I am including this article by Brian Martin which appeared in Evergreen in 1994. There are several errors of fact in it and I have marked these in bold. Do not copy any part of the article.
Evergreen Melodies – Winter 1994
They met while filming Faust in 1934.
Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth were singers in love… off stage and on. For almost 50 years, wherever they appeared all over the world, they sang to wildly appreciative audiences – their hands entwined in a gentle caress. Anne, who wore delightful gowns (which were often designed by Norman Hartnell, the Queen’s dressmaker) sang like a dream. Webster, tall and handsome, possessed a tenor voice that soared, effortlessly to the heights.
Anne and Webster were married for 45 years, each basking in the warm glow of their shared happiness. Yet there was often sadness behind the smiles. Hard times and personal grief occasionally tarnished those gold years. As Anne Ziegler (now 84 and living in North Wales) admits, the stairway to the stars had many pitfalls.
Webster, hailed as one of the finest lyric tenors of our time, died in June 1984, but Anne’s small house within sight of the sea is still filled with memories of him and the star-studded life they shared. Photographs of Webster show him cloaked dashingly as The Vagabond King or wearing a full Red Indian head-dress for a performance of Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s mighty choral extravaganza Hiawatha. But the photographs that really catch the eye are those of Webster, immaculate in evening dress, with Anne, charming in crinoline— two lives forever intertwined.
Anne remains a spry survivor. Her back is as straight as ever (a tribute to correct posture) and those lively eyes still sparkle. It’s easy to imagine the young Irené Frances Eastwood (as she was born) playing in the garden of the family home in the leafy Liverpool suburb of Sefton Park and dreaming of being a star. “When I was about nine my mother took me to the theatre to see a performance of Faust and I whispered: ‘I’m going to be Marguerite when I’m grown-up!’ And I did sing Marguerite 15 years later – with Webster as Faust!”
Webster was nine years older. His full name was Leslie Webster Booth (he was known by his first name to family and friends), the youngest of three brothers in a family of six. He was born in Handsworth, Birmingham where his father was a hairdresser, and one of his brothers, Norman, who recently celebrated his 95th birthday, recalled how all the Booth youngsters helped out in the barber shop, including taking the money from customers!
Cheery tunes played on a street organ (complete with monkey!) fired Webster’s enthusiasm for music, and at the age of nine he won a scholarship to Lincoln Cathedral choir school where he was taught by the dreaded Dr Bennett who would ram a broken baton into a pupil’s mouth and bellow, “Get that tongue down!” to encourage good singing. Yet Webster never required this shock treatment; his remarkable technique seems to have been innate.
“His tone was coming straight out of the throat,” said Anne. “There was no obstruction. It was a pure flow of air. That was probably why his voice lasted so long.” His only danger was that he might strain it shouting for his favourite team at Aston Villa home matches. Throughout his life he was a keen football supporter..
Webster trained as an accountant but his singing voice had developed into a glorious ringing tenor. He faced a major dilemma; should he continue in accountancy (dull but lucrative) or make singing his profession? Fate took a hand. He was asked to attend an interview in London. (he had already auditioned in Birmingham) with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company – on the same day that he was due to carry out an audit in Merthyr Tydfil. Which should he choose? He opted for London – and soon he was singing with the D’Oyly Carte chorus in The Yeomen of the Guard at Brighton, the first of many touring productions. His career was also on course for a meeting with Anne.
Elocution coaching by renowned Shakespearian actor Robert Atkins helped Webster lose his Birmingham accent and his voice eventually became famous for its tone quality, pitch and diction – “He was rightly in love with his voice and used to tape all his records,” Anne recalls. “It was a light voice with an exceptionally high range, ideal for opera.”
Incredibly, he was once told by a technician at Edison Records that his voice “would not record”, yet he was eventually asked to make a test recording for the Columbia Gramophone Company, which was heard at a party by the great Australian bass-baritione Peter Dawson. Dawson was so impressed that he used his influence at HMV to get the young singer a contract and Webster’s first record was that delightful ballad A Brown Bird Singing, made in 1929 with Ray Noble’s orchestra and accompanied by suitable bird effects! There was some confusion because Cavan O’Connor brought out a similar record (also with Ray Noble) at the same time, but soon Webster was making more recordings for HMV than any other singer apart from Bing Crosby!
