"EARLY ENTERTAINMENT IN A MINING TOWN" (continued)

Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 20, June 1976

[see Journal 19: Early Entertainment in a Mining Town - E]

By MARGERY DIXON

Mrs. Daldy McWilliams formerly Miss Florence Paine of Thames and a cousin of Mr. George Chappell, was for many years the driving force behind most of the local musical shows in Waihi, especially during the years of the First War and the "twenties". She received her early training from her mother and later studied with a Mr. Parsons also of Thames.

As well as being an accomplished performer on the piano, violin and ‘cello, Mrs. McWilliams possessed a fine singing voice. Her ability to play music from sight and to transpose into other keys made her keenly sought after by visiting musicians. Add to these a strong dramatic sense, imagination, skill at choreography, scene-planning and costuming plus the ability to discipline and train a cast of raw amateurs to a high standard, with provision of a good orchestra, her shows were assured of immediate success.

It was because of music that Mr. and Mrs. McWilliams met. He ran a gymnasium in Thames and asked Miss Paine to accompany their callisthenics. This association led to their marriage after which in 1901 they moved to Waihi where Mrs. McWilliams immediately became involved in local music, including solo work and orchestral work, but it is as a producer of variety shows and operettas that she is best remembered.

All the McWilliams shows were family affairs. Practices for both orchestra and performers were held in their large drawing room. There were also sewing bees for costumes and evenings for making scenery. Mr. McWilliams acted as stage-Manager, critic, general rouse-about and ably supported his wife in all her endeavours.

Noel (Pete) played the ’cello, Zoe sang, and Duxie, who was in the main, the leader of the juveniles sang and danced. Mrs. McWilliams directed both orchestra and performers from her position at the piano, nothing escaping her eagle eye. All her performances were for charity. A careful eye was kept on expenses; costumes were made so that they could be adapted for several items, props were borrowed and as much use as possible made of the backdrop etc. in the Academy Theatre. Local advertisements paid for the programmes which were printed by the Waihi Daily Telegraph and distributed to the audience. It was unheard of to pay for Programmes in those days, except for the elaborate ones of visiting entertainers. This ensured that as much money as possible was handed over to an Institution or some deserving Group, thus thousands of pounds must have been raised.

As the show approached its final stages one can well imagine the chaos that reigned in the McWilliams home. Mrs. Paddy O’Brynne (Duxie) who now resides in Matamata said recently "It was like living in a mad house, but it was great fun"

Once the show had been performed in Waihi it was taken to various towns around the district and for this, special trains were engaged. There was practically no motor transport in those days and special trains were easily arranged. Props, scenery, instruments and personnel, were packed on board and off they set, returning home in the early hours of the morning.

The first production that I remember was "The Magic Ruby". Set in India it lent itself to a wealth of colour which took one small girl into a magic world. Among the cast were: George Wurm (as Rajah), Gordon Pollard, (the English Major-General), his niece Jessie Simmonds (the heroine) Wally Windsor (the hero) Mr. Budge (as Ah Sing - a comic character) and Zoe McWilliams (as Electra, Goddess of Light). I clearly recall the dancing of Ted Speak and Rene Wurm, a beautiful duet by Nellie Watson and Jeannie Mannix, fairies, monkeys and a chorus of "Indians" and "Europeans", making a strong background for the remarkable voices of Wally Windsor and Jessie Simmonds. There was also Jessie Moffat’s huge red brooch to represent the Magic Ruby. The members of the chorus changed from time to time but I recall Elsie and Ivy Porter, Phyllis Pulham, Vera and Jessie Moffat, Win McLeay, Mavis Dunstan, Ada Butler, Ruby Lawrence and Isabel McDonald, Doris Ashby, and Phyllis O’Grady.

Mrs. McWilliams also arranged impromptu concerts at the Beach when Campers in those days were very much "cut off". My father often helped by going round soliciting items often unearthing very good talent. The McWilliams’ harmonium would be taken out on to the beach or to their verandah and crowds would gather round.

