Once in show business, always in show business.
Even with current pandemic quarantine restrictions, Dorothy McKilligan – a seasoned stage trouper who in her heyday ‘on the boards’ in Britain in the 1930s and 1940s was everything from acrobat to tap dancer to a glamorous foil for comedians – couldn’t get away with a quiet celebration of her 100th birthday.
As neighbours Peter and Chris Dabbs pointed out, her relatives and many friends weren’t about to let her get off lightly on the big day, descending on her home in the Nicowynd community in South Surrey on May 21 with cake, 100 pink cookies baked by her granddaughter, a flock of pink flamingos and a mini-parade, complete with the Union Jack waving in the breeze.
The capper was a visit from ‘The Queen’ – played with British-pantomime-dame panache by her youngest son, Andrew – and husband Prince Philip, resplendent in naval uniform – played in equal cross-dressing style by Andrew’s wife Thyra.
“He was a great Queen,” the still spry – and cheeky – Dorothy said the following day, in a typically show-biz appraisal.
“He was a riot!”
While she was bombarded with well-wishes, both in person and online, during the celebration, it was clear she had relished every minute of it – right down to a sing-along of We Are The World and the anthemic Second World War classic We’ll Meet Again.
“That’s what life is all about – to have a bit of fun,” she commented about the celebration. “And it took people’s mind off this awful virus for a while – song and laughter will see you through every time,” she said.
It’s a lesson she learned during another dark era, when she ‘did her bit’ as a member of an ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association) show, touring Britain to entertain army, navy and airforce personnel during the Second World War.
There are aspects of that experience she will steer the casual questioner away from – along with other details of her life, which began in Brixton, in the Borough of Lambeth, South London, in 1920.
“I’m actually a very private person – and I’ve had a hard life,” she said.
Her brother was at Dunkirk, she acknowledges, and her mother narrowly survived a German rocket bomb that destroyed the family home – “We lost everything.”
She, too – along with members of her touring entertainment troupe – was lucky to survive the devastating air raid on Coventry, Nov. 14-15, 1940, that rained incendiary bombs on military targets and civilians alike.
There have been brighter points, however.
McKilligan fell for a Canadian Air Force serviceman, became a war bride and came to Canada on the Queen Elizabeth liner. When they settled in the Victoria area, she gave up performing to focus on raising a family.
Her attention shifted to the production of ice shows, particularly when the couple’s first three children showed prowess in skating. That entailed a move to North Vancouver to be closer to training facilities, she said.
Daughter Elizabeth (Betty) and son John were Canadian Figure Skating pairs champions in 1967 and went on to compete in the 1968 Winter Olympics, son Patrick was 1967 national novice gold medallist in 1967, and later a Holiday on Ice star.
Some 30 years ago, she moved into the Nicowynd – “the best decision I ever made,” she said, pointing to the sylvan riverside scene just outside her front door.
It’s a far cry from the streets of London, where she became a show-business professional while still a child. That didn’t happen according to any set plan, she said – but seemed natural enough, considering the area she grew up in.
“Brixton was known as the centre for theatrical people,” she said. “When I was little, instead of the ordinary way of going outside to play, the parents of my friend would put up a stage in the garden and we’d practise putting on shows.
“My girlfriend had an audition – it was panto time – and she said, ‘come on and audition with me.’ I was 12, that was the earliest you could get a licence to go on the stage. We were doing acrobatics and tap dancing. We went to the audition and they booked us – and that was it.”
After that, McKilligan didn’t look back, becoming a member of the Terry’s Juveniles acrobatic dance troupe, and, as the 1930s progressed, graduated to more grown-up roles as a chorine and comedienne in popular West-End stage revues.
As a large montage of scrapbook photos and memorabilia (featured at the celebration) attests, she rubbed shoulders with some of the big names of the era in Britain, including comedian Ernie Lotinga, novelty xylophonist Teddy Brown, Savoy Hotel resident bandleader Carroll Gibbons, singers Les Allen and Ella Logan and American artists such as singer/actor Nina Mae McKinney and vaudevillian Harry Richman.
“I was in a revue with him – that was all tap,” she recalled.
Those glamorous peacetime days ended when war was declared in September, 1939 – but the show went on, nonetheless.
Along with many other performers, McKilligan became a member of ENSA, which throughout the conflict sent out mini- variety shows to entertain service personnel in every theatre of the war. Inevitably, with such a vast enterprise, the talent pool was spread rather thinly, but as a professional, she was proud to be part of a “number-one” troupe, including two comedians and a tenor, as well as the expected dancers.
As she recalled, it was a form of national service in which performers were fed and housed, but compensated no more than the equivalent of military pay.
From ENSA’s Drury Lane base they were dispatched by bus to every corner of Britain on short notice – often to ‘hush-hush’ locations of huge strategic importance, such as the Orkney Islands, where all the British Fleet was concentrated at the time.
And though she never served abroad, McKilligan recalled that Britain – through the Blitz and the terror of the V1 and V2 rocket bombs – was essentially on the front line.
“We saw more than I care to remember,” she said.
Fortunately, she said, camaraderie developed among the entertainers – and humour helped carry them through.
“Even with all the bombs you could find something funny,” she said, recalling a time when one of the show’s band members, after fleeing their billet in the confusion of an air raid, found himself out on the street in his pyjamas, still clinging to the decorative ball from the staircase banister of the house.
She chuckled, too, at the memory of their bus driver becoming lost in Scotland and consulting an elderly man, who struggled to give adequate directions to their destination, ultimately concluding, in broad Scots, ‘If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.’
But she still struggles with some of the more horrific memories of that time, she said, recalling that she put her feelings into words best when she wrote to a local paper in Victoria many years ago at a time when the Queen was to tour the area – but wasn’t scheduled to pay a visit at a local veterans hospital.
In an impassioned letter to the paper, she made a plea for the Queen’s visit to include the hospital (at that time it had some 500 veterans who had served their country in the First and Second World Wars – and even the Boer War), arguing that it would do more for their morale than any other treatment.
In the letter she recalled her own service days, when every Sunday they would be sent out to perform for hospitalized veterans.
“It took a lot of courage to go out and dance when before you were people who’d had amputated arms and legs,” she wrote. “But we found that sympathy was the last thing they were looking for.”
The hospital was subsequently included in the Queen’s itinerary, McKilligan recalled.