Max Cryer, MBE, once argued that New Zealanders like to put their performers in pigeonholes. "You’re supposed to be a pop singer or an opera singer or an actor or something equally neat and defined."
Cryer’s career illustrated the advantages of being hard to define. He did extended runs as talk show host, television producer, musical performer and author. For more than a decade, he juggled gigs in New Zealand and the United States, and claimed 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 was a common theme — plus a love of words. Cryer first learned piano at age five, and later did three years playing double bass in the Auckland Junior Symphony. For a man interviewed as often as Cryer, locations for formative parts of his life could be difficult to pin down. What is known is that he once worked in a woolshed and at the freezing works, before studying at Auckland University (he had a Masters Degree with Honours, in Etymology and Literature). He went on to study singing in Italy, and was an extra on classic 1960s movie Spartacus, before making his opera debut in London, at Sadler's Wells Theatre.
Back in New Zealand Cryer began slotting in radio jingles and cabaret performances, in-between his job as an English teacher. His television and recording career took off in the mid 1960s, after he duetted with the host of popular Australian series The Don Lane Show. After hearing about it, NZ Broadcasting Corporation producer Bryan Easte invited him to perform on a local variety show.
Cryer gathered a group of children to join him on Sound of Music classic 'Do-Re-Mi'. "It made an impact", he recalled. Soon Cryer and a changing roster of children were performing regularly on stage and screen. On their first tour, the group’s "robust, cheerful" sound attracted crowds across the North Island. Nine Max and the Children albums followed, while children's TV show Do Re Max ran for five seasons.
By 1968 Cryer’s career was gaining traction in both New Zealand and the United States. At home, he was appearing on a range of TV shows, including hosting early quiz show Top of the Form, and this legendary TV appearance as puppetmaster to Ray Columbus. As Cryer described in TV series Funny As (17 minutes into this extended interview), in 1968 he was chosen to host the first show broadcast nationwide on New Zealand television, when the four regional stations were linked for that year's Loxene Golden Disc final.
Cryer's versatility became a calling card. In his book Town Cryer, he wrote of being fortunate that his earliest local TV appearances were as a compere or games show competitor — he felt that if TV personalities "are identified first as a singer, it is hard for them to break the barrier into speaking jobs".
The year of the Loxene music awards, Cryer got an extended American contract, kickstarting seven cabaret 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".
Cryer got the contract — and a US agent — after Ray Columbus recommended him for American TV show The Dating Game. The format saw a female guest choosing a date, after quizzing three guests who were hidden from view. Introduced as the "celebrity from the South Pacific", Cryer beat star quarterback Joe Namath in what he later jokingly called "a terrible mistake". He and the woman went on to represent the US in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Manila during International Friendship Week. Show officials praised his "quick wit, cultured voice and fine looks", and he won again the next year.
Cryer also befriended a number of stars. A three-hour meeting with legendary sex symbol Mae West got him an invite to act in her final film Sextette (he declined due to bad timing). He interviewed Hollywood stars for Kiwi television, accompanied Sophia Loren to the Golden Globes, and was described as "too good-looking to be let out of America" by Zsa Zsa Gabor.
By now Cryer had plenty going on back home. After being named NZ Entertainer of the Year in 1973, he got his own one-off TV special (the first in New Zealand to be broadcast in colour). In 1975 he returned to host 13 episodes of new show Town Cryer. Combining interviews and performances, it dared to be live, at a time when local audiences found the concept hard to believe. 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 was prerecorded during the day).
Cryer was given an unusual amount of power over what went on air. 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". TV One head Bill Munro offered Cryer the job, partly because he was impressed at Cryer having managed to persuade Prime Minister Bill Rowling's wife Glen to sing on a previous show.
Cryer claimed that immediacy was the show’s "greatest strength". But it made for some hairy moments (like when Spike Milligan's plane was delayed). Town Cryer continued to rate after moving to Friday nights. Over 64 episodes it featured a wide array of guests, from Basil Brush to Kiri Te Kanawa and Rob Muldoon and family.
In 1977 Town Cryer was reborn in a two-hour afternoon slot on rival channel South Pacific Television, shorn of musical elements. Cryer argued that it "lost its sting" after the decree that it no longer go out live.
After doing some stage musicals, Cryer reinvented himself as a TV producer in the late 1970s. He produced 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 The Sunday Times he couldn’t "wait to get into this office each morning". Called in to after a cancellation one day, he also did almost a year as ring announcer on wrestling show On the Mat.
Mastermind required "careful planning". But it also appealed to Cryer's interest in "facts, literature, history". A team of 32 experts helped him set almost 3000 questions per year, across the many shows. It was difficult to find "more than a few women to audition". In 1981 local winner David Harvey flew to Sydney to take the Mastermind International title. The following year Cryer helped persuade the BBC to let him produce the international final in New Zealand. Circling the country, auditioning contestants and recording shows, Cryer still found time to make regular contributions to radio, The NZ Herald and The NZ Woman’s Weekly.
In the late 1980s he was seconded by the government to arrange the Kiwi entertainment at World Expo in Brisbane. In 1992, on his second stint as expo entertainment director, Cryer won headlines of a different kind. Choosing a team of Māori performers to take to Spain, Cryer faced criticism for failing to recognise the talents of Howard Morrison Jr, shortly before he won at a Māori performing arts festival. Then, on the eve of New Zealand Day in Seville, the house Cryer rented was destroyed by a fire, likely thanks to faulty wiring.
With his background in broadcasting and an honours degree in Literature, Cryer had long had an ear for interesting words and any "mangling of the language". His autobiography Town Cryer was published back in 1978. Around the turn of the millennium he plunged into writing again, exploring his love of words and Kiwi culture in more than 20 books. Three topped the non-fiction bestseller lists. Cryer was especially proud of Hear Our Voices We Entreat, a history of New Zealand's national anthem.
For 22 years on the radio, Cryer answered curious questions from listeners — initially on Radio New Zealand National, then from 2006, on Radio Live.
In 1995 Max Cryer was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire, for services to entertainment. He died suddenly on 25 August 2021; he was 86.
Profile written by Ian Pryor; updated on 26 August 2021
Infofind - Radio New Zealand Library
'Max Cryer - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 19 August 2019. Accessed 20 December 2019
Gareth Shute, 'Max Cryer' AudioCulture website. Loaded 4 July 2019. Accessed 20 December 2019
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) - The NZ 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) - Publication unknown, 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 199222