Page 1: Biography
Dix, Percy Reginald
Tea merchant, vaudeville company manager
This biography, written by Peter Downes, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 3, 1996.
Percy Reginald Dix was born in Launceston, Tasmania, on 17 November 1866, the son of Richard Porrett Dix, a chemist, and his wife, Emma Elizabeth Nelson Thame. Intending to become a chemist Percy studied for and passed his first examinations, but abandoned his course and moved to Melbourne where he obtained employment in the tea industry. In 1891 his work brought him to Auckland, New Zealand, where, over the next few years, he established a tea merchandising business. He was soon involved in amateur theatricals, becoming secretary of both the Auckland Amateur Opera Club and the Auckland Literary Societies' Union.
Noting the large audiences being drawn to Wednesday popular concerts organised by John Fuller and his family, in 1895 Dix leased the City Hall and began staging similar entertainments on Mondays, with equal success. On becoming a professional theatrical entrepreneur Dix ceased his involvement in the tea business. The Fullers introduced vaudeville, and by 1899 Dix's Gaiety Company, established that year, had followed suit.
By maintaining an ever-changing bill of artists, Dix's theatre in Auckland soon acquired a high reputation for variety entertainment and in 1900 the company began playing to Wellington audiences. The Fullers, who had left Auckland several years before, were already well established in Wellington. Despite being in competition, both companies thrived and Dix was soon able to lease theatres in Christchurch and Dunedin. Dix managed to attract large and faithful audiences while competing with the Fullers by alternating his artists between each centre. Later he was to add highly successful Christmas pantomimes to the repertoire.
In July 1901 Percy Dix made a deal with the entrepreneur and comedian Harry Rickards, founder of the Australian Tivoli vaudeville empire, enabling him to bring to New Zealand many of the stars Rickards was importing into Australia. As a result, New Zealand audiences were able to see the world's top variety entertainers. In August the Fullers withdrew from New Zealand to concentrate on their Australian market, leaving the local vaudeville field to Dix. His enterprise flourished as never before, both he and his companies becoming famous in all four main centres.
Dix claimed that his shows were always free from any hint of vulgarity and that he engaged only the best and most refined artists. His performers were required to sign an agreement which set out in detail a strict code of conduct, on- and off-stage, as well as the standard conditions of rehearsing and performing. In particular, performers were warned against 'either singing or using words conveying a vulgar or double meaning'.
With the return of the Fuller company to New Zealand in 1903 Dix was once more faced with formidable competition. Eventually he was forced to lower his admission prices while still paying high salaries to his top-billing artists. He began to lose money and found it necessary to close his theatres one by one. In July 1905, with only the Theatre Royal in Wellington remaining, he made a last-ditch attempt to save his enterprise by introducing short motion pictures into the variety bill. This novelty proved uneconomical, and the following month he closed down and returned to Australia.
In association with his New Zealand partner, R. S. Baker, Dix soon formed another vaudeville company in Newcastle, New South Wales, which prospered. The addition of several city and suburban motion-picture theatres considerably increased the profitability of the company. After suffering a stroke, Dix was obliged to sell his interests to Baker in 1916, and he died in Merewether, New South Wales, on 13 March 1917.
Regarded as a man of great enterprise who conducted his companies in a businesslike manner, Percy Dix was also renowned for his benevolence to others. He never married, but made special financial provision for his close relatives. In his business affairs and his private life he was extremely methodical. It was said that when he rose for lunch there was no need to look at the time: invariably it would be exactly one o'clock. He was a kindly, gentle, tactful man and popular with all who knew him. Although his contribution to New Zealand entertainment was comparatively short-lived, it was made noteworthy by his insistence on the highest possible standards of performance and conduct.