Theatricals of Felbridge Part 2
The original definition of the term ‘theatrical’ is: ‘of, for or relating to acting, actors or the theatre’ and it is with this definition of the word that the following document recants the biographies of some of the theatricals that have made Felbridge their home at some point during their lives.
One of the most active theatricals that had connections with Felbridge was Harry Herd who was better known as the ‘Handcuff King’ and later performed as Harry Lorraine, the stunt-man, silent film actor and film producer who made over forty films, two of which actually filmed in Felbridge. Born in 1885, Harry was an active theatrical on both stage and in the film industry from the early 1900’s until the early 1940’s [for further information see Handout, Harry Heard, Harry Herd, Harry Lorraine, SJC 11/09].
The Handout on Harry Lorraine was followed by a series of Handouts called Theatricals of Felbridge. The first in this series covered the lives of Hilary Allen, Coralie Harrington, Ivan Kotchinsky and Mademoiselle Du Boisson and the Macdonald Twins [for further information see Handout, Theatricals of Felbridge, SJC 11/12]. This Handout, Theatricals of Felbridge Pt. 2, covers the lives of Margaret Norcross, Molly O’Day, Melanie Parr and Ronald Shiner, all people whose chosen careers were ‘of, for or relating to acting, actors or the theatre’.
The story of Margaret Norcross and her association with Felbridge began with a photograph of her in the Scrapbook of the 50th Anniversary of the Women’s Institute collated by the Felbridge WI in 1965. The photograph was captioned ‘Margaret Norcross, American opera singing living at Norfolk House’.
Margaret Norcross was born at Pinehurst, Snohomish, Washington, on the 14th August 1920, the daughter of Harry Guy Cloes and his wife Ethel Selder née Keefe. Harry had been born on 21st July 1878 at Grand Rapids, Michigan, and in 1895, aged just seventeen, moved to Alaska in the midst of the fourth ‘Gold Rush’ to the area. In 1899 Harry was living at Tacoma, Washington, but by 1910 had moved to Fairbanks, Alaska, returning to Tacoma in 1911 where he lived until shortly after his marriage to Ethel on 23rd July 1914 when they both returned to Fairbanks. Ethel had been born on 9th March 1888 in Minneapolis, Hennepin, Minnesota, the daughter of Denis Haly Keefe (born in Connecticut but whose family originated from Cork in Ireland) and his wife Margaret Isabella née Melvin (born in Hetton le Hole, Durham, who emigrated to America with her parent’s William Thomas and Isabella Melvin and six of her nine siblings in 1882); the Keefe family moving from Minnesota to Tacoma by 1900.
The marriage of Harry and Ethel brought together a collision of two worlds; Harry was used to a rough, tough life in the wilds of Alsaka whilst Ethel had been raised in a privileged home in Tacoma. However, it would seem that Ethel was undaunted by the challenge of living in Alaska and in the first few months there had established herself in the ‘polite society’, performing as a solo singer at several local evenings of entertainment, recitals and balls held by the community, being commented upon in the dairy of James Wickersham (Alaska's delegate to Congress) thus: ‘Mrs Harry Cloes rendered a solo, which was received with such hearty applause that she was forced to respond with an encore’. Besides singing, Ethel also enjoyed her stay in the far north of Alaska in other ways, as an article in the Fairbanks Daily Times in 1916, talking about the start of Harry Cloes new season in Totatlanika, reported: ‘This will be the second season for Mrs. Cloes here. Last year she went to the Totatlanika as a chechaco [Native American for a newcomer or tender foot]; and she enjoyed every minute of the time she was there. Just before she left she stated that she looked forward to a very enjoyable summer and that, although she regretted leaving town in a way, she liked the freedom of the hills…’
This new life in Alaska only lasted to the end of the 1916 season as from 1917, Harry and Ethel had moved back to live with her parents at Pinehurst, Snohomish, where their only child, Margaret, was born in 1920. However, shortly after the birth of Margaret, the Cloes family moved to the emerging fishing town of Cordova in Alaska, Harry taking up the appointment of Deputy Marshal of the town. By the time that the Cloes family had moved to Cordova the railway, which had been begun in 1911 to transport copper ore coming out of Kennecott, had been completed and a thriving town had been established with schools, businesses, a hospital and utilities.
From an interview with Margaret Norcross in the Chicago Tribune, in May 1949, the early years of Harry and Ethel’s life together are confirmed and the journalist takes up the story of Margaret’s early life in Alaska:
‘Here it is she learned to swim (in clear lakes) and ski and hike on towering mountains. Her play-mate was a little Eskimo-Russian girl, reared by her family for 12 years. Also, amid the ruggedness of the land, she started the musical studies she hoped to make her.
Bride in Alaska
Mrs Norcross’s father, Harry G Cloes, went to Alaska while in his teens in the gold rush of 1895. He staked scores of claims and after one such find returned to the United States, married, and brought his bride back with him only to find that this, like all the others, had slipped through his fingers.
The new bride lived with her husband in the extreme north of the country where she saw a white woman, if she was lucky, every six months. Finally the couple settle in Cordova, a town of about 1,000 persons and gateway to a large copper mine. They had a baby and Cloes became deputy marshal of the town.
“I remember our fox terrier, Sandy, that used to follow Dad around” Mrs Norcross said “One day Sandy went off by himself and headed for the dock. It was during this that a group of bootleggers were unloading a shipment when they saw the dog and threw everything in the water thinking the marshal was around. The joke on them made the town paper and folks laughed about it for weeks”.
Stays 12 Years
Almost like a sister to Mrs Norcross was the little Eskimo-Russian girl brought home by the marshal one cold winter night.
“Dad meant to keep her until her parents could be found”, she recalled, “but she stayed with us 12 years. She later went away to school and after that died of tuberculosis” [the Eskimo-Russian girl was called Freida Ribokoff or Rivaloff. She had been born about 1916 and was living with the Cloes family in Cordova in 1930]’.
In addition to the newspaper article, Margaret’s family adds: ‘Her father was the marshal of the town [Cordova]and he helped Peggy (Margaret is known as Peggy by her family and friends)develop her tomboy side. He would take her out and they would shoot rifles at targets. Another experience she had was on the frozen Eyak Lake, a short distance from Cordova. I remember her telling me that she also learned to drive on that very large lake. Her father would take her out in their Model T Ford with no concern of running into anything or hurting the car’. Returning to the article in the Chicago Tribune, it was reported that Margaret had ‘received her first musical training from two German musicians who wandered into Cordova and, surprisingly enough, stayed. Both had good musical backgrounds and the little girl studied piano with one and violin with the other. When she was in her teens her mother took her to Europe where she studied music in Paris and in Germany’. From family information, Margaret’s ‘mother, Ethel, was raised in a privileged home in Tacoma, and being in a small fishing town like Cordova, cut off from the world, this was not quite what she had envisioned for her or her daughter’s life. She made sure Peggywas involved with music and theatre while they lived there. Peggy was forced to practice the violin for an hour each morning before school and another hour in the evening. In the early 1930’s, when Peggy was about 12 years old, Peggy’s mother decided it was time to give her daughter a more cultured life. She took Peggy on an adventure that changed her life forever. They both took the long journey down into the ‘lower 48’ and across to New York where they caught an ocean liner headed for Germany. They lived in Berlin and Dresden for 3 years where Peggy studied music. While they were living in Dresden, Peggy would tell stories of being caught up in the ‘Hitler’ movement and of being one of the ‘Hitler Youth’ for a short time. She told of how easy it was to get mesmerized by this man. She left Germany and then moved on to Paris for another year, where Peggy studied under Carl Flesch, one of the world’s leading violin teachers. After a brief stay in London, she returned to Snohomish’.
Carl Flesch, was a Hungarian violinist and music teacher who settled in England in 1934 giving private lessons from 34, CanfieldGardens, Hampstead, having previously taught in Bucharest, the Amsterdam Conservatoire, the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and the Hochschule in Berlin. There are no established dates for Ethel and Margaret’s travels in Europe but on 5th April 1935, they boarded the SS Hamburg at the port of Southampton, bound for New York, the passenger list for the Hamburg American Shipping line recording their address in England as 23, Marloes Road, Kensington, London; Margaret listed as a student. After Margaret returned to America she finished High School and graduated from the University of Washington at Seattle in 1942, where ‘She majored in drama because she had already had more musical training than the university could offer. After graduation, she moved to Hollywood and began her first serious voice lessons’.
In 1946, Margaret married James Barkley Norcross and by 1947 they were living at 5111 University Avenue, Chicago, Margaret working as a member of the Civic Music Association. On 7th December 1947 an article appeared in the Chicago Sunday Tribune that reported:
‘… the Civic Music Association has been sending 3 singing teachers since September to teach Christmas carols to the children of the poor. And if the cheery and practical young women Margret Norcross, Winifred Bittel and Harriet Fernaniak, have never thought of themselves as modern day magi, to their young choristers they assuredly stand in that light, bearing their priceless gifts of ancient hymns and gay, new jingle bell songs.
For more than a quarter of a century the Civic Music Association has been holding its children’s Yuletide classes. The week before Christmas, bands of small carollers, in mittens and mufflers and stocking caps come to sing in answer to invitations from hotels, clubs, downtown stores………….’
Returning to the article in the Chicago Tribune of 1949, it reported that ‘Mrs Norcross has sung on the Theatre of the Air and other radio programmes….. has appeared on treasury department shows on television and while studying and teaching music, hopes for a career either on television (she is cooking up her own show), the concert stage, or radio. She is on voice lessons now. “I hope to go back to Cordova sometime” she said, “it’s beautiful there. No matter what career I have here, I’ll always remember the two symphony orchestras those German musicians formed and the drama group productions in town. Folks made their own entertainment and enjoyed it”.’ As a post script to Margaret desire to return to Cordova sometime, her eldest daughter writes, ‘One August in the mid 90's, my mother did get her wish when I traveled with her back to Cordova for a visit. We spent time with some of her childhood friends, at the time in their 70's. She mentioned to me that there was part of her that wished she hadn't returned because of the changes that had taken place in the 60 years she had been away. Her old school was still there, as was the house where she lived. I was glad she took me there so I could see her town and relate to her stories’.
Continuing with Margaret’s life, ‘In the 1950’s, Peggy went to New York where she embarked on a professional singing career. She gave numerous recitals, appeared on regular coast-to-coast radio shows and even performed on two special recordings for composer Oscar Hammerstein. When her husband entered graduate school at the University of Chicago, she sang regularly on several top radio and television shows in the city’. By 1951 Margaret and James had moved to California where Margaret (a soprano) sang with the San Francisco Opera Company and started a family, which was complete by 1956 with three children. However, family life was short lived as sadly Margaret’s husband, James Norcross died on 7th November 1956 in Santa Clara, California. Fortunately Margaret had her singing and by 1957 she was a member of the Bel Arte Trio, along with Eugene Lawrence and Raymond Foote, accompanist. In an article in The Times from San Mateo in April 1957 it was reported that: ‘Margaret Norcross' professional activities include guest appearances on nationwide radio programs such as the Celenese Hour with Robert Weede and Jan Peerce; Album of Familiar Music, from New York; the Chicago Theatre of the Air and Melodies You Like to Hear, from Chicago; and on the Frank Sinatra show from Hollywood’.
Margaret, with a very young family, then married journalist Stuart Morgan Tweeddale in Fauquier, Virginia, on 9th May 1958. Stuart had been born on the 30th January 1906, the son of William Austin Tweeddale (born in Stirlingshire, Scotland) and his wife Sarah Ann née Flynn (born in Pennsylvania). However, Margaret and Stuart’s marriage was short lived and on 2nd August 1961, Margaret married Dr Pieter Roest in King County, Washington; Margaret, recorded in Pieter’s Theosophy biography as ‘the widow of a Navy officer [James Norcross]’. Around this time Margaret was performing with the Chamber Music Ensemble of the Peninsula Artists and Opera Company.
