Maurice David Bartlett Interview (The Napier Frivolity Minstrels)
This is Erica Tenquist at the home of Maurice David Bartlett, cartographer, or cadastral and topographical … and he’s the Patron of the Napier Frivolity Minstrels. He lives at Marewa, Napier, and this interview is on the 29th June 2017. Right, over to you, Maurice.
Right – hello, this is Maurice David Bartlett speaking. I’ve covered number one and two in the list of questions – number three: Explanation of my life.
I joined the Lands & Survey Department in 1959/60, and I spent my whole career in the Napier office from then until I retired in 1998. I started as a draughtsman and worked my way through and became cadastral and topographical mapper, which covers under cartographer.
Now I joined the Napier Frivolity Minstrels on the 7th of August 1967. That seems a long time ago, but at that time I was learning drumming and my teacher said if I wanted to learn a little bit more about drumming, “Join the Frivs, because you’ll get 6/8 and 4/4 time with their music.” And that was the start, and I’ve worked right through everything that the Frivs have had except being on stage. Everything else I have worked on. So I’ve been collecting information, programmes and all that sort of thing of the Frivs for all those years. So that’s the main subject, which is the Frivolity Minstrels.
They started in 1897. That’s when they were inaugurated, and since 1897 they have never missed putting on a show every year since – right to 2017 – never missed a show. They didn’t always do one show; they often did three shows in a year, but I’ve never kept a record of all the different shows. I’ve kept a record of most of the programmes that have gone on [in] that time. But that’s when they started, and I’ll just read a little bit about it:
‘1897 found Napier people frustrated in the physical limitations of Napier’s expansion. Despite the achievements of past reclamation, growth was restricted by lagoons and the sea. The worse flood occurred in 1897 when water covered three-fifths of the Heretaunga Plains. There was a boat along Carlyle Street.’ And some world events that happened then was [were] the – it’s funny about Greece and Turkey … there was a war going on. Turkey still crops up today.
‘1896 – first model Olympic Games at Athens. 1897 – gold nuggets found in the Yukon; first underground railway system in Boston; the first moving pictures; and Marconi communicated by wireless tech[nology] … all 1897.’
Well that’s when the Frivs started, and their first show that they held was out in Eskdale Hall. In later years they used to practise in the library meeting room in Ahuriri, and when I joined in 1967 that’s where we used to go to practices. Now the practices were one day a week.
But the Society used to do the Black & White Minstrels – four of the darkies would black up, and the first half of the show was a minstrel show and the second half was a pantomime. That was the usual format. And once they’d practised for part of the year, they would then go out in the countryside … round all the country schools. There might be twenty or thirty schools on a Monday night – it was usually to be Monday night – and do their show there. And then by the time they got back to Napier …
And then coming October/November they would do three shows in the Municipal Theatre, usually for some Society’s … benefit of some Societies. And the profit they got from those shows after they’d given it to the Societies would be enough to start the next year. Nobody got paid, it was all voluntary work. And that … in my early days in the Society. that’s the way it worked.
And then later on in 1973 they got a chance of purchasing the old Buffalo Lodge Hall down in Ahuriri and that’s where the Society then … At the time Mayor Peter Tait was the Mayor of Napier, and the hall virtually was condemned, but he said, “If the Society get together and put a bit better cladding on the hall, you can use it. The Council won’t step in and bar it.” And that’s what happened. We teamed it up – it was on a little ten perch section, and over the years we were able to buy ten perch sections on the left hand side and on the right hand side. And then we built an orchestra pit. We did all these sort of things to that little hall, and then we started doing shows in it.
And it wasn’t long before theatre restaurant shows started, and we didn’t at that time have a kitchen. We used to take the dirty dishes, pack them up in the back of a car or a truck and take them down to the Ahuriri Milk Bar to be washed and sterilised, and taken back. And then for a while we went to the Napier Tabard Theatre at the Napier Operatic Society – did the same thing. So this was just the usual thing that was going on.
Then in 1981 we published a history book of the Society to tell you what … but that ended there. We were getting material together to do a later book but that never eventuated.
Was that because of funding? Wouldn’t’ve had enough funding?
Yeah, it possibly was. And that was being put together by the late Stella Astwood, or Stella Wood as she was then.
Can you tell us, did you join in with the Savage Club at all, or the Orphans Club? Do any combined shows at all?
No, we didn’t combine with any other Society. We did – when we put on some of the shows in Napier, we did take them to Hastings and put them on in the theatre now and again – way back. And one of the loveliest shows we did was … we always went and did a show for the RSA in Hastings at the Assembly Hall. And the Mayors at the time always would sneak a beer on stage for the darkies.
[Chuckle] And you called them the darkies then?
We did. But then we went through a period when it wasn’t right to have people blacked up as minstrels, or darkies as we would call them. And we got – well, we didn’t get into trouble because we weren’t chucking off at the negro population singing – we were actually enhancing playing their music, which was crazy. But never mind – we went to that and there was quite a lot of ballyhoo about it all. But since that, there’s been times when we’ve had like, a hundred years or the seventy-fifth where we’ve incorporated negro minstrels in it, you know, sort of thing.
