Monday, 14 March 2005

The Girl With A Hole In Her Heart

Although we spent most of our time high up in the ‘gods’ on our frequent visits to the Theatre, there were the odd occasions when the opposite was the case, and we found ourselves in the ‘Royal Box’, where we were treated like royalty. The Star of the show would give us special attention and, seeing this, the other artists in the show would do the same, even tho they didn’t know what was ‘special’ about us lol! I was too young to appreciate all this attention and would happily have done without it, I’m sure my sister, Mavis, felt the same way, as it’s her rather sad story that was the reason for all this special attention.

It’s May 1941 and mum had just given birth to her 5th child - me! Sheffield was on the receiving end of Hitler’s bombers as they tried to obliterate the steel mills. So there was poor mum, on her own with five children, including a new baby, and bombs dropping all around and worrying about the health of my older sister Mavis, who was not developing as a normal, rumbustious five year old should. Many tests and examinations later, would show that Mavis had been born with a heart defect - the blood was not circulating around her heart in the normal way, and therefore not being oxygenated, which resulted in the bluish tinge to Mavis’s skin and lips after the slightest exertion. The specialists had found a hole in her heart and she was destined to spend the rest of her life in a wheel chair.

This was the 1940's and very little was known about Mavis’s condition, everything would be experimental. Effectively, Mavis was a guinea pig, I’m sure that many of today’s successful heart operations were based on these trials. Our whole family life was centred around Mavis’s condition, sometimes, my other sister, Barbara and myself would be sent off to a Children’s home for a short time whilst mum & dad went to London with Mavis to see her specialist, Professor Wain. Significant perhaps, that I can remember his name so easily, after all these years. I enjoyed these periods at the homes, I remember carefree, sunny days, but they turned into traumatic memories for Barbara - being separated from our parents..........

It was hard for Mavis, watching her two younger sisters growing up normally and doing all the things that she wanted to do. She had to go to a ‘Special’ school, and although of perfectly normal intellect, her schooling was frequently interrupted by long bouts of ill health. Mavis and I spent hours together, discussing her condition - she was very interested in all that was happening to her and always had a host of questions for her Heart Specialist. Consequently I became very interested in biology and got to know far more than we were ever taught at school - I was quite proud of the fact that I always came top of the class when it came to biology exams lol! In fact my biology teacher would often ask me questions about Mavis?s condition and progress.

As time went on, Mavis became known as ?The Sheffield Blue Baby? and as such, was a local celeb lol! The Sheffield Telegraph & Star took a particular interest in her, and it was they who arranged for her to meet the Stars who came to the Empire Theatre. Comedians Frank Randle and Al Read took a particular interest in Mavis, as did brothers Albert & Les Ward - comedians and performers who played every instrument imaginable, they were playing the washboard long before Lonnie Donnegan lol! These Stars were also very kind to the rest of the family. It was Frank Randle who arranged for us to have the ?Royal Box? and gave us such special attention whilst he was on stage performing.

When Mavis was 15, her doctors at the Hammersmith Hospital in London, decided to go ahead with a pioneering operation to repair the whole in her heart. A piece of Mavis? own tissue was going to be used, they chose to use the pulse in her left wrist - nobody asked - and so they didn?t know - that Mavis was left handed..... But she got her own back in due course - whenever she had her pulse taken, she?d offer her left wrist and watch with glee as the doctor/nurse searched in vain for any sign of a pulse beat lol!

Poor Mavis - she was left with precious little dignity - everyone seemed to forget that she was an adolescent emerging into adulthood, her hospital bed was forever surrounded by students and junior doctors - of course everyone was interested in this innovative surgery.

What she suffered during those rather rudimentary and experimental procedures doesn?t bear thinking about. Because of her weak heart, the anaesthetist dare not put her fully under, even to operate on her heart. They had to lower her temperature and therefore her heartbeat, to a quite dangerous level, by packing ice around her, and then give her a light anaesthetic....... and this was no keyhole surgery. Mavis was cut from just under her left arm and diagonally across her back to her right side just above the waist.

Today it?s possible to repair a hole in the heart by passing a patch via a catheter through a vein in the groin and onwards up into the heart, where scar tissue will form to hold the patch in place. But for Mavis, there were long and gruelling weeks of treatment, Mum even went to work at Hammersmith Hospital as a Ward Orderly so as to be near at hand. Barbara and I had to go and live with our Great Aunt, who we both feared, Aunty Ena & Uncle Walter had not been blessed with children of their own, and although Uncle Walter was a real sweetie - Aunty Ena was very strict! We had to go to a new school on the other side of Sheffield, which was truly horrible - being new and not having any friends. We hadn?t been there very long before we caught the school child?s plague - nits! It wasn?t our fault, but from Aunty Ena?s rage, you would have thought so! That was an awful episode, boy was I glad to eventually get back to my old school. But there were good bits - picking bilberries on the moors and taking them back for Aunty Ena to turn into the most scrumptious steamed bilberry pudding, served with creamy custard - yum yum - I remember it still!

