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Kenneth Leo (Kenn) Brodziak (1913–1999)

by F. Van Straten

This article was published online in 2023

Kenn Brodziak, by Harry Jay, c.1950

Kenn Brodziak, by Harry Jay, c.1950

Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Kenneth Leo Brodziak (1913–1999), theatrical entrepreneur, was born on 31 May 1913 at Waverley, Sydney, younger son of Sydney-born Leopold Stanley Brodziak, costume manufacturer, and his wife Violet, née Alexander, born in New Zealand. Raised in a Jewish household, Kenn was educated at Cleveland Street Intermediate High School and Sydney Boys’ High School, matriculating in 1930. He was persuaded by his parents to pursue a career in the law, becoming an articled clerk with Fred. C. Emanuel and Pearce solicitors, but his ambition was a career in the theatre. Using the name Richard Raymon, he wrote and produced revues and musicals with an amateur theatre group. A photographic memory helped him to complete his legal training, which would later be useful when negotiating contracts.

Having noted the publicity-fuelled success of Clifford Odets’s anti-Nazi drama Till the Day I Die (1935), Brodziak set about writing a play whose plot and characters were designed to attract controversy and, hopefully, censorship. The result was Desire Brings Welcome, first staged at the Australian Hall in Sydney in December 1936, under the patronage of the theatrical entrepreneur Sir Benjamin Fuller. Described by one critic as ‘a sordid play’ with ‘flashes of clever writing’ (Sun 1936, 9), it was subsequently banned in New South Wales, generating substantial press attention. Brodziak was soon accepted as part of Sydney’s theatrical scene, forming a new company, Planet Productions, that staged plays for matinee seasons at J. C. Williamson’s Theatre Royal in 1937. To provide himself with a reliable income, he established a theatre booking service.

Brodziak’s progress was interrupted by his service during World War II. He enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force on 3 February 1941 and trained as a navigator in Canada and England. Commissioned in October 1942, he flew with Royal Air Force squadrons from bases in England (No. 279, 1942), the Gambia (No. 200, 1942–43), and North Africa (No. 114 and No. 13, 1943), and performed operations room duties at RAF Station, Oban, Scotland (1943–44). During his war service, he visited New York and London, where he established numerous contacts and attended theatre on Broadway and the West End. He also wrote and directed revues on ship voyages and air force bases. Back in Australia, he was a navigation instructor as a temporary flight lieutenant at the Advanced Flying and Refresher Unit (1944–45), before relinquishing his commission on 23 May 1945.

One of the shows that had impressed Brodziak in London was the musical-revue Get a Load of This. In 1945 he persuaded the head of the Tivoli theatre circuit, David N. Martin, to employ him as assistant producer and he staged it successfully in Melbourne and Sydney. In 1946 he moved to Melbourne where he established Aztec Services Pty Ltd. Initially it published capital city guidebooks, produced an advertorial newspaper column called ‘The Shopping Spy,’ and provided artist management services; but it soon expanded to become a producer and presenter of concert artists and theatrical attractions, usually in association with other entrepreneurs.

Brodziak’s roster of stars and shows over three decades included stage luminaries such as Ronnie Corbett, Sid James, Anna Neagle, Marcel Marceau, Jessie Matthews, Robert Morley, Derek Nimmo, Carol Channing, Ron Randell, and Liv Ullman; screen actors Jack Benny, Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Nelson Eddy, and Danny Kaye; concert artists Peter Allen, Winifred Atwell, Dave Brubeck, Max Bygraves, Bob Dylan, Joyce Grenfell, Eartha Kitt, Gene Krupa, Cliff Richard, the Seekers, and Sophie Tucker; and shows such as Canterbury Tales, Charlie Girl and Pippin (both starring John Farnham), and Godspell.

Remembering his experience with Desire Brings Welcome, Brodziak co-produced several controversial attractions such as Sumner Locke Elliott’s bawdy Australian play Rusty Bugles in 1949, the cheeky American comedian Ruth Wallis in 1961, and the Melbourne production of the lusty musical Hair, with its brief nude scene, in 1971. For the gay themed The Boys in the Band, produced in association with Harry M. Miller in 1969, he created a new venue for Melbourne, the intimate Playbox Theatre in Exhibition Street.

