August 10, 2006

Ian McMinn OBITUARY – The Dominion Post, 10 October 2006

Ian McMinn
B Auckland September 5 1941; d Wellington July 25 2006, aged 64 

Anyone who has seen a live performance in Wellington since the mid-1960s is bound to have experienced the skilled work of lighting and sound technician Ian McMinn. He was the ‘quiet achiever’ in the never-doffed Carnaby Street leather cap, to be seen walking between "the Fowl House" (Michael Fowler Centre) and his Kent Terrace home at all hours of the day or night. 

As a child (the older of two) in Auckland, Ian showed an early interest in electricity, flicking switches at every opportunity to see what happened. He also took to music early on, becoming an accomplished teenage pianist and winning major competitions playing duets with his sister Kay.  

Being cast as a sparrow in a Te Papapa Primary school production had not attracted him to acting, but sound technology captured his interest at Manakau Intermediate , where he was also appointed school projectionist. At Auckland Grammar he helped to found the film club. And he apprenticed himself to Walter Coleman, the main lighting and sound man for local drama groups.  

Wiring lights in a "tired old hall" to a borrowed dimmer board for his bible class was his first major lighting project. Although it would probably break today’s rules, "it was a safe installation". His commitment to professional excellence began even then. 

Unaccountably, he chose a job with the Inland Revenue Department alongside his Auckland University studies. Enrolled in Accounting and French, he majored in ‘Extrav’ and the Drama Society, working with luminary Rex Gilfillan and setting up the Auckland University Theatre Company with choreographer/director Dicky Johnstone, who describes him as a brilliant lighting designer and very sensitive operator.

A copywriter friend, Roy Escott-Terry, got him interested in advertising and the electronic media, and Ian’s professional break came when the first series of John Maybury Colgate Palmolive radio quiz show needed a recording technician. He’d knock off work at the IRD and drive with the crew as far afield as Huntly to set up the mics and do the recording. 

When a vacancy came up at Roy’s advertising agency (Ilotts), Ian cheerfully resigned from the IRD to work full-time with musicians, singers and voice artists. He was in on the first broadcast of commercial television (1 April 1961).

Auckland "am dram" continued to request his services. In order to slow down the work flow, and to augment his junior salary, he began to charge modest professional fees. A 6-month trip to the USA in 1964 with Roy and another colleague, promoting NZ-manufactured products, found Ian shifting scenery in a Century City theatre: "I can honestly say I’ve done professional theatre in California." 

They travelled coast-to-coast, on and off Greyhound buses, saw the latest technology on display at the World Fair in New York, experienced the presidential election that saw LBJ officially installed and, back in LA, escaped a fire in the Grand Apartments they’d only just booked into. 

Back home for Christmas, Ian was called by Jack Ilott to head office in Wellington, where he soon became involved with Downstage Theatre, sharing technical and stage management duties with Dave Huggett and Jon Woolf. A 1967 hail storm that flooded the grid tested the safety of his wiring and proved, once more, that it was impeccable.  

The list of venues and performing groups Ian did not work in or with, over the years, would be much shorter than those he did. But after more than a decade of dovetailing theatre work with his fulltime job – "I never missed a deadline" – Ian fell out with an office manager and moved on to set up the new Clinical School of Medicine’s audio-visual unit. Three years with the AV Unit at the Wellington Polytechnic School of Design followed, working with Michael Woolf.  

A stint with Radio Windy saw Ian involved with launching FM into the radio waves. He may have been the first radio engineer to put an orchestra live to air in stereo. When staff were cut back on a last-on-first-off basis, he went freelance until the Michael Fowler Centre, due to open in September 1983, advertised for technicians.  

His love of music to the fore, Ian became Senior Technician for the Wellington Festival & Convention Centre (as the MFC and Town Hall complex became known), handling everything from Arts Splash schools festivals through NZ Symphony Orchestra concerts to NZ International Arts Festival events.

Favourite moments included Michael Houston’s recording of the complete Beethoven sonata series, over seven concerts, and working through the night to pack out George Thorogood & the Destroyers then install three grand pianos and have them in their star-shape position and perfectly tuned by 6.30am, for the NZSO.  

When the in-house technical department was disbanded early in 2000, weekend work at Te Papa’s Soundings Theatre soon expanded to full time work, including corporate events and film projection. And wherever possible Ian continued to pitch in with the wider Wellington theatrical techo community. When did he sleep? He was well known for nodding off at social gatherings, meetings and even – according to colleague Peter Frater – while perched on top of a ladder backstage at the Opera House. 

Diagnosed with prostate cancer in October last year, Ian continued working for five months until it rendered him unable to walk. Instead of working with the Chinese Community at the Opera House, Ian spent Easter in hospital discovering how his own ‘wiring’ had gone wrong: damaged vertebrae meant his brain had lost contact with his lower muscles. During an MRI scan, looking up at the cross projected on the ceiling, he recalled the punch-line, "What a hell of a way to spend Easter."  

In his ‘spare time’ Ian had amassed an extensive collection of recordings and sound effects on vinyl, tape and disk. Ensconced in the Vincentian Home, Ian worked to the last at his laptop, cataloguing his sound effects collection until he nodded off one last time.  

A tribute to Ian will be held at Downstage Theatre on Sunday 27 August, 6.15pm for ‘Curtain Up’ at 6.30pm. 

By John Smythe
Sources: Graham Manson-Glover, Kay Boyes, Dick Johnstone, Peter Frater and Ian’s own recorded recollections.

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