Broken Wand - Michael Woolf
to report Michael Woolf has just passed away.
Funeral detail will be posted when advised.
wasn't quite born in a trunk. But Michael Woolf has always
loved performing, the theatre and magic. Growing up in Essex,
England, in the 1940s, he knew that one day he would be
a performer. One of his earliest memories is of performing
a puppet show at primary school - imitative of a pantomime.
In those days medium-sized towns in England had their own
variety theatre, and each week a different bill would appear.
The orchestra conductor at the Regal, Southend-on-Sea, was
Arthur Cowan - a friend of Michael's parents, known to all
as Uncle Arthur.
During school holidays he would often take
the stage-struck youngster to the theatre to watch rehearsals.
Michael remembers seeing comedian Arthur English, later
to star in "Are You Being Served," performing
his "spiv" character. (The word has passed out
of the language . . .) Pantomimes, circuses, comedians and
specialty acts were there in those just-post-war years.
Michael remembers vividly the Jasper Maskelyne show, the
magician out of the services following his camouflaging
activities, and wearing miniatures of his military decorations
on an immaculate evening dress suit, performing an "Asrah"
that made a lasting impression on the youngster.
Travels With Punch
the late 1940s Michael's parents decided to make a new life
in New Zealand. Travel in those days meant a lengthy ocean
voyage and to keep the nine-year-old occupied Michael's
parents gave him a set of Punch and Judy puppets. And an
elderly aunt presented him with a pre-war Hamley's magic
set. Passengers on the old ship "Orontes" found
it impossible to escape as performances were constantly
given. Also on board were some well-known entertainers of
the day - members of the Colleano family and duo-pianists
Ivor Moreton and Dave Kaye, on their way to an Australasian
Tivoli tour. At Lyall Bay Primary School Michael was again
a regular performer. And his father made a portable stage
for the Punch and Judy Show.
He has no memory of ever having
seen a Punch performance as a child, and created his own
storyline - along broadly traditional lines. By the time
he went to his Secondary School, Rongotai College, word
of his abilities had begun to spread and he started to take
bookings for birthday parties. Publicity attended these
and after a few years it was common for his name to be called
at Assembly - "Woolf - report to the Headmaster!"
But this was seldom because of any misdemeanor - word of
his abilities had spread and organizations would telephone
the school to book the young performer. The Headmaster suggested
wryly that he might seek a career as a Punch and Judy Man.
He saved pocket money and proceeds from performance and
sent to Davenports for a ventriloquist doll head, and had
a body made by Wally Moran.
developed his magical skills, visiting Stewart's Studio
of Magic, then in Manners Street Wellington, to buy from
Manager John Brennan. He later joined the New Zealand Fellowship
of Magicians, and has a Certificate of Merit dated 1955,
signed by Bert South and Graham Grant. Among his friends
and contemporaries was the late Roger Holyoake. Whenever
a magician visited Wellington he was drawn as if by force.
He saw John Calvert and Sorcar. Then there was Virgil, really
the last of the great touring shows. He had quarantine troubles
with his animals on that New Zealand tour. There was a routine
associated with the American master. As a young would-be
magician Michael grabbed a seat at the front of the stalls
of the Opera House, immediately beside the steps leading
to the stage. At the moment that there was a suggestion
that a young assistant was needed, Michael jumped from his
seat and rushed up the steps. Virgil was working Chinese
rings in front of tabs.
A card was forced - Michael says
you had no choice, it was jammed into your hand - and as
the tabs parted, there was a science -fiction scene ready
for an illusion. At the appropriate moment, as a misdirection,
the young assistant was instructed under the master's breath,
to "scream like mad and run back to his seat."
You did this, then enjoyed the rest of the show with a professional
air. After the show you went backstage - and Virgil would
give you another ticket - for the same seat at the following
night's performance. Michael's greatest thrill was to be
greeted almost as a member of the troupe with a wink from
the magician's assistant when he mounted the stage as volunteer
for about the fifth night in a row. Many years later Michael
enjoyed sharing this memory with his friend the well-known
American collector and ex-touring magical performer John
Daniel of Pasadena. Virgil had been Daniel's mentor, and
his collection includes many of the master's props and effects.
this time the small Punch and Judy show had been replaced
- initially by puppets made by another school pupil, and
then by a professional outfit. His parents had seen this
advertised for sale in the newspapers. It came from Hawera,
and had on the proscenium the words "Punch and Judy"
and the dates "1644 - 1944." The first year denoting
the first Punch performance in England, the second possibly
the date of manufacture of the stage. Michael up-dated this
to "1954." The figures were papier-mâché,
stage-size, with Mr Punch standing two feet tall. Michael
continued to perform at birthday parties, including one
for the children of the then Governor-General, Lord Cobham.
