1969 Benny Award : Edgar Benyon
Edgar Wilson Beynon – known professionally as Edgar Benyon – was born in 1901 in Auckland, the son of William Melville Beynon, a printer, and his wife, Sarah Elizabeth Wilson, a dressmaker. By 1903 the family had moved to Christchurch, where William carried on his trade with Weeks Limited. Edgar was educated at schools in Linwood, Sydenham and New Brighton and eventually took up an apprenticeship as a printer with his father’s company. It was through his father, who received numerous theatrical passes at his work, that Edgar fell in love with the theatre and developed a desire to become a master magician. He began to practise fire-eating and performed a solo magic show at local churches and youth groups. He received a letter of encouragement from the great magician Chung Ling Soo when he toured New Zealand.
Watching the various entertainers who came to New Zealand, Edgar realised that the leisurely tempo of the older style of presentation was becoming outdated and that to succeed against stiff competition his act would have to be different, so he added juggling, balancing and mimicry. Most of his skills were self-taught, but many cherished secrets came from a genial magician known as Adair, who befriended and encouraged him.
In 1918 Beynon met and fell in love with Doris Evelyn Southen, an artist employed at Weeks. He also entered and won a talent competition staged by John Fuller and Sons’ vaudeville. Part of the prize was a week’s paid work with the company, eventually extended to ten. He declined the offer of an Australian tour because of family pressure to stick with a reliable trade.
Beynon continued performing in Christchurch, resigning his apprenticeship when magic and work conflicted. The bookings for his act increased and he added quick-change routines so that each specialty part of his act was presented in a different costume. He and friends formed a company, which toured the South Island and Manawatu, before he was engaged by Fullers at £14 per week. He gained valuable experience and quickly learned that audiences appreciated his versatility.
By 1922 he had moved to Australia, where he achieved success in Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney. Doris Southen joined him and they were married in in Newcastle. Doris now became part of the act, since a double act was paid more. Their first daughter, Doris, was born in 1923. They performed in Adelaide and Melbourne, toured South Africa and went on to England with a letter of recommendation from Harry Lauder. Edgar staged a successful show in Worthing and from then he was never without work. The manager of the London Coliseum billed him as Edgar Benyon, a name more memorable than Beynon, and this became his stage name.
A second daughter, Mavis, was born in 1926 and in 1929 the family toured South Africa and Australia. Their third daughter, Doreen, was born in 1930 in London. Tragedy struck in 1935 when Mavis died of burns received when her dress caught fire while playing.
Edgar and Doris were now regularly touring Britain and Ireland. Edgar displayed other hidden talents when he wrote the lyrics for several popular songs. When war broke out in 1939 and theatres were closed, the family moved to Ireland. Here the full evening show of magic was named Bam-Boo-Zalem with Edgar’s one-man variety act as its cornerstone. By now his daughter Doris was taking part in the show under the stage name Evelyn Talma. In 1943 she married an Irish army officer, Sean O’Hagan, who also became an integral part of the show.
The show was now one of the largest in the world and included fourteen separate changes of scene in the course of a performance. Edgar was famed for the inventiveness of his optical illusions, his mind-reading tricks and the skill of his juggling. Perhaps his most famous feat was to spin a billiard cue like a propeller on the tip of another cue held horizontally – something he claimed to have learned from watching Maori stick games.
The family toured Ireland until 1946, and in that year toured England. They returned to New Zealand in 1949, touring the country until the 1960s. As Doris, Sean and Doreen left to settle down and raise their families the show was scaled down.
Theatrical and magic fraternities both recognised Edgar Benyon’s work. The Variety Artists Club of New Zealand created the Benny Award in his name to honour their lifetime achievement award. The Auckland Brotherhood of Magicians created and conferred on him their Grand Master of Magic award.
The Benyons eventually retired to Queensland to be with Doris and Sean O’Hagan in Mackay. Edgar died there on 14 September 1978.
1970 Benny Award : Sir Howard Morrison OBE
Howard Morrison was born on August 18, 1935. Raised in Rotorua and the town of Ruatahuna, Morrison attended a nearby native school before going to Hawkes Bay’s Te Aute College and Rotorua Boys High School.
His dream of becoming a professional entertainer was sparked by Maori culture groups and concert parties, but the jobs he took after leaving school included working as a land survey chainman for the Department of Maori Affairs, an electricity meter reader for the Tourist Department and a storeman at Whakatu freezing works.
It was at Whakatu in 1954 that Morrison replaced Kahu Pineaha in the Clive Trio (with Isabel Cowan and Virginia Whatarau). He also joined Te Awapuni Maori Concert Party. This gave him his first taste of touring the country. By 1955 Morrison was back in Rotorua, playing rugby for Waikite and organising vocal groups to entertain at rugby club socials.
After touring Australia with the Aotearoa Concert Party, he put together a group with his brother Laurie, cousin John, Gary Rangiihu, Chubby Hamiora and Wi Wharekura to contest Rotorua’s Christmas carnival talent quest. They won. Morrison, Rangiihu and Hamiora then added guitarist Gerry Merito and competed in a talent contest in Hamilton as the Ohinemutu Quartet. This time they came third. In 1957 Morrison married Rangiwhata Ann Manahi (Lady Kuia). They had two sons and a daughter.
1957 was also the year Morrison got more serious about his music, forming the Howard Morrison Quartet with his brother, cousin and Gerry Merito. After seeing them, Auckland entrepreneur Benny Levi toured the quartet nationally on a rock and roll package show and as support to American comedian Stan Freberg. Levin also put them in producer Eldred Stebbing’s Auckland studio on a single by single deal with Zodiac Records. Their first record, “There’s Only One of You”, came out in 1958. But it was the second, “Hoki Mai” coupled with “Po Kare Kare Ana”, which took off in Auckland and Rotorua.
