BOOTHS IN SOUTH AFRICA (1962 – 1963)

I have told about this wonderful period of my life in my book, Sweethearts of Song. Indeed, the whole pattern of my life changed from that time on. Webster has been dead for many years now but he will always remain one of the strongest influences of my life and I will always remember him with love.

Anne and Webster 29 January 1962 in Lower Houghton.
Gilbert and Sullivan programme 7 January 1962 SABC Bulletin
The Andersonville Trial February 1962.
February 1962. The Andersonville Trial. Webster played a very small part indeed!
9 March 1962
Hymn competition winners. March 1962
17 March 1962 Drawing Room on the English Service of the SABC.

17 March 1962 Drawing Room on the English Service of the SABC. Article by Webster in the SABC Bulletin.

17 March 1962 Drawing Room on the English Service of the SABC.
Gary Allighan, March 1962
Showing some antiques to the press. 1962.
Anne choosing wallpaper – 1962.
April 1962 Olivet to Calvary, St George’s Presbyterian Church, Noord Street.
4 May 1962 The Vagabond King
June 1962. Music for Romance.
Arriving in Bulawayo, July 1962. He was ill.
July 1962 Bulawayo Eisteddfod
21 July 1962 Bulawayo
July 1962 Bulawayo

July 1962 – Leslie Green broadcasts from the UK.

Leslie Green was in the UK on holiday and Anne and I listened to Tea with Mr Green (broadcast from the UK) when she was in the studio on her own and Webster was very ill. By this time Paddy O’Byrne was reading Webster’s scripts on the Gilbert and Sullivan programme as he was too ill and weak to record the programmes. He visited Anne’s great friend, Babs Wilson Hill and did a broadcast from her home. He said she had the most beautiful garden in England.

Webster was very ill indeed when he returned from Rhodesia and had to spend some time in the Fever Hospital in Johannesburg.

Fever Hospital.

August 1962 – Music for Romance. Anne presented a series of programmes of recordings and reminisces about her life and career in England. It received adverse criticism from various radio critics and only ran until December.

August 1962 – Anne Ziegler
28 August 1962 Round the Christian Year, St Mark’s, Yeoville.
28 August 1962 St Mark’s Yeoville, Round the Christian Year.
At the wedding of Margaret Inglis and Robert Langford in the garden of Petrina Fry (pictured) and her husband, Brian Brooke. October 1962

October 1962 –The Pirates of Penzance. Bloemfontein. Webster directed this production. As a gimmick, he had a chimpanzee to accompany the pirates on stage, but the chimpanzee was not without problems. She disgraced herself during Webster’s opening night speech. He quipped, “You naughty girl. I won’t take you out in a hurry again.”

August 1962 – Webster Booth
Lord Oom Piet. Guest artists, eventually furious to have their singing disrupted by the antics of Jamie Uys. I always thought that was a terrible film and couldn’t understand why Anne and Webster had any part of it.
November 1962 Lord Oom Piet.
November 1962. Elijah.

November 1962 – Port Elizabeth Oratorio Festival. Elijah and Messiah, Webster, Monica Hunter, Joyce Scotcher, and Graham Burns, conducted by Robert Selley. The complete oratorios were broadcast locally in the Eastern Cape as usual. Later, excerpts were broadcast nationally but, for some unexplained reason, none of Webster’s solos were used in the national broadcast. Two older members of the SABC choir (Gill and Iris) took delight in cattily telling Ruth and me that it was because Webster’s singing was not up to standard and that was why he was not included in the broadcast. That was the last year that Webster sang at the PE Oratorio Festival.

1963

Great Voices – January 1963.
15 January 1963 At Alexander Theatre, Braamfontein
Mr and Mrs Fordyce and their stage family 15 January 1963.
Mrs Puffin (Jane Fenn) and Mr Fordyce (Webster) January 1963
Anne holds a tea party in Goodnight Mrs Puffin.
Photo in the programme of Goodnight Mrs Puffin.
Lewis Sowden crit.
Oliver Walker crit.
Dora Sowden’s crit?
7 January 1963 Great Voices

Accompanying for Webster. Shortly after Goodnight Mrs Puffin ended its run at the Alexander Theatre 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 passed several disparaging remarks about the quality of my singing and I was feeling extremely despondent when I went for my lesson. Anne and Webster were kind and sympathetic when I told them what he had said.