Pieter Roest had been born on 17th October 1898 in Vlaardingen, Holland. In 1933 he had accepted a position in the American Theosophical Society in Wheatly, Illinois, after spending many of his early years teaching in Australia, India and Java; in 1937 Pieter Roest became a naturalised American citizen. Following World War II, Pieter became a member of General Douglas MacArthur's staff in the occupation of Japan, with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, returning to America in the 1950’s to work for the US State Department as a Foreign Affairs Specialist in the Division of Research for the Near East, South Asia and Africa. Shortly after Margaret’s marriage to Pieter, they travelled, together with Margaret’s three children, to Switzerland where they stayed for a year before moving to England where they resided first in Bournemouth in Hampshire before moving to Felbridge. It is not known why the family travelled to Europe but their move to Felbridge was because of Pieter’s involvement with Scientology and his desire to be near to their Head Quarters at Saint Hill, East Grinstead and its founder L Ron Hubbard who, at that time had not been banned from the shores of Britian. When Margaret and her family first moved to Felbridge they lived at Norfolk House in Copthorne Road, later moving to Spinney Lodge in London Road. Whilst in Felbridge, Margaret’s children attended St Agnes and St Michael’s School in Moat Road, East Grinstead, where Margaret started a singing group called Folkus.
Norfolk House (now known as Holly House, 98, Copthorne Road), was built in 1929/30 and was first lived in by Arnold Kelf on his return to England from Australia. Arnold Kelf ran a poultry farm from the property, selling eggs at the East Grinstead Market and poultry, collected early in the morning by carriers Routh and Stevens from the Star Inn car park [for further information see Handout, Poultry Farming in Felbridge SJC 05/11]. In 1951 Arnold Kelf moved to Perry Farm, West Park Road, from where he continued his poultry business succeeding Ronald Shiner when he moved to Blackboys near Uckfield (see below), and Norfolk House became the home of Charles O Randall and his wife Dorothy. After the Norcross family left Norfolk House the talented, musical Stocks family moved into the property, but over the years some of the plot was sold off and in 2007 most of the remaining plot at the rear of Norfolk House was developed as part of Housman Way, whilst the house itself was given a ‘make-over’ to be more in-keeping with the houses built in the development behind.
Whilst in Felbridge, Margaret joined the Felbridge WI who were in the process of compiling the 50th Anniversary Scrapbook in celebration of the Women’s Institute in 1965 in which the photograph of ‘Margaret Norcross, American opera singing living at Norfolk House’ is firmly stuck. It probably felt like an obvious organisation to join for Margaret as her mother had potentially also been a member of the WI, having submitted a recipe for The Kingsmill-Mapleton Women's Institute (founded in 1907) cookbook entitled The Homemaker’s Comrade: a cook book of home tested recipes, compiled in 1927/8.
Select large oysters; drain, and dry between towels. Dip in beaten egg; then in dry sifted bread crumbs, which have been seasoned with salt and pepper. Fry in a wire basket in deep, hot fat until golden brown. These may be prepared some hours before and the breading process repeated after the first coat is dry.
Coming from Cordova, oysters would have been an obvious and cheap ingredient used by Ethel Cloes because by the 1920’s the town, besides transporting copper ore, had a flourishing shellfish industry, being known as the ‘Razor Clam Capital of the World’.
Spinney Lodge was built by Lt. Col. Jack Gronow Davis in 1961 as a tied agricultural cottage within the curtilage of his property Woodcock Spinney. Jack Davis and his wife Millicent Alix née Blood had acquired Woodcock Spinney through a family connection with Jessie Carey in 1951 and in 1961 they were operating a fruit farm from the property, hence the need for a tied cottage for farm workers. Although not farm workers, Margaret’s daughters Nancy and Erin used to pick fruit for the Davis’s whilst living at Spinney Lodge.
Margaret and her family didn’t long in Felbridge and in 1966 they had a brief sojourn in Hawaii before moving to Los Altos, Santa Clara, California, finally settling in Ojai, California in 1967. In December 1967 Margaret and Pieter divorced and he died a year later on 11th July 1968. It is on her return to America that Margaret became a voice coach becoming on of the top voice teachers in southern California. Besides singing lessons she also directed the Ojai Presbyterian Church choir for many years. In the mid 1970s, Peggy moved to Santa Barbara, where she continued teaching voice, spending the summer months involved with the Music Academy of the West and befriending prominent world renowned opera singers such as Martial Singher (a French baritone who became a leading American operatic and concert artist and later a noted teacher) and Thomas Hampson (see below).
In the early 1980’s Margaret moved to Seattle before settling in Portland, Oregon. The following is an account of Margaret Norcross as a teacher and person as experienced by Marcia Tucker, an un-trained, very enthusiastic closet singer of folk and country style music of dubious ability who went to Margaret in the hope that she could actually produce something that was pleasing to the ear:
‘In Santa Barbara, where I took a five month sabbatical from the NewMuseum in 1988, I found Peggy Norcross, a voice teacher who was famous in the area. I asked if she’ll take me as her student. “Of course,” she said in her elegant soprano voice, and so I gathered my courage and showed up at her doorstep in the Montecito hills. Peggy was old and gorgeous, a New Age grandmotherly type with a halo of gossamer white hair, patrician posture, and layered pastel garments. Her ground-floor studio apartment was crammed with tchotchkes [Native American for small objects that are decorative rather than strictly functional] — cute statuettes, angel sculptures, pictures of adorable children, and framed inspirational slogans. Presiding over all this was a gigantic piano covered with an elaborate piano shawl and loaded with tottering piles of sheet music, a metronome, a mirror, and a cassette recorder and tapes. Just outside the turquoise-framed French windows I could see phenomenal cactus plants, a crazy quilt of red, yellow, orange and white flowers, unbelievable blooming succulents of all kinds. The sky was a luminous robin’s-egg blue, the light so intense that the saturated colours seemed to have come from the palette of an artist with absolutely no sense of restraint. Peggy greeted me warmly, took my hand in both of hers, and asked me what I’d done thus far.
“Nothing,” I muttered, stricken with shyness. “Well, actually, no, I took some lessons from a friend of mine who’s a composer, but I don’t think I did very well.” She smiled, and told me not to worry. “Why on earth did you agree to take me as a student?” I stammered after a minute, because my friends had told me that she taught professional opera singers. “You know,” she said, “I believe that everyone is born with an absolutely beautiful, perfect voice, and then they spend their lives gunking it up. My job is to un-gunk it. And,” she continued, “I’m a teacher who loves her work, so I like to teach at every level. Trained singers often have problems that I have to work hard to fix, whereas with beginners I can teach them to do it properly right from the start.”
And so we began. She had me breathe into my back and let the sound out through my eyes, trying not to let my mouth and throat get in the way. She encouraged me to let go, not to think too much. She let me practice singing the old English folk songs that I loved even when they were totally unsuited to my voice. She was infinitely kind, and infinitely patient, and if I detected a hint of sadness in her face from time to time, I didn’t immediately think that it was because I was singing badly.
One day, I was trying to do a really difficult arpeggio. I told myself that it was a matter of will power, that I would simply do it no matter what it took. I struggled, started again, struggled some more. I fastened my voice to the effort with the nuts and bolts of pure determination, and tried again. Peggy stopped me with a thoughtful look. “So tell me,” she said, “would you try to teach your four year old calculus?” “Huh?” I was confused. “Of course not. Why do you ask?” “Well,” she said, “because that’s what you’re doing with your voice. Just because you can’t do something right off the bat, perfectly, you beat yourself up. Could you try to relax and be a little kinder to yourself? Could you keep practicing, and then just let it happen when it’s ready to?”
I was stymied. Here she was, asking me to entertain the possibility of focusing on the process and not worrying about the product, which meant that I had to curb my impatience, my need for control, my desire for instant results, all honed to knife point by a lifetime of effort to be perfect. I consoled myself by thinking that it took trust and courage for the artists I was involved with daily to work that way, but they did it anyhow. The alternative is to just do what you do best over and over again, which means that you risk becoming a hack. What artists seemed to want most was to surprise themselves, but that’s only likely to happen if you’re completely unselfconscious, and you can no more choose to be unselfconscious than you can bite your own teeth (dentures notwithstanding). The best anyone can do is to try to create an environment that nurtures that particular state of grace.
So I practiced. Months passed, with what seemed to me to be a singular lack of progress. Then one day while I was following Peggy’s gentle command, focusing out the window to a far place in the trees, letting my voice stretch to that place through my eyes, relaxing my stomach and chest, a note overtook me, coming out of the centre of my body with no control on my part, unbidden, pure, clear, and breathtaking. A shock ran through me, so deep that I began to sob wildly. “There it is,” she said with satisfaction, handing me a Kleenex. “Now we’re starting to get somewhere.”’
In the early 1990’s Margaret established a large teaching studio in Portland, through which many aspiring singers passed. Commenting at the time of her death, a former student, internationally acclaimed baritone Thomas Hampson, recalled: ‘She was so decent, loving, caring and just plain good to young folks around her and passionate for the spirit of music’. What many students liked about Margaret was her unconventional teaching methods. Mike Pickrell, another former student, said: ‘To get through our own blocks, out of our safety zone, she threw out the rules. During lessons students had to expect the unexpected. You never knew if you would be lying on the floor or crawling on the floor, to break up our composure. Sometimes you have to go into wrong to find out what right is. Sometimes, singers just want to make beautiful sounds. But she always said singing should be exciting. To engage your listeners, jump off that building. It could be tremendously scary’. Another former pupil, Lisa Stidham, recalls: ‘I would like to say that Margaret Norcross was the most positive person I have ever met. Her holistic approach to singing inspired many aspiring singers. She is the model of my own teaching and I strive to pass on her boundless enthusiasm to each of my students’.
Margaret died in Portland on 20th March 2008, aged eighty-seven, leaving behind a huge musical legacy through her love of music and the numerous singers she coached throughout her life.
Paul Freeman: sang with the Golden State Boys Choir, Santa Barbara Camerata Choir, University of California Santa Barbara Men’s Chorus and Mixed Choir; performed with the Santa Barbara Symphony; and President/ Interim Executive Director of the Santa Barbara Children’s Chorus
Moira Gralund: American opera singer and winner of the Oregon Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions in the mid 1990s
Thomas Hampson: American baritone opera and classical singer; appeared world-wide at major opera houses and concert halls; has made over 170 musical recordings; is a member of the board of the Manhattan School of Music; and is Artistic Director of the LiedAcademy
Marie Hodgson, American soprano; founding member of the Contemporary Christian group Bob Hurd and Anawim; sung with the Early Music Ensemble of Los Angeles, I Cantori and Los Angeles Opera; sung on several TV and film tracks; has made several musical recordings with the Los Angeles Philharmonic; and also sung on the Grammy Award winning Padilla, Sun of Justice, with the Los Angeles Chamber Singers
Gale McNeeley: American actor, singer, dancer and clown
Joyce McWilliams: American performing artist, vocalist, actress, vocal instructor and member of NATS (National Association of Singing Teachers)
Mike Pickrell: American musician, conductor and band director
Angela Reiswig: American singer with a background in opera, musical theatre, jazz, symphony choirs, church choir and worship teams; founder and owner of Animaté Voice Studio for Children; an Apprentice with Transformational Voice Training Institute in Portland; and on the Faculty with Rose City Music Academy
Clark Sayre: Broadway performer; TV and film actor; Founding Director of Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera Youth Theatre; and teacher at DP (Diploma Programme) Theatre
Mary Beth Smart nee Stark: Americanpianist and vocalist
Lisa Stidham: American soprano opera singer, vocal chamber music and musical theatre; has performed in America, Europe, Australia and South America; member of the voice faculty at Scripps College, Biola University, University of South California, CalArts, California State University Los Angeles and other colleges and universities in the Los Angeles area; and vocal coach for the Los Angeles Children's Chorus
Karen Farnum Surmani: classical vocalist; performed in venues around the world; an Orff certified music teacher teaching in multiple schools and at the University of Southern California; the Early Childhood Acquisition Editor and Vocal Masterworks Editor for Alfred Music Publishing; and author of several books including: Alfred’s Essential of Music Theory, Teach Yourself to Sing: Everything You Need to Know to Start Singing Now!, Sing at First Sight, Level 1: Foundations of Choral Sight-Singing and Rock Singing Techniques
Marcia Tucker: American art historian, art critic and curator, founder of the New Museum of Contemporary Art, a museum dedicated to innovative art and artistic practice in New York City and enthusiastic singer
This is by no means the complete list of former students coached by Margaret ‘Peggy’ Norcross, just a small sample of those who have gone on to pursue a career in music, either through performance or imparting their musical knowledge through education, or both, just as Margaret ‘Peggy’ Norcross had done during her life.
