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Grace Isabel Gibson (1905–1989)

by Lynne Murphy

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Grace Gibson, n.d.

Grace Gibson, n.d.

National Film and Sound Archive of Australia

Grace Isabel Gibson (1905-1989), radio executive producer, was born on 17 June 1905 at El Paso, Texas, United States of America, daughter of Calvin Newton Gibson, rancher, and his wife Margaret Escobara, née Schultz, born in Mexico City. After graduating from high school at Hollywood, California, Grace began working for the Radio Transcription Co. of America. Previously married and divorced, on 29 November 1930 she married Thomas Atchison at Hollywood with Methodist forms; they were later divorced. Clever and ambitious, with a brash, cheerful personality, by her late twenties she was the company’s leading saleswoman. She so impressed Alfred Bennett—Sydney radio-station 2GB’s general manager, who was visiting the USA—that he invited her to help him set up and manage a company, American Radio Transcription Agencies (later Artransa Pty Ltd), which sold American recorded radio programs throughout Australia. Gibson agreed to go to Sydney for six months, but stayed on. In 1933 2GB was the first radio-station in Australia to broadcast 16-inch (41 cm) quarter-hour recordings of drama and music. Two of these, ‘Tarzan of the Apes’ and ‘Pinto Pete and his Ranch Boys’, sold to the sponsors Pepsodent Co. (Aust.) Pty Ltd and Lever Bros Ltd respectively, gained immense popularity.

In 1941 Gibson, in the USA to buy more programs, was stranded when that country entered World War II. Three years later she was managing her old firm, the Radio Transcription Co. of America. She returned to Australia in 1944 and on 18 August at the registrar general’s office, Sydney, married Randal Robert McDonnell Parr, an Irishman serving in the Australian Imperial Force.

The ban on the importation of non-essential goods during the war was a boon for Australian-made products including radio programs, which were now locally produced and increasingly locally written. Gibson set up her own company, Grace Gibson Radio Productions Pty Ltd, in Sydney, using American scripts with local actors as compères or narrators. Among them were Ron Randell in ‘These Are the Facts’ and ‘The Drama of Medicine’, and Reg Johnston in ‘The History of Flight’. With her customary flair, Gibson sold these and other programs to various Sydney and interstate radio stations. 2CH, 2UE and 2UW competed against each other to broadcast the ‘Nyal Radio Playhouse’, which featured locally produced half-hour plays. Her first serial, in half-hour episodes, was ‘Mr and Mrs North’.

Gibson was astute in her choice of drama directors who, in turn, cast good actors, resulting in high-quality, successful productions. Talented writers adapted the American scripts to local conditions and created original material when the American scripts ran out. They were encouraged to write their own serials—with some outstanding results such as Lindsay Hardy’s spy thrillers ‘Dossier on Dumetrius’, ‘Deadly Nightshade’ and ‘Twenty Six Hours’.

By 1954 Grace Gibson Productions was putting out thirty-two programs per week. They went to air in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Hong Kong and Canada. Most were for evening listening (‘Night Beat’ being an enduring favourite), but her two flagship productions, ‘Dr Paul’ and ‘Portia Faces Life’, were marathon runners among the morning soap operas. ‘Dr Paul’ (originally written by an American, Virginia Crosby) ran for 4634 quarter-hour episodes from 1949 to 1971. Sponsored by the soap manufacturer Lever Bros, it was heard on forty-eight stations throughout Australia four mornings a week, and was also sold overseas. ‘Portia Faces Life’, with Lyndall Barbour in the leading role of the lawyer Portia Manning, ran for 3544 episodes from 1954 to 1970. By then television ruled the air waves and Gibson, who claimed to be the sole survivor among operators of commercial studios, scaled down her production to serials of four-minute episodes, one of which was ‘I Killed Grace Random’.

Dark eyed, dark haired, and generously proportioned, Grace Gibson was always well groomed. Stories of her tight-fistedness abound, yet her staff were fiercely loyal to her, and after her retirement she made a large donation to the Actors’ Benevolent Fund. With her toughness she had a self-mocking humour. She retained her Texan drawl and an American, feminine, almost girlish quality, evident when she spoke of her first meeting with her Parr: ‘He made my little heart go pit-i-pat’. Typical of Grace was her quip when told of a fire in a rival production studio: ‘Nothing trivial, I hope’. In 1978 Gibson retired and sold the business. She was appointed AO (1987) in recognition for her services to the performing arts, particularly through radio productions. Her beloved husband Ronnie died in 1985 and she lived alone for the rest of her life in the large stylish apartment at Potts Point that had been the scene of great social life in their heyday. She died there on 10 July 1989 and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Bridges, Wonderful Wireless (1983)
  • J. Kent, Out of the Bakelite Box (1983)
  • R. Lane, The Golden Age of Australian Radio Drama 1923-1960 (1994)
  • ABC Weekly, 30 Jan 1954, p 20
  • Broadcasting and Television, 18 June 1954, p 17
  • Mercury (Hobart), 25 Nov 1987, p 20
  • personal knowledge.

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Lynne Murphy, 'Gibson, Grace Isabel (1905–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Grace Gibson, n.d.

Grace Gibson, n.d.

National Film and Sound Archive of Australia

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Atchison, Grace
  • Parr, Grace

17 June, 1905
El Paso, Texas, United States of America


10 July, 1989 (aged 84)
Potts Point, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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