Andrew Joseph Francis Brown (known as Joe) was born at Naseby, Central Otago, on 3 October 1907, the son of goldminer George Bernard Brown and his wife, Mary Josephine Downes. He attended Naseby School, and later recalled that he was ‘a bad fellow’, failing the proficiency examination more than once. But while there he had his first success in business when he organised a dance to raise funds for the school rugby team. He later went to the Christian Brothers’ School in Dunedin, where he passed proficiency, and then began a motor mechanic apprenticeship with Cossens and Black.
As a young man Brown suffered a serious back injury playing rugby, and for the rest of his life he wore a brace and walked with a stoop. After eight years as a mechanic he lost his job, and during the depression he earned a living selling fruit and vegetables from a bicycle. In 1936, sensing a need for after-match entertainment during the Otago rugby team’s long tenure of the Ranfurly Shield, he decided to organise a dance in the Dunedin town hall. To raise the £36 needed to float the venture, he borrowed money from his family to buy dogs and a ferret and went rabbiting in Central Otago. The first dance, on the night of the Otago–Southland shield game, made a small profit, and although the second made a small loss, he believed he was on to a winner.
When the commercial radio station 4ZB was established in 1937 Brown arranged for the town hall dance to be broadcast, and over the next 30 years it became a national institution through live radio broadcasts. A crowded meeting place for hundreds of Otago couples, it was often called ‘Joe Brown’s matrimonial agency’. He met his own wife, Marjorie Alice Wallis, at one of the dances. Married in Dunedin on 24 March 1945, they were to have two sons and a daughter.
Brown and his family capitalised on the success of the dances by establishing other businesses, including tearooms at Highcliff, a catering business for weddings, a furniture store to serve young couples setting up home, a pram- and cot-hire business and, eventually, a property development scheme that led to probably the region’s first ‘Parade of Homes’. He also became a racehorse owner and trainer on a small farmlet at Janefield, near Mosgiel. He had his first win with Moon Raider in 1940 and gained a reputation for making something of unlikely horses. His successes included a win in the Wellington Cup and a third placing in the Melbourne Cup, both in 1952 with Reformed.
Brown was enthusiastic about providing what he called ‘good, clean, family-based entertainment’. His first national venture was the 1959 Search for Stars, which attracted 3,000 entries and saw the emergence of many successful entertainers, including John Hore (later Grenell), Dinah Lee, Bunny Walters and Eddie Low. His skill at predicting public taste led to tours by many overseas artists, although at least one, a 1964 comeback by pre-war child star Bobby Breen, was not a success.
Joe Brown became best known for staging the Miss New Zealand Show, holding the franchise from 1960 to 1973 and again from 1979 to 1986. Intended as family entertainment, the show gained in popularity from 1963 with the regular involvement of the Howard Morrison Quartet who, along with other artists, had their music released on Brown’s record label. From the early 1970s, however, the show was picketed by feminists. Brown was unrepentant, claiming that ‘I have been criticised for exploiting women, but I believe I have been liberating them for years’. In all his show-business ventures he was a hands-on operator, acutely aware of the value of publicity and gimmicks to promote his shows, and quick to capitalise on the latest fads, such as the hula-hoop craze.
He was a Mosgiel borough councillor, and a member of the local milk authority, the Taieri athletic and swimming clubs, and the management committee of Mosgiel District High School (now Taieri High School). In 1970 he was awarded the British Empire Medal. Regarded in his time as New Zealand’s leading show-business entrepreneur, Joe Brown continued working until shortly before his death at his Janefield home on 23 August 1986. He was survived by his wife, a daughter, and son Dennis, who took over his entertainment business.