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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Robinson, Kathleen Mary (1901–1983)

by Jennie Lees

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Kathleen Mary Robinson (1901-1983), actress and director, was born on 31 January 1901 at St Kilda, Melbourne, only child of Irish-born parents Matthew John McWilliam Robinson, pastoralist, and his wife Mary Louise, née McKay. Kathleen grew up at Toorale, a station fifty miles (80 km) from Bourke, New South Wales, with pets for playmates and books for friends. On a trip to Sydney in 1912 she saw a production of J. C. Williamson’s spectacular Ben Hur and fell in love with the stage. Later, as a boarder at Frensham, Mittagong, she starred in school plays and helped with their production.

When she was 15, Kathleen’s parents moved to Sydney. Tall, slim and wholesomely attractive, she dreamed of becoming an actress, but her father objected when Oscar Asche invited her to join his company. She continued acting with amateur groups and in 1923 received a favourable review in Stage and Society.

In 1924 Kathleen accompanied her parents on a tour of England and Europe. When her father died five years later she and her mother inherited his fortune, and returned to London. In 1930-32 Kathleen studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and, during the course, won an elocution competition judged by (Sir) Lewis Casson. He and his actress wife Dame Sybil Thorndike offered her a place in their 1932-33 company to tour Australia and New Zealand.

During a ten-week season at Sydney’s Theatre Royal, Robinson played minor roles in St Joan, Macbeth, Medea and the Napoleonic farce Madame Plays Nap. Back in London she studied production at the Westminster Theatre and was soon running it in partnership with the producer Osmond Daltry. The playwright Emlyn Williams and the future Hollywood star Michael Wilding were among the actors she directed. Robinson was the theatrical director of the People’s Palace in London’s East End in 1936-37. In 1937 she formed her own company, which toured Scandinavia, the Baltic states and the English provinces. She gave her final London season at the Whitehall Theatre. In the worsening situation of World War II she became concerned for her mother’s safety and returned to Australia in 1940.

At the opening of Ladies in Retirement on 22 March 1941, Robinson met its producer Alec Coppel, an Australian playwright recently returned from England. Like her, he believed Sydney needed a permanent theatre. When he found that she had the money to do something about it, they began exploring local options. Six weeks later as Whitehall Theatrical Productions Pty Ltd, they leased the art deco Minerva Theatre at Potts Point for £150 a week and within ten days presented the world premiere of Coppel’s thriller Mr Smart Guy. By June 1941 Whitehall Productions was presenting two shows each night.

The Minerva provided the city with high-standard professional entertainment but, hampered by its location twenty minutes from the city centre, it rarely filled its thousand seats. It presented plays of all types, had a loyal following and provided opportunities for new talents, Peter Finch and Ron Randell among them. Although plays were essentially its business, in 1941 Whitehall Productions enabled Hélène Kirsova to feature a professional ballet season at the Minerva in one of the nightly slots. Robinson poured money into the company and her partnership with Coppel lasted until 1944, when an unexplained disagreement resulted in his return to London. Roland Walton became a co-director of Whitehall and also of Pan-Australasian Theatres Pty Ltd, an allied business; Richard Parry joined them in 1947. Robinson opened the Whitehall Academy of Dramatic Art in Pitt Street in 1944.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer purchased the Minerva in 1948 and announced plans to turn it into a cinema. Whitehall Productions fought the eviction order, but the strain took a toll on Robinson’s health. In February 1950 she fainted and fell backwards down a staircase, injuring her sciatic nerve. When Whitehall Productions vacated the Minerva Theatre on 28 April, she was still in hospital.

As she never fully regained mobility, Robinson retired to her country home Toorale at Bowral and occupied herself translating books into Braille for the Royal Blind Society of New South Wales. She died on 28 December 1983 at home and was buried in South Head cemetery. Some friends thought that she was too genteel to succeed in show business; others believed that only a person of great talent and energy could have kept the theatre operating for so long.

Select Bibliography

  • Stage and Society, 5 Apr 1923, p 16
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Apr 1941, p 6, 1 May 1941, p 8, 14 Apr 1944, p 9, 2 Feb 1984, p 8
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 2 May 1941, p 12
  • BP Mag, June 1941, p 75, Sept 1941, p 77, Mar 1942, p 75
  • ABC Weekly, 7 June 1941, p 5
  • People (Sydney), 20 June 1951, p 34
  • Equity, Mar 1984, p 42.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jennie Lees, 'Robinson, Kathleen Mary (1901–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 26 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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