Jack Neary OAM OBE 1916 – 2000
- Jack Neary OAM OBE 1916 – 2000
Jack Neary OAM OBE 1916 – 2000
The son of a fisherman, John Edwin Neary was born on 19 January 1916 in the little fishing village of Brooklyn, on the banks of the Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney.
In 1950 he signed Bobby Limb, whom he ‘discovered’ playing at Sammy Lee’s Sydney nightclub.
Neary managed Limb’s career for 22 years. His stable expanded to include Johnny O’Connor, Shirley Abicair, Bob Gibson, Darryl Stewart, Ted Hamilton, John Laws and Barry Humphries.
‘He was against the cut and thrust of showbiz, that just wasn’t his nature,’ said Jack Neary’s longtime friend, singer Col Joye. ‘He’d do a deal, shake your hand and that was the deal. That doesn’t happen anymore. He fought for Australian talent all the way through. I think he only retired to redirect his energies. When he believed in something he’d drive ’em mad until they gave in. He knew we had to have an Entertainment Centre in Sydney and he didn’t let up until we got one. A lot of people don’t make a splash, but Jack made waves that just keep on going.’
The son of a fisherman, John Edwin Neary was born on 19 January 1916 in the little fishing village of Brooklyn, on the banks of the Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney. He won a scholarship to Woodlawn College, where he excelled in sport. From the age of 15 he studied for the priesthood in New Zealand, but the obligatory Latin and French defeated him. He returned to Sydney and worked for David N. Martin as the commissionaire at his Liberty Theatre in Pitt Street. During the war years he served in the NSW Police Force, joined its choir, and eventually formed a vocal quartet, the Four Guardsmen. They won Australia’s Amateur Hour, a national radio competition, and became a popular feature of Tivoli bills.
In 1946 the quartet disbanded and Neary established what became Australia’s first major theatrical agency. In 1950 he signed Bobby Limb, whom he ‘discovered’ playing at Sammy Lee’s Sydney nightclub. Under Neary’s astute guidance, Limb made his first recordings, became a radio sensation, and was engaged by David N. Martin for the Tivoli. Neary managed Limb’s career for 22 years. His stable expanded to include Johnny O’Connor, Shirley Abicair, Bob Gibson, Darryl Stewart, Ted Hamilton, John Laws and Barry Humphries. He appointed Cyril Berlin, a leading West End agent, to represent him in London, and eventually became managing director of the Australian branch of the British Lew and Leslie Grade Agency, working from offices in the Sydney Tivoli building. Through his connections with Berlin and the Melbourne-based Kenn Brodziak, he was responsible for handling the Sydney end of the Beatles’ tumultuous visit in 1964.
In 1961 Neary, Bobby Limb and Les Tinker founded NLT Productions Pty Ltd, a Sydney-based television production house. When the Tivoli closed Lloyd Martin joined them as chairman and managing director. NLT’s longest running show was Bobby Limb’s Sound of Music, which started in 1963 and notched up 363 episodes. The drama series If Those Walls Could Speak, Woobinda – Animal Doctor and The Rovers were made with overseas sales in mind, but Neary campaigned passionately for more opportunities for local talent on Australian television and in 1963 gave evidence before the Select Committee on the Encouragement of Australian Productions for Television, the ‘Vincent Report’. In 1970 NLT ventured into feature film production with Squeeze a Flower, but it was a box office flop. Wake in Fright (1971) did better, as did Sunstruck, with Harry Secombe, in 1972.
Early in 1973 Prime Minister Gough Whitlam appointed Neary to the Film and Television Board of the Australian Council for the Arts. That year was also the zenith of Neary’s entrepreneurial career. In February he brought to Australia the revered Sistine Chapel Choir from Vatican City, and in April Cliff Richard toured for him in his crusading Help, Hope and Hallelujah concerts. From September, as part of the opening celebrations of the Sydney Opera House – where his friend Lloyd Martin was now Deputy General Manager – Neary presented an outstanding series of concerts, Sunday Night at the Sydney Opera House. The first starred Rolf Harris; he was followed by Petula Clark, Dave Allen, Harry Secombe, Carol Burnett, Des O’Connor, Helen Reddy, Rod McKuen, David Frost and Diahann Carroll. By the time the series ended, Senator Douglas McClelland, then Minister for the Media, had appointed Neary to the Australian Broadcasting Control Board.
Neary put aside his entrepreneurial activities to concentrate on this new challenge. He served as vice chairman from 1974 to 1976, overseeing a major transformation of the radio and television industries: FM broadcasting, colour television, quotas for musicians on radio, quotas for Australian productions on television. Neary lobbied for the establishment of the Australian Film Commission and made time to serve as Australia’s Commander General at Expo 74 in Spokane, Washington. He blamed his subsequent coronary on this period of intensive over-commitment.
Neary retired but, predictably, only temporarily. Soon he was lobbying the New South Wales Government for the construction of the Sydney Entertainment Centre. When the vast Darling Harbour venue opened on 1 May 1983 with a nationally televised gala starring Peter Allen, it was administered by Arena Management Pty Ltd, of which Neary was a director and deputy chairman. Arena still manages the Centre. It also ran the nearby Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre from its opening in 1988 until 1993, and entertainment centres in Brisbane and Newcastle.
In 1984, in association with Rolf Harris and his brother Bruce, Neary instituted the annual Schools Variety Spectacular at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, in which as many as 2,500 students perform to packed houses. In 1992, inspired by this success, Neary, Bruce Harris and Mary Lopez AM founded the NSW Talent Development Project, to help promising youngsters make the leap from school to the professional stage.
Supported by government and private enterprise, the Project utilises the expertise of more than 80 professionals from the entertainment and music industries. Its many successes include four boys from Hurlstone Agricultural High School who went on to become Human Nature. Others are musical director John Foreman, jazz singer Emma Pask, Hi Five star Nathan Foley, Paulini, country music performers Darren Coggan, Felicity Urquhart, Travis Collins and Jed Hughes, and songwriter Vanessa Corish.
In 1992 Arena Management – whose shareholders then included Neary, Kevin Jacobsen, Michael Edgley, Reg Grundy, Ampol and the NSW State Government – entered into a joint venture with Ipoh Garden (Australia) Ltd for the restoration of Sydney’s historic Capitol Theatre. The Capitol opened in January 1995 and continues to operate under Arena’s management.
Jack Neary never lost his entrepreneurial flair: he was heavily involved in the organisation of the Australian visit of Pope John Paul II in 1986. He was awarded an OBE in 1969 and Membership of the Order of Australia in 1996, recognising his services to the entertainment industry and the Talent Development Project. He was presented with a special Mo Award at a gala function at the Regent Hotel in June 1995.
‘Gentleman Jack’ Neary died on 6 April 2000; his wife, former Tivoli dancer June Macpherson survived him. The congregation at his funeral included Kamahl, Alan Jones, Col Joye, Gough Whitlam, Douglas McClelland and Human Nature, who sang Neary’s beloved ‘Danny Boy’. At the wake at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, the Tivoli Room was renamed The Jack Neary Room, in tribute to the spirit of the man that inspired the thousands of young performers who have rehearsed there.
Frank Van Straten, 2007
Glenn A. Baker: ‘Jack Neary AM OBE’ – Obituary in The Sydney Morning Herald, 24 April 2000
Judy Judd: Life and Limb, Horwitz Graham, 1987
Hon. Douglas McClelland AC: Eulogy delivered at Mary McKillop Church, North Sydney, 11 April 2000