Download The Wellington App for more stories like this.

People you should know: Blanket Man – Ben Hana

Bernard “Ben” Hana, a.k.a. “Blanket Man” was a homeless man who wandered the inner city streets of Wellington in the 2000s. He was a local fixture became something of a celebrity, typically found on the footpath in Cuba Street.

 

Hana was often found on Cuba Street.

In the late 1970s Hana associated with the Black Power gang, lived in Wellington and went by the name Bugs. It’s believed Hana chose to live on the streets after killing a friend in a drink-driving accident as a form of self-penance. He was a self-proclaimed devotee of the Maori sun god Tama-nui-te-rā, and claimed that he should wear as few items of clothing as possible, as an act of religious observance.  As a result, he would sometimes remove all his clothing, which many Wellington denizens objected to.

His name of “Blanket Man” was a reference to his usual mode of dress, which was a single blanket, long dreadlocks and a loin cloth. 

As someone who departed from the patterns of normal behaviour, Hana had become a figure of amusement, sympathy, disgust and even some academic interest. His activities and presence provoked a degree of public debate within Wellington, with some people treating a sighting as a good luck sign, while other people were on the receiving end of an ear-bashing after denying Hana ciggies or cash. On occasions when he decided to push the boundaries of offensive behaviour, police officers were likely to be in attendance.

During the 2006 Wellington Rugby Sevens tournament, one costumed group appeared in dreads and blankets, mimicking his distinctive look.

Hana, age 54, died in Wellington Hospital at 3:35 p.m. on 15 January 2012 of suspected viral myocarditis, however, he was also suffering medical problems stemming from heavy alcohol use and malnutrition.  A temporary shrine was created outside the ANZ bank on Courtenay Place, a location where Hana could often be found. Messages were written on the building’s facade, and flowers, candles, food and other items were left in tribute.

Among those who paid tribute were Wellington mayor Celia Wade-Brown and sports athlete Sonny Bill Williams. His funeral was paid for by philanthropist and cat lover Gareth Morgan.

 

People you should know: Sir Basil Urwin Spence – Beehive designer

Does the name Sir Basil Urwin Spence ring a bell? If not it should – he only created the blimmin’ Beehive, windy Wellington’s most famous building (and also known for producing the countries greatest amount of hot air).

 

The first pencil impression of the Beehive concept in Sir Basil Spence’s notebook.

Spence was a Scottish architect who was renowned for his modern brutalist style – a style that goes in and out of fashion every few decades like flares, ironic mullets and Doc Martins.

It all started in the 1960s, when the government decided to complete Parliament House, which had only been partly built between 1912 and 1922. Prime Minister Keith Holyoake wanted to complete the original plan, but the government architect persuaded him to put up a modern building.

Spence apparently used a pencil to sketch what would become known as the Beehive on the back of a napkin during dinner with Holyoake in 1964. A detailed coloured sketch got a mixed reception when it was unveiled in the House in August 1964. While Labour MP Basil Arthur said it was ‘a shocker and should be scrapped’, his leader Arnold Nordmeyer praised it. Both parties hoped that the new building would ‘become a source of national pride and international interest’.

In 2006 he was the subject of a BBC Scotland documentary, Rebuilding Basil Spencewhich revised his place in 20th-century British architecture and asked why he had been for so long overlooked.

The government architect who got the job of turning Spence’s vision into reality may have been less positive about it. It was difficult to make efficient use of a circular design with a central ‘drum’ core, and visitors to the Beehive still find it easy to lose their bearings.

Basil Spence’s first pencil impression of the Beehive: nzhistory.govt.nz

People you should know: Kenny the Busker of Courtenay Place

Kenny – real name John D’Estaing Adams – was a well-known busker in Courtenay Place in the 1990s, who took his adopted name from Kenny Rogers’ song The Gambler, a staple in his late night repertoire.

The Dominion Post

Kenny played his country and western well into the early hours of stupid o’clock, and was the recipient of many drunken pashes from stumbling women in Spice Girl Platforms; singalongs with ‘suits’ on the piss; and the occasional threat from bored bogans – he was the background noise to many nights out in the nineties.

The ‘Controversy of Courtenay Place’ happened when former Wellington mayor Mark Blumsky laid down the law and banned his amplifier after complaints by the nearby apartment-dwellers over the noise. The council confiscated the contraband and all of a sudden Kenny was a man without a weapon.

“The tortured singing of Courtenay Place busker Kenny was strangely silent last night,” The Evening Post said at the time.

