits represented the foremost standards in the theatrical entertainment or realise that these standards created a vast Australian public?” Certainly my mother spoke to me thrillingly of having seen Melba, Flagstaad, the Oliviers and Anna Pavlova. And before I left for London I had already seen Marcel Marceau, Danny Kaye, Victor Borge, the New York City Ballet and, crucially for me, Margot Fonteyn.

    Frank Tait, being the youngest, lasted longest in influence, and as managing director of J.C Williamson’s, benevolently ruled musical life in Australia. At the age of 56 he had married Viola Wilson Hogg, a young silver-voiced Scottish soprano, who had sung with the D’Oyly Carte Company in New York before being lured to Australia as principal soprano with the Gilbert and Sullivan J.C. Williamson’s Opera Company. They had three children, Isla, Ann and Sally, all of them steeped in the deep family commitment to music and theatre. The wonderful home-grown Borovansky Ballet would not have thrived throughout my childhood without Sir Frank, and in 1961 he chaired the Australian Ballet foundation from which, following the death of Edward Borovansky, the Australian Ballet was formed, a company I joined in 1962 as a founding member. After the huge success of My Fair Lady (it ran for 730 performances), Sir Frank was instrumental, in 1964, in bringing Camelot to Australia, stealing a march on the London production, and importing an English actor to play King Arthur. His name was Paul Daneman, and in 1965, reader, I married him. So, without both of Isla’s parents, my life might have taken a very different turn.

    And now there are dozens of young artists who can say the same of the influence of Isla herself. Having picked up the baton from her father and run with it, she has raised one million pounds and counting (a new and generous ballet scholarship in the name of Richard Bonynge has just been added), and brought talented young singers, instrumentalists and dancers from the new world to the old, so that those particular Antipodean qualities of warmth and openness (so evident in the recent appearance at Covent Garden of the Australian Ballet), can be presented on a wider world stage.

    May there be many more happy returns of her birthday.

  • The Memoirs of J. Alan Kenyon or Behind the Velvet Curtain (Part 14)

    Velvet Curtain

    In this, the last instalment of J. ALAN KENYON’s memoirs, he shares more anecdotes and pays tribute to some of the men and women of the theatre and films.

    George Rings Down the Curtain 

    The manwith whom I was most in contact during my association with J.C. Williamson’s theatres was Frank Tait, later to become Sir Frank. As I remember him, he was a very fine type of person to whom one could apply the rather out-moded title of gentleman, in all sincerity. He was always friendly and sympathetic and ready to help in every possible way.  If you were foolish and overstepped your responsibility, he told you in a kindly manner that it was not your prerogative to act in that particular way.

    On one occasion I overheard the mechanist speaking in a very offensive manner of a certain artist’s work. Frank Tait was quick to tell him that he himself was in total disagreement with the mechanist’s views. He backed me up on numerous occasions against what I considered unreasonable opposition from producers. When I asked for an increase in salary, and remarked in parenthesis, that I only had ‘a few hundred in the bank’, he said, “You are lucky to have that,” but I got the raise. At yet another time when I was working on a grand opera season until 10 p.m. and sometimes later, I was overjoyed to find my salary had been increased by ten pounds, without my mentioning it.

    I have heard many unkind and unfair things said about the Taits, chiefly of course by disgruntled actors. However, when all had been sorted out, it was always the actors themselves who were at fault. The Taits were business people, and as such insisted on sticking to the letter of the contract. Trouble usually arose when an actor did something which violated his contract and when faced with this, he would be most put out, and could take refuge in derogatory statements about the management.

    The man behind Frank Tait, as his general manager, was Claude Kingston. This was undoubtedly a very smoothly operating partnership and the qualities which could be said to belong to one belonged equally to the other. We older members of the staff were all part of an organization, and had a very real responsibility to get the job in hand done. It was up to us to give the same loyalty to the Firm, as was extended to us. No enquiry was ever made as to what, when or how—provided the show was ready for rehearsals.

    There are a number of people with whom I have come in contact who are still, along with myself, with the Firm and Harry Strachan, a director and general manager is one. He grew up in the Firm, and if anyone knows the answers in management, it is certainly Harry. Up to date he has booked some very successful shows, and he has always been a very sincere man and very easy to get along with; in other words, a thoroughly nice bloke.