During the school holidays he went to Blenheim as compere
and resident performer for an annual celebration in the
district, performing puppets, magic and vent.
This was successful
and he was invited back for several years in succession.
He returned to Blenheim for two Christmas seasons, at the
invitation of a local department store. For Christmas the
Judge puppet became Father Christmas, coming down the chimney
with the aid of black-art, to the tune of "Here Comes
Santa Claus" and great applause. The fledgling entertainer
was learning by the seat of his pants: audience responses,
publicity and the importance of self-criticism were shaping
his future abilities. Then there was the social side. At
that time Michael (a young teenager) was painfully shy.
The strong personality emerged only on stage. So he stayed
in hotels alone, and apart from performances barely spoke
to a soul.
school he had joined the Dramatic Club, and performed with
the late Mike Haigh as well as lawyer Des Deacon and Justice
Dick Heron. Also there was television producer Peter Coates,
and Nick Garland, who was to make a significant name as
a principal of "Private Eye" in London of the
swinging 'sixties. One Christmas he was invited to set up
the Punch and Judy show for performances at a carnival at
Petone. This season was notable because of the tragic aftermath
of a body-building contest. "Mr. New Zealand"
was selected. The next day the winner travelled from Wellington
by train to Auckland. And the rail disaster happened at
Tangiwai. The last Punch and Judy performance was a triumph,
performed in the old Wellington Town Hall Concert Chamber
for an audience comprising the diplomatic corps and their
families. By this time the artistry of the performance had
been well honed, and Michael took his bow to a standing
ovation. It was time to leave school and start a career.
Is The N Z B S
flirted briefly with the notion of becoming a cinema projectionist
Michael decided on a career as a radio announcer. On leaving
school he joined the New Zealand Broadcasting Service. His
association with radio had begun some years earlier, with
work as a child actor in radio plays, and also as one of
the "Quiz Kids." A contemporary on this programme
of Jonathan Hunt M.P., he was involved in the last programme
compered by the late Jack Maybury. Selwyn Toogood took over
as quizmaster from the next episode, and a year or two later
telephoned to invite Michael to be a team member for a season
to be transmitted live by television. This took place at
the Wellington Winter Show. It was in fact a simulcast of
sorts because the programmes were recorded for later network
Another highlight of this season was the
television broadcast of Michael's Punch and Judy show, believed
to be the first time in New Zealand that a puppet show was
televised. On joining the NZBS Michael disposed of the Punch
and Judy show, the vent. doll and all the magic apparatus,
in the mistaken belief that he had put behind him such things
and was now about to enter a more sophisticated world. He
has often tried to discover the whereabouts of these pieces
but without success. He would greatly love being able to
place these precious momentos of his past in his collection
of magical memorabilia, but cannot recall who obtained them
from him in about 1955 or 1956, and he has no knowledge
of what may have become of them.
radio career began. He was a "cadet" for a year
or so, an underpaid office-boy, before being appointed an
announcer - first to 2YA and then to 2ZB. He was the breakfast-session
man for much of his time there, and also was associated
with the early broadcasts of Johnny Devlin, Johnny O'Keefe
and the Howard Morrison Quartet. He hijacked an outside
broadcast installation to interview Frank Ifield at the
beginning of his career, and spent a day with comedian Stan
Freberg. Then there were the Platters, Tommy Sands, and
other visiting celebrities. Interview subjects later in
his career have included jazz greats Dave Brubeck and Nat
Adderley, Irene Handl, Eartha Kitt and Victoria De Los Angeles.
He left the NZBS to accept an offer from an advertising
agency, writing and producing commercials and presenting
a network radio show.
He continued a lot of radio drama
work and recording of film commentaries, commercials, and
stage acting. Michael wrote, directed and produced commercials
when television began. He left the agency for the New Zealand
tour of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" in 1961,
then was a television presenter in the early days of WNTV1.