“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 it was awful – but afterwards, Anne asked rather sharply as to who my accompanist had been. They were surprised when I admitted to accompanying myself.

Nothing more was said. 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 Anne phoned my mother to ask whether I’d like to play for Webster in the studio for a few weeks in April as she was going on a tour round the country with Leslie Green, the broadcaster of Tea With Mr Green fame on Springbok Radio, a great friend of theirs.

I have told about this wonderful period of my life in my book, Sweethearts of Song. Indeed, the whole pattern of my life changed from that time on. Webster has been dead for many years now but he will always remain one of the strongest influences of my life and I will always remember him with love.

Accompanying for Webster (April 1963)
Anne sent me a postcard when I was playing for Webster and she was away on holiday with Leslie Green.
Anne advertising a facial cream for “mature” women! I’m sure most mature women would have been delighted to look as perfect as Anne did at the age of 53!
Colonel Fairfax in The Yeomen of the Guard. 6 June 1963.
The Yeomen of the Guard.
6 June 1963 various cuttings including crits for The Yeomen of the Guard at the Alexander.
Kimberley Jim. Webster plays a bit part – the Inn Keeper – in that silly film. 1963,
9 August 1963 for the opening night of The Sound of Music.
September 1963 Jon Sylvester, radio critic The Star
A nasty comment – probably from “Jon Sylvester” (the pseudonym for the Star’s radio critic, about Webster’s programme.
I was Pooh Bah in this instance. I met Webster in the street one day and he asked me if I had written this note to beastly “Jon Sylvester”. I asked him how he knew that, and he said I was the only person in Johannesburg who could have done so!
They presented a children’s programme on the SABC, produced by Kathleen Davydd. At the same time they made an LP called The Nursery School Sing-along with the children from Nazareth House, conducted by my piano teacher, Sylvia Sullivan, and Heinz Alexander accompanying them.
21 September 1963 at Pietermaritzburg City Hall.
Michaelhouse, Balgowan.
Pietermaritzburg City Hall.
October 1963 – Ballads Old and New.
November 1963. Fauré Requiem.
Saturday Night at the Palace on the radio in November 1963, Anne, Webster, Jeanette James and Bruce Anderson.

BOOTHS IN SOUTH AFRICA – (1960 – 1961)

Someone asked me recently whether I went to study with Anne and Webster because of their duet singing, but it had nothing to do with that at all. It was entirely due to Mabel Fenney that decided me to study singing with Anne and Webster and to make music my career.

3 February 1960 – Mabel Fenney

When I was in my final year at Jeppe High School for Girls in 1960, the permanent music mistress, Miss Diane Heller, went on long leave, and Mrs Mabel Fenney took her place for a term. Mabel was born Mabel Greenwood on Shakespeare’s birthday in Lytham St Anne’s, Lancashire in 1919. Her mother was a true contralto and had sung in several professional productions. The Greenwoods moved to East London in the Eastern Cape when Mabel was quite young.

She showed singing talent from an early age and did her initial singing diplomas in East London, trained by a gentleman she referred to as “Pop Lee”, and sang and acted in many local musicals, plays and recitals. Her favourite role was as Elsie Maynard in The Yeomen of the Guard. She married fellow Lancastrian, Eric Fenney, and instead of pursuing a singing career, she helped him run his plumbing business in East London. 

 When the Dramatic Society of East London invited Webster Booth and Anne Ziegler to star in the 1958 production of Merrie England, she and Eric stood surety for their salaries.  It was in this production where she first met them, playing their roles of Bessie Throckmorton and Sir Walter Raleigh. She played the part of Jill-All-Alone in the production. The following year the society put on Waltz Time, again with Anne and Webster in the leading roles, but, for some reason, she did not take part in this production. Instead she went to Johannesburg to have lessons with Anne and Webster in preparation for several advanced diploma singing examinations. By the time she arrived at Jeppe High School for Girls she had already won the University of South Africa’s overseas teaching bursary and was due to leave for Berlin to study at the Hochschule there for two years.

We schoolgirls looked on Mabel as a very glamorous figure in comparison with some of our staid academic teachers. She was lively and enthusiastic and took us on various outings to the opera.

