An Appreciation of Bob West

by Lynn on November 15, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

The wonderful Bob West

I’ve spoken and written very often of my lovely friend Bob West. I met Bob in the summer of 1977.  He was the Company Manager for Side by Side by Sondheim that played the Royal Alexander Theatre. It was a Sondheim review that began in London, England and did a stint in Toronto.

I was anxious to see it because Georgia Brown was in it. She was in the first show I ever saw, Oliver, at the then O’Keefe Centre. She was sick that day and I was miffed. It was my first time going to a theatre, she should have been there. Side By Side By Sondheim also had Liz Robertson in the cast. While I didn’t know her, I had seen her in London in A Little Night Music starring Jean Simmons two years before.

I delivered a letter of introduction to Liz at the Royal Alex, with my traditional Tootsie Pop. We met in person after I saw the show. She knew who I was because I would send a bag of Tootsie Pops to Jean Simmons every month of her London stint. She put them on the steps leading to the dressing rooms with a note: “From Lynn Slotkin, our Canadian friend.” That was the beginning of our friendship. She introduced me to Georgia Brown. I told her the story of seeing Oliver but she was not there. “Where were you?” I asked. “She thought a bit, “I was sick.” (she rarely was so she remembered.)

I was invited often to go for drinks with them after the show. I had a car. They introduced me to the Mai Tai. They had a party for Bob’s birthday (July 2). I was invited and offered to make the cake. Liz was also going to New York to audition for a show that was slated for London and remember giving her a hunk of the cake in a piece of paper for the journey. I can’t actually remember meeting Bob during that summer stint of Side By Side….  But from then on my life was intertwined with that of Bob and Liz and the others I met along the way. We kept in close touch. I saw them every trip I made to London, initially that was every summer to coincide with Bob’s birthday.  When I was in London I would call Bob every morning from my hotel to catch up and make plans for a coffee or a meal or theatre.

Bob’s Early Days

After we knew each other for a long time Bob told me, “I was conceived in a hay loft.” I said that should be the first line of his autobiography. If anyone should have written a book about working in the theater, it was Bob West.  

Before he went into the theatre Bob worked for his father, a greengrocer, who sold his produce from a cart in Islington. Bob wanted to be in show business. He tried out as a singer and sang at the Palladium.

He was very efficient in organizing ‘things’ and came to the attention of Matt Monro, a wonderful British singer with a smooth, crooner voice. It happened that both Bob and Matt Monro were on the bill of the same variety show in Blackpool. During the show Mr. Monro asked: “Hey, Westie, can you drive? It seems Mr. Monro had tripped, fallen and broke his arm and needed someone to drive his Cadillac back to London and Bob was it. That was the beginning of their friendship.  Eventually it was decided that Bob would be the perfect tour manager for Matt Monro. Bob did that for six years, even going to South Africa with him and gave suggestions for his show there. Bob said that they were promised that Mr. Monro would be able to sing for a mixed audience. That was not true, so they found a large cinema and did a performance there for only Blacks. Monro entered from the back of the theatre singing “Born Free.” Woow. Pandemonium. He had to do it three times because the song was piped into the streets where a huge crowd had gathered (the performance was sold-out but people still wanted to hear him). 

Bob became the ‘go-to-guy’ for information on Matt Monro. Documentaries, newspaper articles, profiles, tv shows—Bob was always consulted and interviewed. He never gossiped. He always told the truth. 

Eventually Bob moved on from working with Matt Monro and began working for an up and coming fire-cracker of a producer named Cameron Mackintosh. Bob began working for Cameron in the 1970s as a stage manager, then a company manager then a production coordinator etc.  Bob had a knack for quietly, quickly solving problems, never losing his temper and just being a calm, reassuring presence in the mad world of the theatre. As he would say to me often, ‘just get on with it, Deeah’. (That ‘Deeah’ was not a posh ‘Deeaaah’ but a working class ‘Deeah’)

Bob continued working for Cameron until he retired about 21 years ago. Cameron so appreciated Bob’s contribution to the theatre that he arranged for Bob to be awarded a Special Olivier Award for Services to the Theatre in 2018. It took pride of place on Bob’s mantle. But he kept the award covered so it wouldn’t get dusty. And yes, I’ve picked it up and boy is it heavy.

