PROGRAMMES AND ADVERTS – 1953 – AUGUST 1956

Unlike the accepted view that Anne and Webster were losing popularity because of the rise of American entertainers and rock ‘n roll, they still had plenty of work from 1953 to 1956. Through no fault of their own they were struggling with the Inland Revenue so decided to move to South Africa in July of 1956.

18 February 1953 Ash Wednesday.
Elected Joint presidents of Concert Artistes’ Association.

Webster Booth was the guest of Roy Plomley on Desert Island Discs on the BBC Home Service on 3 April 1953.

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Opening of Desert Island Discs script. Sadly the recording is not available on the BBC webpage.
11 April 1953 – hardly something to commend him!

Anne as Mistress Knight and Webster as King Charles II in And So to Bed.

24 April 1953 – a poor crit for And so to Bed
in Coventry.
Diamond Wedding anniversary of Anne’s parents April 1953.
Anne and Webster went on an extensive tour of And So to Bed in the midst of many other commitments, particularly Merrie England in the Coronation Year.
Booths sing in concert version of Merrie England in Calgary on May 9 1953.
Merrie England at Luton Hoo with Douglas Fairbanks Junior

Merrie England at Luton Hoo.
CAA dinner 1953 Anne and Webster as presidents.
Advert – 1954

8 April 1954
15 April 1954

30 April 1954
16 May 1954

May 1954
Hiawatha concert had been cancelled for lack of interest. It was replaced by an extract from Aida.

21 September 1954 – Attack of Shingles. Far from “staying indoors for four or five days,” the pain troubled him periodically for many years to come.

28 October 1954
24 November 1954 – Victoria Congregational Church, Derby from Webster’s score.
15 December 1954

Webster’s score 10 December 1954
31 December 1954
I do not know whether Webster and Anne had any singing pupils in the UK.

27 May 1955 Gilbert and Sullivan concert.
29 April 1955 – Sir Malcolm Sargent’s birthday concert.
24 June 1955 – St Andrew’s Hall, Glasgow.
27 July 1955. Anne and Webster were presented to Princess Alexandra.

13 August 1955 Promenade Concert.
13 October 1955 Lady Audley’s Secret.
25 October 1955
November 1955 0n the way to South Africa for tour of Cape Province.

12 December 1955 – Arriving back in the UK again.

15 December 1955 Messiah, Huddersfield.

Huddersfield Town Hall

Return to South Africa for a further tour.

2 February 1956 Crit by Dora L. Sowden in Rand Daily Mail.

On “platteland tour”. Having tea in Bethal with accompanist, Arthur Tatler.
27 June 1956

Passenger List, Pretoria Castle – 12 July 1956.

On board the Pretoria Castle, 12 July 1956.

Signing the menu on board ship.
15 August 1956

WEBSTER BOOTH AND ANNE ZIEGLER – MERRIE ENGLAND

Webster Booth and Anne Ziegler were associated with Edward German’s comic opera, Merrie England for most of their lives, and they sang other Edward German songs into the bargain. Anne had taken the role of the May Queen in an amateur production of Merrie England when still in her teens, and she sang Bessie Throckmorton’s Waltz Song as a test recording when she auditioned for HMV in the nineteen-thirties. One of her few solo recordings was the Waltz Song from German’s Tom Jones. 

Webster, as part of the HMV Light Opera Company, had recorded The English RoseRobin Hood’s Wedding and With a Hey, Robin in the nineteen thirties’ recording of Merrie England Vocal Gems (C2106) He made his own solo recording of The English Rose in 1939. The latter recording was one of his most popular recordings. Later he made a recording of Where Haven Lies from German’s A Princess of Kensington and told me he considered this song to be “the greatest love song ever written”.

Bessie’s Waltz Song (test record for HMV)

Merrie England Vocal Gems (with Webster Booth)

24 April 1939 Another concert by the Glee Club – Merrie England. Eight years ago 16 music lovers met in a recreation room at North End and formed the nucleus of the Portsmouth Glee Club, now a well-known organisation. The first concert they produced in the Guildhall took the form of a Coronation presentation of Merrie England. That was on April 14, 1937. Since then they have given numerous performances and on Wednesday next will give a concert of the music by Sir Edward German. Olive Groves and Webster Booth, the opera singer will take part. The programme consists of excerpts from Merrie England, Nell Gwyn dances, which will be played by the orchestra, and a complete concert selection of A Princess of Kensington. This last-named will be performed by the full chorus and orchestra of the Glee Club under the direction of Mr Harold Hall.

20 November 1940 – Oldham Evening Chronicle

This performance, conducted by Ernest Craig in the darkest days of the war, was in aid of the Mayor’s Spitfire Fund. The Avro Works in Chadderton, just down the road was, of course, an important centre of aircraft production, although they made bombers, not fighters. Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth, fairly recently married and among the most famous variety duettists of that time took part. Tickets rapidly sold out and a second performance had to be arranged in the evening.

They appeared together in Merrie England was in a concert version in a Circus Big Top in Blackpool in the summer of 1941.

In 1945 they starred in a concert performance of Merrie England with the Oldham Choral Society at the Odeon Cinema, Oldham. The performance took place on a Sunday afternoon, conducted by the resident conductor, Ernest Craig. The show was so popular that it had to be repeated again that evening by public demand.

Merrie England – Captivating Singing in Oldham.

So great was the demand for seats to hear the concert performance of Merrie England by the Oldham Musical Society and well-known soloists at the Odeon Theatre on Sunday that it was necessary to repeat it in the evening. Originally the intention had been to have only an afternoon performance. Both houses were full, and the audiences were enthusiastic.

