Talking with BARBARA PERRY
An Interview with George's Zip Goes a Million Co-star
by Dennis Taylor and Peter Pollard
'I was born wearing tap shoes,' laughs Barbara Perry.
'I just danced, morning, noon, and night, even wore my tap shoes to
bed. During the run of Zip Goes a Million, I was the only one
who rehearsed an hour every day. The others arrived at show time. I
think that's why his wife, Beryl, liked me.
Barbara Perry is an American who made her stage debut
at age four as the
'My London career,' she told Dennis and Peter in London,
'was the most
In 1951, George Formby hadn't made a film for five years, and his record output had diminished to just four titles in 1950, three of them re-recordings of former hits. It seemed as if the British people wanted to forget any reminders of WWII.
It was therefore astonishing when George, whose appeal was thought to be regional, became the toast of the West End in Zip Goes a Million, the hottest show of the decade. (The musical was based on a 1906 farce, Brewster's Millions, that has been the basis of 6 non-musical films with stars like Fatty Arbuckle, Jack Buchanan, Dennis O'Keefe, and Richard Prior.)
After playing in Coventry and Manchester, Zip opened 20 October 1951 at the London Palace to rave reviews.
The plot has Percy Piggott (George) inheriting a multi-million
dollar fortune on the condition that he can spend $1 million of it in
30 days without letting anyone know what he is up to. Percy decides
to back a Broadway musical, speculate, and gamble, but infuriatingly,
Barbara Perry played Lilac Delaney, a showgirl with several show-stopping numbers in the show-within-a-show. The lively libretto was by Eric Maschwitz and the engaging music by George Posford.
Barbara had already appeared at the London Hippodrome and the London Palladium, started at the Dorchester and the Café de Paris, and appeared at the Q Theatre, rubbing shoulders with all the biggest names of the film and theatre worlds, but her role in Zip was a very important step up in her career.
'Emile Littler offered me the leading lady role in Zip, but he lied. Yes, I had the leading lady dressing room and most of the publicity, but Sara Gregory was really the leading lady. She was George's romantic interest. I hardly had a scene with George! I've always felt guilty about the billing, but at that time Americans were very popular as English headliners.
'Bus loads of North Country women came to see our show. George would just take a breath and they'd applaud! That was the first time I'd heard an audience behave that way. We didn't know what it was to have an empty seat. George must have made a fortune.
'You ask did he ever ad-lib? I had very few scenes with George so I don't really know. However, everyone thought it shocking when Beryl insisted that everything stop in the middle of the show while George sang 'Cleaning Windows.' You didn't do that in the middle of Oklahoma, but that's what the people were waiting for: 'Could you get rid of this plot, please, so we can hear George!'
'George was such a gentleman,' Barbara recalls. 'It was real. That was his magic, that he really was a shy man, but he had magnetism and charm that never stopped! His greatness was his relaxation, his "ee, by gum." He was lovely. George was a major star, though you never thought about that when you were chatting with him.'
Asked if George had a roving eye, Barbara ponders. 'I think he did,' she says, 'but I think he was like Jimmy Carter. He may have lusted in his heart and given a girl the eye occasionally, but there was never any hanky-panky. He was quite attractive, actually, with that funny little face. Women sighed! But I never saw him slip.'
'Of course, Beryl waited for George in the wings and
was always with him when he was offstage. I remember thinking how much
she must care for him as she cooked him Lancashire hot pot in his dressing
room between matinee and evening performances. She gave me her hot pot
recipe. And she loved cooking things in Campbell's tomato soup. She'd
put it over everything with a little wine. When she got through, it
was marvelous. She fed George very well, a wonderful wife. When George
got the OBE, she was tremendously proud, but also
'Rationing was still on, and my mother and I queued up with everyone else to get one piece of cheese, one piece of meat, and one egg. I remember once a man in front of me dropped his egg. My mother loved Black magic and Cadbury chocolate, and the cast very kindly brought her their precious toffee coupons.
'When the Duke of Windsor was allowed to return to England, there was a big parade up the street by the theatre. The other kids teased me a lot because I was in the same dressing room where he had had a mad affair with an American actress--Frances Day, I think--in his bachelor days. "Well, the Duke of Windsor might drop up to your dressing room, looking at his old haunts," they kidded me.
'I want to tell you some nice things about George's wife, Beryl, because you'll hear plenty of negative things. She and I became quite close. Once she told me, 'People don't like me. They're inclined to say that North Country women are dumb. So I made up my mind to show them that I was smarter than any man!' I felt tears come to my eyes, and I've never forgotten that. They do say she was the toughest businesswoman in London.