His first important London engagement was in The Three Musketeers at Drury Lane in March 1930. He also broadcast with Fred Hartley’s Sextet and made a film, called The Invader, with Buster Keaton (the movie was a talkie, but Keaton didn’t say a word!). It was when he was asked to sing in a performance of Handel’s Messiah, conducted by the great Sir Malcolm Sargent (at that time still Doctor Malcolm Sargent), that he knew his talents had been fully recognized. This was musical appreciation of the highest order. He would phone friends excitedly: “I’m on the radio tonight… in a classical concert!”
Throughout his career he mainly chose to sing in English, recording duets with such well-known opera stars as Joan Cross and Joan Hammond. Many admirers were sorry that Webster did not pursue an operatic career, but he always said that he much preferred recording and broadcasting.
Meanwhile Anne was making her own way to the top. The daughter of a cotton merchant, she trained in music and dance and starred in several shows before heading south: “My mother was mad on music, and music was also my life. I had no time for sport or anything else.”
Offered a leading part (the top part in an octet!) in a London show, she was advised by her music teacher to change her name to something more attractive for the bill-boards. One day she was scanning the Liverpool telephone directory in the hope of finding a suitable replacement surname when, on the very last page , she noticed the name of Ziegler. There was a family connection… Mr Ziegler was a distant relative of her father’s who owned Landicane Farm, then an extensive property on the Wirral peninsula in Cheshire. The sound of the name had the required romantic ring and it merely took the addition of a single shorter first name to complete the task. From now on she would be Anne Ziegler; it was a name destined to beam brightly from the finest theatres in the land.
By 1934 she was a rising star, tipped for Hollywood, and the Press had dubbed her The Radio Nightingale. Webster was called The Voice of Romance and the two met during the filming of Faust in December 1934. When Evergreen visited her this autumn, Anne was excited because an admirer in Ireland had recently obtained a copy of the original film, which was made in Spectracolour. “It will be the first time I have seen it since the 1930s,” she added.
When the two met on the set of Faust, Anne admitted she liked Webster straight away. “He had marvellous, compelling brown eyes and a youthful face. But he was married and we weren’t supposed to be showing a lot of interest in each other… though he tried to attract my attention by balancing a small ivory pig on the top of a piano lid. It kept falling over, which gave him the excuse to ask me if I could make the pig stand up. Of course, I couldn’t either, but it started a conversation! I think our affection grew from that. It was only six months later, when he was in a musical comedy at London’s Savoy Theatre that I was watching that I found myself getting rather jealous because he had a French leading lady!”
Anne was an attractive 23-year-old – Webster was 32, a divorcee who was already on his second marriage. His career was blooming but his personal life was in tatters. His first marriage had been to Winifred Key (Keey), daughter of the principal of the college in Birmingham where he had studied accountancy. They had a son, Keith (now a retired farmer (flower grower), living in the North of England) but one day Winifred walked out, leaving Webster to bring up the baby boy (aged six) alone. He combed the country trying to find her, often using the journey to a concert venue as a chance to find out where she was. Yet the two were never reunited.
In their autobiography Duet which he wrote with Anne in 1951, Webster remembered those days as a giggle. Anne recalls: “Much of the money we earned then had to be used to support my parents. My father had failed in business and needed help. Later there was alimony to pay from the break-up of Webster’s second marriage and money was required for Keith’s education.” (Webster stopped paying alimony to Paddy a few years after the divorce in 1938).
By the time Anne met Webster he had divorced Winifred and married again, this time to comedienne Paddy Prior – but that marriage was also crumbling. With Anne he sensed a last chance for happiness. She had already appeared in pantomime with George Formby at Liverpool in 1935 and had also become something of a household word herself through her success in the operetta Love Needs a Waltz.
Anne and Webster recorded their first duet in 1937 (1939!) (fittingly it was If You Were the Only Girl in the World) and sang together in a memorable performance of Messiah with the mighty Huddersfield Choral Society and Liverpool Philharmonic under Sir Malcolm Sargent. (This performance took place in 1944!) In 1938 Anne – described by Radio Pictorial magazine as “The young Liverpool girl who made good in musical comedy” – took a leading role, as played on stage by Anna Neagle, for a BBC broadcast of the musical comedy Princess Charming; Webster (“an excellent actor”) played the romantic Ruritanian sea captain who seeks the princess’s hand in marriage.
Then Anne was invited to America by composer Arthur Schwartz to appear in his new musical, Virginia. This was her big break, and there was talk of her being the new Jeanette MacDonald. Webster also came over but, says Anne, was treated disgracefully” by some Americans who found his voice too refined. “If you got no piano player, buddy, stand in line!” he was told at one audition. He promptly walked out.