    Charles Dorning, another director, came out originally to play the male lead in Song of Norway (1950). Sidney Irving holds the reins in Sydney and it is always a pleasurable occasion when I meet him there. Bill Gordon, the publicity man has, in my opinion, done a marvellous job. He has managed to get publicity for shows in hitherto unexplored areas. Betty Pounder does the casting and produces the ballets for the shows—she is an extremely clever person, and a tremendous acquisition to the theatre.

    One of the years Anna Pavlova had a season here (1926) we were in the throes of a drought. I remember talking to her before a matinee and whilst we were talking the rain suddenly began to batter on the roof. We both rejoiced that the drought had ended!

    Beppie de Vries, starring in The Student Prince with James Liddy, gave such a magnificent performance it might still be remembered by many. A contretemps occurred concerning the production of Show Boat: the import who was supposed to be a bass baritone turned out to be a light tenor. It was impossible for him to sing “Old Man River” so he was eventually packed off back again to the USA. Colin Crane got his chance and thus began his journey to stardom. [Listen to Colin Crane singing “Old Man River” on YouTube.]

    This following incident happened before my time in the theatre but I include it here as having historic value. It was a Shakespeare season and George Rignold’s company were the players. Rignold played the king who was slain on the battlefield and it was done by an actor in the top echelon. Even the blasé stagehands had a look at it—the boys on the fly-floor used to go out on the grid (the structure right up above the stage) and from this vantage point they had a good view of the death scene. One night they took a new hand along with them to watch the action. It was the practice to tie a piece of sash-line around a man’s waist in order to hold a hammer or three. During the edging and shuffling for a better viewing position up on the grid, this particular night one of the boy’s hammers became dislodged and plummeted down from the grid. It landed right in the middle of the dead king’s breastplate. The astonished and furiously enraged monarch struggled back to life and swinging his sword vengefully, rushed off the stage , swearing to have the blood of the unlucky individual who had perpetrated such a ghastly indignity on His Majesty’s person.

    Another piece of idiocy which brought forth very untimely roars of laughter from the audience took place during a performance involving the storming, by invaders, of a castle. They were firing huge rocks from a catapult and there were two men straining to haul a large and extremely heavy-looking rock onto the catapult mechanism, when it slipped over the footlights into the orchestra pit. One of the violinists placidly put down his violin and handed back the rock—papier mâché—to the staggered troupes.

    Amongst many famous people I recall Emelie Polini who scored a success with charm and ability in My Lady’s Dress. Lawrence Grossmith topped box-office records with his performance in Ambrose Applejohn’s Adventure. These were some of the big names in the 1930s. There are other names of the past to conjure with—lovely Harriet Bennet in Rose Marie, Stephanie Deste in Desert Song, Lance Fairfax and Colin Crane, and Leon Gordon with Helen Strausky playing Tondeleo, who thrilled audiences in White Cargo.

    There has been some doubt expressed about the authenticity of the Flinders statue outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne. A writer to the Press mentioned the—I think he did call it ‘famous’—mural at Flinders Naval Base showing the landing of Captain Cook, in which he is shown in the identical stance of the Flinders statue. My reason for writing about this is that the mural, in several parts, was painted by William R. Coleman, the J.C. Williamson’s head scenic artist. The panels were transported by lorry from the theatre, already framed, ready to be installed in position in the Ward Room at Flinders. The boys who were assigned to the job were first entertained by the Petty Officers and as a result got rather ‘full’. Two ladders, one at each end of the wall, were used by the carpenters to hoist each painting up into position to be fixed.

    Great care had been taken with measurements, the frames being an exact fit to neatly fill the apertures, but one refused to go into place.  There was a lot of pushing and shoving until the mechanist, who had gone down to supervise the job, saw the trouble, and called, in a slightly slurred voice “Freddie, you bloody fool, take your fingers out from behind the frame!”

    During the Second World War I was busy constructing a model map (for the State Theatre) of Europe, showing the countries taken over by Herr Hitler. As the commentary told of each country being invaded it caught fire—a coating of match-head composition having been ignited by a fuse wire. As I was preparing that part of Northern Europe, Estonia, with mountains, rivers, etc., a voice behind me said, “There is a small lake just about there….” Turning round I said, “It must be very small—as it is not marked on the map!” “I know,” replied Eric Reiman, “It is small—but I know it’s there—I used to wee in it when I was a small boy.”

    The same Eric played a German officer in the film Forty Thousand Horsemen. In one shot he was hiding in a cave built within the studio. Eric swears it was so atmospherically real that he came down with a cold.