 Towards the end of her term at Jeppe, Mabel gave a memorable recital in the school hall one afternoon. The event had not been widely publicised, so there were not many people present, but I was there with singing school friends, Margaret Plevin (née Masterton) and Valerie Vogt (née Figgins). We were impressed by her performance. The Booths had decided that she was a mezzo soprano rather than soprano, so she had sung a mezzo repertoire for her diploma exams. I will always remember her singing of the Habanera and Seguidilla from Carmen.

At the end of one of the arias she threw a rose coquettishly to her schoolgirl audience. We were completely captivated. Someone asked me recently whether I went to study with Anne and Webster because of their duet singing, but it had nothing to do with that at all. It was entirely due to Mabel Fenney that decided me to study singing with Anne and Webster and to make music my career.

Mabel Fenney (later Perkin) Photo taken in 1960 before she went to Berlin to study at the Hochschule there.
February 1960.
2 March 1960. Webster’s reference for Mabel.

27, 28 May 1960 – Grand Variety Show, Methodist Church Hall, Roberts Avenue, Kensington. Anne and Webster and other artistes. Anne and Webster sang just before the interval. I (aged sixteen) asked them for their autographs before they left, the only one to do so.

27 May 1960.
Kensington Methodist Church as it is today (2019) In 1960 there was no wall surrounding it.
Variety Concert at Methodist Church, Roberts Avenue, Kensington 1960.
Kensington Methodist Church – as it is today.
Anne appears in various adverts!

24 November 1960 – A Country Girl. Springs Civic Theatre. Anne produced this show for the Springs Operatic Society.

24 November 1960

1960 – Mikado, Bloemfontein. I am not sure whether Webster sang in it, directed it, or both.

Webster in Bloemfontein to do The Mikado.

1, 2, December 3 1960 – Christmas Capers, Civic Theatre, Bloemfontein. Anne and Webster and local artistes in a variety show presented by Rotary Club.

December, 1960 – The Christmas Oratorio, Kimberley. Webster sang the tenor solos, although he was not as fond of Bach as he was of Handel.

8 December 1960 I had an interview with Anne Ziegler at the studio on the eighth floor of Polliack’s Corner, Pritchard Street and started lessons with Anne and Webster two weeks later. Webster was singing at the Port Elizabeth Oratorio when I had my audition. Anne was being interviewed by a newspaper reporter when I went for my first lesson. Here is the photo taken at that interview.

Lock Up Your Daughters – December 1960. Anne plays Mrs Squeezum!
Anne and Valerie Miller in Lock Up Your Daughters. The play was not a success.

March 1961 – advertising Skol Beer.

April 1961 SABC Bulletin – Wednesday at 8.30 pm. Webster Booth, who presents a programme of Opera, Operetta and Oratorio at 8.30 on Wednesday nights, began singing at the age of seven. That makes his career 52 years “and I hope it goes on a little further, but not too long,” he told announcer Robert Kirby in an interview.

This is how the conversation continued:

If you started singing when you were seven, how did you manage to fit in your education? – Well, I began in Lincoln Cathedral as a choir boy and was educated at the cathedral school. This was run by the Dean and Chapter. That took me up to the Oxford and Cambridge junior examination which was roughly equivalent to our Junior Certificate. After that I had to stop musical training as my voice was breaking and completed my schooling at a commercial school studying accountancy.

Broaadcasting at the SABC.

I know your fields of endeavour have been in Opera, Oratorio and Operetta. Do you have any preferences among these three? – Oratorio, definitely!

Why? – I suppose it was my first love and I certainly get much more satisfaction from singing in Oratorio, musically that is; I am trying to say that to do it properly and to do it well you have to work at it so hard that the feeling of achievement is that much greater. With Opera and Operetta one has stage clothing, and scenery and movement to register to an audience, whereas in Oratorio one has nothing except one’s own interpretation as a medium of reaching the audience.

Do you prefer working “live” with an audience, recording or broadcasting? – I certainly prefer working without an audience. In front of one that is. Usually in a broadcast one has a much larger audience but because they are unseen one can concentrate much more, also because of their quantity it makes me want to give much more than I would on a stage. If it would be possible to sing before an audience of perhaps fifty thousand people it would be much more awe-inspiring than singing to them via a microphone. I can always have a broadcast recorded and that is invaluable to me as I am my own greatest critic. One can always learn from one’s mistakes.

Do you suffer from stage fright? – Yes. The older I get the worse I get. I think the reason being that one always wants to be that one per cent better than the last time. The suffering comes from the fear of being one per cent worse. Stage fright should only happen before a performance. To go on being frightened during the performance is fatal.