This light opera, Edward German’s masterpiece, abounds in beautiful and easily remembered melodies and in gay and happy choruses. It was in these choruses that the members of the Musical Society, of whom 79 were to be counted on the platform (27 of them men) excelled. They have seldom been heard to better advantage and appeared to enjoy the performances as much as did the audiences. They were accompanied by an orchestra of 23 players led by Alfred Barker, under the baton of Mr Ernest Craig, ARCM.

Ernest Craig

The principal soloists were: Anne Ziegler, Bessie Collins, Webster Booth and Arthur Copley.

But it was in the early nineteen-fifties when Anne and Webster came into their own in Merrie England,  taking the starring roles of Bessie Throckmorton and Sir Walter Raleigh with various amateur operatic societies. The first such performance was from 15 – 18 August 1951 at Westbourne Gardens, Liskeard, Cornwall. The show was presented by Liskeard Musical Theatre, directed by Thomas J. Bell and conducted by Percival Hill.

24 June 1952 – Merrie England was performed at Priory Park, Chichester. The show was an open-air production presented by the Chichester Amateur Operatic Society and starred Anne and Webster in their usual roles, with Leslie Rands and Marjorie Eyres another husband and wife singing team, once distinguished members of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, playing the Earl of Essex and Jill-All-Alone in a week’s run in aid of charity in Priory Park, Chichester, Leslie’s birthplace. The remainder of the principals were drawn from the Chichester and Bognor Regis Amateur Operatic Society and Societies from the surrounding districts.

Merrie England – Anne and Marjorie Eyres sign autographs.

1953 was Coronation Year so Merrie England, set in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, seemed like an ideal work to celebrate the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Anne and Webster were booked to appear in a number of these productions.

31 January 1953 – Northern Miner Luton’s Coronation pageant to be held in the grounds of Luton Hoo, one of England’s stateliest homes, from June 9 till June 15, will be one of the largest events of its kind ever staged in Britain. There will be more than 1000 performers, all in Elizabethan costume for this special version of Merrie England. The setting of the pageant will represent Old Windsor, with an impressive reproduction of the castle in the background.

A special feature will be an illuminated water curtain, which will screen the stage from the auditorium before the performance. The famous Luton Girls’ Choir will take part in the pageant and other well-known singers will support the principals – Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth. Mounted performers will be dressed in full uniform of the Yeomen of the Guard, and ballet, folk-dancing will be demonstrated by experts.

Calgary, Canada

There was even a concert performance of the work in Canada. An advance notice about this notified the public that it would take place in the Stampede Corral, Calgary in May conducted by Harold Ramsay, an old friend of the Booths. He had been born Harold Ramsbottom in England, but raised in Canada. He changed his name to Harold Ramsay and became a gifted cinema organist, first in Canada and the USA. He went to England in 1933 and became Granada’s Chief Organist. He returned to Canada after World War 2.

The Calgary Herald, 3 March 1953 read as follows:

17 April 1953 – Calgary Herald. Merrie England Presentation. British Stars Feature in Choral Society Début. When the Calgary Choral Society makes its first public appearance in the Stampede Corral on May 9, two of Britain’s brightest singing stars, Webster Booth and Anne Ziegler will be there to sing the leading tenor and soprano roles of the society’s Merrie England presentation…

The roles of Sir Walter and Bessie will be played by the British singers, who are making a special air trip to Canada for the production.

The two artists are probably the most popular singing team in the British concert stage today. They are familiar with the principal roles in Merrie England and having sung them on many occasions.

Webster Booth has been singing since he was a small boy. He began his singing career as a boy soprano in Lincoln Cathedral. When his voice broke he returned to his native Birmingham and took a job as a clerk in an accountant’s office.

Their trip to Canada in May will inaugurate the Calgary Choral Society which was organised last September by the Calgary Kiwanis Club. Music for Merrie England will be provided by 50 musicians drawn from the Calgary Symphony Orchestra.

The Calgary Choral Society has 188 male and female voices and from this group several have been selected to sing title roles in the production…Conductor of the choir is Harold Ramsay, director of Mount Royal Conservatory of Music and organist and choirmaster at Wesley United Church…

28 April 1953 – Ottawa Citizen. British Stars Flying 8,800 Miles to Sing – by the Canadian Press. London – Webster Booth and Anne Ziegler, Britain’s top man-and-wife operatic team, will ditch a well-earned holiday to fly 8,800 miles to a one-night stand in Calgary.

Calgarians can thank a long-standing friendship between the British couple and Harold Ramsay, former BBC organist who founded the Calgary Choral Society under the sponsorship of the Calgary Kiwanis Club.

Ramsay said wistfully in a letter describing a musical play he is producing: “I only wish you and Anne were free.”

The couple immediately gave up plans for a three-week holiday in France and will appear in the opening performance on May 9 of Merrie England, a Tudor production well suited to the coronation of the second Elizabeth. They will be the only professionals in an otherwise all-Canadian cast…Calgarians will be the more appreciative of Ramsay’s success because the Booths have leading roles in this country’s coronation summer entertainment plans.

The Calgary appearance will be one in a series of Merrie England performances. The first in the United Kingdom is scheduled to begin on June 1 at Newport, Wales. One of the biggest will be at the country home of Sir Harold Wernher at Luton Hoo, Bedfordshire.

Bulldozers have processed three acres for a vast open-air stage that will hold a cast of 1,000, of which 300 will be on horseback. Forty-one microphones have been installed to accommodate audiences of about 21,000 expected every day in a week-long festival starting on June 8.

It will be Miss Ziegler’s first trip to Canada. Booth last visited the country in the ‘20s when the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company toured North America. They will have three days’ holidays here before leaving for Calgary and will make a few radio, and possibly television appearances before returning by sea.

17 May 1953 MERRIE ENGLAND, Calgary, Canada; Kiwani’s Club sponsored Anne and Webster in one performance of Merrie England in the incongruous setting of the Rodeo Stadium, Calgary. As part of their fee they were treated to a memorable luxurious train journey through the Canadian Rockies to Montreal.

