Wednesday, 01 June 2022

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

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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, Mame in 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. 1776 proved 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 Nanette in 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 Gypsy was 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 Music once 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 Nanette proving 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 Gershwin television 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 Ritz which 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.

 

 

Read 185 times Last modified on Saturday, 02 July 2022
Kevin Coxhead

Kevin divides his time between restoring JCW costumes and writing for social media groups on theatre history, mostly on Betty Pounder and her life and career and The Firm itself. 'Part of my life mission is to try and keep our theatre history alive for as long as I can.'  

A former dancer for Williamson's, he has also worked as an accompanist for various Melbourne ballet schools and Lead Set Decorator for the television series, Neighbours. Kevin has run his own interior design business business for the past twenty-five years.