How did you pay for all the costumes?
Same thing – the little bit of money that we got from … the profit from each [of] the Municipal Theatres – that would pay for costumes. But it[‘s] got to the stage now, we’ve got so many costumes in storage that the girls are so clever putting them together for costumes for the children’s pantomime shows, that when I was the Treasurer I hardly got any bills to pay for costume material. They made them up from what they already had, which always I thought, was great. Yeah.
So are they stored at that Buffalo Hall?
No – now after the Buffalo Hall we got the chance to buy the Odeon Theatre in Hastings Street. That was in 1992. 1992 we did our final show called ‘Come Fly With Me’ in the Waghorne Street theatre at Port Ahuriri, and we’d bought the Odeon Theatre and we were reconstructing the inside to put in a stage. Remember, picture theatres didn’t have a proper stage … not a big stage … and an orchestra pit. And we made the back, where the people sat in the elevated part at the back, we put two rows into one and we could put chairs and tables. And then we made a kitchen that we could serve meals on [from]. And we went into what all theatre people were doing – restaurant theatre.
That’s in the nineties?
That was in the nineties. And we might have had a mortgage at that time, but with the theatre there was two or three shops. Those shops’ income was enough to keep the mortgage going.
Can you remember what the name of any of the shops were?
No, I can’t. I can’t, no. Yeah, I can’t tell you that, in the theatre.
If you were Treasurer, did each person pay a joining fee?
How much would it’ve been?
Yes, the Society did have joining fees. At one time it was … an ordinary person in the theatre was – for a start there wasn’t any fee, because we always took on that once you joined the Frivs you were a Friv, and you gave your time to the Society and we wouldn’t ask you for a fee. Then, where we decided we would have a fee, there was like, $10 for a member that was in acting, or person in the Society, but there was a subscribing member, $20, which was like … just people that wanted to support us. There’s been a change now where we’re doing a family fee and a children’s fee. We’re doing a kids’ one as well now, because mostly now we’re putting on children’s pantomimes rather than adult things.
So the theatre … the Odeon Theatre lasted to … the opening extravaganza was in 1993, and then we closed … in 1999 we closed because the owners that we paid the rent and all that to, decided to put the rent up. Because we had a facility worth about $700,000, the rent was going up to that and we couldn’t afford it, so we had to look for somewhere else.
Where was the Odeon Theatre? What street is that? Hastings Street?
That’s in Hastings Street, yeah. Well you might say opposite … just about opposite where the Post Office is. And if you look along the front of the Farmers’ Trading Company building … the left-hand side of it … they’ve set back the front of the Odeon Theatre building, is [it’s] still there. They’ve made it a feature of the now Farmers’ building, which is a bit of history. Yeah.
And so then we didn’t have anywhere to act from then on, but we had various places we moved for storage for our costumes and all that sort of thing. Now they’re in a little building over here in Ford Road. But after that time when we lost the theatre, we started acting in quite a few different places. We did a show or shows in the Cosmopolitan Club, [chuckle] and even that’s gone now of course. That was in …
Out Taradale …
No, in Albion Lane, the Cosmopolitan Club. And then we did shows in Colenso College High School and the Repertory Little Theatre in Napier and we did – which we are doing now – Taradale High School. Taradale High School’s got plenty of room and so it’s rather large but it suits us to put on shows in.
And you’re still putting shows on there?
And we’re still putting shows … as I say we’ve never missed a year, so …
The schools – did they benefit from it at all? You know, when you had a concert at a school, did you give the donation to the school?
Yes, yes. When we went in the country districts the only thing that they had to do … they could charge what they like[d] at the door, but they had to supply us with a good supper after. And as you can imagine if we went to places like Tutira, Tikokino, Waipawa, we always got a lovely supper, and it didn’t seem to matter how long the show went for. We’d go by … at the time … the Hawke’s Bay Motor Company bus, and we’d all get back to Napier virtually by midnight, which was good because we all had to go to work next day – we all were working people. But we could cope with that. But after a while the cost of transport and the bus … the drivers were very sympathetic to us. They would load our gear on ‘cause we had to take all our props and costumes with us. They would load it on ready to go to the country and unload it the next day, and drive for free.
But then things changed as they always do, with health and safety, and you’re not allowed to load up, and you can’t drive and all this, so it became too expensive. But all the schools did – and a lot of schools, they didn’t have set fees – they had a plate at the door that the patrons just put money in to support the schools, you know. But we had … marvellous there.
Also we’d go to Wairoa; and we used to have an annual one to Taupo and we’d stay in … like, motels there. And we were usually raising monies for the Taupo Fire Brigade, and because of that we were always made honorary firemen [chuckle] … that if something happened while the show was on, we had to join [chuckle] with the firemen and go out … yeah, but it never did, no.