Looking at the success the band had for Zodiac with “The Battle of the Waikato”, manager Harry M. Miller suggested they parody another Lonnie Donegan song, “My Old Man’s A Dustman”. The result was “My Old Man’s An All Black”, a humorous protest at the exclusion of Maori from the team for the 1960 rugby tour of South Africa. Recorded cheaply at a concert at the Pukekohe Town Hall, it went on to sell 60,000 copies.
The quartet disbanded in 1964 and Morrison went solo, touring the country with American artists Ben E King, Gene McDaniels and Dee Dee Sharp, as well as with the Miss New Zealand Show. In 1966 he broght his charm to a starring role in John O’Shea’s big screen musical comedy Don’t Let It Get You, alongside a young Kiri Te Kanawa, the Keil Isles, the Quin Tikis and Lew Pryme. Morrison’s performance helped him earn the Entertainer Of the Year award.
Over the next few years he established a reputation on the Asian Pacific circuit including Hawaii, Thailand, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, returning home for short cabaret residencies in Auckland. In 1968 he released two solo albums, Born Free and Power Game, as well as a duet album with country singer John Hore, Take Ten.
In 1982 Morrison recorded a television special in Hamilton. The spin off album and single on RCA gave Morrison his greatest solo success, with “How Great Thou Art”/ “Whakaaria Mai” topping the national charts for five weeks. In 1989 he was honoured on this episode of This is Your Life. The following year he sang at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games. By now Morrison had been knighted for his services to entertainment, with the investiture ceremony at his home marae of Ohinemutu.
Sir Howard Morrison died in September 2009, and is buried at Kauae Cemetery in Ngongotaha, Rotorua.
1970 Benny Award : Oswald Cheesman MBE
A household name for much of his career, the affable and talented Oswald Cheesman was a pioneer of music radio broadcasting who directed the Kiwi Concert Party in World War II before helping to establish New Zealand’s first national orchestra.
Born in 1913, his passion for music was discovered in his high school years. Choosing to fill spare hours with piano practice, he displayed a talent beyond his years. A brief stint with the Prudential Assurance Company in 1929 failed to dissuade his enthusiasm, and Cheesman left to join Alf Healy’s band at the Civic Theatre. From here, a sojourn in Sydney and a spell performing for Pacific cruise patrons led to an ongoing affiliation with New Zealand.
Beginning in 1936 with weekly broadcasts of his live performances, this partnership would continue until his death. In 1941, Cheesman agreed to lead a ten-piece band for weekly broadcast on the National Broadcasting Service (NBS), but this was cut short when he joined the army. Serving in the Pacific, he eventually became director of the Kiwi Concert Party, and performed before servicemen around the region. His service ended in 1944, after which he resumed working with the NBS.
Cheesman helped in setting up the National Orchestra (now the NZSO) in 1946-47, and went on to feature as a soloist and conductor for the following 30 years. In 1952 he led a party to perform for troops in Korea and Japan, and in 1970 he was the NZ director of music at Expo ’70 in Osaka. He was given the APRA Certificate of Honour in 1970, and in 1972 was made an MBE for his services to music. He died in 1985.
1971 Benny Award : Pat McMinn OBE
Pat McMinn OBE grew up in Taumarunui. Her parents played at dances around the King Country, father on piano, mother on violin. Her brothers – who were sixteen and seventeen when she was born – already had their own dance band.
After touring New Zealand as a nine-year-old dancer in J. C. Williamson’s White Horse Inn company, McMinn continued dancing and singing lessons in Auckland. As a fifteen-year-old from Freemans Bay she sang “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” on 1ZB in the children’s radio show Neddo’s Jolly Pirates. Her grandmother put her name down for a Dixieland vocalist competition where she was the youngest entrant and she won the competition. This lead to her appearing two nights a week in cabaret at the Trocadero on Queen Street. McMinn would sing several items during the evening and in the breaks, knit and embroider in the dressing room. Soon she was performing six nights a week with Johnny Madden’s band. Among the songs she sang were “Paper Doll”, “Moonlight Becomes You” and “I’ll Walk Alone”.
By day McMinn had been manpowered to work in a Freemans Bay sack factory, after which she taught dancing. The Trocadero gigs included a floorshow in which Pat sang and danced accompanied by the piano-accordionist Toni Savage.
McMinn released more than 25 sides for Tanza, including several of the label’s biggest hits. McMinn’s sunny pop songs were typically accompanied by the honky-tonk piano of Crombie Murdoch. Her first recording was on “Choo’n Gum” as vocalist for John MacKenzie and the Astor Dixie Boys. Her biggest hit, 1956’s “Opo the Crazy Dolphin”, an original composition written by pianist Crombie Murdoch, sold 10,000 copies in its first week. Her other successes included “Bimbo”, “Dancing in My Socks” and “Just Another Polka”. McMinn’s success at novelty songs meant she rarely got the opportunity to record more typical adult material like torch ballads.
McMinn always sang with a smile, and had the last laugh when a frippery she recorded in just one hour was broadcast every day for nearly 40 years on Auckland radio stations. It was the famous Geddes jingle about dentures. Pat McMinn received her OBE in 1977.
1972 Benny Award : Jon Zealando
Trevor Hodson left his job as a junior bank officer in 1957 for a life in show business, and Jon Zealando never looked back. He became a household name in New Zealand as a magician, ventriloquist, escapologist, yogi (someone able to withstand pain) and entertainment personality.
A founding member of the Variety Artists Club of New Zealand, he designed and personally sculpted the first Benny Award. The statuette features Greek muses Melpomene and Thalia – the traditional symbols of comedy and tragedy. He was also a founding committee member of the NZ Equity Actors Union.
Jon appeared on That’s Incredible, blowing a 30 foot flame in three parts called the Prince of Wales Feathers. He made two appearances on the Toyko television show The World Surprise Show. He also entered the Guinness Book of Records for distance fire throwing.
In 1985 Jon and wife Janet were presented the prestigious Grand Master of Magic Award, for a lifetime of excellence in the magical arts.
