Story: Clare, Vernon Lawrence
Clare, Vernon Lawrence
Musician, cabaret owner, restaurateur, music teacher
This biography was written by Peter Kitchin and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000
Vernon Lawrence Clare was born at Wanganui on 17 April 1925, the son of Vera Mildred McNamara and her wool-store worker husband, Charles Henry Arthur Clare. He was educated at Wanganui East School and at Wanganui Technical College.
Vern Clare was a music-maker in public from the age of eight, when he joined the Wanganui garrison band and learned the side-drum. He later learned to play the cornet and trumpet. As a youngster, visits to bigger cities whetted his appetite for a career in music: in Auckland in 1939, he played with the Lew Jones orchestra at the Metropole cabaret and took part in the 1940 centennial concerts.
Clare was 17 when he set out for Wellington, determined to break into the music business. The late-hours entertainment industry was reviving. Dance orchestras were flourishing, stimulated by the wartime visits of Artie Shaw and Claude Thornhill, and American servicemen had created a thirst for live, modern music. It was fertile ground for the teenager from Wanganui. Clare wanted to work in an aircraft factory to pay his way while awaiting openings in bands, but he was manpowered into other jobs, including the Wellington Dry Cleaners Company plant, an ice-cream factory and the Vesta Battery Company. When he turned 18, he was able to enlist. He had expected to be sent to Nelson to pick apples and tobacco, but when the army learned of his musical skills he stayed in Wellington playing at military soirées.
When Clare first moved to Wellington he had found digs with the Richardson family of Rongotai. Don Richardson was to spend eight years with the Kiwi Concert Party before settling in Wellington as a celebrated player-arranger. He and Clare formed their first professional association in DRV, a trio with pianist Dick Duncan. Clare read music, and became equally at home with intricate orchestrations, rock and jazz. His playing was educated and inventive, and he was frequently hired to accompany touring artists.
A large and ebullient man, Vern Clare was keen to bring his love of music to as many people as possible. He and Richardson became professional partners in Modern Enterprises, which mounted Wellington jazz festivals (concerts had to be repeated at Taita for Hutt Valley patrons) and the rock and roll jamborees in the Wellington Town Hall in the mid 1950s. Rock and roll was new, and the jamborees attracted thousands of dancers. Instead of the mass hysteria predicted by fearful guardians of public morals, there were simply people enjoying themselves. The jamborees nevertheless attracted the attention of the city council, and there were complaints to Clare and Richardson about the conduct of patrons who had been seen ‘dancing in hallways and near seating areas’ and behaving in an ‘unseemly’ manner.
Clare and Richardson arranged the first endurance rock contest, at the Roseland Cabaret in April 1957. After some 23 hours of continuous dancing, the two remaining couples were transported, still dancing, by truck, to the Town Hall, where after 26 hours the winners were found. Clare and his fellow musicians played for the entire period.
Clare took over the management of the Empress Ballroom in 1958. It was the centre of the city’s dance and music business, and the main venue for the thousands of Wellingtonians avid for live music. He started Clare’s Dine ’n’ Dance in the 1960s and Toro’s Licensed Restaurant in 1971, cooking and catering himself. He then took over the Central Park Cabaret, where he was known to leave kitchen duties and dash out for a break on the bandstand.
Clare retired from the entertainment industry in 1983. When he started his career, cinema and dance bands were the stock of night-life entertainment; when he stopped, television’s formidable clout had seen audiences fall away, particularly from cabaret.
Vernon Clare had married Patricia Josephine Taylor at Wellington on 21 April 1949; they had three daughters and a son. They retired to Lake Rotoiti to manage a motor camp. When they moved to Rotorua in 1986, Clare took on students, the best of whom joined A-grade brass bands and the New Zealand National Youth Brass Band. He continued to play in jazz festivals and gigs, where his drumming and cornet and trumpet work were as energetic as ever. Vern Clare died at Rotorua on 18 March 1998, survived by his wife and children.