He married Jill in 1962 and left New Zealand to spend some
months working in Australia, on soap opera and radio dramas
in Sydney, plus one stage play and some television. Became
an "occer" Australian when they found that their
Kings Cross apartment was next to that of Ritchie Benaud,
and really felt he had arrived when he sat next to Chips
Rafferty on the top deck of a double-decker bus. Returning
to New Zealand he resumed a freelance life in radio, television,
stage and occasional films. ("Goodbye Pork Pie"
and the lead with Ian Mune in the children's' film "Rangi's
Catch" which was also the first screen appearance for
Appearing as a comedian in a pantomime
in Wellington he worked on illusions with Bernard Reid,
who played the wicked magician. Had a happy reunion with
Bernard Reid again some years later while on holiday in
Napier, when Bernard was touring as "The Great Diablo."
He appeared in many stage plays at Downstage including his
first personal magic performance in many years, when he
prepared an authentic re-creation of a Victorian stage magician
for a Music Hall production. (His magical background was
also useful in a play some years later, when he designed
and made a gimmick to be fitted to a valuable antique long-case
clock, in order to make the clock strike to order. This
was too successful - it worked so reliably that the stage-manager
forgot that the clock also needed to be wound up!)
1973 Michael was elected to the Wellington Committee of
Actors' Equity. He succeeded Hamish Keith as National President
and held that role for four years. During that period of
public office he spearheaded many advances for New Zealand
performers including the negotiation of the first agreements
between performers and the television authorities. Invited
for two successive years to be a guest of the Variety Artists
Convention in Auckland he had the pleasure of spending time
in the company of several other guests including the late
Mayor Robbie, Matiu Rata and Edgar Benyon. On retirement
from Equity office Michael was awarded the honour of Honorary
Life Membership. In 1985 he was appointed a Justice of the
Peace. He holds the qualification of Associate of the New
Zealand Institute of Management.
seventeen years Michael was involved in tertiary tuition
as Tutor-in-Charge of the Audio-Visual Department at Wellington
Polytechnic. As a father of three and grandfather of six
he always enjoys the stimulating company of young people.
left his teaching position to take up an offer from Concert
FM, the classical radio network. He enjoyed the challenge
of presenting a daily 'drive-time' programme for three years
until dissatisfied with management changes and policies
at Concert FM. He resigned at the beginning of 1996 and
set up a freelance creative consultancy which he finds far
more rewarding. Michael has done "everything in radio
except rugby commentaries." Interviewing Michael at
the end of 1996 Brian Edwards called him "The Compleat
Broadcaster." He now works from home, close to his
family and other interests.
lived for 26 years and raised a family in an Edwardian house
in the inner suburb of Hataitai, Michael and Jill bought
a twelve acre lifestyle property at Horokiwi. Situated high
on the hills overlooking Wellington harbour, this haven
of peace has plenty of rooms (the Laflin family, Ron London,
Tania Nordick, David Ginn, Bernard Reid and Sean and Diane
Taylor have been welcome house-guests) as well as a large
building that houses Michael's other lifelong love - his
collection of antique mechanical musical instruments. Michael
collects and restores player pianos, musical boxes, juke
boxes, phonographs and mechanical organs including the only
Wurlitzer Theatre Organ in New Zealand to be installed in
a private home.
And also old penny-in-the-slot machines
from the penny arcades of the past. These mechanical wonders
give entertainment to Michael and his guests. He also collects
and displays old magical apparatus. "It's great to
be able to share these items that otherwise get lost"
he says. "Magicians and lay people alike enjoy seeing
the display and especially the association with magicians
of the past." One prized item is a beautifully-made
die box, once the property of Les Levante. Also on display
are superb costumes from the Long Tack Sam touring show,
posters and effects the former property of the late Steve
Willard, and many other interesting items.
about 1990 Michael's interest in active magic had been rekindled.
He joined the Wellington Society of Magicians, began attending
Magicana Days, and in 1993 attended the Canterbury Society's
Convention where he was asked to assist as a Judge. It was
here that he met Roger Holyoake for the first time in about
forty years. They rekindled the old friendship of their
teenage years but sadly this was to be their last meeting.