In 1996 Jon was Celebrity Roasted by show business friends Max Cryer MBE, Phil Warren QSO, Les Andrews QSM, John Maybury, Gerry Merrito, Chic Littlewood, Guy Cater, Monique Feron and Elaine Bracey.
Jon also has a passion for opera, choir and pantomime.
1972 Benny Award : Lou Clauson QSM
Lou Clauson was born and bred in Drury, South Auckland. Prior to getting involved in show business his career had included opening the ‘Rose Marie’ milk bar/restaurant on Great South Road, Papakura in 1950 and the distinction of introducing chicken and chips to New Zealand.
In 1956 he put on Auckland’s first rock ‘n’ roll dance in the Karaka Hall – 600 people turned up! His band, the Moonlets, played his composition, “Papakura Boogie”, perhaps the first New Zealand rock ‘n’ roll original to be publicly performed. He met Simon Mehana onstage at the Maori Community Centre in 1958 and, as the music comedy duo Lou and Simon, they became a sought-after act in cabaret, variety shows and on television. They also often worked as the warm-up act for the Howard Morrison Quartet. As recording artists, they specialised in broad, bawdy satires such as “Converted Maori Car”. Besides being regulars on high-profile tours such as the Showtime Spectaculars and the Miss New Zealand shows, Lou and Simon performed in Australia, around the Pacific and in the US. They released nine albums, 10 EPs and 18 singles before going their separate ways in 1969.
Lou worked as a compere and promoter in the 1970s, and organised youth talent quests. Lou and Simon reunited in the 1980s and were awarded Queen’s Service Medals.
Lou was a founding member and the original President of the VAC, serving from 1968 to 1975. He continued as a committee member from 1976 to 1978, later becoming Patron.
Lou passed away in December 2013.
1973 Benny Award : Ray Columbus OBE
Undoubtedly one of New Zealand’s iconic pioneers of modern music, Ray Columbus began his career in 1959 at the young age of seventeen. Teamed with band The Drifters, Ray became very popular in his hometown of Christchurch. This prompted a move to Auckland in 1962 and a name change on the way to Ray Columbus and the Invaders. Complete with Fender gear, fancy dance moves and matching outfits, Ray and The Invaders took Auckland by storm.
The 1964 smash hit “She’s A Mod” rocketed Ray and The Invaders to Australasian and international fame. The song, teamed with the “Mods Nod”, a dance created by Ray, hailed him as the ‘Mod Father’. “She’s A Mod” remains one of mainstream NZ’s fondest and most enduring memories of the 1960s.
Strengthening their popularity and place in NZ’s music history, Ray and the Invaders had further success with “Till We Kissed”. This song turned out to be their biggest local hit, selling over 50,000 copies in 1965 alone. Ray and the Invaders were also the first group down under to record and play their own songs. Their second album Original Numbers was NZ’s first homegrown pop album of entirely self-penned tracks.
Ray’s career hasn’t slowed down after his split from the Invaders, he has now enjoyed over five decades in the Kiwi entertainment industry. Not only was he awarded an OBE for services to his country but he was the first pop star in the British Commonwealth to receive such recognition. He has toured Australia and NZ numerous times as a headline act as well as supporting major international artists including The Rolling Stones, Roy Orbison, Shirley Bassey and The Hollies, to name a few.
But music is not Ray’s only claim to fame. He has been a household name in television since he hosted his own series in 1962 – Club Columbus. This was followed by hit series including Ray Columbus Presents New Faces, C’Mon, Happen Inn, Sing and others. Ray also co-created and hosted That’s Country and helped sell the series to the TNN cable network in the USA where 48 shows played three times a week for a year.
Other career highlights include three Royal Command Performances (MC and headliner in 1974 during the Christchurch Commonwealth Games). Not to mention playing San Francisco Auditorium with Eric Burdon and The Animals in 1968.
Ray has won every major award in New Zealand show business including the Loxerne Gold Disc Award, Entertainer of the Year, Apra Silver Scroll Award (twice), Top Television Entertainer, Promoter/Manager of the Year and the Benny Award.
Ray passed away in November 2016 after a long illness.
1974 Benny Award : John Rowles OBE
John Rowles was born in 1947 in Whakatane and raised in Kawerau in the Bay Of Plenty. His first performance was at the age of ten when he entered a local talent quest, taking out first prize with a rendition of “All Shook Up”. While still at school he formed a band and played lead guitar at local dances.
John left school and got a job in a forestry camp. However, music was of prime importance in his life and when he was sixteen he moved to Auckland where he found a job as a guitar player in a club. When the vocalist became ill, John took over the singing. He later auditioned and joined another group that featured Eddie Low. John and Eddie moved to Australia in 1964 after signing a nine month contract to sing at the Riverside Inn in Melbourne. After the contract expired, John moved to Sydney and joined a group called the Dingdongers. He stayed with them for a year, during which they changed their name to the Sundowners.
By 1966 John had decided to go solo and secured the services of New Zealand promoter Graham Dent as manager. Graham had previously been responsible for the successful career of Johnny Devlin and had also managed Max Merritt and the Meteors. Graham gave John a new image, changed his hair style, new mod clothes and impressed upon him the importance of putting effort and action into his music and performances. Dent organised to have John appear on Australian television’s New Faces Of 1966.
In 1967 John went to England and met up with producer Mike Leander. Mike was impressed with John and together they started planning John’s attack on the British market. England already had Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck, but with careful selection of songs, Mike was convinced that John could have the same level of impact. The first release in England came early in 1968 and was “If I Only Had Time”/”Now Is The Hour”. This was a huge hit, reaching #3 on the British charts, #6 in Australia and #2 in New Zealand. A self-titled album was also released.
At the end of the year John returned to New Zealand and a huge reception. He performed at sell-out concerts and had suddenly become New Zealand’s largest international star. In 1968 he was awarded NEBOA Entertainer Of The Year. He returned to England and continued to release albums and singles including “Cheryl Moana Marie”, which achieved international success.
