Who is Letty Katts?

Guest blogger: Narelle McCoy - 2020 Letty Katts Award recipient.

When I decided to apply for the Letty Katts award, my first thought was “Who is Letty Katts?”  I knew that she was an Australian composer. There was little on the internet, but her archives had been given to the State Library of Queensland by her husband Stanton Mellick and her daughter Jill Mellick, who had prepared the material for The Letty Katts Archive and the John Stanton Davis Mellick Archive. These boxes contained a treasure trove of photographs, original copies of compositions (published and performed), family letters, handwritten fragments of compositions, diaries, and correspondence with her publishers and musical associates over the years. By sifting through the material, I have been able to form a picture of the woman who achieved international recognition with her ballads “Never Never” and “A Town Like Alice”. I have been assisted in my research by Stanton Mellick who generously has provided photos and anecdotes; his wife Sally Mellick who has scanned documents and photos to add to my collection; and Jill Mellick who has afforded much needed detail about her mother’s life, as well as providing me with invaluable support. This is the first of several blog posts, and this entry deals with Violet Katts’s early years.

Violet Katts was born in Brisbane on 3rd January 1919, to parents Lucretia and Anton Katts. Her mother, Lucretia, née Pimblett, was from Beaufort, Victoria, where her family had settled in 1850.  Her father, Anton Katts, was born near Ostrog, Russia. When he immigrated to Australia in 1912, he anglicised his surname to Katts. He remained close to his Russian family all his life, sending regular financial gifts through New York banks until the U.S.S.R forbade financial or material gifts from outside the country.

A young Letty at the piano. Used by permission of Jill Mellick.  

Letty was their only child and, though named Violet, her given name was rarely used. Her nickname, “Letty” was derived from a film comedy of the 1920s entitled So Long Letty. Her parents were both musical and this served as a foundation for the development of Letty’s talents. Her father had been in the Imperial Russian Army and had played in Tsar Nicholas II’s Military Balalaika Orchestra, while her mother played the piano “by ear”. On the radio program, Australia All Over, Letty told the host, Ian McNamara, that Anton played the balalaika or the mandolin while Lucretia accompanied him. Music was a very important part of their family life.

1912, The Military Balalaika Orchestra. Anton Katts seated middle row, third from right. Used by permission of Jill Mellick.   

The family settled in Enoggera in an architect-designed house that Anton had commissioned. Letty attended Miss Shearer’s Kindergarten, the Enoggera State School, and when she was old enough to travel across the city alone, she went to Somerville House.

She began her piano studies at the age of five with Connie Hartshorn of Enoggera, and then studied with John Ellis from the age of eleven for many years. Exam reports for piano and theory from 1929 to 1937, show that Letty was a talented student. She obtained her A.Mus.A. from the Australian Music Examinations Board, and later her A.T.C.L. and her L.T.C.L. from Trinity College, London. The birth of her daughter interrupted her final preparations for her F.T.C.L. Her interest was not limited to the piano, she also learned classical ballet, tap, and ballroom dancing with the Pat Mead School of Dancing. She stopped performing classical ballet because she thought her foot lacked sufficient arch. Later Letty assisted with teaching as well as playing the piano for classes.

An early photo of Letty at the Pat Mead School of Dancing. Used by permission of Jill Mellick.  

In 1938, Anton, with the help of the Thomas Cook agency, took the family First Class around the world. The family embarked on the first leg of the tour in Brisbane on the “Moreton Bay” and travelled through Europe, the U.K and the U.S.A. where they were met at every point by a Thomas Cook agent.

But that’s a story for the next blog!

 

Narelle McCoy

 

Related collection items from the John Oxley Library.

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Looking forward to the next instalment!