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Beatrice Lillie, 94; Comic Actress Gave Gift of Laughter to Millions

Times Staff Writer

Beatrice Lillie, the elegant clown whose zany characterizations brought laughter to countless millions through much of this century, died Friday at Henley-on-Thames, her suburban London home.

She was 94 and her longtime associate and conservator, John Phillip Huck, told the news wire services that “she just went this morning, peacefully, at 8:47 a.m.”

Huck had been looking after the aged comedian since 1977, when the Canadian-born Lady Peel, widow of Sir Robert Peel, a descendant of the 19th-Century British prime minister, suffered a stroke.

Since then she was almost completely disabled and blind. She had been forced to sell her Park Avenue apartment more than 10 years ago and leave America for England and a less-expensive life style.

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Angular of feature with eyes that seemed to express amusing secrets known only to her, Miss Lillie probably would have been forced by her demeanor to become a comedian had she not chosen that role for herself.

Fit Gesture to a Laugh

She somehow always managed to fit a gesture to a laugh, be it as an ogle-eyed chanteuse in any of the dozens of revues she brightened over the years or in one of the Noel Coward drawing room comedies that became her signature.

Born into a musical family, she maintained that she had gotten her first stage laugh as a girl of 3, when she was standing in the wings playing with a toy broom as her mother, a singer, was performing.

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Her mother’s derriere grew visible through a backdrop and young Beatrice swung at it with her broom. Her mother’s shriek produced a laugh that subsequently became a muse for the young girl, who pursued its spirit for the next 70 years.

She left school at 15 to become a member of a singing trio with her mother and sister.

It was then, she said, that she began working on the stage gestures that became legion; a fluttering hand, a surprising leg kick, a nonsensical, tortured jerk marring an otherwise straight face.

Her costumes and props were the equal of their mad mistress: a ridiculously long cigarette holder; reading glasses angled over only one eye; flowers growing from her ears, gowns that freezing orphans would not have worn.

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These adorned her as she sometimes pranced, sometimes danced and sometimes even roller-skated her way across the stages of two continents, offering breezy patter, slightly naughty asides and just generally being her bizarrely silly self.

A critic long ago likened her to a sophisticated Alice adrift in a theatrical Wonderland.

An artist by avocation whose paintings once sold for hundreds and thousands of dollars to close friends (“I started by painting doorknobs,” she liked to say), the mistress of double-entendre was born in Toronto, daughter of a Canadian government official and his musical wife.

Lost Records

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Some theatrical books list her date of birth as 1898 but her conservator, Huck, told the Associated Press that was a mistake caused by the loss of some records in Toronto during a fire.

She first appeared on a British stage in 1914 and made her American debut in 1924 in a revue produced by Andre Charlot, and for two years she alternated between London and New York in his shows.

In 1928, she appeared in New York in Noel Coward’s “This Year of Grace,” which had a long run.

In 1932, Miss Lillie took a dramatic role as the nurse in the New York premiere of George Bernard Shaw’s “Too True to Be Good,” but then returned to working in revues. Those included “At Home Abroad” in 1935, “The Show Is On” in 1936 and Coward’s “Set to Music” in 1939.

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In 1939, she also appeared in London in “All Clear.”

During the war she was a tireless entertainer of troops with sketches and Coward’s one-act play, “Tonight at 8:30.”

She had married Sir Robert Peel in 1920. He died in 1934 and their only child, also named Robert, was killed during military service in 1942.

In one of the most poignant and lasting examples of the entertainment industry’s “the show must go on” credo, she was appearing in “Big Top” in Manchester, England, when she received the telegram backstage saying that her sailor son was lost at sea in the Indian Ocean.

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As word spread among the devastated cast, management was preparing to announce a cancellation when Miss Lillie walked from her dressing room to the stage callboard and put up this note:

“I know how you all feel, darlings, so we won’t say a word about it. Now let’s wow Manchester.”

Near the war’s end she returned to the New York stage in 1944 with “Seven Lively Arts” and was in “Inside U.S.A.” in 1948.

From 1952 to 1956, she toured the world in “An Evening With Beatrice Lillie.” The show, which featured Reginald Gardiner as her foil, won a Tony Award in 1953. (It played Los Angeles’ old Biltmore Theater in 1954, and Times critic Edwin Schallert said she “may unqualifiedly be said to reign supreme as an entertainer.”)

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In 1958, she starred in London in “Auntie Mame,” and she made her last stage appearance in New York in 1964-65 in “High Spirits,” a musical version of Coward’s “Blithe Spirits.”

Over the years she had become Coward’s intimate friend, as she had Bernard Shaw’s, Winston Churchill’s and Charlie Chaplin’s.

Coward explained in Life magazine in 1964 how, despite their friendship, her inspirations could be a torment.

“She may stray widely from the written script, she may interpolate words and phrases of her own which are far from the author’s intentions--and, as often as not, entirely irrelevant,” Coward wrote. “But the instinctive accuracy of her touch and impeccable taste seep the audience into transports of laughter.”

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Her films, which critics agreed never did justice to her diverse talents, included “Exit Smiling” in 1927, “Around the World in Eighty Days” in 1956 and “Thoroughly Modern Millie” in 1967.

In 1973, she wrote an autobiography, “Every Other Inch a Lady.”

Asked as long ago as 1939 how she managed to be so funny while apparently doing so little, the mistress of the sharp riposte was modest in her reply:

“I don’t know. I don’t dance and I don’t sing (well). Maybe it’s a matter of timing. I do give myself credit for that.”

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