After successful tours of Europe John started singing in hotels all over the USA. He was likened to Elvis Presley and received offers from Las Vegas hotels. In 1972, at the young age of twenty-five, John signed a five year contract with the Royal Hawaiian Hotel to sing in their Monarch Room. This is the famous hotel in Waikiki also known as the Pink Palace. Hawaii was the perfect place for John to base himself, as it was halfway between New Zealand and the US mainland, both of which he traveled to frequently. In 1978 came another signature tune, “Tania”.
In 1980 he sang at a Royal Command Performance before Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke Of Edinburgh in Auckland, and was also awarded the Order of the British Empire for his contribution to the music industry and also as an ambassador of New Zealand overseas.
John undertook a farewell tour of New Zealand in 2011. His autobiography, If I Only Had Time, was released in 2012.
1974 Benny Award : Peter Newberry QSO
Peter Newberry was known and loved as Crunchy the Clown by generations of New Zealand children. His father Bill Newberry was a noted accordionist in New Zealand during the 1940s and 50s. Born in Whangarei, Peter enjoyed early success as a swimmer until ear trouble set in. He and his identical twin Paul took up weightlifting and bodybuilding and formed the De Mon Acrobatic Team. They performed shows such as Gambols Galore in Whangarei, complete with pit orchestra and drum rolls. Their comedy piano act entertained American servicemen stationed in the area during World War II.
The troupe disbanded and Peter Newberry and his new wife, Pat Ford, headed to Auckland. Winning second prize in a radio talent quest led to his first professional engagement – as a trick cyclist at the Avondale RSA, for £2. Newberry and a new partner, David Baylis, formed a cycling duo and took their act to the Theatre Royal in Brisbane in 1959. When they arrived, they found they needed a second act as the the theatre alternated its programme every week. They worked out a slow-balancing act and practised it on Manly Beach. This second act, known as Mavados, the Laziest Acrobats in the World, later became a favourite in Auckland cabarets.
His clowning came about by chance. The producer of Max Cryer’s TV show Do-Re-Max wanted a clown, but there was no time to prepare a script, so Crunchy the Whistling Clown was born. The act changed little over the next 30 years. Crunchy added talking to his whistling, and became a familiar figure at shopping malls, children’s parties and galas around the country. He toured as a circus act to Noumea, Tahiti and Fiji, and performed at the Nauru independence celebrations in 1968.
Peter’s circus career had its moments of excitement: he narrowly missed being mauled by an enraged chimpanzee and once stood in a circus ring preventing panic as a freak storm threatened to take the tent, and the audience, away.
Peter was made a companion of the Queen’s Service Order in 1980. His most difficult appearance was as Crunchy the Clown at the Auckland Easter Show in 1980. Only hours before he was due to perform he learned that his daughter Marie had died in a shooting accident in Sydney. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” he said later. “But you’ve just got to go out there and do what you’ve been paid to do – and that includes the funny faces.”
He moved to Australia in 1981 to follow up offers of work in shopping malls in Brisbane and Sydney. His later years were spent in retirement in Northern NSW. Peter passed away in 2003 aged 78.
1974 Benny Award : Les Andrews QSM
In his youth Les Andrews was stationed for two years in North Africa’s Western Desert with the 16th Railway Operating Company. He spent a further two years in Italy in the British Bridge Layer Tanks Division of the 4th New Zealand Armoured Brigade, which lead to a life-changing experience in a basement music room. One of the tank drivers started playing the piano and Les sang along. They heard footsteps and a figure appeared in the semi-darkness. He asked Les why he wasn’t in the Kiwi Concert Party, to which he replied: “I’m buggered if I know.” The man turned to go and Les noticed the red braid on his hat and epaulets – it was Lieutenant-General Bernard Cyril Freyberg. Les was transferred to the concert party ten days later.
After the war he received a one-year bursary to study singing at the Sydney Conservatorium, and competed against some seventy-two tenors to win their championship. This opened the door to the Royal College of Music in London where he studied for two years. He stayed on in England, singing on BBC radio and television and performed in a Royal Command Performance in London.
Once his children were older, the family moved back to New Zealand. Les became a local personality compering shows such as Personality Squares, Tinker Tailor and Music in 3D. He was working on talkback radio in 1965 when he met second wife Sonia. They went on to sing together for decades and released numerous albums.
Les and Sonia were great patrons of the arts and in 1992 were awarded Queen’s Service Medals for their services to entertainment. Together they put on thirty-seven variety concerts for charity in the Aotea Centre in the 1990s – thirty-five totally sold-out. With the profits of these shows they established the Les and Sonia Andrews Cultural Foundation, which has sponsored artists such as baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes and tenor Simon O’Neill. Les and Sonia were also greatly respected for their donations to the Royal New Zealand Ballet and Bach Musica New Zealand.
Les released his autobiography What A Laugh in 1999. He passed away in February 2014.
1975 Benny Award : Phil Warren QSO
Phil Warren grew up in the Auckland suburb of Kingsland and went to Mt Albert Grammar School. The influence of his jazz trumpeter uncle led him into the music and show business scene. After leaving school he sold musical instruments and by age eighteen was importing R&B and jazz from small US labels to meet local demand.
He established his own record label – Prestige – and discovered and recorded rocker Johnny Devlin. As a promoter he worked with the likes of Kiri Te Kanawa and Ray Columbus, as well as bringing over 500 overseas acts to New Zealand including Johnny Cash, The Hollies, The Rolling Stones, Robin Gibb and The Faces featuring Rod Stewart.
Phil moved into politics, serving as Auckland City Councillor, Deputy Mayor, Chairman of the Auckland Regional Council and board member or Patron of a myriad of committees, arts bodies and societies. In the early 1970s he altered the social fabric of New Zealand as a lobbyist to change drinking laws preventing licensed drinking after 10 o’clock.
Phil was made a companion of the Queen’s Service Order in 1994.
