Page 1: Biography
McKnight, Beeban Annadale
Clerical worker, bank teller, dancer, entertainer, cinema operator, community leader
This biography, written by Judith Fyfe, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Beeban Annadale McDonald was born at The Willows Terrace, Princes Street, Dunedin, on 16 January 1897, the fourth of five children of Adelaide Ritchie Wells and her husband, Arthur Thomas McDonald, an Australian-born wool merchant. She was named after the daughter of an Indian tea planter, whom her father had met during one of his many business trips. In 1903, while in England with his family, Arthur McDonald died suddenly. Wool prices had been low and the family were left almost penniless. Returning to Dunedin with five dependent children, Adelaide McDonald moved in with her mother and took in paying guests.
The McDonalds were a close-knit, musical family, and from the age of eight Beeban was taught piano by the Dominican sisters (although her family were Anglican). Around 1908 she had become stage-struck after seeing a performance by 60 children from the Pollard Opera Company. By the time she was 12 she was out working to assist her family. Her first job was in the office of Stone, Son and Company in Dunedin, but she was ambitious to earn more money. Although she lacked experience, she secured a position as a shorthand typist with a timber merchant, doubling her wages.
About this time doctors advised Adelaide McDonald to move to a warmer climate. As her son Colin was a journalist with the Gisborne Times , she and her family moved to Gisborne shortly before the First World War. Beeban and her sister Lillian were the main breadwinners for their mother and learned to keep books and budget from a young age. After working for a grocer, Beeban got a job as a bank teller, becoming one of the first women employed by the Bank of New Zealand.
In Gisborne Beeban McDonald became heavily involved in the local operatic society and theatre. Local people recognised her talent and around 1915 raised funds to send her to Sydney, where she trained as a dancer with Minnie Hooper, J. C. Williamson’s ballet mistress. She became a showgirl, and toured with the Williamson company. Because of her height she was in the ‘pony ballet’ – the taller showgirls, who featured at the back of the stage.
The struggle to balance working a Burroughs machine in a bank by day and being a showgirl by night affected her health and at the end of 1918, believing that she had gone as far as she could in Australia, McDonald returned to Gisborne. There she joined William Lints’s Reveille and travelled around the country as his stage assistant and ballet mistress. She also performed solos, but as she was too tall to be a classical dancer she turned to low comedy and male impersonation, at the time respectable and popular forms of music-hall entertainment.
During a visit to her sister in Ohingaiti she organised a miniature reveille which she called The Mountebanks, and toured them round Rangitikei, raising enough money to build the Ohingaiti district hall. During that visit she met her future husband, John Ballance McKnight, a returned soldier and local farmer, who was a grandnephew of former premier John Ballance. After their marriage, in Remuera on 4 April 1923, she gave up her theatrical career and learnt to be a farmer’s wife, raising two daughters and a son.
Beeban never regretted giving up the stage, but she missed the excitement of the entertainment industry. In 1932, without any previous experience in motion pictures, she took over the cinema in Hunterville. Combining her business skills and passion for anything to do with the stage or screen, she became an independent cinema operator, at one time screening films regularly in Hunterville, Ohingaiti and Mangaweka. Until the 1960s the McKnight theatres provided entertainment and a place for country people to socialise. However, conditions were tough for the small independent exhibitors, who were faced with high distribution fees and competition from the bigger chains for popular films. Beeban McKnight would often travel to Wellington and use a car-load of farm produce to bargain for a film contract. She was a dominion councillor of the New Zealand Motion Picture Exhibitors’ Association from at least 1942 until 1959, and her role in the industry was recognised when the Friends of the New Zealand Film Archive made her a life member in 1984.
She helped with the farm accounts and was active in many local community groups, including the Red Cross, the Women’s Division Federated Farmers, the Plunket Society, the Ohingaiti Sports Club, the ladies’ miniature rifle club and the rose club. She also involved herself in church and school affairs, and served as a justice of the peace. She became a well-known identity in Rangitikei and used her talents as a performer for numerous fund-raising groups. In 1983 she was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal for her services to the community.
After John McKnight died in November 1961, Beeban remained on the family property at Ohingaiti, aptly named Beverly Hills. Still a glamorous woman, tall and straight-backed, she maintained her lifelong interest in entertainment and theatre, regularly travelling many miles to see a show. She died in Taihape on 6 January 1996, just before her 99th birthday. She was survived by her children.