I would like to thank Lisa Stidham (former student of Margaret ‘Peggy’ Norcross) and Nancy Herron (daughter of Margaret Norcross) for their help and information.
Molly O’Day was born Norah Ada Beatrice Levy on 22nd January 1908 in Kennington Park Road, London, the daughter of Music Hall performers – Violet Stockwell (b. 7th March 1885, Portsmouth, known as Violet Stockelle or Violet Levy) and Louis Levy (b. circa 1876 in America, known as Larry Lewis). Violet and Larry had married in Glasgow in January 1906. They were both descended from an array of Music Hall and Circus artistes. Violet’s elder sister Keziah Beatrice Stockwell (b. 16th January 1883, Portsmouth, known professionally as Daisy Dormer) was the most successful of all the family having a string of popular songs and having appeared in pantomime at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (Hop O’ My Thumb 1911/12 season). During the week of her birth Norah’s father Larry was fulfilling a week’s engagement at the Empire & Hippodrome in Bristol. Her mother Violet was back on stage the week of 9th March 1908 appearing with Larry at the Empire Palace, Sheffield. As her parent’s jobs were precarious and itinerant – a different town or City (if not country) every week, Norah spent a lot of her youth with her maternal grandmother Mary Ann O’Conner (née Barter, Stockwell b. 11th February 1862, Emsworth, Hampshire) in Ash Vale near Aldershot. In 1901, widowed Mary Ann married John Patrick O’Connor who ran a transport and Hansom cab business there.
Norah’s parents never owned their own property and stayed in a series of theatrical digs. At the time of the 1911 census, Norah aged 3 and her parents were shown to be lodging in a house in Lambeth (Brixton Road) together with Daisy Dormer and her husband Albert Edward Jee (also a performer, known as Albert Egbert, whom Daisy married in 1908 in Lambeth). In the week following the census, Violet and Larry were performing at the Kilburn Empire and the Palladium respectively. Norah was subsequently educated at GodwinLadiesCollege, a boarding school in Cliftonville, Margate. She exceeded academically (particularly in English) and was also a gifted pianist and banjolele player. Daisy Dormer is thought to have helped with the school fees and Norah returned the favour by playing the piano for aunt Daisy at rehearsals. Sadly when Norah was just 15 her father Larry Lewis died (26th November 1923).
After college it is believed that Norah had a job in the hair dressing department at ‘a famous department store’ (thought to be Harrods). Whilst there she attended an audition for the Chorus in the Palladium pantomime (Aladdin) for the 1926-27 panto season, she was successful and thereafter was in the family business! Norah never had any formal dance training claiming she learnt from copying her mother and aunts (or those in front of her in the Chorus!). It was at this date that Norah took the stage name of Molly O’Day – coincidentally also the name of an American silent film actress of the time. Aladdin opened on 22nd December 1926 and ran until 12th February 1927. The parts of principal boy and girl were taken by Clarice Mayne and Violet Essex, with Charles Austin as Widow Twankey. Bransby Williams, whom Norah’s parents almost certainly knew from their time on the Music Halls, took the part of the evil Abanazar. There is Pathé news footage of scenes from Aladdin with the Chorus Girls’ heads appearing above painted boards representing a Chinese dragon. Unfortunately, the quality of the film is not good enough to identify Molly O’Day. Although it is known from direct oral history that Molly was in this production regrettably the programme omits all of the members of the Chorus.
In June 1929 Molly appeared in Hold Everything that opened 12th June 1929 at the Palace Theatre, London, and ran for 173 performances. Molly was also in the touring production and in December 1930 performed at the Newcastle Empire. Hold Everything was an American musical comedy that had run on Broadway. The book was by John McGowan and B G de Sylva, lyrics by Lew Brown and BG de Sylva and the music was by Ray Henderson. The plot revolves around a boxing heavyweight championship and complicated romantic entanglements. It was directed by Ralph Reader, later to become known for his ‘Gang Shows’ for youth members of Scouts and Guides. The most famous song from the show is ‘You’re the Cream in My Coffee’. The show starred John Kirby and George Gee, Owen Nares (played the boxer), Desmond Jeals and Sunny Jarman. In 1930 Warner Brothers produced a movie version filmed entirely in technicolor but this is now considered a lost film.
In 1931 Molly was a cast member in The Geisha – A Story of a Japanese Tea House that opened 1st June 1931 at Daly’s Theatre (demolished in 1937 and rebuilt as The Vue, West End), which was known for musical comedy productions. The story tells of the love of a naval officer and a geisha at a tea house. The lovers are parted at the end but not tragically. The naval officer weds an English girl and the geisha marries an Oriental. This production toured the provinces and we know Molly performed in the production at The Royal, Brighton, in December 1932 where it had a two week run featuring some of the cast from the London production. According to review in The Stage, Molly O’Day played the French girl (Juliette Diamont), ‘a remarkably clever portrayal’. The musical numbers included: The dear little Jappy- Jap -Jappy, The Amorous Goldfish and Chin Chin Chinaman, which explains why this production is unlikely to be revived today!
In 1931 Molly was in a production of The Quaker Girl at the Manchester Hippodrome, as part of the Stoll Tour. Originally The Quaker Girl opened at the Adelphi Theatre on 5th November 1910, starring Gertier Millar in the lead role and ran for 536 performances. The story line is about Prudence, the Quaker girl, who meets Tony, an American attaché with the US Embassy in Paris, who has come to her village to attend the wedding of his friend Captain Charteris. Disobeying her parents, Prudence goes to the wedding reception and is caught sipping champagne. In defiance she goes off to Paris where she becomes a mannequin in Mme. Blum’s fashion salon. She catches the eye of the philandering Prince Carlo who invites her to attend the lavish ball he is giving in the Bois de Boulogne. This prompts a jealous Tony to do what he should have done all along – to propose to Prudence and thus ensure a happy ending. The book was by James T. Tanner, lyrics by Percy Greenbank and Adrian Ross and music by Lionel Monckton. Musical numbers include: A Bad Boy and a Good Girl, Take a Step, Tony from America, Come to the Ball and A Runaway Match. The 1931 Stoll Tour may have been a precursor to The Quaker Girl (1st Revival) at the Garrick Theatre that opened on 28th May 1934 (closed 7th June) and then re-opened at the Winter Garden Theatre, 18th June 1934 (closed 23rd June).
In February 1932 Molly was in a revival of San Toy at Daly’s Theatre. San Toy, a Chinese Musical Comedy, opened on 22nd February 1932 with book by Edward Morton, lyrics by Harry Greenback and Adrian Ross and music by Sidney Jones. The book and lyrics were revised for this production by Percy Greenback (the son of the original writer). Molly O’Day was Li Kiang, wife of Yen How (a Mandarin, played by Leo Sheffield) and was also credited with playing Hu Hu [Yu] in The London Stage 1930-1939: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel by J. P. Wearing. The leading part of San Toy, daughter of Yen How, was played by Jean Colin. The dances were arranged by Fred A Leslie and it was produced by Frederick A Lloyd. San Toy played every evening at 8.15pm with matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2.30pm.
The following month Molly was in Miss Hook of Holland, which opened at Daly’s on 24th March 1932, described as ‘A Dutch Musical Incident’. The book was by Paul A Rubens and Austen Huron with lyrics and music by Paul A Rubens. It was produced by Frederick G Lloyd. Dances were arranged by Alison Maclaren. Sally (Miss Hook of Holland) was played by Jean Colin and the Chorus ladies included Molly O’Day. Act 1 took place in The Cheese Market at Arndyk, on the borders of the Zuyder Ze and Act 2 in the liqueur distillery in Amsterdam. Musical numbers included: Miss Hook, The Flying Dutchman, Little Miss Wooden Shoes and A Little Bit of Cheese.
In October 1932, Molly was in a touring production of Noël Coward’s operetta, Bitter Sweet at the Wimbledon Theatre, produced by Charles B Cochran. Cochran produced many of Noël Coward’s musical successes and was well known for his revue shows in the 1920’s and 1930’s often featuring the Cochran Young Ladies. In a review in The Stage newspaper of the Bitter Sweet production, Molly O’Day was mentioned for her ‘excellent dancing in the cafe scene’.
In August 1933, Molly was in Eastbourne at the Pier Theatre, in Lilac Time, with music by Franz Schubert, described as a play with music in three acts. Edward Leer played the role of Schubert, Leon Underwood was Baron Schober while Lili was played by Jean Kemp. Molly was Rosi (a maid) and ‘part of the very capable Supporting cast’.
The last professional engagement that can be traced for Molly O’Day was in December 1933, a production of the pantomime Aladdin in Abergavenny at the Borough Theatre, produced by Pyke and White. Molly O’Day was cast as So Shi and her mother (billed as Violet Levy) played the Principal Boy – Aladdin. The production opened there for one week and then went on tour. The week of 4th January 1934 Molly and Violet were at the Astoria, Llanelli, and the following week they were at the Empire, Aberdare.
Norah often mentioned other productions in which she appeared, including: Eldorado, Virginia, Monsieur Beaucaire, Mr Cinders and Belle of New York, but regrettably it has not yet been possible to trace any firm evidence. Sadly, the names of the Chorus were often sacrificed for the sake of extra advertising space in the programme.
In an interview with The East Grinstead Courier in February 1958 Norah is quoted as saying the following: ‘I loved the stage and I was sorry to leave it. But to get on you have to be tough, and you have to be ruthless. Push is even more important than talent. In musical comedy you are old at 22 and, at 19, I myself started older than the rest’. In the same article Norah said she always found auditions a ‘nightmare experience’ that she ‘never learned to take with a smile’.
Before Norah married, and when she was not touring the provinces, she lived with her aunt Norah (b. Alice Maud Norah Stockwell, 22nd June 1888, known professionally as Norah Stockelle) at the Prince of Wales Feathers, Warren Street, London, where aunt Norah was the landlady. Norah lived above the pub and worked as a barmaid. In the 1930’s the pub was a centre for car dealing and this is where she met her future husband Roland John Young; they married in 1935. Sadly for Norah, her professional life as Molly O’Day on stage came to an end after her marriage. Roland was the son of George Ernest Young, a tarpaulin manufacturer and his wife Laura née Townsend, and had been born on 31st August 1909 at 21, Palmerston Road, Farnborough, Kent. Roland had trained as a motor engineer at Armstrong Siddeley in Coventry, and at the time of their marriage he was a motor car salesman. When they first married, Norah and Roland lived at Willow Road, Hampstead, London, where their first child was born in 1939.
During the first phase of evacuations in September 1939, Norah as a young mother with seven month old boy and heavily pregnant with a second child, fell into a priority category for evacuation, and so they were evacuated to Wheathampstead in Hertfordshire. On arrival, Norah was not selected by any of the evacuee hostesses and was taken in by one of the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) women. Roland and Norah subsequently rented a house in the village. In 1940 Norah’s second child was born in St Albans, Hertfordshire. Roland then returned to work at Armstrong Siddeley in Coventry and the family moved to Kenilworth in Warwickshire where the Young family remained throughout the war. Norah organised entertainment in the town and Roland joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR). He took part in the Allied invasions of Sicily and mainland Italy (1943), Colombo (then in Ceylon, modern-day Sri Lanka) and Bombay, experiences that profoundly affected him. After the war the family moved to Warminster Road, SouthNorwood, London, sharing a large house with Roland’s sisters and their families. Roland then got a job with Caffyns in East Grinstead and the family moved to Harmonie in Rowplatt Lane, Felbridge, where their last child was born in 1947.
