DR RODNEY SEABORN AO OBE
Dr. Rodney Frederick Marsden Seaborn AO OBE (1912-2008) was an eminent Sydney psychiatrist and a generous patron of the performing arts. He had a a lifelong love of theatre and theatre history and a keen interest in property. These interests and his philanthropic generosity intersected to create a valuable and impressive legacy. When the Stables Theatre in Kings Cross, home to the Griffin Theatre Company, went up for sale in 1986 and risked possible demolition, Dr Seaborn, then in retirement, generously responded to a cry for help and bought it. At the same time, he established a charitable trust to benefit the performing arts, so that theatre lovers could join as Friends and assist him in his new role as a performing arts philanthropist. He named the trust the Seaborn, Broughton & Walford Foundation, incorporating his family’s names, and invited his cousins Dr Peter Broughton and Leslie Walford onto the Founding Board. Several years later, he repeated this theatre rescue mission when Sydney’s oldest ‘live' theatre, the Independent in North Sydney, then empty and in serious disrepair, was was put up for sale. He established the SB&W Friends of the Independent and, with the enthusiastic support of the Foundation’s Friends, the local Council and wider community, ensured that the Independent restoration project was successful and fully funded. The Theatre reopened in 1998 for the benefit of the performing arts, the community and the education of future generations. Dr Seaborn was a generous donor to the performing arts and the Foundation has encouraged worthy performing arts projects, individuals and groups by providing promotion and financial support. His passion for theatre history was the impetus for his further significant contribution to the performing arts in Australia, the creation of a the unique Seaborn, Broughton & Walford Foundation Archive, Library and Performing Arts Collection.
“Curtain down on a generous supporter of Sydney theatre”
“Just Outside the Limelight”
TRIBUTE TO DR RODNEY FREDERICK MARSDEN SEABORN AO OBE
(1912 – 2008)
Eulogy for Rodney Frederick Marsden Seaborn AO OBE
All Saints’ Church, Ocean Street, Woollahra,
Monday 26 May 2008
The Hon Justice Lloyd Waddy RFD
It is a unique honour to stand before so many of Dr Seaborn’s family [his nieces Shana, Dianna, Phoebe and Samantha] and friends and endeavour to find the right words in a short time to cover so long and beneficial a life as Rodney’s. And before any of you claim only to be friends, Rodney told the Sydney Morning Herald in March this year that whilst “married men had to think about bringing up their families” – of the theatre world, he said “This is my family.”
A Knight there was, and that a worthy man
That from the time that he first began
To riden out, he loved chivalry
Truth and honour, freedom and curtesy.
Ever honoured for his worthiness
And though that he were worth, he was wise
He never yet no villainy ne sayde
In all his life unto no manner wight
He was a varray, parfit, gentil knight.
In March 1912, Ethel Ruby Seaborn nee Broughton, wife to a city solicitor Leslie Watson Sanderson Seaborn, then living in Rangers Road, Cremorne, gave birth to a son. In celebration of his connections with the pioneering families of Australia he was christened Rodney Frederick Marsden Seaborn. His sister Mollie landed Australia in her name. It is a wonder they stopped there at three forenames with the illustrious Walfords and Broughtons being branches of his family tree.
By the time Rodney was due for preparatory school, the family had moved to Elizabeth Bay, and Rodney claimed to have been an “old boy of Ascham”. In fact it was the Edgecliff Preparatory School amalgamated with Ascham. Sir Laurence Street is another famous “old boy of Ascham”.
It was at the age of six, Rod claimed, that he became stage-struck. His grandmother, then living in Edgecliff Road was an avid theatre-goer and first-nighter. In those days one dressed up for the theatre. The party gathered for pre-theatre drinks and then set off for the great theatres of the between the war years: the St James, the Criterion, the Empire, Her Majesty’s, the Palace [Perhaps it was these names that made Rodney a republican!] and the Tivoli. All packed with great shows and great attendances. Rod eventually called the 1930s the golden age of the theatre in Sydney. With his father also being a fine amateur actor, he was hooked for life.
In a way, Rodney’s grandmother’s theatre parties were the inspiration for Rodney’s love of the SBW theatre parties where so many of us know our fellow members. On the negative side, Rodney suffered all his life from stage-fright. He would do anything to avoid public speaking and often I, or lately Bill Winspear, would be asked to speak on his behalf often without notice.
When Rodney was 14 he entered The King’s School, Parramatta, to which he also became devoted. He was a gifted athlete and represented his school in the Athletic Team. The five years he spent at TKS also consolidated lifelong friendships such as with Mr Clive Hall [they went to school together from the age of 6] later founder of the Australian Futures Exchange. It was also the era of the athlete and poet the late David Campbell AO, DFC and Bar – a golden age for The King’s School itself in those years of the Great Depression.
