Webster Booth and Gilbert and Sullivan.
As a young man, Webster Booth was serving articles as an accountant in Birmingham and taking singing lessons in his spare time at the Midland Institute with Dr Richard Wassell, the organist, and choirmaster at St Martin’s Church in the Bull Ring, Birmingham. He was a tenor soloist in the church and fulfilling engagements as tenor soloist in regional oratorio performances as far apart as Wales and Scotland.
Midland Institute where Webster had lessons with Dr Richard Wassell.
Interior of St Martin’s Church, the Bullring, Birmingham
In 1923 the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company came to Birmingham and he managed to obtain an audition with New Zealander, Harry Norris, the D’Oyly Carte conductor. Harry Norris was impressed with Webster’s voice and on his recommendation, he was summoned to see Rupert D’Oyly Carte in London. He was meant to audit a firm’s books in South Wales. Instead, he decided to throw caution to the wind and went to London for the audition instead. He sang five or six songs to an unreceptive D’Oyly Carte and his general manager, Richard Collett.
‘I became increasingly anxious. It was like singing to two mummies…
”I think he’ll do,” Mr D’Oyly Carte said in a rather pained voice, thinking, no doubt, that here was yet another name one the pay-list.
“I should think so, sir,” was the reply.
‘Thus unenthusiastically was I welcomed into the Profession of the Stage.’ (Duet, p. 34)
Although he had been doing well in accountancy, he abandoned his job with little regret to become a professional singer, making his debut with the company as one of the Yeomen in The Yeomen of the Guard at the Theatre Royal, Brighton on 9 September 1923.
In 1924 he married Winifred Keey, the daughter of Edgar Keey, his former headmaster at Aston Commercial School. Winifred borrowed £100 from a relative, with no intention of repaying it, and used the money to follow Leslie to London against her parents’ wishes, or possibly, even without their knowledge. They might have approved of the match had Leslie remained a respectable accountant like his elder brother, Norman, but they were against her taking up with a chorus boy in the D’Oyly Carte. Her family had no more to do with her, partly because of her defiance of their wishes and partly because she had borrowed such a large sum of money under false pretences from a member of the family. Because they disowned her they never knew that she and Leslie had married or that she gave birth to a son, and, thinking the worst of her, imagined that she and Leslie were living together in sin.
Winifred and Leslie’s son, Keith was born the year after their marriage on 12 June 1925, and his birth was registered in Birmingham North.
6 August 1925 – Borough, Stratford. Interest remains unabated in the D’Oyly Carte company, now in the second of their two weeks’ engagement at this theatre. On Tuesday The Yeomen of the Guard was staged, and met with the usual enthusiastic reception from an audience who obviously enjoyed every number. Encores were frequent. The entrance of Mr Henry A Lytton as Jack Point was naturally the signal for an outburst of applause, which was fully justified by his consistently fine work in this well-written role. His apt mingling of humour and pathos is amongst the best things he has ever done. As the other strolling singer Miss Winifred Lawson made a distinct success, singing and acting with real talent. Happily cast also were Mr Leo Sheffield as the grim gaoler and Miss Aileen Davies as Phoebe. Miss Bertha Lewis made a capital Dame Carruthers, whose chief song was rendered artistically; and Miss Irene Hill scored as Kate. Mr Sydney Pointer’s agreeable voice helped him to make Colonel Fairfax a prominent figure, and Mr Darrell Fancourt was a strong Sergeant Meryll. Others who shared in the success were Mr Joseph Griffin as Sir Richard, Mr Herbert Aitken as Leonard, and Mr Leslie W. Booth as the First Yeoman. The stage director is still Mr J.M. Gordon and Mr Harry Norris is the touring musical director.
In 1926 Doctor Malcolm Sargent (as he was then) took over as conductor for the London season at the Prince’s Theatre and Leslie considered that period to be one of his happiest and most fulfilling times with the company. It was then when he asked Sargent to listen to his voice and tell him whether he thought he could make it as an opera singer. Sargent told him that if he did not have a private income he should forget about singing in opera as the pay was very poor.
18 November 1926 – D’Oyly Carte Canadian Visit. It has been arranged for the D’Oyly Carte principal company to visit Canada at the end of the season at the Princes on December 19. The company will embark for Canada in the steamship Metagama on the 24th. The tour will open in Montreal on January 4. Mr Richard Collett, the general manager of the company, will be in charge of the tour.
After a stay of two weeks in Montreal, the company will proceed to Toronto and thence to Winnipeg, staying in each of these cities for a fortnight. There will also be visits to Lethbridge, Calgary, Regina, Saskatoon, and Victoria, the capital of Vancouver Island. The tour will end at Montreal in the middle of May. The Mikado, The Gondoliers, The Yeomen of the Guard, and HMS Pinafore will form the repertory. The leading principals, with the exception of Miss Elsie Griffin, will take part in the tour. Miss Griffin’s place will be filled by Miss Irene Hill. Misses Bertha Lewis, Winifred Lawson, Aileen Davies, Messrs Henry A Lytton, Darrell Fancourt, Leo Sheffield, and Charles Goulding are included in the company.
