Walter Fitzgerald

A site dedicated to the actor Walter Fitzgerald

Fifty Years of Strutting and Fretting

 

Chapter 10

In 1932, I was invited to join a Company for the "Four Centuries of English Drama" which Sir Barry Jackson had arranged as that year's programme of his Malvern Festival. This was the fourth of a series which had begun in 1929 as the "Shaw Festival", and which always featured as its climax the first production in England of a new play by George Bernard Shaw. I quote here what the Irish Times had to say of the festival in 1932:

"....The setting of this Four Centuries of British Drama Festival is probably the most delightful that could be found in England. In the very garden of England, on the slopes of the Malvern Hills, and dominated by the famous Worcestershire Beacon, the Malvern Theatre is itself set in a garden wherein audiences wander during the intervals. Here Langland dreamed and wrote, here English life may be seen at its brightest, here English history is a living essence, although it has none of the bright vitality with which Irish history manages to resurrect itself from week to week. Brilliant sunshine, the colours of allthe flowers in a horticultural catalogue, and the invitation to see twelve English counties from the summit of the high Beacon, would make Malvern a delightful holiday-place; but the addition of seven representative plays from the early 16th to the early 20th Century has made it a paradise for drama lovers and students. Bernard Shaw placed Malvern definitively on the theatre map, but it was the organising genius of Sir Barry Jackson that made the feat possible. Malvern during festival time is Shaw's kingdom, in which he reigns supreme, and in which his most devoted subjects are charmed to see him almost hourly in their midst. No merely political sovereign today either exacts or receives such devoted attention, and no other sovereign receives it less self-consciously....."

In 1932, the new Shaw play was TOO TRUE TO BE GOOD, and the Company included, amongst others, Cedric Hardwicke, Ralph Richardson, Ernest Thesiger, Leonora Corbett, Ellen Pollock, Scott Sunderland, Phyllis Shand, Eileen Beldon, Walter Hudd, Isabel Thornton and Ralph Truman. We rehearsed under the direction of H.K.Ayliff. Ayliff was one of the most terrifying directors it had ever been my fate to come across. Where punctuality was concerned, he was not short of fanaticism. Rehearsals were called for 10:30 a.m., and Ayliff would be in the stalls by 10:15 at the latest, waiting for the "late-comers" to arrive. On one occasion, poor Cedric Hardwicke was the victim, arriving but seconds after the appointed hour, to be greeted by the enraged director, sounding like a roaring bull. Within minutes of the rehearsal proceeding, however, he would be laughing good-humouredly with the rest of us at one of Shaw's amusing witticisms. Dear H.K., inspite of his outbursts, he never lost our love and affection. We knew that the whole Festival depended so largely upon his direction of the plays.

The First Performance of a new play by Shaw was an occasion for which the entire London Theatre Press was flown to Malvern. This may or may not have been a good thing for the play's reception, as some of the distinguished critics were not used to flying. (And this could also apply to some of the planes which were brought into service for this special occasion! It was, after all, some forty years ago.) TOO TRUE TO BE GOOD was in fact not very well reviewed by most of the Press, although it was rapturously received by the audiences of Shaw's fans.

Of course, Shaw's play was not the only one to engross our attention. We rehearsed and performed seven plays for the week of the Festival. My particular lot included OROONOKO, with Ralph Richardson in the leading role, PLAY OF THE WETHER, and LONDON ASSURANCE. In LONDON ASSURANCE, I was given the leading part of Sir Harcourt Courtley, with Ernest Thesiger playing Dazzle. It was my first encounter with Mr.Thesiger, and his keen sense of humour I found a severe challenge to the solemnity of the occasion. At an early rehearsal of PLAY OF THE WETHER during a coffee break, I remarked to him that I found Mr.Heywood's early English very difficult to understand. He replied, "I beg you not to try; you will only ruin your performance. Actors should never enquire too deeply what they are talking about!"