The homecoming for Mavis was truly spectacular. She was featured in all the papers, Mum had bought her a very pretty pink satin dress to wear on this special occasion - and my thoughts were - how long til I get it lol! There were wonderful parties and we all had a jolly good time.

Mavis had been told that the operation would enhance and prolong her life, but she would never be ?normal? ( yes, that was the word they used!) like other girls - she would never be able to marry and have children - hah!

Once Mavis had been released from that wheelchair - she was off like a rocket - eager to do all the things that had so far been denied her. Mum & Dad went through even more worrying times as Mavis attempted to burn the candle at both ends. Inevitably, she wound up in hospital on several occasions after coughing up blood, fainting and various other worrying symptoms - all due to her hectic life style. Eventually she decided she was going to get a flat of her own and live her life without any family interference - life became very uneasy for all of us. In due course Mavis met the man she had decided to marry ( a most unwise choice, I have to say!) Sadly their first child was born prematurely and did not survive, but Mavis battled on, and despite various miscarriages, she did manage to have 3 healthy children.

Despite, or maybe because of, her health, Mavis had a will of steel and I?m happy to say that on 30th March she will be 69 years old!

I often wish that all those doctors who helped Mavis back to health 54 years ago, could have known just how successful their experimentations were.


Sunday, 6 March 2005

Those Teenage Years!

I look back and wonder how it was, that by the age of 18 I came to be running 5 fans clubs? I blame my parents lol! They were dragging me to the Variety Theatre when I was only a toddler. I hated going then - we could only afford to sit in the ‘gods’ and it was a very long climb up all those steps for a pair of tiny legs, and when I got there I was terrified! The seats were set at such a steep gradient I was terrified I would fall all the way down to that tiny stage if I leaned over too far. I would sit well back in my seat holding on tightly to my mother’s hand and refused to budge - event to go to the end of the row to get an ice cream during the interval. I hated Pantomimes - I didn’t understand what was going on, I especially hated the comedians as I didn’t understand I word they said. I did like the dancers though - I just loved the sound of their tap shoes on the wooden stage.

But as I got older and Pop Shows came along, I really enjoyed going to the theatre. I would always go round to the stage door to collect photos and autographs, everybody formed an orderly queue - there was no scuffling or screaming then! I would try to judge it right and if the queue wasn’t too long - I’d make sure I was on the end of it, that way I would get an extra long chat with the star. This strategy worked very well when Terry Dene came to Sheffield, we were both teenagers, and we chatted away about this and that - like teenagers do, he was a nice ordinary guy, so I was really shocked to discover that he had gone off the rails whilst in Sheffield and had been arrested for being drunk and disorderly in the street. He was called up for National Service but couldn’t hack it - his career came to an abrupt halt at that moment. He married another singer, Edna Savage, but it wasn’t to last. I loved his version of ‘A White Sports Coat’ which vied for chart position (No.18) with Marty Robbins, and The King Brothers (No.6).

He also made a film called ‘The Golden Disc’, which by today’s standards was pretty naff, but I felt it epitomised that ‘juke box/coffee bar’ era perfectly, and I just love the quaintness of it.

I was a big fan of The King Brothers. Of course I went round to the stage door when they were appearing at the Empire Theatre in Sheffield. I was a particular fan of Dennis, the youngest brother, who played the piano and who went on to compose theme music for TV and Films. I asked if they had a fan club - they asked me if I was interested in running one for them? They gave me the name and address of their record company and in due course I became their fan club secretary for the North of England. I soon found that this position was like a passport through the stage door and into the dressing room lol! But I found Dennis to be rather remote, perhaps locked up in his composing, but his two elder brothers, Michael and Tony were always very communicative, especially Tony, after a visit to their dressing room, he would always accompany me to the stage door (perhaps making sure I was off the premises lol!)

Then along came The Mudlarks, I loved their weird kind of singing. Their biggest hit, ?Lollipop? went to No. 2 in what was then called ?The Hit Parade?. Again I went along to the stage door to get their autographs and asked if they had a fan club, I found Fred, the eldest, to be very friendly and he gave me the address of someone who he said was handling their fan mail. She turned out to be Fred?s girlfriend, a very nice young lady called Jan who lived in Luton, she phoned after receiving my letter and we had a long chat. We went on to exchange long girly letters and eventually she came to stay at the Victoria Hotel in Sheffield and I went over to meet her. Although she was only about 3 years older than me, she was much more glamorous and sophisticated - a posh totty - but very nice. She came over to our house and got on very well with the rest of my family, we decided to go for fish & chips and walked along the street eating them out of newspaper, this was a perfectly normal event for us, but for Jan it was a first lol!

