My husband, Dan Crawford, died in 2005. We were married for 21 years. He was the founder and Artistic Director of the Kings Head Theatre, London and a true British eccentric, even if he was born in Hackensack, New Joisey, as he would affectionately call it. Hackensack rhymes with ‘never go back’ he would say. He grew up reading Macauley’s history of England in the bathtub at night (so as not to wake his brother Michael) and in his late 20’s, having worked in pubs and theatre in New York, and in Robert Ludlum’s New Jersey theatre from the age of 17, he set off to start his own.
Dan founded the first pub theatre since Shakespeare’s times, The Kings Head
Dan went looking for a pub with a big back room in which a theatre could be housed. He knocked on many doors and finally came upon a clapped out Victorian pub in Islington, North London. The landlord couldn’t wait to hand it over. With a couple of grand for the lease that Dan borrowed from his mum and more enthusiasm than a bucket of crickets, he set out rebuilding it from the bottom up. Using discarded artifacts from building sites, he reinstalled all the fireplaces and laid down hardwood floors, restoring the circa 1860 building to her full glory. The postage stamp stage that was to support so much magnificence in the following decades had once been a boxing ring and before that a cockfighting ring. He was the captain of the ship but we ran the theatre, pub, and restaurant together from around 1985.
Dan was a very well loved London figure. Seemingly transplanted from a much earlier Dickensian age, he bristled with energy, was blessed with a silver tongue and laser focus and looked a bit like a handsome wiry 6ft plus Leprechaun. He could be seen merrily whipping around London in his racing green Austin A40 beeping the horn as proud as Toad of Toad Hall and generally delighted in life. In truth, he was a much more complex person, very driven, very deeply feeling, but he kept it light as a philosophy of being and a courtesy.
Spread A Little Happiness by Vivian Ellis was his theme song and he expressed his emotional depth through his work.
The Kings Head was known for innovation
Many bold and inspired moves were made running the Kings Head. Terrence Rattigan was re-established to his rightful position as one of the all-time great British playwrights right before he died. The once hugely noted composer Vivian Ellis was rediscovered and pulled out of retirement. Vivian was thrilled with the unexpected presentation of his wonderful musicals to a new audience, late in his life. Noel Coward was established as so much more than a boulevardier. He was a brilliant playwright and composer who left a legacy of work of depth and sublime character.
Dan believed musicals were an abstract medium that conveyed emotion more than any other art form. In a maverick move very much against the prescribed line of thinking of the day, he began to present musicals as a serious art form, shouldering a fair bit of flack and in advance of the National’s groundbreaking Les Miserables, which finally busted preconceptions about musicals as just a low-brow popular entertainment forever. One Touch Of Venus, SpokeSong, Kingdom Come! is just a handful of the superbly presented comedic and serious musicals. Leonard Bernstein came to see the Kings Head production of Wonderful town with Maureen Lipmann and loved it. Jamie Hammerstein personally endorsed the meticulously cast tour of Oklahoma, which featured a young and radiant Janie Dee in an early role. Dan’s own production of Meet Me At The Gate was credited with bringing back intimate revue.
Dan had an eye for talent
Superb spotting of talent discovered Tom Conti, Victoria Wood, Rupert Graves, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant and many other noted actors who got their start at the Kings Head. The last of the ‘red-hot mamas’ Bertice Reading, who had sung with Duke Ellington in her heyday and who could easily fill a large theatre, would only play the Kings Head in her final years. Only Dan knew how to cajole and gently coerce her to get on stage where she would then burn the house down with her amazing voice and presence. So many amazing people had graced that handkerchief stage. Joanna Lumley (for many years our patron), John Hurt (who played Quentin Crisp), Janet Suzman, Ben Kingsley, the list goes on. The proximity to the stage was electrifying.