Although the show in Canada was a great success, the trip was spoilt when Webster suffered a severe bout of sciatica in his hip. He could barely move his right leg.

Here is the criticism of the show: Calgary Herald 11 May 1953

 Merrie England show pleases 6000 persons by Shirley McNeill 

From the opening chorus of Merrie England at the Stampede Corral Saturday night, the audience of 6,000 people who went to hear the premier performances of the Calgary Choral Society showed by their applause that hey approved heartily of what they heard.

Much of the success of the concert must be credited to singing stars Webster Booth and Anne Ziegler, who came all the way from England to appear with the society. This accomplished vocal team turned in performances that were polished and professional throughout.

The two other soloists of Merrie England, Calgarians Janet Warren and Ian Smith, are deserving of high praise for their roles in the delightful little opera. Mrs Warren’s vibrant contralto voice gave her roles of Jill-all-Alone and Elizabeth both contrast and warmth.

Mr Smith as the Earl of Essex was a convincing, confident performer. His deep well-rounded tones and the good control he displayed were a pleasure to hear.

But the man who deserves perhaps the greatest share of laurels for the success of Merrie England is Harold Ramsay, who in a few short months conducted the Calgary Choral Society to the high standard of musical accomplishment which they gave the audience on Saturday evening. It was Mr Ramsay’s job to conduct the choir as well as the 50 members of the Calgary Symphony Orchestra who gave instrumental support to the singers. This double duty was commendably performed.

One of the most rousing songs from Merrie England, the finale to the first part, It is a Tale of Robin Hood, was unfortunately distorted by loudspeakers, particularly for those members of the audience seated directly beneath them. The chorus and the four soloists combining voices in this finale were all too powerful a singing combination for the public address system set up to carry to all corners of the vast Corral. The microphones, however, were a necessary evil. Without them, it is doubtful if the concert would have been clearly audible to the entire audience.

The story of Elizabethan court days was incidental to the vocal beauty which Merrie England provoked in the ears of the audience. The rigid training program undergone by the Choral Society in recent months came to the fore in such selections as Sing a Down, a Down and the grand finale, Robin Hood’s Wedding.

The Singing courtship of Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth as Bessie Throckmorton and Sir Walter Raleigh was romance of a high calibre, particularly so in such songs as Bessie’s Who shall say sic (The Waltz Song) and Raleigh’s The English Rose, one of the loveliest songs in the entire light opera.

With the concert version of Merrie England over, Miss Ziegler and Mr Booth delighted the audience with an aria from Faust, a medley of Viennese waltz songs and a comic performance of the popular Wunderbar.

Before singing this song from Broadway, the team had been presented with big white cowboy hats by Art Baines, president of the Calgary Kiwanis club which sponsored the concert. Miss Ziegler, wearing a black and gold hoop-skirted gown, tossed aside a feather hair adornment, and, assuming a genuine western air, donned the ten-gallon hat to the delight of the audience.

Stampede Corral, Calgary – opened in 1950

Anne and Webster signed the Coronation menu on the sea trip back to the UK.

1953 Calgary Merrie England

Luton’s Merrie EnglandComplete arrangements have been made for the Harold Fielding and Luton Coronation Pageant Committee production of Merrie England at the historic Luton Hoo house, nightly from June 9-13. With Webster Booth and Anne Ziegler will be Redvers Llewellyn, Nancy Evans, Graham Clifford, Betty Sagon, Amanda Rolfe, the Luton Girls’ Choir and the Irish Guards Band, conducted by Captain CH Jaeger. The producer is H Powell Lloyd.

June 1953 – Merrie England, Crescent Cinema, Leatherhead. Leatherhead Dramatic & Operatic Society’s 1953 Coronation production starring Webster Booth as Raleigh and Anne Ziegler as Bessie Throckmorton.

8 June 1953 – Merrie England, Luton Hoo Anne and Webster, the Luton Girls Choir. There were over 600 singers in the chorus, 200 dancers and 50 men on horseback. A massive 250 foot stage was created beside Luton Hoo lake for the performances.

Merrie England at Luton Hoo.

Merrie England 1953
Merrie England, Luton Hoo, June 1953.

Douglas Fairbanks Junior with Anne, Webster and other cast members of the Luton Hoo production of Merrie England.

Luton Hoo bigger

Luton’s Merrie EnglandComplete arrangements have been made for the Harold Fielding and Luton Coronation Pageant Committee production of Merrie England at the historic Luton Hoo house, nightly from June 9-13. With Webster Booth and Anne Ziegler will be Redvers Llewellyn, Nancy Evans, Graham Clifford, Betty Sagon, Amanda Rolfe, the Luton Girls’ Choir and the Irish Guards Band, conducted by Captain CH Jaeger. The producer is H Powell Lloyd.

8 June 1953 – Merrie England, Luton Hoo Anne and Webster, the Luton Girls Choir. There were over 600 singers in the chorus, 200 dancers and 50 men on horseback. A massive 250-foot stage was created beside Luton Hoo lake for the performances.

Pamela Davies remarked in her book, Do You Remember Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth? :

“After And so to Bed finished in April 1953, I was so busy preparing to go to work in the United States that I learned too late that Anne and Webster had taken part in a spectacular show in June, when Merrie England was staged as a pageant at the historic Luton Hoo. They had only just returned from a lightning trip to Canada, to take part in the same operetta. On a tour of Canada the following year I had a brief glimpse of the huge rodeo stadium in Calgary at the entrance to the Rockies where it was staged – a more unlikely setting for Merrie England is hard to imagine.”

Merrie England in South Africa

Webster and Anne moved to South Africa in 1956 and did two more full productions of Merrie England in 1958, one in East London and the final one in Johannesburg.

