Over decades Jan had worked tirelessly to raise funds for many theatres and arts companies. Her great friend and Artistic Director of Marian Street Theatre, John Krummel, credited Jan's fundraising with keeping the theatre afloat.
Jan’s early life was not easy. She was born in Gunnedah to Doris and Frank Hodgson. At age 4 they moved to Bondi finally settling in Lindfield. Her mother was unwell much of the time and Jan had to look after her two siblings. She was sent at the age of 11 to be a border at Ravenswood where she managed to stage a student strike in under the banner WE ARE NOT SLAVES! A protest against having to chop wood for the boiler and heater in the house where they lived. She was not a girl who would be put upon in life.
As a teenager Jan blossomed into Liz Taylor looks; a stunning brunette with vivid blue eyes that twinkled with mischief. It was not surprising that she was surrounded by hopeful young suitors. But it was Jim Sundell, the son of Swedish post war refugees, who stole Jan’s heart. Though it may have been his blue suede shoes and ability to play the piano accordion that caught her eye, Jan observed. In any case Jim was just that little bit different from the others. Shortly before their wedding Jim developed appendicitis and the ceremony had to be postponed. Never letting a good holiday go to waste, Jan went on the honeymoon with her girlfriend. This set the scene for the life of surprises and adventures that Jan and Jim were to lead Eventually the wedding took place followed by a second honeymoon, this time Jan went with Jim. They shared a 62 year marriage, built a highly successful business and brought up three children and five grandchildren.
Jan’s love of theatre started in her teens when her somewhat eccentric father Frank, took her to shows introducing her to the actors. He had spent time in his youth in New Guinea allegedly hanging out with Errol Flynn, and was considered a little “wild”. After the war Frank was dealing in scrap metal and brought a Japanese submarine to Sydney where it was docked at Luna Park as an attraction. He was a showman as well as ultimately, a successful businessman. A little of her dad's spirit must have rubbed off on Jan.
Before she became a wife and mother, Jan was blazing a trail as one of the first female personal assistants to the NSW Premier's office. Later she set up and ran an employment office. She also travelled through Europe and the USA where the shows on Broadway sealed her passion for theatre and musicals in particular.
Jan’s philanthropic support started at The Marian Street Theatre in the 1980s. There she built many wonderful relationships including with the young director Wayne Harrison.
Her official title was Fundraising Co-ordinator, but she also worked in the Box Office, Group Bookings, catering and any other area that needed assistance.
Jan became the queen of fundraising for Marian St, from raffles to fashion parades and a festival of dolls. Fundraising in all forms. Jan developed the skills that gave her the tools to go forward and become a legend in Australian philanthropy.
In 1990 when Wayne Harrison became Artistic Director of Sydney Theatre Company Jan’s efforts refocused on supporting him. They remained close friends throughout her life.
Jan’s other great love was opera and she became a major supporter of The Opera Foundation for Young Australians. In good company with Lady Mary Fairfax AC OBE and Lady Gallagher, Jan served on the committee of Opera Foundation Society NSW from the 1990s later taking on the role of President.
Alison Cole recounted that after surviving nine safaris in Africa, Jan became known affectionately as “The African Queen” – and Jim as “Jungle Jim”. All invitations from the Foundation events were issued under these names, and she loved it
Jan was also pivotal in raising funds for the American Institute of Musical Studies Award (AIMS) and went on, with Jim, to initiate the AIMS Sundell Study Award.
The Opera Foundation Society’s Vienna State Opera Award saw Jan running many functions with live entertainment, auctions and her annual fundraising lunch at Parliament House.
Jan was a Director on the Foundation Board from 2006 to 2014. Her financial and personal support of the young emerging opera artists also extended to Pacific Opera. Artistic Director, Simon Kenway, and Jan were great friends and they caught up regularly over dinner. For Jan’s funeral Simon was the accompanist for the songs Jan had chosen. He described Jan as a true philanthropist in mind, body, spirit and wallet.
