|At the end of the
spring term, with summer in sight and the cadet corps dispersing
for the coming vacation, I applied for war work wherever my
services as a boy scout could best be used. In those midwar
years, with everybody of every age aiding the war effort in one
way or another, and even youths of sixteen being taken into the
army, it was my need not only to help wherever I could but,
also, to get away from Bristol for a while. I was so often alone
and unsettled at home that I welcomed any occupation that
promised activity. I was given work as a messenger and guide at
Southampton, in the dock area where the public was forbidden and
no one permitted unless wearing a uniform or carrying a special
I saw thousands of young men sail
away into the night toward France, packed in transport ships
that were, prayerfully, fast enough to outdistance the enemy
submarines that waited for them in the English Channel and if I
was on gangplank duty I sadly noticed the quick moment of
apprehension cross every face, the first premonition of danger
as I issued every soldier a life belt and accompanied it with a
few cheerful notes of instruction to hide my feelings. Hundreds
of those men drowned only a few miles from their homeland before
even reaching the battlefront.
Although it was not part
of our duties, the scouts often delivered messages and many
letters for the soldiers waiting in the sheds on their last day
in England. It was a point of honor among us not to take money
for our small services. So, as we had no other way of escaping
their touching gratitude, we accepted mementos instead -- a
military button or regimental badge -- and displayed them with
the pride of collectors, attached to our belts, which were heavy
with tokens. The soldiers sometimes gave us cake and tea
obtained from the canteen at the end of each shed in which they
were kept enclosed the day before embarkation.
All military movement into and
out of the docks was made throughout the night. Soldiers poured
through Southampton and rows of sheds were filled and refilled.
There were no seats and the men sat or lay around the floor
among their kits. Some of them had already been out to the front
once and lost an arm or leg, yet were returning to fight again.
One officer, a Guardsman, had been to the front twice before and
had lost an arm, and leg at the knee, but was still going back
again to rejoin his regiment in the trenches.
Mixed with it's tragedy there was
a strange atmosphere of excitement and adventure in Southampton,
and when I returned home, I regularly haunted the Bristol
wharves where in those days, schooners and steamships came right
up the Avon River into the center of town; and on weekends, when
most of my school friends were playing cricket, I sat alone for
hours watching the ships come and go, sailing with them to far
places on the tide of my imagination, trying to release myself
from the emotional tensions which disarranged my thoughts. I
once even applied for a job as cabin boy, but was turned down
not only because I was too young, but because I couldn't bring
permission from my parents.
Yet coincidentally at such a
dispirited time, destiny was zeroing in on my future. I've often
wondered whether destiny creates the course of the man or
whether man creates the course of his destiny. Probably both.
My unfavorite classes at school
were algebra, geometry, trigonometry and Latin; my favorites
were geography, history, art and chemistry; and it was in
chemistry lab around which I loitered on rainy days when I
couldn't play fives (an English version of handball) that I met
destiny in the form of the science professor's part-time
assistant: an electrician, brought in from the outside to help
with our experiments.
He was a jovial, friendly man
with children of his own, and one day, in kindly response to my
eagerness to learn about anything electrical, he invited me to
visit the newly built Bristol Hippodrome, in which he'd
installed the switchboard and lighting system. The Saturday
matinee was in full swing when I arrived backstage; and there I
suddenly found myself in a dazzling land of
smiling, jostling people wearing and not wearing all sorts of
costumes and doing all sorts of clever things.
And that's when I knew!
What other life could there be
but that of an actor? They happily traveled and toured. They
were classless, cheerful and carefree. They gaily laughed, lived
and loved. Yet? H'm. Little did I know. But an actor's life for
me. And how was I, still only thirteen years old, to join them?
I hung about that theater at
every opportunity until my electrician friend, possibly to get
some relief from my constant questioning, arranged an
introduction to the manager of another theater in Bristol, the
Empire, where I was invited to sit with and assist the men who
worked the arc lamps, known as limelights, which shone from
small precarious platforms, or perches, rather high up at each
side of the stage.
No one seemed to pay me anything
and I didn't quite know how I was supposed to assist anyone,
except by getting my fingers burned while fumblingly changing
some redhot carbons; but I was in the happy world of
make-believe and that was all that mattered, and I dropped by
the theater as often as possible. I had a place to be. And
people let me be there.
At one performance while I held
that splendid job I decided to wander out to the front of the
theater and "assist" the man who worked the large
center arc in the balcony, known as the dress circle. And, well,
come to think of it, I might as well see the show at the same
The star attraction that week was
a famed magician, The Great David Devant, the originator of many
spectacular illusions which are still used by magicians today. I
sat spellbound alongside the limelight man until he tapped my
arm and indicated for me to hold his lamp steady a moment while
he lighted a cigarette. I later learned that during certain
magic tricks the balcony spotlight was supposed, according to
strict instructions, to stay unwaveringly directed onto a center
point of the stage; but the man didn't tell me, and I was so
raptly watching to learn how the illusion was done that I
unconsciously allowed the beam of light to drop downward slowly
and -- holy cow -- suddenly there was a blinding flash of light
reflected from under a table, where two mirrors were fixed that
otherwise would have remained undetected by the audience.
