Sir Frank Tait 1883-1965
Sir Frank Tait
From 1928 the Taits, with George Tallis, controlled ‘The Firm’ from offices in the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne.
Through the war years the Taits kept their theatres open with revivals of past successes, including the ubiquitous Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire, which was always useful in difficult economic times.
Frank Tait was knighted in 1956, at the age of 72.
From 1928 the Taits, with George Tallis, controlled ‘The Firm’ from offices in the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne. An attempt to extend production activity to London in 1928-29 failed, but their pre-eminence in the theatrical and concert field in Australia and New Zealand remained unchallenged.
The Depression brought hard times. The Theatre Royal, Melbourne, and His Majesty’s, Sydney, were sold for redevelopment; His Majesty’s, Melbourne, partly burnt out in 1929, did not reopen until 1934. Charles Tait died in 1933. Tallis and the remaining brothers – E.J., John, Nevin and Frank – carried on. The partners often disagreed and, behind their backs, they were cheekily known as Agitate, Irritate, Hesitate and Cogitate. ‘The Firm’ survived both the Depression and a short period in 1938-39 when the Taits temporarily lost control of the business to New Zealand-based interests led by the buccaneering British producer Ernest C. Rolls. Their 30s attractions included stars like Yehudi Menuhin, John Brownlee, Sybil Thorndike, Fay Compton and Gladys Moncrieff, various Russian ballet companies, and gloom-chasing musicals such as Music in the Air, The Gay Divorce, White Horse Inn, Roberta and Anything Goes.
Through the war years the Taits kept their theatres open with revivals of past successes, including the ubiquitous Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire, which was always useful in difficult economic times. In 1941 Frank Tait married Viola Wilson Hogg, a Scottish soprano whom Williamson’s had imported to star – as Viola Wilson – in Gilbert and Sullivan. It was his second marriage; his first, in 1913, was to Olga Barnard, who died in 1938.
Although the ABC began importing its own celebrity concert artists, many continued to appear for J. & N. Tait, including Gracie Fields, Marjorie Lawrence, Jan Peerce, David Oistrakh and Marian Anderson. Williamson theatres hosted tours of companies led by Cicely Courtneidge, Anthony Quayle, Vivien Leigh and Robert Helpmann, and Googie Withers and John McCallum. The Kiwis, a New Zealand all-male army revue, proved enormously popular. Among the major musicals presented by ‘The Firm’ after World War II were Annie Get Your Gun, Oklahoma!, South Pacific, Kiss Me, Kate, Call Me Madam, Can-Can, Paint Your Wagon, Brigadoon, and Song of Norway. Later came The Pajama Game, Camelot and Oliver!
Two more of the Tait brothers died in the post-war decade: Edward in 1947 and John — ‘the grand old gent of the theatre’ – in 1955. In 1961 Nevin died in London.
Frank Tait was knighted in 1956, at the age of 72. The story goes that when the news came through he was heard to mutter, ‘A knighthood? But I’d rather have the rights to My Fair Lady.’ In the end, of course, he got both. My Fair Lady was a triumph, and so were Camelot and the local musical The Sentimental Bloke.
Photograph courtesy National Library of Australia vn3209520-v
Watch this space
John McCallum: Life with Googie, Heinemann, 1979
Viola Tait: A Family of Brothers, Heinemann, 1971
Michael and Joan Tallis: The Silent Showman, Wakefield Press, 1999
Frank Van Straten: ‘Charles Tait, etc’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 12, Melbourne University Press