16 – 21 June 1958 – Merrie England, City Hall, East London. Anne and Webster, with Jimmy Nicholas, Mabel Fenney, Pam Emslie and others.

Merrie England 19581958 Merrie England 1958a

3 November 1958 – Merrie England – Anne and Webster know the show backwards.

Any Monday, Wednesday or Friday Evening of the past few weeks, Fox Street (corner of Eloff) has been ringing with loud, lusty singing of God Save Queen Elizabeth (sic).

It is not a new anti-republican movement but Johannesburg Operatic and Dramatic Society rehearsing Merrie England. And as one passing listener remarked the other night: “With things going as they are, it’s likely we shan’t ever again hear this kind of production here, isn’t it?”

This production of Merrie England, which opens at the Reps Theatre on November 12, has more to it than this “last ever” interest. For one thing, it has a cat. Jill-All-Alone (Marian Saunders) one of the characters of Edward German’s operetta has to sing a ditty to her cat. She is accused of witchcraft and Sputnik (owned by a member of the chorus) is as black as any witch could wish.

Used to noise. He comes from a musical household where (as his owner explained) he has been used to noise since kitten-hood.  At rehearsals, he lies in the laps of young ladies and purrs pleasantly.

Co-producers Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth are themselves a treat to watch. Anne, who plays Bessie Throckmorton has every little error taped: “You looked like a sack of potatoes there. Don’t stand as if you were at a South African tea-party – girls on one side, men on the other.”

How do they manage it almost without glancing at the text? “We know it backwards,” says Anne. DLS (Dora Sowden)

12 to 29 November 1958 – Merrie England, Reps Theatre, Johannesburg JODS. Anne and Webster starred and produced the show, with Marian Saunders, June Bass, Nohline Mitchell, Kenneth Anderson, Len Rosen, and Dudley Cock, conducted by Drummond Bell.

14 November 1958 – Merrie England

Merrie England, Johannesburg

 

Merrie England WB

All behaved well in Merrie England. Rand Daily Mail. Contrary to all misgivings, Sputnik the cat behave beautifully in Merrie England at his premiere. He seemed a little timid but he clung prettily to Jill All-Alone (Marian Saunders) and he looked once or twice at the audience as if told when to turn.

That was also the manner of the whole production. Everyone behaved beautifully, went through the paces well, and if there was some first-night timidity, it had worn off before the final curtain.

One day someone (an American perhaps) will revise the libretto, pep up the music and make a great musical out of it. There may be those then who will feel about it as the quartet of singers fell about Cupid dressed up – that they “wouldn’t complain if he was a naked child again.”

There was too much sauntering about by the principals, too much preparation for the onset of a song, too many obvious smiles and bows.

Yet there was much excellent material both in the piece and in the performance. Len Rosen, when he put weight into his voice made an amusing character of Walter Witkins, even though one couldn’t believe he was ever in Master Shakespeare’s company.

June Bass was a dainty minx as the May Queen, Nohline Mitchell the very figure of a stiff Queen Bess, and when she steadied up, as regal in voice.  Kenneth Anderson made much of The Yeomen of England but his appearance more resembled Malvolio than Lord Essex.

Not surprisingly, Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth (also produced) were thoroughly at ease in their roles.  Drummond Bell’s direction was as reliable as ever. DORA SOWDEN.

Tuneful English musical – an eyeful of pleasure – Oliver Walker – The Star. Odd’s fish, but what a punning rogue of a librettist we have here! Was he also yclept Edward German like the composer? Marry, it could well be, for, like the music, the words are at all times prettily true and truly pretty as if written in the shadow of a maypole…

Do not be put off by the “ie” in “Merrie”. This is old world stuff, but not olde worlde. The references to “Cupid’s garden” and the sweetness of the English roses are there. But not in any mimsy-pimsy way. And besides, Edward German’s music is made of sugar not saccharine.

Apart from a shortage of yeomen and bowmen to match the bevies of blooming dairy-maids, this is a spanking, handsome production behind whose liveliness of movement and apt “business” it is easy to detect the guiding hands of its two evergreen, debonair principals Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth.

Jerkined giant. What the men lacked in numbers they made up for in heroic stature. Dudley Cock was a tuneful giant in green jerkin. Emil Beth matched him in voice and presence, while Len Rosen’s Walter Wilkins was a veritable Malvolio in cross-gartered fantastical humour.

June Bass’s May Queen needed more lung-power and Marian Sanders’ Jill-all-alone was altogether too parlour-bred for a suspect witch. Nohline Mitchell’s Queen Bess was gowned and jewelled fit for a Holbein portrait but should spare the yellow make-up.  She was one of the several new voices of excellent promise in a production that gave an eyeful of pleasure and was always easy on the ear.

1958 – Merrie England – Star Oliver Walker wrote an article concerning the flop of Merrie England, a show which had proved a great success in places like East London and Port Elizabeth. “JODS will lose its boots on what is voted a very tuneful colourful musical.”

He wondered whether English musicals of this type were losing their appeal with Johannesburg audiences.

JODS – Merrie England At a committee meeting of JODS, the Booths said that they hoped that one day they would get a full cast at rehearsals. Not the most propitious conditions under which to work when trying to create a success for the society.

1968 Knysna Ten years later the Booths presented a concert version of Merrie England in Knysna shortly after they moved to the village.

1 to 13 July 1968: Merrie England (Concert Version)  at 8.15 pm Knysna and District Choral Society D R Church Hall, Fichat Street, Knysna Webster, Anne, Dorothy Davies, James Squier and Ena Van der Vyver, directed by Anne Ziegler, conducted by Webster Booth, Accompanist: Wanda Willis.

