The Misleading Lady

From 1919 until 1963, New Zealand audiences were guaranteed ‘snappy scenes, bright singing, excellent dancing and sparkling comedy’ when attending a Stan Lawson Production.

Stan wasn’t just a producer; he could dance, sing and wisecrack. However, he was arguably New Zealander’s leading female impersonator.

In his youth, he had studied music and performed in Shakespearean, dramatic musical and costume recitals in his home town, Dunedin.

When drafted in 1916, he formed the ‘Digger Pierrots’, a concert party that entertained troops in Northern France. By the war’s end, they had become one of the finest Army troupes, touring leading Europe and Britain theatres before bringing their front-line humour home to New Zealand audiences in 1919.

The Diggers – New Zealand Divisional Pierrots. Group photograph taken in the studio of H H Clifford, Christchurch, ca 1919. Source: PAColl-D-0226: Rex, Tony, fl 1990.

Hosted by Stan Lawson as the ‘premier danseuse’, and barely distinguishable from a ‘real lady’, the New Zealand Pierrots featured 20 performers and a full orchestra. Described as ‘almost a soprano’, Stan could wear ‘all kinds of feminine attire, from a bathing suit to a society gown in the most becoming manner’, including costumes given by English aristocrats. He enjoyed attending fashion parades at Beaths and DIC and would entertain his friends afterwards by cleverly mimicking the catwalk movements of the models.

Portrait of Stanley Lawson (3/1172) and Frank Perkins posing for the New Zealand Concert Party for a German photographer in Mulheim an der Ruhr. Stanley Lawson is dressed as a female in a wig, dress and high heels. Source: Auckland War Memorial Museum call no. D570 E8 M956

Stan had opened a dance studio in the 1930s and produced and performed in musical comedies for amateur operatic societies throughout New Zealand. When the newly formed Christchurch Operatic Society needed a producer for its first show, The Belle of New York in 1938, they called on Stan’s extensive experience and successes to direct a 120-strong chorus and ballet. He returned the following year to produce a larger show with a set and costumes costing over £1200 – the equivalent of $70,000 today.

“Let’s be happy”. 40 Australasia’s finest entertainers; selected and directed by that peer of all producers, ex-Digger, ex-Kiwi Stan Lawson, in his hilarious musical show. It’s new! Daring! Different! On tour. Opera House Wellington, season commencing 22 June [1945]. Wright & Jaques Ltd. Source: Alexander Turnbull Library.

During his life, Stan staged and toured many successful productions and nurtured the talent of emerging performers. His most famous protege was Rowena Jackson whom he sponsored to achieve a scholarship with the Royal Ballet in London.

His Christchurch friends remember Stan as “a talented performer, a remarkable producer of musicals, with the ability to foresee the potential future in young actors which he nurtured to become renowned on the stage.”


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