Webster Booth sang Your Tiny Hand is Frozen at the ship’s concert, so impressing principal soprano Winifred Lawson that she was not at all surprised when he soon rose to fame after he left the company. He was particularly impressed when the chorus sang Hail Poetry in the open air when the company visited Chief Big Crow and Chief Starlight in the Sarcee Reserve, Calgary.
Passenger list on return to Liverpool
He stayed with the company for four and a half years but made no great advancement from singing in the chorus, small parts and understudying the tenor principal roles. In Duet, his joint autobiography, with Anne Ziegler, he complained that the only way he would advance in the company was to wait patiently to fill “dead men’s shoes”. Despite this observation, he was one of the few singers allowed to record individual songs from the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire without prior approval of the D’Oyly Carte family.
His recordings of Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes and A Wand’ring Minstrel under the baton of gifted conductor, a fellow native of Birmingham, Leslie Heward, who died tragically young, remain unsurpassed and are now available on CD.
Leslie was away on tour for fifty weeks of the year and Winifred, left alone with her small son, was estranged from her parents although living in the suburb of Moseley in the same city. Leslie had suspicions that all was not well at home when he arrived home from a tour with D’Oyly Carte to find Keith sitting by himself on the doorstep. Winifred had left her small son to his own devices while she went dancing. Several years later, she suddenly deserted Leslie and his son.
Leslie searched for Winifred in every town where he happened to be singing, but despite desperate attempts to trace her, he never found her, and eventually divorced her in 1931, citing Trevor Davey as co-respondent. Leslie was granted custody of Keith, who decided on his sixth birthday that he never wanted to see his mother again.
After the stability of a regular – if small – salary from D’Oyly Carte, he was now a freelance performer with a small son to support and no regular money to his name. In the D’Oyly Carte Company he was known as Leslie W. Booth, but now he adopted his middle name and became known as Webster Booth on stage, although his family and close friends continued to call him Leslie for the rest of his life. One of his boyhood nicknames was Jammy, and he once signed a photograph “Yours sincerely, Kingy”!
26 May 1939 – Gilbert and Sullivan The scheme of the London Music Festival is designed to embrace all the chief musical activities of the metropolis and it was proper that the popular concerts given by Mr Ernest Makower at the London Museum should have their place in it. The concert given on Wednesday evening was an unusual one, though Mr Makower never keeps to any beaten path in his selection of music for performance. It was felt that no English festival would be really complete if Gilbert and Sullivan was not represented in it. So, with the permission of Mr D’Oyly Carte, Dr Sargent arranged a programme of selections from the famous comic operas. In a preliminary talk, Dr Sargent apologised for going against Sullivan’s expressed wish that his operatic music should not be performed in concert form.
But no excuse was necessary to justify the admirable singing of the extracts by Miss Irene Eisinger, Mr Webster Booth, and Mr George Baker. We do not often hear Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes so well sung in a theatre. Miss Eisinger’s songs reminded us that Sullivan’s heroines descended at no great distance from Mozart’s soubrettes, whom we are accustomed to hearing her sing so delightfully. It was good too to hear the music played by the Boyd Neel orchestra, whose contributions included the delightful patchwork overture, Un Ballo and the Iolanthe overture. There was, as usual, a large and enthusiastic audience.
1953 – The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan (film). Robert Morley, Ian Wallace, Owen Brannigan, Harold Williams and voices of Webster Booth, Elsie Morrison, John Cameron.
Webster was annoyed at the billing he was given in this film. He did not appear in it but his voice was dubbed for Colonel Fairfax in the scene from The Yeomen of the Guard and in the final section singing an echoing version of A Wand’ring Minstrel.
The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan
January 1962 When the copyright on Gilbert’s words was lifted at the end of 1961 Webster was asked to present a Gilbert and Sullivan series of programmes on the English Service of the South African Broadcasting Corporation.
1963 Only a few weeks before The Johannesburg Operatic Society was due to open with The Yeomen of the Guard the committee decided that they needed a stronger Colonel Fairfax than the person originally cast in the role. Webster (aged 61) was asked to take over what is essentially the juvenile lead. He was a great success in the role.
14 June 1963 (from my 5-year diary)
4 to 14 April 1973 – The Mikado, Guild Theatre, East London, The East London Light Operatic Society, Pamela Emslie, Colin Carney, Bernie Lee, Leigh Evans, Irene McCarthy, Jim Hagerty and Jimmy Nicholas, produced by Webster Booth. The musical director was Jean Fowler.
I had moved to East London at the beginning of 1973 and joined the show at the last minute. I had a very happy reunion with Webster after seven years apart.
Jean Collen 23 August 2018.