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Final bow for Savage Club

Members of the Wellington Savage Club visit the Masterton branch for a “raid” in 1935. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

A century of friendship and fun

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
[email protected]

It’s an end of an era for the Wairarapa institution members lovingly called the “most inappropriately named club in the world”.

The Masterton Variety Club, formerly known as the Masterton Savage Club, closed its doors on January 12 – 112 years since it was first founded.

The club, one of a network of Savage Clubs throughout the Commonwealth, was a social organisation dedicated to entertaining the community, best known for its regular variety performances at its Albert Street clubrooms.

Members take their audience back to the 70s with an ABBA-themed show in 2019. PHOTOS/FILE

Members have fond recollections of concerts featuring ABBA impersonations, show tunes, and excerpts from ‘Allo, ‘Allo, comedy sketches ending with custard pies in their faces, and trips up and down the country for sing-a-longs and afternoon tea with other “Savages”.

After more than a century of fun and fellowship, the curtain has fallen on the Masterton branch – with its committee citing a dwindling membership and financial pressures.

Randell Mellish, former club president and long-serving committee member said, as at the end of last year, only “about half a dozen” members were still active.

This left the club with very few organisers and performers for its concerts – the income from which covered the organisation’s expenses, keeping it afloat.

Finances become further stretched when the Wairarapa Fern and Thistle Pipe Band, which used to hire the clubrooms for rehearsals, relocated its practices to the Masterton District Brass Bandroom.

Mellish said the club’s closure has been “very sad” for its members – but they realised it “just wasn’t economical” to continue.

“We didn’t have the numbers for the concerts – sadly, people won’t want to come to a show with just a pianist and four singers,” he said.

“Our outgoings were getting expensive – about $2500 a year for rates, power and insurance. We didn’t have the financials to make it to another Christmas.

“Our members did the best they could to carry on, but everything was against them.

“It is sad – but these things happen. We have many great memories.”

Savage Clubs – named for poet and dramatist Richard Savage – have their origins in Victorian London: when, in 1857, a group of writers, artists, musicians met to socialise and perform their works.

Over the years, several famous faces would frequent the London Savage Club – such as Mark Twain, Sir Earnest Shackleton, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, and Prince Phillip.

Savage Clubs would eventually develop throughout British overseas territories, with the first New Zealand branch founded in Dunedin in 1888.

The clubs served as a place for men to perform for one another – usually comedy acts, drama skits, and musical numbers – as they drank and smoked, chatting away the evening.

Women were allowed to join much later, in 1998.

The Masterton Savage Club was founded in 1910, with PR Cook, a well-known local doctor, as president or “Big Chief”.

The Masterton club’s membership peaked in the 1950s: capped at 100 members, the club had a long waiting list, with those who couldn’t secure a membership going on to form an “Orphans Club”.

The club had been at its Albert Street premises since the 1960s, with the executive having bought the building, constructed in 1883 by mill owner Samuel Gapper, for £750 (about $4000 in today’s money).

In 1961, a group of members’ wives, dubbed “The Harmony Ladies”, teamed up to fundraise for the building’s renovations – raising money by way of concerts and cake stalls.

All renovations were carried out by the members.

A toilet seat presented to the Masterton club members by their Hawera counterparts in 1962.

Mellish, a member of 54 years and Big Chief from 1974-76, has particularly fond memories of the club’s “raids” – where members would travel to other clubs throughout the country, spend time together, and stage variety shows.

The raids would involve a great deal of ceremony and the exchange of gifts between the two groups.

Mellish recalls an incident where the club travelled to Te Kuiti for a raid – and, on the day they were due to depart, the keys got locked inside the bus.

He had to stand on another member’s shoulders to reach the quarter light window, which he was barely able to squeeze through to retrieve the keys.

Mellish, who served as club secretary for “the best part of 30 years” and treasurer for close to a decade, said the club helped members grow in confidence through performing on stage – from singing in choirs, to reading poetry, to “naughty skits”.

This self-assurance helped him in many areas of daily life, including with running his own business.

“When I joined, we got up on stage and sang Maori songs and did haka. I learned how to do poi routines.

“It definitely helped people develop more confidence in themselves. At first, some people would get up on stage and freeze – but, after a while, it just became natural.

“We had quite a professional set-up for concerts – we had our own sound system and switchboard for operating the lights.”

Mellish said he met “many wonderful friends” through the Savage Clubs: especially during the eight years he served on the national executive committee, which had him travel from North Cape to Bluff, meeting members from all 66 New Zealand institutions.

That number has now shurnk to just 20 clubs, most of which are in the South Island.

The Masterton committee spent several days clearing out the clubrooms before the building could go on the market.

“That was big a job,” Mellish said.

“We found records dating back to the 1940s. We found a lot of photos – covering the entire 112 years the club was open.

“The Wairarapa Archive came and picked the photos up. We were very pleased they were able to do that, otherwise we’d have to throw them out. They’re a piece of our history.”

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