Richard Burton, Bogie & Bacall & Me…

A bit of nonsense based on a bit of truth, boyo.

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Richard Burton. Beguiling Hollywood

Last week, sitting in the Dirty Duck having a drink I was reminded of when, back in the early 1950s, as a cigar smoking, beer swilling, seven-year-old I would spend a great deal of time in that famous drinking establishment (there was no age limit to drinking in those days: if you could pay for it and hold the glass steady you were welcome) with my own personal table by the window which allowed me to write down car number plates (an old British pastime) and beg sleeping pills for my mother from an old wino of a doctor who used to frequent the place.

“ But why do you want sleeping pills for your mother, young man?”

“ She keeps waking up, doctor.”

I was also known for my wit and conversation, especially with the actors who’d crowd around my table at the end of a show seeking my advice on the delivery of a line, or the inner meaning of a soliloquy, or beg (for a fiver) the telephone number of my mother’s younger sister, who was a bit of a stunner with a small fortune earned in a munitions factory during the Second World War.

In other words I was a pretty cool sort of guy, and well in with the actoring mob, especially Richard Burton (‘Rich’ to mates like me) who would often sit with me after a show going through my latest list of car numbers just in case there was a Pontrhydyfen plate (there were only six cars in in his village according to Rich) which meant somebody had made the trip up from the Welsh valleys to see the local boy knocking the acting doo daa out of Prince Hal and King Henry. There never was of course.

Rich wasn’t really famous then, although he’d done a couple of films, but when the other thesps saw him spending so much time with me after a performance they knew he must be something a bit special, although one or two old timers of the Edwin Booth school of actin’ admitted they couldn’t understand a word he said, especially when he whispered.

“ He whispers me boy, on stage, whispers. One doesn’t whisper on the stage of the Memorial, one shouts, even if you’re supposed to be whisperin’.”

But Rich was rightly having none of that, especially if you’ve been described by Kenneth Tynan as having a voice that is “…a brimming pool running disturbingly deep.” Actually I gave Tynan that line, but we’ll let it go.

I remember there was quite a lot of concern as to whether Rich was ready for Stratford or not, even to the extent that Anthony Quayle (he was running the theatre at the time) phoned me asking if I could be of any help. Naturally I put Anthony’s mind at rest, telling him of the time my mother’s younger sister (the stunner) had driven me down to Wales to see Rich in a production of David Jones’ In Parenthisis, which was tremendous. I told him he had nothing to worry about. I like to think I helped Rich on his way to success.

But then, one late summer’s evening, after a particularly splendid performance of Henry V ( I’d managed to leave the theatre quickly and get my favourite seat at the Duck), a rather flustered Rich came hurrying in to the pub to tell me he had some rather important guests arriving any minute, and that they were going to help him get established in Hollywood, and that I was to ensure he was on his best behaviour

“ Oh course, old man, my pleasure.”

“ Good. Knew I could rely on you, boyo.”

With that he bought me a pint of Flowers and a large cigar (which I have to say was rather good for those austere times) and told me who was coming.

“Doo daa!”

“Doo daa, doo daa, boyo. Do you think I ought to play the accordion tonight? Give ’em a rendition of Cum Rhonda, or something?”

“No.”

He agreed. He always agreed. And then, suddenly, the door of the bar opened and in stepped Bogie and Bacall.

I’d met them before of course, albeit briefly, when thy flew me out to Hollywood to discuss a script idea I’d come up with. Sadly, but $50,000 better off, the project never got made, and I have to say I lost interest. But here they were again.

Bogey and Bacall really were delightful people, and that old pub really began to rock when Rich began playing his red and silver Melotone accordion, and Lauren sang some wonderful Cole Porter songs, with Humph pounding out a wild rhythm with his fountain pen on several empty beer glasses that would have made Gene Krupa envious. Actually it did make him envious when I told him about it a few months later in New York.

“You say he actually did a 7/8 followed by a 16/4, on a beer glass!”

And how the drinks flowed, no more so than when Rich got behind the bar and began to pour them himself. I assured the landlord I’d pay for any spillage; mind you I didn’t expect there to be much of that.

Toward the end of the night, with Rich fast asleep behind the bar, with a contract in his pocket for three Hollywood movies, and his beloved accordion floating down the river, Humphrey Bogart looked at me and proposed a toast.

“Here’s looking at you, kid.”

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Bogie & Bacall. The Retro Set

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Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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