Meet Miss Lee Grant, a talented and versatile newcomer to the New Zealand TV and show-business scene, who is firmly convinced that local entertainers have what it takes to succeed-and is devoted to the cause of boosting them to the fullest extent.
Versatile - That's the word for Lee.
Story By Molly Elliott, from New Zealand TV Weekly June 10, 1968
Mighty few actors can boast of making their professional debut at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, let alone sleeping in the place, but (Miss) Lee Grant did-at the age of 12.
She appeared in a children's play, Because Stratford-on-Avon, one of England's most popular tourist centres, had no suitable accommodation, the cast slept on camp beds in the theatre's glass- fronted lounge.
A vast difference separates Stratford from Auckland, the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre from Logan Park Hotel, where Lee produced and starred in Talk of the Town, a 38-minute cabaret, first of its kind in New Zealand: Actually a pocket- musical with five costume changes, it, ran 12 weeks. Favourable comment from overseas visitors, particularly Americans, encouraged Lee appreciably.
While working on a change of programme, Lee (real name, Leonora) took time off from work, her Remuera home and her two children, to chat over elevenses at that Auckland show-business rallying point, the Covent Garden coffee shop, run by former Royal Ballet principal, Philip Chatfield.
Somehow, conversation kept veering away from Lee to London theatres and shows we remembered, to theatrical neighbours, to show folk we'd encountered in our different spheres.
She has made a considerable impact on Auckland entertainment, starting with Television. She had not tried this until she went to Australia in 1958. In Melbourne, she appeared as resident singer on Graham Kennedy's Channel 9 show every Thursday.
An unusual sequence of events leads up to most milestones in Lee's career. She met her Kiwi husband, Clan, a trade magazine editor, in England. After they married, he had a yen to return to the South Pacific. They tried Australia first, spending six months in Melbourne before moving to Sydney where Lee appeared in Make Mine Music on the ABC's Channel 2 for nearly three years. Besides appearing on Channels 9 and 10, she starred at the Latin Quarter and produced her daughter, Lisa, now 8. Recently, the Grants adopted their 2-year-old son, Nicholas.
When they arrived in New Zealand three years ago, Lee had decided to retire, adopt an air of satisfied motherhood and stick to home and family. When she found the entertainment field wide open, she couldn't resist having a go and appeared on TV in Play It By Ear.
From this and her later cabaret experience, Lee feels that New Zealand should make TV variety shows similar to Talk of the Town, using a sure-fire formula that The Black and White Minstrels have proved beyond all doubt. In Australia, Gordon Chater, familiar on New Zealand stages and screens, large and small, started similar successful shows.
These revues use a basis of show tunes that appeal to all ages. Concentrate on Pops and you attract only one market. Light operas, arabesques of Viennese baroque cater for another specialist audience. Each feels nothing but loathing for the other's taste. But take tunes from Oklahoma!, South Pacific, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and those casual musical miracles of the 1920's. Everyone loves them. They go on and on.
Plenty of Talent
Certainly, New Zealand has the necessary talent, bags of it, itching for a chance to get stuck in. For this type of entertainment it needs only a few acts licked into slick, professional shape and away you go.
Lee starred in something of the kind at the Connoisseurs' Club. Based on an old-fashioned music hall, the cast, dressed in Edwardian rig, included AKTV2's Town and Around compere, Keith Bracey, as chairman, plus Colin Hill (now in Australia) and former Town and Around producer, Bute Hewes.
Lee excels at broad Cockney, pubsy English numbers like Second-hand Rose and A Bird in a Gilded Cage, with a backing band lugubriously swollen with saxophones and fluttering flutes.
For any production, Lee likes to try something different. She enjoys working with dancers, feels they fill out an otherwise barren screen. She certainly knows her business in this direction since she studied ballet, learning to produce arabesques that you can measure with a protractor. She also taught dancing for two years in England and has even studied opera.
Lee has worked with some big names in British show-business. In a London charity performance to aid Greek earthquake victims, she appeared with Sir Michael Redgrave, Muriel Smith and Dora Bryan.
Mention of Dora Bryan took us back 17 years to the Lyric Revue in London with Ian Carmichael (of the Jeeves series), making an early appearance in knickerbockers, cap and Norfolk jacket to sing The Hangman's Son.
But back to the present and Michael Flanders and Donald Swann. Their Airs on a Shoestring cast included Lee, Elsie and Doris Waters and Max Adrian, seen recently on New Zealand screens in As You Like It. She also appeared in Love from Judy, another Flanders and Swann show that ran two years.
Lee's theatre experience does not centre wholly on the glamorous West End. She's performed at holiday camps and knows as much as anyone about comfort-less provincial lodgings. A hard life, she admits, but she's loved it all.
Lee's successful cabaret venture has given her a big kick. She'd appearances solo in musicals and on TV, but cabaret! She didn't think she could do it. But she can and now thoroughly enjoys it.
Now she's started a private crusade for Auckland's Mercury Theatre Trust.
Although she knows that this is not the time for premature eurekas, she nevertheless feels that the project is a valuable breakthrough offering regular work for actors who would otherwise no overseas for experience. It must succeed. She spoke forcefully and well in the theatre's support at a recent Auckland Clerical Union luncheon.
Lee feels that New Zealand entertainment will change enormously in the next three years. The outlook has sharpened, grown more sophisticated, because TV has spoiled viewers by letting them see top overseas acts, and actors. This means that local entertainers can no longer get away with mediocre performances.
New Zealand entertainers have what it takes. They have proved this so often in Australia and elsewhere that they must surely inspire some confidence in their fellow-countrymen despite the old prophet-at-home adage. And Miss Lee Grant, a newcomer who knows her stall, is right there to boost them.