In the summer of 1939, just weeks before World War II broke out, Australian born businessman Sir John Robert Hugh McKenzie had a brain wave. McKenzie ran the J.C. Williamson Theatre Company which often brought in overseas entertainment for Australian and New Zealand markets and was well aware of ice skating's international popularity. Determined to bring a lavish ice show to Kiwi audiences but without a venue equipped to house such a production, he set to work transforming the stage at His Majesty's Theatre in Auckland into an ice rink.
The Williamson Theatre Company's ice show was to be called "Switzerland" and would star two time World Champion Megan Taylor and her father and coach Phil, an accomplished stilt skater and barrel jumper. The production, which had already toured to packed houses in South Africa and Australia, was originally slated to open in New Zealand in September of 1939 but several challenges delayed the production. Seats had to be removed and the stage built up and made perfectly level so that the view from the theatre's front stalls was unobstructed. Then, of course, there was that nasty business of making ice. On December 17, 1939, the Taylor's arrived in Auckland with just six days to rework a Swiss fantasy on ice with their travelling cast of sixty skaters, including Australians, Britons and Canadians.
The show ran nightly with matinee shows on Wednesdays and Saturdays with a twist no one was expecting. Although Megan and Phil Taylor were the headliners of "Switzerland", they were nearly upstaged by Egbert The Educated Horse, played by Ronald Priestley and Eddie Marcel. The crowd just went berserk over the two-man skating horse, cheering him loudly and even yelling for encores. The next day, the newspaper raved, "Egbert is a 'property' horse who has to be seen to believed; he rolls his eyes, blows smoke through his nostrils, and in moments of emotion weeps copiously."
So well received was the show at Her Majesty's Theatre that The Williamson Theatre Company decided to take "Switzerland" on the road. The Taylor's, Elsie Heathcote and of course, Egbert The Educated Horse, received nightly standing ovations for over a month at the The Grand Opera House in Wellington, where 'house full' cards had to be displayed outside the theatre before both matinee and evening performances.
From there, the cast went to Christchurch, where Megan Taylor was honoured by the New Zealand Roller Skating Association at a special reception in her honour. After shows at the Theatre Royal in Hamilton, "Switzerland" returned to His Majesty's Theatre in Auckland for an encore performance. On April 29, 1940, "The Auckland Star" raved that "applause and laughter such as has rarely been heard in His Majesty's Theatre rocked the venerable building to its foundations... Of the capacity house, at least half must have seen the show when it was here at Christmas - it is known that one patron had seen it no fewer than nine times - and so members of the company were welcomed back as old friends... Where would they all have been if it had not been for Marcel? Marcel, valiantly coming to the footlights to announce each turn with inimitable patter, although his feet showed a marked disposition to tie themselves in knots, and his 'educated' horse Egbert, who seemed to forget its training or leave the ground altogether."
With a portion of the proceeds donated to the Sick And Wounded War Fund, this unexpected hit inspired a series of popular wartime ice shows in New Zealand that distracted the fine folks of the country from the tumult and horror of the Pacific theater of war. Through the imagination of McKenzie and the J.C. Williamson Company, Kiwis could go to the theatre every night and be transported to neutral Switzerland, a safe place where skating reigned supreme and everyone was happy... especially Egbert The Educated Horse.
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