ACCOMPANYING FOR WEBSTER AGAIN.

Webster Booth                                                                                 Jean Collen (1963)



ACCOMPANYING FOR WEBSTER AGAIN


had played for Webster for two weeks while Anne was away and assumed
that I would no longer be needed now that she had returned. Anne and
Webster insisted that I keep the spare keys to the studio so that I
could work there when they were not teaching. I was preparing for the
ATCL singing examination in October and Grade 8 piano the following
year, so I found the studio, high above the hustle and bustle of
downtown
Johannesburg, the ideal place to work and practise. In return
I answered queries and took messages on the phone, and answered the
door to visitors.
Towards the end of May the Johannesburg Operatic Society (JODS) asked
Webster to take over the role of Colonel Fairfax in their production of
The Yeomen of the Guard at short notice. This was an incongruously
youthful role for someone aged sixty-one, but he acquitted himself as well
as always and lifted the production with his dynamic stage presence and
undiminished vocal gifts. The show opened to mixed reviews, but all the
critics had great praise for Webster. Dora Sowden headed her review in one
of the Sunday papers:”Webster towers”. He had certainly taken on a remarkable
feat as the juvenile lead at the age of sixty-one.

Alexander Theatre, Braamfontein

Later that week we went to see The Yeomen at the old Reps Theatre
in Braamfontein, now named the Alexander Theatre after Muriel Alexander.
We were very impressed by Webster’s performance as the somewhat elderly
Colonel Fairfax, who wins Elsie Maynard and breaks poor Jack Point‘s
heart in the process. Anne told me that Webster would be very hurt if I
didn’t go backstage to see him afterwards, so I did. He was fighting
off the ‘flu and did not look well, although from the auditorium nobody
would have realised that he was ill.

Webster as Colonel Fairfax in The Yeomen of the Guard for JODS (1963)

In June, while Webster was still involved with The Yeomen, Anne told me
that their housekeeper, Hilda, who was from the island of St Helena,
was planning a trip home for six and a half weeks. They had decided to
do alternate days in the studio while she was away. Would I care to
accompany for Webster again? I did not have to think twice about
agreeing to do so.
After Hilda left on her trip I settled into accompanying for Webster
once again. Anne came in on alternate teaching days so occasionally I
had a lesson with her. One Monday afternoon Ruth phoned me at the studio
to ask whether I would like to have dinner with her family before going
to the SABC choir meeting afterwards. Webster gladly agreed to take me
to Parkwood instead of Kensington, as it was on his direct route home.
We drove past
Zoo Lake and he pointed out his bowling club, saying it was
the loveliest setting in the world in which to play bowls. He had played golf in
England, but could not afford to do so in South Africa.
I had a pleasant dinner with the Ormonds, and then Mr Ormond transported
us to the meeting in his big black Rover. There was a party after the
meeting and Ruth and I chatted to Anton Hartman, the chief orchestral
conductor at the SABC. Toward the end of June, we sang in the Light
Music Festival where we did a number of unaccompanied American, German
and Afrikaans folk songs. The Dutch conductor Jos Cleber conducted the
orchestra, with Gert Potgieter and Bob Borowsky as soloists. Ruth was
working for matric exams, and I for my singing diploma so we decided to
take leave of absence from the choir, with the idea of returning when
our respective examinations were behind us.


Webster Booth and me, Johannesburg, 1960s.
One evening after we finished work at the studio Webster took me with him
to see one of The Three Petersen Brothers in connection with going into partnership
in a new film company. Webster introduced me as: “This is Miss Campbell. She plays
for me.” The Petersen brother concerned looked mystified. Webster had to explain to
him exactly what it was I played! Although they had a long discussion, nothing came
of the film company as far as Webster was concerned.

In July Anne had a very bad cold which lingered on for a long time, and
Webster had a funny turn one evening. He lost his vision, and his head
was spinning even when he went to lie down. Anne told me that she wanted
him to see the Doctor about his general health and his general
grumpiness, but he refused to do so. She admitted that he hated teaching
everyone apart from his few “pets”. She was very worried about him.

From the way he treated Lucille at her lessons, I gathered that she was
one of the “pets”. She was having her twenty-first birthday party and
had invited them to her party, but they had another engagement and could
not attend.

A few days later Webster told me that Anne’s cold was not
any better. He wanted her to see the doctor, but instead she had
insisted on going to Leslie Green’s draughty house for dinner. She was
not pleased when he told her she would be better off staying in bed and
trying to get rid of her cold.

