Sunday, February 24, 2008

Peter Allen, Armidale and Claire and Eileen Napier - an attack of nostalgia

Photo: This is Your Life. Peter Woolnough Allen, Peter's Aunt Nancy - black glasses, Claire Napier-McCann, Roger Climpson Channel 9. 1977.

I was browsing the ABC New England North West web site when I found a story that really bought my past back in waves of nostalgia.

All those years ago I was friendly with a girl called Eileen Napier, now Kelly. Sometimes I used to visit her house across Dumaresq Street to listen to surfing music.

Through the mists of time I remember Eileen as a very pretty girl. But I was shy and I always felt that her mother did not approve of me as a Protestant. So it was a passing friendship. Yet I clearly remember the house and the lounge room.

Eileen's mum Clare was active in the local musical scene. I remember this, However, I did not remember (perhaps I did not know) the role she played in the early stages of Peter Allen's career.

So far I have written one story on Peter Allen, but I have not written much on his Armidale connection.

According to the ABC story, Eileen Kelly remembers Peter Allen turning up to tap dancing classes in what is now the Folk Museum in Armidale on roller skates. He was full of the energy, which became his trademark on stage.

"Mum would often just take off her tap shoe and throw it at Peter to pull him into line," Eileen recalls laughing.

Photo: Claire Napier-McCanns Childrens Dancing Troupe on Stage in The Cathedral Hall, Rusden Street, 1956.

For 30 years Claire Napier fostered the careers of many young entertainers, but none so famous as Peter Allen, who, she taught tap dancing for more than 8 years.

"In the finish she said in many of her interviews, she couldn't teach him anymore. He'd learnt everything she had to teach him," recalls Eileen.

According to Eileen, Peter Allen was six weeks old when his mother Marion brought him to Armidale where he stayed for almost 15 years, schooling at the local demonstration school, then Armidale High School.

Under the guidance of Claire Napier Peter, along with her other students performed around the region, and he formed a band called "The Skiffle Group" which used to play in a local hotel. The story does not record the name of the hotel, but this would have been the Mann's New England Hotel, the Newie to locals.

The story notes that some of those original band members were coming to Armidale to celebrate Peter's birthday. He would have been 68 years old.

Photo: Peter Allen on guitar at the spotlight parade in Armidale 1956.

Peter's Armidale connection is not well known. Tenterfield has always been in the spotlight because of the song "Tenterfield Saddler" which Peter wrote about his family.

"Peter was very proud of his Woolnough connections, and his father would take him back to see his grandfather and I think during Peter's hard times he looked at his early life and the Tenterfield connection to get a grip on his own identity," Eileen records.

Eileen has seen the musical about Peter twice, loving the performances of Huw Jackman and Todd McKenney, but she regrets there was no part for the character of Clair Napier in either script. Her mother however was among the special guests when Peter featured on channel Nine's "This is your life," in 1977.

Eileen recalls only one trip Peter made back to Armidale, just a few years after he left. He'd been given national exposure on bandstand with Chris Bell, and was soon to embark on an international career, which would see him working with and loving the likes of Judy Garland, Liza Minelli.

Eileen recalls he called in to see her where she was working at a local supermarket. Later she recalls going backstage at a concert on the Gold coast, one of his last in 1992, and he left her with words she will never forget.

"He said to me, and 'don't ever forget Eileen, make every moment count, "she says.


Anonymous said...

56 years ago!! what a ride we have had since then. keeping Peter's memory alive is now our dream. regards Jenny (wallace) Godwin bridgeman downs brisbane 4035

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Jenny. Nice to hear from you. It's all a long time ago, but memories refreshed become memories renewed.