2 Jun 2023

Remembering two stalwarts of the NZ lighting industry

by Jenny Barrett

Commemorating Hugh Kenderdine and Neil Dearlove

The technical innovator Hugh Kenderdine and the visionary creator Neil Dearlove formed an unforgettable duo in the late 70s and early 80s, before forging ahead on divergent paths. Industry counterparts share their recollections of these two remarkable individuals.

Hugh and Neil using the genie to get a bathtub up to the second floor

Chris on Hugh

Chris McKenzie, Sales Director of Professional Lighting Services (PLS) and Kenderdine Entertainment Lighting, had a long and close relationship with Hugh, meeting for the first time in the early 70s when Chris was moonlighting from his TV day job. “I was a lighting tech at the Wellington Opera House and Hugh was part of an Auckland touring company. I still remember that first impression he made. He was very low-key but efficient and amazing to work with. I recall he always had time to help the youngsters like me.”

This generosity of spirit is a recurring theme, both throughout Chris and Hugh’s friendship and in Hugh’s relationship with people across the industry, “So many people got their first break because of Hugh. Neil Dearlove started out at Kenderdine’s with Hugh even helping out with his first deposit on a house. Ray Channon was another, setting up the original rock & roll touring company, with trucking and staging as well as lighting. If he met young people who didn’t know what they wanted to do with their lives, he’d let them come and work for him on a casual basis or help them find other work in the industry. He’s a bit of an unsung hero.”

Chris himself was one of the many who benefitted from Hugh’s kindness; “In the early 80s I was in Auckland working for the Vidcom of old and as Kenderdine’s was really the only lighting place in town, I frequently hired gear from Hugh and we would chat and exchange ideas. When I decided to become a freelance gaffer and needed a vehicle, he shared his deal with Avis with me, so typical of his generosity.” One thing led to another and with Chris’s access to and knowledge of the TV and film industry and Hugh’s array of lighting equipment and technical aptitude, a partnership was born that would later become PLS, the TV and film arm of the stage and live events lighting hire company Kenderdine’s, originally established by Hugh in 1959.

A journeyman electrician by trade, Hugh fell into the theatre business. Back then a lighting tech had to be a licensed electrician and Hugh’s mum asked him to get Grafton Theatre Company out of a hole, having been dropped in it by their electrician. He didn’t know anything about lighting, but they needed his ticket, so he helped and got the bug. Hugh worked out of a number of homes, including in Mission Bay where Hugh and Neil worked together until end of the 80s. Hugh got the main LX contractor business at The Showgrounds, and then established the 6 Fox St Parnell premises as staff numbers grew (’83-93), then Burret Ave Penrose (‘93 – 04), Cook St CBD (‘04 – ‘20), and lastly and to this day at Rosebank Rd, Avondale.

It was Hugh’s passion for technology that underpinned Kenderdine’s success, “He built some impressive power distribution and lighting systems for touring shows over the years. He was also a complete computer nut. When I first really got to know him, he had a TRS-80, a very early computer, and I’d joke that he would spend a week programming it to do something that I could do on pen and paper in a day.”

This love of new technologies stood Hugh and the company in good stead, “He was never scared of trying a leading-edge lighting control system and if there was money in the bank he would take a punt. A lot more of the punts proved to be successful than those that sat on the shelf.” As a result, Hugh had good contacts with suppliers when New Zealand’s import restrictions eased, “We would be ordering something, and someone would ask if we could get one for them too and the sales side of the business just grew from there. When the electrical wholesale business opened up, GEC Lighting approached Hugh and asked if he could look after their range of TV and film lamp sales, and we’d had Altman Lighting since the mid-60s.”

Serendipity, as always, played a part in the business success too. “It was the TV series Hercules and producer Rob Tapert that gave Hugh and I the opportunity to really grow the company. Rather than thinking we’ve got six weeks’ work we could maybe buy something; we had a guaranteed thirty-six weeks’ work for six series. Hercules enabled us and many other companies to be less reactive, invest in gear and take New Zealand entertainment technology to the next level.”

Chris recalls their business partnership fondly, “He was a wonderful backstop. He would always have an idea on how to do something. I might have had the operational eye, but Hugh brought the practical, suggesting safer or longer lasting solutions. As a trained electrician he would have a very sound overview of a solution.”

Outside of the business, Hugh was a solid supporter of many industry organisations and New Zealand theatre. Always avoiding the limelight himself, he volunteered resources, sponsored events and supported trade shows, “He was extraordinarily generous to the industry. Even when the business was just getting a foothold he would help the NZ Association of Theatre Technicians (NZATT), the precursor to ETNZ, with photocopying and newsletter mailouts. His support for theatre was ceaseless.”

Hugh operating with 24 channels of Theatrelight glory (John Coutts on Sound)

Hugh lit thousands of shows, including many of the greats. He worked with the Ballet, the Opera, and many of the Amateur Dramatic companies. He lit a broad range of shows at His Majesty’s, St James, the Civic, the Auckland Town Hall, and all the theatres around the country. He lit shows at the Showgrounds and Trillos. One pivotal event was the Great Ngāruawahia Music Festival in 1973. Hugh got the LX contract and purchased a lot of new gear and hired a crew of people to work. Hugh was never paid and it almost sent him bankrupt. Fortunately, his wife’s job kept them fed, and Hugh’s creditor’s allowed him to trade out.

Hugh’s quiet but significant contribution across every component of the industry has been recognised with Life Memberships including ETNZ and Auckland Musical Theatre, whilst many technicians across New Zealand can thank Hugh for patiently and gently teaching them a thing or two.

Hugh Kenderdine

Hugh passed away peacefully on March 14th 2023, aged 88.

Chris, Ruthe, and John on Neil

Neil Dearlove, Hugh’s mentee and eighteen years younger, sadly passed away suddenly within weeks of Hugh. In Chris’s words, “Neil was a visionary, enormously creative and incredibly practical. Working during the heyday of big product releases, he was in his element.”

Neil at his café in Rarotonga

Hugh and Neil were renowned for their problem-solving abilities. Hugh’s daughter Ruthe Kenderdine recalls how much time the two families spent together with their children close in age and Hugh and Neil working flat out, like so many in the industry, through other people’s socializing hours, “Neil was Hugh’s right hand man at KEL for much of the 1970s and into the early 1980s, working from the basement of Hugh’s house. Together they came up with creative solutions for all sorts of things, and lit many great shows together.”

Neil discovered his passion for lighting having upped sticks from Palmerston North to Sydney in 1967 as a fifteen year old, surviving on any work he could until he found his niche as a lighting tech. He returned to New Zealand with a new wife and a creative gift for lighting that took him all over New Zealand and overseas, staging product launches (the flying Toyota’s at the town hall are still talked about today), touring bands, Bruce Lee exhibitions, and conferences; freelance, with Hugh, and then with Bong and Noon Wong at Multi-Media Systems.

Neil and his dog

It was an IBM conference in Rarotonga in 1986 that sent Neil off on another adventure. John Woods, friend and neighbour in the Cook Islands, takes up the story, “A year later, the family sold up and came to live on a tropical island in the middle of nowhere. They sold the house in Pakuranga, said goodbye to the pristine lawn, and returned to Raro.”

Ever resourceful, John recalls Neil’s many business pursuits, “He got a job as a sparky at the airport, set up a jet boat business, opened up an electrical shop which morphed into a gift shop, became the country’s first internet provider, set up the original Café, and the Matavera coffee shop and roastery. So many firsts for Raro.”

Neil Dearlove

Following in the footsteps of Hugh, Neil too encouraged, supported and mentored people across the island and leaves many grateful protégés in his wake.


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