Do you find that one person alone in an audience can affect you? – Very much so. Someone who is restive will invariably catch your eye and distract you. None of us are perfect and if one knows the position in the audience of a somewhat severe critic one is apt to wonder what he or she may be thinking and this can be most disturbing.

How do you react to severe criticism? – If you mean destructive criticism I am like anyone else. I react very unfavourably. But if it is constructive criticism then I try to swallow my pride and read into the criticism something from which I should benefit.

What was the worst critique you ever had? – I deliberately forget the bad ones. The best? – The finest write up I ever received, from my point of view, was for a show that only ran for two and a half weeks. “Here is the answer to a producer’s prayer.’

Which would you call the most fulfilling moment of your career? – The first night of the 1938 Covent Garden Festival of Opera. I sang the tenor role in Rosenkavelier with Erich Kleiber conducting and Lotte Lehmann as the soprano lead. To see a pre-war full house at Covent Garden from the stage with evening dress and tiaras is a sight one could never forget.

Which role was your favourite? – Definitely Francois Villon in The Vagabond King. It has everything an artist could wish for. Comedy, romance, glorious costumes, pathos and good solid music to sing.

Are you satisfied with what you have achieved? – Yes. If I had my life over again I doubt whether I would change much of it. I have been very lucky. I was given a voice, a figure, and my marriage with Anne Ziegler – something which has been successful and happy, and I have adopted what I think to be about the finest country in the world.

Webster’s programme is extended and is now called On Wings of Song, with the duet by Anne and Webster as the introductory music.
1 May 1961 Opening night of La Traviata at Empire Theatre.
Old Folks’ concert Durban May 1961

June 1961. Webster adjudicated at the Salisbury eisteddfod.

5 July 1961 – Concert in Salisbury.

5 July 1961 – Concert.8.15 pm Allan Wilson School, Beit Hall, Salisbury, Rhodesia – Anne and Webster appeared in a concert after Webster had adjudicated at the Vocal Festival for the Rhodesia Institute of Allied Arts.

17 July 1961 – Advert for pupils.

Advert for pupils. 17 July 1961 – Star.

August/September 1961. Mabel Fenney back in SA for holiday.

5 September to October 30 1961 –The Amorous Prawn,Alexander Theatre (previously the Reps Theatre); National Theatre, Pretoria, 31 October to November 12; Alhambra Theatre, Durban, November.

Webster was the Prawn, with Simon Swindell, Gabriel Bayman, Diane Wilson, Joe Stewardson, Ronald Wallace and Joan Blake, directed by Victor Melleney.

Anne and Leslie Green Opening night of The Amorous Prawn 1961
A reference for my first job in the bank! 6 October 1961.

November 1961 – The Stage. Johannesburg Theatre by Evelyn Leveson. The evening attraction at the Alexander – acclaimed with delight by both critics and public – was The Amorous Prawn, directed by Victor Melleney and starring Joan Blake, one of our most versatile actresses, who, for the past two years, has been touring the country in Adam Leslie’s witty intimate revue Two’s Company.

Excellent notices were also received by Webster Booth who, with his wife Anne Ziegler, has been living here for the past five years. As the Prawn, Mr Booth is appearing on the South African stage in his first non-singing role.

1 November 1961 (from my teenage diary)
1 November 1961 (from diary)
1 November 1961 (diary)
November 1961 Durban.
Anne as Mrs Siddons 31 October 1961.
1 November 1961 from diary – the story continues in the diary itself (1961)
27 November 1961 Dream of Gerontius.

BABS WILSON-HILL (MARIE THOMPSON)

Babs Wilson-Hill (Marie Thompson) top left in a show.

The following article, written by Linda Anderson, a relative of Babs, appeared in my book, Sweethearts of Song; A Personal Memoir of Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth Front cover small-01

LINDA ANDERSON OF BIDFORD-ON-AVON WRITES:

Babs - Linda Anderson-06

MARIE GLADYS WILSON/THOMPSON (BABS WILSON-HILL)

Babs was born in Manchester on 12 September 1908, the second child of Gertrude and Harold Wilson. As a young child, she lost her father during the First World War. She missed her father dearly as she had been very fond of him.

When Babs was in her early years she was living in Chandos Road, Chorlton-cum-Hardy and went to Loreto Convent School. By this time she had been having piano lessons and had also become a very able dancer.