 

Jean Collen (updated 14 September 2018)

ACCOMPANYING FOR WEBSTER BOOTH

When he was about to go home and was standing on our balcony which was enclosed with a purple bougainvillaea creeper, my mother said, “Thank you for looking after Jean,” he replied, “I think it’s Jean who’s looking after me.”

Although I can remember that day as though it were yesterday it saddens me to think that Dawson’s is no longer the plush hotel it was then, while Shandy, my mother, father and dear Webster himself are all long dead and gone.

The bulk of the material is from a chapter in my book:

Sweethearts of Song: A Personal Memoir of Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth 

Sweethearts of Song: A Personal Memoir of Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth.
A Personal Memoir

ACCOMPANYING FOR WEBSTER

On April 22nd 2013  it will be 56 years since I first started accompanying for Webster Booth in the studio where he and Anne Ziegler taught singing and stagecraft. It sounds like a long time ago but I can remember a great deal of that remarkable period of my life as though it were yesterday. 1963 was certainly one of the happiest years of my life when I had few worries and every day was an exciting carefree adventure. In 1964 my life was touched with sadness and tragedy and was never as perfect as it had been in the shining year that was 1963.

At the beginning of that year, I was just nineteen, with the promise of a happy future ahead of me. I had been learning singing with Anne and Webster for two years and I was planning to do my teaching diplomas in singing, although I was hoping that if I worked hard enough I would not have to depend entirely on teaching to make my living in music.

Webster and Anne at the time I was studying with them.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 29-january-1962-anne-and-webster-lower-houghton.jpg

 January 1962. Anne and Webster attend a gathering to meet the All Blacks Rugby team

Me at about the time I was accompanying for Webster.

Jean Campbell Collen (1965)
Jean Campbell Collen (1965)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not only did Anne teach singing with Webster, but she also acted as studio accompanist, so it was usually Webster who answered the door to new arrivals and made frequent cups of tea for everyone.

Webster, Leslie, or Boo as Anne called him, was always even-tempered, with his cheerful, “Hello dear. Would you like some tea?” when I arrived for my lesson at their eighth floor studio in Polliack’s Corner at the corner of Pritchard and Eloff Streets in the city of Johannesburg.

Polliack's Corner. Studio was on eighth floor of building with balconies to the right of the photo.
Polliack’s Corner. Studio was on eighth floor of building with balconies to the right of the photo.

Of course he was perfectly aware that he had an outstanding voice, but he was devoid of the conceit one might have expected from a legendary tenor. I still have a vision of him in his shirt sleeves, peering through his horn-rimmed bifocals at one score or another, perspiring in the Johannesburg summer heat to which he was unaccustomed. He sight-read songs better than most of us could ever dream of singing them.

Early in 1963 my father heard a recording I had made of myself singing Father of Heav’n from Judas Maccabeus on my recently-acquired reel-to-reel tape recorder. He had passed several disparaging remarks about the quality of my singing and I was feeling extremely despondent. Anne and Webster were kind and sympathetic when I told them what he had said about my voice.

“My family never praised me for my singing either,” Webster growled. “If it had been up to them I would never have become a singer. Bring the recording along next time and let’s see what it’s like.” 

They listened in silence the following week – perhaps my father had been right and my singing was awful – but afterwards Anne asked rather sharply as to who my accompanist had been. They were very surprised when I admitted to accompanying myself. Nothing more was said at the time. In the fullness of time I recovered from the hurt my father’s criticism had caused me and I plodded on regardless.

A few weeks later Webster phoned my mother to ask whether I’d like to play for him in the studio for a few weeks in April as Anne was going on a tour round the country with Leslie Green, the broadcaster, best known for his programme on Springbok Radio of Tea With Mr Green, who was a great friend of theirs.

Anne at a concert with Leslie Green (1961)

Anne at the first night of The Amorous Prawn with Leslie Green (1961)

I was out when he phoned so I phoned back that evening and spoke to Anne. Naturally, I wanted to do it. What a chance!

“Don’t worry about a thing, Jean,” Anne told me. ’If you can manage into the studio each day, Leslie will give you a lift home in the evenings. He’ll look after you. It will do you good to play for him.”

I was thrilled but apprehensive about the prospect of accompanying for Webster. Playing for the man who had been accompanied by the great Gerald Moore on most of his recordings was rather daunting.

The great accompanist Gerald Moore
The great accompanist Gerald Moore

 

 

 

 

 

 

I realise now that they were probably sorry that I had been so hurt by my father’s comments about my singing and wanted to build up my self-confidence again by giving me this chance to help Webster in the studio. I was petrified that I would not live up to their expectations of me. On the other hand, accompanying for Webster for two weeks would be exciting and challenging. When I play Father of Heav’n for one of my young students today, I remember how significant this song was in changing the direction of my life in those heady days so long ago.

-O-

As it was only January and I didn’t have to play until April so I decided to improve my sight-reading as much as possible in the following two months. I was working for Grade 7 piano and Grade 8 singing exams and April seemed a lifetime away.

Webster made a list of the students’ current repertoire and lent me some of his own scores so that I could practise the more difficult songs and arias beforehand. On the front page of each score he had listed all his concert dates for the work in question, usually for this or that oratorio. Apart from his variety act with Anne, he had been one of Britain’s greatest oratorio tenors.

In his score of Haydn’s Creation was the following list:

Lawson Memorial Hall, Selkirk 31/3/1937

Drill Hall, Derby Choral Union 6/11/1937

Broadcast, Town Hall, B’ham 9/11/1938

BBC Home 3/12/1952

BBC Third 4/12/52

Albert Hall, Royal Choral 29/4/1953 (Sir Malcolm’s birthday)

When he gave me his oratorio scores for Acis and Galatea and Jephtha, Anne asked, “Won’t you be needing them soon, darling?”

“I’ll never sing them again in this life,” he replied dryly. “Maybe in the next!”