Something not generally known about Mrs. McWilliams is that she performed many personal acts of charity. As her husband was the bailiff she was often the first to hear of local cases of need. She would fill a basket from her well-stocked pantry and her husband would deliver it without any explanation as to its source. Mrs. McWilliams sometimes played for the local "pictures" but found it irksome and did not continue. Her main interest was "musicals" and a glance through the somewhat faded family album shows: Jessie Simmonds, Jeannie Mannix, Nell Watson, Rene and George Wurm, "Prickles" Newth, Clarrie Glover and Ernest Snell surrounded by groups of the chorus in costume.

The coming of the Talkies greatly affected theatrical entertainments. Sound equipment and screens were fixtures, thus limiting stage room in the bigger theatres, the smaller halls being inadequate. Mrs. McWilliams’ family had left home, most of her old stalwarts were scattered, the years were catching up, Social Security had put an end to the desperate need for money which had prevailed in earlier times and so the McWilliams’ shows came to an end.

(Many young people who received their first experience of "the boards" under her direction found they possessed previously undiscovered talents. One of her "finds" was Barney Williams but he did not continue singing after his voice broke.)

Those who remember will always be grateful for the unique contribution this talented and generous lady made to the town of Waihi. (End).

 

Among other musical families in early Waihi were the Kevens and the Jessops. Len Keven became one of Auckland’s best-known singers and his brother-in-law Mr. Horace Jessop was also prominent, while Mrs. Harley Keven (nee Jessop) possessed one of the finest voices ever heard in this town. She could also play her own accompaniments if necessary. Her daughter Biddy also possessed a voice of great promise and more might have been heard of her if she had not died while still in her youth.

After the Great War many people came from "the Old Country" to begin a new life in New Zealand. Mr. and Mrs. J.W. Jones both of whom were from Wales arrived about that time in Waikino where Mr. Jones was employed at the Battery. Both Mr. and Mrs. Jones were accomplished musicians & great workers for the Presbyterian church. For many years, as well as performing herself Mrs. Jones acted as organist and choir-mistress both at Waikino often attending three Services a day. She taught the piano and singing and also brought up two mischievous twin boys and a daughter. Mr. Jones also acted as organist, soloist and chorister.

Living in Waikino at this time was Mrs. Nancy Lithgow, who possessed a glorious soprano voice and it was as a team that these two became known for many miles around. They both sang solos, while Mrs. Jones played piano solos and accompanied Mrs. Lithgow, but their vocal duets were really something to remember. Like Mrs. McWilliams, Mrs. Jones produced local shows, but she also produced choral works such as the "Messiah", importing some of her soloists from as far as Auckland. Among her pupils were Maisie Vercoe and Ron Looker. These two later married and their daughter Pamela has a beautiful soprano voice. Although blind she takes solo parts in choral works, learning all her music from memory. Miss Joyce Shaw of Waikino often acted as accompanist for Mrs. Jones. When Mr. Jones died his wife went to live in Auckland.

Because of the many Joneses there, she added her maiden name and became known as Lilian Pickering-Jones. She continued to perform and to arrange concert parties till not long before her death. Mrs. Lithgow now lives in Papatoetoe. A few years ago I had the pleasure of acting as her accompanist and her voice was as delightful as ever.

I always feel rather sorry when I see the band hall, once the scene and centre of Waihi’s wonderful band music, now unused and neglected. The Waihi Brass Band music was established in 1895 and the Martha Band a little later. Eventually the two bands amalgamated and became the Waihi Federal Band this being the winner in a competition held for a suitable name. The Band reached a very high standard under its various conductors and won several contests. Crowds would gather on Saturday and later Friday nights while doing their weekend shopping and a Sunday treat was to listen to the band at the Recreation Grounds or the Hospital.

Conductors of the Band have included: Messrs Mellor, Trussell, Glenny, Russell (twice) Hardman, B. Pascoe, Carlyon and Eric Dunstan. I do not know the names of subsequent conductors. There have been many very loyal Bandsmen; Mr. Bert Carlyon, a very good cornet soloist, for over sixty years, several members of the Pascoe family, also the Dunstan family, George Henry, another good cornetist and C.G. (Jumbo Lloyd). A special tribute must be paid to Mr. John Beeston who served the Band for about fifty years and kept it going for as long as he could. Sad to say it is now in recess. Anzac Day Parades and all Civic Functions would have been dull affairs indeed without the Band and as a child it was a joy to wake up on Christmas Morning to the sound of their carolling.

