June 10, 1908 - July 14, 2010.
Rona was born in Wellington the third daughter and fifth child of Madeline Louisa Brewer and William Herbert – “Bert” – Brewer, members of two pioneer families from England.
Bert’s family had arrived in Wellington in 1840, while Madeline arrived with her family – the Dowdings – later in 1885, settling in Christchurch. The start of the depression years saw the Brewer family move to Auckland where father, Bert, sought better job opportunities. Unfortunately, these did not eventuate. And then their father chose this time to move to Australia, once again in search for another business venture – but this time he did not return. Rona had to leave school to assist her mother with her ill child and the other youngsters.
With no social services to turn to for financial assistance, they were forced to move from their home in Takapuna and join a “tent city” at Barry’s Point on Auckland’s North Shore, living through a dreadful cold and wet winter, under canvas - until financial assistance from family members saw them re-established, with a sound roof over their heads once again, at Milford.
Rona went to work. Her first job was strawberry picking - but not enough of a challenge for this teenager. She found a niche as a “Girl Friday” for a land agent by day, canvassing homes in Milford and the adjoining Castor Bay for those wanting to sell, with rooms to rent or seeking boarders.
At night she worked and as a cashier at the local Milford Picturedome Movie Theatre in the evenings. She told her employers that she was 17 – two years older than her actual 15 years – to land these jobs.
When her boss at the land agency, who incidentally was also her boss at the Picturedrome, told her he was letting her go, because business was slowing, she took herself off to the city, determined to find new employment to support family’s finances.
It was the theatres of Queen Street that were her first targets. Starting from the harbour end, she moved upwards, before succeeding at her third theatre attempt at a theatre called Everybody’s, where Thomas A. O’Brien, the man who was later to build The Mighty Civic, employed her and opened the door to her dreams.
Now 16, she taught herself shorthand, and her boss paid for her to take typing lessons. She progressed to become his secretary and cashier for his theatre chain including the Rialto, the Princess – later to become the Plaza – the Britannia, the Regent in Epsom (later called the Lido), Tivoli and the Brittania in Ponsonby.
A wonderful time was opening up in her life, and likewise for other members of her family. Her brothers, Frank and Ivan, were likewise making their names in speedway motor racing, with Frank in particular, going on to international stardom as “Satan” Brewer in his famous #99 car.
It was in her early association with O’Brien’s Rialto Theatre in Newmarket that she met the man who was later to become her husband. Fritz von Zalinski had a transitory job as doorman and usher, as he worked towards moving to Australia - he had a job waiting there for him as a saxophonist with the big bands in the J.C.Williamson empire.
The couple’s friendship blossomed only via the trans Tasman mail service for the next six years.
As if her working hours with the O’Brien group were not enough in the way of glamour and excitement, she started attending classes for high kicking dance routines – which were not unlike those of the Follies Bergere in France, or the Ziegfeld Follies in the United States.
While she never made it to the front of the chorus line, she never forgot her practice moves - and would later drive her family crazy when she’d launch into a high kicking routine at sometimes inappropriate moments.
Rona was fully involved in the events and planning which preceded the building and opening of O’Brien’s Civic Theatre in 1929. She was registered as one of the eight original shareholders of Civic Theatre Ltd, registered on May 18, 1929, seven months before the opening of the “Palace of Dreams” in December of the same year.
The glories of the Civic Theatre, its magnificence; its mighty organ, attracted New Zealanders by their thousands, not only for the luxurious setting and star-lit ceiling, in which to enjoy the movies, but also the glamour of the downstairs Wintergarden, in which they could dance the night away.
But from the opening day, the fortunes of the Civic investment, and that of the O’Brien chain, which had been mortgaged for this mammoth venture, were on the decline. Rona had only a brief three years remaining in her dream job, before O’Brien’s excessive spending on the Civic project led to his bankruptcy in 1932. Rona was back in the job market – and O’Brien moved to Australia and later to die there.
