Michael Woolf found his love of performing at an early age. After taking up puppetry and magic as a child, he went on to become a radio announcer for the NZ Broadcasting Service. From there he began as a TV presenter and an actor, and appeared alongside Ian Mune in 70s adventure Rangi’s Catch. He also performed what is believed to be the first puppet show broadcast on NZ television, and did time as chair of Actors Equity and the Hutt Valley Magicians’ Society.
Born and raised in Essex, England, Michael Woolf regularly performed puppet shows at school; he often went to watch theatre rehearsals during his school holidays. “I was mad on everything to do with stage and theatre and all that sort of thing, the archetypal stage-struck kid.”
Woolf’s family set off for New Zealand in the late 40s, due to “austerity in the UK and everything being dull and boring and all that I think”. Hoping to occupy the young boy’s time on the boat from England, his parents gave him a set of Punch and Judy puppets, and his aunt gifted him an old magic set.“I don’t have a recollection of ever having seen a Punch and Judy show apart from the ones that I performed myself as a young fellow. Don’t know where the script came from — out of my head I think.” The gifts ignited a passion, and he began performing regularly for the passengers.
On arrival, in Lyall Bay, Wellington, his knack for performance continued to flourish, and by high school he was in demand as a magician and puppeteer. “This would happen at the assemblies. They’d say ‘Woolf, report to the headmaster’s office!’ and what would’ve happened was that somebody had heard about my performance ... and they wanted to get in touch with me…. So the headmaster… would act as a sort of unofficial agent.”
Leaving school, he began working at the NZ Broadcasting Service as a cadet. As a teenager he had competed on radio show Quiz Kids, fronted by Jack Maybury. Later when Selwyn Toogood took over the hosting duties, he became a series regular. A televised version of the show was part of an early experimental broadcast in 1951. A year after becoming a cadet he was appointed as an announcer. “When I joined the broadcasting organisation I either sold or gave away all the magic apparatus I had," Woolf said later. "I’ve tried to find it since. I’d love to rediscover it somewhere in an attic or a chicken coop...”
Then he began a foray into television, initially as a presenter on newly formed Wellington station WNTV-1. Among his credits was time as a reporter on magazine show Town and Around.
In 1966 he hosted jovial NFU short film It Helps to Be Mad, about a vintage car tour of the South Island and from 1966 he was the voice of Mr Dollar, the animated character introducing decimal currency to New Zealanders. He would reprise the role on the rare occasions in a live performance.
In the early 70s Woolf played the bartender on breakthrough New Zealand drama Pukemanu. In 1972 he had a major part as one of the villains chasing a trio of children around the country in Rangi’s Catch. Made for British television, it was released in local cinemas as a feature. Woolf also became prolific in advertising, regularly being recruited to provide voiceovers for commercials. According to his son Tony, “there was a period when Dad was voicing every third ad on TV…for me it was just the way of the world.” He also served as a panelist on various shows, discussing everything from books to the mainstream media.
In 1973 Woolf joined the Wellington Committee of Actors’ Equity and later spent four years as president of the national organisation. He also began tutoring screen production at the Wellington Polytechnic, now part of Massey University; he was a tutor there for 17 years.
Having been a regular guest on variety shows, including several editions of Telethon, Woolf appeared on Close to Home in the early 80s as leader of the armed offenders squad. He also played a similar role in the climactic scenes of Goodbye Pork Pie, where he improvised the comedy sequence where a boy steals his hat. He also appeared in educational film Lawless Days, in which he played a shopper who wreaks havoc. In 1986 he appeared on TV drama Seekers, playing cult leader Lothar.
After a long hiatus, Woolf returned to magic in 1990, and formed the Hutt Valley Magicians’ Society. He had been collecting antique music devices and curios since the 60s, and began to add magic paraphernalia to his collection, which he would often lend out to TVNZ’s props department. He took over as the editor of Magicana, a bimonthly New Zealand based magazine, in 2000 and held the position for 13 years. In 2001 he also bought the NZ Charity and Legal Gazette, which he produced and edited through his publishing company The Production House. In 2012 he received a lifetime achievement award in magic at the 31st New Zealand International Magician Convention. He commented “any award given to me by my colleagues is a worthwhile one.”
Michael Woolf survived a sextuple heart bypass in 2012. He passed away on 20 June 2016.
Profile written by Simon Smith
Michael Woolf website. Accessed 10 August 2016
‘Michael Woolf’ (Radio Interview), RNZ National. Loaded 11 January 2011. Accessed 10 August 2016
Bess Manson,‘Life Story: Michael Woolf - magician, broadcaster, actor, teacher’ - The Dominion Post, 2 July 2016
John McKenzie, ‘Magician pulls through sextuple bypass’(Interview) - The Dominion Post, 2 November 2012
Selwyn Toogood, Out of the Bag (Auckland: Methuen Publications, 1979)
Unknown writer, ‘Kiwi magician, actor, radio announcer and puppeteer Michael Woolf has died’. Stuff website. Loaded 28 June 2016. Accessed 10 August 2016
Unknown writer, ‘Magician a truly great headline act’. Stuff website. Loaded 24 September 2007. Accessed 10 August 2016