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The remarkable life of Billy Farnell

The Music Man, 1929 — 2022

The remarkable life of Billy Farnell

Jul 11, 2022 Music

As the city’s gay community was celebrating 50 years of Pride in Auckland, one of its pioneer dazzling stars exited stage right. The fabulous Billy Farnell, a pianist of amazing talent who’d spent 60 years as one of Auckland’s great musical personalities, was farewelled by fellow musicians and his many elderly fans. Where would Billy have his funeral? None other than Tipene Funerals in West Auckland, of Casketeers fame, with a service conducted by that doyen of magicians and entertainers David Hartnell.

An extraordinary number of people came to recall Billy’s life and times, and there were many stories to tell. On the way to Waikumete for the cremation, the hearse carrying Billy tailgated another vehicle. A suitable send-off.

Growing up in Wellington, Billy was a keyboard genius by the age of 10. By 15, he knew exactly what he wanted to do and be — Billy was always ‘out’, and loved the freedom it gave him. He had a flamboyant, over-the-top presence that demanded attention and, in his world, acceptance. He was a pioneer for the gay community at a time when repression and homophobia were very much the norm. Billy was never shy; he quickly moved into the world of entertainment and show- biz and somehow brought it all together on a Steinway or a Bechstein grand. He lived for music. But he also found time to become one of New Zealand’s roller-skating champs; a hugely respected breeder of dogs, silkie fowls and white-haired French goats; and a show judge.

Billy headed to Auckland at 18, his fingers ready to play, and found himself the resident pianist at the remarkable West Auckland restaurant the Town and Country Roadhouse in Ora- tia, run by Marge Harré in a colonial double-storey farmhouse. Marge was a phenomenal cook and the Roadhouse was doing great business with dazzling reviews. Billy brought with him two musicians, Harry Miller on drums and John Daley on trumpet. Harry would become one of the greatest promoters and entrepreneurs in show business, and John a television personality. Billy played Friday and Saturday nights and it seemed there wasn’t a tune he didn’t know or couldn’t improvise. His rapport with customers would become his signature. Movie-star handsome, he was small and perfectly formed.

While a musician at the Roadhouse, Billy, who was always an animal-lover, bought a rhesus monkey from a touring circus in Whangārei for five quid and named it Mowgli after the boy in The Jungle Book. The monkey was half-trained, but Billy taught it to answer the phone, turn on every tap in the house and do the dishes, all with disastrous consequences. Quickly, Billy became the Quentin Crisp of Auckland, a boulevardier of Vulcan Lane and Lorne St. He would stop traffic. Billy would take Mowgli down Queen St on a gold chain; once, the two somehow became separated in the revolving doors of the grand department store Milne & Choyce. Mowgli panicked and raced through the cosmetic department, raising havoc, biting staff and causing thousands of dollars’ worth of damage before being trapped and caught by a team of police. The two were banned for life from shopping in Queen St.

Soon, however, Billy acquired two Afghan hounds and one unfortunate afternoon they chewed Mowgli up.

I remember Billy well for his three-day parties in Grafton Gully in the early 60s, where his house was like the incarnation of Bedlam. The many rooms were crammed with Chinese artefacts — it was as if someone had raided Ming Dynasty tombs and shipped the loot to Auckland. The place teemed with animals. Billy owned 16 pedigree white goats, beautifully groomed and sweet-smelling, with a touch of aftershave. He had two gorgeous cars — a 1955 MG and a Jaguar, which he’d often drive around with two or three goats in the back. The goats wandered freely on the back lawn where the Southern Motorway now runs, and Billy sold their milk to Plunket. One night, while a storm blew over Auckland, he brought the goats inside for shelter and they simply never left. When the landlady called by six months later, Billy and the goats were evicted.

Billy was lured away from the Roadhouse to play at Auckland’s top restaurant La Boheme, where he stayed for 18 years. For two decades, he was the musician for any society party or wedding. Billy was never without a touch of make-up, and wore dazzling clothes. He was New Zealand’s answer to Liberace and Elton John wrapped into one. He seemed never to sleep, and after La Boheme closed at around 2am, he would drift into the other late-night venues, El Morocco on Swanson St or Montmartre on Lorne St, where he would accompany New Zealand’s finest jazz singer, Mavis Rivers, into the wee small hours.

Accompanied by a new musical trio, Billy went on to create legends at the upmarket restaurant Bonaparte on Victoria St East, a favourite haunt of the pre-crash rich-listers. Billy picked up on anyone walking in and would theme their entrance. There he met a young chef, Russell Green, who had first seen Billy in a Woman’s Weekly profile in 1973 and came to Auckland to work alongside this super-star of music, fashion and openly queer lifestyle. They fell in love, lived together, and as their relationship grew, they worked towards opening their first bar. On Anzac Ave, it was known as Shanghai Lil’s, with a glorious decor of Chinese art, furniture, carpets and lamps — a scene right out of film noir, a setting that only Hollywood, Billy and Russell could envisage.

The opportunities kept growing, as did their ambitions. Shanghai Lil’s moved to Parnell Village for a larger space and expanded clientele, but Parnell didn’t work. Russell was spending too much time in the kitchen and Billy’s baby grand was too far from the diners, so they jumped to the Birdcage down by Victoria Park and then on to Ponsonby Rd.

Billy and Russell finally married. They had spent a lifetime together, collecting, hosting and entertaining. They had become legends, but their dreams of success, fame and thou- sands of friends slowly wound down. Billy still played every Friday, though, flamboyant and unchanged in his fantastic ensembles and make-up. He was his own creation; a musical genius. He seemed ageless and unabashed. Billy died in February, at the age of 93.

Photo from the collection of Russell Green

This feature was published in Metro 434
Available here in print and pdf.

 

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