Roger died just a few months later and Michael was given
the task of disposing of his magical equipment.
at Christchurch Michael was thrown together with Rovi, and
the great Welsh magician became a close friend.. A transport
misunderstanding left them stranded at Merivale Mall, and
formed the beginning of a friendship that was only broken
with Rovi's death in 1996. They met again at the Wanganui
convention. Rovi did a lecture in Wellington, and he and
his wife Minnie were house-guests of the Woolfs. During
his lecture the famous beady eyes fixed on the audience.
"I want to thank Jill and Michael for having us to
stay" he said. "I never slept three in a bed before!"
That visit also saw the beginning of another magical milestone.
Rovi wanted to take Michael and Jill out for dinner, and
discovered that there was a Welsh restaurant in Wellington.
Rovi made the booking in Welsh so the Woolfs had no idea
of what was in store. On arrival at the restaurant Rovi
took over completely, table-hopping and entertaining the
whole place, which reverberated to the sound of: "Are
you married or happy?" and "Take a card - never
mind about the four of hearts!" The restaurant, Scorpios,
has never forgotten that night - Roderick Mulgan and Michael
have performed there occasionally, as well as making bookings
for private and family functions. In addition, entertainment
has been provided for visiting magicians including Chuck
Jones and Steve Bender.
Valley Magicians' Society
mentioned, Michael and Jill moved to Horokiwi in the Hutt
Valley. At about the same time Roderick and Sarah Mulgan
moved to Whiteman's Valley, also in the Hutt. It seemed
that there was a need for a magic group to serve the area
The Hutt Valley Magicians' Society was formed with Michael
as President and Roderick as Secretary. Roderick and Michael
work closely together. Rovi was the first Patron. The group
meets at the Woolf home...
New Zealand International Magicians' Convention, Hutt Valley
some time Roderick and Michael had contemplated holding
a small-scale gathering of magicians, perhaps at Labour
Weekend. Michael attended "Conjurama 1996" in
Timaru, and enjoyed the event. But there seemed to be a
need for a larger scale event as there had been no Convention
in this area for many years, after serious discussion it
was decided to convene a Convention in the Hutt Valley in
1999. This was given IBM support, and approval was coming
from everyone approached. A small working party was established,
and responsibilities divided. Michael was appointed Convenor,
with Peter Chik handling registrations, finances and administration.
Peter is a Chartered Accountant and his skills were invaluable.
In addition to establishing a style for the Convention and
assuming responsibility as Convenor, Michael had primary
responsibility for promotion and publicity, overseas liaison
and sponsorship. Roderick picked up everything that was
left. This included the Competitions and Public Events.
The team co-opted assistance from many areas - Cliff Thomas
kindly agreed to produce the graphic designs, and MagicNZ
sponsored the establishment and maintenance of a Website.
Jim Reilly gave publicity in Magicana on friendly terms,
and overseas responses were most encouraging. The 1999 Convention
was called "A Century of Magic." This signified
the great events in magic during the past hundred years.
The Convention was a successful and happy event with a certain
style. Michael put his stamp on the Convention as a small
contribution - a personal way of saying thanks to the world
of magic - a world that has brought so much pleasure to
so many in the past, and in the future.
says this is one way to give something back to magic. "I
have had so much pleasure from the world of magic for so
many years that I felt a duty to do something in return"
he says. "Our Society has a predominantly young membership.
By encouraging them and giving them the benefit of my experience
as a performer in all fields I can make a small contribution.
Our Society is developing strongly. It is my hope that one
outcome of the 1999 Convention will be to put the Hutt Valley
Magicians' Society on the map, increasing awareness of magic
and the Society in the district and encouraging more people
was the famous magazine for magicians published in New Zealand
with an international focus. It is printed every two months.
A 36-glossy-page magazine in full colour. Magicana was founded
in 1953, Michael Woolf has been Editor/Publisher for eleven
years. It has some significant names on the subscriber/contributor
list - Bev Bergeron, George Schindler, Jack White, the late
John Booth, Maurine Christopher, Eddie Dawes, Duane Laflin,
John Calvert, Norm Nielsen, Bernard Reid, David Ginn, Richard
Webster, Ken Ring, Terry Seabrooke- the list goes on.
tried to be all things to all people - professional and
amateur performers, enthusiasts, collectors - everyone interested
in any aspect of magic.