When he passed away in 2002 flags flew at half-mast on Auckland’s Harbour Bridge. Prime Minister Helen Clark called him a ‘human dynamo’ and Sir Howard Morrison declared him ‘the boss’ of entertainment at his funeral.
1976 Benny Award : Merv Smith QSM
Merv Smith became a household name as The King of NZ Radio. He was the host of 1ZB’s Breakfast Show 1951-1986, and held the #1 rated radio spot for an incredible twenty-six years. After leaving 1ZB he moved to Radio i, and later co-founded Radio Country.
Merv has also peformed as an actor and in musical theatre. He was twice awarded Narrator of the Year by the New Zealand Foundation of the Blind. In 1985 he was presented with the Queen’s Service Medal for services to broadcasting.
Merv was presented a VAC Certificate of Achievement at the 2012 Benny Awards.
1976 Benny Award : Rusty Greaves
Born Trevor Francis Greaves, the name Rusty Greaves was given to him by George Tollerton at Fullers Entertainment Bureau. George said “we can’t have a cowboy singer named Trevor”.
He was brought up on a dairy farm near Woodville, 40km away from the nearest school. As a youth he was hospitalised twice, first after being kicked by a bad tempered horse, later tussled by a powerful bull.
During recovery periods in hospital he was able to attend night classes at college to catch up with the schooling that he had missed. At the same time, Rusty found employment through the railway workshops in Auckland, where he learnt carpentry.
During his 50-year career, this New Zealand pioneer of country music was the first overseas guest on the world famous Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee. That night he received a historical four encores. He went on to do eleven more appearances in years to come, many as a guest of Hank Snow.
Rusty had no thoughts of leaving New Zealand. He cut his first record, “Muleskinner Blues”, in 1960 for Zodiac and recorded “She Taught Me To Yodel” in 1963. He ran the all-country music nights at the Monument Lodge in Otahuhu, but only every second Sunday. He wanted the other Sundays free to take country music to other places, hear other performers, watch and encourage his own pupils, dozens of whom went on to become professionals in the field.
He died in 1998 at the age of 63. His 14 children are all performers and the golden voice has also been passed down to his grandchildren.
1977 Benny Award : Max Cryer MBE
Max Cryer is one of New Zealand’s best-known entertainers. He has been a singer, compere, television presenter, radio host and quizmaster. A consummate professional, Max has made records, represented New Zealand at many cultural events, and co-ordinated the production of Kiri Te Kanawa’s best-selling record of Maori songs.
Max’s professional career began a soloist at Sadlers Wells Opera in London, then moved into cabaret and television work throughout Europe and then New Zealand.
In this country he recorded 15 long-playing albums, made over 200 television entertainment appearances, hosted twelve different television series, and was awarded Entertainer of the Year.
An offer from a Hollywood-based entertainment agency resulted in his being contracted for ten years to perform 17 tours of USA as a cabaret and TV performer throughout California, Las Vegas, Florida, New York, and Chicago.
Returning to NZ, his stage appearances include Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady the King of Siam in The King and I, and Count Danilo in The Merry Widow. Max hosted NZ’s first ever live talk-variety TV show Town Cryer for three years, before becoming a staff producer for TVNZ for the following ten years, where he produced ten series of Mastermind and University Challenge.
He was seconded from TVNZ by the NZ Government to direct all entertainment at two World Expos (1988 Brisbane and 1992 Seville), during which he organised a total of two thousand performances, including one thousand Maori cultural performances. Back in NZ he made his last appearance in opera at the opening of the Aotea Centre in Auckland, as Prince Orlovsky in Die Fledermaus, with Dame Malvina Major.
A university graduate with a Master’s degree in Language and Literature, former Chairman of the Oxford Union debates, and a judge of the Montana Book Award. Max’s nine published books include the only history of NZ’s national anthem; an anthology about cats; and Love Me Tender – a history of the world’s favourite songs. His books have been published in Australasia, UK, Germany, Italy, USA and Russia.
He appears frequently as announcer and host for major musical events, as narrator with orchestras, and as Master of Ceremonies for visiting notables (Prince Charles; Charlton Heston; Countess Mountbatten) and is a frequent and popular speaker on the subject of language at corporate functions and conferences throughout New Zealand.
1978 Benny Award : George Tumahai
George Tumahai‘s father left his native Tahiti to perform in Auckland with a Tahitian Band in the 1920s. He fell in love with a Ngati Whatua woman from Orakei and never left.
Although his publicity material at the time said George was also born in Tahiti, he was actually born and raised on ‘Boot Hill’, the Maori community in Orakei.
He sang with a vocal trio called the Three Deuces, accompanied by Johnny Bradford on guitar. George and Johnny played all of the Auckland nightclubs in the 50s and 60s. He also recorded with Bill Sevesi and Daphne Walker.
George received a VAC Scroll of Honour in 1977 and the Benny in 1978. Johnny Bradford received a Scroll of Honour in 1976. George was a VAC Committee member from 1975-1987 and Vice-President 1980-1984.
George died in 1991. His nephew Charlie Tumahai (son of George’s brother Charlie who sang with George in the Three Deuces) played with the reggae band Herbs from 1985 until his death in 1995.
1979 Benny Award : Chic Littlewood
Born in England, Chic Littlewood arrived in New Zealand in 1964. His television debut was on Have a Shot the same year, and he went on to appear in practically every light entertainment show of the era, from Happen Inn to Go For It.
He also made at least 500 afternoon appearances with his old sparring partner, puppet Willie McNab, writing and presenting the popular children’s shows Chic-a-boom and Chic Chat.
Both as a star in his own right and as support to such celebrities as The Irish Rovers, Vera Lynn, John Rowles and the Shadows, he has toured the country many times in cabaret concerts, light opera and even ballet.
A show business jack of all trades, Chic can certainly claim to be a master of at least a few, having twice been nominated as Best Actor in a Television Drama, and going on to win the coveted N.E.O.A. Entertainer of the Year in 1977.
