It is with deep sadness that I heard of the death of Ken Dodd.
Eric and Ken in Liverpool 1979
Because without Ken Dodd there would never have been any International Illusionist “ZEE & CO.” Ken Dodd gave me my break, my first chance as an Illusionist. In fact, he gave me everything! He told John Redgrave, who was the producer of the show at the time during rehearsals, “Whatever he wants give him!”, and he did.
I’m happy to say that I worked with Ken for almost a year and enjoyed every moment of it. I got to know both Ken and Anne really well. All this was in 1968/69. He was to me a very kind gentleman and a brilliantly ‘clean’ comic who I used to watch nightly when he was doing the first nightly show of two. The second Show went on for an eternity, Ken loved the Stage so much , he never left it! The Management even had to cut the Finale, which was lucky for us. Early night, so we could go out to a Restaurant. Ken was generous in every possible way (except where money was concerned!), but that’s another story. As you know by now, I can’t make a story short! I am inclined to go round my ‘arse to get to my elbow’ as the poet says!
Being with Ken for nearly a year gave me all the time to perfect and hone and polish the act. Within 2 years we, “Zee & Co”, were at the London Palladium, and during all this time Angie was with us. In fact, she was with us for nearly two years earlier, before Ray and I had even started, whilst we were trying to sort out the act. My beloved Angie who, God willing, I will be seeing later this year in New York.
How It All Happened
I had already done a Gala Charity Show at the Adelphi Theatre in London on a Sunday, where I had a load of photos taken. They looked really good and impressive. Which was more than the Act was at the time. Liberace and Danny La Rue were in the audience that night and also Barclay Shaw the Brilliant Puppeteer and Illusionist. He was appearing at the London Palladium with Liberace at the time, and he told me ” Eric the Act, the Illusions, everything is excellent. But you yourself have to develop, your own style. Become Zee!”. Style, style, style puzzled me? What did he mean by style? But I learnt fast, and truly developed a style that became “Zee”! I was “Zee”! Thanks to Barclay Shaw, I’d finally got it!
Liberace, Me and Danny La Rue
My Agent at the time, Anne Zahl, had booked me a TV appearance on “The Good Old Days” at the Theatre Royal in Leeds. The Theatre ran a Variety Show all through the week and televised “The Good Old Days” live on a Sunday Night. Each act had just one hour to set up and rehearse. That is impossible for an Illusion act! Add to that having to perform live in the evening show, and working with Two New Boy Assistants, and of course Angie and Ray (who were both in as much of a state as I was), and you have a recipe for disaster!
It was terrifying! The Leeds Theatre Royal was the oldest music hall in England and had the worst stage rake (which means a slope a very dodgy slope) on any stage in England. Of course, Anne had forgotten to tell me this, and all my Illusions were on wheels! No brakes!!! So no sooner had we got on stage than everything started rolling into the audience. We didn’t know how to stop them. In fact, we couldn’t. Well to cut a long story short, it was a disaster! Fortunately, they cut me out of the show when it was shown, and quite rightly so. Well, going back to Ken, Ann Zahl told me that I should go and see him, and Ken, who was playing at the time in a Summer Season at the Royal Opera House in Scarborough, Yorkshire, and he really loved magic. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t contact him herself. Maybe she had seen the “Good Old Days” and heard and been told, that they had cut me out of it! I don’t think she wanted to be my Agent any more. Understandable!
I was very dubious about going all the way to Scarborough, Yorkshire without an appointment, and waiting outside the stage door when he might not even see me. It was not really me! It was definitely not really me at all! But then again? (Thinkssssss!!!) Oh fuck it! I’ll go! and thank God I did!
After waiting at the stage door for an eternity, he saw me. He was intrigued with my past history as an actor, owner of the Casino de Paris, and all those Nudes, and my photos. He told me that he was reopening The Royal Court Theatre in Liverpool, which had been closed for years, for Christmas 1968. The show would run for eight weeks, as a matter of fact it was so good it ran for ten or it could have been 12 I can’t remember!, and he would give me a contract for the whole run of the show at the princely sum of £135 a week for the Act, which included Me, Ray, Angie, Two New Boy Assistants, my Leopard Scorpio, Suki the Chinchilla Cat and all the Illusions. He said, “Either you are very, very good or very, very, very bad!” If the truth be told, I would have done it for nothing!
Whilst waiting to start rehearsals, Ken phoned me one day to tell me that a few magicians, (The Bastards!) had told him that my act was terrible, so bad that it had been cut out of the showing of the “Good Old Days”. So true! ( But then, that was what Magicians, are like. Evil Fuckers!) Ken, was a little worried, understandably, and thought that although he felt really right about me, he would like to give me a two week trial. I told him, “That if the boot would have been on the other foot. I would have done exactly the same”. Two weeks, it was going to be.
So Ray and I, and Suki, booked a Suite at the Atlantic Palace Hotel overlooking the River Mersey, Scorpio resided at the Royal Court Theatre. By chance in the next door suite at the Hotel, was Cilla Black and Family, she was doing Panto in Liverpool. So we were in good company. Believe me the Suite cost a lot more than the princely salary that Ken was paying me. When I got to know Ken better, he asked me whether he could come to the Atlantic Palace Hotel, because he’d never been inside the Hotel, and he would like to see our Suite, and of course have a drink. Would you believe it! With all his money, and he still lived in Knotty Ash in the same house that he was born in!, and when we played in Scarborough. He was back there for a second season, because he had been so successful. He would drive all the way back to Knotty Ash, Liverpool, every night, so that he wouldn’t have the expense of staying in a Hotel. He just had this quirk, he just couldn’t spend his money. I did offer to spend it for him! To that he cocked a deaf one! I used to say to him, “If you’ve got it, spend it! Life is too short!” I must have known something. But that’s another story!
When we finally opened, “Zee & Co.” proved to be an enormous success because we were presented properly and Ken let me close the First Half of the Show as agreed, and I had second billing as agreed. Even so, all this time I was worrying about the two weeks trial. Would he keep me on, or wouldn’t he? Ken never said a word during the whole two weeks, and I wouldn’t ask for fear that he would say I had to go. Everybody I spoke to said “Of course you’re staying on”, but Ken himself hadn’t told me anything. So, on the Friday night before my two weeks was up I finally plucked up the courage and I knocked on his dressing room door and asked him whether we were staying. “Of course laddie,” he said. “Whatever made you think you weren’t?”
What a load off my mind that was (Magicians eat your heart out!)
So to you, Sir Ken Dodd, I thank you a million times for your kindness and generosity of what you gave to me. Ken Dodd, you were a great man! You gave me everything that was good for “Zee & Co.” I bow my head to you. May you always stay ‘tickling’ them up in Heaven!
“God Rest Your Soul!”
Lady Anne Dodd, nee Jones, and Ken. Thank God he married her! She deserves it, (also the money!) and may she stay blessed always.
Eric x x x
A little something extra, the brilliant Barclay Shaw with his wonderful act that he did at the London Palladium, with Liberace and Toto the Clown.
Liberace, Barclay Shaw and Toto the Clown.