ACCOMPANYING FOR WEBSTER AGAIN.

Later that week we went to see The Yeomen at the old Reps Theatre in Braamfontein, now named the Alexander Theatre after Muriel Alexander. We were very impressed by Webster’s performance as the somewhat elderly Colonel Fairfax, who wins Elsie Maynard and breaks poor Jack Point’s heart in the process. Anne told me that Webster would be very hurt if I didn’t go backstage to see him afterwards, so I did. He was fighting off the ‘flu and did not look well, although from the auditorium nobody would have realised that he was ill.

This article is mainly from my book, available at: Lulu.com

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I had played for Webster for two weeks while Anne was away in April and assumed that I would no longer be needed now that she had returned. Anne and Webster insisted that I keep the spare keys to the studio so that I could work there when they were not teaching. I was preparing for the ATCL singing examination in October and Grade 8 piano the following year, so I found the studio, high above the hustle and bustle of downtown Johannesburg, the ideal place to work and practise. In return, I answered queries, took messages on the phone, and answered the door to visitors.

Towards the end of May the Johannesburg Operatic Society (JODS) asked Webster to take over the role of Colonel Fairfax in their production of The Yeomen of the Guard at short notice. This was an incongruously youthful role for someone aged sixty-one, but he acquitted himself as well as he always did and lifted the production with his dynamic stage presence and undiminished vocal gifts. The show opened to mixed reviews, but all the critics had great praise for Webster. Dora Sowden headed her review in one of the Sunday papers:”Webster towers”. He had certainly taken on a remarkable feat as the juvenile lead at sixty-one.

6 June 1963 The Yeomen of the Guard, JODs Alexander Theatre RDM (2)

Later that week we went to see The Yeomen at the old Reps Theatre in Braamfontein, now named the Alexander Theatre after Muriel Alexander. We were very impressed by Webster’s performance as the somewhat elderly Colonel Fairfax, who wins Elsie Maynard and breaks poor Jack Point’s heart in the process. Anne told me that Webster would be very hurt if I didn’t go backstage to see him afterwards, so I did. He was fighting off the ‘flu and did not look well, although from the auditorium nobody would have realised that he was ill.

1963 Yeomen of the Guard 1963-06

In June, while Webster was still involved with The Yeomen, Anne told me that their housekeeper, Hilda, who was from the island of St Helena, was planning a trip home for six and a half weeks. Anne and Webster had decided to do alternate days in the studio while she was away as they would have to do the housework and cooking themselves. Would I care to accompany for Webster again? I did not have to think twice about it before agreeing to do so.

After Hilda left on her trip I settled into accompanying for Webster once again. Anne came in on alternate teaching days so occasionally I had a lesson with her. One Monday afternoon Ruth phoned me at the studio to ask whether I would like to have dinner with her family before going to the SABC choir meeting afterwards. Webster gladly agreed to take me to Parkwood instead of Kensington, as it was on his direct route home. We drove past Zoo Lake and he pointed out his bowling club, saying it was the loveliest setting in the world in which to play bowls. He had played golf in England, but could not afford to do so in South Africa.

I had a pleasant dinner with the Ormonds, and then Mr Ormond transported us to the meeting in his big black Rover which had been bought from the proceeds of the £40,000 Mrs Ormond had won in the Rhodesian Sweep the year before. There was a party after the meeting and Ruth and I chatted to Anton Hartman, the chief orchestral conductor at the SABC. Toward the end of June, we sang in the Light Music Festival where we did a number of unaccompanied American, German and Afrikaans folk songs. The Dutch conductor Jos Cleber conducted the orchestra, with Gert Potgieter and Bob Borowsky as soloists. Ruth was working for matric exams, and I for my singing diploma so we decided to take leave of absence from the choir, with the idea of returning when our respective examinations were behind us.

One evening, after we finished work at the studio, Webster took me with him to see one of The Three Petersen Brothers in connection with going into partnership with them in a new film company. Webster introduced me as: “This is Miss Campbell. She plays for me.” The Petersen brother concerned looked mystified. Webster had to explain to him exactly what it was I played! Although they had a long discussion, nothing came of the film company as far as Webster was concerned.

In July Anne had a very bad cold which lingered on for a long time, and Webster had a funny turn one evening. He lost his vision, and his head was spinning even when he was lying down. Anne told me that she wanted him to see the doctor about the state of his general health and his general grumpiness, but he refused to do so. She admitted that he hated teaching everyone apart from his few “pets”. She was very worried about him.