Craig Douglas then came on the scene - he was my kind of guy - the boy next door type, and I became a huge fan. It turned out that he had the same management as The Mudlarks, and they asked if I would like to form the Northern fan club for Craig too.

Staying up way beyond my bedtime tonight, to surf the net for info on these folks from the past, and watching TV at the same time, on came ?Never Mind The Buzzcocks? which I only watch very occasionally - lucky I caught it tonight! It featured a clip of a young Craig Douglas singing his biggest chart entry ?Only Sixteen? and then we saw Craig as he is today - not changed a bit Craig lol!

The Sheffield Telegraph & Star were getting in on the teenage phenomenon and began a section in the Saturday edition called ?The Teenager Page?, and they had a section on fan clubs, so this is where myself and others let the other teenagers of Sheffield know about our fans clubs. Eddie Holland was the editor of The Teenage Page and he had an assistant, Geoff, who began to ring me on a regular basis looking for information for the page. Eventually, Eddie Holland decided to get all the teenagers together and form a club, he contacted all of those who ran fan clubs and we all met up - his idea was to form a committee to organise events for the young people of Sheffield and the surrounding area. Whenever a Pop Star came to Sheffield, we would organise a ?welcoming? party for them - all paid for by the newspaper of course :-)

They were fabulous affairs - usually held in a local hotel, who put on a wonderful buffet, but most importantly, we got to meet the stars on a personal basis and had lots of photographs taken with them. You had to be a member of the Teenage Page Club to be in with a chance of an invite to these parties, but the committee were allowed to go to all of them lol!

Suddenly, everybody wanted to be a Pop Star, and Pop Groups sprouted up all over the Country, and Sheffield had quite a crop of their own, so to showcase all this budding talent, a local cinema started a Saturday morning ?Talent Show? - anyone who wanted to ?do a turn,? could. It soon became obvious that we had a very talented group in our midst - Dave Berry and The Cruisers, they became the Group that everybody wanted to listen to. I?d always loved singing - I?d been an avid member of the school choir and then my local church choir. During one of the Saturday morning shows, another girl said she wanted to get up on the stage and sing but was too scared, so I offered to sing with her. The musical director took us to one side and showed us how to harmonise - I was amazed at how good we sounded over the microphone! Despite this, the young lady didn?t turn up the following week, and I didn?t want to continue on my own - shame - we could have been the first Cheeky Girls lol!

I got to know Dave Berry through being a regular at the Saturday morning talent shows, and when he discovered that I ran several fan clubs - he asked if I would start one for him as he was now getting a lot of bookings and had become semi-pro - he still kept on his job at the steel mills, but performed most evenings and weekends and was a big hit with the local girls! This became a very interesting time for me, because Dave liked to travel around with a fairly large but tight groupof friends and relatives - and so I started to pile into the back of the van with everyone else and join them on their gigs. It was really good fun - Dave was the friendliest of guys - and despite his ever growing popularity, his feet remained firmly on the ground. But there was one unhappy occasion when I nearly got beaten up in the girls toilets! Dave would often play at Youth Clubs, and although he was always available to his fans, he usually came to sit with his ?entourage? and sometimes he would take time out to dance with me. I met up with some of his more aggressive fans in one of the toilets and they got pretty nasty as they thought I was ?keeping him all to myself? It took Dave himself to come bursting into the toilets to rescue me lol!

During one of the ?welcoming parties?, I met a young singer called Billy Raymond, he was also compering the Pop Show at the City Hall. He was a good looking guy with a great voice, funny how, despite having all the talent, some just don?t have that extra ingredient to propel them into stardom. I liked Billy a lot and offered to start a fan club for him in an attempt to promote his popularity, but it didn?t work - although he had a recording contract with HMV, recording fame eluded him, and he disappeared into the ether.

So those were my five fan clubs. Running fan clubs also brought me into contact with other fan club secretaries, one of them, Carole, ran Paul Anka?s British Fan Club. Paul was a huge star, and Carole was on very good terms with both Paul and Paul?s manager, who also managed other top American Stars including The Everley Brothers, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochrane. So whenever any of these stars came to tour the UK, Carole would contact Paul?s manager and ask him to arrange for her to meet these stars. When the Everley Brothers came to Sheffield, she arranged for she and I to go back stage to meet them, and even had a photographer on hand to take some photographs - smart girl!