The Young family home Harmonie, is situated on a piece of land that once formed part of Hedgecourt Heath or Common that encompassed the land to the south and southwest of Hedgecourt Park [for further information see Handout, Hedgecourt Common, SJC 07/01]. There is evidence to suggest that this triangular piece of Hedgecourt Common was part of the seventy acres of Felbridge purchased by George Evelyn of Nutfield in 1588 and by 1748 the triangular section formed part of the 1,536 acre estate of Felbridge owned by the Evelyn family [for further information see, Handout, The Felbridge Triangle, SJC 03/05]. In 1911, with the break up and sale of the Felbridge estate [for further information see Handout, 1911 Sale of the Felbridge Estate, SJC 01/11], James Osborn Spong purchased 10.833 acres known as Warren House Farm, the property taking it’s name from the original enclosed field known as Lower Warren Field.
James Spong purchased Warren House Farm with some of the proceeds from his company, Spong & Co, which he had founded in 1856 for the manufacture of wirework and kitchen utensils [for further information see Handout, Another Biography from the churchyard of St John the Divine, Felbridge - James Osborn Spong, SJC 05/04]. The property consisted of Lower Warren Field and a small cottage, probably built at the beginning of the 18th century and little changed since its construction. Warren House Farm was entered via a trackway leading to a large five-bar gate off the Crawley Down Road where the road leading to Warren Close is now located. At the time of purchase, the site of Harmonie was little more than a field abutting a row of old sweet chestnut trees that flanked what is now called Twitten Lane [for further information see Handout, Tri-Centenary of the Felbridge Chestnuts, SJC 07/14]. In December 1915, James Spong passed the property over to two of his daughters, Minnie Frances and Florence and in June 1927 a deed of partition was drawn up giving Minnie the southern half abutting Crawley Down Road, including the old farmhouse, and Florence the northern half abutting Twitten Lane. At the time of partition, Florence’s half of the property was already known as Harmonie and had a rectangular structure on the site, depicted end-on to Rowplatt Lane. It has not yet been established when this structure was built or what its purpose was, but there are two possibilities:
1) It may have been constructed by the female members of the Spong family when Warren House Farm played host to several Summer Schools of The Order of the Cross during the 1920’s;
2) It may have been constructed for Annie Elizabeth, known as Annea (another Spong daughter) who ran Summer Schools for dancing based on natural movement at her parent’s home of Warren House Farm from 1920. These dance Summer School were advertised as ‘open air dancing held in beautiful grounds and orchards, under avenues of magnificent chestnut trees in invigorating air’ [for further information see Handout, The Felbridge Triangle, SJC 03/05].
Whatever the original purpose of the building on the plot known as Harmonie, from at least 1929/30 it was used as a dwelling, still in the ownership of Florence Spong but leased to a series of tenants including: Katherine Baldwin in 1929/30; Stanley and Ada Rosina Medcalf between 1930 and 1934; Horace and Agnes Terry & Wilfred and Margaret Whellar between 1934/5 and 1936; James and Gertrude May Pugh between 1936 and 1938; and William Cannaby Stevenson and his wife Rose Harriet from1938 and until at least the cessation of the Electoral Roll records in 1939 due the Second World War. From map evidence, the original east-west orientated building depicted on the 1927 deed of partition had, by 1938, been extended along part of its south side making the structure an L shape, the main part of the building lying predominately north-south with a covered porch running the full length of the extension. After the war, when the Electoral Roll re-commenced in 1945/46, Norah and Roland Young are listed as the occupiers of Harmonie. The Spong interest in Harmonie finally ended in April 1946 when two more of the Spong sisters, Dora Beedham and Irene Osborn Parley [for further information see Handout, The Felbridge Triangle, SJC 03/05], sold the ‘plot of Harmonie and it’s house’. This ushered in a new era for Harmonie with more than sixty years in the ownership of the Young family.
During the 1950’s Norah was heavily involved with the local Felbridge Women’s Institute and their dramatic productions for which she wrote a series of one act plays for the group. In this, she was joined by Marjorie Bardwell (known as Coralie Harrington professionally) in whom she found a kindred spirit [for further information see Handout, Theatricals of Felbridge, SJC 11/12]. Although currently unable to date the productions, Sugar and Spice: A Revue (circa 1950) devised and directed by Coralie Bardwell was reviewed by the East Grinstead Courier: ‘The company are very fortunate in having two such exceptionally good leaders as Coralie Bardwell and Norah Young. The latter has the true dash of the West End musical comedy stage and she carried her audience with her in all she did’[for further information see Handout, Felbridge Women’s Institute Celebrates 90 years, SJC 11/14].
A further production (possibly in 1952) More Sugar and Spice: A Revue, was also produced by Coralie and Norah. The East Grinstead Courier wrote: ‘Of the individual players, Norah Young proved herself in monologue as well as being a comedienne of some merit’. On another occasion, the WI Drama Group presented four one act plays; ‘…the group also have their own playwright, Norah Young, “The Unexpected Professor” is an amusing little trifle, with an all female cast, which gives ample opportunity for farce and characterisation’. Also in 1952, the Felbridge WI Drama Group produced another evening of One Act Plays – Norah Young appeared in one ‘The Great Dark’ and produced another, ‘Going Rustic’. This production was in aid of the Village Coronation Fund.
In circa 1953, there was a production of Good Turns with ‘Nett proceeds in aid of 1st Felbridge Troop Boy Scouts Hut Renovation Fund’. Programmes 6d (2½ p). Paul & Nicholas Young were Wolf Cubs and Scouts. This was produced and devised by Norah Young. Norah Young appeared in two items – a comedy song (trio) “Scrub-scrub-scrub” and in a solo comedy/song ‘turn’ in the second half where she sang “Bill” a beautiful song – but poignant – from Showboat’.
Norah Young and Coralie Bardwell also performed with the East Grinstead Dramatic Society and these productions were possibly produced by them. The East Grinstead Courier reported as follows: Rose without a Thorn: ‘Norah Young as Anne of Cleves, gave an almost perfect study in character acting’; Bonaventure: ‘Norah Young is no newcomer to the footlights, and was completely at home in the role of Sister Josephine’;
And So to Bed: ‘Norah Young as Doll is to especially be complimented on her characterisation of a coal-black mammy with a flashing smile and rib-tickling laugh’. Also, according to an article in The East Grinstead Courier circa February 1958, Norah appeared in the East Grinstead Dramatic Society production, Saloon Bar in which she played a Cockney barmaid together with Barbara Hawkins.
At some point during the late 1950s, Norah became the deputy manageress and bar maid at the Blacksmith’s Head at Newchapel [for further information see Handout, Eating and Drinking Establishments of Felbridge Part 4, SJC 03/10] and then moved onto The Duke’s Head at Copthorne [for further information see Handout, Eating and Drinking Establishments of Felbridge Part 4, SJC 03/11]. In around April 1968 Norah joined the staff of the East Grinstead Courier where ‘she amused the staff with her repertoire of characters and accents and the odd aria “copy on the s-t-a-a-i-r-s”. Norah remained with the East Grinstead Courier until retirement. She made frequent appearances in print whether after a sponsored diet or to talk of her theatrical antics in her youth. During this time Norah also played the piano under Vivienne Saxton when she had her own dance school in East Grinstead and was the prompt for the East Grinstead Operatic Society (right up until the months before her death). Norah died aged 71 on 20th January 1980 at Harmonie.
Theatre Credits (Professional)
Aladdin, London Palladium (1926), member of the Chorus (uncredited)
Hold Everything, Palace theatre, London (1929), member of the Chorus (uncredited)
Quaker Girl, Manchester Hippodrome, (1930) Stoll Tour, (uncredited)
Hold Everything, Newcastle Empire (1930), touring production, member of the Chorus (uncredited)
The Geisha, Daly’s Theatre, Leicester Square (1931), member of the Chorus
San Toy,Daly’s Theatre, Leicester Square (1932), performed as Hu Hu [Yu] in 2nd Revival and later as Li Kyan
Bitter Sweet, The [New] Wimbledon Theatre (1932), dancer
Miss Hook of Holland, Daly’s Theatre, Leicester Square (1932), member of the Chorus (uncredited)
Lilac Time, The Pier Theatre, Eastbourne (1933), performed as Rosi
Aladdin, Abergavenny Borough Theatre, (1933/34) performed as So Shi appearing alongside her mother Violet (Stockelle) Levy as Aladdin and then toured with the pantomime at The Astoria, Llanelli and the Empire, Aberdare
Theatre Credits (Professional) – Oral History
The Lady of the Rose, Daly’s Theatre, Leicester Square (1929) member of the Ensemble (uncredited) under the direction of Edouard Espinosa (founder of the British Ballet Organisation) and his son Edward Kellard Espinosa
Mr Cinders, theatre unknown, (possibly 1929) (uncredited)
Virginia, theatre unknown, (possibly 1929/30) (uncredited)
Eldorado, Daly’s Theatre, Leicester Square (1930) (uncredited)
The Belle of New York, Daly’s Theatre, Leicester Square (1931), member of the Chorus (uncredited)
Monsieur Beaucaire, Daly’s Theatre, Leicester Square (1931), member of the Chorus (uncredited)
Theatre Credits (Non-Professional)
The Wedding Gift, Felbridge (St John) Institute (1950), Felbridge WI Drama Group, written by Norah Young and produced by Coralie Bardwell – the one act play also won the Border Group WI Drama Festival
Sugar and Spice, Felbridge (St John) Institute (c1950), Felbridge WI Drama Group, performed in the following Revue sketches: Medley,on her own and Matinee with Coralie Bardwell (stage name: Coralie Harrington). Also appearing in the Revue was Ray Parks (stage name: Raymond Duparc)
One Act Plays,Felbridge (St John) Institute (1952), Felbridge WI Drama Group, performed in the sketch The Great Dark and produced the sketch Going Rustic
More Sugar and Spice, Felbridge (St John) Institute (c1952), Felbridge WI Drama Group, produced by Norah Young and Coralie Bardwell, the sketch entitled The Unexpected Professor, written by Norah Young
Good Turns, Felbridge (St John) Institute (1953), Felbridge WI Drama Group, sang in the comedy trio Scrub-Scrub-Scrub and the solo Bill from Showboat
Theatre Credits (Non-Professional) – Exact Dates Unknown
Rose without a Thorn, East Grinstead Dramatic Society, appeared as Anne of Cleves
Bonaventure, East Grinstead Dramatic Society, appeared as Sister Josephine
And So To Bed, East Grinstead Dramatic Society, appeared as Doll, a black mammy
Saloon Bar, East Grinstead Dramatic Society, appeared as a Cockney barmaid
These may not be the complete listings of Molly O’Day/Norah Young theatre credits but hopefully they are the most comprehensive.
I would like to thank Paul and Jenny Young and Nick Young (Molly O’Day’s sons and daughter-in-law) for information about her stage career and the property known as Harmonie and Alison Young (Molly O’Day’s granddaughter) for her huge contribution and information about the life of Molly O’Day in the world of early 20th century entertainment. For further information on a plethora of other Molly O’Day relations from the world of Music Hall, Pantomime, Stage and Circus of the 19th and early 20th century and on-going research into the family’s entertainment activities follow Alison Young’s Blog at www.musichallalice.wordpress.com
Melanie G Parr was born in Sussex in the spring of 1949, the daughter of Maurice Peter Parr (known as Peter) and his wife Mary Elizabeth née Bryant. Maurice had been born on 26th June 1916 (his birth registered in Edmonton) and Mary had been born Mary Elizabeth Johnston on 21st June 1918 in Uxbridge, Oxfordshire. Mary had married Roy Bryant in 1938 but he sadly died in 1944 and in 1946 Mary and Maurice married in Cuckfield.
