Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Obituary • ELISABETH WELCH • 2003

Elisabeth Welch in 1977 by Allan Warren [Wikipedia]

Elisabeth Welch in 1977 by Allan Warren [Wikipedia]

The black American actress and singer  has died peacefully in Denville Hall at the age of 99, we have just heard. She was, says writer Patrick Newley, a lovely lady, whom everyone called Liz. He interviewed her some years ago for The Stage: ‘She was wonderfully witty, very caustic about modern day performers and also an uplifting figure’.

Stephen Bourne, one of Britain’s experts on black cinema and television, has described her as ‘sophisticated, glamorous and charming’ noting that her film appearances ‘were a refreshing departure from the stereotype of black women perpetuated by Hollywood films of that time’.

Elisabeth Welch was born in New York in 1904 and made her debut there at the Liberty Theatre in the revue Blackbirds of 1928. Her first appearance on the London stage was at the Leicester Square Theatre in 1933 for another revue, Dark Doings. The reception she received, and the freedom she felt, prompted her to make England her permanent home.

When the war came in 1939, she put her energies into entertaining the troops, accompanying Gielgud and his company to Gibraltar and Malta in 1943.

Her long-lasting career encompassed straight drama, revue and cabaret, whether it was at the Garrick or London Palladium, Lyric Hammersmith, the Opera House in Blackpool, the Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford, Quaglino’s or the Café de Paris. In 1970, she staged her one-woman show, A Marvellous Party, at Hampstead Theatre.

Welch also worked in film, television and radio, appearing, among others, in two films with Paul Robeson — Song of Freedom (1936) and Big Fella — while her debut movie in 1934 was the delightfully named Death at Broadcasting House. More recent films include playing ‘A Goddess’ in Derek Jarman’s The Tempest in 1979 singing Stormy Weather.

When Ned Sherrin asked Welch to appear in his 1970s television series about composers, she enjoyed a new lease of life with EMI reissuing her hits from the 1930s.

‘One of the greats,’ says Patrick Newley.

Sarah Vernon © 2003

Originally published on R&V 15-07-03

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