Now just coming up to date, our last show this year, 2017 – this is our hundred and twenty-first year, was ‘Cinderella’. So these are children’s pantomime shows but some of them have adults in them, just you know, to boot most of them along a bit. ‘Cinderella’; the one before that was ‘Hans & Gretel’.
‘Hansel & Gretel’?
No. No, it’s got a [chuckle] … you see they put in a twist and rewrite them. And that’s – you’re not doing ‘Hansel & Gretel’, it’s ‘Hans & Gretel’; ‘Cinderella’; ‘Trouble in Pantoland’. They’re special, you know, we get the scripts, you know, and work on them. ‘The Jungle Book’ – they’re some of the similar ones, but lately it’s all been children’s ones … ‘Circus Days’ … yeah. So it’s a while since we’ve had anything which would be the minstrel in the circle.
You’ve gone away from that?
Do you think you’ll ever go back to that?
It could do. It could do if we came to – well we’re up to a hundred and twenty-one. If we go through to say, a hundred and twenty-five we might decide to do one with some minstrels in it. And the other lovely name … the MC that sat in the middle of what we call the circle … Mr Interlocutor. Don’t ask me to spell these names … Mr Interlocutor. And we’ve had lovely interlocutors. One of the ones we had in recent times was Alec Wishart, and everyone’ll know him as Hogsnort Rupert. Yeah, that’s right – he’s passed on now.
Now I had something else here – the Buffs’ Hall – what happened to that hall afterwards? ‘Cause you’d bought the land and that …
That’s right. Yeah, well that was … to go into the Hastings Street Odeon Theatre we had to sell the Buff Hall, and that was bought by … I don’t know who it was.
Because they converted it into … we had the hall there, but as I say we bought the two little sections next door, and we were able to add … yeah, buildings on there …
And yet they put the rent up?
No, no – not at Ahuriri, it was only the Odeon … yeah, the Odeon.
But you did own the Buffs’?
We owned the Buffs’ Hall … yeah, the Buffalo. And that … you see that had a lovely wooden floor, rubberised underneath because it was used for boxing and wrestling in the Buffs’ Hall. And it was a lovely floor for people to dance on, you know. But no, we actually … the problem for the Odeon Theatre was that we had made it so great and the value went up, that was to ‘99, so virtually ten years. I think it was every – was it three years? That was what the rent then went up, so – which made it uneconomical for us.
Who are the people at present? You’re the Patron, so who is the Chairman at the moment, and the Secretary perhaps?
Yeah. Well the Secretary and the President … the President is Steve Driver. He’s only just been made President at the last AGM. And the Secretary is Julie Smith. Now Julie – if you go way, way back – she was a lovely little dancer many, many, many, many years ago, you know. But she hasn’t been in the Society over all those years, but she’s been involved in it. We’ve got ten life members in the Society. Two that have just recently passed on, people would know, would be Stella Wood and Vic Viggers. You see, Vic Viggers went right through … Vic Viggers was a drummer in the early days with the Frivs, and then he became the comedian, and a man by the name of Sid Healy wrote many of the scripts of the pantomimes.
Now, you were going to, Maurice, tell us a bit more about the ones you’ve marked in pink, and the radio show.
Right – yeah. Just a couple of things to add in to this interview … The Napier Frivolity Minstrels had the pleasure on [in] their fortieth year to actually … the official opening of the new Napier Municipal Theatre – the original one had fallen down in the earthquake – and we were at the official opening in June 1938 of the new Napier Municipal Theatre.
And just a few of the lovely shows that we put on in the Hastings Street Theatre was [were]: ‘Anything Goes’, ‘Hello Dolly’, ‘Singing in the Rain’, and ‘Oklahoma’ – they were some of the big shows that we did. But one show in particular that we did down in the Ahuriri Theatre was the Radio Times Show that had been well known, with Billy T James in [it]. We did three years of Radio Times. We had been given permission by the original Radio Times people that had put it on with the TV which was lovely. So that’s about as far as I can go, but that’s only really scratching the surface of what the Frivolity Minstrels have done. Over the years they must have raised – well, it’s hard to say how much money they would’ve raised in all the shows that they went around, overall, because as I say, we’re up to what – a hundred and twenty-four shows now, so … not shows, [a] hundred and twenty-four years of entertaining. So I will close now and hand back to Erica.
The Savage Club in Upper Hutt – I did an interview for them at one stage, and they were all men right the way through. But what they did during the war – they brought in a lot of ‘likely lads’, they called them. I hadn’t thought about that, but that’s what happened there.
I just wondered here – that was a little bit about Wally Ireland which was such an influence – yeah, I’ll add it on.
What I want you to do is say a bit about being the Patron.
I don’t do anything I’d like to, but they always … don’t want to. I want to talk to the young people in it about what we did. But you see they’re always willing to do the show, but they haven’t got time … “We’ve got to do the show”, you see.
Thank you very much, Maurice.
Original digital file
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- Maurice David Bartlett
Interviewer: Erica Tenquist
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