Uncle Bob

Bob was absolutely beloved in the theatre and was known and referred to by almost everybody as “Uncle Bob” because he took care of everybody like a loving uncle would. (Interestingly, I never referred to him as that).

If I was in the West End with him, on our way for a coffee, perhaps a five-minute walk, the journey would take an hour because he knew everybody IN THE STREET! Young actors on their way to a show got this greeting as he stood in front of them and said: “Hello young man! Or young lady!” “UNCLE BOB!!” They would reply and he’d introduce me and they would chat about what the young actor was doing. He gave advice freely when asked. He encouraged all the time. Bob would talk to royalty, Cameron Mackintosh and the stage door keeper of any theatre in the West End in exactly the same way, with respect and consideration.

Young actors trying out shows at some cabaret after their evening performance would ask him to come and see it and offer advice. He often took me. I loved the adoration these young talents (and often not so young talents) showed him. He would sit watching the show: his head cocked to the left, his right arm folded across his chest, and his left arm folded up, resting on the right hand, with the index finger of his left hand perpendicular over his lips; watching with a loving, keen eye. Every suggestion he gave was given with kindness and respect and they were always thoughtful and helpful. The advice was accepted that way too.

He would see talent and know how important it was to give a young talent a chance. I learned in the past year that the wonderful Maria Friedman had unsure moments about her career and her abilities and Bob reassured her. She never forgot that and told him so the last time he went to see her perform.

He was not a push-over mind you. He could speak up and put people in their place. I was told he gave Elaine Paige a talking to and respectfully told her off. He had a lot of time for Patti LuPone because when he worked with her on Les Misérables in London he found her to be totally professional. It seems that people had trouble with that. Bob didn’t. He liked Ms. LuPone. I bought her autobiography for Bob and through a complicated process of getting the book to Patti, she signed the book to him and then mailed it to Bob in the stamped envelope I provided. He was chuffed at that.

While Bob never seemed to lose his cool his patience was often tried. He told me that for one show a young chorus boy had come back from his vacation and Bob saw him going to his dressing room:

Bob: “Oi, what’s that?”

Chorus Boy: “What?”

Bob: “That! On your skin?”

(Pause)

Chorus Boy, brightly: “Oh, that’s a tan, Uncle Bob. I had my vacation in Ibiza.”

Bob: “Right? You’re playing a street urchin in Oliver in Dickensian London with smog and fog all the time. You never see the sun and you have a tan from your vacation in Ibiza.”

The young man finally saw the problem.

Bob: “Ok, off you go to ‘whiten up.’ And he rolled his eyes in disbelief (with a quiet: “Dear oh dear oh dear,”  but not so as the young man would see.

Another time he got a frantic call from a young man in the show:

Bob: “Where are you? It’s past the half-hour call?”

Young Man: “Uncle Bob, Uncle Bob, I’m stuck on the other side of the Gay Pride Parade and I can’t get to the theatre!”

Bob: (sigh) “Well join the parade and make your way to the theatre as fast as you can.”

It wasn’t always young people in the shows he worked who gave him pause. On another musical one of the stars of the show called him and said she would not be in because she had to go to her doctor. The person was a bit of a fragile soul. After some talking and coaxing Bob found out that yes indeed she did feel she had to go to her doctor. But her doctor was in New York and the show she was in was in London! And she said she would be back in a week.

It’s times like these Bob would also say: “The world’s gone mad, Deeah.”

I got a great theatre education from Bob.

I always went to London for my summer vacation to coincide with Bob’s birthday, July 2. Before he retired, he was always working on a show so I would go to his theatre after I saw my show, to wait for him backstage and then go for a drink or for him to drive me to my hotel. The world backstage is completely different from the supposed glitz and glamour of the theatre. Backstage is cramped, dusty, sometimes dingy, grungy, sometimes crowded with actors rushing on and off stage going to and from their dressing rooms etc. From my perspective it was polite, civil, kind, professional, accommodating and respectful.  

