The Tait Memorial Trust was formed in 1992 by Isla Baring and the Trustees to honour the enormous contribution that Isla’s father, Sir Frank Tait, and his four older brothers had made to the arts in Australia. The Tait brothers; Charles (1868-1933), John Henry (1871-1955), James Nevin (1876-1961), Edward Joseph (1878-1947) and Sir Frank Samuel (1883-1965), concert, film and theatrical entrepreneurs, were five of the nine children of John Turnbull Tait (1830-1902), a tailor from Scalloway, Shetland Islands, Scotland, and his English wife Sarah, née Leeming. Tait migrated to Victoria in 1862 and settled at Castlemaine where he married Sarah. Charles, John, Nevin and Edward were born there and educated at Castlemaine State School. About 1879 the family moved to Richmond, Melbourne, where Frank was born. Edward and Frank attended Richmond State School; Frank later studied at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School.
The brothers’ earliest presentations centred on the Athenaeum Hall in Collins Street. Their concerts often included popular, short, film screenings and this interest led them to join with Millard Johnson and William Gibson in the production of The Story of the Kelly Gang which premièred on 26 December 1906. Running for more than an hour, it was the longest narrative film yet seen in Australia, and possibly the world. It was directed by Charles Tait and much of the film was shot on his wife’s family’s property at Heidelberg; his wife (who played the role of Kate Kelly), children and brothers all took part. The film, which cost £1000, was extremely successful, and was said to have returned at least £25,000 to its producers.
In 1902 John, Nevin and Frank founded J. & N. Tait, concert promoters. Charles, while remaining with Allan’s, guided the business, and Edward, still with Williamson, watched from the sidelines. Nevin made his first trip to London in 1903 and engaged a number of celebrity artists to tour Australia, including the Welsh Male Choir, soprano Madame Albani, violinists Haydn Wood and Marie Hall, and (Dame) Clara Butt with her husband Kennerley Rumford. Nevin’s further forays resulted in tours by the Royal Besses o’ th’ Barn Band, Emma Calvé, the Cherniavsky Trio, John McCormack and Harry Lauder.
The Taits presented world famous celebrities such as Melba, Chaliapin, Flagstad, Pavlova, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Paderewski, Harry Lauder, Oistrakh, Margot Fonteyn, Menuhin, Marcel Marceau, Gracie Fields, Kreisler, Heifetz, Danny Kaye, Victor Borge, Katherine Hepburn, Sir Robert Helpmann; the musicals My Fair Lady, Oklahoma, South Pacific, The Pajama Game and many others. They brought out the Shakespeare (Stratford) and Old Vic Companies, and toured the Borovansky Ballet, not to mention all the Gilbert and Sullivan operas.
The Taits, Johnson and Gibson merged their film interests in 1911 to form Amalgamated Pictures which continued to produce features and newsreels. Amalgamated combined with its main opposition, Australasian Films, in 1912, and the Taits then concentrated their energies on concert presentation and occasional film exhibition.
In 1913 J. & N. Tait took a twenty-year lease on a prominent site in Collins Street and constructed a large, luxurious concert-hall, the Auditorium, which opened in May with a gala concert by Butt and Rumford. It was used by the Taits as their principal concert venue until 1934 when it was remodelled and leased to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Edward—’E.J.’—had maintained his involvement with J. C. Williamson Ltd (affectionately known as ‘the Firm’). He became business manager in 1911 and general manager in 1913, following Williamson’s death. Strained relations with (Sir) George Tallis and Edward’s continuing close association with his brothers’ activities made his position difficult: he left Williamson’s in 1916 and joined J. & N. Tait, looking after their affairs in Sydney. A few months later Nevin moved permanently to London to act as their overseas ‘anchor’. J. & N. Tait now expanded to include theatrical presentations and challenged Williamson’s domination of Australian live theatre. The Taits’ first production was Peg o’ my Heart, a comedy romance which proved highly popular. Other plays, pantomimes and musicals followed.
In 1920 the J. & N. Tait and J. C. Williamson interests combined, with J. & N. Tait continuing as a separate company to promote celebrity artists. Over the next two decades many of the world’s greatest concert and stage stars appeared in Australia under the Williamson/Tait aegis, among them Melba, Galli-Curci, dal Monte, Chaliapin, John Brownlee, Heifetz, Percy Grainger, Paderewski, Menuhin and Pavlova.