One Friday afternoon in February my mother and I went shopping in Anstey’s, one of the big department stores in the city. We had afternoon tea in the pleasant tearoom where we sat at a table covered with a starched white tablecloth and chose fancy fattening cream cakes from the tiered plate in front of us.

Anstey’s Building. A department store with apartments and a penthouse above the store.

Anstey's Building, Johannesburg.
Anstey’s Building, Johannesburg.

Shortly after arriving home from that agreeable outing, the phone rang. It was Webster.

“Hello, Jeannie. Anne isn’t feeling too well today,” he said. “Would you like to come into the studio tomorrow morning and play for me?”

I felt elated and terrified at the same time.

“You’ll be fine,” he assured me, but I continued to tremble, as though I were about to make my debut at the Festival Hall.

I arrived at the studio in time for the first pupil, Graham. After he had sung some scales to warm his voice, Webster turned his attention to Sylvia by Oley Speaks. Although I was still feeling exceedingly nervous I managed to sight-read the accompaniment without mishap. I even began to enjoy accompanying Graham and listening to what Webster had to say to him about his singing.

But when the lesson was over and Graham had gone, Webster said quite gently, “You were quite petrified, weren’t you?”

I nodded dumbly, blushing at the same time. I wondered whether he was going to tell me I was no good to him and should go home straight away.

“You were fine,” he said reassuringly, making me feel more confident as we started on the next lesson.

Ruth Ormond, my great friend, had her lesson after me that day and was very surprised to see me at the piano instead of Anne. We had fun during her lesson, although I don’t think we did much work.

The last pupil for the morning was a blonde Afrikaans girl called Lucille Ackerman. She was a year older than me and had an exceptional soprano voice. I felt absolutely jealous when he sang proper duets like Only A Rose with her and put his arm round her waist.

Apart from this dull thud, the morning had passed well. Far from writing me off as hopeless, Webster asked me to play for him again on Monday. I hoped that Lucille would not have another lesson that morning!

That afternoon I went with friends to see My Fair Lady at the Empire Theatre in town with the delightful Diane Todd as the eponymous heroine and a largely Australian cast.

I played for Webster again on Monday and enjoyed it, not feeling as uncertain as I had done the first time. Mary Harrison, a glamorous Australian redhead, who was appearing in My Fair Lady was amusing and made the aria from Samson and Delilah sound like a tongue-in-the-cheek comedy act. She told Webster solemnly that she was doing her best to make her voice sound like a ‘cello, as he had suggested to her the week before. She stayed on in South Africa after the run of My Fair Lady ended and had success as an actress here, eventually settling in Durban and marrying. Sadly, she died of cancer some years ago.

A large arrogant tenor, who shall remain nameless, bellowed forth uncompromisingly, taking no advice from Webster. I wondered why he was bothering to have lessons if he was so full of himself that he did not think it necessary to take any direction.

After we finished for the day, Webster assured me that I had no need to worry. The standard of my sight-reading would easily carry me through when I began playing for him officially on 22 April 1963. In hindsight, perhaps this had been a test to see whether I could really fulfil the role as his accompanist. I don’t know what I would have done if I had failed that test and they made an excuse for withdrawing their offer. It was actually quite a let down to go into the studio the following week as a mere pupil once again. Anne told me that my singing had greatly improved since last she had seen me.

“Perhaps I had better leave you alone with Webster more often,” she added jokingly.

-O-

I was impatient for April to arrive, and continued working through all Webster’s scores. I also spent much time in a ferment of last minute practice for my forthcoming singing and piano exams: Prepare Thyself Zion from the Christmas Oratorio (Bach), Father of Heav’n from Judas Maccabeus (Handel), Ein Schwan (Grieg) sung by Kirsten Flagstad. and other songs, studies and exercises for my singing exam, and countless scales and pieces for my piano exam. The week of our exam duly arrived and Ruth, Lucille and I sat in the waiting room of the studios of my piano teacher, Sylvia Sullivan, where the Trinity College exams were held at the time.

 My dear friend and fellow student Ruth Ormond. The photograph was taken at the end of 1963 before she left for the University of Cape Town. Sadly she died in Cape Town on 1 May 1964 of a cerebral haemorrhage. She had just celebrated her nineteenth birthday during the previous month.

Ruth Ormond.
Ruth Ormond.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lucille looked about sixteen, although she was older than me. Anne was wearing a camel -coloured fly-away cape coat and was doing her best to calm us down. Only years later when I was accompanying my own students in exams did I learn that the accompanist has the most harrowing job of the lot, having to play for several nervous pupils at a time.

I was introduced to the examiner, Mr Guy McGrath, who looked too old and benign to have the fate of all the poor candidates in his hands. However, after a nervous start, all went fairly well and the ordeal was finally over, apart from having to worry whether or not I had passed. I had not done well in sight-singing in my first singing exam, but I had worked particularly hard to master the skill: at least I knew I had managed that properly. I thought Ruth sang well, and I’m sure Lucille did also – she always sounded great. The four of us walked up Von Brandis Street with Anne, feeling better and more relaxed now that our ordeal was over.

Ruth and I left Anne outside the studio in Pritchard Street and went off to enjoy a slap-up meal in Anstey’s and have a lengthy post mortem about the exam. We both had frightful complexes about our singing, so much so that others must have wondered why we took lessons in the first place.

“I’d like to put you and Ruth in a bag together,” Webster remarked exasperatedly one day when we were bemoaning our vocal shortcomings.

On Friday, the day before Anne left on her trip with Leslie Green, I went apprehensively up to the studio, wondering whether the results might have arrived. Webster answered the door and said heartily:

“I believe you sang very well on Tuesday, my gel!”

I looked at him intensely and said, “No, it was absolutely awful.”

“How do you think you did?”