Fine as was Rodney’s education, leaving school in 1931 left him at what seems to have been a loose end. “I was a bit of a lad” he confessed to me with that wonderful smile on his face. In fact the illness and death of his father, and his mother’s emotional inability to cope thereafter, appears to have affected him deeply and altered the course of his life.
On the spur of the moment he decided to use his uncle’s automobile to set up a car hire and chauffeuring business. The way he spoke of it, it seemed more like good fun than good transport. Those of us who have been Rod’s passengers lately would wonder if he ever had any repeat customer. My only way to be driven by Rodney, still licensed at 96, was by way of closed eyes and a fair amount of prayer!
Then Rod turned to another uncle who had a tobacco farm at Mareeba in Queensland. There he worked as a navvy – “the hardest work I did in my life,” he said.
Back in Sydney, on another spur of the moment, he decided to buy a block of land at Whale Beach – before World War II not either all that fashionable or built up. Each weekend he would gather a large group of friends [free labour he called them] and they would work on erecting his house, surf at will and crash at night into tents until the house was completed. It was his first foray into real estate and the precursor of dozens of purchases throughout his life.
Eventually Rodney commenced reading law at the University of Sydney, and plodded on with it for 6 years with what he called intermittent effort. Disillusioned with the law, he decided to move to London, and in the spring of1939, he commenced a degree in medicine at the University of London. This placed him, in due course, as an intern at Charing Cross Hospital in the centre of London for the worst of the Nazi blitz bombing. Of these days he told Anthony Jeffrey, who has interviewed Rodney extensively as part of an oral history project being conducted for Dr Judy White, “This was a wonderful experience for a young medico. It was terribly exciting.” Looking back recently Rod said “For me these war years were the best part of my life. I would not have missed them for the world.”
After the war and graduation, Rodney felt compelled to return to Sydney as both his mother and sister were ill. But the call of London, by then a second home for him, was too strong and he took his mother back to London, spending the next few years studying psychiatry at Banstead Hospital, Surrey.
Rod told me, over the years, that in London they had to deal with many war-time cases of what was by then called shell shock. In the First World War it was called lack of moral fibre and punishable by death. He worked with a renowned psychiatrist who had pioneered a mild version of deep sleep therapy – and long were our weekly lunches when I was senior counsel for certain patients in the Chelmsford Royal Commission some 32 of whom had been killed in leafy Chelmsford Avenue by Dr Harry Bailey’s extreme Australian version of Deep Sleep.
In the early 1950s, Rodney returned to Sydney to work with returned servicemen at the Concord Repatriation Hospital. Later, at Callan Park he was in charge of the psychiatric repatriation unit. There he met a young sister, now Mrs Joan Birch, Hon Treasurer of the SBW Foundation. They worked together for 55 years.
In 1955 Rodney hung up his shingle in Macquarie Street Sydney as a psychiatrist.
In 1956, influenced by the need to care for his mother, the Doc, as Joan called him, resolved to start his own psychiatric hospital and Joan became the Matron. Most public alternatives were Stone Age at that time. He often told me how he had approached Nugget Coombs for financial support and Coombs had placed his faith in Rodney and the hospital became a reality.
Eventually Alanbrook, as it came to be called, swallowed 15 adjoining houses – some 5 acres in all of Mosman – housed 63 patients and employed 76 staff. It catered for neurotic rather than psychiatric patients.
In 1968, Rod was elected Vice President of the International Council on Alcohol and Addictions. In the New Year Honours List for 1977 he was appointed an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for Community and Medicine.
After 30 years, Rodney decided to move on, and Alanbrook was sold to Leighton Holdings who developed it into The Manors, a retirement enclave today of high reputation.
1986 was another seminal year for Rodney. At 74 he developed chronic and, at times, severe angina. He hated giving up his tennis but it was “a must”. Bypass surgery was recommended but Rodney would have none of that.
Told that his angina could kill him at any time, he finally succumbed to it on Saturday 17 May, some 22 years later.
Meanwhile, he said that a string of his cardiologists had themselves been gathered, as he delicately put it.
By 1986 Rodney and I had a friendship of the lunch once a week variety [but not on Tuesdays as that was a special group altogether and not when the Glugs of Gosh were lunching]. Working together on the Board and on the Bequest Committee of The King’s School Foundation, Rodney and I found we had the theatre as a great common interest. By then I had been conducting Victoriana annually since 1964 and Rodney was one of our keenest supporters – and eventually benefactor of our costumes.
Penny Cook has told you about the purchase of The Stables Theatre. I could never work out whether Rodney was in love with Penny or with her mother Pam: he spoke so glowingly about each. When he discussed the proposed purchase with me, I asked him why he would buy a theatre and give it to somebody else. Wouldn’t he enjoy owning it? Why not run it himself or set up a Foundation to run it with him. The Stables duly became the first property of his new Seaborn Broughton and Walford Foundation whose five directors were three cousins: Rodney, Leslie Walford [now our President and whose family tribute we will hear shortly] and Dr Peter Broughton. The Hon Tony Larkins QC [The Lark] with monocle, and myself without monocle, were added to make five.