Babs remembers her Aunt May, only eight years older than herself, teaching her a few dances. This sparked off an interest which was later to become her career. She decided to take the subject more seriously and began lessons with the Haines School of  Dancing, Whalley Range and later at Sheila Elliot’s School of Dancing, Liverpool. Some of her early performances were in the theatre at the rear of Manchester’s Midland Hotel.

During her dancing years, Babs had been coached by Anna Ivanova who was with the Pavlova Company. Babs was later to become the Principal Ballerina in pantomime with Tom Arnold who produced performances throughout the country. She was in eight pantomimes altogether and was Principal Girl, Fairy, Witch, and Principal Dancer. She performed with and became a friend of Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth and knew George Formby and his wife Beryl well.

George Formby was later to be responsible for Babs being sent to the Isle of Man during the Second World War. He saw her dressed in her WAAF’s uniform and was most amused! He wanted Babs to be part of a team in Jurby, Isle of Man, where a theatre had been set up at the RAF base there. Babs asked that this was to be secondary to her work as an MT driver. She had been advised not to be part of ENSA and so this was a good compromise. When she arrived at the Isle of Man she had her own personal transport waiting to take her to Jurby and was treated as a VIP, much to her surprise! A trunk of her costumes was shipped over to the island. Babs always made her own costumes.

One of the shows she was involved with went to London for one night where she was introduced to a member of the Royal Family. Later in the war, she was transferred to Ireland, Scotland and finally Stanmore, where at one time she was driving a 15cwt lorry and, as a Corporal, she was also driving a Staff Car. After coming out of the Services Babs went to live in Cobham Surrey. She had a very short, unsuccessful marriage and later moved back to Colwyn Bay.

Babs looks upon her move to Colwyn Bay as a successful one. She has had the advantage of both the sea, in which she was a regular swimmer for many years and the beautiful surrounding countryside. She is also surrounded by many very good friends. Over the years she has been very involved with The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association.

Her friendship with Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth enabled her to spend many months with them in South Africa.  When Anne and Webster were thinking that they would never be able to return to the UK, Babs bought a bungalow for them to live in which was near to her in North Wales. They remained in this home until they died.

Babs died on 28 September 2003* (only a few weeks before Anne died on 13 October 2003).

Linda Anderson.

Babs in her beautiful garden in Colwyn Bay (photo: Linda Anderson) Babs Wilson-Hill (2) *only a few weeks before Anne’s death on 13 October 2003. Anne had met Babs when she appeared in her first pantomime in Liverpool. Anne was the principal boy, Babs the principal dancer. 1935 First Panto Anne (right) in Liverpool pantomime (1935/36) When the broadcaster, Leslie Green went to the UK in 1962 he met Babs and interviewed her for his programme Tea With Mr Green on Springbok Radio. Anne and I listened to the programme together. Here is an extract from my diary on 4 September:

4 September Go to the studio in the afternoon. Anne is there by herself and she tells me that Webster has had to do his two extra programmes before he goes (to Rhodesia) today. She told him to go home and have a rest after them if he’s tired so I might not see him. She asks if I’d like to listen to Tea with Mr Green because her girlfriend is going to be on today.

We do scales and exercises. The chemist phones and she arranges to have a silver Wellaton (hair rinse) sent up! She says her hair is a dull mousy grey and she has to do something to liven it up and stop her from looking old!

We listen to Leslie G and she tells me that Babs Wilson-Hill is her very best friend in Britain. She and Babs were in panto together in 1934 and she is very fond of her. They write to one another every week and tell each other all their worries and troubles. She is very well off – she has a lovely home and garden. She shows me a picture of her (which is on the wall). She says she misses her more than anyone else in Britain.

Leslie G introduces his programme by saying that it was due to Anne Ziegler that he is there because she had told him about Babs. He talks about the lovely garden – laburnum, willows, larkspurs, snapdragons… Babs sounds very like Anne, only more so – same laugh, the same intonation of words, very pleasant and slightly “county”. She has a house near Guildford in Surrey. Anne says that Babs wrote and said she made a terrible botch of the whole thing but she sounds terribly self-possessed to me. After it is over, Anne says that one can only have a friend like that once in a lifetime and she thinks everyone needs someone to confide in and tell their troubles to.

Jean Collen 12 September 2018.

.

