THE ANNE ZIEGLER AND WEBSTER BOOTH STORY Anne Ziegler, the widow and singing partner of Webster Booth, died in Llandudno, North Wales, on 13 October 2003, at the age of 93. Her death brought an end to an era in British entertainment before and after the Second World War. Her death brings an end to an era for me also.
I was seventeen when I first met them at the end of 1960. They were already middle-aged, in the same age group as my parents, their top-flight stage career in Britain behind them. I was too young to have seen them at the height of their fame, but even then I thought them a shining couple, as I still do over forty-three years later. In their day, in the thirties, forties and fifties, Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth were stars of stage, screen, radio, concert halls and variety theatres, and made over a thousand 78 rpms, either as duets or solos. Webster was also in demand as tenor soloist in oratorio: Handel’s Messiah, Jephtha, Samson, Acis and Galatea, Judas Maccabbeus, and Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, to mention but a few. Before the Second World War, he had sung Coleridge Taylor’s Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast in full Native American costume, and in 1955 on the occasion of Sir Malcolm Sargent’s birthday concert, Sir Malcolm requested particularly that he should be the tenor soloist in the same work.
D’OYLY CARTE AND EARLY STAGE APPEARANCES At twenty-one he auditioned for the D’Oyly Carte Company and was immediately accepted after a London audition. He abandoned auditing with little regret to became a professional singer, making his debut with the company in The Yeomen of the Guard at the Theatre Royal, Brighton. He stayed with the company for four years, but made no great advancement from the chorus and small parts. In his joint autobiography with Anne Ziegler, he complained that the only way one could advance in the company was to wait to fill ‘dead men’s shoes’. Despite this observation, he was one of the few singers who was allowed to record solo songs from the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire without obtaining the prior approval of Bridget D’Oyly Carte. His recordings of Take a pair of sparkling eyes and A Wand'ring Minstrel under the baton of Leslie Heward remain unsurpassed and are available on CD. He went with the company on a memorable and successful tour to Canada. Winifred Lawson, the principal soprano, heard him singing Your Tiny Hand is Frozen from La Bohème at the ship’s concert and was impressed with his voice. She was not surprised when he left the company and soon became a deserved success in his own right.
After the stability of a regular – if small – salary from D’Oyly Carte, he became a freelance performer with a wife and small son to support. He was lucky to be accepted in Tom Howell's Opieros concert party. This party sang in parks ad at seaside resorts and was unique because some members of the party (including the fine baritone, Tom Howell himself) sang operatic excerpts as well as performing the usual concert party lighter fare. During the winter, he sang with Tom Howell at Masonic concerts, sang in various Lyons' restaurants, and appeared in two Brixton pantomimes. in 1930 he made his debut in the West End as the Duke of Buckingham in Friml’s The Three Musketeers at Drury Lane. In 1932 he sang in Powis Pinder’s SUNSHINE concert party in Shanklin on the Isle of Wight. Appearing on the same bill was Arthur Askey, and he and Leslie (his first name) became good friends. Arthur Askey named his daughter Anthea after hearing Leslie sing To Anthea by Hatton at one of the performances. By the time he met Anne Ziegler during the filming of the colour film Faust in 1934, he was married to his second wife, Paddy Prior. He had divorced his first wife, Winifred Keey in 1931 after she had deserted him and their small son, and married Paddy Prior, a talented dancer, comedienne and soubrette in October 1932. The couple were happy for some time and Paddy and Webster appeared together in several concert parties, the Piccadilly Revels in 1933 and Sunshine in 1934.
Sadly, the marriage did not last after he met Anne. Paddy divorced him, naming Anne as co-respondent. He and Anne were married on Bonfire Night in 1938. Webster Booth soon formed a duet partnership with his wife in addition to his extensive recording, film, oratorio and concert work.
Anne was born Irené Frances Eastwood in Liverpool on 22 June 1910. Her sister, Phyllis, and brother, Cyril, were some years older than her, so Irené was almost an only child. At the time of her birth, her father, a cotton broker, was in Houston, Texas, buying cotton, so he did not see her until she was three months old. Her father did not want her to risk the might of the Zeppelins, so she had a Scottish nursery governess to teach her reading, writing and basic arithmetic. Later she attended Belvedere School. Her sister, Phyll, had done well there, but Anne was only interested in music and dancing, so the staff at Belvedere often compared her unfavourably to her studious elder sister, who became a pharmacist when she left school.
When Anne left school, she continued the piano up to Grade VIII of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music and began to study singing with the eminent teacher, John Tobin. In the nineteen-twenties a girl of her class had no need to work for a living. She was beautiful: tall and slim with emerald green eyes, fair hair and a fine bone structure. She became engaged – several times – to suitable young men. She sang in John Tobin’s female choir of twenty-four voices, and took the part of the May Queen in an amateur production of Merrie England.
She won the gold medal at the Liverpool eisteddfod, and sang at concerts around Liverpool, but singing was a pleasant way of passing the time rather than a means of earning her living. Her father financed a vocal recital in Liverpool and a further recital at the Wigmore Hall under John Tobin’s tutelage. At the Wigmore Hall she sang everything from Handel’s He’ll say that for my love from Xerses to Roger Quilter’s Love’s Philosophy and Scheherzade, but neither of these recitals brought forth any professional singing engagements.