By 1955 the Parr family had moved to Yew Tree Farm off Copthorne Road in Felbridge to be close the ballet school that their daughter Melanie had been accepted at – Bush Davies School on Felcourt Road, East Grinstead (now the site of Charter’s Village offering luxury retirement living). Bush Davies was a renowned dance and performing arts school that had been founded by Pauline Bush in 1914 in Nottingham, with branches later in Romford, Essex and London, until it was bombed out during World War II. After this the London branch moved to a former boys' school set in beautiful grounds in East Grinstead, (formerly the home built by Harry Bentinck Budd in 1897/98 named Charter’s Towers [for further information see Handout, Charles Henry Gatty, SJC 11/03]) the Romford branch continued until 1974. Bush Davies School would become recognised as one of the foremost performing arts schools in Britain until its closure in 1989, producing such well known names as: Doreen Bird (founder of Bird College), Louise (Lulu) Cartwright (dancer with Ruby Flipper and Legs & Co), Gemma Craven (actress), Cherry Gillespie (dancer with Pans People and actress), Betty Laine (founder of Laine Theatre Arts), Michael Nunn (founder of Ballet Boyz) John Partridge (actor and dancer) and Doreen Wells, Marchioness of Londonderry (ballerina), to name but a few.
Yew Tree Farm had been one of three small farms in Felbridge set on Hedgecourt Common believed to have grown out of or part of a ‘Shanty town’ that served the blast Furnace in Furnace Wood [for further information see Handouts, Hedgecourt Common, 07/01 and Felcourt Farm JIC/SJC 04/08]. As a point of interest, in 1912 Yew Tree Farm had been purchased by Richard and Edwin Wilding, who, local legend says, had connections with the world of entertainment either on stage or in film but this has yet to be verified. As for the house, it has had several extensions over the years but the original part dates to the 17th century. A memory from a local resident, at the time that Melanie and her family lived there, recalls: ‘The old part of the house was all beamed and had an upstairs gallery all round. Mary [Melanie’s mother] used to baby-sit me when mum went up to East Grinstead to do shopping, quite regularly in the 1960’s, sometimes once a week. Mary was a bit eccentric but to a child, a very interesting person, always lots going on. She had budgies, canaries, Miner birds, peacocks, goats and horses. Melanie had a bedroom to die for, lattice windows, pink bed spread, wonderful toys, with ballet pictures on the walls. I used to play with her ballet shoes and things’.
In 1960/1, Bush Davies received a visit from a talent agent who was looking for young dancers to play the roles of the Von Trapp children in the up-coming production of the Sound of Music in the West End. Melanie was selected to audition at the Palace Theatre so up to London went the Parr family. Melanie did her audition and as they were walking away from the theatre heard someone running after them; it was the company manager who offered Melanie the part of Gretl there and then. So Melanie aged twelve and fortunately very short for her age, played the role of six-year old Gretl from the opening of the Sound of Music in 1961. She remained in the show for four years by which time she had played the role of every Von Trap daughter except Leisl, the eldest. An album of the songs from the West End production was released in 1965 and was the best selling album in Britain for 1965, 1966 and 1968.
In 1964 Melanie returned to the BushDaviesSchool to continue her dance training and finish her ballet examinations. Whilst back at Bush Davies she appeared in many of their productions that, from 1967, were performed at the Adeline Genée Theatre, the purpose built theatre within the grounds of BushDaviesSchool. Theatre credits at the Adeline Genée include: Alice in Wonderland, c1967, Mill on the Floss in 1967, Dance of the Hours, c1970 in which she appeared as Dawn, Snow White in 1970/71, Wizard of Oz, in 1971/72 in which she appeared as Dorothy and Tales of Hans Christian Anderson in 1973/74. Apart from appearing in Bush Davies production Melanie also ventured on to the television screen appearing in the children’s television adaptation of William in 1962, alongside Eric Sykes and Hattie Jaques in Eric Sykes and A Menace in 1964, and as Edith Beverley in the television series adaptation of Children of the New Forest, also in 1964.
In 1971 Melanie’s mother Mary, who was considered by the staff at Bush Davies to be ‘not a dance mother but a theatre mother’ staged a Charity Gala at the Adeline Genée Theatre, compared by Arthur English. Melanie performed a duet with Andrew Guyat, choreographed by John Raven, and professional acts included, among many: Roy Castle (all round entertainer), Eunice Gayson (actress and Bond girlfriend in the first two Bond movies), Nicholas Parsons (engineer, presenter and actor) and Olive Gilbert (actress and singer). Also between 1971 and 1973, Melanie appeared as Suellen O’Hara in Gone with the Wind at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Of her days at Bush Davies, Melanie is often quoted as saying: ‘I never left Bush Davies!’ as during the early years of her highly successful career on the stage she would regularly be seen at the back of classes between jobs, and sometimes during a run of a production, keeping herself fit, until the school’s closure in 1989. During the time that Melanie Parr was at Bush Davies School her mother Mary could be frequently found in the theatre. Mary was thought of with much affection by those at Bush Davies who described her as ‘mildly eccentric, free-thinking, obstinate, generous and a true friend of Bush Davies. It was with her that Noreen [Bush] and Victor [Leopold] spent relaxing evenings …... But, when Melanie was in the theatre, so was Mary. She would chat-up the cast and invite them for weekends at her farm in Felbridge [Yew Tree Farm] where she was gradually whittling away her inheritance caring for a disaffected menagerie of animals. It was an ideal refuge for young disaffected Thespians!’
In 1983 Melanie appeared as Susan Watson in TV movie, The Crystal Spirit, a Bafta-nominated drama about the author George Orwell. Also in 1983, Melanie appeared in Snoopy, The Musical at the Duchess Theatre, London, and made appearances at several regional theatres in plays such as She Stoops to Conquer, Taking Steps, While the Sun Shines and the pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk. Also in 1983 Melanie’s parents moved to Suffolk and that is where Melanie chose to marry James W G Drayton in Walsham-le-Willows in 1986. Since then Melanie has continued performing in some of the major regional theatres in Southern England, including the Redgrave Theatre, Farnham, Thorndike Theatre now known as the Leatherhead Theatre and The Playhouse, Salisbury. She has also appeared in several television series including A Very Peculiar Practise, The Bill, Eastenders and she was Mrs Nice But Dim, the mother of Tim Nice But Dim, in the Harry Enfield television series in 1992. In 2011, to mark the 50th anniversary of stepping onto the stage as Gretl in the Sound of Music, Melanie launched a one-woman show entitled The Sound of Music with Gretl. This was first performed at Garboldisham Village Hall, Norfolk, in 2011, followed by Ixworth Village Hall, Suffolk, a small venue but one that her mother Mary, then aged ninety-three, would be able to attend.
The Sound of Music with Gretl, written and performed by Melanie, told the story of how she went from living on a farm to starring in the West End show and the many fond memories from her childhood performing in the West End. It featured all the songs from the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic as well as favourite songs from the 1960s and anecdotes from her varied show business career, including details of meetings with Richard Rodgers, Noël Coward and even the real Maria von Trapp. The show then toured several regional theatres in 2012 including: Sundial Theatre, Cirencester, Sallis Benney Theatre, Brighton and the Mill Studio, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford. Also in 2012, Melanie appeared in Cilla’s Unswung Sixties, a television documentary that led the viewer through the songs that were most popular during the 1960’s, not rock and roll that may first spring to mind, but melodies, melodies like those from the Sound of Music in which Melanie had appeared between 1961 and 1964.
During her lifetime so far, Melanie, and in particular her mother Mary (who sadly passed away in June 2016, aged ninety-seven), go to know several other actors of note including: Davy Jones, who they first met as a small boy playing the Artful Dodger in Oliver! in the West End when Melanie was in the Sound of Music. He visited Yew Tree Farm on occasions because, having begun his career as a jockey, was interested in the Parr’s horses, his reward on one occasion was to be bitten on the arm by a neighbour’s horse from Felcot Farm! Another visitor to Yew Tree Farm was Sir David Jason who wrote in his autobiography ‘I once went out with “the dancer” Melanie Parr’.
As for her career, Melanie Parr has been a versatile and reliable performer, being equally at home in musicals, plays and pantomime, on stage or television, with over twenty-seven television films and series appearances (see below) and upward of fifty theatre productions (see below). She has performed with or worked with numerous theatricals including such well known names as: Christopher Biggins, Cilla Black, Jo Brown, Roy Castle, Stephanie Cole, Peter Cook, Gemma Craven, Sammy Davis Jnr., Val Doonican, Clive Dunn, Harry Enfield, Jan Francis, Eunice Gayson, Olive Gilbert, Cherry Gillespie, Derek Griffiths, Dickie Henderson, Roy Hudd, Hattie Jacques, Jessie Matthews, Dudley Moore, Peggy Mount, Dickie Murdock, Anna Neagle, Alex Norton, Nicholas Parsons, Sir Simon Rattle, Eric Sykes, Wayne Sleep OBE, Paul Whitehouse, Sir Terry Wogan and Helen Worth. Melanie has also made a pop record, appeared in a pop opera, sung on Children’s CDs and appeared in numerous TV commercials. Of her career, Melanie has been reported as saying: ‘It was just downright fun. I loved it’.