Dinner with Webster and my parents at Juno Street, Kensington (1963)

21 Juno Street, Kensington as it is today.

I invited Webster to dinner with my parents during those two halcyon weeks when I was playing for him. As we sat
chatting in his car in front of my house in Juno Street, Kensington after he had driven me home one evening, I asked him, rather nervously, whether he would like to come to dinner with us one night the following week. I had not imagined that he would agree as he was probably quite tired after spending the day teaching in the studio in the city but to my great surprise he seemed delighted at the idea and agreed to dine with us on the following Tuesday, as we finished fairly early at the studio on that day.

As you will have read in a previous post, we had a memorable lunch at Dawson’s Hotel earlier that day. After he had taught Winnie, the only pupil who arrived for her lesson that afternoon, he drove me home in the Hillman and stayed to dinner with my parents. He took an immediate fancy to our dog, Shandy, whom he christened “my girlfriend,” and kept her on his knee for the rest of the evening.

Webster and Shandy – My girlfriend

My father offered him a whisky, and he informed us that whisky had never done him any harm so far. He teased me because I had refused a drink at lunchtime when we dined at Dawson’s Hotel. My father looked suitably alarmed at the thought of his innocent teenage daughter being plied with alcohol. No doubt he was relieved that I had turned down the offer.

My parents – David and Margaret Campbell.

 

 

 

 

 

Webster and me

Webster talked to my parents about Britain, and all the artists he and Anne had known and worked with during the war, people like Max Miller and Tommy Handley and many others. He looked so at home in our sitting room, smoking and drinking whisky, with Shandy on his lap. Who would have thought that he was a famous tenor with a world-beating voice?  I didn’t know nearly as much about his illustrious career then as I do now, years after his death. Neither he nor Anne ever boasted about their achievements as so many lesser people do.

When he was about to go home and was standing on our balcony, which was enclosed with an indigo bougainvillea creeper in those days, my mother said, “Thank you for looking after Jean.” He regarded me fondly and replied, “I think it’s Jean who’s looking after me”. My heart was bursting with happiness to think of the perfect day I had spent with him.

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

The next few days passed all too quickly and soon Anne was phoning the studio to say she had returned from her holiday with Leslie Green, the radio announcer. She had sent me a card from Fish Hoek and Webster had pretended to be cross because she had not yet written to him at that juncture.

Card from Anne.

On the last night of my accompanying stint, Webster drove me home, and said quite pensively, “I shall miss my Sylvia Pass next week,” referring to the route he took from Juno Street to his home in Buckingham Avenue, 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 at your lesson, dear,” he said.

The following day my great friend Ruth Ormond phoned to say that Webster had raved about me at her lesson that Saturday morning. He said I was a very good accompanist and the whole experience of playing for him had boosted my ego. I was a lovely girl and he had so enjoyed having dinner at my home and meeting my parents. Ruth had the impression that Anne was slightly put out by his unstinted enthusiasm.

“He seems very much taken with you,” said Ruth.

That afternoon 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 they would never be able to afford one now. And so ended two wonderful weeks. I had enjoyed playing for the pupils, had acquitted myself creditably and had got to know Webster very well indeed. I thought that I  would probably not be accompanying for Webster again. But luckily that was not the case. I went on accompanying for Webster in the studio for some time to come.

Jean Collen 15 May 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.

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 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.

A MEMORY OF DAWSON’S HOTEL, JOHANNESBURG (1963)

Webster and me. Photo taken in the early 1960s.
Webster and me. Photo taken in the early 1960s.

Dawson’s Hotel 1972. Thanks to Frans Erasmus for allowing me to use this photo

Dawson’s Hotel in Johannesburg was once an establishment of importance in the life of the city and remains one filled with wonderful memories for me. In its heyday, it was one of the city’s best hotels, with perhaps only the Carlton and Langham Hotels being grander. In 1956 the British singing duo, Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth, moved to South Africa. They spent their first three months in Johannesburg living at Dawson’s Hotel while they looked around for suitable permanent accommodation.

It was in April 1963 that I first acted as Webster’s accompanist in their singing studio on the eighth floor of Polliack’s Building at the corner of Eloff and Pritchard Streets.

Polliack's is the building on the right with the balconies.
Polliack’s is the building on the right with the balconies.

At the time, Anne was away on a trip with broadcaster Leslie Green and I had been delighted and honoured when they asked me to take her place as studio accompanist. During some free time in the studio, Webster asked me if I would like to have lunch with him at Dawson’s. In turn, he accepted my invitation for him to have dinner with me and my parents at our home after we finished our work in the evening.

