Originally from England, band leader Theo Walters exuded the suave appeal of actor David Niven. He was a showman as well as a musician, and on stage he was always immaculately dressed in white tie and tails. Even when not performing, Walters would be sartorially elegant, as this photo of his 1ZB Orchestra shows, with the band in matching double-breasted suits, ties and handkerchiefs – plus the co-respondent shoes.
The US musician that Walters most admired was Benny Goodman; Duke Ellington was too futuristic, Cab Calloway too raucous. Swing was Walters’s thing, “modern music which causes listeners to feel a definite urge to dance.” During shows at Auckland’s Peter Pan cabaret, Walters parodied Cab Calloway, and musicians took part in comedy skits, playing characters such as “Olga, the beautiful spy” while the audience clustered around the stage.
In the late 1930s, Walters and his various bands regularly held residencies at Wellington’s Majestic and Auckland’s Peter Pan cabarets. His bands were so popular that in 1941 he was offered a three-month contract by 1ZB to provide a band to play every night; the fee was then the biggest yet for a dance band. Walters was soon recruited for the RNZAF Central Band. In the portrait above, from late 1941, Walters is presenting his band to the 1ZB manager, controversial broadcaster Colin Scrimgeour.
When Walters assembled his 1ZB, he sent the musicians this letter of acceptance, including details of their terms and pay rates (I have removed the recipient’s name and address.)
In between the wars, Walters also spent time in Melbourne, c0-leading a band with American ragtime proselytiser Jay Whidden at the magnificent Palais theatre on the St Kilda waterfront. Splendid photos of his time in Melbourne can be seen at a website devoted to Whidden. (Among the pictures is one of the enormous Carlton Hotel in Haymarket, London, where Whidden held a residency in the 1920s; it was demolished in the 1950s and the unloved New Zealand House built in its place. Luckily, the Palais still dominates the St Kilda esplanade).
Walters left quite a paper trail from his inter-war career in Australia and New Zealand; Auckland musicologist Alisha Ward has recently written a lengthy account of his influence on New Zealand musicians. Other curiosities keep popping up: he is featured on the Australian sheet music cover of a blackface ballad, ‘When the First Piccaninny was Born’. (Using the same graphic template, the 1935 English edition showed Brian Lawrance of the Lansdowne House Orchestra. This version on Columbia is likely to be Carroll Gibbons and His Boy Friends. The A-side of the 78rpm disc was ‘Black Coffee’).
And just now I hit pay dirt: two film clips showing the extravagant floor shows the Walters presented in the 1930s. The one from the Esplanade Cabaret, Bondi Beach, Sydney shows Walters and band dressed in Ali Baba/Arabian Nights costumes. The other shows his Rhythm Boys playing a New Year’s dance at an unknown venue; Walters is resplendent in a white tuxedo, and plays a saxophone with the energy of a bebopper. Unfortunately, these sample clips don’t come with sound attached, but the wonderful images are tantalising.
In the picture with Scrimgeour the musicians are, from left: Len Hawkins, Harry Unwin, Allan Hills, Jimmy Watters, Brian Marston, Theo Walters, Norm Egerton, Fred Gedson, Colin Scrimgeour, Phil Campbell (obscured), Gordon Lanigan, and Bill Pritchard. It was provided courtesy of the Hills family.