Spread A Little Happiness–A Great Composer’s Death

I have attended three births, my daughter’s, there’s no other option, my Goddaughter’s and my granddaughter’s. I have also attended two deaths. All very sacred events. In birth, a bundle of hugely concentrated energy. An engaged mind, a vast spirit. An incredibly complex physical system emerges from another being and radiates dramatically outward. Drugs were not used at any of the births. The very present and luminous eyed child signaled qualities they would carry through life were already inherent. Birth seems weighty. A child is Yang, to use the Chinese system of Yin and Yang. Yang qualities are heat, fragrance, energy, compactness, active and noisy.

 

Death is a lightening. A letting go. Quiet, passive, cold, dark, spreading out. Yin qualities. In my experience. The frail, elongated being, worn, the soul prominent, like a patch work quilt bearing the slings and arrows, joys and triumphs of a life. The countenance turning inward and at the time of departure. A significant hollowing, shrinking, yellowing of the shell left behind.

In the case of the composer, a dear man in his 90’s, previously possessed of an outrageous pre-war British wit and a great gift for melody–a long life of significant accomplishment, mischief and creativity was coming to an end. He was Vivian Ellis, the bon vivant of his hey day, circa 1920’s. Vivian wrote many enduring musicals including Mr. Cinders, Bless the Bride, Listen to the Wind, and perhaps most famously to an international audience, the song Spread a Little Happiness sung by Sting in the 1990’s. Binnie Hale singing Spread A Little Happiness in 1929

Mr. Cinders

Vivian Ellis & AP Herbert

He had been the best man at our wedding and my husband had brought him out of retirement to enjoy another 14 or 15 years of theatrical life in the 1980’s. It happened by accident. Dan had been off to see a show somewhere in the provinces and found that show was already finished. He decided to stay and watched an amateur production of Mr. Cinders, a charming gender reversal of the Cinderella story and fell in love. He brought it to the Kings Head. It made Denis Lawson a London star and went on to play for a year in the West End with a series of increasingly far-fetched Mr. Cinders’, ending with Lonnie Donnigan, the skittle player who wrote ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour On the Bed Post Overnight’, a song I loved to sing as a girl.

A snippet of the original 1929 production of Mr. Cinders

 

At the Kings Head, it was most thrilling, filling the small theatre to the brim, the effusive score flooding the room from just two pianos spilling all the colors of the musical rainbow, one perched upon the other so the top pianist had to climb up over the bottom pianist to get to her seat. I had just arrived in England and had never seen anything remotely like it before.

A number from the 1983 revival at the Kings Head Theatre

Orchestrations

Vivian had long elegant fingers and it was a treat to hear him play his own music as he often did for rehearsals or casting calls. I learned many things from him, especially the importance of orchestrations, the unsung heroes of music. Listen to Vivian’s marvelous, ‘I’m On A See Saw’ first sung by John Mills in the 1920’s and then the later Fats Waller jazz version and hear how an orchestration can rewrite a song. The Musical Director manages the band or small orchestra. It was amazing how many musicians we could fit at the theatre. But most of all their important job was orchestrations. This would be a literal re-write of the score for what ever instruments were being used and also sometimes to match the voices of the singers.

Dan always believed the interpretation of the lyric was more important than singing talent and amazingly for a composer, Vivian agreed.

An era of great composers

Vivian had grown up with all the composers, lyricists and book writers of the pre-war era in England but also knew George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Lorenz Hart and Irving Berlin from the other side of the pond and of course Noel Coward, Clifford Grey, A.P. Herbert, Desmond Carter and others from his own. Intimate stories of these people were jewels from the treasure box of his life.

Vivian was always looked after, first by his mother, a composer of light opera, and later by his deeply devoted sister Hermione. Their lives revolved around a sequential never altering time table of seaside, country, and London as it may have been done a century earlier. They were like two over grown children with a short hand almost telepathic communication and made up words for many things. Children were called orbitrons. Our cat was called ‘the person’ for reasons unknown.

The Kings Head revival of Listen to the Wind was almost made into a film by Annie Lennox and her the film producer husband. She came with her children six times, but then she and her film husband divorced. Martin Charnin, the author of “Annie’, came from New York to revive ‘Bless the Bride’, most wonderfully creating a role of the older heroine reflecting back on her younger self, played by Judy Campbell for whom Noel Coward wrote ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’.