William (TV series 1962) appeared in series 1 episode 1
William finds a job appeared as Minnie
Eric Sykes and A …. (TV series 1964) appeared in series 7 episode 5
The Children of the New Forest (TV series 1964) appeared as Edith Beverley in the 6-part series
Sammy Davies Jnr. Special (ATV one-off 1973)
Orpheus in the Underground (TV Pop Opera 1977) appeared as a commuter
Under the Same Sun (TV Series 1978-79)
The Land of the Dragon (1978)
The Two Braves (1978)
The Three Brothers (1978)
The Running Stick (1978)
The Flying Ship (1979) appeared as Tsarevna
The Ju Ju Tree (1979) appeared as Afiong
The Blue Mountain (1979) appeared as Princess
Magic Gifts (1979) appeared as Innkeeper's wife
The Thunder King (1979) appeared as Master of Rain
A Chance to Sit Down (TV Series featuring the Northern Ballet 1981, originally known as Love Story: A Chance to Sit Down) appeared as Jocelyn in series 1 episodes 2 – 4
Crystal Spirit: Orwell on Jura (TV Movie 1983) appeared as Susan Watson
A Very Peculiar Practice (TV Series 1988) appeared in 1 episode
The New Frontier appeared as Elaine Edgar
The Bill (TV Series 1988-91) appeared in 2 episodes
The Whole Truth (1991) appeared CPS Brief
Paper Chase (1988) appeared as Secretary
Harry Enfield's Television Programme (TV Series 1992) appeared as Mrs Nice But Dim in series 2 episode 2
Cilla’s Unswung Sixties (TV movie documentary 2012) appeared as herself – Melanie Parr
Eastenders (date and episode not known)
Sound of Music, Palace Theatre, London (1961-64) appeared as Gretl
Alice in Wonderland,Adeline Genée Theatre, East Grinstead, (c1967)
Mill on the Floss, AdelineGenée Theatre, East Grinstead (1967) appeared as Maggie Tulliver
Dance of the Hours, Adeline Genée Theatre, East Grinstead, (1970) appeared as Dawn
Snow White,Adeline Genée Theatre, East Grinstead, (1970/71 played Snow White
Wizard of Oz, Adeline Genée Theatre, East Grinstead (1971/2), appeared as Dorothy
Tales of Hans Christian Anderson, Adeline Genée Theatre, East Grinstead (1973/4)
Hans Anderson, London Palladium (1974)
Winnie the Pooh, Phoenix Theatre, London (1975)
Sleeping Beauty, Edinburgh and Lothian Theatre Trust,(1976)
Cinderella, Glasgow Citizens' Theatre, Glasgow (1976/77) appeared as Cinderella
The Soldiers Tale, Theatre Royal, Bath (1977) appeared as the Princess (principal dancer)
Cinderella, Theatre Royal, Windsor (1977/78)
Cabaret, Bristol Old Vic. (1977-78) appeared as Sally Bowles
The Boyfriend, Richmond Theatre, (1978) appeared as Maisie
Babes in the Wood, Theatre Royal, Windsor, (1978/79), appeared as Maid Marion
There was an old Woman, Leicester’s Haymarket Theatre (1979) appeared as Jill in Jack and Jill in the children’s musical
Sylvia Plath – A Dramatic Portrait,Redgrave Theatre, Farnham (1979), appeared as Platt (tender)
Ring Round the Moon, Theatre Royal, Windsor (1979)
Ghost Train, (1979)
Mary Rose, Redgrave Theatre, Farnham (1980)
The Circle, Redgrave Theatre, Farnham (1980)
Thark, Redgrave Theatre, Farnham (1980)
The Reluctant Debutante, Redgrave Theatre, Farnham (1980) appeared as Jane Broadbent
I’ve Been Here Before,Redgrave Theatre, Farnham (1980) appeared as Janet Ormund
Othello, Redgrave Theatre, Farnham (1980) appeared as Desdemona
Streetcar named Desire, Connaught Theatre, Worthing (1981) appeared as Stella
As you like it, Connaught Theatre, Worthing (1981)
Ashes, Casson Room, the Thorndike Theatre now known as the Leatherhead Theatre (1982)
Arms and the Man, The Playhouse, Salisbury (1982) appeared as Raina
This Happy Breed, Theatre Royal, Windsor (1982) appeared as Vi and Queenie
Dick Whittington, (1982)
She Stoops to Conquer, Thorndike Theatre now known as the Leatherhead Theatre (1983)
Taking Steps, Thorndike Theatre now known as the Leatherhead Theatre (1983)
Snoopy, The Musical, Duchess Theatre, London (1983)
While the Sun Shines, Thorndike Theatre now known as the Leatherhead Theatre (1983) appeared as the chic United Nations girlfriend
Jack and the Beanstalk,Theatre Royal, Windsor (1983/844) appeared as the princess
Real Thing, Thorndike Theatre now known as the Leatherhead Theatre (1986)
See How They Run, The Playhouse, Salisbury (1987)
Catch me if you can, The Playhouse, Salisbury (1987) appeared as the mystery woman
The Boyfriend, Richmond Theatre (1988) appeared as Polly
Babes in the Wood, Walthamstow (1991/92), appeared as Maid Marion
Snow White, The Queen’s Theatre, Banstaple (1992/93)
The Sound of Music with Gretl, Garboldisham Village Hall, Norfolk (2011), Ixworth Village Hall, Suffolk (2011), Sundial Theatre, Cirencester (2012), Sallis Benney Theatre, Brighton (2012) and the Mill Studio, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford (2012)
The Country Wife (date unknown) appeared as Margery Pinchwife
These may not be the complete listings of Melanie Parr’s television and theatre credits but hopefully they are the most comprehensive.
Several short biographies on Ronald Shiner exist and all have similar details about his early life:
‘When he was seventeen, Shiner joined the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, after which he became a signalman and a wireless operator, then a farmer. Army concerts gave him a taste for the stage’.
‘[Shiner] Joined North West Mounted Police when seventeen years old. Then went into army where he gained stage experience in army Concert Party. Started professional stage career, 1928’.
‘A former Canadian Mountie (at least that was his story), British comic actor Ronald Shiner made his stage debut in 1928, and his film bow six years later’.
‘In his late teens Ronald travelled to Canada and spent two years in service with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, after which he returned to Britain and enlisted with the Royal Corps of Signals, where he developed a taste for performing while taking part in army concerts’.
Although similar details appear in all the above biographies of Ronald Shiner’s early life, they all have a few discrepancies when compared with surviving documents.
Early life of Ronald Shiner
Ronald Shiner was born in Islington on 8th June 1903, the son of Alfred Mitchell (his mother’s maiden name) Shiner and his wife Katherine Helen née Way. Alfred had met Katherine when he boarded with her family at 30, Woodsome Road, St Pancras, during the close of the 1800’s, and in 1901 he was listed as ‘Builder’s Traveller’ (a Commercial Traveller or Travelling Salesman for either a building company or building products/services). Katherine Helen Way was the daughter of Robert Way (an upholsterer from Somerset who’d moved to London) and his wife Elizabeth née Scadding. Alfred and Katherine had married at St Peter’s, Dartmouth Park Hill, Islington on 21st June 1902; Alfred’s address given as 8, Bichester Road, London and Katherine’s as 16, Dartmouth Park Hill, TuffnelPark, Islington.
By 1906, Alfred and his family had moved to Flat 4, 21, Cathcart Hill, Islington, which became the family home until sometime between 1914 and 1918 when they had moved to Flat 28, ClevedonMansions, LissendenGardens, London. In 1911 Alfred was employed as a ‘Decorator’s Representative’ suggesting he’d specialised as a salesman in just one aspect of the building trades. In 1911, the census records that Alfred and Katherine had had two children by that date but that only one of them had survived – Ronald. However, in 1913, Alfred and Katherine gained another child with the birth of their daughter Joan Valerie.
In 1920 Ronald left the family home and travelled to Canada. On 20th October 1920, Ronald boarded the Minnedosa bound for Quebec. The passenger details records that he travelled under the name R A N Shiner and was one of 84 males listed as Police (aged between 19 and 31) and 45 males listed as Mounted Police (aged between 19 and 48). They all travelled 3rd Class under a ticket issued to the Canadian Mounted Police. At the time of departure, Ronald would have been just seventeen but the passenger list records his age as twenty-two (there is no registration of a birth of an R A N Shiner in 1898, the year he would have been born to be twenty-two in 1920). This then helps support the published biographical details that Ronald Shiner joined the ‘North West Mounted Police’. However, this is not quite how it would appear as the Northwest Mounted Police (RNWMP, founded in 1873) had amalgamated with the Dominion Police (founded 1868) on 1st February 1920 to form the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), so in actuality Ronald Shiner had joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The new organization was charged with the enforcement of federal law in all the Canadian provinces and territories, in particular the enforcement of narcotics laws, as well as security and intelligence work.
It is not yet clear how Ronald managed to enlist with the RCMP as those that were selected had to have generally served in a military force and Ronald had certainly not been old enough to have enlisted in any form of military service being that he was only seventeen when he travelled to Canada, unless he had already previously lied about his date of birth. Perhaps, since he was recorded as ‘Police’ on the passenger list, he was a member of the Police Force; even so he would have had to have been over generous about his years to have joined that by the age of seventeen. However, one biographer recorded that Ronald Shiner had ‘served as a full-time Special Constable during four years of the War’, this could refer to either World War I or World War II, but it is possible that Ronald volunteered as a full-time Special Constable in World War I, but again, only if he had been liberal about his years. What is known is that Ronald Shiner’s sojourn in the RCMP in Canada only lasted for two years as on 23rd July 1922 he returned to England from Montreal on board the Empress of Britain, his occupation still listed as Police, but his age listed correctly as nineteen. On his return he moved back to live with his parents Alfred and Katherine at 28, Lewisham Road (re-named in the 1930’s as Laurier Road), Highgate, London, before enlisting with the Royal Corps of Signals.
It was during his enlistment with the Royal Corps of Signals that Ronald acquired the skills of signalman and radio operator. He also actively took part in Army Concert Parties where he discovered his talent for performing and gained experience on the stage. Thus in 1926/7, Ronald Shiner, having served the minimum four year service requirement, left the Royal Corps of Signals and looked towards a career in performing, returning to live at 28, Lewisham Road, Highgate until 1932.
Ronald Shiner’s early performing life
Ronald Shiner’s first professional appearance on stage was a ‘bit part’ in The Wrecker, a play by Arnold Ridley and Bernad Merivale, that ran from December 1927 to April 1928 at the New Theatre, London, before touring Britain in 1928/29. Ronald does not appear to have toured with The Wrecker as in May 1928 he appeared in Russell Thorndyke’s play Dr Syn at the Margate Hippodrome. Dr Syn was a devoted ‘man of the cloth’ by day and leader of a daring band of smugglers by night. Ronald Shiner played the role of Mibbs, Dr Syn’s old boson and trusty friend who become his sexton, general factotum and eventually the village undertaker. This was followed by two more stage plays, Belle: or What’s the Bother? at the Prince of Wales Theatre, London in 1929/30 and Good Losers at the Whitehall Theatre, London in 1930/31, before Ronald Shiner made his film debut in 1934 with an uncredited ‘bit part’ in Wild Boy, directed by: Albert de Courville. The British black and white film was a ‘caper story’ (a story involving one of more crimes, especially thefts, swindles or sometime kidnapping) about greyhound racing and the efforts a crooked dog owner would go to stop a rival’s dog, named Wild Boy, from running in the Greyhound Derby. Although Ronald Shiner was not credited, other cast members included: Chesney Allen, Leonora Corbett, Charles Farrell, Bud Flanagan, Danny Green, Sonnie Hale, Jimmy Hanley, Lyn Harding, Fred Kitchen, Barry Livesey, Gwyneth Lloyd, Arthur Sinclair, Cyril Smith, Ronald Squire and Ronald Shiner. As a point of interest, Ronald Shiner’s second film appearance, again in 1934, was in My Old Dutch, directed by Sinclair Hill. The film, made after the stage play written by Arthur Shirley, tracks the highlights of a cockney couple's son as he marries a rich man's disowned daughter and is based on Albert Chevalier's famous song My Old Dutch, whose widow Florrie Leybourne lived at Ann’s Orchard in Crawley Down Road, Felbridge between 1928 and 1947 [for more information see Handouts, Ann’s Orchard, SJC 05/01i and Albert Chevalier & My Old Dutch, SJC 05/01ii].
Between appearing on stage in Dr Syn and making his film debut in Wild Boy, Ronald Shiner found time to get married. In 1932, Ronald married Gladys Winifred Lester Jones at St Pancras and they moved to 53, Croftdown Road, Camden, where they remained until 1938. Gladys had been born in Islington on 14th October 1902, the daughter of Cecil Lester Jones and his wife Winifred Eyre née Shotter. Cecil, a ‘Commercial Traveller in Drapery’ had met Winifred when he boarded in the Shotter household at 117, Fortress Road, St Pancras, in the latter years of the 1800’s. Cecil had married Winifred in 1901 and by 1911 the Jones family, together with Winifred’s widowed mother and two of her siblings, had moved to 112, Lady Margaret Road, Tufnell Park, Islington. Sadly in 1914, Gladys’ parents filed for divorce, which was granted in the spring of 1915, when Gladys was just thirteen years old. Gladys’ father Cecil remarried in the summer 1915 so one can assume that Gladys probably remained with her mother Winifred and grandmother Ellen Shotter.
In 1938 Ronald and Gladys, together with their son Bryan Ronald who had been born in 1936, moved to 42, Bancroft Avenue, Finchley, London, where they remained until 1946. When Bryan was seven he was sent to NorfolkHousePreparatory School in Muswell Avenue, London. A description of his first day at school is recanted in a book called This Was My England, written by fellow pupil, Robert Corfe:
… I was sent to Norfolk House preparatory school. As a 7-year old I was placed in the most junior class of the school, situated at the top of the building, and I remember arriving as a new pupil with the son of Ronald Shiner (1903-1966), a famous comedian and actor of the time. He was brought along by his nanny, and he was proudly armed with a cap pistol which he began shooting at other children. The elderly woman teacher in charge immediately said she was having no guns in her class, and that the offending weapon must be removed from its owner and taken home.
Ronald Shiner’s son would have none of this, and he put up a struggle with the nanny, and began screaming at the idea of loosing his valued toy. At the time I was aghast that such a child could be so undisciplined on his first day at school, and although I experienced a tinge of embarrassment, I also admired his courage. He was clearly more rebellious than me. We soon struck up a friendship and when he formed a gang in the playground, I became his second in command.