One evening I was washing the dishes in the kitchen before we left the
studio for the night, when I overheard him telling Gertie, the last pupil
of the day, for whom I had just played the accompaniment of Softly
Awakes my Heart from Samson and Delilah, what a wonderful musician
I was at only nineteen. Praise indeed.
When Hilda returned from her St Helena holiday, the Booths went to
sing at a concert in the country with Desmond Wright, who had conducted
The Yeomen, as their accompanist. Webster had said that the only reason
he had not asked me to play for them was that he disliked another woman
on the stage, as she would draw the audience’s attention away from Anne.
They made a great fuss of my twentieth birthday at the end of August, with
Anne singing Happy Birthday to me, and both of them kissing me to wish me
a happy day. There was a present of lipstick and matching nail varnish waiting
for me on top of the piano when I went in for my lesson. I was very touched that
they had remembered my birthday. Ruth had her lesson after mine, so I waited for
her, as we were going out for coffee after her lesson.
Webster said, “Don’t drink too much whisky,” as we left. It was another lovely day.

They had acquired a protégé, a talented boy soprano called
Robin Lister, whom they were coaching in preparation for his first LP
recording. Robin had an exceptional voice, resembling a mature female
soprano rather than the typical Ernest Lough boy soprano. He had
been having lessons with a teacher in Benoni, but left her to study with
Anne and Webster. Before his voice broke he made several recordings
supervised by Anne and Webster. He became very well known and sang at a
number of concerts. After his voice broke, he continued his lessons with
the Booths, changing from singing to piano. The last I heard was that
he became an engineer and immigrated to
Australia.
Webster phoned me before he left for Michaelhouse School in Natal
to sing Elijah to ask whether I would play at an audition for two of
their boy sopranos for Amahl and the Night Visitors the following
Saturday. I agreed to do so and wished him well for the Elijah performance.
“I know you’ll sing beautifully,” I added, and he replied, “Bless you, dear”.
On Saturday morning the two boys, Denis Andrews and Selwyn Lotzof,
together with their parents and I arrived at Gwen Clark’s sumptuous
penthouse at the top of Anstey’s Building, where the audition was to be
held. The boys acquitted themselves well and we were given a lovely tea
afterwards, but neither was chosen to sing the part of Amahl. Instead
they decided to import a boy from
Britain. Webster said that Ruth
could have done the part, if suitably disguised, as her voice was like
a boy’s, with absolutely no vibrato.
I went back to the studio after the audition to let Anne know how the boys
had fared. She had had a tiring morning teaching by herself, as Webster
was at Michaelhouse to sing in a performance of Elijah, conducted by
Barry Smith, the musical director at Michaelhouse at the time.

Anne in “The Laughing Lady” (1945)


Anne insisted on making us coffee before she left. She spoke of Jo’burg “high”

society, who had gone out of its way to cultivate them when they first arrived in

South Africa as international stars, but soon dropped them when they realised

that they were not rolling in money and were  obliged to work for a living.

My diploma was pending and I spent a lot of time practising ear tests at
Sylvia Sullivan’s studio with Edith Sanders, who was working for a piano
diploma. She had perfect pitch, so I admired her sense of pitch and she
admired my competent sight-reading, which had improved remarkably since
the early days of accompanying for Webster.
My Associate diploma, once again with Guy McGrath as examiner and Anne as
accompanist, went well in all departments. After the exam, I went with
Anne in her pale blue
Anglia to Macey’s, a store in the city, where she bought
a new carpet sweeper. On the way there she told me that she thought I was going
to be another Mabel Fenney. By this time Mabel had passed her final exam at
the Hochschule. She was divorced from her first husband, Eric Fenney, and had
recently married Maurice Perkin in England.
About a week after the exam Webster phoned me at the studio to ask me to look
up something about one of his “great voices” for his programme in my
musical dictionary. He had seen the heavy tome and always termed it as
my Bible.
I met my mother for lunch in Anstey’s that day and was pleased to hear that
I had passed the Associate exam with seventy-seven per cent.

When I went to the studio in the afternoon, Webster answered the door.
We had our usual shilling bet on passing or failing the exam.
“I owe you a shilling”, I said, handing it to him.
“What’s this for?” he asked as I went into the kitchen-cum-waiting room.
“I’ve passed my exam!” I announced as I sat down.
“Congratulations, darling,” he cried, bending down to kiss me.
We told Anne the good news when I went into the studio for my lesson.
“Did you know about it when I phoned you this morning?” Webster asked.
Anne asked sharply, ‘Why did you phone Jean?”
“I wanted her to look up something in her Bible for me,” he replied mildly.
“Whatever for? We have four Bibles at home!” she retorted, regarding us
both with suspicion.
“It’s not a Bible really. It’s a music dictionary,” he explained faintly.
Obviously she did not believe a word he told her. I felt embarrassed to
suddenly be the object of Anne’s unfounded suspicions, when we had
always got on so well together. The episode put a damper on my exam
success.
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