There is not time for me to recount the prodigious generosity either of the SBW Foundation or of The Doc himself. Not every gift went through the Foundation.
At this point I believe Rodney would like me to read the list of present office holders of the Foundation and express his gratitude to each:
Dr Rodney Seaborn AO OBE – Founding President and Managing Director
Mr Leslie Walford – President
Dr Rodney Seaborn AO OBE
Dr Peter Broughton
Mr Leslie Walford
The Hon Justice L Waddy RFD
Mr Gary Simpson AM,
Dr Judy White AM
Mr Peter Lowry OAM
Mr John Clark AM
Ms Elizabeth Butcher AM
Dr William Winspear
Mr Paul Duffy – Secretary
Ms Carol Martin – Asst Secretary
Mrs Joan Birch – Treasurer
Mr Hin Wing Chung – Financial Controller
Mr Jonathan Mills – Artistic Director
Mr Michael Wu – Co-ordinator
Mr Peter Kellaway – Accountant
Mr Paul Duffy – Solicitor
Dr Peter Orlovich, Dr Judy White AM, Mrs Sheila Talty – Archives
Ms Annette Adair, Dr Ian Dicker, Mr David Wenham – Library
I must also pay tribute to all the dedicated volunteers, including another of Rod’s cousins Mr Ian Jew. To those I must add the late Nan Synge, whose brother Broughton Lord used to play tennis with Rodney; and Rodney’s indefatigable former secretary Mrs Phil Miller who has flown down from Queensland to be with us today.
Unfortunately, time will not permit to describe all that the SBW does, such as the Rodney Seaborn Playwright’s Award and other initiatives.
It was about 1986 that Rodney also confided to me that he had always wanted to buy a hotel. He then purchased Waratah House in Oxford Street and it became Wattle House. Rod was intensely patriotic and if you look at the SBW badge it includes, by his design, both the Southern Cross and sprigs of wattle. Wattle House became the library and headquarters of the SBW Foundation for many years. It was also used to house the growing number of theatrical archives – but was later sold.
Whilst the SBW Foundation has always been a charity, up to and including the 1980s all tax deductible gifts for Arts Charities could only be made by law through the Australian Elizabethan Trust of which I am now chairman, but was then a director.
When, with the serendipitous logic of an arts boards, a CEO was appointed to follow the late Jeffry Joynton-Smith, the AETT’s finances went from positive $2 million to deeply negative in a very short time. With the generosity of the Fairfax Foundation I persuaded the board of the Trust to purchase the Independent Theatre at North Sydney, with a mortgage back to the owners Theatre Freeholds Pty Ltd.
Following the CEO’s departure, the board arranged an audit by an Administrator who quickly got to the bottom of the financial disaster. Fearing that liquidation was pending, I tried to think who would be hurt by the collapse of the AETT. The SBW Foundation would be one and Rodney would lose tax deductibility for his very large annual donations to SBW through the Trust. I rang to alert Rodney of the situation and he asked if he could come to our board meeting. There we were told that the AETT needed $170,000 forthwith. “I will cover that” said Ian Potter and Lady Potter is a Life Governor of the Trust and still a generous benefactor.
The Administrator then asked for a guarantee of $250,000 so that he could continue trading. “I will cover that” said Rodney without blinking. I of course felt terrible – and the enormous weight of responsibility of my friend becoming so financially exposed. “Rodney” I said “then you must join the board”. “Oh no” said Rodney “to decide to do that will take a much longer time to consider.” However, Rodney did join the board and in the event, the guarantee was not drawn upon.
Things got worse before they got better, but with support from Rodney, Lady Potter, Mr Brian Larking, myself and others, the Trust was brought out of Provisional Liquidation. Rodney helped with making new premises at Craigend Street, Kings Cross available for the Trust to rent and with herculean efforts the assets of the Trust grew again to half a million dollars. Rodney resigned as a director. “Why?” I asked. “At my age I have to disclose my age to the AGM and I am thought to be 10 years younger in England!” He was elected a Life Director and was thrilled when the assets exceeded $6 million as is the case today.
Once the Stables Theatre was functioning well, Rod’s enthusiasm turned to theatrical archives and a theatre to put them in. I urged him to buy the Independent when the Trust had to sell it but after inspecting it closely we sat in his car outside and he said he “wasn’t wasting his money on it” and I said I “wasn’t wasting my life on it either”. How wrong we were. We looked elsewhere including at the Dispensary in Newtown. Within a short time, Hayes Gordon offered to rent and restore the Independent if the SBW [read Rodney] would buy it. No sooner was the ink dry on the contract than that Hayes health deteriorated and Rodney and I had a near derelict theatre on our hands.