The play’s the thing
Steven Berkoff was among the many playwrights he helped to establish, who he brought kicking and screaming into the “establishment” with Kvetch. Athol Fugard and Stewart Parker premiered work at the Kings Head as did Tom Stoppard, who hardly needed establishing. In Tom’s brilliant words, The Kings Head defied gravity and Dan was stark raving sane. Many of the great Irish playwrights were showcased including Hugh Leonard, who’s Da had its London premiere at the theatre and Brian Friel, whose Philadelphia Here I Come! enjoyed the first revival at the King’s Head and transferred to the West End, as over 40 productions did, and onto Broadway. He was a champion of gay theatre and we had so many stellar New York revues and meaningful revivals and premieres at the Kings Head we could almost qualify as Off-Broadway.
The Jewish plays we did inspired the Jewish Chronicle to qualify the Kings Head as London’s Jewish Theatre. Dan just had this eye, or like the shamans say, the eye in the heart, for what was good. In fact, in later years he was often asked by vicars to speak on the similarity between theatre and church. He was a vicar of theatre.
Down the rabbit hole
When I first arrived there, my little daughter in tow, it was easily the oddest place I had ever seen. It was an otherworldly fiefdom presided over by the slightly mad but truly wonderful Leprechaun who everyone loved. It was not hard to please Dan. If you did anything at all to be helpful he was happy. His whole life was theatre, followed by American baseball and soon to include me and my daughter, Katherine, whom he grew to adore and mentored into a stage sensation at a young age.
All that happened in between 1984 and 2005 would fill a very large book. Dan never believed he had achieved his dreams or made the contribution he wanted to. I made a film the year before he died with some great people including the filmmaker Jason Figgis to convince him of that. A love letter to him to show him what he had achieved. Originally a small summer project, the phone was ringing off the hook with the likes of Tom Stoppard and Alan Rickman wanting to speak their piece about the Kings Head and Dan.
It grew into something wonderful—a testament to his legacy. If you’re curious please check it out. Just under an hour, it played on SkyArts and Channel Four and captures him and the Kings Head. It’s very inspiring because he was and the Kings Head was (and is). The documentary, A Maverick In London, 54 mins.
Dan was dying
So for now, we flash forward. Dan was very ill. And Dan was dying. I was in denial and I think I was the only person in London who thought he’d pull through. He had likely been ill for years and it was finally clear what was happening. He refused to succumb for the longest time and outlived all statistics for his particular illness. He had too much he needed and wanted to do! But Death has no respect for dreams and plans. When your time is up, your number is called and that’s it. OK, yeah, I know that’s not exactly it, but let’s drive on.
I was in the hospital on a makeshift bed near his, on the floor. I was singing to him, poor fellow. I was singing the song from Finian’s Rainbow, ‘Follow the fellow who follows the dream.’ The last words he spoke were, Not anymore. They gave him the morphine before we could say goodbye. I prayed for him. I asked God to give him a crown and a staff and an ermine cloak. And then he died.
We had his funeral at St. Mary’s Church, Islington, across from the Kings Head. I wish we’d recorded it. Maureen Lipmann, Steven Berkoff and others wrote and spoke brilliant and really funny eulogies. We were laughing and crying at the same time. Dan always went for poignancy. He felt life was a constant blend of tragedy and comedy and here it was at his funeral. Janie Dee sang the song from Finian’s Rainbow, which we all joined, and then Jerusalem, which broke us all up into tears.
I had a recording of his voice reading Corinthians 13:1 “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal” the vicar played. 600 people squeezed into the church. So many of them said, They would not be who they were or what they were without Dan. I realized he had left two legacies.
What Dan did after he died
It started at the funeral. Some dear friends, Stewart Trotter among them, who had directed The Browning Version right before Terrence Rattigan died, were weeping and lamenting near a big cardboard image of Dan. There was no wind, It was securely fixed. It fell over and bopped them. Then, the tape of his voice went missing. I was very cross with the church. Weeks went by. I shouted at Dan a lot. He checked out. He was gone. He left me to run the bloomin’ Kings Head!
Out of the blue one day, the tape appeared in the middle of the sofa. It escalated from there. Light bulbs would pop when his name was mentioned all over town. The room would get cold just like in the movies. One night the pub manager checked his phone for the time, cashed out and then looked for his phone. And looked. Finally, he went home. The stage manager called him the next day to ask why his phone was in the dressing room. Which he had locked the night before.
