THE VAGABOND KING (1943)

THE VAGABOND KING (1943)


Share/Bookmark

 

THE WINTER GARDEN THEATRE

Collage by Charles S.P. Jenkins

 

Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth as Katherine and Francois Villon in the revival of The Vagabond King (1943). A duet from The Vagabond King:



TOMORROW

 
Webster Booth pointed out in his joint autobiography with Anne Ziegler, Duet, that the Winter Garden had been in the hub of theatre land in the 1920s, but by the time Tom Arnold’s revival of The Vagabond King opened there in 1943, theatre land had moved west and not many people (including taxi drivers) knew where the theatre was any more.

The Tom Arnold production went on an extensive tour of the United Kingdom before it opened at the Winter Garden on 22 April 1943. The production was devised and supervised by Robert Nesbitt, the dialogue was directed by Maxwell Wray, and the  and the conductor of the orchestra was Bob Wolly.  

The name part of the Vagabond King, Francois Villon was a strenuous one. There was a lot of robust singing and a a sword fight. Unfortunately, on the first night of the tour in Blackpool, Webster was struck on the throat during the sword fight on stage  with John Oliver. He lost his voice and his part was taken temporarily by Derek Oldham, who had played Villon in the original production in 1927 with his wife Winnie Melville playing Lady Katherine.

Anne Ziegler played the part of Lady Katherine de Veucelles in this production and she had  three excellent duets with Francois Villon in the show: Love Me Tonight, Tomorrow, and Only a Rose. The last duet became the Booths’ signature tune in their variety act:

The part of Huguette was taken by Tessa Dean, while Lady Mary was played by Sara Gregory. Henry Baynton, an elderly Shakespearean actor took the role of  Louis XI.

                                                Webster and Tessa Dean (Huguette)
 Cartoon of Anne and Webster in the show (June 1943)

On the cover of Theatre World (July 1943) 

The King makes Villon Grand Marshall of France.
The show received excellent notices, but Webster complained about the theatre being very uncomfortable. Anne was so concerned with the sanitation that she called in a sanitary inspector! Despite the success of the show it closed in July. Webster was sure that the show closed prematurely because the Winter Garden Theatre was no longer in theatre land. He realised that the role was too heavy for his light tenor voice and thought the early closure was a blessing in disguise as he might have ruined his voice had he continued singing it for a longer time.
 

 

Here is the duet which stopped the show: Love Me Tonight 

Addendum

Judging by the photos of the 1943 Tom Arnold production of elaborate sets, large chorus and the sword-fight scene, The Vagabond King would be extremely expensive to mount today. 
 
Although Webster considered the role of Francois Villon his favourite part, it took a toll on him, not so much because of the singing which he could manage perfectly well, but because the part itself is a strenuous one. He was on stage most of the time rallying the masses to turn against the Duke of Burgundy and lead the mob into battle. The sword fight must have been quite challenging too – he probably thought he had lost his voice forever when his opponent John Oliver  “was so realistic that I received the full force of his arm with his sixteen stones behind it right across my throat…. By the end of that first night’s show… I could hardly speak. A specialist was sent for, and he diagnosed a badly bruised larynx.”
 
Victor Standing took over the part for a few nights and Derek Oldham (who had played Villon in the original London production) took over from him until Webster’s larynx had recovered from the blow. After the first night of the London opening he was due to sing in the Good Friday performance of Messiah at the Albert Hall, which he considered “the very height of the oratorio profession”.  
 
When he was 71 he told me that oratorio singing had meant far more to him than anything else he had done in his varied singing career, so he must have felt torn between everything he did in the nineteen-forties – musicals, films, and part of a double act with Anne on the variety stage. I dare say if he had stuck to singing oratorio he would be remembered today as one of the great British tenors of the twentieth century instead of one half of “Sweethearts of Song” duettists’ act on the variety stage. 
 
 
The sword fight. Villon fights with Captain of the Archers (John Oliver).
 