She took a job across the road in Queen Street at the Regent Theatre, and as there were no managerial positions available she took control of the theatre’s tea rooms. Rona gained the role as “personal supervisor.”
It was at this stage that Fritz returned from Australia and set to work establishing his own band which he named “Fritz von Zalinski and his Aristocrats of Melody,” while he re established his friendship with Miss Rona Brewer.
They married in 1934, and shortly afterwards, celebrated the birth of their first child, Valerie. They moved to Cambridge, where Fritz joined the motor trade, combined with his band assignments, and a touch of amateur theatricals.
After their second child, Dagmar, was born four years later, Rona and Fritz decided they’d had enough of living “in the country” and set in motion plans to relocate to Auckland. This was 1939, and while Fritz drove the latest model in the Ford Motor line, Rona was the proud possessor of an old Ford Model A.
And with Rona’s help Meadowbank achieved its community hall, an ex American Forces building from Logan Park gifted by the Government and restored by Rona and her committee.
While her two younger children, Josephine and Paul were infants, and Fritz was stationed with the New Zealand forces in the Pacific, Rona became involved with the WEA, the Workers Educational Association, which was a group involved self improvement over a wide spectrum.
She studied debating and practiced speeches every night in her bath.
When the war ended and the Meadowbank Progressive Association was formed, Rona was the first president.
A garden society, which still exists today - the Meadowbank Beautifying Society - was established and it remained a highlight of Rona’s interests throughout her life. She was chairman for six years.
When Fritz returned from overseas, he set up business in Victoria Street, Auckland City, as a watch repairer. Business was great. He was in an area where there were a lot of pawn shops, and the trade from them for repairs was incredible.
As the popularity of Fritz’s watch and clock repair business accelerated, Rona, naturally, decided that she would be part of it, and started spending time as a shop assistant, freeing Fritz for more repair time.
They relocated to the Civic Theatre building with a Queen Street frontage, and named their new venture, Coronet Jewellers and it was here that Rona started making gold wire name brooches, which were to become a feature of their future jewellery activities.
While Rona was busy with these other activities, it is amazing that she also never gave up on her education – considering also that she’d had to cut short her school education all those years ago.
She and her daughter Valerie, who was then 17 years of age, spent a year in German language studies, with Rona moving on to French, and later Russian and by the time she made her first visit to Russia in 1960, she could converse easily with her friends.
This visit to Russia was merely only one of the many overseas trips she took in her lifetime. Her first was to Australia, where she met her father after so many years, and before his death in 1964.
Then further afield to England, Tahiti, Canada and the United States, and a second trip to Russia with her husband, Fritz, including a trip across Europe on the Trans Siberian Railway.
Politics were always important to Rona.
She joined the Labour Party, and, as Rona was inclined to do with any interest, immersed herself in party activities and fund raising.
In 1958, Rona stood as an independent candidate for the Auckland Transport Board, polling on the slogan: “It’s time for a change. Vote for a Woman.”
The board had never had a woman among its members and she didn’t make it, but scored a creditable 2,316 votes. “I was too far down the list of names,” she commented.
In 1963, she was one of 14 candidates from Labour, seeking election to the Auckland City Council. The Citizens and Ratepayers ticket, took the majority of the votes, but Rona, who polled 7,804 votes, was close, but didn’t make office
When her mother Madeline Louisa Brewer died in 1964, Rona’s eldest brother Joe established a fund for a memorial garden, which became a showpiece at the Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral in Parnell, Auckland.
When he died in 1999, Rona took over the administration of the garden. It is unfortunate, that the cathedral’s administrators have now severed this link with the Brewer family.
Fritz died in 1992.
She celebrated her 102nd birthday, with champagne, and cake, before time ran out for her four days later.
Rona left a footnote for her eulogy, which she wrote in 1994:
She commented on the sayings of her mother Madeline Louisa, She wrote “Mother always said: “Ask Rona, for what you think you’re entitled to. “People sometimes say no – but most times they say yes. Don’t worry if they say No. You can always ask again later” – and I do.”