Dan speaks through my Christinas
I have two very clairvoyant girlfriends, both named Christina. My Scottish Christina used to see me every week and we’d check out the tea leaves. The first time after Dan died she said, Dan don’t come so close! He was very excited to see her because she could hear him! She said, He’s wearing an ermine cloak and a crown and holding a staff and flying around like Peter Pan!. There were 700 letters sent after Dan died including one from Her Maj giving her condolences. Christina said he wanted her to see the folder in the corner of the room. It transpired he wanted her to see the letter from the Queen!
Dan gave Christina many messages including crucial instructions like go downstairs and find the document that needs to be signed in the third drawer of the desk in front of the window. Turns out it was a very important land registry document. But it wasn’t only Christina. I’d be down at the bar and someone would come up to me and say, There’s a gentleman standing behind you in a tweed jacket. Anyone who remembers Dan remembers those tweed jackets.
Galas and more galas
To save the Kings Head, which was in loads of debt, we continued the tradition of galas. I did two a month for a year until I wanted to do one just to homage Dan and get some closure. It was incredible, at a West End theatre, with so many of the wonderful actors who had graced the stage over the 35 years of Dan’s tenure showing up to do amazing turns and speak lovingly about Dan. Mike Reed and Mike Dixon, two of our greatest London Musical Directors, helped me put together the program. Even Brian May turned up to scorch the stage with his guitar. His partner Anita Dobson had been in plays in the theatre. I came home from a day of rehearsals to the office to be told by a new employee that they’d dreamt of a man in a tweed jacket somewhere in the heavens orchestrating a dance rehearsal. By his description, it was clear it was the exact one we’d rehearsed that day.
Kirsten, our longest standing employee who had clocked over 40 years at the Kings Head (it was that kind of place) would say offhandedly, I dreamed Dan was on the roof saying we need to get a roof tiler in. Sure enough, tiles were loose and we needed to get a roof tiler in.
Dan does not like the word dead!
I went to the Old Vic to see The Philadelphia Story, one of our faves. We especially loved the film with Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. My daughter, growing up in the bubble of the Kings Head, was devasted to learn that Cary Grant was not only too old for her to marry but was in fact dead! Kevin Spacey got nowhere near Cary Grant for the first two acts but effing nailed it in the third. It was so spectacular I started to sob. Where was Dan to share seeing this brilliance with me?
I got home to find the large beveled mirror hung in the bathroom had somehow managed to 1) detach itself from the wall and 2) fly across the room to land face first in the bathtub, shards everywhere. According to Christina mirrors are a big way the D.E.A.D. communicate. According to my other Christina, Swedish Christina, Dan does not like the word dead.
Dan returns to watch a show
My last story here and there are more, is Ann Pinnington, my fellow Associate Artistic Director for many years, who had helped me keep the Kings Head going after Dan died and was a very close friend of Dan’s, joined me to see a play. I wish I could recall the play and the name of the very noted lead actor. We were cuddled together, as you did in the Kings Head audience, watching a rather riveting performance when suddenly Ann sort of flipped.
I was very concerned and wove her out past the audience and the edge of the stage into the back area, open to the elements. After she recovered she explained what happened. She had been watching the play when something compelled her to turn her head. There, at the back of the theatre, was Dan.
As if nothing had happened since he shed his mortal coil, he just lifted his finger to his lips and said, Shush, and resumed watching.
Dan’s legacy sails on
So, there we go. I’m sure Dan’s sitting over my shoulder now. He’s probably whispering daily into Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s ear, who now runs the Kings Head. I’m sure he’s not too far away and no doubt rehearsing the celestial stars in a musical of the spheres in between visits to us still here. Long may the Kings Head sail and God bless Dan Crawford.
Daniel Frank Crawford 1942-2005. Treasure of the British Theatre and founder and Artistic Director of the Kings Head Theatre 1970-2005. The spiritual father of Katherine Wyeth and beloved husband of Stephanie Sinclaire. We love you.
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