With the help of literally 100s of people, including North Sydney Council, the Friends of the Independent led by Mrs Carolyn Lowry, the theatre was partially restored to an operational proscenium theatre with raked seating. Rodney did a vast amount of the physical work despite his angina, and of course gave a lot of money. It became a working theatre but he worried than its ongoing losses would drain the life out of the SBW Foundation.
I asked Rodney if it would help if the AETT leased the whole premises and managed them. He was delighted and relieved. He had by then fallen further in love with his archives and then later with NIDA. When the Trust later bought the theatre he was thrilled to see his vision realized – as the Trust has spent a further $1.5 million on its further restoration. In his gratitude, Rodney set aside another $100,000 to repair the theatre’s unique cupola – a work in progress which we will complete in his honour.
Anthony Jeffrey wrote recently: “The magnificently restored Independent stands as one of Rodney’s greatest legacies”. It certainly rejoices in the Rodney Seaborn room and SBW insignia is treasured throughout. The Trust remains a servant of the Arts and has given away as well over $1 million in scholarships. Without Rodney, the Trust would never have survived to rise again.
But the culmination of Rodney’s service to theatre in Australia has been his endowment of the SBW Foundation, the Rodney Seaborn Library at NIDA and his superb collection of theatrical archives. For the archives, Rod and I engineered the rescue of the major puppets o the Marionette Theatre of Australia. So, too, we attended auctions for costumes when Motley and Harlequin Costume Shops sold up. Wing has breathed new life into The Costume Shop in which the SBW is a shareholder. It will need a biography to record Rod’s great generosity to the arts.
Rod was also a visionary who saw that one of the best ways of helping the performing arts was to deliver appreciative audiences – echoes of his grandmother’s theatre parties again. So the 2,000 friends of the SBW Foundation are offered tickets at a slight discount and regularly fill seats at theatre parties. It is a lovely way to spend a night at the theatre, with good friends and always good seats. Rodney always got his way!
So, too, in the future, the AETT with its funds and the SBW Foundation so richly endowed by Rodney – these two Trusts – the one he preserved and the one he founded and personally endowed so very generously, will work for the performing arts “in Australia, by Australians for Australia” which was so close to his heart.
In the New Year Honours List for 1998, Rodney was made an Officer of the Order of Australia: For service to the performing arts through the establishment of the Seaborn, Broughton and Walford Foundation offering philanthropic support to rejuvenate old theatre facilities to continue the development of Australian drama and theatre.
The life of everyone here today has been enriched by knowing Rodney or benefiting from his life as a psychiatrist or philanthropist. His and my time together became more regular from the mid 80s and since then I am very proud to have had so gifted and yet so humble a friend. To our conversations I contributed some legal opinions and theatrical enthusiasms – Rodney contributed his deep knowledge and advice from his psychiatry and his philanthropy to the theatre. He was mortified when I took ill. He was incredibly empathetic to those he met. He never fired those he hired. Sometime I had to remind him that although he had the psychiatric skills to deal with the difficult, we lesser mortals did not! It only bemused him.
Rodney was a very clubbable man. He greatly enjoyed his membership of the Australian Club, the Union Club, the Royal Sydney Golf Club and the Pioneers Club. The latter has a magnificent set of seascapes of the First Fleet presented by Rod.
Gentle, kindly, loyal, enthusiastic, sometimes restless, a seasoned traveller in love with London, delighting in his recent travels made possibly by Michael Wu, ever joking about his health – Rod was a truly exceptional being.
After his last but one angina attack, I rang the SBW and asked as usual for Dr Doolittle. When he came to the phone I said Dr-Do-Too-Much. He laughed and I said that I needed the name of his latest cardiologist. “Why?” he asked. “Well you tell me that since 1986 each of your cardiologists has been gathered and I don’t want to miss the latest in the SMH death column” I replied.
I hope I may be forgiven for a personal reminiscence when I say that Rod motored down to Collaroy each January to enjoy lunch overlooking the beach. We had hours yarning about the theatre, the Foundation, the Trust and the Independent. We hatched the year’s plans together and chewed over anything bothering either of us. He always asked if I would cook him Atlantic salmon. I used to send him home before nightfall out of consideration for other road users.
Our last outing together, due to my recent surgery [and I do apologise to you all that my facial nerve has not yet regrown] was a visit with Rodney and Warwick Ross to the SBW / NIDA Archive building, when Dr Peter Orlovich gave us a guided tour. Rodney was incredibly proud of it all, as well he might be. There is nothing else like it in Australia. As usual Rodney’s energy was prodigious and his legacy unique.
And now it is time to say a final goodbye to our White Knight: our “very perfect gentle knight”. Dear Friends: “May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
26 May 2008