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Obituary: Tony Katavich, 1935-2013

Sat 4 Jan 2014 In: Hall of Fame View at NDHA

On a recent retirement cruise Ante (Tony) Mate Katavich was born in Auckland on April 11th, 1935 to George and Minetta Katavich. The family lived in what was still a semi-residential and semi-commercial downtown enclave on the site where the TVNZ headquarters building now stands. The adjacent billiard parlour was off grounds to the children of the staunchly Catholic Katavich family but the surviving girls, Beverly and Shirley remember a community served by small businesses such as fruiterers and liberally sprinkled with names ending in -ich. The family background was Dalmation and that ethnic and cultural heritage would remain a strong aspect of their entire lives. The family was not wealthy, nor even especially financially comfortable, but the sisters don't remember ever feeling they were doing without. Tony grew up an intelligent, articulate and sharp-witted young man with a slight athletic bent which saw him involved in harriers (running) with his friends. He loved the theatre and music and these would play an important part of his life. He also loved wrestling, which he described as "fine theatre." After high school he worked in a number of jobs, including at Kerridge Odeon where he was rigorously schooled in the handling of money and finances. He became the youngest theatre manager in Australasia. Tony would also work at Dominion Breweries and, in those post-WW2 days, served his year of Compulsory Military Training in Waiouru. Looking back his family find it hard to imagine Tony taking military orders, but his decision to take holy orders, to train to be a priest, has them almost laughing out loud. Tony taking orders from the Pope? He decamped to a seminary in Australia but returned to Auckland with his theological studies incomplete when his mother fell ill. His academic interest in religions continued on a more ad-hoc basis and he would always be well-versed in the nature of the worlds religions. He worked variously for Northern Shipping and a farm machinery company in Elliott Street. It was the manager of that firm who could see the genuine intelligence behind those sharp eyes and encouraged him to go to university which he entered as a mature student. AUSA president, 1964/65 At university he became politically active and rose to the presidency of the Auckland University Students' Association. A formal 1964-65 photograph of the Union executive shows him in academic gown, of slight build with bright eyes and a forthright demeanour. Not bad looking either. A major legacy of his time on the Association was the opening of the University Bookshop. "Tony did that," says sister Beverly with pride. He became friends with his predecessor as president, Herb Romaniuk, and was Romaniuks' best man and godfather to his eldest daughter. Their close friendship would last the rest of Tony's life. It was also at university that he met a younger gay man who would play a huge part in his life: Graham, aka Brett, Sheppard. They started up the country's first unapologetically gay sauna in Victoria Street and took over an ad-hoc and ailing gay liberation publication which they developed into the national gay magazine Out! The sauna, the Westside, settled into the west side of downtown Albert Street to where the District Court now presides. In fairly quick succession a string of other gay businesses was created. A bookshop, whose emphasis was mostly on beefcake magazines and adult toys. A mail-order operation was a natural offshoot. And there was another first, a gay nightclub in High Street called Alfies. It was all a great success with Katavich the money man, Sheppard the larger than life frontman and in the background a rarely seen chap called John Kiddie. Tall, urbane and good looking, Kiddie was working on the counter at the flagship Farmers department store in Hobson Street when he caught Katavich's eye. Tony had had a girlfriend for a time in his teenage years but naturally nothing had came of it. Tony and John become a devoted couple for forty seven years, separated only by Kiddie's death in mid-2012. The couple eventually set up home a block away from Paratai Drive, one of Auckland's wealthiest neighbourhoods, although their house was less showy than most in the area. Underpinned by Katavich's excellent business negotiation skills the trio's business interests prospered they spread their wings. The Wakefield sauna opened where the Wellington's Michael Fowler Centre now stands and the Colombo sauna was just a couple of blocks from Christchurch's Cathedral Square. Both included elements of the Auckland bookstore's product range. And in Auckland itself a travel business was created in spite of the sort of difficulty which helps illuminate just what the trio were up against in establishing gay-focussed businesses in a social and legal environment so different from today that it feels like looking back into the middle-ages. In those pre-internet, pre-law reform, pre-openly gay MPs days explaining to your small-town travel agent that you wanted to, for example, be in San Francisco in mid-May and wanted to stay close to the Castro could too often generate a response along the lines of: "Sorry dear, can't find you anywhere closer than downtown, eveything near Castro is booked out. We've been warned that a whole lot of those awful homosexuals are having some sort of disgusting convention or something (shudder) there, it's a shame you want to be there just then..." followed by a strange look and a mental note to have a quiet chat with your mum at the next tennis club committee meeting or your boss at the bakery. Katavich and co's Travel Desk, with its knowledge of gay-owned or -operated accommodation and other info helpful to homo travellers was refused the IATA accreditation and bonding essential to set up the network of trust, guarantees and interlocking international finance and booking information transfers necessary to operate as a travel agency. To Air New Zealand, the dominant IATA member in this country, the very thought of known homosexuals sullying the good reputation of the travel industry was abhorrent and unthinkable. They blocked Travel Desk's attempts to become an