ACT News


Adding the sparkle to the stars

A love of entertainment has sustained the publicist Coralie Wood over a long and fruitful career, writes Ron Cerabona

It's difficult not to notice Coralie Wood. Although she isn't very tall, her long eyelashes, sparkling clothes and trademark explosion of bright red hair are ubiquitous in Canberra's theatrical circles.

For more than 30 years the self-described ''Publicist Extraordinaire'' has worked with most of the big names who have come to Canberra including Elton John, Reg Livermore, Peter Ustinov (''I adored him: we ate a lot together'') and Kiri Te Kanawa as well as many Canberra theatrical companies and organisations.

Whether it's an alpaca expo, a film festival or an international touring mega-production, Wood will have an imaginative idea to draw attention to it and the persistence and contacts to make it happen.

A media call for a production of Chicago was held in the old Quamby youth detention centre, for example, and one for To Kill a Mockingbird at the Magistrates Court.

Asked for the reasons behind her success, she says, ''I don't mind what hours I work … it's my whole life, really.''

And her guiding principles - ''Always be pleasant'' and ''Think outside the square'' - have served her well. One of the highlights of her career was the touring production of Yes, Prime Minister. When it came to Canberra, Wood arranged to take the actors playing Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey Appleby to Parliament House, where their appearance in the House of Representatives was recognised by the Speaker and attracted a lot of media attention.


''Everybody saw it - I got accolades from other publicists,'' she says.

Wood is full of colourful stories from her long career. She bought Coke for the rock band Dr Hook (she misunderstood the request) and has helped to fulfil some unusual requests in artists' riders.

''Shirley MacLaine wanted six hard-boiled eggs and six raw eggs. I cooked up the eggs on my stove in Curtin and by the time she had to go there wasn't even one shell left from the boiled eggs … I don't know what she did with them.'' But the raw eggs remained untouched. ''I took them home again.''

And Eartha Kitt's rider specified Cristal champagne, so after a search she had it brought in from Sydney, only to be told by the entrepreneur that Kitt only drank Ben Ean moselle.

''I suppose I ended up with the Cristal champagne.''

But not all artists are difficult and many have become personal friends, including Jon English and Simon Gallaher, with whom she toured on The Pirates of Penzance.

Her experience is so extensive and acknowledged that when she undertook a degree in journalism and mass media at Canberra Institute of Technology, it only took her one year: she received credit for 11 out of the 13 subjects before she had even started.

''Someone advised me I should do it if I wanted to get a job in the public service,'' she says of the degree. ''But no one has ever asked me for it.''

Since 1995 she has run the not-for-profit Canberra Area Theatre Awards, which she co-founded, recognising amateur theatre in the region. She'd been to an awards night for professional theatre and felt the amateurs were being neglected. Starting with six companies and six judges, it now has 66 companies from such towns as Orange, Wagga Wagga and Griffith involved with 17 judges travelling thousands of kilometres each year and an annual awards night. Many of the winners have gone on to professional careers.

''The CATs are still going strong,'' she says, adding that professional actors like Toni Lamond and John Wood believe in it: both are patrons.

And in June 2008 Wood was honoured with the Order of Australia for services to the arts.

''I had no idea,'' she says. ''I had to keep it quiet for six weeks - that's very hard for a publicist, you know.''

She was born Coralie Cohen in Melbourne, but the year is one of the few things she prefers to keep to herself. Her father operated a men's clothing business and her mother was ''a golfer'', Wood says, though the former Leila Dabscheck had been a child actress known as Lola Darling who worked with comedian Roy ''Mo'' Rene.

And the show business bug was passed on. While a student at Methodist Ladies College (''There were a lot of Jewish girls at my school. I can sing every Methodist hymn, There is a green hill far away and all that'') Wood began working at Hector Crawford Productions at the age of 12, often playing boys on such programs as No Holiday for Halliday and Portia Faces Life.

''In the old days on the radio serials they didn't use little boys because their voices were about to break, they used young girls,'' Wood says. ''My mother encouraged me; I would go in the morning and do radio serials. The headmaster, Reverend Wood [no relation], called me in and told me, 'I don't believe in acting', but I still did it.''

(Interestingly, she says, his daughter was Monica Maughan, a prominent actress in stage, film and television for decades).

After she finished school she went back to work for Crawford, doing everything from running the Roneo machine to working on the radio show Peters Pals with a young Bert Newton. ''I was the comedian.''

She also started doing some publicity work and came to Canberra for the opening of one of the first Travelodge hotels. While here, she met John Wood, an air force navigator in the VIP squadron, at the Rex Hotel. They got married (''He changed for me,'' she says: he converted to Judaism.) when she was 20 and in 1963 she had a daughter Shani and in 1967 a son Arron.

When the children were a bit older, and with her husband away a lot for work, she looked for something else to do. In 1980, she found it. ''It all started with Dimboola,'' she says. She saw an ad seeking actors for an amateur Australian National University production of Jack Hibberd's play in which the audience members are guests at a country wedding reception and joined the cast as the bridesmaid, Shirl.

And after the production's three-week run she teamed up with another cast member, Jim Hutchins, to mount Dimboola professionally at a wedding reception venue, the Hibiscus. It was a huge success.

''We wanted it for three weekends and it ran for 4½ years,'' she says. ''There was nothing else on.''

The show's success soon attracted the attention of the director of the Canberra Theatre, Terry Vaughan, who asked Wood to become the theatre's publicist.

She worked with such international stars as the US comedian Shelley Berman, whom she found a challenge (''I was young then, very young; I didn't know what was happening.'') and British sitcom star Derek Nimmo. She also worked as publicist on the Australian films Phar Lap and The Coollangatta Gold.

In 1984 she left the theatre and, with Hutchins, formed Super Flak Publicity and ran Canberra BASS Ticketing for 10 years. Working for Vaughan she had been introduced to entrepreneurs such as Michael Chugg and Michael Edgley and by this time her confidence and contact book were growing, so when BASS was taken over by Ticketek and Hutchins retired, she continued on her own as Coralie Wood Publicity - and is still going strong. Canberra author Marya Glyn-Daniel wrote a book about her, aptly titled Floating in Foyers (2006).

There have been difficulties in her life and career - her marriage ended after 29 years, the BASS business ended messily and the first outdoor Elton John concert she worked on in Canberra was accompanied by a huge storm (luckily, this year's concert went off without a hitch). But Wood has remained busy and upbeat, always looking ahead as well as enjoying her experiences: next year's productions for her include Operamania and Free-Rain's The Phantom of the Opera and she's already working on them.

And although some of her contemporaries in publicity such as Judith Johnson and Suzie Howie have died and been replaced by what Wood calls ''swinging legs who go to publicity school'', she has survived.

She proudly describes herself as ''old school'', willing to hold doors open and make cups for tea and do whatever it takes - big or small - for her clients - big or small. ''As long as the tickets sell, I'm happy.''