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Gracie Fields

from the film Stage Door Canteen (1943)
Born January 9, 1898(1898-01-09)
Rochdale, Lancashire, England, UK
Died September 27, 1979 (aged 81)
Il Canzone Del Mare, Capri, Italy

Dame Gracie Fields, DBE (9 January, 1898 – 27 September, 1979), born Grace Stansfield, was an English-born, later Italian-based actress, singer and comedienne widely hailed as one of the greatest stars of both cinema and music hall.

Contents

Early life

Born over a fish and chip shop owned by her grandmother in Molesworth Street, Rochdale, Lancashire, she made her first stage appearance as a child in 1905. Her two sisters, Edith and Betty and brother, Tommy, all went on to appear on stage, but Gracie was the most successful. Her professional debut in variety took place at the Rochdale Hippodrome theatre in 1910 and she soon gave up her job in the local cotton mill.

She met comedian Archie Pitt and they began working together. Pitt would come to serve as her manager and the two married in 1923. Their first revue in 1915 was called Yes I think so and the two continued to tour Britain together until 1922 in the revue Mr Tower of London.

Fame

Fields came to major public notice when Mr Tower of London came to the West End. Her career rapidly accelerated from this point with straight dramatic performances and the beginning of a recording career.

One of her most successful productions was at the Alhambra Theatre in 1925. The show, booked by Sir Oswald Stoll, was a major success and toured for ten years. She made the first of ten appearances in Royal Variety Performances in 1928, gaining a devoted following with a mixture of self-deprecating jokes, comic songs and monologues, as well as cheerful "depression-era" songs all presented in a "no-airs-and-graces" Northern, working class style. Fields had a great rapport with her audience, which helped her become one of Britain's highest paid performers, playing to sold out theatres across the country.

Her most famous song, which became her theme, "Sally," was worked into the title of her first film, Sally in Our Alley (1931), which was a major box office hit. She went on to make several films initially in Britain and later in the United States (for which she was paid a record fee of US$ 200,000 for four films). Regardless, she never enjoyed the process of performing without a live audience.

Ironically, the final few lines of the song "Sally" were written by her husband's mistress, and Fields sang this song at nearly every performance she made from 1931 onwards.

Charity work

The late 1930s saw her popularity peak and she was given many honours: the Officer of the Venerable Order of St. John (for charity work), the Commander of the British Empire (CBE) (for services to entertainment) in 1938 and the Freedom of the Borough of Rochdale.

She donated her house, "Tower," in London's The Bishops Avenue (which she had not much cared for and which she had shared with her husband Archie Pitt and his mistress) to a maternity hospital after the marriage broke down. In 1939, she became seriously ill with cervical cancer. The public sent over 250,000 goodwill messages and she retired to her villa on Capri. After she recovered, she recorded a very special 78 record simply called Gracie's Thanks, in which she thanks the public for the many cards and letters she received while in hospital. During World War II, she paid for all Servicemen/women to travel free on public transport within the boundaries of Rochdale.

World War II

Fields, accompanied by an RAF orchestra, entertains airmen at their 1939 Christmas party.

World War II was declared while she was recovering and Fields travelled to France to entertain the troops. In 1940, she married Italian-born film director Monty Banks, following her divorce from Pitt.

However, because Banks remained an Italian citizen and would have been interned in the United Kingdom, she was forced to leave Britain for North America during the war. Although she continued to spend much of her time entertaining troops and otherwise supporting the war effort outside Britain, this led to a fall-off in her popularity at home. She performed many times for Allied troops, travelling as far as New Guinea, where she received an enthusiastic response from Australian personnel.[1]

Post-WWII

After the war, Fields continued her career less actively. She began performing in Britain again in 1948 and starred at the 1951 Festival of Britain celebrations. She proved popular once more, though never regaining the status she enjoyed in the 1930s. She continued recording, but made no more films, moving more towards light classical music as popular tastes changed.

Although she lost her British nationality because of her marriage, she regained it before her death as she was created a DBE. The London Gazette announcing the honour indicates it was substantive, not honorary. She did a great deal of charity work, and established a permanent home on the Isle of Capri.

Marriages

Monty Banks died in 1950. Fields married Boris Alperovici, a Romanian radio repairman two years later.[2] After that, she began to work less, but still sold out theatres even into her seventies.

Later years

In 1956, Fields played Miss Marple in a US TV production of Agatha Christie's A Murder is Announced.[3] The production featured Jessica Tandy and Roger Moore, and predates the Margaret Rutherford films by some five years.

In 1978, she opened the Gracie Fields Theatre, which is located next to Oulder Hill Community School, in her native Rochdale. Her final appearance was at the Royal Variety Show at the age of 80, when she sang "Sally" in the finale.

Honours

In February 1979, she was invested as a Dame Commander of the British Empire[4] seven months before her death at her home on Capri, aged 81. She is buried in the non-Catholic cemetery on Capri. On Saturday 3 October, 2009 the final train to run on the Oldham Loop before it closed to be converted to a tramway, a Class 156, was named in her honour.[5]

Miscellaneous

The Rochdale Boroughwide Cultural Trust holds the Gracie Fields Archive.

In 2009, Jane Horrocks took the lead in the BBC TV production Gracie!, a drama portraying the life of Fields just before and during World War II and her relationship with Monty Banks (played by Tom Hollander).

Famous songs

Filmography

References

Sources

External links

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