For the first few years of my career, I would not sing. Because my mother had such a glorious singing voice, and I knew I would never be able to sing as well as she did, and I didn't want to be compared. At the age of about 27 I went to a party and met a little lady by the name of Betty Alvarez who said to me: "Do you sing?" Me: "No!" She: "Listening to you speak I feel sure there is a singing voice there. I am a pianist/coach--come to see me". And I did. That meeting changed my life.
Not only did she start me singing, she introduced me to an agent who got me my first singing job...Prince Charming in CINDERELLA at the Palace Theatre, Hull. This was produced by a one-armed impresario from Manchester called Bert Loman. Who later married my Cinderella, with whom I shared a dressing-room--Mavis Whyte "The tiddly-winky girl" I have the poster still on my wall: ONE HUGE BLAZE OF BRILLIANCE AND SPLENDOUR!
We had one week to rehearse, because the main part of the Pantomime was taken up with speciality acts. The Ugly Sisters had been doing their bit for years..a brother and sister act, Max and Maisie Norris. The Brokers Men were a tumbling act. There were two acts from Germany. A roller skating act--once, when the wife fell and couldn't get up, the husband kept skating elegantly around while the wife screamed at him, no doubt with swear words, in German...it could be heard in the audience! The act ended with a flight of white pigeons released from the back of the cirlce to land on the top of a coach driven by ponies, with the roller-skating couple in the coach. The principle was that the birds would always fly into the light, and the curtain came down as a cage was put over them. The trouble was, some of them did NOT fly into the light, and flew round the audience and into the bar, walking around and nibbling the peanuts, much to the bemusement of the evening audience as they arrived after the matinee. Once I went into the quick change area to get into a gorgeous costume which was covered in pigeon shit! The other German act was performing dogs, called Charlie and Gloria. In a tiny set and in costume, they acted out a scene on their hind legs, ending with her getting into bed and him pulling the covers over her---with the German couple of trainers shouting commands from behind the scenery..."CHARLIE...KOM...." They had two understudy dogs as well, and because of the quarantine laws, the dogs were not allowed outside the theatre, and the four dogs lived in the dressing room for the entire run!!
It was a beautiful show. Exquisite costumes and scenery, everything for the childrens'enjoyment, no inuendos, no references to TV stars or programmes, a troupe of Miss Pickles Babes--just good, clean fun. My opening song: IT'S A GREAT LIFE IF YOU DON'T WEAKEN, AND YOU WON'T WEAKEN IF YOU SMILE. WHEN YOU'RE FEELING N.B.G., TRY AN S.M.I.L.E. ...!!!!
Years later I was lucky enough to be cast in the Pantomime at the Palladium, which in those days ran until Easter. The stars of THE SLEEPING BEAUTY were Charlie Drake, Bruce Forsyth, Bernard Bresslaw and Edmund Hockridge. I was the Queen and Charlie Drake was the King. "Hello, my darlings!!" Our director was Robert Nesbitt and we rehearsed in the large bar of the Prince of Wales theatre. We always called our director Mr Nesbitt--he was fondly known as the Prince of Darkness, because for weekday rehearsals he wore a handsome, well-made dark suit...but for Sunday rehearsals he wore grey. On the first day of rehearsal, we had been rehearsing all morning with no coffee break. I shyly mentioned this to Mr Nesbitt who said: "Oh, I am so sorry. It is a bit late for coffee now, let's have a Martini break!" This was in the late nineteen fifties. After many years, a few weeks ago I met Bruce Forsyth again, and he remembered the story of the Martini Break!
I was thrilled when Mr Nesbitt decided to give me my own singing number. I was to be the Queen dressing incognito and going to join the gypsies, where I would sing and dance with all the boys in the chorus. "I'M SIMPLY WILD, WILD, WILD ABOUT THE WILD, WILD MUSIC THAT THE WILD, WILD GYPSIES PLAY...HEY!!" George Carden was the choreographer and the boys even threw me around in the air!
At the Palladium we had a week of full dress rehearsals, including the full orchestra. After the first dress rehearsal, when everyone was dismissed, I was asked to go into the auditorium to see Mr Nesbitt. He sat half way back in the stalls with a large table covered in green baize in front of him, on which were a bottle of champagne and a telephone. He gave all his directions in a very quiet voice into the telephone. He handed me a glass of champagne. "You know, Thelma, sometimes in a production it helps to have a fresh, outside eye. Mr Val Parnell, our producer, was in tonight, and he said he loved your song but it had nothing to do with the Pantomime. I'm sorry, I am going to have to cut it". I grabbed the pristine white handkerchief from his pocket and burst into floods of tears. "Don't be so upset" he said, "it's only a song. I promise you, I will bring you back to the Palladium, and you will have a song that DOES fit into the Pantomime". I cried for a week. But dear Mr Nesbitt kept his promise. Two years later I was cast in TURN AGAIN WHITTINGTON with Norman Wisdom and Yana, and I played the Empress of Morocco, my country being over-run with rats, I sang, again with the chorus, WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT THE RATS! And I stood next to Norman Wisdom at the curtain call.