Alert to the early possibilities of wireless, the Taits in 1924 formed on behalf of J. C. Williamson Ltd the Broadcasting Co. of Australia Pty Ltd which was granted the licence for 3LO radio in Melbourne. When 3LO came under the control of the government-franchised Australian Broadcasting Co., Williamson’s, with Allan’s and the Age newspaper, were granted a licence to operate 3AW which went on air in 1932 from studios in His Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne. Later, a modern studio complex was built in La Trobe Street.
‘The Firm’s’ theatrical headquarters were located in the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, from where they controlled a network of theatres across Australia and New Zealand. An attempt to extend their theatrical 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 for the Taits. Both 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 died in Sydney on 27 June 1933 of hydronephrosis and was buried with Anglican rites in Springvale cemetery, Melbourne. His estate was sworn for probate at £19,404. ‘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. They kept their theatres open through the war years by staging revivals of past successes and sending their evergreen Gilbert and Sullivan Co. on tour.
Although the Australian Broadcasting Commission began its own programme of 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 (Sir) Robert Helpmann. Among the major musicals presented by ‘the Firm’ after World War II were Annie Get Your Gun, Oklahoma!, Camelot, My Fair Lady and Oliver!
Two of the brothers died in the post-war decade: Edward of cancer at Point Piper, Sydney, on 12 July 1947 and John—’the grand old gent of the theatre’—at his Malvern home in Melbourne on 23 September 1955. Both were cremated. Their estates were sworn for probate in Victoria at £22,427 and £66,979 respectively.
On 7 March 1961 Nevin died in London, leaving an estate valued at £72,886. His wife Bess Norriss had won a reputation as a miniature portraitist. Born in Melbourne, she had studied at the National Gallery of Victoria School of Art before setting up a studio in London. In 1907 she was made a member of the Royal Society of Miniature Painters. She exhibited at the Royal Academy, the Paris Salon and on return visits to Australia. Examples of her work are in the galleries of New South Wales and Victoria, and in the Royal Collection.
The last of the brothers, Frank, was knighted in 1956. His dream to present Joan Sutherland in her homeland was fulfilled. At the close of her triumphant season, he died at Portsea on 23 August 1965. Survived by his wife and three daughters from each of his marriages, he was cremated. His estate was valued for probate at £121,743. Following his death, ‘the Firm’s’ fortunes faded. Production ceased in 1976, and its theatres were sold.
For over seventy years the Taits had combined to bring to Australians some of the best of the world’s musical and theatrical attractions. While their philosophy of quality entertainment, well presented, rarely failed to win audiences, they sometimes resorted to jaded revivals of popular musical comedies. Although they were criticized for not encouraging local talent, they did provide—without any form of government subsidy—employment and experience for thousands of singers, musicians, actors and backstage personnel, and lifted the standard of Australian theatre.
Frank Tait helped form the Australian Ballet, and was Chairman of the Board until his death. In 1957, he was made a Knight Bachelor by the Queen in recognition of the major contribution he and his brothers had made in their dedication to Australian theatre. It was Sir Frank’s ambition to present Dame Joan Sutherland to the Australian public after her international acclaim. The Sutherland Williamson Opera Company was formed in 1963. As Artistic Director Richard Bonynge engaged a team of world renowned principals and internationally successful Australian artists. One of the principals was Luciano Pavarotti, a young tenor from Modena; the chorus was Australian. There was no government subsidy and the fate of Williamson’s future rested on the success of the venture.
Sir Frank lived to see his ambition fulfilled. The triumphant Melbourne opening heralded the return of Dame Joan to her homeland: it was a season never to be forgotten. He died at the age of 81 after the Melbourne season finished and while the company were in Adelaide. It was the end of an era in the history of Australian theatre. In Richard Bonynge’s words, “Sir Frank Tait has done the greatest service to Australian Theatre and to the arts of anyone we know”
Largely drawn with thanks from Australian Dictionary of Biography here
- C. Kingston, It Don’t Seem a Day Too Much (Melb, 1971)
- V. Tait, A Family of Brothers (Melb, 1971)
- J. West, Theatre in Australia (Syd, 1978)
- A. Pike and R. Cooper, Australian Film, 1900-1977 (Melb, 1980).