New Jersey boy founds English pub theatre

My husband, Dan, was an Anglophile New Jersey boy who created a new kind of theatre and as only someone from another shore can do, reflected back to the English a rich and golden bygone era almost forgotten, with enough wit and charm and true story to easily enchant a modern audience. The era when a nightingale may have sung in Berkeley Square had all but faded but could still be found at the Kings Head, our little theatre in a pub. It was the first one since Shakespearian times and spawned a movement towards small theatre created by mixing magic on a wing and a prayer, a clever set, a wonderful play or musical and great casts. It carries on unabated in London to this day.

As a result, there is now a countless number of pub theatres and small theatres contributing to London’s potent and varied theatrical landscape. The rule was ‘the play’s the thing’ and don’t go out whistling the set. Great plays get great actors who are great story tellers.

The theatre carries on unabated in London to this day. As a result of the Kings Head, there is now a countless number of pub theatres and small theatres contributing to London’s potent and varied theatrical landscape. The rule was ‘the play’s the thing’ and don’t go out whistling the set. Because great plays get great actors who are great story tellers.

The theatrical gentleman’s club

A privilege was our monthly lunch with Vivian and Hermione at the Garrick Club, a gentleman’s theatrical club in central London. A truly beautiful place with paintings down the ages of great actors, it was named after the 18th Century actor David Garrick.

The Garrick dining room

It was founded in 1831 by a group of literary gentlemen under the patronage of the king’s brother, the egalitarian Duke of Sussex, as a place where ‘actors and men of refinement and education might meet on equal terms.’ Hence where ‘patrons of the drama and its professors were to be brought together’.

Joanna Lumley & Simon Cadell at the Kings Head in Noel & Gertie 1983

A men’s only club where women could only dine or enter rooms by invitation, I once had the pleasure of going round several rooms with the lovely actress Joanna Lumley, Kings Head patron, and putting our foot in each room. There we would have a school’s dinner type of lunch accompanied by a carafe of very good wine, put the world to rights and observe the guests. They were often actors we admired or even more curious and engaging, gentlemen seemingly transplanted from the 18th Century with long beards who would huddle while discussing ‘matters’ seriously, blushing at the sight of a female bare shoulder.

The Great Composer’s Death

Now this wonderful life was coming to a close. By the time Dan and I got to the hospital Vivian was barely present. Nurses fluttered in and out along with his God-daughter, Catherine, also a friend.

Dan and I each had one of his hands in our own and one of mine was very lightly on his heart. Something takes over when we attend each other in this way. We were holding him with our love to allow him to leave. No words were necessary. The room went very quiet, activity ceased and no one came in as if a larger Presence was ruling the scene. I closed my eyes and felt someone waiting for him, his mother, and also sensed a triumphant celebration awaiting him for a life well lived, a concert I could just barely hear but definitely wafting between dimensions.

The moment came so gently. The shell that had only just then held the great spirit of Vivian Ellis, fell back into itself as he flew skyward.

Hermione never spoke again– in protest. Moved to an old folk’s home, which she didn’t like, the only time a smile was roused was playing tapes of Vivian’s music or tapes of current productions of his musicals.

How easily the great are forgotten!

Vivian John Herman EllisCBE  29 October 1903 – 19 June 1996

Vivian Ellis CBE

 

Love, Stephanie

The Metaphysical Muse

 

 

3 thoughts on “Spread A Little Happiness–A Great Composer’s Death

  1. My mother, too, heard a fanfare as she prepared to drop her body gracefully back against the bed. And after she said, “He’s there, they’re all there!” she passed. The invisible door opened and she entered as we watched her exit. It reminds me of Rumi, “people are crossing back and forth across the doorsill, where the two worlds touch…” Thank you Stephanie, for this beautiful portrait of a golden hued life and death, birth and beginning, all one and the same, so lovingly rendered in rich detail and metaphysical musing.

  2. Lovely piece Taff. I enjoyed getting to know VE beyond the little I’ve heard about him over the years (or the little I recall of the lot you’ve told me about him!

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