Pacific Opera Chair, The Hon George Palmer AM is also an outstanding Australian Composer, and Jan became a generous financial supporter of the first workshop of his opera "Cloudstreet". Following the opening night in Adelaide in 2016 directed by Gale Edwards, Jan celebrated with generous amounts of Bollinger in the Hilton Hotel bar. Jan and her great friend Peter Reeve, partied on until 4.00 am with Jan commenting, “The young ones have no stamina”.
Jan supported the foundation of the Hayes Theatre Company and the vision of Lisa Campbell and David Campbell, Neil Gooding, Richard Carroll and Michelle Guthrie. Jan loved the whole concept of the Hayes. She loved the musicals presented at the theatre and loved making her entrance on opening nights, ascending to the foyer via the open goods lift; rising up above the arriving patrons in grand style. She entered the theatre via a special door to sit in dedicated seats in the front row. She also worked tirelessly to introduce people to the theatre as patrons and potential donors.
Jan always had a mischievous twinkle in her eye, wanting to know who was doing what, which shows they would be in next and supporting favourite performers. Jan’s generosity was exceptional, both as a major supporter for the Hayes, and many productions including "Melba", "Darlinghurst Nights" and "American Psycho".
The new Sydney Festival Director, Olivia Ansell described Jan as a fierce and fabulous woman who just adored the arts. Jan supported Olivia’s very successful Kings Cross site specific production "Hidden Sydney".
Jan’s passion for independent theatre included the Old Fitz, where she supported Andrew Henry and Vanessa Wright for Red Line Productions, including "Betty Blokk-Buster Reimagined".
Jan was delighted to be appointed as an Ambassador for Actors Benevolent Fund and organised large groups of her friends to attend their fundraising events. She loved the fact that it was a charity that supported performers and theatre creatives and technicians, the people who created the shows that gave her so much joy. It was the performing arts community who would always be her other family.
Her daughter Anne-Katrine better known as Bubb, asked her recently what she loved most about the theatre. She replied “The people and the live shows. They never judge, they are always accepting and they are passionate about their craft”. Jan and Bubb were constant companions starting from Bubb’s great European tour the year before she finished school. They shared the same sense of humour and a love of the performing arts. As Jan’s health failed it was Bubb who took her each week have her hair and nails done and who decorated her walking frame with Swarovski crystals to brighten up her day.
Jan’s support for the independent theatre sector and enabling young artist’s dreams was never stronger than as a Darlo Angel. She saw every play, musical and cabaret performed at the Eternity Playhouse for the last three years and was Production Patron to main stage shows that without her help would not have shone as brightly as they did.
Every opening night there she was, front row centre, champagne in hand. It wasn't opening night at Darlo without Jan.
During the Covid lock down Jan’s unconditional financial support was given towards “anything they felt was important”. She wanted to help them create something new and, as always, she wanted to help the artists.
The resulting "Red Carpet Cabaret" series, created by Amylia Harris transformed the Darlo restaurant & bar into a cabaret space and Jan was there, grabbing every moment of theatre that her health allowed.
Helena Harris met Jan 5 years ago in the foyer of their apartment block, and their friendship was immediate and soon they had teamed up, going out to the theatre, the opera and cabarets, at least twice a week. There were lime daiquiris at the restaurants downstairs, bubbles on the balcony, lunches, parties and dinners. Everyone loved Jan, keeping all entertained with her quick naughty wit and hilarious stories for all occasions. Even when Jan’s health was becoming a challenge for her the laughs never stopped.
On her last night Bubb called for a chat as she did every day. Jan was tired and thought she should not go to the "Berlin Electric" cabaret with Helena but Bubb said, “You should go out. This could be your final hurrah. Enjoy it while you can, I love you Mum”.
Later in her sleep after a joyous night at the theatre, Jan passed away. It was a fitting final curtain for one of the grand ladies of Sydney theatre.
So check the fridge for decent Champagne, choose something fabulous to wear – maybe black and just enough jewels and drink a toast to Jan. We will all miss her.
Peter Reeve and Anne-Katrine Goulston