For a description of Bryan’s appearance you can turn to Alan Goudy who wrote ‘Bryan looked just like Ronald Shiner’.
At the age of twelve, Bryan appeared in a promotion documentary film about Ronald Shiner's daily life in 1948, called Rise and Shiner and did follow his father into the world of show business but behind and not in front of the lens, preferring to direct rather than act.
Bryan had a fairly active career as a director including the following:
Filmography & Television Credits
Rise and Shiner (1948) (on-screen participant)
Orlando and the Dangerous Waters (Rediffusion TV 1965-68, the Orlando series) (Director for all the episodes in the 5th Orlando (TV series 1966)
Clue in a Clue
At Last it’s Christmas (TV Special 1968) (Director)
A Ripe Old Age (1978) (Director)
Mount Stewart (1978) (Director)
The Case for Fruit and Nut (1979) (Director)
Life Begins at Forte (1980) (Director)
Jingle Sell...Jingle Sell...Jingles all the Way (1981) (Director)
Aunt Edwina (1959-60) DevonshirePark, Eastbourne, transferred to Fortune Theatre, then to The Lyric, Hammersmith (DSM)
Ronald Shiner establishes his performing life
Returning to Ronald Shiner, during World War II, Ronald Shiner appeared in over forty films and at least three stage plays including, Down our Street at the Tavistock Little Theatre, Bloomsbury in 1940/43, Something in the Air at the Palace Theatre, London in 1943/44 and 1066 – And All That in 1945/46. He also broadcast, every Sunday night between 1940 and 1943, the latest news from home on the BBC General Forces Programme to those serving on Malta and visited families of the men serving on the island, as well as broadcasting on the BBC Light Programme in 1945. Ronald even appeared in the War Ministry film associated with the Dig for Victory campaign called The Soldiers Food, released in 1941. Although the war years were buoyant for Ronald Shiner from a work point of view, sadly he lost his father Alfred in 1943, who died aged eighty-one.
Ronald and his family remained in London throughout the war, living at 42, Bancroft Avenue, Finchley, before moving to Perry Farm in West Park Road, near Felbridge in 1947, where they resided until 1950. Perry Farm (still standing) is a farmhouse, with origins dating back to the 17th century, set in a large garden with, at the time, several acres of land, a large old wooden barn dating to 18th century and out-buildings, affording great potential for Ronald to enjoy his hobbies of gardening and horse riding. Whist living at Perry Farm, Ronald Shiner appeared as a lookout in the legendary film Brighton Rock the 1947 British gangster film directed by John Boulting (based on the book by Graeme Green), starring Richard Attenborough as violent gang leader Pinkie Brown. A year later in 1948, a promotional documentary film called Rise and Shiner, directed by Sam Lee, was made about a day in the life of Ronald Shiner. The film, featuring Lorraine Clewes, Diana Dawson, Ronald Waldham and Bryan Shiner (Ronald’s twelve-year old son) portrayed scenes of the daily life of Ronald Shiner, including sequences from the Whitehall Theatre, Trafalgar Square and excerpts from Worm’s Eye View. Also, the same year, Ronald Shiner performed in a Gala Revue at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane to promote National Savings.
By the late 1940’s/ early 1950’s Ronald Shiner had established himself as one of Britain’s most popular stand-up comedians and comedic actors, on both stage and screen, particularly in productions like; Worm’s Eye View at the Whitehall Theatre, Trafalgar Square, not only directed by Ronald Shiner but also performing in the play in the role of Sam Porter. Worm’s Eye View was a huge success, running for 500 performances in 1945/6 with a further 1,745 beginning in 1947 (Ronald later reprised his supporting role in a BBC TV version in 1956). Another popular production was Dry Rot, again at the Whitehall Theatre, in 1954 (later brought to film in 1956). In 1952 Ronald Shiner was voted Britain's most popular local male star in the cinema and also in 1952, the BBC Radio series, Educating Archie, in which Ronald Shiner played the part of Archie’s tutor, won the National Radio Award as the Year's Most Entertaining Programme. Thus by the early 1950’s, Ronald had become a familiar face in post-war British films, particularly well known for military comedies in films like Reluctant Heroes (1951) and for playing cockney characters in such films as Innocents in Paris (1953) and Aunt Clara (1954).
Contemporary actor Ronnie Corbett, in his autobiography High Hope, wrote: ‘Ronald Shiner was a well-know cockney actor on the West End stage …….. he was also a huge Box Office success in British films – although a rather unlikely one’. By this comment, Corbett meant that Ronald Shiner was not the most swooned-over actor of the time, having quite heavy features with a very prominent nose, which he, reportedly insured with Lloyds of London for £20,000. However, he was very approachable to the British public as a young Birmingham school boy recants in his diary in April 1952: ‘My friends dared me to ask for his [Ronald Shiner] autograph. So I went over to him and asked for five or six, explaining that my friends were too shy to ask themselves. He was absolutely charming, called over my friends and chatted to us for about 15 minutes and gave us all his autograph. I recall that he wrote a short rhyme before each signature. Mine was "Good old China, Ronald Shiner"’; 'Old China' being Cockney rhyming slang short for 'Old China plate' meaning 'old mate', thus the Birmingham School boy’s quip was ‘Good old Mate, Ronald Shiner’.
In 1951, Ronald Shiner and his family had moved from Perry Farm and returned to the London area, living at Elm Cottage, FitzroyPark, Highgate, a property he was to retain until 1964, although not always in residence. Still making films and appearing on stage, in 1953 Ronald took over the Blackboys Inn in Blackboys, near Uckfield in Sussex; a short 1954 British Pathé News film entitled Guv’nor Shiner documenting him working behind the bar and receiving a visit from friend and fellow actor Jimmy Edwards [for further information see Handout, Old Surrey, Burstow and West Kent Hunt, SJC 03/15].
Ronald Shiner’s classics from the late 1950’s include films like: Keep it Clean (1956), Carry on Admiral (1957), Girls at Sea (1958) and the Navy Lark (1959), and theatre productions like: The Love Birds at the Adelphi Theatre, London (1957) and Aladdin at the Coliseum, London (1959). Also in 1958 Ronald Shiner was surprised by Eamonn Andrews in the audience of the BBC Television Theatre when he became the focus of ‘This is your Life’. In 1965, Ronald Shiner moved from London to 1, Elmgrea Court, 32, Denton Road, Eastbourne, still making films, both for television and the big screen, still performing to live audiences in various theatres around Britain and appearing at various charity events in support of the Royal Variety Club of Great Britain. The last credits for Ronald Shiner are: the film The Rhine Light (1965) in which he appeared as a commentator; the play Doctor At Sea at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-Upon-Avon (1961-62) and, in 1965 as a supporter of The Variety Club of Great Britain, Ronald Shiner, together with Zsa Zsa Gabour, drew the winning ticket for the horse raffle at the Variety Club race meeting at Sandown Park, Surrey.
Ronald Shiner died at the age of sixty-three on 29th June 1966 at Hellingly hospital, Sussex. During his career he had appeared in over a hundred films (see Filmography & Television Credits below), appeared in at least twenty-six theatre production and broadcast at least four radio series (see Theatre & Radio Credits below). He had performed with numerous actors and actresses including such well known names as: Richard Attenborough, Wilfred Brambell, Dora Bryan, Fay Compton, Jimmy Edwards, Diana Dors, Sally Ann Fields, George Formby, Thora Herd, Stanley Holloway, Sid James, Hattie Jaques Vivien Leigh, Moira Lister, John Mills, Bob Monkhouse, Peggy Mount, Barbara Murray, Leslie Phillips, Brian Rix, Margaret Rutherford, Alistair Sim, Joan Simms, Donald Sinden, Eric Sykes and Norman Wisdom.
Ronald Shiner is remembered for his cockney character roles and frequent portrayal of military men, either in the army or navy, for which he could draw upon experiences in his younger life in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Royal Corps of Signals. He left a huge legacy in the world of film and entertained millions of the British public with his comic roles; and Ronald Shiner lives on as the inspiration for John Blundell’s visualisation of Parker, Lady Penelope’s butler in the original 1965 puppet series – Thunderbirds, Blundell stating when interviewed: ‘…. Parker from Thunderbirds. When I worked on this little butler character I thought certain characteristics of him related visually a lot to Ronald Shiner, a very good old character actor’.
Filmography & Television Credits
Wild Boy (1934) (a bit part)
My Old Dutch (1934)
Doctor's Orders (1934) (appeared as Miggs)
It's a Bet (1935) (appeared as a fair man)
Gentlemen's Agreement (1935) (appeared as Jim Ferrin)
Squibs (1935) (appeared as Squibbs)
Once a Thief (1935) (appeared as Alice’s young man)
While Parents Sleep (1935) (appeared as a mechanic)
Line Engaged (1935) (appeared as Ryan)
Invitation to the Waltz (1935) (appeared as a street vendor)
King of Hearts (1936) (appeared as Tomkins)
Limelight (1936) (also known as Back Stage (1937) (appeared as the assistant stage manager)
Excuse My Glove (1936) (appeared as Perky Pat)
Dreaming Lips (1937) (appeared as a friend)
London Melody (1937) (also known as Girls in the Street – appeared as a prisoner)
Dr Syn (1937) (appeared as Honest Alf)
The Black Tulip (1937) (appeared as Hendrik)
Girl in the Street (1937) appeared as the pickpocket on trial)
Beauty and the Barge (1937) (appeared as Augustus)
Silver Blaze (1937) (also known as Murder at the Baskervilles appeared as Simpson the stable boy/jockey)
Dinner at the Ritz (1937) (also known as Follow the Sun, appeared as Sydney)
Swing your Lady (1938)
A Yank at Oxford (1938) (appeared as a bicycle repairman)
The Constant Nymph (1938) (TV movie)
Brigade-Exchange (1938) (TV short)
Prison Without Bars (1938) (appeared as a gendarme)
Sidewalks of London (1938) (appeared as a barman)
They Drive by Night (1938) (appeared as Charlie)
Trouble Brewing (1939) (appeared as Bridgewater)
The Nursemaid Who Disappeared (1939) (appeared as Detective Smith)
Flying Fifty-Five (1939) (appeared as Scrubby Oaks)
Who is Guilty? (1939) (also known as I Killed the Count – appeared as Mullet)
Discoveries (1939) (appeared as Jim Archibald Pike)
The Lion Has Wings (1939) (minor role)
Come On George! (1939) (appeared as Nat)
The Missing People (1939) (appeared as Sam Hackett)
Bulldog Sees It Through (1940) (appeared as Pug)
The Spider (1940)
Spare a Copper (1940)
The Middle Watch (1940) (appeared as an engineer)
Let George Do It! (1940) (appeared as a clarinettist)
To Hell with Hitler (1940) (appeared as a musician)
Salvage with a Smile (1940) (appeared as a dustman)
Old Bill and Son (1941) (appeared a Bert)
South American George (1941) (appeared as Swifty)
The Soldier's Food (1941) (War Ministry film associated with the Dig for Victory campaign)
They Flew Alone (1942) (also known as Wings and the Woman – appeared as a mechanic)
The Big Blockade (1942) (appeared as a shipping clerk)
Those Kids from Town (1942) (appeared as Mr Burns)
The Seventh Survivor (1942) (appeared as Ernie)
The Black Sheep of Whitehall (1942) (appeared as porter)
Unpublished Story (1942) (appeared as the agitator)
Sabotage at Sea (1942) (appeared as Ernie the cook)
The Young Mr. Pitt (1942) (appeared as the man in the stocks)
King Arthur Was a Gentleman (1942) (appeared as Sergeant)
The Balloon Goes Up (1942) (appeared as Sergeant Shiner)
Appearances Are Deceptive (1942) (appeared as a hotel drunk)
Thursday's Child (1943) (appeared as Joe)
The Gentle Sex (1943) (appeared as race-goer [as Ronnie Shiner])
Get Cracking (1943) (appeared as Everett Manley)
Miss London Ltd. (1943) (appeared as Sailor Meredith)
My Learned Friend (1943) (appeared as a man in Wilson’s Bar)
The Butler's Dilemma (1943) (appeared as Ernie)
The Night Invader (1943) (appeared as Witsen)
Bees in Paradise (1944) (appeared as Ronald Wild)
George in Civvy Street (1946) (appeared as Fingers)
The Adventures of Dusty Bates (1947) (appeared as Squeaky Watts)
Brighton Rock (1947) (appeared as a lookout)
Rise and Shiner (1948) (Promotion documentary film about Ronald Shiner's daily life)
Forbidden (1949) (also known as Scarlet Heaven, appeared as Dan Collins)
Reluctant Heroes (1951) (appeared as Sgt. Able)
Worm's Eye View (1951) (appeared as Sam Porter)
The Magic Box (1951) (appeared as Fairground Barker)
Little Big Shot (1952) (appeared as Henry Harkwood)
Wonders Never Cease (1952) (appeared as a cast member)
Top of the Form (1953) (appeared as Professor Fortescue)
Seagulls over Sorrento (1953) (TV Movie, appeared as Able Seaman Badger)
Innocents in Paris (1953) (also known as Weekend-a Paris (1952), appeared as Dicky Bird))
Laughing Anne (1953) (appeared as Nobby Clark)
Up to His Neck (1954) (appeared as Jack Carter)
Guv’nor Shiner (1954) (British Pathé News report)
Aunt Clara (1954) (appeared as Henry Martin)
Dry Rot (1954) (broadcast live from Whitehall Theatre, London)
See How They Run (1955) (appeared as Wally Winton)
Keep It Clean (1956) (appeared as Bert Lane)
ITV Play of the Week (TV Series from HM Tennent Globe Theatre, 1956) Seagulls over Sorrento (appeared as Able Seaman Badger)
Dry Rot (1956) (appeared as Alf Tubbe)
My Wife's Family (1956) (appeared as Doc Knott)
Carry on Admiral (1957) (also known as The Ship was Loaded – appeared as Salty Simpson)
Dick Turpin (1957) (British Pathé News report)
Theatre Night (TV Series 1957) The Lovebirds (appeared as Bertie Skidmore)
Not Wanted on Voyage (1957) (appeared as Steward Albert Higgins)
Christmas Day Special (ITV 1957) Spot the Tune!
