Page 1: Biography
Comic opera producer and manager
This biography, written by Peter Downes, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
Tom Pollard was born Thomas John O'Sullivan on 28 April 1857 in Launceston, Tasmania. He was the fourth child and eldest son of John O'Sullivan, a police constable, and his wife, Ann Furlong.
After leaving school Thomas O'Sullivan entered the building trade in Launceston and as a hobby took up the study of the violin and trombone at James Joseph Pollard's academy of music. Showing a natural ability he was soon playing at local concerts as a member of Pollard's Orchestral Union. In 1881 he became a full-time violinist for a juvenile 'Liliputian' comic opera company then being formed by J. J. Pollard and members of his large family for touring in New Zealand and Australia. The position was conditional on his changing his name for professional purposes to match that of the otherwise all-family orchestra. Henceforth he was commonly known as Tom Pollard.
He soon began to show an interest in stage direction, and after a short period of combining orchestral work with the duties of assistant stage-manager he was appointed full-time stage-manager from January 1882. He immediately demonstrated a talent for training the children and staging the productions and at once began to enlarge the repertoire. Tom Pollard could not sing in tune himself, but had a wonderful ear for music: he could pick out and correct anyone singing even slightly out of tune.
By mid 1884 extensive tours of New Zealand and Australia had been followed by performances in Singapore, Burma and India. On 1 May 1884, within days of the company's return to Queensland from India, J. J. Pollard died. Control of the company was taken over jointly by his son, Charles Pollard, as business manager and Tom Pollard as productions manager. On 3 May 1884 at Charters Towers, Queensland, Tom Pollard married one of J. J. Pollard's daughters, Emily Albertina. They were to have two sons and one daughter.
After two more years of touring in New Zealand and Australia it was becoming obvious that most of the performers could no longer be passed off as children. Rather than run the risk of ridicule, the company was disbanded in 1886. Pollard then spent several months as lessee of theatres in Launceston and Hobart. From 1887 he toured for three years throughout the Pacific region as stage-manager for the Wangenheim Dramatic Company, the Plaisted-Harding Company and Simonsen's Opera Company.
In July 1891, initially in association with the entrepreneur J. C. Williamson, he formed another juvenile comic opera company. Extensive trans-Tasman tours over the following years soon established the company as a highly popular entertainment attraction. In 1896 all pretence of being 'juvenile' was abandoned and the performers adopted full adult status, rapidly exceeding the great acclaim they had enjoyed as children, especially in New Zealand.
By this time, because so many of the performers were New Zealand-born, the company had become more closely associated with that country; in the late 1890s, although tours to Australia were continued, Tom Pollard moved his home to Christchurch.
At the height of its fame, during a special tour to South Africa from 1903 to 1904, the company was devastated by a theatre fire in Durban which destroyed much of the scenery and many of the properties and costumes. Although managing to return as far as Australia they never fully recovered from this disaster and late in 1905 Tom Pollard had no alternative but to close down.
After a period as director of entertainments for the 1906–7 New Zealand International Exhibition, Pollard formed yet another successful juvenile company in August 1907; a touring pattern was adopted similar to the previous two. By 1910 serious opposition was being encountered from vaudeville and motion pictures; the more expensive productions of comic operas and musical comedies simply could not compete. Not willing to face yet another financial calamity, on 13 April 1910 the Pollard Opera Company gave its final performance.
Tom Pollard immediately became a much sought-after producer for amateur operatic societies throughout New Zealand, and, while retaining his home in Christchurch, combined this work with the management of cinemas in Greymouth and Hokitika. He died in Christchurch on 30 August 1922.
A well-built, red-headed man, Tom Pollard had a military bearing and was always immaculately dressed. He created and maintained New Zealand's first and longest lived professional musical theatre group. His tours covered cities and rural towns, and when he could he gave preference to engaging New Zealand artists. He was greatly revered in the theatrical profession, and both he and his companies made an outstanding contribution to the social and cultural development of this country.