He received the Benny Award in 1979 for a lifetime of excellence in the performing arts.
In more recent years he appeared in a recurring role on Shortland Street for three years and made appearances on Hercules, Mercy Peak and in Peter Jackson’s King Kong.
Chic passed away in January 2015.
1980 Benny Award : Eddie Hegan
Irishman Eddie Hegan had a long career as a tap dancer, writer, radio and theatre actor. He was a founding member of the Kiwi Concert Party, who entertained the troops in Africa during WWII.
In the 1950s and 1960s Eddie produced talent quests and Christmas shows. In 1959 he shipped out to Australia with the first real Maori show to leave the country. The cast of twenty-five performed under the appropriate title of ‘Maori’.
Eddie worked alongside The Honourable George Gair in what was then The Auckland Public Relations Office (precursor to The Auckland Festival Society, Tourism Auckland and Auckland Business Association). With wife Elaine he formed Hegan’s Entertainment Agency, their books soon became a who’s who of New Zealand Entertainment. Elaine later discovered and oversaw the career of Billy T. James. Hegan’s was also contracted by TVNZ to produce the massive 1990 sesquicentennial celebration, featuring three stages and twelve hundred performers.
As an actor Eddie continued to appear in films such as Beyond Reasonable Doubt and An Angel At My Table.
His autobiography No Choice : My Life in Vaudeville and Variety Around New Zealand was published in 1980.
1980 Benny Award : Peter Evans
Peter Evans was born in Wales in 1933. At an early age he developed an interest in magic after seeing a magician at school. Excitedly he went home to show his mother how the magician had plucked a coloured hanky from an empty glass, only to have the glass slip from his hand and smash on the floor. A year or two later he acquired a magic set from Hamby’s of London, and, aged eleven, he put on a magic show for a friend’s birthday party. It was disastrous. A rival sat in the front row with the very same box of magic tricks and exposed every secret as Peter performed his tricks.
Peter put together a hypnosis and fire-eating act, and later a manipulation act with live birds. He emigrated to New Zealand in 1960. Wife Phillipa joined the act and together ‘Peter and Margot’ brought sophistication and elegance to their performances throughout New Zealand.
Peter and Phillipa Evans were awarded the Grand Master of Magic medallion in 1995.
Sadly Peter suffered a stroke which prematurely ended his magic career. He passed away in 2007.
1981 Benny Award : Marcus Craig
Marcus Craig was born David Lennard, in Adelaide, Australia, in 1940. The son of an Aussie railwayman and an English actress mother, he was brought up in the South Australian village of Naracoorte. His father served in the South Pacific with the AIF during WWII and returned unscathed, only to die in a railway accident a year later. His mother toured with the Carl Rosa Opera Company in Brisbane and his maternal grandmother was a pianist for silent movies and his grandfather once sang with Dame Clara Butt.
As a child David learned piano, sang as a boy soprano and acted in school dramas. As a teenager, working in an Adelaide music store, he decided to become an actor.
With the Adelaide based Flinders Revue Company he played Tony in The Boy Friend, Timothy in Salad Days and Conrad Birdie in Bye Bye Birdie as well as revue. He played for several years in Adelaide’s own Old King’s Music Hall.
He appeared in three Skippy television programs, played a barman in the Mick Jagger movie, Ned Kelly, worked on various television series and was an out of breath athlete in the Ryan O’Neal film, The Games.
Here’s a quote from critic Bute Hewes on the occasion of the opening of William Forbes-Hamilton’s Victorian Music Hall at the Star Hotel in November 1971 :
“Then of course there was Mr Marcus Craig, queening it over everybody and upstaging his fellow artists atrociously. As an unloved pantomime fairy, fat and fourtyish, he brought the house down. As a dainty diminutive red-coated soldier, he was straight out of the military camp. Mr Marcus Craig could take his performance to any Victorian music hall anywhere in the world.”
By November the show had moved to Auckland’s Inter-Continental Hotel and run up 500 performances.
By 1974 Marcus had withdrawn from the Music Hall and joined Edye Parker’s Troupe at Oliver’s Restaurant in a floor show based on the film Cabaret.
He moved to New Zealand by accident in 1974, stopping on his way to London for a few weeks and ending up working with the Mercury, Central and Independent theatres.
His most memorable theatrical experience was an Auckland opening night playing the part of Shakespeare in Bernard Shaw’s Dark Lady of the Sonnets.
In 1975 he developed his Diamond Lil character and was performing at Phil Warren’s Ace of Clubs nightspot at the back of the Civic Theatre.
“I don’t play the character of Diamond Lil as a woman, I play it as a male, dressed up as a woman, sending the character up. I don’t treat it for real. That is different from a female impersonator endeavoring to appear like a woman. I even use my hairy chest as part of my send up. When one writer described me as a‘drag queen of Music Hall’, I was furious. In the ‘Diamond Lil’ show I play one brief male role (The Pink Shadow) and assume the femme comedy characterisation for the rest of the show,” he explained.
At one time Marcus was considered as a replacement for John Clarke when Clarke left TV2 to move to Australia. In 1976 he recorded a live LP, Diamond Lil Live at the Ace of Clubs. His live recording of “Gumboots” with John Clarke made the NZ Top Twenty.
Marcus received a VAC Scroll of Honour in 1978 and in 1981 won the Benny and the Shure Golden Microphone. He served on the VAC committee in 1978, 1981-83 and was President in 1991.
Marcus suffered from ill health in his later years, he passed away in Brisbane in August 2013, aged seventy-three. A celebration of his life was held at the Bays Club in Browns Bay, the last venue Diamond Lil appeared at in New Zealand.
1982 Benny Award : Don Linden
Don Linden is best known as the host of the children’s Sunday morning radio show Small World. A respected voice artist and actor, he has also been involved in many pantomime, commercial and television appearances.
In 1979 Don received a VAC Scroll of Honour.