actual travel agent and be able to create its own ticketing on site at every turn. Eventually Travel Desk found an intermediary wholesaler who would quietly expedite their bookings for them, but for a fee. Alfies flourished and gave work to glamorous trans-women like Georgina Beyer and Nicolle Duval who otherwise would have been almost unemployable due to deeply engrained stigma throughout the country. It was a fun place which attracted not just gays but also late night workers from the hospitality industry. Touring international entertainers would often wash up at Alfies to let their hair down after their concerts and shows. The success of the nightclub attracted the eye of the gangs who wanted to muscle in on the action but Katavich stood his ground and refused. He got badly beaten up for his trouble but Alfies, considered by many at the time to be the best nightclub in Auckland, remained gang-free. A clone of Alfies was opened in Wellington. Month after month imports for the bookshop and mail order operation would be detained at customs and alleged to be indecent, as, according to the laws and prevailing conservative mood of the times, they probably were. This was a time when even such words as "bugger" and "bloody" were bleeped out of news reports and magazine stories, and retailers advertising women's undergarments on TV could neither demonstrate the garments being worn nor use words like 'bra' and 'corset.' The powers that be had fits over magazines featuring erotic stories of homosexual hijinks, naked young men half at attention and ready for action, and exhortations to be proudly homosexual. The time and resources spent defending indecency cases time and again month after month after year after year were enormous. But it was not in Tony Katavich's make-up to give up. Ever. Landmark morality cases were defended with tenacious vigour. Some cases hit the nation's headlines, some were lost, but many were won and helped unpurse the nation's lips regarding things erotic and gay. And in the background Katavich and his partners committed time, energy and resources to the gloves-off war on state-encouraged persecution of homosexual men that was the campaign for Homosexual Law Reform. It was a huge and lengthy fight up and down the country, surpassed in modern times only by the campaign against the racist Springbok tours in it's levels of passion, drama, diviseness and vitriol. Katavich, notoriously tight around the wallet, donated money, resources and staff time generously and extensively to the ultimately successful campaign. The generous side of his nature also came to the fore with the years-long peppercorn rental provision of premises in the Out! building for the Gayline phone counselling and support service. Himself childless, he chipped in to help pay for the higher education of several nieces and nephews. He remained close to his family and friends, although being associated with the notorious nationally-known homosexual pervert with the distinctive name, the same one who was trying to destroy the morals of the nation with his imports of disgusting filth and letchery, was not easy for some of his rellies. His sisters recall that being a Katavich was occasionally difficult but their extended family generally bore the burden well and backed up their brother. Sheppard, also, was lucky in the support he received from his own fam ily, but Kiddie not so. With his beloved John Beverly and Shirley recall that John's family had basically cast him out for being gay and he bore emotional scars from that for his whole life. Katavich, himself a private man when he could manage it, was ruthlessly protective of his man and many in the gay communities would not have known that John even existed. His name was assiduously kept out of the papers and public conversation. Homosexual Law Reform changed everything in the mid 1980s and the lives of gay men everywhere began to change, but Katavich and co found it difficult to re-tune their operations to the new freedoms. Progressively less successful they gradually faded away. Only the Travel Desk, sold and now renamed Travel Managers Group, remains. When the doors of the Auckland bookshop and sauna, finally located in Anzac Avenue, closed, Katavich and Kiddie retired. It was not easy for workaholic Tony. He missed the daily office routine and being linked in to all things on a daily basis. He kept up his mail order subscriptions to overseas publications such as Advocate. His passion for a wide range of music, from opera to jazz and blues, and his love of movies sustained him and days on which a courier would not be knocking on the door with a package of DVDs, CDs or periodicals were rare. He remained a voracious reader, of autobiographies in particular. All his life he had been careful with his health, giving up early flirtations with alcohol and smoking and eventually becoming vegan. But his health was failing in the face of cancer, as was that of his beloved partner. Although Tony's decline was long and slow, John's, when it came eighteen months ago, was unexpectedly fast and final. "Our dear brother never got over the passing of John," his sisters said at his funeral. "The life just went out of Tony. He just wanted to join John." There was some respite when Tony, never much of a pet lover, was gifted a kitten. He named her The Duchess and her presence worked a minor miracle. Never one to do things by halves (attested to by the rooms full of music and video discs, the boxloads of carefully collected quality fountain pens) he lavished everything he could on his little companion. But he could not stave off the end. As he became more physically debilitated he eschewed home help carers. "It was the money thing," sister Shirley chuckles. "He could pay for it, but he wouldn't." Eventually, seven weeks ago, he moved into Selwyn Village for round the clock care. His battle with cancer was lost on December 27th. In accordance with his wishes his funeral was conducted by a priest and he died firm in the belief that there was another life waiting for him and that he would be reunited with John.     Jay Bennie - 4th January 2014

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Saturday, 4th January 2014 - 5:50pm

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