Her family’s fortune took a downturn in the early thirties with the depression and the collapse of the cotton trade. For the first time in her life, she had to think seriously about earning a living to relieve her family’s finances. She was not trained to do anything as mundane as serving in a shop or typing, but she was attractive and she could sing. She and her friend, the mezzo-soprano, Nancy Evans, went to London to audition. Nancy didn’t find any work on that occasion, but Anne got the part of top voice in the octet of a musical play, By Appointment, starring the famous singer, Maggie Teyte, changed her name to the more glamorous Anne Ziegler, was accepted on the books of the theatrical agent Robert Layton, and was determined to establish herself on the stage and not become a financial burden to her father.
By Appointment was not a success and lasted only three weeks but she found another job singing for Mr Joe Lyon’s organisation amidst the clatter of the restaurants of the Regent Palace and Cumberland Hotels, and the Trocadero. She auditioned for the part of Marguerite in a colour film version of Gounod’s Faust Fantasy. She had seen the opera as a child and was so enchanted with it that she determined she would play the role of Marguerite when she grew up. From over two hundred other hopefuls she was chosen for the part: no doubt her blonde good looks and charming personality counted for nearly as much as her attractive lyric soprano voice.
It was in the making of this film, which commenced shooting in December 1934, that she met Webster Booth, playing opposite her as Faust. They fell in love almost at first sight, although at the time he was married to his second wife, Paddy Prior and he had a son, Keith, by his first marriage. Four years later, after his divorce from Paddy in times when divorce was not as common or acceptable as it is today, Anne and Webster were married on Bonfire Night in 1938.
In those intervening four years, Anne sang principal boy in her first pantomime, was an overnight success on radio in The Chocolate Soldier, sang in the early days of British television in 1936, and starred, under the name of Anne Booth, in the musical Virginia in New York. Webster went to New York with her, hoping to find some stage work of his own, but, despite his great voice, he did not make any impact on the cut-throat American musical world. He attended various auditions in New York as an unknown, while in England he was already an established performer in oratorio, recording, films, and the West End stage. He returned to England, crestfallen at his lack of success, and resumed his numerous engagements.
Anne, in the meantime, was hailed as a Broadway star and offered a film contract in Hollywood, with the idea that she would be the successor to Jeanette McDonald. The offer was tempting, but she turned it down to return to England and marry Webster Booth when his divorce from Paddy Prior was made final. They formed a duet partnership, in addition to their solo work. Their first duet recording was If you were the only girl in the world, with A Paradise for Two on the flip side. Before this official recording she had sung with him as an anonymous soprano voice in a radio series called The Voice of Romance. In this series he too was anonymous, but by this time, most people would have recognised his distinctive voice.
In 1940 they accepted an offer from agent Julius Darewski to join the variety circuit. The money was good and they were well received on the variety halls, always doing their act without the aid of a microphone. If Webster Booth’s voice filled the Albert Hall when he sang the tenor part in Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha in Native American dress under the baton of Malcolm Sargent, the same voice, in harmony with his wife's, filled the variety theatres from the London Palladium to all points of the United Kingdom.
They were the epitome of glamour and romance. He was tall, dark and handsome. He was always in immaculate evening attire, she in a range of crinoline gowns, some designed by Norman Hartnell. Their act was interspersed with what seemed like off-the-cuff banter, but every word and move was meticulously planned, and the lighting plot carefully worked out for the most telling impact. Apart from the usual operatic arias and musical comedy duets, Anne and Webster sang and recorded a number of ballads, arranged as duets, and an interesting and difficult arrangement of Chopin’s famous Nocturne in C sharp minor, arranged by Maurice Besley. As often as not Webster would arrange the duet part himself if none had been written.
Shortly before the divorce from Paddy Prior.
Although I was too young to have seen them on stage in the days of their great success in the forties and early fifties, I believe their success was due to the wonderful blend of the voices, creating a special, instantly recognisable sound, and their contrasting good looks, she beautifully gowned, he in full evening dress. Above all, they were instantly likeable with charming personalities, and possessed an elusive ability to make people adore them. They were at the height of their fame during the war.
Webster was born in 1902, too old for war service, and suffering from a kidney problem, which precluded him from having the necessary inoculations for going to the front. When the war started, he went to Bristol, where the BBC moved at the outbreak of war, as one of the selected broadcasters to join the staff of the variety department. Anne joined him there several months later but Webster left the employ of the BBC at the end of the year although he and Anne made many freelance broadcasts for the corporation.
They sang in George Black's production of Gangway at the London Palladium in 1941 with Bebe Daniels and Ben Lyon, and starred in a revival of The Vagabond King at the Winter Garden theatre in 1943. In 1945, they starred in Sweet Yesterday at the Adelphi, a musical play with music by Kenneth Leslie-Smith. It was in Glasgow during the pre-London tour of the show that the war ended and Webster was called upon to make the announcement to the theatre audience. They appeared in three films during and after the war: Demobbed (1944), Waltz Time (1945) (with Richard Tauber) and The Laughing Lady (1946).
The variety theatres, like the music halls before them, were in their twilight years in the early fifties, and Webster’s long-standing recording contract with HMV was suddenly cancelled in 1951, despite his still being in excellent voice at the age of forty-nine. Anne and Webster’s charming, sentimental, polished and exquisitely groomed act, so popular with the public in the forties, was losing favour. The post-war generation preferred American entertainers like Danny Kaye and Judy Garland at the London Palladium, or brasher acts fresh from the tough training ground of forces entertainment. Calypso, skiffle and rock and roll became the favoured musical entertainment, as sung by Lonnie Donegan, Tommy Steele, Marty Wilde and the ultimate Elvis Presley.
Jeannie C COPYRIGHT 2005 Updated 2017.