Blue plaque at entrance to Dawson's Hotel.
Blue plaque at entrance to Dawson’s Hotel.

Tuesday was the red-letter day when Webster took me to lunch at Dawson’s Hotel. After the final morning student’s lesson was over, Webster announced for the world to hear that “Jean and I are going to blow the family savings today. I’m taking her to Dawson’s.” The poor student looked envious and said, “Oh, I wish I was coming with you.  I have to go back to the office on an apple!”

As Dawson’s Hotel, at the corner of Von Brandis and President Streets, was just around the corner from the studio, we walked there. On our walk to the hotel, Webster seemed oblivious of the curious glances of the lunchtime throng doing double-takes as they recognised his famous face. We were ushered into the sumptuous Edwardian dining room, called the Gold Room Restaurant, on the first floor as though we were royalty. We were greeted by the head waiter who hovered around Webster and then directed us to the best table at the window.

Naturally Webster was at home in this setting. After all, he had frequented the grandest hotels of Europe, the Antipodes, and Britain and was used to being fussed over where ever he went. I, on the other hand, a teenager in a bottle green velvet dress, felt gauche and young, as indeed I was at that time. After studying the menu, Webster ordered grilled trout and I ordered a fish dish also. He had a gin before lunch and was quite disappointed when I refused anything alcoholic. At that stage of my life, the only time I had drunk an aperitif was when my father poured me a thimbleful of sherry on very special occasions.

Dawson's Hotel entrance with Blue Plaque.
Dawson’s Hotel entrance with Blue Plaque.

During our meal Webster told me how he and Anne had lived at Dawson’s until they found their flat at Waverley, Highland’s North. Sadly, he also told about several members of the hotel management, who had theatrical connections, who for unknown reasons had seemingly turned against them.

Anne Ziegler & Webster Booth (1956)
Anne Ziegler & Webster Booth (1956) outside their flat at Waverley, Highlands North.

I enjoyed my fish dish very much and felt very much the grand lady having lunch with a world famous singer in that wonderful dining room. Later, over coffee, we had petits fours. Webster insisted I should eat as many as I wanted. I found out later that they were soaked in brandy, so I did not go entirely without alcohol that day.

I remember coming out of that wonderful hotel into the afternoon sunshine and sauntering back to the studio. Fortunately, there was only one pupil due that afternoon. As we waited, Webster soon fell asleep on the couch while I sat in a chair a fair distance away reading Duet, their autobiography, which he had brought in for me to read the week before.

“Duet” by Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth, published 1951.

When Webster woke up, he put on one of the reel-to-reel tapes containing his sacred and oratorio recordings. I remember listening to How Lovely Art Thy Dwellings, The Lost Chord, Abide With Me, and Sound an Alarm. I was entranced and sometimes near to tears by the beauty of his singing.

Recently I heard from Nick Thompson-Wood, who was the manager of Dawson’s Hotel from 1964 – 1969. He is now living in Canada. He sent me a photograph of the staff of Dawson’s taken in the Gold Room Restaurant in 1966. Nick, as general manager, is seated in the middle of the front row.

Staff of Dawson's Hotel (1966) Thanks for this photo to Nick Thompson-Wood, General Manager (1964 -1969)
Staff of Dawson’s Hotel (1966) Thanks for this photo to Nick Thompson-Wood, General Manager (1964 -1969)

Over the years, whenever I went back to Dawson’s Hotel with others, I could not help but recall my first visit with Webster and remember our lunch. Unfortunately, because of the high crime rate in central Johannesburg today, I have avoided going into the city for the past ten years or more. Imagine my sadness when I found Dawson’s hotel on a Google Street map recently and learned that it is no longer occupied. The building is now but a shadow of its former self. It was abandoned and in a state of abject decay. I suspect that it has now become home to squatters and serves merely as a place of shelter from the elements. What a sad end to an elegant hotel, which I will always remember for the happy time I spent there with Webster as a teenager.

Label for Dawson's Hotel.
Label for Dawson’s Hotel.

Dawson's as it is today - no longer a hotel and pretty dilapidated.
Dawson’s as it is today – no longer a hotel and pretty dilapidated. The Edwardian Restaurant was on the first floor.

Jean Collen

Updated 17 May 2017.