'Beryl felt young when we talked. She'd come up and say, 'That was a good pirouette.' The choreography in that show was very difficult. I had complicated fouettés, spinning on a raked [angled] stage. I was terrified I'd slide into the orchestra pit, so I had to hop back on each turn.
'Beryl trusted me, I think, because I was 'the oldest virgin in captivity.' London was swinging at the time, and I was Miss Goody-Two-Shoes, always chaperoned by my mother. She loved my mother too, maybe because Mom's name was 'May' like Beryl's sister.'
'She never talked about her career, but she did tell me how she won the World Champion Lancashire Clog Dancing title. The judges stood inside a sort of oversized phone booth while each competitor danced on top, judged by the sound alone!
'Eventually, most of the cast came around to liking Beryl except perhaps the girls who played love scenes with George. (I didn't, so I was okay.) She was just something -- always dressed in the best with a hat and gloves. Oddly, she had no Lancashire accent.
'My mother and Beryl were fast friends. I didn't drink, not even wine, but they had one drink together every evening. Otherwise I never saw Beryl drink or smelled alcohol on her breath. Later, I hear, she had an alcohol problem, but not then.
'My mother asked Beryl's advice about the employees
at a rehearsal hall we owned in California. 'I think they're cheating
me,' she said. 'Of course, they are!' Beryl replied. 'You mustn't worry
about that.' My mother was astonished. Beryl told her, 'We open businesses
every place we play, and we give the managers a chance. If they steal
a little, okay. If you don't bother them, they just take a little extra
and you always have an income. You do a
'Beryl wanted my first husband to get George's films distributed in America, but he didn't pursue it. Of course, Tommy Trinder went [to do movies in the U.S.] and didn't succeed. I think if George had gone to Broadway in a stage production like Zip Goes a Million, he would have been a big hit.
'Six months into the run, George had a heart attack. We learned about it during the show. I can remember my mother and me going to his home for tea while he recuperated. Beryl told me George's doctor said, "You've had this heart attack to save your life." It was a warning. That's what made him quit the show.
'We all expected the show to close, but darling Reg Dixon took over very quickly. He was a Lancashire lad, so the feeling stayed, but he didn't play the ukulele. The show ran another 18 months and went on tour. I think that if George had stayed in the show, we'd have run for ten years -- The Mousetrap of musicals.'
One unpleasant incident marred Barbara's otherwise delightful
experiences in Zip.
'I was then a paid-up member of the Variety Artists' Federation and was asked to join Equity as well, at a cost of £50. I was such an innocent. My mother told me to ask Mr. Littler what to do.
'Oh, if I could do it over, I'd never have walked into his office. Littler advised me not to join Equity, just to let him handle it. The next thing I knew, there was a strike and headlines saying I was the cause!
'Finally, Eric Maschwitz paid the £50, and the show went on. I was sorry about that because I wasn't that broke. The Formbys stayed out of all this. George himself wasn't in Equity, but had a special permit.
'To top it all, I was still in hot water because my
variety producer friends were angry that I'd joined Equity. Everyone
was using me, and I was too dumb to know it. Mr. Littler had done all
the press interviews. Actually, once the rave reviews were in, he was
eager to put someone else in my role at a lower salary. He was paying
me about £100 a week, I think, and my
'I played in Zip for two years, got great reviews, and everyone loved my dancing, but the only thing the history books remember is that I caused a strike.
'Nevertheless, I owe a lot to the Zip cast. Through them, I met my first husband, Bennett James, father of my daughter Laurel Lee. After I left the show, I went back to America, and we got married.
Although Barbara now works primarily as an actress, she still dances professionally. She has appeared in numerous Broadway shows and many TV commercials. Her TV credits include Perry Mason, Bewitched, The Dick Van Dyke Show (as 'Pickles'), Murder She Wrote, Quantum Leap, and Murphy Brown.
In 1967, she married the legendary Disney animator Art Babbitt who created Goofy, the Queen in Snow White, and Gepetto in Pinocchio. Currently, Barbara does an award-winning, one-woman show, Passionate Ladies, and recently played the Ruby Keeler rôle in No, No, Nanette!
Forty-eight years after Zip Goes a Million, Barbara Perry's tap shoes are still hot, hot, hot!
BARBARA PERRY'S FILM CREDITS