“I’ve failed,” I replied with conviction.

He gave a little chuckle and marched back into the studio, leaving me to wait in the kitchen until Lucille finished her lesson. He called me in and handed me my card – 78 per cent (with merit) for Grade 8. I could hardly believe it. Lucille with her brilliant voice had managed only 72 per cent for Grade 5. Ruth had passed Grade 6 with 72 per cent also.

Anne and Webster seemed delighted with my result. For most of that lesson we drank tea and made firm plans for my forthcoming singing diploma. Anne was wearing a black Derby type hat and looked particularly striking. We all got on so well together that day as she wished me good luck with my accompanying and I wished her a happy holiday with Leslie Green. Webster informed me that he would take me home from the studio every day and my parents worked out a map for him to get to Buckingham Avenue in Craighall Park from Juno Street, Kensington.

I still had to do my piano exam. Mr McGrath was very complimentary and told me I would make an excellent teacher and that I had been silly to doubt for a moment that I wouldn’t pass my singing exam. I played well, due perhaps to an exuberance for life with everything to look forward to. I passed the piano exam with 85 percent (honours).

As usual, Webster had taken shilling wagers with me on the outcome of all my exams, so I had to pay several shillings to honour the pleasing outcome of the bets. I was glad that I had managed to complete these exams creditably. Now I could look forward unhindered to two weeks working with Webster.

-O-

When I arrived on Monday morning, Webster handed me the keys to the studio.

“These are for you, darling. Come in and practise whenever you like. I hang the keys for Chatsworth in the office.”

It took me some time to work out that Chatsworth was his name for the communal toilet on the eighth floor where the studio was situated.

The ancient electric kettle was soon steaming to boil water for tea. But at that time I was not exactly domesticated.

“You must use two tea bags, dear, otherwise the tea is awful,” he scolded. “Good heavens! Don’t you know that you have to wait until the water boils properly before you pour it into the teapot?”

I had played on a Monday before, so it was good to see Mary Harrison again. The unmentionable tenor told me condescendingly that my sight-reading had improved vastly since February. He had not improved however and continued to do his own thing, unwilling to take any criticism or try out any suggestion Webster made.

On the second day, I met Dudley Holmes for the first time, then aged about twenty-one. He was quite taken aback to see me at the piano instead of Anne. He told me later that he was petrified for he had never sung to another living soul apart from Anne and Webster. I enjoyed playing Without a Song, and various songs from the Bass album for him.  Come to the Fair by Easthope Martin sung by Dudley and David Hales. I got to know him quite well over the years, and often spoke to him on the phone in Kimberley, where he lived for many years. He returned to Johannesburg about 10 years ago.

Dudley Holmes (Bass)
Dudley Holmes (Bass)

 

If not in a dream, I certainly was in seventh heaven during those two weeks. I tried to lock the experience in my mind so that I could relive every moment of it at will. I played for a few singers, whom Webster warned I might find amusing, but there were also excellent singers like Doris Bolton, a soprano from the Staffordshire potteries district, whose husband was working in the potteries in Olifantsfontein near Irené, where they lived at the time. She had a beautiful lyrical voice and was singing Richard Strauss’s Serenade in an impossible key. The accompaniment is very fast and florid and my sight-reading of it certainly did not do it or her justice. I remember Mary Harrison and Norma Dennis, Australians in the production of My Fair Lady, Lucille Ackerman of course, Dudley Holmes, Colleen McMenamin, my dear friend Ruth, and many others whom I got to know during my first accompaniment stint.

-O-

There was a fairly long break  at lunchtime. My mother had told me to go out for lunch to give Webster a chance to put his feet up. For the first few days I trailed through the lunchtime crowds to the library, where I passed the time studying music books in the reference library. It was a long walk from the studio and the time between sessions dragged.

“What do you do at lunchtime?” Webster asked curiously on the third day.

He was horrified when I told him.

“You can’t possibly wander around town and sit in the library for all that time. Bring in some sandwiches and stay in the studio with me.”

I mumbled something about not wanting to disturb him.

“Of course you won’t disturb me.”

So after that I remained in the studio and we ate our packed lunches together. His lunch was always a good deal more exotic than my own, with delicacies purchased from Thrupps, the nearby upmarket grocery shop. After lunch he would put his feet up on the table opposite the studio couch and sleep for half an hour or so.

One lunchtime I went on to the studio veranda where the tame pigeons, always in search of breadcrumbs, were congregated. I viewed the buildings down Eloff Street. I could see the crowns on top of His Majesty’s Theatre in Commissioner Street, three blocks down the road, and the elegant old Carlton Hotel. Outside the OK Bazaars, just across from the studio, three youngsters were playing Kwela music with penny whistle, guitar and an improvised bass constructed from a tea chest. There were coins jangling in the tin at their feet. Business people and elegant ladies from the northern suburbs, on their way to lunch with friends in one of the big city department stores, enjoyed the cheerful music. My toes tapped to its catchy rhythms, but I feared it might be competition for the singers at their lessons.

 Looking down Eloff Street from the studio balcony.

Eloff Street, looking south.
Eloff Street, looking south.

I closed the door of the balcony quietly and surveyed the spacious studio with its elegant Chappell grand piano on the far side. On the wall above the couch was a glass panel behind which were dozens of fascinating pictures from the Booths’ days of fame and glory in the UK. My mother had recognised a number of their illustrious friends and colleagues in the photographs when she had taken me to the studio for the first time. I particularly remember one of Anne and Webster in a boat with Douglas Fairbanks Junior when they had starred in Merrie England at Luton Hoo in Coronation year, 1953.

-O-

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.Merrie England (June 1953) at Luton Hoo with Douglas Fairbanks Junior.

Before the next session started, I would make tea. I had learnt how to make it properly by this time!