I had many an amusing conversation with this elegant and eccentric dilettante, whose interests included painting (innumerable portraits of Bernard Shaw) and tatting with Queen Mary at Marlborough House. One day I remarked on the tie-pin he was wearing. "Do you like it? I am so glad. Melba gave it to me...the lot..." he said, at the same time shooting his cuffs to display the links as well!

Some years later I was to appear with him again at the Westminster Theatre in THE EMPEROR OF MAKE-BELIEVE. In his character of Hans Christian Anderson, Ernest had to appear in the company of a monkey. On attending the first rehearsal, Ernest was introduced to the beast; extending his long and delicate forefinger, he said playfully, "Hello little fellow. You and I must get to know each other".The monkey obviously took great exception to such a prospect and bit, venomously, three or four times into poor Ernest's flesh. Blood spouted from the wound, and Ernest, muttering through his pain "Oh dear, I think you have gone a little too far", turned a deathly pale and fainted outright. He was carried to a nearby dressing rom and laid on a sofa, while someone was urgently sent to fetch a doctor, who came and cauterized the wound. The rehearsal commenced in his absence, but about an hour later, to our amazement, Ernest reappeared, and announced his intention of renewing acquaintance with the wicked monkey. In soothing tones, he invited it to "have another go", at the same time holding out his bandaged finger in invitation. "Come along, little fellow; we really must get to know each other." The monkey this time politely ignored it, much to our breath-taking relief. I never remember witnessing a more heroic gesture.

As I write, I am reminded of a story current during the First World War of Ernest Thesiger in France. Having lost touch with his Battalion, and after searching in vain, he was sitting disconsolately, mid shot and shell, on a broke-down gun carriage. Presently along came a Platoon, and the Platoon Officer, seeing Thesiger, asked him who he was, where he came from, and finally, "And what do you do in civillian life?" Came the laconic reply, "I KNIT!"

Many are the stories that have been told of this remarkable man. "Excuse me", once asked a querolous little female voice, accosting him as he swaggered down Sloane Street, "Excuse me, but weren't you Ernest Thesiger? I think you used to read the lessons at Holy Trinity"! My own favourite story of him is one that he told me many years later, when we met at a cocktail party. Not having seen him for some time, and remembering, as I did, his weakness for recognising faces, I approached him and said by way of introduction, "Ernest Thesiger....Walter Fitzgerald." He clasped my hand and replied, "How right you are to announce yourself. When I was dining with the late King George, I told His Majesty that if I ever see a look of bewilderment on anybody's face when they are presented to me, I immediately put them out of their misery by saying 'I am Ernest Thesiger'. 'What an excellent idea' said the King. 'I shall always do that myself in future'."!

A few weeks after the end of the Malvern Festival, I heard that Al Woods was casting for the New York production of EVENSONG, which had been running for some months with great success in London, with Edith Evans in the starring role. It was rumoured that the play had originally been written with Mrs.Pat in mind. I applied for an important role, which went to Frederick Leister. "But", said Al, "I would very much like you to play the part of Stamper." I wanted to see New York, and so I accepted without even seeing the script. I then went to see the play, which was running at the Queens Theatre. In the interval, Stanley Preston, the Manager, came up to me and said, "Well, do you like your part?" I said that I had not even noticed Stamper. "Oh yes," he said, "he was the press boy who came on with the crowd"! It turned out to be a part of three lines, one of which was cut at rehearsals, and for this I was to receive a salary of one hundred dollars a week...an adequate salary for what was after all little more than a "walk-on".

Mrs.Pat was, herself, in America at that time, scutting around like an aged queen in her second childhod, trying to ingratiate herself to the great film stars of the day. It was said that she picked on no less a deity than the immortal Greta Garbo - "Do tell me, Miss Garbo, are you, like me, trying to get on these wretched films?"! On arrival in the city, I telephoned Mrs.Pat. She was excited. "Can you get me seats to see the play? I suppose you know that it was originally intended for me some years ago?" I managed to get her a ticket, and the following day she rang me and asked, "Why does that woman go on the stage? Come and have tea with me. I can promise you better service than one gets in that dreadful London". I accepted her invitation, but vowing that I would not be involved in any discussion about Edith Evans' superb performance, which had enraptured London.