This was so true as I watched Bob at work in a theatre talking to the actors or crew. Whether they were coming in or leaving for the night I heard a chorus of: “Hi, Uncle Bob.”  “Night, Uncle Bob”. “Night Uncle Bob,” “Night Bob”.

With Miss Saigon one of the effects was that a ‘life-sized’ helicopter would ‘fly’ into the scene complete with all the attendant effects of a helicopter landing, land and then take on the people trying to escape Saigon. That is if the helicopter worked. At one point the helicopter was out of commission for three months. They created the same effect of the helicopter landing and taking off, with lighting, huge fans, noise and ‘acting.’ The audience couldn’t tell the difference.  This is the magic of theatre: to convince the audience they were watching what they thought they were watching.

Bob worked on The Phantom of the Opera with Harold Prince and Bob said it was the best eight weeks of his working life. He appreciated Prince’s abilities and vision for that show, and Mr. Prince, I would guess, appreciated Bob’s professionalism to make sure that vision was realized.

Bob talked about The Phantom of the Opera with such enthusiasm I could hardly wait to see it. It was the summer of 1987. It was also the summer that Bob was working on the London premiere of Follies at the Shaftesbury Theatre. I spent a lot of time backstage at the Shaftesbury Theatre waiting for Bob. I got an intensive education leaning against a wall outside the stage door guard’s room waiting for Bob.

I went to see The Phantom of the Opera and loved it. I wrote extensively of it in my “Slotkin Letter” when it was in hard copy. I gushed about it when I saw Bob after his show. It was the first preview of Follies and he summed that up: “A shambles, Deeah.” He was calm, cool and pragmatic.

The cast for Follies was large and dressing rooms were at a premium. That meant that even the ‘stars’ had to share. So, Diana Rigg (who played Phyllis) shared a dressing room with Julia McKenzie (who played Sally). Just to keep peace Bob put a fridge in the room for the ladies. I’m sure there were other perks, but he did know how to work with big personalities—and this in no way suggests that those ladies were difficult.

Follies was a long show which meant that whatever I was seeing would be finished before Follies and I could go to the Shaftesbury Theatre where the show was still on, and wait for Bob.  One evening I was leaning against the wall backstage, looking up the corridor and saw Diana Rigg scurry down the stairs dressed very smartly ready for her Act II number. About 10 minutes later she came back to go up the stairs dressed only in a rather skimpy towel. Huh? I wondered what number that was. If this production was anything like the New York production her number should have been “The Story of Lucy and Jessie.”

Well of course this was not like the New York production, it was the London production and Sondheim cut some songs and wrote four others for London. “The Story of Lucy and Jessie” was cut and “Ah, But Underneath” was put in its place. When I saw the London show on its opening night I saw that it was a strip number for Phyllis (Diana Rigg). Over the course of the previews leading to the opening, Ms Rigg’s towel got bigger.

I noticed a dapper man with a lot of wavy hair backstage. He was Charlie, Diana Rigg’s dresser. If she was doing a play she always requested he be her dresser. Apparently, he was also Maggie Smith’s dresser. I don’t want to think of the goings on if both those ‘Dames’ were in a show at the same time and both wanted Charlie to dress them.

Previews progressed smoothly from that first ‘shambles’ preview. The corridor was quiet. I was sitting on the stairs leading up to the dressing room floors, waiting for Bob. It was 11:30 pm and it was a long day for this hard-working cast. A pair of legs encased in baggy pants went by. I looked up. Stephen Sondheim. Royalty! (exhale, Slotkin). Three pairs of legs went by—one in slim fitting jeans, smart boots, one a man’s pair of legs next to that and on the outside a pair of legs in stylish pants. I looked up: Diana Rigg in the slim jeans arm in arm with Charlie in the middle with his other arm through that of Julia McKenzie. Royalty! (exhale, Slotkin).  They leisurely walked up the corridor to leave, saying good night to the stage door guard.

