Singer, dancer and all-round entertainer Pat McMinn died last weekend aged 91. She was one of the last musical connections to the Swing Era and to some of our most iconic (and ear-wormy) novelty songs. McMinn was also one of the last old-school multitalented vaudeville entertainers.
Born in 1926 ‘Pretty Pattie (or Paddie’) McMinn was a singer and dancer from a young age, and began working on the vaudeville stage at about age 7 touring on the J.C.Williamson circuit. By age 9 she was a young radio star on the 1ZB children’s show Neddo’s Jolly Pirates. In 1942 she became a young cabaret star after winning a competition that her grandmother had signed her up for. The prize was an engagement singing at the Dixieland Cabaret (this was the third iteration of that cabaret, back in the original Queen Street premises) with Johnny Madden and Jack Thompson- two of Auckland’s big name swing musicians at the time. She was paid a respectable 10 shillings 6 pence a night, and this shot her into the adult entertainment world.
After the Dixieland gig ended she moved down the hill to the Trocadero and Len Hawkins Band. In addition to being the girl singer for the cabaret band she utilised her dance skills and regularly took part in floorshows at the cabaret. This was the peak of the American’s military residency in Auckland and so many of the cabaret’s clientele were American officers. Some of the clientele were also musicians, who would help Pat and other musicians get hold of the latest hits from the US- something that was nigh on impossible for musicians in New Zealand during the war. She remained with the Hawkins band when the band moved on to an engagement at the Orange Hall, but also began singing for Ted Croad’s Band (both at Trades Hall and at his regular Orange Hall gig).
After the end of World War Two McMinn continued to work in the cabarets as a jazz singer and all-round entertainer, but is perhaps for her 1950s recording work for TANZA. McMinn sang on most of the famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) novelty pop songs of the early 1950s, including jazz pianist Crombie Murdoch’s ‘Opo the Crazy [or Friendly] Dolphin’, the slightly (ahem) preposterous ‘I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas’ and (infamously) the Geddie’s Dental ad. She had the right sort of bubbly showbiz persona to pull these songs off and in a way created the 1950s Kiwiana novelty sound. It’s estimated that she recorded 25 sides for TANZA and over 200 radio jingles.
Between her recording, cabaret gigs and radio work McMinn became one of the most recognised singers in New Zealand in the 1950s. This popularity led her to volunteer for the New Zealand Concert Party to entertain troops Korea who remained in Korea after the war in 1953 and 1954. She made two tours with the party performing with the likes of Johnny Cooper, Martin Winiata and Jean Kirk-Burnand among many other entertainers.
After returning to New Zealand she continued to split her time between jazz gigs, cabaret floorshows, radio gigs and her pop recording work, and when television came along she branched out into that new medium as well. An all-round entertainer, even after retiring from performing in the 1980s she continued to teach dancing and judge performing arts competitions, work behind the scenes of amateur musical theatre productions, and at the end of her life continued to support others performance endeavours.
There is, of course, so much more to Pat McMinn’s story, some of which you can read in Chris Bourke’s Blue Smoke, but also over at Audioculture, on a recent Radio New Zealand/Sound Archives show, and in her obituary for the Bay of Plenty Times.