Alas, however, the play was not destined to be a success on Broadway, and we closed after a run of only eleven nights. I returned to London, having seen New York, and having looked with envy on Broadway's theatreland, where, one day, I hoped to see my name in lights.

 

Chapter 11

Back home, life felt pretty flat, after the excitement and comparative gaiety of New York. My marriage had for some time been on the rocks. I had long since realised that the vaguaries of a free-lance actor were not compatible with the strict moral code of respectable Surbiton society. Rosalie and I had agreed to separate, although we still remained on friendly terms as, indeed, we do to this day.

There followed for me some months of "catch-as-catch-can" existence. Life consisted of periods of unemployment, try-outs of poor plays with scratch casts, and unpaid Sunday shows. One of these, the Repertory Players' production of SOMEONE AT THE DOOR, was bought by a Management and put on at the New Theatre for a run. The cast included Henry Kendall, Nancy O'Neil, William Fox, Dennis Wyndham, Frank Petley and myself. It turned out to be a failure, but the play was saved from complete oblivion by Messrs.Killick and Payne Jennings, a Management operating at that time on a "two for one" basis - two seats for the price of one. We moved to the Comedy, the actors coming in on a common-wealth basis, sharing the profits, if any. With this arrangement the play ran for several weeks and kept us from unemployment. The actors would try to work up business by leaving throw-aways in buses and tubes. I remember going round Lord's Cricket Ground and standing behind a little group of people. "Have you seen that play at the Comedy?" I would say loudly to my fellow actor, "SOMEONE AT THE DOOR. I hear it's very good". All this sounds very undignified, as indeed it was, but "needs must when the Devil drives". In fact, at about this time, the Devil drove me to the shortest run of my career. I was asked to appear with Lawrence Anderson in a play at the Arts Theatre Club named GLORY. This play was to be given two special performances. We ran only one - the second one being cancelled; and for good reason too: the house was nearly empty by the end of the first performance!

I was indeed living a life of ups and downs, for following this definite downward trend, came one of the big ups in my life. My dear friend, Leslie Banks, telephoned me one morning with the astounding news that I had been elected a Member of the Garrick Club. I say "astounding", because I had been extremely diffident about seeking admission to such a famous and exclusive body, and had only finally consented to putting my name forward because of Leslie's continued insistence.

The Garrick is not an Actors' Club in the same sense as the Green Room, although histrionically they are equally well-renowned. The Garrick was formed in about 1830 to "afford the opportunity for gentlemen to meet and consort with actors". Only a comparatively small quota of the total membership is allotted to actors, the Law being perhaps the strongest section, with Judges, Q.C.'s and Public Prosecutors, a sprinkling of top musicians, artists and writers, and a solid backing of businessmen, whose main qualification is that they are avowed patrons of the Arts. By this it will be seen that on entry to the Garrick Club, a Member would find himself amongst, not only other actors, but Members of all the professions. This should have a broadening effect on one's outlook on life, and certainly in my thirty years as a Member I have spent many happy and restful hours there, and made many and valued friendships with a great variety of people.

After Leslie's stirring telephone call, I said, "How wonderful, let's meet for a drink to celebrate". "Right" said Leslie, "Meet you at the Club", to which I replied in horror, "Oh no! Let's go to the Scotch House". I felt I needed a drink to give me courage before entering those gracious portals and meeting my fellow Members.

In my earliest days as a Member, I had a dream which is generally acclaimed as one of the best "new boy" nightmares ever. The chair at one end of theLong Table in the Dining Room is invariably reserved for someone of sufficient distinction who dares to take it. And so it happened in this dream that in my very first week as a new boy, I was happily eating my lunch at the crowded Long Table and listening to the friendly buzz of conversation, when suddenly a great silence fell upon the company, and as I looked up to see what had happened, I realised that all the faces of the "lunchers" were turned in my direction. With awful realisation that I was sitting in the hallowed seat, I broke into a cold sweat, at the same time sliding from my chair onto my knees under the table. Passing rapidly the boots of the famous wearers, I crawled until I came in sight of an empty chair, which I started to climb into, only to be met by the relentless notice in block letters, "RESERVED"!

