Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Martin, David Nathaniel (1898–1958)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

David Nathaniel Martin (1898-1958), theatrical entrepreneur, was born on 15 August 1898 in Perth, son of David Nathaniel Martin, a traveller from London, and his Western Australian-born wife Mary Richmond, née Christie. Raised in the Jewish faith, David was educated at Perth Boys' School, and toured the world as a flugelhorn player with the Young Australia League boys' band in 1911-12. He described himself as a secretary and organizer when he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 6 July 1918. Demobilized on 24 December, he joined the advertising staff of Lowe's Ltd, men's outfitters in Sydney. He worked for Paramount Pictures in 1919, then as manager (1920-34) for Universal Film Manufacturing Co. (Australasia) Ltd. On 16 September 1922 at Woollahra he married with Presbyterian forms Isla Victoria Hume Chapman Stephens, a 25-year-old stenographer.

In January 1934 Martin, who had been a major distributor of Australian films, told a State government inquiry that 'the combine' (General Theatres Corporation of Australasia Pty Ltd) was trying to make it impossible for independent exhibitors to operate by denying them outlets. He commissioned Bruce Dellit to rebuild the Liberty Theatre as an intimate, luxury cinema, seating 650. Having achieved success with One Night of Love and Show Boat which ran respectively for thirty-nine weeks in 1935 and forty-seven weeks in 1936, Martin disposed of the Liberty to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1937. A large-scale investor in real estate, he was managing director of several development companies, among them the Minerva Centre Ltd (1937-58) which built shops, a nightclub and the Minerva Theatre (designed as a 1000-seat playhouse or cinema) at Potts Point. In 1941 he handed over management of the Minerva to Whitehall Productions before moving to Melbourne to stage plays at the Comedy Theatre.

Back in Sydney, Martin turned to vaudeville. He became chairman and managing director of the Tivoli Circuit of Australia Pty Ltd in June 1944, and of its subsidiary companies. In 1946 he went abroad on the first of numerous quests for talent—he never booked an act without seeing it. Martin made variety pay by attention to detail, by a 'businesslike, coldly efficient approach', by putting on world-class shows, and by paying top salaries for overseas performers (Winifred Atwell received over £2000 a week). He faced continued protests from the Actors' and Announcers' Equity Association of Australia about replacing Australian artists by visiting performers, and about allowing the Ballet Rambert and Old Vic Theatre Company to use the Tivoli Theatre.

Despite costing £40,000 to stage, Ice Follie (1950)—which featured skaters from 'fourteen different countries'—proved so popular that it led him to establish (1951) David N. Martin Pty Ltd, concert managers, to import shows and leading artists, including the whole Folies Bergère production from London (1953), the Vienna Boys' Choir (1954), the pianists Jose Iturbi (1954) and Julius Katchen (1955), the Hohner Symphony Accordion Orchestra (1955), the Don Cossack Chorus and Dancers (1956), and Katherine Dunham and Her Company (1957). He believed that it 'was a simple matter of economics' to give the audience what it wanted: in Sydney 15,000 people had paid to see the New South Wales National Opera while 600,000 flocked to Ice Follie.

A 'rather bald, dark, medium-built man with a liking for gay ties', Martin neither drank nor smoked; he had 'two strong dislikes—off-colour comedians and fat chorus girls' (he kept diet sheets in his desk for the latter). He belonged to the Sydney Savage Club and the Green Room Club, Melbourne, and enjoyed spending Saturday afternoons at the races, when work permitted. From 1955 he was a director of Television Corporation Ltd. While seeking new talent in the United States of America, he died of coronary artery disease on 2 March 1958 at the Clift Hotel, San Francisco, and was cremated. His wife, son and daughter survived him. A memorial service was held at St Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point, Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • J. West, Theatre in Australia (Syd, 1978)
  • ABC Weekly, 15 Nov 1952, p 28
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28, 30 Dec 1933, 3 Jan 1934, 24 June 1944, 24, 26, 27 Dec 1945, 7 Jan, 23 Apr, 20 Aug 1947, 6 Jan 1948, 1 Nov 1952, 5, 8, 11 Mar, 10 Oct 1958
  • Sun (Sydney), 4 Jan 1946
  • Smith's Weekly, 6 May 1950
  • Herald (Melbourne), 4 Mar 1958
  • Age (Melbourne), 5 Mar 1958
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 9 Mar 1958
  • private information.

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Martin, David Nathaniel (1898–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/martin-david-nathaniel-11069/text19703, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 24 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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