The Band Hall was also used for dances and parties but older residents will remember mainly the strains of music which floated out over the town as the members had their weekly practice.

The Salvation Army Band first formed in 1897 was also of a high standard. They used to play and sing every late shopping night on the Rob Roy corner while the "Lassies" went among the crowd with their tambourines for contributions.

Waihi has had its share of talent in many directions. Mr. Rudall Hayward who has become one of New Zealand’s most noted film makers produced his first film in Waihi and what is more, the story was written by a Waihi man, the actors being mostly Waihi residents. Mr. H.T. Gibson, Headmaster of the Waihi District High School, wrote a story "My Lady of the Cave" which appeared as a serial in the Auckland Weekly News. It was set on Mayor Island which all of us had seen but few had visited. Mr. Hayward used this story for his script, shooting the film mostly on Mayor Island with some scenes at the Waihi Beach. In the cast were: Mr. Gibson himself, his daughter Winnie, Darkie Bestic, Tommy Hewitt, Sonny and Dick Hovell and probably some others I have forgotten. The hero and heroine were "imported". I do not think Mr. Hayward rated this first effort very highly but it brought more than a touch of romance to the local residents who flocked to the Academy to see it.

Waihi also had its share of humorists and high on this list was Mr. Jimmy Fox. This wonderful comedian who had only half a dozen or so songs in his repertoire was such an artist that no matter how many times they were heard they never failed to convulse the audience. Who could forget hearing "Never as long as I Live", "Mary Ellen at the Church turned Up" or "In our Little Garden Sub-bub". Yet Mr. Fox could also sing a straight song like "Molly Bawn", in a delightful tenor voice, with almost professional artistry.

I have already mentioned Darkie (Arthur) Bestic who was another local comedian, and one of the best natural "clowns" I ever saw was Prickles (Lee) Newth. Stan Collier, Bill Wotherspoon and Jack Walters were others whose antics never failed to amuse. I remember Prickles and Stan as two priceless "ugly sisters" in a production of Cinderella put on by a Miss Agenew (a visitor) for the Presbyterian Church, with a chorus gleaned from the Bible Class and Sunday School. Prince Charming was Miss Ellie Bestic. She had a strong voice of beautiful quality with a good range and it is a pity she did not continue with her singing when she left Waihi. Other soloists in this production were: Miss Gladys Dunn, Miss Esma [second letter not clear – E] Richards and Miss Betty McGregor.

I also remember Prickles Newth as an English "toff" in "Phyllis the Farmer’s Daughter" produced by Jeannie Mannix who later achieved fame by producing children’s concerts in the Auckland Hospital during the twenty- odd years she was a patient there. The hero of this show was Ernest Snell who later was prominent as a soloist in Auckland. He was also an accomplished pianist and often accompanied himself while performing very difficult songs.

I wonder if anyone remembers Stan Collier, Bill "Wob" and Jack Wallers singing "Ca-bagges, Ca-beans and Car-rots" while they rode a weird and wonderful bicycle of their own construction round the stage? An earlier singer of comic songs was a chemist called Billy Woods who used to sing "Put me among the Girls". Claude Coutts also took part in some of the local shows singing among other songs "When You Wore a Tulip".

In any town a great deal of the music seems to be under the direction of the Church Organists who are usually the town’s music teachers. This was no less true of Waihi and foremost among those of my day was surely Miss Margaret Morgan who besides being organist in the Methodist Church for nearly forty years, taught and encouraged hundreds of local children, as well as giving most generously of her services as accompanist. She also allowed her pupils to slip through her back fence to the South School and this saved many a late-comer. Miss Winnie Hawkins who later became a Teacher and organist herself was one of her pupils. Another was Miss Merle Brown (now Mrs. Binney of Mt. Albert). Nat. Mounsey another pupil became the leader of an excellent dance band The Dixie Boys, with Nat. as pianist, Ollie Allison, trumpet; Bert Aitken, banjo; Jack Pickford, saxophone, and, for a time Eric Saunders on the violin. They were known far and wide and I still regard them as one of the best dance bands I ever heard.