    I  suppose one of the most spectacular shows was My Fair Lady (1959), with the best box-office ever. Before the director—Sam Liff—arrived, I had quite a lot of the scenery already painted and exactly the opposite to the designs used in New York and London. I was quite definite—I was going to paint the show in my style, not in the easy impressionistic way it had been treated. In any case, all I had were 35mm slides of the original sketches (Oliver Smith’s) which were completely useless.

    When Sam Liff arrived we showed him the scenery which we had so far painted. He looked at it, then said to me, “I have strict instructions that the scenery must be exactly as in America and London—but you paint it how you want it. I will take the responsibility.”

    Our brickwork was like bricks, the stone and woodwork painted as such—I filled the flower-market stalls with baskets and flowers, marbled the ballroom with silver and bronze and painted the Ascot Racecourse scene as it should have been painted. The Covent Garden Market roof was in the original, without a mezzanine, which at the date of the original play was in existence—it was drawn that way.

    It was 110 degrees in the Theatre—Her Majesty’s, Melbourne—on the Friday night final rehearsal, and the same on the opening night. But one forgot the heat—it was a magnificently produced show and worth all the long hours we had put in with the painting of it. I even received a letter from Mr. Liff, saying, “it is a wonderful production, thanks to you!” Patsy Hemingway understudied Bunty Turner as Eliza and during the run she developed appendicitis and had surgery. She went on a world tour convalescing, attending the various productions of My Fair Lady in different countries. On her return to Australia, she was interviewed in Sydney and asked her opinion of these other productions. She was quite definite that the Australian one, scenically, was infinitely better than in any other country!

    I have inadvertently left until now, some of the well-known names of theatre comedians, names such as Alfred Frith, Gus Bluett, Don Nicol, Arthur Stigant and the Kellaways, Cecil and Alec. These people were tops in their profession, but often circumstances cut their lives short. In the case of ‘Frithy’ it was too much Bacchanalian revelry—many a time he would be missing and come seven thirty—zero hour in the theatre for the evening performance—no Alfred Frith. Search parties were unable to find him on the premises or in the vicinity. George Jennings was his understudy and would ready himself for the part.

    The show would start and the audience had settled down and then just as George made his entrance there would be loud cheering and clapping from the back of the gallery, holding up the show. On investigation—there was ‘Frithy’, happy in his cups, causing the interruption. What a character—but what a damned good comedian!  The same with Gus Bluett—a first-rate comedian, but over-indulgence spoilt everything. Don Nicol died early—he was excellent in his job and a very good caricature artist. Then there were Jack and Silvia Kellaway, two wonderful dancers—sadly Jack died of T.B. when quite young.

    In a sketch Frith and Bluett are doing a drink scene in a bar—they introduce themselves and find they have the same name. What’s more, they live in the same house in the same street—and so on. The tag-line—they say goodnight to each other because it is time to head home.  They do—separately. And then there was the sketch involving Gus Bluett and Charles Norman, as two elderly spinsters making their way to bed. They undress with all the antics imaginable—the climax being when they disentangle themselves from their corsets, fumbling and scratching as they shed the garments. They get into bed and afterwards, in a semi-blackout, one is seen crawling over the other to get out of bed; then fumbling under the bed with inaudible mutterings. Blackout. With the times, how comedy has changed ….!

    There are very pleasant memories of Mother’s Day when Lady Tait (Sir Frank’s wife, and formerly Viola Wilson) would produce a concert in the Melbourne Town Hall for funds for the Women’s Hospital. The stars of the current show at the theatre would perform within a big cast of entertainers. Lady Tait and I would get together on the production and I would design suitable décor for the occasion.

    When Dame Margot Fonteyn was here, she danced at one of these Mother’s Day shows, held in the mid-1950s. I had painted large cutouts of Dresden china ornaments and figurines, with Dame Margot as a figurine coming to life and dancing. The most spectacular was one which we did in the theatre, at the time of the Queen’s Coronation in 1953, when South Pacific was one month off the end of its run. I painted the interior of Westminster Abbey and the ceremony was re-enacted. During the casting of the company much fun was caused by suggestions of various people to play the different parts in the presentation. Such as—casting the most inept character to play the Archbishop of Canterbury. And in the same vein—I suggested that Bloody Mary, the Negress mother in South Pacific, should play a part. When the impact of this was given more thought, the potential was felt to be dramatic. Bloody Mary was dressed as a duchess—she sang “Home Sweet Home” and most of the audience had tears in their eyes as the great wave of applause nearly brought the roof down! Incongruous as it may have been, it still is a beautiful memory for me.