But Kenny didn’t walk away…and Kenny didn’t run. He stood his ground after being silenced initiating a stand-off that lasted two months, mastering a Courtenay Place PR campaign  that included fliers and placards pleading his cause in western font.

Six thousand emotional drunkards signed a petition asking the council to stop harassing Kenny, which was presented to Blumsky in October.

“It’s humbling to realise that somebody likes you enough to say they want you to stay. The people seem to want me there. I will do what the people want. I think they have kind of voted with their feet,” Kenny said.

By November the council reneged and Kenny’s amp was returned, but it was to be periodically seized throughout the next few years, and after that Kenny kind of faded into the background, with only tumbleweeds left to rumble down the street instead of country and western on a feedback loop.

The dealing was finally done for Kenny on June 8, 2011, when he died of a brain tumour, aged 64. Blumsky attended his funeral and paid tribute to his old foe.

“He was making more from the ‘Give me my amp back’ sign than he ever did from singing,” Blumsky said.

“A vibrant city needs its colourful people and Kenny – John – was certainly one of the more colourful ones.”

People you should know: Carmen, Queen of Wellington

When I was about ten I found a book in my parent’s bookshelf with a woman on the cover who looked far too glamorous to be a New Zealander. I decided she must be a silver screen starlet, or a dancer from the Moulin Rouge. When I asked my mum about the mysterious woman, she just laughed and shook her head.

Photo/Fairfax Media

Years later I discovered the women in the book was Carmen Rupe – an activist, a mayoral candidate, and drag performer. She was Wellington’s most visible transgender women of the time; someone who lit a rainbow bomb under parochial grey old Wellington in the sixties and seventies and outraged as well as entertained.

From an early age Carmen (then known as Trevor) had fantasies of becoming a woman. Down on the family farm near Taumarunui she kicked off her gumboots and immersed herself in Hollywood glamour, wearing frocks but dreaming of sequined dresses.

After the death of her mother in 1959 Carmen moved to Sydney, where she waited tables and honed her drag act and skills as an entertainer and sex worker. She became well known on the camp scene, and was the first Māori drag queen in Australia.

A 1966 change of name inspired by both Carmen Miranda and the screen legend Rita Hayworth (who appeared in the film ‘The loves of Carmen’) plus the dumping of all her ‘man’ clothing was the last final step to bury her male self.

Life wasn’t easy for Carmen, those were times of repressive laws, strict adherence to gender norms and the long arm of the law who took agin little old things like brothels, transsexuality and ‘debaucherous’ behaviour.

In the sixties she returned to Wellington, opening Carmen’s International Coffee Lounge and the Balcony strip club in Wellington, which had upstairs bedrooms for sex work. The lounge was staffed by transsexuals, gay men and lesbians with services provided based on how customers placed their cup and saucer on the table.

The place was raided frequently, staff were alerted to police presence by a secret alarm. As word spread about the lounge, Carmen gained notoriety and became a media staple – something she embraced.

Carmen was privy to a lot of secrets, and was ordered to appear before Parliament’s Privileges Committee by then Prime Minister Sir Robert Muldoon after suggesting that some (unnamed) MPs were either gay or bisexual. She arrived at the hearing at parliament in a chauffeured driven limo and regally greeted waiting fans and media in a long black dress.

After making the front-page news for baring her breasts at the Trentham races in the Hutt, Carmen began to put her infamy to good use, offering to do public talks for charity and creating public initiatives for those in need in the community, especially the LGBTIQ+ and the homeless.

In a campaign backed by Sir Bob Jones, she unsuccessfully ran for Wellington’s mayoralty in 1977. Always ahead of her time, she ran on a platform of legalising gay marriage and decriminalising prostitution.She came fourth, but shook up Wellington’s dull bureaucracy in the process.

In 1979, she packed up for good and moved to Sydney, making headlines again in 2008 when she rode her donated mobility scooter in the Sydney Mardi Gras, leading the ‘Decade of Divas’ – again bare-chested.

Carmen Rupe passed away three years later in 2011 of kidney failure, leaving Wellington, Sydney, and the world a little quieter and a little less colourful.

In 2016 cross lights depicting Carmen’s silhouette were installed in Cuba Street to commemorate the 30thanniversary of the homosexual law reform.

 

You can read more here:

Lynette Townsend. ‘Rupe, Carmen Tione’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2018.

https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6r6/rupe-carmen-tione