Finally, the opening night. I was to meet Bob backstage to pick up my opening night tickets. It was a buzz of activity. Opening night cards and presents were delivered to the stage door guard for people in the cast. A young chorus boy in the corridor modeled the present given by Cameron Mackintosh to the entire cast: a beautiful cotton dressing gown in silver, grey and black (the colours of the production) with the logo of the show on the back. He was giddy when he modeled it. Bob gave me my tickets. He also introduced me two lovely gentlemen, Peter Robinson and Ernst Goetschi who were also going to the opening. Peter reminded me we had met in Toronto. Both he and Ernst have become fast friends over the years. Cameron Mackintosh came in to wish everybody a good opening. When he saw Peter he thanked him for doing such a good job of painting backstage. (Peter was a house painter then, often engaged by Cameron Mackintosh to paint the back of a theatre in preparation for the opening. Peter then transitioned after that into decorating houses, flats, etc.). I thought that was classy—it’s opening night, emotions are at high pitch and Cameron Mackintosh thanks a man for doing a good job of painting the backstage of the theatre. A lesson in humility and consideration to us all.

The opening of Follies was fascinating. I was intrigued by the changes and saw what was happening in “Ah, But Underneath.” Ms Rigg was using a large towel now. The explosion of applause and cheers must be intoxicating to a cast after all the trauma/drama of putting on a show.

The opening night party was at a club in the West End renamed “Tony’s” referencing the name of a club in the show. It was noisy, buoyant, raucous and joyful for most of those there. The stars of the show were still ‘working’, cornered by reporters for an interview, a quote, a few words about how they were feeling. I saw Cameron Mackintosh take a reporter gently by the arm to a quiet place. Loved that—making the reporter think he was so special that a quiet place was needed for Mackintosh to give him his undivided attention. Bob was relieved, charming and attentive to everybody. What an education I got.   

I began coming to London in January when I travelled with a group of subscribers to Mirvish Productions. We came to London for a week of theatre. I lead a discussion the morning after each show. There was also a walking tour of the West End with the group. Bob often joined us, charming one and all he talked to and he talked to everybody. They loved his stories, anecdotes of the theatres we passed and general comments about the theatre in London. They always asked about Bob when we got home and looked forward to seeing him on our next trip.

I was able to introduce Bob to Bryan Kendall, a dear friend and also a veteran of West End Theatre. Bryan was one of the founders of Theatre Projects, a company that was involved in all sorts of theatrical endeavors. I think both Bob and Bryan knew of the other but had not actually met. I introduced them at a lunch that became a tradition when I was in London. We’d all greet each other and then I’d just sit back and beam as these fonts of theatre knowledge reminisced.

Birthdays

Bob loved a good party for his birthday, surrounded by his family and long-time friends.  Once he rented a boat and we sailed up and down the Thames. There was his brother Frank and Frank’s wife Pam, their children, me, Peter, Ernst, Su Pollard, a wonderful, wild woman of comedy and flamboyant dresser who knew Bob from the Godspell days, Valerie Minifie, also from those early Godspell etc. musical days, Alan Hatton, a fellow company manager and also respected in the theatre.

One birthday there was a smart tea at The Wolseley in Mayfair  for 12 of us? that was so beautiful and elegant you just wanted to take picture after picture—but were forbidden by the management. Bob was not flashy or flamboyant. But he lived life well and wanted his friends to be there to celebrate. I was so glad to be included. I loved every minute of all that.

Vacations.

Bob would arrange some trips for us when I was over there in the summer. Most often we travelled with Peter and Ernst. We went to Yorkshire and saw the desolate, overwhelming moors. Peter’s family lived in North England and we visited them. We visited Bob’s brother and sister-in-law and family in the ‘provinces.’  There was a wonderful trip to the Cotswolds. Wales was terrific. We did the laundry in the flat we rented in Wales and were stunned at how bright colours and whites of the clothes were after a wash, only to find that we forgot to put the detergent in the machine. That was some powerful water. I always wanted to go to Switzerland to meet Ernst’s family. (Ernst is Swiss).