I invited Webster to dinner during those two weeks. As we sat in the car in front of my house after he had driven me home one evening, I asked him, rather diffidently, whether he would like to come to dinner one night the following week. To my great surprise, he was delighted at the idea and readily agreed to dine with us the following Tuesday as we finished fairly early at the studio.

The time fairly flew and it seemed as though I had always been playing for him, walking with him to the garage each night, and following him up the narrow steps to where the car was parked.

When he drove me home on Saturday morning he said, “Perhaps we could go out to lunch some time next week. Would you like that, dear?”

I was quite taken aback at the suggestion, but, as always, I was delighted, and said, “Yes, that would be lovely.”

He said he was thinking of taking me to Dawson’s Hotel, where they had lived when they first arrived in Johannesburg and were flat hunting.

“Perhaps we won’t have time to have a really good meal there in such a short time, but we’ll see.”

I spent Sunday without seeing him for the first time all week, but still with the following week ahead to look forward to, not to mention the planned lunch at Dawson’s and the dinner at home.

On Monday we spent a lovely lunchtime, chatting about Webster’s life in the theatre in Britain, the tours of Australia, fabulous ski-ing holidays in Switzerland, nights of triumph at the London Palladium. I got to know him better than ever. He epitomised security, good humour, kindness and complete lack of side, and I thought the world of him.

Tuesday was a red-letter day.

After Dudley’s lesson, Webster announced, “Jean and I are going to blow the family savings today. I’m taking her to Dawson’s.”

Dudley said, “I wish I was coming with you. I have to go back to the office on an apple.”

Webster and I walked round the corner to Dawson’s, which was still one of the top hotels in those days, with only the Carlton and the Langham ahead of it. He seemed oblivious of the curious glances from some of the lunchtime throng as they did double takes when they recognised his famous face. We were ushered into the dining room on the first floor as though we were royalty. The head waiter hovered around Webster and we were shown to the best table at the window.

Dawson’s in 1972. The Edwardian restaurant where we had lunch that day was on the first floor.

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Webster was quite at home in this setting after the grand hotels of Europe, the Antipodes and the UK. I, on the other hand, in a bottle-green velvet dress I felt gauche and young in comparison, as indeed I was. He ordered grilled trout and I had a fish dish also. He had a gin beforehand and was disappointed when I refused anything alcoholic. The only time I ever had anything to drink in those days was if my father poured me a thimbleful of sherry for me on special occasions. I was very unsophisticated and innocent in comparison with teenagers today.

During our meal, he told me how he and Anne had lived at Dawson’s for three months on arriving in Johannesburg. Somehow, things had gone wrong and several people in the hotel management, who had theatrical connections, had turned against them. Over coffee, we had petits fours and he insisted I should eat as many as I wanted. I found out later that they were soaked in brandy, so inadvertently I did not go without alcohol that day.

We sauntered back to the studio. There was only one pupil due that afternoon, so Webster fell asleep on the couch, while I sat in a chair a fair distance away reading their autobiography Duet, which he had lent me the week before.

When he woke up, he put on one of the reel-to-reel tapes of his sacred and oratorio recordings: How Lovely are Thy Dwellings (Webster Booth),

Sullivan’s The Lost Chord  (Webster Booth)

Abide With Me (Liddle) (Webster Booth)

Why does the God of Israel Sleep? Sound an Alarm (Webster Booth) and others.

I listened entranced and sometimes near to tears. He told me that when Lost Chord was recorded in the Kingsway Hall during the war, the All Clear sounded just as he was singing the last phrase “The Grand Amen”. They had to record it again so that the sirens could not be heard on the recording.

After Winnie, the only pupil for the afternoon, he drove me home to Juno Street in Kensington and stayed to dinner with my parents.

Our house is Juno Street as it is today.

Our house is Juno Street as it is today.

He took a fancy to our dog, Shandy, whom he christened “my girlfriend” and kept her on his knee for the rest of the evening.

My father offered him a whisky, and Webster informed us that it had never done him any harm so far. He teased me because I had refused a drink at lunchtime in Dawson’s. My father looked alarmed at the thought of his innocent teenage daughter drinking alcohol.

Webster talked to my parents about Britain, and all the artistes they had known during the war, like Max Miller and Tommy Handley. He looked so at home in our sitting room, smoking and drinking whisky, with Shandy on his lap.

Shandy – Webster christened her “my girlfriend”.

Shandy

Shandy

 When he was about to go home and was standing on our balcony which was enclosed with a purple bougainvillaea creeper, my mother said, “Thank you for looking after Jean,” he replied, “I think it’s Jean who’s looking after me.”

Although I can remember that day as though it were yesterday it saddens me to think that Dawson’s is no longer the plush hotel it was then, while Shandy, my mother, father and dear Webster himself are all long dead and gone.

The next few days passed all too quickly and soon Anne was phoning to say she was back from her trip with Leslie Green. She had sent me a card and Webster had pretended to be cross because she had not yet written to him at that juncture.

On the last night, Webster drove me home, and said quite pensively, “I shall miss my Sylvia Pass next week,” referring to the route he took to his home in Craighall Park.

“I have enjoyed having you play for me, darling,” he added.

“So have I,” I replied fervently.

“We’ll see you on Tuesday, dear,” he said.

The following day Ruth phoned to tell me that Webster had raved about me at her lesson, and said how much he had enjoyed having dinner at my home. I phoned Anne to welcome her home and we chatted for an hour about her trip and how they had always dreamed of owning a smallholding in England, but would never be able to afford one now. And so ended the two wonderful weeks. I had enjoyed playing for the pupils, had acquitted myself creditably, and had got to know Webster very well. As time passed I would get to know him even better.

Jean Collen (first published in 2005)

Updated 5 November 2019.

©

Sylvia by Oley Speaks, sung by Webster Booth.