Miss Ann Watt Had Stars in Her Eyes
Miss Ann Watt was born Angela Jean Elisabeth Watt in the city of Brandon, Manitoba, the youngest by 7 years of the six children of James and Elisabeth Watt from Ulster, Ireland and Glasgow, Scotland respectively, and the only one not to be born in Britain...the others, Annie-Isabella, Robert, James, Elisabeth, who died in infancy, and Catherine having been born in Glasgow, except Cathy, who was born in Ireland.
James Watt, a builder and electrician by trade, had been born in the little town of Castlederg in County Tyrone, Ireland, then part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, while Elizabeth was from the great industrial city of Glasgow, Scotland.
While still a small child, Angela moved at her father’s behest to the Grandview area of East Vancouver, whose earliest settlers were usually tradesmen or shopkeepers, in shipping or construction work, and largely of British origin. However, after the First World War, many Italian, Chinese, and East European immigrants moved into the area, with a second wave of Italian immigrants arriving in the wake of World War II. Today it’s part of the Grandview-Woodland area of East Vancouver.
By the time she’d done so, James Watt had long abandoned the Presbyterianism of his Ulster youth for the distinctly Wesleyan theology of the Salvation Army, and Robert and James had moved on with their work. Robert eventually settled in Toronto, where he went on to become one of the top-ranking Salvation Army officers of the entire Eastern Canadian region according to Angela; while Jim became a successful accountant in Sarnia, Ontario.
In keeping with the Army of that time, Watt the elder’s approach to Scripture was what would be described as fundamentalist today, which meant he was fiercely opposed to such activities as dancing, the theatre, and movie-going, while alcohol was nothing short of the Devil’s own elixir.
Yet, at the age of 14, Angela joined her friend Marie and Marie’s mother on a car trip just beyond the US-Canadian border into the state of Washington, where she saw her very first movie, a romantic civil war picture entitled “Only the Brave” starring Gary Cooper and Mary Brian. And its effect on her was little short of seismic, as by her own admission it introduced worldly ideas into her psyche for the very first time.
Some years after moving to Grandview, James Watt built his family a house in Kitsilano on the city’s West Side, but a reversal of fortune in terms of his business meant that the family was forced to return to Grandview.
At high school, Angela was a good but not exceptional pupil, unlike her closest friend Margaret Stone, who excelled both in schoolwork and sporting activities. However, it was in the Glee Club that she came into her own, thanks to a singing voice of rare beauty and quality.
When she was in her late teens, her father became very seriously ill and she was forced to take time off school to do her share of looking after him. She was off for so long that Margaret Stone had come calling for her with another friend, concerned by her long absence. He died after a short illness, leaving Angela heartbroken.
In her final year at high school, she learned short hand and other tools of the secretarial trade, while working part time at F.W. Woolworth's on Commercial Drive.
After leaving, she started work answering telephone enquiries on behalf of her sister Cathy's laundering business at Pioneer Laundry, where she ran a branch specialising in the washing and starching of men’s collars.
In time though, she was able to make her living exclusively as a soprano singer, and many of her greatest triumphs took place at the Theatre Under the Stars, one of Vancouver’s most famous musical theatres, which officially opened on August the 6th 1940.
At the TUTS, Miss Ann Watt, as she became known, played the lead in such classic operettas as Oscar Straus’ “The Chocolate Soldier”, based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man”, “Naughty Marietta” by Victor Herbert, with libretto by Rida Johnson Young, and “The Student Prince” by Sigmund Romberg, with libretto by Dorothy Donnelly.
For the CBC with full orchestra, she broadcast many popular classics. For example, with the accompaniment of Percy Harvey and the Golden Strings she sang Noel Coward’s “I’ll See You Again” from “Bittersweet” as well as two songs by Victor Herbert, “A Kiss in the Dark” from “Orange Blossoms”, and “Sweetheart” with the baritone singer Greg Miller.
She also sang another lovely song by Herbert, “’Neath the Southern Moon” from “Naughty Marietta”, “Strange Music” from “The Song of Norway” adapted by Wright and Forrest from Grieg’s “Wedding in Troldhaugen” and “Can’t Help Singing” by Kern and Yarburg from the 1944 movie of the same name.
Among the Classical songs she broadcast during the North American phase of her career, largely to the piano accompaniement of her very close friend Phylis Dylworth, were “Dedication” by Schumann, “The Vain Suit” by Brahms, “les Filles de Cadiz” by Delibes, “Mandoline by Debussy, “Before My Window” by Rachmaninov and “Silent Noon” by Vaughan Williams…with all liede rendered in English due to wartime restrictions on the German language.
After the war, she hoped to expand her career either in the US or the UK, but despite a successful audition for the San Francisco Light Opera Company, once a ticket to sail had become available to her, she ultimately opted for England.
She set sail for British Canada’s mother country laden with letters of recommendation from her singing teacher Avis Phillips, as well as numerous press cuttings giving ample testimony to her. She'd been led to believe that once in London, she'd effectively take the singing world by storm, at Drury Lane and elsewhere.
Sadly though, soon after arriving, she failed an audition for the internationally famous Glyndebourne Opera House, home of the annual festival of the same name, which was a serious blow to her professional self-esteem. However, she did land a small role in the Ivor Novello musical, “King’s Rhapsody” which opened at the Palace Theatre on the 15th of September 1949, with its author one-time matinee idol Novello in the title role. It ran for 841 performances, surviving its author, who died in 1951.
And she broadcast for the BBC, with “De Fleurs” from Debussy’s “Proses Lyriques”, “Stars in my Eyes”, a lovely song by Fritz Kreisler with lyrics by Dorothy Field from the 1936 movie “The King Steps Out” directed by Josef von Sternberg, and the popular Harry Ralton standard “I Remember the Cornfields”, with lyrics by Martin Mayne, among the songs she performed for them.
She also appeared in an early television show called “Picture Post”, of which there remains no record. And tragically, it wasn’t long after her arrival in London that she realized she was having trouble with her top notes, and subsequently went from one singing teacher after the other in the hope that her once near-perfect voice might be restored to her.
One of her tutors just happened to be the great German soprano Elisabeth Schumann who offered Ann some hope, provided she accompany her back to New York City where she’d been resident since 1918. But Ann turned the great Schumann down, feeling she’d already spent enough money on lessons.
What’s more, by this time she was seriously involved with a London-based musician, the distinguished violinist Patrick Halling, whom she married in June 1949, and so uprooting would not have been easy.
Pat and Ann spent the next seven years living the vie de bohème in a peaceful post-war London and on the continent, travelling by car or motorcycle, just happy being young and in love in that relatively innocent period between the end of the Second World War and the onset of the Youth Culture of the sixties.
Despite the birth of their first son Carl, Ann never fully gave up hope of resuming her career, and continued to practise assiduously. In a very real sense, she couldn’t stop singing, delighting her young family at all times of the day with impromptu airings of a voice so lovely it had once made her a sweetheart of the Canadian Forces.
Fused with looks so glamorous that she was seen answer to Betty Grable, and an irresistible vivacity and charm that caused both audiences and press to fall in love with her both in Canada and parts of northern America, she should have become a world superstar. And while this never came to be, her voice continues to thrill through a handful of recordings of infinite preciousness. If you should hear it, I guarantee you too will have stars in your eyes.
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