Most often we travelled with Peter and Ernst to their house in France and for several summers the four of us would fly there, rent a car and sally forth to the tiny town where the house was high in the hills. It was mostly calmly idyllic travel, except in one case.

We usually drove to Stanstead Airport, about an hour out of London I think. We would arrive early, eat a leisurely breakfast and check in and get on the plane. Except one time, on our way in the car, I checked for my passport and it wasn’t there. I left it somewhere in Bob’s flat (I was staying with him). Panic. My efficient friends went into overdrive. Bob got himself back to his flat in Barnes. Peter and Ernst continued on to the airport. I offered to just stay behind for the few days they would be away. They wouldn’t hear of it. Bob called when he got back to the flat and checked in various places I thought the passport might be. Nothing. I then remembered that after I went through customs at Heathrow coming into London, I put the passport in my jeans back pocket and not my backpack as usual. That’s where it was. Bob found it. He raced back to the airport taking a ‘tube’ and a train and made it within one minute of the check-in closing. I was so embarrassed at this lapse. No one made me feel stupid. I was not treated to bad temper or exasperation, and certainly not from Bob who had to do all that tearing around. Loved them all for that. And we laughed for years after that. 

In France we explored the countryside. We ate well (Ernst is a wonderful cook). We drank well (wine-making was the ‘industry’ of the village). And we played cards. There was a game of cards we played requiring strategy. I’m terrible at all that maneuvering.  Bob was quiet and held his cards close. Ernst was watchful and had a Cheshire-cat- smile. He tried helping me keep up. Peter was ruthless and wanted to win at all cost. He played with cunning, urging me to discard the one card he needed to win: “Come on, Sweety, “Daaahling (putting it on thick)  just one card, sweety.” He usually won he was so focused.  And Peter made me laugh harder than I have ever laughed before in my life; bent over silent-laughing, red faced, gasping for air, thinking:  “I will pass out from lack of oxygen. Can one pass out from laughing?”  I’m thinking, “He’s doing this on purpose. He knows he can crack me up and distract me!” The game had to stop while I controlled myself. Until the next time. Ernst smiled his sly smile. Bob made a little roll of his eyes. These guys knew Peter so well.

Health Challenges.

Over the years Bob had a few health issues, all met with a stoical resolve as he got on with life. A few years ago he developed dementia. It didn’t affect his memory—miraculously that seemed fine. It affected his speech. It was called Pick’s Disease. It’s not that Bob forgot words. It’s that he couldn’t form them. When he did talk it was all gibberish but he said the words as if knew what he wanted to say. He would labour over trying to get the words or a sentence out and one had to be patient. Usually my conversation was asking him yes or no questions or telling him how things were in Toronto. Still heartbreaking to seem him labour so.

When I was in London, now in the summer as well as in January, I’d call him every day in the morning to see how he was and to arrange a coffee date. I would take the train or tube to Barnes where he was living (on the other side of Hammersmith), walk to his flat then we both would walk to a café or restaurant for coffee or lunch.  When he was healthy he walked with a purpose, a confident stride. He’d firmly take my hand and guide me across the street. I loved that ‘take-charge-attitude’.

With the dementia and his age his walking was unsteady. But Bob was fearless in that he walked every day for the most part. Peter and Ernst got him a cane to help steady him as he walked. Bob was a very proud man and refused to use it. Sometimes he fell. I had to be firm and insist he take the cane when we went out to the café. He was not happy about that.

This last January when I was in London I called Bob and arranged to come to the flat at a certain time and day and then we would walk into Barnes Village (about 20 minutes walk) and have a coffee. I confirmed the information on the day and for him to stay there until I arrived.

