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Whitta, Clifford Nicholls (1903–1956)

by Dally Messenger

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Clifford Nicholls Whitta (1903-1956), radio entertainer, was born on 24 September 1903 at North Carlton, Melbourne, second son of Victorian-born parents John Whitta, decorator, and his wife Lydia, née Nicholls. The family was thrifty and religious, and Cliff's childhood was ordered, secure, uneventful and happy. He attended the Methodist Church in Nicholson Street, Fitzroy, three times each Sunday. Educated at Princes Hill State School, he served as an apprentice to a jeweller then tried poultry-farming at Eltham before deciding to become a wireless announcer. The taunts of his brother and friends spurred him on.

Learning guitar from Oreste Manzoni at (G. L.) Allan's music store, Whitta was taken on by the Australian Broadcasting Co. as an instrumentalist in the dance band of radio-station 3AR. From about 1931 he worked on the children's session at 3LO. Dropping his surname, he styled himself Cliff, or 'Nicky', Nicholls. He sang in a number of J. C. Williamson Ltd musicals, including The Chocolate Soldier which starred Gladys Moncrieff. Lack of work in the Depression prompted him to move to Sydney where he found a job with the retailers Anthony Hordern & Sons Ltd.

In 1932 Nicholls joined Melbourne radio-station 3AW. He performed on the children's programme and teamed with Fred Tupper as 'Nicky and Tuppy' to provide the station's popular breakfast entertainment. In 1933 3AW employed Kathleen Mavourneen Lindgren as Nicholls's co-host of the children's show; she took the professional name, 'Nancy Lee'. The two developed 'Chatterbox Corner' which, with its theme song, Being a Chum is Fun, was said to be 'the best children's session in Australia'. Clifford and Kathleen were married on 31 August 1935 at the Methodist Church, Richmond. In 1944 she withdrew from radio and public life to care for their two sons.

Nicholls's decision to leave 3AW in 1946 caused an outcry among his listeners. Moving to Sydney, he worked for radio 2CH. Next year he returned to Melbourne and briefly resumed jewellery making but in 1948 accepted a position with 3KZ as compere of the breakfast session. He introduced a segment, 'Junior Stars of the Air', to which a number of notable Australian announcers and entertainers were to trace their professional beginnings. In 1950 he transferred to 3UZ where he presented the morning session and formed his most celebrated 'on air' relationship—with the young Graham Kennedy, who acknowledged him as his mentor.

Though seemingly a master of spontaneous witticisms, Nicholls spent hours preparing for each show, aided by scrapbooks of jokes and 'gags' which he meticulously collected. In front of the microphone he was sincere and personal, giving the impression that he was addressing himself 'to that one person out there whom he liked, understood and felt for'. At its most popular, his programme on 3UZ attracted 73 per cent of listeners. In 1956 he was contracted to appear on television. He died of a coronary occlusion on 8 September that year in his home at Ivanhoe and was cremated. More than 100,000 people watched the funeral procession. His wife and their sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Lee and D. Messenger, Being a Chum was Fun (Melb, 1979)
  • Listener In, 28 Aug-3 Sept 1954
  • Argus (Melbourne), 10, 11, 12, 15 Sept 1956.

Citation details

Dally Messenger, 'Whitta, Clifford Nicholls (1903–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/whitta-clifford-nicholls-12023/text21543, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 18 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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