    That same night, the papers’ headlines splashed the wonderful news that Mount Everest had been conquered.

    Some of the old shows which still have such joyful memories are The Merry Widow, Lilac Time, The Student Prince with James Liddy and that superb actress Beppie de Vries. The wonderful male chorus in this last show—with ‘Scottie’ Allan who sometimes took the top note for Liddy. Madame Pompadour, Silver King, If I were King, Sybil with Gladys Moncrieff, Potash and Perlmutter, The Broken Wing...

    And then there were the people who gave a huge amount of their talent and industry to the film industry of the 30s and 40s and to which a value could not be set. Stuart Doyle, for one, was instrumental in launching Cinesound Productions. Ken G. Hall was another—he was the director of every production, with the exception of one, made by Cinesound. Others I feel compelled to mention were Captain Frank Hurley, George Heath as cameraman, sound engineers Arthur Smith and Clive Cross, and the tutors of expression and acting Frank Harvey and George Cross. Jack Soutar and Harry Strachan were production managers, and Jack Kingsford Smith was a wizard on the optical printer, something he had designed and constructed himself. Other skilled people included Bert Cross, lab manager, and Bill Shepard the film editor and cutter. There were highly experienced make-up men, there were carpenters, property men and electricians. 

    All these dedicated people had given all their time and energy into the melting pot, only to find their skills were lost to the community when the Motion Picture Industry, which had been thriving in Australia, stopped, in the 60s, with the surety and finality of a beheading. No one has advanced any reason why it was suddenly discontinued. At the time I am writing we have neither a film industry nor many suburban picture theatres—they have all practically closed down since the advent of television. Just for the sake of ‘making a faster buck’, a worthwhile industry which would have had untold value, as it created a fine national image, was utterly destroyed. It was an instance of a tremendous opportunity cast to the winds for lack of vision, and for greed.

    But returning to the world of theatre, as I look back, little instances—entertaining, good and/or bad, come to mind. The beautiful production of Aida with the Nile scenes and the massive Tomb scene. This tomb was built to take the big ballet number after the two characters had been interred. Because of the number of people involved above, the construction was of heavy timber. Two frames supported four-by-three joists and over these were laid the platform tops. These consisted of 20 feet by 4 feet of flooring and were unwieldy and extremely difficult to handle. Experienced stagehands could manage the juggling, but the Mechanist was breaking in some new stagehands to manipulate these troublesome rostrum tops. The first, second and third attempts were very unsuccessful, the tops all but toppling over and crashing onto the stage—only to be saved by others rushing to the rescue. At last the Mechanist, with a lovely flow of indecent swear words, broke his silence. “Cripes, you stupid bastards—you’ll never learn!”

    The reply he got from one of the newly initiated was “Who the hell wants to...” And this bloke walked out of the theatre.

    A little bit of history of a different kind: during the period I was Art Director to the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales I had designed a circular entrance vestibule to the big hall at the Show Ground. I wanted to use all Australian timbers, varying from the darkest to the lightest in colouring. Being war time, I had to approach the Timber Conservation Board for approval to obtain the three-ply. They were interested enough to have the sheets made for me—the partition was a fifty-foot semi-circle, and three six-foot high sheets of ply, the lightest coloured timber in the centre, gradually going through to darker and to the darkest at the edges. It was quite a feature.

    Many months afterwards, I was having lunch in Sydney when I was approached by a man who enquired if I remembered him. I did, but had forgotten where we had met. He mentioned that he had dealt with my request for the timber for the RAS—so we got talking. He remarked that knowing at the time that I was with Cinesound and that they, of course, watched the Cinesound News Reels, he was dying to tell me of a job he had been given to do, top secret, and of the highest priority.

    He told me of his travels and the eventual finding of a great number of Coachwood trees, found growing in warm, temperate rainforests along the coast of NSW.  With every available man and piece of machinery they were felled, sawn up and transported to the small arms factory in Penrith, where, with round-the-clock effort they were manufactured into rifle butts—since Australia hadn’t a rifle left in the country!

    What a scoop for the news it would have been if it had been broadcast!


  • Viola Tait e-book Download