Story: Stuart, Bathia Howie

Page 1 - Stuart, Bathia Howie

Stuart, Bathia Howie

1893–1987

Actor, singer, journalist, lecturer, film-maker, tourism promoter

This biography was written by Julie Benjamin and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Bathia (known as Bathie) Howie Stuart was born on 10 May 1893 in Hastings, the daughter of Ellen Elizabeth Downie and her husband, Alexander Stuart, a draper. Her parents divorced when she was a child and from around the age of 12 she lived with her maternal grandparents in Dunedin. There she studied music, voice and dramatic art at St Philomena's High School. At 14 she joined Tom Pollard's juvenile opera company, which performed comic opera in New Zealand and Australia. Her theatrical apprenticeship with the group gave her the confidence and ability to branch out into several related careers later in life. When the company disbanded in 1910 she returned to Dunedin and participated in operatic productions and competitions.

On 8 February 1913, in Dunedin, Bathie Stuart married Crofton Gordon Tighe-Umbers, an accountant, who shared her love of Gilbert and Sullivan. Later that year the couple had a son, Graham. In 1917 the family moved to Wellington, where Bathie and Crofton contracted influenza during the 1918 epidemic. She recovered, but Crofton died in November 1918. Bathie and Graham shifted to Auckland in 1919 so he could stay with her mother when she was working. By 1921 Graham was boarding at King's College and Bathie was living in hotels: her home for most of her peripatetic working life.

During the 1920s Bathie Stuart became a writer for the New Zealand Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic Review, a weekly Auckland newspaper. She also went back on the stage professionally, working for Henry Hayward, the owner of a chain of picture theatres in New Zealand. Her first show, Bathie Stuart and her musical maids, was part of an evening's entertainment consisting of vaudeville acts and moving pictures. She then created a comedy musical show, Bathie Stuart and her Maori maids. She went to Rotorua to select four Maori women for the act, and they taught her the words to songs, poi dances and haka. For a time Ana Hato was a member of her group. Stuart went on to play the female lead in the silent film The adventures of Algy. Produced by Beaumont Smith, an Australian, the film was shot in New Zealand and Sydney and premièred in Sydney on 20 June 1925.

In 1927 Stuart travelled to Hollywood with Miss New Zealand, Dale Austen, to gather material on film stars for the Review, and to act as public relations agent for Henry Hayward. While there she spoke about New Zealand to the Los Angeles branch of the National League of American Pen Women and greeted her audience in Maori and demonstrated 'the dance of the green branches'. An impressed booking agent told her that she could get her bookings all over the United States. Stuart was enthusiastic, but for immigration reasons she had to make a brief return to New Zealand first.

In May 1928 she tried to persuade the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts to employ her as its representative in California. The department declined to pay her, but provided her with a reference and equipment such as slide projectors for her first lecture tour, which ran from November 1928 to September 1929. During this visit she was asked by Universal studios to record a prologue for Under the Southern Cross, a film that had been shot in New Zealand. She performed a haka and Maori chants for the prologue and assisted with synchronisation of the soundtrack.

Throughout the tour and after returning to New Zealand, Bathie Stuart pleaded for financial assistance from the Tourist Department. She was eventually paid £100 towards her expenses when she went back to San Francisco in December 1929. Although she received further subsidies until February 1938, she was never officially employed by the department. From December 1931 she was an unpaid travelling agent and tourist representative for New Zealand Railways and was thus able to stay in the United States while retaining her New Zealand citizenship.

In 1939 Stuart worked with the New Zealand Government Commission at the New York World's Fair. By July 1940 her lecture tours were being sponsored by an American booking bureau, and she was subsequently based in New York and Hollywood. The lecture season ran for about nine months a year, and Stuart spent the remainder collecting and editing material for her films and lectures. She sometimes returned to New Zealand to spend Christmas with Graham, often bringing a small tour party with her.

In 1948 she visited New Zealand to help arrange the making of a travel film, Here is New Zealand. The film was shot and produced by Robert Steele, an Auckland film-maker, and included additional footage from the National Film Unit. Whenever she showed the film, Stuart accompanied the poi and haka demonstrations with songs and words.

The move to film-making was such a success that she began filming in other South Pacific locations. Robert Steele shot Away to the South Seas, which looked at Tahiti, Hawaii, Tonga, Samoa, the Cook Islands and Fiji, and Stuart wrote the narration and edited the film. In 1959 she shot her own footage in Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia and the New Hebrides (Vanuatu), and by 1964 had made six travelogues covering Polynesia, Melanesia, New Zealand, Australia and South East Asia. The films were constantly updated, with Stuart touring for three months every year to shoot new footage. In 1965 she visited China, which resulted in a film, New China, and a book, Come along to China.

She gave up to 150 lectures a year to organisations such as Rotary and Lions clubs, travel clubs, museums of natural history and universities. When on tour she often drove on her own across the United States and Canada, sleeping in her car if necessary. She was known for the clarity and richness of her voice. As well as lecturing she made radio broadcasts and appeared on travel programmes on television.

Bathie Stuart retired in 1975 and lived by herself in a trailer park near Laguna Beach, California. A short, youthful-looking woman, she never remarried, although she stated she was 'not neglected'. In 1986 she was awarded the Queen's Service Medal for having promoted New Zealand in the United States for more than 40 years.

Bathie Stuart died, aged 94, at South Laguna on 22 June 1987, survived by her son. She was one of the first New Zealand women to enter the male-dominated field of film-making. Proud of her homeland, she loved southern California equally. According to her wishes, her ashes were scattered off the coast of Laguna Beach.