The trick was ruined. Mr. Devant
shot an exasperated look toward the source of the light, the
operator yanked it out of my hand and, with some choice swear
words ringing in my ears, I stammered an apology and slunk off
appalled at my blunder.
Well, I didn't seem to be welcome
at the Empire again after that, so I began to reappear backstage
at the Hippodrome. I hung around anyone who'd put up with me. I
couldn't stay late; only for the early part of the evening. I
ran all sorts of messages and earnestly strove to learn the
fascinating reasons and beliefs behind an actor's vernacular.
Much more interesting than Latin.
Don't milk your bows. Pick up
your cue. Never walk on the other fellow's line. Playing to the
gods meant performing to the gallery, or top balcony.
Six-sheeting out front referred to actors who stood around the
theater lobby or stage door hoping to be recognized by the
audience as they came out; a six-sheet being the term used for a
life-sized theatrical poster. An actor was never out of work. He
was "at liberty." Waiting for a ghost to walk meant
waiting for the manager with the weekly salary. There seemed to
be no left or right side of the stage; just a prompt side and an
O.P side, meaning opposite of prompt.
Oh, it was a fine
language, and one evening while my ears were cocked for other
phrases to absorb I learned about Bob Pender's troupe of young
performers -- or knockabout comedians, as they were called --
the ranks of which were being regularly depleted as soon as each
boy came of military age; and before I knew it I was writing a
letter to Mr. Pender purportedly from my own father. I enclosed
a snapshot and, since I was tall for my age and thought I looked
older, conveniently neglected to explain that I was not yet
fourteen and, therefore, not legally allowed to leave school.
You wouldn't believe it, but in
no time at all, although it seemed weeks to a fellow with a
surreptitious eye on his father's mailbox, back came an answer
from Bob Pender suggesting to my father that his
promising-looking son Archibald should go to Norwich, where the
troupe was performing, for an interview; what's more, he
enclosed the railway fare!
Never was there such inner
excitement. Of joy, disbelief, fear, confidence and indecision.
In the secrecy of my room I could neither sleep or sit. I packed
and unpacked; and after hours of coin spinning and head
scratching found myself quietly leaving the house in the middle
of the night and walking the deserted streets toward the railway
station where, dizzy at my own daring, I waited for an
early-morning train. To Norwich. And adventure.
I can't remember anything about
the journey. I was probably trying to figure out what my father
would try to figure out. He and I often awoke and left the house
at different hours without seeing each other. So it might be
quite some time before I would be missed. After traveling for at
least four hours I arrived at about 10 a.m. and went directly to
the theater where, putting his troupe through their morning
limbering-up exercises, I found Bob Pender.
He was a stocky, strongly built,
likable man of about forty-two who had been renowned as the
great Drury Lane clown. I suspected that he suspected that
Archie and Elias James Leach were the same correspondent, but he
introduced me to his kind wife Margaret, a well-known dancer
whom he'd met when she was ballet mistress at the Folies-Bergere
in Paris, and they questioned me about my birth certificate,
which I said was home. Which was true. It was. After looking me
over carefully they agreed that if it was still all right
with my father they would apprentice me to their troupe. They
gave me a short handwritten contract stipulating that I as to
receive my keep and ten shillings pocket money weekly. And
hallelujah, I was an actor!
Over the years I've signed many
lengthy, involved typed contracts calling for me to earn great
sums of money, but no employment contract since has ever matched
the thrill of that one sheet of ordinary notepaper stating that
I was to have the opportunity of learning a profession that
appealed to me more than any other in the world.
I was taken to live in the same
digs (another actors' term: short for diggings; meaning
room-and-board in a private house) with Mr. and Mrs. Pender, and
two or three of the youngest members of the company who were
also kept under the proprietor's parental wings; and the
following morning, on the bare theater stage, I began
instruction in ground tumbling and acrobatic dances along with
an athletic group of ten or eleven teen-age boys from all walks
of life. As the newcomer, the novice, I felt, and looked, clumsy
and inept among the others, and my progress suffered from the
disparity. But slowly, and too often painfully, I showed
improvement and began to feel the pride and confidence of
accomplishment. I was resigned to the fact that it would be some
time before I was proficient enough actually to join the others
in front of an audience.
I practiced making up and thickly
covered my face with greasepaint that took hours to apply in
imitation of what I took to be the prevailing theatrical mode.
Nowadays I don't wear any at all. In truth, I find myself
embarrassed in the company of most actors and actresses who do.
Ah, beware of snobbery; it is the unwelcome recognition of one's
own past failings.
It as inevitable, of course, that
my father would find me. It took him a good ten days, though, by
which time we had moved on to a town called Ipswich. One night
between shows the stage-door keeper told me that a man who said
he was my father was waiting to see me. And there he was all
Luckily, Bob Pender was just
coming out of his nearby dressing room, and I managed to
introduce them to each other before father and I were able to
exchange too many unamusing words which we might later regret.
Now my father was a high-degree Mason, whatever that meant, and
so was Bob Pender. There was as lucky a stroke of fate as
ever took care of matters! They wore similar insignia dangling
from their watch chains, and within the space of a handshake
seemed to have arrived at some special understanding. So, while
I anxiously twiddled my thumbs and thoughts, they went off
together for a drink at the next-door pub. In order, they said,
to decide my future. How do you like that? It was decided I
needed to finish my education.