In return, I took her with me when I went to see Craig, and we didn?t mind how far we travelled. On one occasion we went to Doncaster to see Craig, but by this time, the fans were getting a little excitable and were more inclined to crowd around the stage door in a most unseemly manner lol - the ?orderly queue? was a thing of the past. The Mudlarks were also appearing in the same show, so it was an interesting meeting, the two male members, Fred and Dave, were very friendly, but Mary was not quite so accommodating and made it quite clear that she didn?t want us there. We were all back stage (Craig, the Mudlarks, Carole and me) when suddenly the fans burst through the stage door, the manager and his henchmen came to clear them all out and I could see that we were in danger of being cleared out with them, so Carole and I slipped into the toilets, shut the door fast and leaned against it - no one else was coming in here! When all seemed quiet we came out again, and met Craig in the corridor, he asked if we were ok and told us not to take any notice of Mary, he?d thought that our sudden disappearance was due to Mary having told us to go!

It?s the beginning of April 1960 - Eddie Cochrane and Gene Vincent were the main stars of the Rock?n Roll show put on by Larry Parnes to tour the UK. The tour was coming to an end so Carole and I went over to Manchester to catch one of the last shows before it moved on to Bristol for the last one before Eddie and Gene were heading home to the US for a short break. Also on the show were some of Larry Parnes? young wannabes - Joe Brown, Johnny Gentle, and Duffy Power. Carole had arranged for us to go back stage to meet Gene and Eddie. Eddie?s dressing room was pretty small, both he and Gene were in there with two dark haired girls, one was Sharon Sheeley, Eddie?s fiancé. Carole and I stood just inside the doorway, Carole told them she was Paul Anka?s fan club secretary and they had a little chat, both Eddie and Gene were nice and friendly but it was obvious the girls found out presence intrusive, so we retreated to the dressing room just across the corridor where we got a much warmer welcome. Joe Brown and the other young rockers were happy to have us join them, we were told that two more young lads had come to the theatre to audition for Larry?s ?stable? - a tall handsome young man in a red jumper called Danny Hunter, and another one, who was at that moment in the middle of his audition, Danny Rivers. We had a good laugh in Joe?s dressing room, these were kids of our own age and just trying to make it in show biz - they were very down to earth and happy to have our company. Joe and I were sitting next to each other and one of the others remarked how much alike we looked lol! I didn?t have Joe?s spikey hair, but I could understand what he meant, we both had blonde hair and blue eyes, very fair skin with freckles and features that had a vague similarity, we were also the same age, in fact we had been born only a few days apart - Joes? birthday being on the 14th May and mine on the 9th, but I had been born in Yorkshire and Joe within the sound of Bow Bells!

It really was the most awful shock when we heard the news of the accident that happened just a few days later around midnight 16/17th April 1960. The car that Gene, Eddie, Sharon Sheeley and someone else, were travelling to the airport in, had crashed. Gene was badly injured, Sharon was also injured, but Eddie was dying............

Whilst scanning in the photos of The Everley Brothers, I noticed the date written on the back - 16th April 1960 - spooky :-( Whilst we were having these photos taken, Eddie was taking that fateful taxi journey.............

Waiting at Heathrow Airport to travel to the US with Gene and Eddie, was a young Rocker, also from the Larry Parnes stable, called Vince Eager, he was hoping to make it big in the US, waiting with him was Larry Parnes' assistant, a young lady called Jenny.......

Unfortunately, due to these tragic circumstances, Vince?s trip to America had to be cancelled, so we will never know how successful he might have been.

There were many Pop Magazines out during this wonderful era - ?Marilyn? was one such that I took on a regular basis because it had a fan club page, and whenever one of my fan clubs got a mention, I was inundated with fan mail. I?d noticed that someone else seemed to advertize an inordinate number of fan clubs too - even more than I had and she had noticed my name appearing with increasing frequency against the name of different Pop Stars. Eventually, out of curiosity, I decided to drop her a line, and funnily enough, she had the same idea - our letter crossed in the post!

So began a long and enduring friendship. A flurry of letters passed between us - two teenagers with the same interests, getting to know each other. It turned out that Jenny had, what seemed to me, the most exciting job in the world - she was secretary to John Kennedy and Larry Parnes - Impressarios of Pop. She was only eighteen, but she was mother, sister, friend and nanny to all the young wannabes in the Parnes/Kennedy stable. Her favourite Pop Star was Tommy Steele, but her favourite amongst the raw recruits was a young man called Dickie Pride. He appeared many times on Jack Good?s TV Pop Shows such as ?Oh Boy? and ?Boy Meets Girls?, he had a very good voice, but he was also beset with health problems and sadly, died very young.