From the way he treated Lucille at her lessons, I gathered that she was one of the “pets”. She was having her twenty-first birthday party and had invited them to her party, but they had another engagement and could not attend. For some reason I felt quite jealous of her and was glad that they weren’t going to her party!

A few days later Webster told me that Anne’s cold was no better. He wanted her to see the doctor about it but instead she had insisted on going to Leslie Green’s draughty house for dinner. She was not pleased when he told her she would be better off staying in bed and trying to get rid of her cold.

One evening I was washing the dishes in the kitchen before we left the studio for the night, when I overheard him telling Gertie, our last pupil of the day, for whom I had just played the accompaniment of Softly Awakes my Heart from Samson and Delilah, what a wonderful musician I was at only nineteen. Praise indeed.

When Hilda returned from her St Helena holiday, the Booths went to sing at a concert in the country with Desmond Wright, who had conducted The Yeomen, as their accompanist. Webster told me that the only reason he had not asked me to play for them at this concert was because he thought that another woman on the stage would draw the audience’s attention away from Anne.

They made a great fuss of my twentieth birthday at the end of August, with Anne singing Happy Birthday to me, and both of them kissing me to wish me a happy day. There was a present of lipstick and matching nail varnish waiting for me on top of the piano when I went in for my lesson. I was very touched that they had remembered my birthday. Ruth had her lesson after mine, so I waited for her, as we were going out for coffee after her lesson.

Webster said, “Don’t drink too much whisky,” as we left. It was another lovely day.

They had acquired a protégé, a talented boy soprano called Robin Lister, whom they were coaching in preparation for his first LP recording. Robin had an exceptional voice, resembling a mature female soprano rather than the typical Ernest Lough boy soprano. He had been having lessons with a teacher in Benoni, but left her to study with Anne and Webster. Before his voice broke he made several recordings supervised by Anne and Webster. He became very well known and sang at a number of concerts. After his voice broke, he continued his lessons with the Booths, changing from singing to piano. The last I heard was that he became an engineer and had immigrated to Australia.

Webster phoned me before he left for Michaelhouse School in Natal to sing Elijah to ask whether I would play at an audition for two of their boy sopranos for Amahl and the Night Visitors the following Saturday. I agreed to do so and wished him well for the Elijah performance. “I know you’ll sing beautifully,” I added, and he replied, “Bless you, dear”.

On Saturday morning the two boys, Denis Andrews and Selwyn Lotzof, together with their parents and I arrived at Gwen Clark’s sumptuous penthouse at the top of Anstey’s Building, where the audition was to be held. The boys acquitted themselves well and we were given a lovely tea afterwards, but neither was chosen to sing the part of Amahl. Instead they decided to import a boy from Britain. Webster said that Ruth could have done the part, if suitably disguised, as her voice was like a boy’s, with absolutely no vibrato.

I went back to the studio after the audition to let Anne know how the boys had fared. She had had a tiring morning teaching all by herself, as Webster was at Michaelhouse to sing in a performance of Elijah, conducted by Barry Smith, the musical director at Michaelhouse at the time. He and Anne had not parted on good terms when he left for Michaelhouse so she had been rather surprised that he phoned her when he arrived there.

Anne insisted on making us coffee before she left. She spoke of Jo’burg “high” society, who had gone out of its way to cultivate them when they first arrived in South Africa as international stars, but soon dropped them when they realised that they were not rolling in money and were obliged to work for a living and were not able to go with them to race meetings or the like.

My diploma was pending and I spent a lot of time practising ear tests at Sylvia Sullivan’s studio with Edith Sanders, who was working for a piano diploma. She had perfect pitch, so I admired her sense of pitch which made ear tests very easy and she admired my competent sight-reading, which had improved remarkably since the early days of accompanying for Webster.

My Associate diploma, once again with Guy McGrath as examiner and Anne as accompanist, went well in all departments. After the exam, I went with Anne in her pale blue Anglia to Macey’s, a store in the city, where she bought a new carpet sweeper. On the way there she told me that she thought I was going to be another Mabel Fenney. By this time Mabel had passed her final exam at the Höchschule in Berlin. She was divorced from her first husband, Eric Fenney, who had financed her stay in Berlin, and had recently married Maurice Perkin in England.

About a week after the exam Webster phoned me at the studio to ask me to look up something about one of his “great voices” for his radio programme in my musical dictionary. He had seen the heavy tome and always termed it as my Bible.

I met my mother for lunch in Anstey’s that day and was pleased to hear that I had passed the Associate exam with 77%.