In the morning of that day I went with friends to the Museum of London around the Barbican. After a quick snack I headed off to Bob’s. Taking the tube was tricky since the Hammersmith Bridge was under repair and buses were unreliable. So I took a cab. It took a bit more than an hour. When it looked like I’d be a few minutes late I called Bob—there is a kind of code—I call, leave a message then call again in the hopes he heard me. He didn’t pick up. That happens some times.

I finally got there, rang the loud bell and waited. And waited. And…..I knocked. Nothing. I went to the neighbours who I knew. They weren’t home. I looked around the corner thinking perhaps Bob was waiting at the bus stop. Nothing. I went back to ring the bell again. Nothing. I waited on the street for 15 minutes thinking he would come walking up. Nothing. God forgive me, but I wanted to kill him. (Exhale). I walked up the road to the train station (thinking I might see him coming the other way-but no). The train came and I was back at my hotel in no time. I called Bob again about an hour after arriving at the hotel. He answered! I asked: “Where were you? I was a bit late but I was there at your flat and you’d gone.” I couldn’t understand his answer of course. I said, “I’m sorry I missed you.” And he answered clear as a bell and full of emotion: “I’m sorry I missed YOU!” My heart melted.

Peter and Ernst arranged for a carer, a wonderful man named Kenneth, to come in every day for a few hours to make Bob a meal; see the place was clean and give him general help. Then it became necessary for full time help to be there—Bob was wondering off. In one of his wanderings Bob fell outside a store in Barnes Village. He had broken ribs. He got pneumonia and was in hospital. Peter and Ernst kept in close touch with me. Peter said he was failing rapidly. 

On Saturday, September 5 Peter sent me an e-mail asking me to call him. I knew it wasn’t good. I called London and Peter said: “He’s gone.” I loved that he didn’t want to tell me by e-mail.  That night, for comfort and something mindless, I began watching an old James Bond movie on T.V.: To Russia with Love. At the end the credits rolled and a smooth crooner voice sang “To Russia with Love”. I know that wonderful, smooth crooner voice. It was Matt Monro.  A little sign from Bob saying: “Get on with it, Deeah.”

Love you Bob,

Lynn

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 David Smith November 15, 2020 at 8:21 pm

What a lovely requiem for your friend and what a long and deep friendship you had. I could say I’m sorry for your loss, and I am truly but it is inadequate to the emotional response I had reading this.

I only met your friend Bod once or twice,but it was enough for me to know what a kindly decent person he was.

You too

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2 Liz Robertson November 16, 2020 at 11:07 am

Dearest Lynn,
Your tribute brought back so many wonderful memories of the one and only Uncle Bob, it also brought tears.
You captured him perfectly. He will be smiling at your tribute and saying Well Deah what a life.
Thank you Lynn
With love Liz

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3 Maura Payne November 16, 2020 at 5:02 pm

Oh Lynn, what a marvelous full and flowing tribute. Would love to think he night read it too.

You were so lucky to have had a such a learning, loving and aventurous time with him. I seem to remember your puzzled frustration when you didn’t meet up that last January.

BTW I much enjoyed your Juliet Stevenson interview this last Friday. It’s so bewildering exciting how she described the play “Blindness”. Thinking to create a crowd scene aurally by throwing around chairs! Brilliant!

Cheers, dear ( or maybe deah) Maura

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4 Nora McLellan November 16, 2020 at 5:32 pm

Dear Lynn,
What a glorious remembrance of your dear friend and a wonderful tale of London. I’m so very sorry for your loss, my love to you, Nora

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5 Sylvia Kavanagh November 21, 2020 at 4:03 am

Hi Bobby was my Uncle and God father, I had not seen him for many years, my father was the youngest of Bobs 13 brothers and sisters, we lost touch when my father died about 15 years ago.
Lovely to read all about him, I have been searching for him on line, sadly I found this to late.
He was very kind to me as I was growing up, I still have some treasures he gave me
Best Regards Sylvia

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6 Allan November 23, 2020 at 4:16 pm

The void from his passing is overflowing with love. Your every moment spent with him, your every story about him, your every adventure with him are all precious gemstones, well captured in your tribute.

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