Wednesday, 22 October 2014

A majestic house with memories

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The grand old two-storey brick and reinforced concrete Prior homestead and one-time doctors’ surgery in Perry Street is no more. In its place, almost as a complete about-face to the days of old, is a modern single-storey office block purpose-built for a computer software company.

The Prior family have produced generations of doctor’s for our town, but the imposing dwelling hadn’t been in the Prior family hands for some time.

I think Stan Lane will have purchased the property perhaps in the late 1950s. It was directly behind his Lincoln Road car parts business and no doubt he saw an advantage in ownership by being able to step across the back fence to go to work.

Stan was one of natures’ gentlemen. He was a devoutly religious man, an elder in the Seventh Day Adventist Church and a non-drinker. His business involved dismantling cars that had either passed their used-by date or had been written-off after an accident. The parts were carefully removed to be used again in those halcyon days when we didn’t waste a thing and hub caps, carburettors, distributors, bumpers and the like were made available at a modest price for vehicles where one or more of these parts had failed.

These businesses have been replaced today by the likes of Repco and Super Cheap Autos where we can buy new parts probably more cheaply than it would cost to remove them from a wreck. Meanwhile abandoned cars are stacked one on top of another in a mountainous pile in Ngaumutawa Road, having been bought as scrap metal.

We call this progress.

Stan Lane was extremely community-minded and was at one stage president of the Riversdale Surf Lifesaving Club and was the inaugural chairman of Greater Masterton Incorporated. Greater Masterton had morphed from the Twenty Thousand Club and was itself morphed in to Go Wairarapa and then eventually Destination Wairarapa.

In the early 1960s Greater Masterton came up with a cunning plan to raise some money. They invited arguably the world’s most popular pianist at the time to come to Masterton and perform in the Regent Theatre. Winifred Atwell was on an Australasian tour and was intending to appear only at the main centres. However, somewhat surprisingly, she accepted the invitation.

Miss Atwell was born in Trinidad, but moved to London where she gained a place at The Royal Academy of Music. She signed a contract with Decca records and had a string of hits including The Black and White Rag which started a craze for the honky-tonk style of playing.

She was selling around 30,000 discs a week and was the first black artist in the UK to sell a million records. On one occasion she performed at a private party for the Queen and Prince Phillip and was called back for an encore by the monarch herself.

Masterton’s Regent Theatre which seated 1080 people was booked out weeks before the show and Stan Lane decided that after her performance she should be invited around to the Perry Street home for a cup of tea and some supper.

Back then chemist friend Wayne Snowsill and I used to do a comedy routine at local cabarets and dances based around miming Stan Freberg’s musical parodies; specifically The Great Pretender, The Banana Boat Song and A Dear John and Marsha Letter. Stan Lane insisted that we come around to his home after the Atwell concert and perform for the great lady herself.

He invited two other local characters, twins Clive and Colin Thorne. These two, better known as ace topdressing pilots, also did a comedy act where one of them told a story, quite lengthy and a shade risqué, while his twin brother stood behind him, put his arms through under his armpits and did the gesticulations; straightening his brothers tie, picking his nose and scratching his head etc.

It was a hilarious routine, but I have no doubt that Miss Atwell would have regularly seen far more sophisticated and humorous performances than what we four were offering up.

Now Stan was not a wealthy man and not to put too finer point on it his furnishings were not flash. In fact the word that comes to mind is “quaint.” So here was a world renowned artiste, sitting in an unpretentious parlour in an ageing dwelling in Perry Street having tea and cucumber sandwiches and being entertained by a butcher, a chemist and two daredevil aviators.

She was gracious enough to pretend she enjoyed the interlude though I note she didn’t suggest we make the Royal Variety Performance our next goal.

As far as I can recall Winifred Atwell was the first and only international celebrity entertainer to ever appear in Masterton. She only had a small entourage with her; she needed just a piano and a stage to perform.

Local developer David Borman has used some of the bricks carefully dismantled from the once grand old home to construct wall sections and a splendid fence around the perimeter of the replacement property. Those bricks will hold many pleasant memories, for me anyway. However I suspect Winifred Atwell would have forgotten all about the place even before she left the confines of perhaps one of the smallest towns she had ever performed in.

“The crowds cheered me as I passed by, but they would be just as noisy if they were going to see me hanged.” - Oliver Cromwell


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