His popular Don Linden Presents series is bringing classic children’s stories to a modern audience. Included in the series are Children’s Favourites, Junior Requests and Old Stories For Young Children.
1983 Benny Award : Russell Middlebrook
Russell Middlebrook was born in 1908 and at the age of seven took up acrobatics, which led him into the world of pantomime. As a young man in Auckland he performed with a team called the Herculean Hand Balancers. Unable to join WWII due to deafness, he became a member of the Arcadians Troup, which included accordionist Toni Savage, entertaining American and New Zealand troops in Auckland camp shows. Commemorative medals from the forces were among his souvenirs of those days.
He left for Australia in 1949 and worked in nightclubs, circus and on ice with an American production. In Queensland he was on the same bill as Peter Newberry. He spent time performing with Worth’s Circus and Sole Brothers Circus. In New Zealand he travelled with Whirling Brothers Circus and The Robinson Family Circus. There was also a trip to New Caledonia for nightclub performances. Returning to New Zealand in 1960 he worked with Fullers Entertainment Agency when George Tollerton was manager. Russell helped many community organisations to raise funds for charity.
Russell was a trick cyclist, acrobat and clown who made many of his own props. One bicycle was nearly two metres high and one fell apart. His saucy ‘Madame Fifi’ and slapstick ‘Byko’ were silent clowns.
Agent Mary Throll remembers, “He had an outstanding act, a real crowd pleaser and he brought the house down. He would wear about twenty different waistcoats which he would take off during the performance. And as Mademoiselle Fifi he would swap the waistcoats for a dress. Mr Middlebrook was known for his feats of balance. He would balance on his hands on a stack of chairs, with the chairs balancing on beer bottles.”
By trade, Russell was a plasterer. At age sixteen he attended Elam School of Fine Arts and later worked on parts of the Civic Theatre and the Auckland War Memorial Museum. He had a passion for sculpting and assisted Richard Gross who has several sculptures at the Auckland Domain. One was a bronze figure, The Athlete, unveiled in 1936 at the domain gates which attracted some public criticism because it was considered offensive. Some of his own sculptures are on display at the Auckland War Memorial Museum.
Russell spent his lifetime entertaining and was still performing and riding a bicycle at eighty-seven, although he eventually had to give up his trick cycling routine because of arthritis in his knees.
He received a Scroll of Honour in 1973 and was presented with the Benny Award in 1983. He continued performing into his 80s with Robinson’s Family Circus. He passed away in 1999, aged ninety-one.
1984 Benny Award : John Maybury Senior
John Maybury Snr started his radio career at 3ZB Christchurch in 1951, a position which lasted nine years and included stints in Wellington, Sydney and Melbourne. He later took over front-man duties for the Colgate Palmolive national radio show from famous father Jack Maybury.
In 1987 he joined the newly rebranded NewstalkZB and presented a spot on the games hour, Monday to Thursday. Several years later he appeared with son John Jnr on Radio Liberty, the first father/son teamup in talk-radio history.
On television John appeared on Jackpot Quiz, Have a Shot and Personality Squares.
John was to become synonymous with the Auckland Easter Show, appearing as quizmaster and compere for an incredible 42 years and holding the position of Entertainment Manager for a decade.
He passed away in October 2016.
1985 Benny Award : Toni Savage BEM QSM
Laura Joan Savage, known by her stage name Toni Savage, took piano lessons for a year in England before moving to New Zealand in 1929. As a twelve-year-old she saw some accordions in a shop window and was instantly fascinated.
She was given a 48 bass Alvari accordion by her father, which lasted until some success in a talent quest led to a contract with a touring show. At this point she invested in a full size accordion.
Toni was featured during interval for the Amalgamated Theatre circuit in Auckland. She also toured with the Santos Brothers, and joined the Arcadian Revellers Revue which performed around Auckland and at military camps during WWII. The American Navy presented her with a Certificate of Merit.
Toni became a regular artist at the Trocadero Cabaret in 1943, appearing until it closed in 1951.
Toni married in 1949. In England for her honeymoon, she was informed by eye specialists that her failing eyesight was incurable and would eventually lead to blindness in only a matter of years. Blindness didn’t stop Toni and she continued entertaining and even making costumes.
As well as an accomplished musician, Toni was also a ventriloquist and regularly appeared at senior citizens centres and hospitals with lively characters Wonky Wolf and Cookie Bear.
She was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1969 and the Queen’s Service Medal in 1982 in recognition of her services in entertaining, fundraising and supporting many charitable organisations.
Toni passed away in December 2011, aged ninety-two.
1986 Benny Award : Johnny Bond
Johnny Bond was born in London, one of six siblings. His mother was a professional singer who taught him to play the piano-accordion and banjo. His forte was comedy, dressing up as a cockney pearly king and performing humourous music hall songs by English artists such as George Formby and Frank Crumit.
Johnny immigrated to New Zealand in 1958, searching for better weather. His wife Betty worked with one of the founders of Little Howick Theatre, who found out that Johnny was a carpenter and put him to work making sets. He featured in many more plays as well as around twenty television commercials. A highlight of his television work was a musical which went live for three weeks and he also featured as a clerk of the court in the series Erebus : The Aftermath. He appeared on Sing, Happen Inn and did a stint with Alma Johnson in the children’s series, The Old Curiosity Shop.
In 1961 the folk trio The Convairs was formed consisting of Johnny (vocals, banjo), Michael Dolan (vocals, guitar) and Phil Seth (vocals, guitar). They spent eighteen months practising together before entering and winning the radio talent show Have A Shot on 1ZB. As part of their prize they recorded their first single “Lemon Tree” for the Mascot label. In 1963 they competed in the television version of Have A Shot and placed third. The exposure led to a five-year record contract with HMV and their very own six-part television series entitled Give My Love An Apple, which was also the title of their debut single on HMV. The television series was a great success and led to a second series, which was called Convairs On Camera – the name of their first album released by HMV in September 1963. A steady stream of singles were released which were all promoted on their own national weekly radio show. In 1964 they embarked on a tour of Australia where they appeared on the television show Bandstand and headlined at the Tamworth Festival. Johnny left the group in 1965. In 2005 EMI released a 28 track compilation CD called Little Boxes – The Very Best of The Convairs.
