A Life Story - born entertainer Franki Wood dies, 97

Lower Hutt entertainer Franki Wood chronicled her extraordinary life of creativity and entertainment.

Lower Hutt entertainer Franki Wood chronicled her extraordinary life of creativity and entertainment.

Annie (Franki) Frances Wood, puppeteer, author, arts tutor: b April 25, 1920, Napier; m (diss) 2d, 1s; d April 30, 2017, Wellington, aged 97.

Franki Wood was a scruffy seven-year-old kid when her love of entertaining took hold.

Her older sister had talked her into entering a talent quest at a local theatre. Wearing her worn-out dress and scuffed shoes – the family were dirt poor – she remembered being up against other little girls with shiny outfits and ringleted hair.

Entertainer Franki Wood, from Lower Hutt, has died at 97.
Phil Reid

Entertainer Franki Wood, from Lower Hutt, has died at 97.

She sang Sonny Boy and, to her astonishment, she won.

What followed was a lifetime entertaining in theatres, schools and, much later, through her writing.

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Lower Hutt singer, writer, puppeteer and all-round entertainer Franki Wood with one of her hand-made puppets.
Ross Giblin

Lower Hutt singer, writer, puppeteer and all-round entertainer Franki Wood with one of her hand-made puppets.

Wood was an entertainer who loved to perform for the benefit of her community, which for most of her life was Lower Hutt.

She founded a group that performed to community organisations, in shopping malls, at rest homes, schools and churches.

When her children were young, she toured in the school holidays with her son Jack as frontman, putting on shows with puppets she made herself.

"Those puppets helped me finish off my mortgage," she said in an interview with this paper in 2015. "I'd get $100 a show, which was a lot then, and we went right round the country, up north and down south."

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Franki Wood was born in Napier and grew up during the Depression years.

Her mother ran a boarding house to support the family. Her father, an engineer, was often unwell and spent years in and out of hospital.

They were poor but Wood never recalls being hungry. At a time when many impoverished families sent their children to orphanages so they would at least be fed, Franki and her siblings remained at home thanks to the income from her mother's boarders.

She was 10 when the 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake struck. She later remembered running for cover with other frightened pupils. 

"We ran towards the door, the teacher couldn't hold us back. We were terrified. My sister found me and we went over a rock wall and on to the street. Every time the ground opened up we jumped over it," she said in an interview with Radio New Zealand in 2011. 

She recalled standing on the beach watching Napier burn while still feeling the earth tremble under her feet.

But it was the kindness of people afterwards that she stayed in her memory, more than the terror of the quake itself.

Buses ferried the stranded and homeless to Palmerston North, where hundreds of people turned out to offer accommodation.

"I always remember the quietness in the bus all the way from Napier to Palmerston. It was uncanny.

"When we arrived the Red Cross was there with a toothbrush and a bag of lollies for each child and this was during the Depression!" she recalled.

In later years Wood raised money for the charity through her shows to acknowledge that she never forgot their kindness.

After marrying, she moved to Wellington where she and her husband began a family.

Entertaining was in some ways a means to an end for Wood, who ended up raising three children on her own after separating from her husband in her early 40s.

As well as her life performing in the community, she tutored at the Hearing Association and worked as a speech and drama teacher.

On her retirement at age 64, she took up sculpting, exhibiting her work at the Dowse in Lower Hutt.

After a visit from a group of prisoners on an educational outing, she was asked to teach art and craft at Rimutaka Prison.

She gained respect from the prisoners over the eight years she taught there and they became fiercely protective of her.

Wood later recalled a prisoner giving her a bone carving as a "going away present".

"I didn't think anything more of it – and then the next night, he escaped."

At the age of 87, Wood turned her talents to writing.  Until then, she had never used a computer.

She published her first book, Franki: The Life & Entertainment Passion of One Woman, in 2007.

Publishers First Edition nominated her for a New Zealand Society of Authors prize of $3500 for mid-career authors.

She penned 11 books, many of them based on her own life experiences during the war and Depression years. She ventured into the romance genre at the age of 90 with Twilight Love.

This tells the story of Mary, a widow in her 60s who rediscovers love when she meets Steven at a darts night at the RSA. 

She described it as "truth turned to fiction", written with the help of friends whom she mined for information about their love lives.

"I wanted to let people know senior citizens can love as much as teenagers or middle aged people. Love is everywhere and not just in one age group," she said in 2011.

Wood continued to play the accordion and sing well into her 90s. Her enthusiasm for entertaining never waned.

"I get a kick out of everything I do. When I go out and entertain, I come home on cloud nine," she once said.

Sources: The Dominion Post (Liam Cavanagh/Stacey Wood),The Hutt News (Nicholas Boyack) RNZ (Nine To Noon)

 - Stuff

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