Max Cryer once argued that New Zealanders like their performers in pigeon holes. “You’re supposed to be a pop singer or an opera singer or an actor or something equally neat and defined”.
Cryer’s career demonstrates the advantages of being many things at once. The former school teacher has done extended runs as talk show host, television producer, musical performer and author. For over a decade, he juggled gigs in New Zealand and the United States, and claims to have sung “just about every type of music there is, except rock and jazz” — despite a “mediocre” singing voice, “an erratic piano style, and only the ability to think fast enough to overcome them all”.
Performance is a common theme in Cryer’s life — along with a love of words. He first learned piano at age five, and later played double bass in an orchestra for three years. For a man who has sat through as many interviews as Cryer, locations for the early period of his life are challenging to pin down. What is on the record is that Cryer studied singing in Italy and was an extra on 60s classic Spartacus. He also worked in a woodshed and a freezing works, and got an honours degree in linguistics.
Cryer’s Kiwi career began to grow extra tentacles while working as an English teacher, as he began slotting in radio jingles and performances on stage and screen.
Cryer's television and recording career took off after he guested on Australia's popular Don Lane Show, in the mid 60s. After the appearance won local publicity, producer Bryan Easte invited him to sing a song from The Sound of Music with an assortment of school children, for a local TV variety show. Cryer and a changing roster of children began making regular appearances on stage and screen. On their first tour, the group’s “robust, cheerful” sound attracted crowds across the North Island. More than a dozen Max and the Children albums followed.
By 1968 Cryer’s career was gaining traction in both New Zealand and the United States. By now he was appearing on a range of Kiwi TV shows. That year he also signed an extended US contract, kickstarting at least 15 tours as a musical comedy act. One Ohio newspaper said that in ”making fun of the American way of life with songs and chat” he “convulsed a capacity audience for an hour. He is truly a smooth smorgasbord of talent.”
The US contract happened after fellow Kiwi export Ray Columbus (who Cryer once famously played puppetmaster to) helped him get a gig on American TV show The Dating Game. The format saw a female guest choosing a date, after quizzing three unseen guests. Introduced as the “celebrity from the South Pacific”, he beat superstar quarterback Joe Namath in what Cryer later jokingly called “a terrible mistake”. He went on to represent the US in Tokyo and Manila during Friendship Week. Show officials praised his “quick wit, cultured voice and fine looks”, and he won again the next year. His new agent marketed him as “the man who beat Joe Namath”.
Cryer was travelling 1000s of kilometres across America for live shows, then returning home to host early quiz show Top of the Form, children's slot Do Re Max, and this legendary performance with Ray Columbus. In his book Town Cryer, he writes of being fortunate that his earliest local TV appearances were as a compere or games show competitor — if television personalities "are identified first as a singer, it is hard for them to break the barrier into speaking jobs".
In the US, Cryer befriended a number of stars. A three-hour meeting with legend Mae West resulted in an invite to act in her final film Sextette (he declined due to bad timing). He interviewed stars for NZ television, accompanied Sophia Loren to the Golden Globes, and was memorably described as “too good-looking to be let out of America” by Zsa Zsa Gabor.
In February 1977 Cryer was thrown to the ground by a hit and run driver, on a crossing on Sunset Boulevard. “If I’d been six inches further forward I would probably have been killed,” he said. Though he finished out his contract before heading home, the incident caused him to cut short his annual American ritual — that, and a growing fatigue at attempting to persuade comperes not to introduce him as Australian, and having to explain that the song ‘Now is the Hour’ had nothing to do with Hawaii.
By now Cryer had lots going on back home. After winning an award as NZ Entertainer of the Year, he got his own one-off television special. In 1975 he turned down a starring role as Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady, to return home and host 13 episodes of new show Town Cryer. Combining interviews and performances, it dared to be live, at a time that was rare. Publicists claimed Cryer had “pioneered and established the talk-variety show in New Zealand” (Peter Sinclair had earlier presented a late night talk show, but it hadn't screened across the whole country). Cryer was given an unusual amount of power in terms of what went on air; a contemporary article in the Otago Daily-Times argued that he was the “first entertainer in New Zealand history to have editorial control over a television programme’s content”.
Cryer claimed that immediacy was the show’s “greatest strength”. It also made for some hairy moments (like when Spike Milligan failed to arrive on time). Town Cryer continued to rate well after moving to a Friday night, and over 64 episodes featured an eclectic array of guests, from Basil Brush to Rob Muldoon and family. TV ONE head Bill Munro first offered Cryer the job, partly because he was impressed that Cryer had managed to persuade the wife of PM Bill Rowling to sing on TV. In 1977 Town Cryer was reborn as a two-hour afternoon slot on rival channel South Pacific Television, now shorn of musical elements and sandwiched between other shows. In his autobiography, Cryer details the show's dispiriting final days, arguing a downward turn began after it was decreed it no longer go out live.