Mr. Thomas Midley organist, Presbyterian Church for many years had also been organist at a number of large Churches in England - on one occasion acted as accompanist for Nellie Melba. But the little fingers on each of his hands had become permanently bent so that he could no longer manage a big pipe organ. He played and taught for many years till his tragic death about 1926. He also helped with several concerts for the High School. His place was taken by Mrs. Lockington who was later succeeded by Mrs. Jones of Waikino. Miss Mabel Dunn was pianist in the Sunday School for many years. When it was first established the Presbyterian Church had a string orchestra which would play, with their choir of over forty voices, to a packed Church every Sunday evening from 6.30 till 7p.m.

Mrs. Goodwin was organist at the Anglican Church, travelling in from their farm on the plains in all weathers. Her daughters Dorothy and Cathie both sang and played. Dorothy later married Mr. Robin Baxter who came to Waihi in the twenties and possessed a fine baritone voice. Cathie married Mr. Brown also a singer and they often performed together.

During the time of the Rev. Wayne the Anglican Church ran some most enjoyable evenings for young people-with games, dances and items. Mrs. Wayne with Miss Mabel Speak, Mrs. Heath and others graciously hostessed these evenings putting shy youngsters at their ease, encouraging them to dance and giving new young artists a chance to perform.

Miss Ella Phillips who played the organ at the Baptist Church until she left for America where she died soon after, was another well-known Music Teacher in Waihi. She was followed by Mrs. Sam Brown who in turn was followed by her daughter Merle.

Other Teachers of Music in Waihi Were: Madame Coree a French woman, Blanche Sibley, Mr. Cheek and Mr. Sampson (Violin); Mr. Russell, Bandmaster (Violin and Piano), Miss Hazel Corbett and Miss Ada Potier. Mr. Jack Dobson who went to England to study after the War later taught Music at New Plymouth Boys’ High School for many years. There were also some talented dancers in Waihi:- Aileen Simpson, Rosina Nicol, Jean Munro and of course the Mackies - Doris, Bessie, Alan and Evan (who became a highly decorated Pilot in the War, could dance Scottish reels with grace and skill. Doris was a gifted solo dancer and taught national dancing for a while.)

In the twenties Mr. and Mrs. Free came to Waihi. Mrs. Free began elocution classes in Waihi and produced many plays in Waihi, especially for the W.E.A. Her daughter Maisie was a talented actress who took a leading role in several major Auckland productions.

This article would be incomplete without mention of the "Musical Evenings" which were very popular at the time. Friends would gather in each other’s houses to make music and enjoy each other’s company. They also served as a means of entertaining musical visitors and of introducing new residents to the townsfolk.

One very colourful entertainment which I remember in the Academy was the crowning of Mrs. Guvain [Gauvain ? – E] as Queen after a big carnival held for patriotic funds towards the end of the war. This was probably the most spectacular of all the occasions I have mentioned involving, an orchestra, singing, the other queens and their pages, buglers, sword-bearers and many others in fine array of silk, satin and velvet in a wealth of colour.

In 1932 I went to Feilding and my visits to Waihi became rather more sporadic so other pens will have to take up the story there. But since returning to Auckland I have come across children of ex-Waihi residents who have made their mark in the music world. There are the children of Don Mackie and his wife Lois (nee Butler) Melbon plays the bassoon in an English orchestra, Julie teaches music and Douglas plays the flute. Joan Stentiford (nee Power) has a very musical family and she herself still plays. Winnie Sproul (nee Pike) has a daughter now in Canada who plays very well, and when I first came to Auckland a young pianist just coming into prominence was Ngaire Kallu. Vi’ Elliott (nee Davidson) and Hazel Warren (nee Thompson) both had daughters who toured with Peter Godfrey’s noted University choir. (Ollie Redshaw’s son Michael is studying the piano in England). Perhaps the most prominent of all is Barry Margan a pianist whom Mrs. Young helped to train and who is now leaning towards contemporary music.

This is written without much checking of records and I hope there are not too many mistakes nor omissions. To those whose names are mentioned here I say a big "Thank You". You helped make Waihi a happy and interesting place in which to grow up.

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