Johnny and fellow Londoner Doug Aston ran an old time variety show at Otahuhu’s Turquoise Room for three years, ending in 1976. He also appeared on Wally Lewis’ Wheel Tappers and Shunters club show. In 2008 Johnny featured in a VAC Meet ’n’ Greet sofa interview with David Hartnell MNZM at the Gables Pub in Herne Bay.
In later years after retiring as a property valuer for State Advances Corporation he played in a jazz trio in RSAs. He also worked as a marriage and death celebrant. Johnny passed away in his sleep at the Bruce McLaren Retirement Village in April 2015, aged 90. He and Betty had a daughter, Maureen.
1987 Benny Award : Silvio De Pra
Born in Belluno, Northern Italy, Silvio De Pra began to play the accordion aged ten and two years later joined his fathers dance band. They performed at many weddings, often lasting from the afternoon well into the hours of the next day. He remembered playing his accordion until so tired he could hardly continue to hold it.
At eighteen years of age he formed his own band. When work became scarce in his own village Silvio moved to find full-time employment and supplemented his income by playing the accordion. He eventually moved to Switzerland where his position with the Basori Company took him to Belgium, Denmark, England and in 1955 to New Zealand.
Silvio fell in love with New Zealand and New Zealand fell in love with him. He was engaged to broadcast with the IXR radio station band as a guest in the evenings and on weekends he would entertain the crowds at the Rivertea Cabaret. After six months he moved to Auckland, and in 1958 he became a full-time entertainer.
During his years in Auckland he continued broadcasting for radio and television and also performed at The Wintergarden Lounge, The Sorrento, Fagels, Pinesong, Hi Diddle Griddle, The Dutch Kiwi, The Poenamo, The Intercontinental Hotel and many private functions.
Silvio would have to be one of the most popular cultural ambassadors Italy has ever had in New Zealand. He became naturalised as soon as he was able to in 1960. He and his New Zealand wife Lesley had two daughters, Gianna and Chiara.
In 1987 the Prime Minister of New Zealand Sir Robert Muldoon presented Silvio with the prestigious VAC Benny Award.
Silvio kept up with technological changes and began to play an accordion with MIDI attached which enabled him to accompany his singing with a full sound. This tremendous flexibility took away the need of a backing group, making Silvio one of the most versatile, and self contained solo artists in New Zealand. He had an endless repertoire of international music from romantic European to the melodic masterpieces of Italy.
Silvio made a huge contribution to the accordion in this country as Chairman of the Accordion Examination Board of New Zealand and was an examiner for many years. He was also a regular adjudicator at the New Zealand Accordion Championships.
He recorded Souvenirs For You in 1981 and Una Sera Con – An Evening With Sivio De Pra in 1997. At the 2011 Benny Awards evening he was presented with a framed certificate celebrating 75 years in the entertainment industry.
Silvio passed away peacefully at home on 1st May 2012.
1988 Benny Award : Alma Woods MBE
Alma Woods arrived in Auckland from her native England in 1952. She played her first acting role in Auckland for the Eden Players the same year, as well as teaching acting skills to mostly young mums on Saturday mornings – her group performed one-act plays and pantos in the local town hall.
Two years later Alma and husband Fred advertised in the Howick Post for anyone interested in starting a theatre group. The result was the Howick Little Theatre, still going strong to this day.
She wrote plays including Have Not Charity (1957), Setting the Day (1958) and Step in the Hollow (1964), which won a British Drama League award. Alma appeared in around 50 plays with Auckland’s professional Mercury Theatre. In 1970 the Weekly News called her “one of the most talented character actresses in New Zealand”.
She also appeared on television with Chic Littlewood and recorded audio books for the New Zealand Blind Institute for twenty years.
Alma was awarded an MBE in 1978 for services to theatre. She passed away in October 2006.
1988 Benny Award : Ricky May
Ricky May was born the son of alto sax player and band leader, Keith May. He grew up in Onehunga in Auckland, and got his start as a vocalist and drummer in the early 1960s at the Sorrento in Wellington. Bruno Lawrence was later to join the band, and they toured the lower North Island.
Ricky relocated to Auckland and released the singles “Let’s Twist Again”/”Hucklebuck” and “I Could Have Danced All Night”/”Ballin’ The Jack”. He moved to Australia in 1962 for a successful cabaret career and began his own television series on Sydney’s Channel 10 called Ten On The Town.
In the mid-60s Ricky May appeared at the famous Playboy Bunny Clubs in the USA, toured the UK and South Africa, and was banned from a club in Singapore because of his long hair!
In 1973 that he released a double album with the Julian Lee Orchestra called Fats Enough on ABC Records. The next year he released Just Foolin’ Around – A Tribute To Louis Armstrong. In 1979 Ricky received the Australian Entertainer of the Year award.
Ricky died on 1st June 1988 from a heart attack.
1989 Benny Award : Sylvia Rielly
Sylvia Rielly first took to the stage in 1917 at the age of three. Known in her youth as Sylvia Poynter, she toured Australia as a dancer and acrobat with the Australian Sunbeams. Aged fifteen, she became the youngest member of the Civic Ballet upon its formation in 1929.
She married comedian Jack Rielly and for many years they were members of the Ophir Rees Company, performing together all over New Zealand. Three children followed, and the family took to the road with the Rielly Show. They performed at His Majesty’s Theatre during the years of WWII – six shows and two matinees each week. Daughter Kay was later crowned Queen of the 1957 Auckland Birthday Carnival.
Sylvia’s expertise with design and sewing came to the fore as she “dressed” the Western Spring Carnivals and countless shows and school productions.
Sylvia passed away in 1996 aged 82.