When I went to the studio in the afternoon, Webster answered the door. We had our usual shilling bet on passing or failing the exam.


“I owe you a shilling”, I said, handing it to him.


“What’s this for?” he asked as I went into the kitchen-cum-waiting room.


“I’ve passed my exam!” I announced as I sat down.


“Congratulations, darling,” he cried, bending down to kiss me.

We told Anne the good news when I went into the studio for my lesson.
“Did you know about it when I phoned you this morning?” Webster asked.


Anne asked sharply, ‘Why did you phone Jean?”


“I wanted her to look up something in her Bible for me,” he replied mildly.


“Whatever for? We have four Bibles at home!” she retorted, regarding us both with suspicion.


“It’s not a Bible really. It’s a music dictionary,” he explained.

She obviously did not believe a word he told her. I felt embarrassed to suddenly be the object of unfounded suspicions when we had always got on so well together. The episode put a damper on my exam success.

Jean Collen Updated 6 November 2019.

 

MABEL FENNEY, later PERKIN, née GREENWOOD

Pamela Davies, with whom I collaborated in writing a book entitled Do You Remember Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth? in 2005, 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 that decided me  to study singing with Anne and Webster and to make music my career.

Mabel Fenney later Perkin, née
 Greenwood (1960)
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, South Africa when Mabel and her sister were children.
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Mabel showed singing and acting talent from an early age and did her initial singing exams and 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. 
Scenes from The Yeomen of the Guard in East London with Mabel Fenney as Mabel, Harold Fairbrother as Colonel Fairfax, Joy Huggett as Phoebe and Jimmy Nicholas as Jack Point. Unfortunately I do not know the names of the other principals (circa 1955)
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East London (South Africa) production of Yeomen of the Guard. Thanks to Julian Nicholas, son of Jimmy Nicholas for this photograph.
 
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.

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The following year the society put on Waltz Time, again with Anne and Webster in the leading roles, but, for some reason, she was not asked take part in this production.
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Waltz Time, East London, 1959.
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. Her husband, Eric Fenney had agreed to pay her living expenses while she was studying in Berlin.
 
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. Most teachers had written off one of the naughtiest classes in the school as impossible to teach, but Mabel developed a good relationship with the girls in that class. She taught them to sing Brother James’ Air, which they performed creditably at the final assembly of the term, giving staff and pupils a pleasant surprise.
 
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.
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Mabel returned for a holiday to the Eastern Cape in August 1961 and gave this interview to the papers.
Pamela Davies, with whom I collaborated in writing a book entitled Do You Remember Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth? in 2005, 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 that decided me  to study singing with Anne and Webster and to make music my career.
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In 1963 I sang my Trinity College Associate diploma, with Guy McGrath as examiner and Anne as my accompanist. It went well. After the exam, I went with Anne in her pale blue Anglia to Macey’s, a store in the city, where she bought a new carpet sweeper. On the way there she told me that she thought I was going to be another Mabel Fenney. I felt that she had paid me a great compliment in comparing me to Mabel. By this time Mabel had passed her final exam at the Hochschule, although her Professor had disagreed with the Booths’ assessment of her voice and made her revert to her original soprano.
 
She met her second husband, Maurice Perkin, originally from Bugbrooke, Northamptonshire while she was abroad, and after her divorce from Eric Fenney and remarriage to Maurice, she lived and worked in London for a number of years before returning to South Africa with Maurice. During her time there she sang the role of Susannah in a semi-professional production of The Marriage of Figaro.
 
I met her again when she was living in Florida (South Africa) in 1976 and we became good friends, visiting each other nearly every week. We also sang duets together at a number of concerts until she and Maurice retired to Uvongo on the South Coast of Natal in the early nineties.
 
We wrote regularly and I spent a happy holiday with them in Uvongo in the late 1990s. Mabel – or Maimie, as we called her – always said that she had so many interests other than singing and these had prevented her from having the driving ambition to establish herself as a professional singer. She read widely, loved animals, was a keen gardener and an authority on herbs, and took great interest in history. She and Maurice made frequent trips to the Kruger National Park, where she was as interested in the birds they spotted there as in the big five group of animals.
 
When Anne and Webster returned to the UK and did a series of radio programmes on the BBC called Only a Rose, they singled her out as one of their most talented and hard-working students.
 
Yesterday I was saddened to learn of her sudden death on 6 March 2011, just over a month short of her ninety-second birthday. She will be sadly missed, but ever remembered by me.
 
Jean Collen ©
24 March 2011
Updated: 25 August 2019.
 
 
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