The attraction for which Brodziak is most remembered is the Beatles. He encountered the emerging pop group on a visit to London in 1963 and later recalled ‘I just liked the sound of their name’ (Page 1978, 11). For a modest fee, he signed them to tour Australia and New Zealand in June 1964. By then their asking price had skyrocketed, but their manager, Brian Epstein, honoured the original contract: ‘In hindsight,’ reminisced Brodziak, ‘it had to be the greatest theatrical coup of all time’ (quoted in Performing Arts Museum 1993, 17).

Unlike many traditional entrepreneurs, Brodziak never owned a venue: ‘I found that if I got the attraction, I’d always get the theatre’ (quoted in Cain 1998, 27). He regarded television not as a rival but as a provider of priceless publicity and a valuable source of stars and shows. British television provided one of his greatest successes, a three-year tour (1962–65) of a stage version of The Black and White Minstrel Show.

After the demise of the once-dominant J. C. Williamson theatrical empire in 1976, Brodziak closed Aztec Services, acquired the Williamson name, and established a new company, J. C. Williamson Productions Ltd, with himself as managing director. He launched it with the world premiere of the musical More Canterbury Tales in October, which proved to be one of his rare failures. It was followed in 1978 by productions of Side by Side by Sondheim, A Chorus Line, Dracula (directed by Sir Robert Helpmann), and Annie. Appointed OBE in that year, he retired in 1980 but remained chairman of the company until it was sold in 1984.

During his retirement, and despite his antipathy towards subsidised theatre, Brodziak was a board member (1981–94) of the Melbourne Theatre Company. He continued to invest in shows and was a familiar figure at first nights, always ready to share his vast store of memories and to savour the latest theatre news. In 1998 he was an inaugural recipient of the Australian live performance industry’s highest honour, the James Cassius Award (later the J. C. Williamson Award). The next year on 3 June he died at his West St Kilda home and was cremated. John Frost, a producer and colleague, remembered him as a great mentor and ‘one of the truly great impresarios’ of Australian theatre (Brown 1999, 8). A memorial service was held at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne, on 8 July. Brodziak donated his treasured collection of memorabilia, including some of his extensive Beatles archive, to the Performing Arts Museum (later the Australian Performing Arts Collection) at the Arts Centre, Melbourne. His estate was valued for probate at $1.87 million.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Brown, Suzanne. ‘Theatre World Mourns Death of Impresario.’ Age (Melbourne), 4 June 1999, 8
  • Cain, John. On with the Show: A Glimpse Behind the Scenes of Entertainment in Australia. Richmond, Vic.: Prowling Tiger Press, 1998
  • Love, Harold, ed. The Australian Stage: A Documentary History. Kensington, NSW: University of New South Wales Press, 1984
  • National Archives of Australia. A9300, BRODZIAK K L
  • Page, Robert. ‘Kenn Brodziak.’ Theatre Australia, October 1978, 10–11
  • Performing Arts Museum. A Special Madness: Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of The Beatles in Australia. Melbourne: Victoria Press, 1993
  • Stanley, Raymond. ‘Mr Kenn Brodziak OBE.’ In Inaugural James Cassius Awards. Program. Entertainment Industry Employers’ Association, 1998. Copy held on ADB file
  • Sun (Sydney). ‘A Sordid Play by Amateurs.’ 20 December 1936, 9
  • Van Straten, Frank. ‘Kenn Brodziak OBE 1913–1999.’ Live Performance Australia Hall of Fame. Accessed 31 October 2022. https://liveperformance.com.au/hof-profile/kenn-brodziak-obe-1913-1999/. Copy held on ADB file
  • West, John. ‘Kenn Brodziak.’ In Companion to Theatre in Australia, edited by Philip Parsons and Victoria Chance, 104–5. Sydney: Currency Press, 1995

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

F. Van Straten, 'Brodziak, Kenneth Leo (Kenn) (1913–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/brodziak-kenneth-leo-kenn-32165/text39759, published online 2023, accessed online 5 March 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Kenn Brodziak, by Harry Jay, c.1950

Kenn Brodziak, by Harry Jay, c.1950

Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Raymon, Richard
Birth

31 May, 1913
Waverley, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Death

3 June, 1999 (aged 86)
St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Education
Occupation
Military Service
Awards
Key Organisations
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