Page 1: Biography
Stapp, Frank Howard Nelson
Railway worker, concert impresario
This biography, written by Michael Fallow, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Frank Stapp was always known as ‘The Master’, not because he was grand or lordly, but because that was how he addressed almost everyone else. ‘The game’s on, Master,’ he would say, rubbing his hands enthusiastically as he sat in a little room at Invercargill’s Civic Theatre, cigarette ash spilt down the front of his suit. He was a railway guard by occupation, but his vocation was entertainment. He moonlighted in the spotlit world, ardently promoting local talent and acting as advance agent for many national and international tours to Southland and Otago from the 1930s to the 1980s.
Born in Nelson on 23 October 1908, Frank Howard Nelson Stapp was the son of Charles Gordon Stapp, a maltster, and his wife, Cecilia Alice Jennings. His family later moved to Dunedin, where in 1928 Frank joined the Railway Department as a porter, transferring to Invercargill the following year. He later became a guard and was to work on the railways for 40 years. On 29 September 1937, in Invercargill, he married Irene (Rene) Ursula Ward; there were no children of the marriage.
In the 1930s Stapp began bringing shows, circuses and theatrical events to Invercargill. Whether dealing with carnival folk or esteemed actors, he soon became known as the man to work with. Over the following decades Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Louis Armstrong, Roy Orbison, Cilla Black, P. J. Proby, Acker Bilk and Margot Fonteyn all found their touring needs served by this slightly Dickensian but scrupulously fair character. He would have nothing said against any of them. To the many people who asked him what the Rolling Stones really got up to on their notorious 1965 tour, he would simply say, ‘Rascals, Master’.
His entrepreneurial efforts were not always successful. Among his failures was the occasion he and cohorts quietly planted mushrooms underneath His Majesty’s Theatre in Dunedin, and diligently fertilised them with horse manure, which did not enhance the ambience of the auditorium. ‘What’s that smell?’ the principal of a touring Russian show demanded. He had scruples, however, declining to manage a touring production of Hair in 1969, and once famously leaping from the shadows at the rear of a Southland country hall to intercept a member of a local rock band who was spiriting a teenaged girl away for a quiet moment: ‘The game’s not on, Master!’ Frank announced sternly.
Always more comfortable in the darkness at the back of the auditorium, or in the furtive art of ‘sniping’ (plastering a town with posters), Stapp seldom ventured into the spotlight himself. He told a (probably apocryphal) story about an occasion when, sweating with nerves, he was persuaded on stage by a touring violinist, who needed an assistant to turn the pages. Frank protested that he could not read music. ‘All the better,’ the violinist replied, and throughout his performance he gave Stapp little whacks with his bow when the time was right.
His wife, Rene, was a gifted dancer and ballet teacher whose students included Southland’s famed ballerina Rowena Jackson. Frank was a good dancer himself, and he and Rene made a glamorous couple on the dance floor. When she died in 1982 it broke his heart. Despite the affection people had for Frank Stapp he became rather isolated in his later years. His tendency to call people ‘Master’ was initially due to an imperfect memory for names, but later also masked his fading eyesight. He declined the offer of a Queen’s Service Medal, but accepted a civic award from the Invercargill City Council in 1985. In his last years Stapp was cared for at the Brockville home of the Little Sisters of the Poor, Dunedin, and then at Invercargill’s Calvary Hospital. He died there on 9 August 1993, mourned throughout the New Zealand entertainment industry.