Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Erwin Aladar Rado (1914–1988)

by Andrew Markus

This article was published:

Erwin Aladar Rado (1914-1988), film festival director, was born on 8 November 1914 in Budapest, only child of Pál Radó, banker, and his wife Elizabeth, née Fröhlich. The family was of Jewish descent but formally converted to Calvinism in 1920. Erwin grew up in an intellectual milieu, a world of music, opera and books. Raised with German as his mother tongue, he learned Hungarian from his parents, French and English from private tutors and Latin at school. His family excelled musically and for a time he received private lessons from a student of the composer Franz Liszt. Although ambitions of becoming a concert pianist were not realised, music was to play a major role throughout his life.

After completing his secondary education, Rado attended a commercial academy and also studied law for two years at the University of Budapest. In 1934 he passed a highly competitive examination to win a position in the larger of Hungary’s two state banks, but in an environment of mounting anti-Semitism, in which conversion counted for almost nothing, he decided to emigrate. For a year he studied photography in the evenings to increase his employment prospects overseas; he put in applications to three countries and accepted the first offer, from Australia. He married Márta Judit Spitzer in May 1939 in Budapest; the couple left shortly afterwards, arriving in Melbourne on 1 August. The Rados came with a substantial sum of money, a grand piano, and the best photographic equipment available. Unable to find work as a photographer, Rado purchased a shopfront library at Camberwell, in which he established a photographic studio. The Rados resolved to speak only English and to strive to become part of Australian society.

In February 1942 Rado volunteered for the army, but as a foreigner he was precluded from a combat role; he served in a labour battalion for four years, loading and unloading trains at the break of gauge at Albury, New South Wales. His only child, Kevin, was born in 1942 in Melbourne and Rado was naturalised in 1945. After the war he returned to photography and gradually built up a clientele—mainly parents wanting professional photographs of their children. For a time he involved himself with a musical group as director and pianist.  

Rado joined the Melbourne Film Society in 1950 and served as secretary from 1955. He became a member of the organising committee of the third Melbourne Film Festival in 1954 and was the festival’s paid director from 1956. At first ‘a long-weekend affair’, the festival became an icon of Melbourne cultural life, its character shaped by Rado’s uncompromising drive for excellence. By 1958 he had gained accreditation for the festival from the International Federation of Film Producers Associations. That year the committee provided £1000 for Rado to make the first of his regular trips overseas to select films; in 1958 130 films were shown from 21 countries. Thereafter the program often included the first or only screening of internationally acclaimed films, alongside a selection of works by young film-makers encouraged by the establishment of the Australian Film Institute Awards in 1958.

A handsome, accented European sophisticate, Rado was much in the public eye in the weeks leading up to the festival. In the late 1960s there was regular controversy over censorship, which he opposed, and at times the choice of films sparked political protest. In addition to his film festival duties, Rado served as the inaugural director (1958-71) of the Australian Film Institute. He was a prominent advocate of government support for the industry and of the establishment of a film and television school. The Australian Film Commission chairman Phillip Adams later commented that ‘the film industry was kindled in Victoria; Erwin was the detonator . . . He was an inspiration to would-be film makers.’

Rado was appointed AM in January 1976. After twenty-five years as festival director he retired in 1980, but returned briefly to stage the 1983 event. He served on a number of boards, including Film Victoria (1981-87), and was a noted champion of creativity and young talent. In 1984 he survived major heart problems and the resulting amputation of his right arm. After his recovery he worked on the feature films of his friend Paul Cox and directed short documentaries, although he was unsuccessful in obtaining funding for major projects, including a planned feature on the life of the composer and pianist Johannes Brahms.

After divorcing his first wife, Rado had married Ann Elliot Taylor, an architect, on 16 August 1965 in Melbourne. Survived by his wife, he died on 29 January 1988 at Fitzroy and was cremated. His son had died in 1962. The Erwin Rado Theatre at the offices of the Melbourne International Film Festival and the Film Victoria Erwin Rado Award for best Australian short film were named in his honour.

Select Bibliography

  • L. French & M. Poole, Shining a Light, 2009
  • Age (Melbourne), 12 May 1973, p 19
  • Age (Melbourne), ‘Extra’, 30 April 1983, p 11
  • Age (Melbourne), 29 June 1985, p 13
  • Age (Melbourne), 30 January 1988, p 8
  • Age (Melbourne), 6 February 1988, p 11
  • Australian, 19 April 1983, p 3
  • Herald (Melbourne), 21 May 1969, p 21
  • Herald (Melbourne), 12 June 1974, p 2
  • Herald (Melbourne), 22 May 1985, p 14
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 22 May 1961, p 6
  • Sun-New Pictorial (Melbourne), 30 May 1967, p 24
  • A435, item 1944/4/4109, B884, item V377704, A12508, item 25/455 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information and personal knowledge

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Andrew Markus, 'Rado, Erwin Aladar (1914–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Erwin Rado, c1968

Erwin Rado, c1968

State Library of Victoria, H38849/3699

Life Summary [details]


8 November, 1914
Budapest, Hungary


29 January, 1988 (aged 73)
Fitzroy, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.