In the days when I first joined, and before the advent of the bar, it was customary for Members to congregate around six o'clock in the hall under the stairs, surrounded by its collection of de Wylde paintings. Q.C.'s, returning from their days labours, while Barker dispensed drinks and tongues were loosened, would relate the day's happenings in the courts. This was all-engrossing to a stray actor's ears, and he had to remind himself that nothing heard within the four walls of the Club must ever be repeated outside. I remember on one occasion, Judge Travers Humphreys, having listened patiently to the childish chatter of his juniors, said from the depths of his armchair, "When I first joined this Club, I was told never to talk 'shop'. I have listened to nothing else ever since". It was some minutes before conversation resumed! The old Judge, respected by all of us, had made his point; (though I may add that he was later to entertain me on several occasions with his 'shop' talk!)

I treasure in my memory snatches of conversation relating to different Members. On one occasion, the Club "Bore" went up to Lord Webb-Johnson, President of the Royal College of Surgeons, and, after examining the cold table, asked "What would you suggest I choose for my delectation?" Came the quick reply, "Why not try a slice of the Boar's Head?" Then there is the apocryphal story of Lord Birkenhead, who came into the Club one evening at about 5:30 p.m., a time when it is usually deserted, and had barely rung the bell for a whisky and soda, when up popped some long-winded gentleman from a leather armchair and embarked on an interminable story. Birkenhead looked feverishly at his watch between sips, until, unable to bear it any longer, he rang for "Buttons". "Boy, I have to go. Will you stay here and listen to the rest of this story". On one occasion, many years later, I had taken my wife and mother-in-law to dinner at the Club one Sunday evening. After dinner, we went out into the hall to await our turn for a taxi, when in came Sir Malcolm Sargent, immaculately dressed as always in white tie and tails, bowing in his pleasing manner to one and everyone, including my mother-in-law. She remarked in her strong piercing voice, which carried round the Club, "Oh, what a nice waiter - He's been out to get us a taxi"!

No description of the Garrick would be complete without paying some tribute to Barker, the Steward of the Club. Loved and respected by all, to a new Member he could be a real comfort and friend. He can reminisce not only on the distant past, but also on the present times and customs of the Garrick. He can tell one not only the name of any Member, but also his life history: "Excuse me, Mr.Fitzgerald, I thought you would like to know you are sitting next to the French Ambassador". At one of the early Club visits to the Derby, when we travelled by coach taking all food and drink with us, Barker, busilly preparing luncheon, came up to my wife who was relaxing in the coach, and said, "Excuse me, Madam, but you are sitting on the cold consomme". On one occasion, years later, I said to him, "Barker, I am giving a party to honour my in-laws' Golden Wedding. I wonder if you would be willing to come and help us out?" He agreed excitedly, - and I later heard that he had been going round the Club telling people that I had asked him to assist at my Golden Wedding Party! As my in-laws were then in their eighties, I fear that some of the Members must have thought I was a good deal older than I looked!

Barker's portrait, painted by John Gilroy, now hangs among the famous on the walls of the upstairs bar, along with such denizens of the past as David Garrick, Sir Henry Irving, Sir Seymour Hicks, Sir Gerald du Maurier, and such present-day celebrities as Alastair Sim, Lord Olivier, Sir John Gielgud, and Noel Coward. Such is the esteem in which this honoured Servant of the Club is held. And, as one relaxes in the atmosphere of that wonderful room, and gazes on those hundreds of portraits, how easily can one be transported into the past, when Dickens and Thackeray hammered away at each other; when Sir Henry Irving was blackballed amid general consternation. (He was later elected, and his candidate's page now hangs framed at the foot of the stairs, black with famous signatures.) What a consolation it is to any actor in his latter years, his career on the stage ended, to be able to keep his memories alive in such company as this.