In the late 70s Cryer went behind the scenes, producing five different quiz shows including Mastermind, University Challenge and The W Three Show. Working from an office with a leaky roof, a view onto gasworks, and occasional rock bands rehearsing next door, Cryer told a Sunday Times reporter that he couldn’t “wait to get into this office each morning”. That year (1980) he expected to collate and set 10,000 questions, aided by 32 experts. With Mastermind, it was difficult to find “more than a few women to audition”. In 1982 Cryer helped persuade the BBC to let him produce a Mastermind International special in NZ. He also flew around the country, auditioning contestants and recording shows, and had regular slots on radio, the NZ Herald and the Woman’s Weekly.
In the late 80s Cryer was seconded to arrange the entertainers for World Expo in Brisbane. In 1992, while working for the second time as entertainment director for the New Zealand pavilion, Cryer won headlines of a different kind. Choosing a team of Māori performers to take to Spain, Cryer faced criticism for being a pākehā and failing to recognise the talents of Howard Morrison Jr, shortly before Morrison won at a Māori performing arts festival. Then on the eve of New Zealand Day in Seville, the house Cryer was renting was destroyed by a fire, thanks to faulty wiring.
With his background in broadcasting and an honours degree in linguistics, Cryer had long kept an ear out for interesting words and “a mangling of the language”. Autobiography Town Cryer had emerged in 1978. Around the turn of the millennium he plunged into writing again, exploring his love of words and Kiwi culture in more than a dozen books to date. Three have topped bestseller lists. Gordon McLauchlan called Who Said That First, which looked into the origins of common words and phrases, “engrossing”. Cryer’s show Curious Questions ran for a plethora of Saturday mornings on National Radio, before moving to Radio Live in 2006; it has also spawned further books.
In 1995 Max Cryer was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire, for his services to entertainment.
Writing and research by Ian Pryor
Infofind - Radio New Zealand Library
Max Cryer, Town Cryer (Auckland: William Collins Publishers, 1978)
Max Cryer, ‘These are the shows that Max remembers best…” - The Auckland Star, 17 December 1976
Nick Barnett, 'Max Cryer's false teeth theory' (Interview) - The Dominion, 29 June 2002
Maggie Blake, ’An entertainer’s retreat’ (Interview) - The Sunday Star , 12 October 1996, page C3
Alistair Bone, ‘Max Cryer Language Man’ (Interview) - The Listener, 10 December 2005, page 13
Karl du Fresne, ‘Current ‘Town Cryer’ series may be last’ (Interview) - The Evening Post, 23 December 1976
Bute Hewes, ‘In Search of Max Cryer’ (Interview) - The Listener, 8 June 1974, page 16
Bute Hewes, ‘Max Cryer works behind the scenes’ (Interview) - The Sunday Times, 6 October 1980
S Kellet, ‘Max Cryer … among the big time’ (Interview) - The Hawke’s Bay Herald-Tribune, 7 July 1971
Virginia Larsen, ‘Dinkum Downunder Dictionary’ (Interview) - North and South, June 2006
Barry Shaw, ‘Town Cryer time again but on TV2’ - The Auckland Star, 28 June 1977
Marie Stuttard, ‘Max is a man of 10,000 questions’ (Interview) - New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, 9 November 1981, page 60
Phil Taylor, ‘Cryer defends Expo selection’ - The Dominion, 18 February 1992
‘Max Cryer’s popularity no accident’ (Interview) - 12 April 1967
“Front Man Foxed’ (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 17 May 1968
‘Max Cryer Wins For Third Time’ - The NZ Herald, 15 June 1970
‘Cryer Signs Another U.S. Contract’ - The NZ Herald, 2 November 1970
Robin Turkel, ’Man of Talent’ Heads For Home’ (Interview) - The Evening Post, 24 April 1973
‘Max bound for Vegas' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 25 May 1974
‘Max will be arts host’ - The Auckland Star, 20 January 1975
‘Max Cryer’s Confident View of ‘Town Cryer'' - Otago Daily Times, 20 April, 1976
‘Cryer for Hollywood’ - The Dominion, 4 November 1976
‘Rest for Cryer After Accident’ (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 18 February 1977, page 3
‘Wooing the wives ‘Town Cryer’ way’ (Interview) - The Auckland Star, 15 July 1977
‘Cryer Left Homeless’ - The Evening Post, 6 July 1992