 

Jeannie C 23 November 2012
Revised 25 November 2017 © 

 

MEMORIAL SERVICE FOR WEBSTER BOOTH AT ST PAUL’S COVENT GARDEN

 
l
Photo: Whysall Studios, Durban
 
A memorial service was held at St Paul’s Covent Garden for Webster Booth
in October 1984. Before the service his ashes were buried in the grounds
and a memorial plaque erected in commemoration to him. In 1991 Pamela
Davies, who collaborated with me in writing one of the books on Anne
Ziegler and Webster Booth, visited the churchyard in the early 1990s and
found Webster’s memorial plaque under a hawthorn tree. The plaque was
made of brass and in the seven years since it had been erected it was
tarnished and blackened, although she could still read the plain
inscription: 


LESLIE

WEBSTER BOOTH
1902-1984

 St Paul’s, Covent Garden – All photographs by Charles S. P. Jenkins (November 2010)

 South side of St Paul’s churchyard

Anne with Evelyn Laye at Webster’s memorial service, October 1984.





Pamela returned to the churchyard in 2005 only to find that the hawthorn tree
had been cut down and Webster’s plaque could no longer be seen. She
wrote to make enquiries as to what had happened to the plaque. I quote
from our book, Do You Remember Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth?

The administrator, in the rector’s absence, kindly instituted another
search, equally fruitless. He suggested it could be hidden under a large
plant or simply have disintegrated in the adverse weather, as had
happened to the plaque to the actor Michael Williams, which had been in
place only four years.
In my letter I had enquired also about the possibility of a plaque to
Webster Booth’s wife, the singer Anne Ziegler, but I was informed that
no more plaques are being accepted. The only answer would be an
inscribed garden bench, or obtaining permission for a name in a memorial
book in the church….

Evelyn Laye had read the lesson at Webster’s memorial service. Her life is
commemorated by an inscription on a garden bench in the churchyard:
 

 

It seems a shame that this plaque, which marked the burial place of
Webster’s  ashes, and was erected in memory of a great British  tenor
who was also dearly beloved by his family, friends and fans, should have
vanished without trace. As one can see from the above photographs, the
churchyard is very overgrown, so many other plaques are probably
obscured or hidden in the undergrowth. 
Apparently no record is kept of those whose memorial services are held at the church. 

If the plaques commemorating theatrical musical and theatrical
personalities have disintegrated or disappeared in the thick undergrowth
within such a short time, valuable pieces of theatrical history are
lost forever to future generations.

UPDATE – 19 FEBRUARY 2011

I received an e-mail from St Paul’s Covent Garden yesterday and I will
outline what was said, below, and also part of my reply. I fear that the
matter now rests there as far as I am concerned.


The main problem for those of us administrating this church now is that
burial in all central London graveyards was stopped by Act of Parliament
in the mid 19th century. Therefore burial of ashes with plaque, of
anyone since then, has been illegal. However discreet internment without
ceremony, plaque or shrub can be considered. 

A number of plaques are placed in the garden illegally but these can
disintegrate, disappear, or even, get stolen and in foliage can simply
wither. 
The Parochial Church Council was instructed by the Diocese to stop
putting Memorial Plaques on the church’s interior walls. Since then the
PCC have accepted inscribed benches for use in the burial ground at
£1000 each. A name inscribed in the Actors’ Church Union Book of
Remembrance costs £100. The PCC has recently decided to consider plaques
on the interior wainscotting again, for those artistes honoured by Her
Majesty, at a premium of £3000. The proposal to be made by the nearest
member of the family.
My reply was as follows:
 
Thank you for responding so promptly to my query and for explaining the
situation to me. As far as I know the ashes of Webster Booth were
interned in the Churchyard prior to the memorial service. I know that
his widow, the late Anne Ziegler, who was living in Llandudno, North
Wales, did not return to the Church after this service, so I’m not sure
at what juncture the plaque was placed in the Churchyard. 

I shall pass on the information you have given me to Webster Booth’s next of kin….

I omitted the name of the person who wrote and also the name of Webster’s
next of kin. I would add that there would have been no question of Anne
arranging to have an illegal plaque placed in the Churchyard! If you
look at the photographs again, you will see that there are many plaques
there, erected many years after the mid-nineteenth century. I think that
it is a rather snobbish practice to consider placing plaques in the
central wainscotting only for artistes honoured by Her Majesty

A few years after Webster Booth’s death, Anne Ziegler was granted a
special pension by the Queen in recognition of Anne and Webster’s
contribution to music in the United Kingdom – a very much more practical
“honour” than an OBE. 

 
Jean Collen
Join: The Golden Age of Webster Booth-Anne Ziegler and Friends on Facebook.

Share/Bookmark