Girls at Sea (1958) (appeared as Marine Ogg, also directed by Ronald Shiner)
Val Parnell's Spectacular (1958)
This is Your Life (BBC TV 1958)
The Navy Lark (1959) (appeared as CPO Banyard, also directed by Ronald Shiner)
Operation Bullshine (1959) (appeared as Gunner Slocum, also directed by Ronald Shiner)
Upgreen – And at ’Em (1960)
The Night We Got the Bird (1961) (also known as Who’s Cuckoo (1964) appeared as Cecil Gibson, also directed by Ronald Shiner)
Sunday-Night Play (BBC TV Mini Series, 1962) Worms Eye View (appeared as Sam Porter)
The Rhine Light (1965) (appeared as a commentator)
Theatre & Radio Credits
The Wrecker – the New Theatre, London (1927)
Dr Syn – Margate Hippodrome (1928)
Hell-For-Leather –Phoenix Theatre, London (1936-37)
Behind your Back – Strand, London (1937)
The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse – Savoy Theatre, London (1938)
Down our Street – Tavistock Little Theatre, Bloomsbury (1940)
BBC General Forces Programme (broadcasting to Malta, 1940-43) Navy Mixture (played Stripey)
Something in the Air – Palace Theatre, London (1943-44)
BBC Light Programme (1945) It's your money they're after (played the part of Spiv)
Worms Eye View – Whitehall Theatre, Trafalgar Square (1946) (directed by Ronald Shiner)
BBC Home Service (1947 1 epsisode) Dicken’s Characters
Gala Revue – Theatre Royal, Drury Lane (1948) (to promote National Savings)
BBC Home Service (1948) Send for Shiner
Reluctant Heroes – Theatre Royal, Birmingham (1950)
Dry Rot – Whitehall Theatre, London (early 1950’s)
Seagulls over Sorrento – Kings Theatre, Portsmouth, (1950)
Seagulls over Sorrento – Apollo (1950-54) (transferred to Duchess 1954 for 1 month)
Educating Archie (BBC Radio series, 1952, that won the National Radio Award as the Year's Most Entertaining Programme) (played the role of Archie’s tutor)
My Three Angels – Lyric Theatre, London (1955)
Night of 100 Stars – London Palladium (1956)
The Love Birds – Adelphi Theatre, London (1957)
Aladdin – Coliseum Theatre, London (1959)
Doctor At Sea – Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-Upon-Avon (1961-62)
These may not be the complete listings of Ronald Shiner’s filmography, television, theatre and radio credits but hopefully they are the most comprehensive.
Handout, Harry Heard, Harry Herd, Harry Lorraine, SJC 11/09, FHWS
Handout, Theatricals of Felbridge, SJC 11/12, FWHS
Documented memories of Nancy Herron, FHA
Documented memories of Marcia Tucker, FHA
50thAnniversaryWI Scrap Book, 1965, FHA
Childhood Days in far Alaska are recalled, newspaper article in the Chicago Tribune, 8th May 1949, FHA
USA Federal Census, 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940, www.ancestry.co.uk
Various newspaper articles from the Fairbanks Daily Times, 1912/13, www.newspapers.com
Newspaper article in the Fairbanks Daily Times, 1916, www.newspapers.com
Diary of James Wickersham,1914, Alaska State Library, Historical Collection MS 107 BOX 4 D
Passenger Lists, outward and arrivals, www.ancestry.co.uk
MusicHeraldsHolidaySeasonThruoutCity, newspaper article in the Chicago Tribune, 7th December 1947, FHA
Article in The Times from San Mateo, California, 11th April 1957, FHA
James Norcross death certificate, 1956, www.ancestry.co.uk
US Federal Census of 1930, www.ancestry.co.uk
Biography of Dr Pieter Roest, Theosophy Society, FHA
Music of the West Magazine, May 1959, FHA
Handout, Poultry Farming in Felbridge SJC 05/11, FHA
Tandridge Planning Applications, www.tandridge.gov.uk/Planning/search/
Davis/Blood lineage, www.thepeerage.com
The Homemaker’s Comrade: a cook book of home tested recipes, compiled by The Kingsmill-Mapleton Women's Institute
Culinary Landmarks: A Bibliography of Canadian Cookbooks, 1825-1949, edited by Elizabeth Driver
Documented memories of Lisa Stidham, FHA
Obituary, Voice teacher Peggy Norcross dies at 87, by David Stabler, 2nd April 2008
I would like to thank Lisa Stidham (former student of Margaret ‘Peggy’ Norcross) and Nancy Herron (daughter of Margaret Norcross) for their help and information.
Music Hall Alice, www.musichallalice.wordpress.com
Family life: Grandma's theatrical calling card, …. 4th June 2016, www.theguardian.com
Daisy Dormer, www.michaelcooper.org.uk/C/dormer.htm
British Newspaper Archive, www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk
Census Records, 1880, 1890, 1901, 1911, www.ancestry.co.uk
Birth, Marriage and Death indexes www.freebmd.org.uk
Passenger Lists, www.ancestry.co.uk
The Times, 13th June 1929
The Stage, Thursday 20th October 1932
The Stage, Thursday 7th December 1933
Western Daily Press, Tuesday 21st January 1908
Yorkshire Star, Thursday 12th March 1908
Telegraph, Thursday 12th March 1908
The Stage, 30th December 1926
The Times Digital Archive, 23rd December 1926
The Times, 26th March 1932
The Telegraph, 23rd March 1932
The London Stage 1930-1939: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel by J. P. Wearing
Daly’s Theatre Archives
V& AMuseum Archives
N Young, National Identity Card
Abstract and Title Deeds to Harmonie, FHA
Handout, Hedgecourt Common, SJC 07/01, FHWS
Handout, The Felbridge Triangle, SJC 03/05, FHWS
Handout, 1911 Sale of the Felbridge Estate, SJC 01/11, FHWS
Handout, Another biography from the churchyard of St John the Divine - James Osborn Spong, SJC 05/04, FHWS
Handout, Tri-Centenary of the Felbridge Chestnuts, SJC 07/14, FWS
Electoral Roll Records, 1930-39, www.ancestry.co.uk
O/S map, 1932, FHA
Handout, Theatricals of Felbridge, SJC 11/12, FHWS
Handout, Felbridge Women’s Institute Celebrates 90 years, SJC 11/14, FHWS
Accents you can cut with a knife, The East Grinstead Courier, undated but c. February 1958
Handout, Eating and Drinking Establishments of Felbridge Part 4, SJC 03/10, FHWS
Handout, Eating and Drinking Establishments of Felbridge Part 4, SJC 03/11, FHWS
Footlights to Front Office, East Grinstead Courier, January 1969
London Musicals, Over the Footlights 1925-1929 www.overthefootlights.co.uk
London Musicals, Over the Footlights 1930-1934 www.overthefootlights.co.uk
For further information on a plethora of other Molly O’Day relations from the world of Music Hall, Pantomime, Stage and Circus of the 19th and early 20th century follow Alison’s Blog at www.musichallalice.wordpress.com
Melanie Parr, www.imdb.com
Melanie Parr, www.theatricalia.com
Snippets from Cilla’s Unswung Sixties, www.youtube.com/watch?v=bgWDewDDALE
The Sound of Music with Gretl, www.youtube.com/watch?v=qa3XJ4yLBjA
The Sound of Music with Gretl, www.thesoundofmusicwithgretl.co.uk/melanie_parr
Birth, marriage and death indexes, www.ancestry.co.uk
Handout, Charles Henry Gatty, SJC 11/03, FHWS
Handout, Hedgecourt Common, 07/01, FHWS
Handout, Felcourt Farm JIC/SJC 04/08, FHWS
Documented memories of J Weller, 2016, FHA
Articles from The Stage and various other publications, 1960 -1999, www.britishnewspapers.archive
My Life, by Sir David Jason
Melanie celebrates The Sound of Music in Suffolk, 21st September 2011, www.buryfreepress.co.uk
Ronald Shiner, www.imdb.com
Ronald Shiner, www.bfi.org.uk
Ronald Shiner, by Hal Erickson
Synopsis of This is your Life, 1958, www.bigredbook.info/ronald_shiner
Birth, marriage and death indexes, www.ancestry.co.uk
Census Records, 1901, 1911, www.ancestry.co.uk
Bryan Shiner, www.imdb.com
Bryan Shiner, www.bfi.org.uk
Passenger Lists, outward and arrivals, www.ancestry.co.uk
Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Canadian encyclopaedia
Ronald Shiner, www.theatricalia.com
Yesterday’s Heroes from the Collector’s Digest, Vol. 50, No. 597, September 1996
Wild Boy, www.filmsomniac.com
Handout, Ann’s Orchard, SJC 05/01i, FHWS
Handout Albert Chevalier & My Old Dutch, SJC 05/01ii, FHWS
This Was My England, by Robert Corfe
London Electoral Rolls, www.ancestry.co.uk
Surrey Electoral Rolls, www.ancestry.co.uk
Ronald Shiner, edited by Cornelia Cecilia Eglantine
High Hope, autobiography by Ronnie Corbett
Typical Men: The Representation of Masculinity in Popular British Cinema, by Professor Andrew Spicer
Who's Who in the Theatre 1946-1954
A Birmingham Schoolboy’s Diary, April 1952, Brian David Williams
Guv’nor Shiner, British Pathé News, 1954
Handout, Old Surrey, Burstow and West Kent Hunt, SJC 03/15, FHWS
Interview with puppet maker John Blundell, 1965
Texts of all Handouts referred to in this document can be found on FHG website: www.felbridge.org.uk