Page 1: Biography
Tate, Norman Edward
This biography, written by Jill Williamson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Norman Edward Tate, known to a generation of Auckland schoolchildren as 'The Fun Doctor', entertained thousands of New Zealand children from the 1920s to the 1950s. He was born in Papakura, Auckland, on 12 October 1890 to 20-year-old Elizabeth Marshall. She married Albert Tate in 1897. Norman and his siblings (five brothers and a sister) attended Remuera School.
His interest in entertainment began when, as a child, he saw a troop of Japanese jugglers. He took up amateur dramatics, appearing with his brother in a show called 'Chu Chin Chow'. In time he developed his own act, becoming skilled at juggling, magic acts, balancing tricks, and sword swallowing, and his show was so popular that he abandoned the grocery apprenticeship he had taken up on leaving school and launched himself as a professional entertainer.
He accompanied his act with an amusing, non-stop line of patter. 'My nose knows' was a phrase he used when playing the piano with his nose, recalled some 60 years later by elderly Aucklanders who remember the excitement and pleasure of The Fun Doctor's visits. Only one part of the act was not welcomed: children in the early days were upset by the sword-swallowing. Parents complained, and this was discontinued.
Norman Tate's life as an entertainer spanned some 50 years. He is known to have appeared at Devonport School in 1916, and was invited back to entertain at that school's centenary celebrations in 1961. He moved around schools, hospitals, gaols and charity fundraising functions in New Zealand and went to Australia for four months each year. The charge made for his shows was one penny in the early days, later increasing to threepence, and then to sixpence. Half the proceeds went to school funds or to charities, and Tate instructed school authorities that any child who could not pay was to be admitted free. He was a familiar sight travelling around in his 'baby' Austin with 'The Fun Doctor' painted on the door – the title given to him by patients in an Australian military hospital where he was performing shortly after the First World War.
Tate was appointed an MBE in 1959 'for services in the field of social welfare – especially as an entertainer in hospitals and schools in the Auckland province.' He was extremely proud of this honour and carried the decoration with him, showing it to schoolchildren during his performance. A staunch supporter of the New Zealand Labour Party, Tate always wore a small red ribbon in his lapel. He never married.
When he died of heart failure on 28 October 1962, he was estimated to have given more than 50,000 performances to more than two million people. He had an enormous rapport with children and his performances were highlights in the school lives of many people. Towards the end of his life he could stand on a corner in Queen Street, a thin man with swept-back hair, a bow-tie and a jaunty air, and be greeted cheerfully by almost everyone who passed by.
Tate's life's work was not lucrative. His estate at probate was certified as being under the value of £9,500. Requiem mass was celebrated at St Michael's Church, Remuera, and he was buried at Purewa cemetery.