Webster returned to Britain, to face the problems of his second marriage and also his health. Anne (now singing as Anne Booth) swiftly cut short a possible Hollywood career to be with him. “When Virginia closed in October 1937 I returned home to be with the man I loved,” she now explains. “I often wonder what might have happened if I had stayed in America but I don’t think I could have stood some of the things that were going on.”
When Webster was taken violently ill with blood-poisoning, she was by his side. In desperation, doctors tried an experimental drug… (M and B) and it saved his life. “I’m convinced he would have died without it,” she says. After Webster’s second divorce was finalised, he married Anne at Harrow Road register office, Paddington, on 5 November, 1938, with the blessing held at the ancient church of St Ethelburga’s (recently wrecked by an IRA bomb) in the City of London. Ahead of them lay scores of personal appearances, studio broadcasts, concert performances, records, films and shows.
During the war, while based in Bristol, they also performed in hangars, warehouses and half-darkened halls, with top musicians like Albert Sandler and Moura Lympany, and there was rapturous applause from adoring wartime audiences. They appeared at the Palladium in 1941 with Bebe Daniels and Ben Lyon, were selected for the first post-war Royal Command Performance and appeared before the Royal Family at their own chapel in the grounds of the Royal Lodge, Windsor. On stage they starred in a very successful revival of The Vagabond King (1943) and Sweet Yesterday (1945) and their films together included Waltz Time (1945 – not 1942), Demobbed (1944) and a costume favourite, The Laughing Lady (1946). For years they starred in summer season at Blackpool, proving even more popular than the legendary Joseph Locke. As one showbiz writer put it: “They were now as much a double act as Marks and Spencer or Crosse and Blackwell.”
Their life was a whirl: a wild romantic blend of Johann Strauss, Rudolf Friml, Ivor Novello and Sigmund Romberg. They serenaded each other on stage and in recording studios with everlasting classics – Deep in My Heart, Dear, Love’s Old Sweet Song, Only a Rose, We’ll Gather Lilacs, and many others. It was a world of gentle colours, sweet nothings and telling glances.
Their main accompanist was the faithful (and ever polite) Charles Forwood. “If, at the end of a concert, he smiled and said, ‘Well done’, that was praise indeed,” Webster once recalled. “But if he just put the music away quietly, and didn’t say a word, we knew we hadn’t gone too well.” Together they were ideal ambassadors, transporting the flavour and refinement of more graceful, cherished times from the Arctic chill of Canada to the heavy heat of Aden and Egypt. Always they were immaculate.
Anne made her final solo appearance in pantomime at the King’s Theatre Hammersmith in 1954 and two years later she and Webster moved to Johannesburg, South Africa, where they quickly settled, relishing the warmer climate. They continued to sing, recording many of their songs in the Afrikaans language, and Webster played the part of Tommy Handley in an hilarious radio version of ITMA. Together they taught singing and stagecraft, helping many talented pupils on the path to success. It was a two-way process: “It was amazing how much more I learned about singing technique by teaching,” says Anne. “My pupils actually taught me something. Now I can look at an opera or hear a record, and pick out certain faults almost instinctively.”
In June 1978 they returned to Britain, setting up home in North Wales. They continued to teach and were still as much in demand as ever for concerts, but Webster had a debilitating illness and was growing more forgetful. The end came slowly and he died the day before Anne’s seventy-fourth birthday.
Webster has his memorial in the form of a bursary for young singers called the Esso Webster Booth/Anne Ziegler Awards which are presented annually at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester “to keep alive the memory of a golden voice of the past while encouraging another generation in the best traditions of English singing”. Each year Anne travels to Manchester to present the prizes with Mrs Jean Buckley who originally started the bursary.
Still remarkably sprightly and attractive – her appearance belies her age – Anne enjoys the company of her wide circle of friends, corresponds regularly with her many admirers, and walks her beloved 11-year-old Yorkshire terrier Bonnie each morning, as well as doing a little gardening “before I stiffen up completely!” She still has her memories, and her regrets. “Of all the songs we sang I have no particular favourites. They were all beautiful, but I would have loved to have sung more Gilbert and Sullivan… and much more Mozart!”
Then she thinks of Webster and smiles. “You know, he really had the most beautiful voice. I was just another soprano, six a penny,” she jokes endearingly, “but his voice was exceptional. To me he will remain one of the finest British singers of this century… and the love of my life.”
Anne with Bonnie (aged 84)