from Royal mix-ups to Dennis Waterman’s dressing room bar

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The tradition of the “stagedoor johnny”—typically men hanging around the stage door with questionable intentions toward the stars of a show—continues. Nevertheless, keepers have developed a reputation as strict – often grumpy – operators; a reputation that has taken its place in theater history.

“They used to be a law unto themselves,” says Nick Bromley, a veteran West End business executive who has written a compendium of Theater Ghosts, Stage Ghosts, and Haunted Theaters. “Most of them were retired actors. They worked long days in cramped conditions; they were older, drunk, more combative. They can make or break a young actor if that actor doesn’t treat him right. They can be dangerous people to cross.”

One such Cerberus was Harry Loman, a former music hall comedian who became a stage doorkeeper at the Criterion in the 1950s at age 74. to let Ingrid Bergman in, possibly because he didn’t know who she was.

In the era before cell phones, message passing was a critical part of a caregiver’s job, but again, the efficiency with which they performed this task could vary.

“If you didn’t tip them, you’d find that messages left for you somehow wouldn’t arrive, or your phone messages wouldn’t arrive,” Bromley says. “There was a funny guy at the [Theatre Royal] Haymarket was called Bibby in the 1940s, who was known for not being able to pass messages properly. One day Sam Wanamaker stopped by the stage door to see John Gielgud. The message came over the tannoy: ‘Sir John, Sam wants to make you…’ ”

Still others are motherly and kind. One of the most treasured custodians of recent times is Jill Hudson, who worked at the Theater Royal Drury Lane for over 30 years before retiring in 2017; she died in 2020.

“Jill would take the actors out of all sorts of awkward situations, get them out of the pub at 2am and insist they sleep it off in the dressing room,” says McDonagh. “When Dennis Waterman was there in My Fair Lady, he built a bar in his,” Fox adds. “Everyone came in after the show. Jill turned a blind eye. I even spent a night in a dressing room myself. Nowadays everything is much more regulated.”

With theaters now run by consortia rather than traditional managers, and as ‘health and safety’ tightens its grip, it is inevitable that the stage door culture will change. Goalkeepers now have contractures. And they oversee a much more controlled relationship between the public and celebrities.

“You used to be able to ask at the stage door if an actor wanted to meet you, and if they did, they’d send their dresser down and you’d go upstairs,” Fox says. “When I went to A Little Night Music in the Adelphi as a little boy in 1975, I was desperate for Jean Simmons.

“Watching the show I became more impressed with Hermione Gingold, whom I had seen in Gigi, so I went to the stage door with my great-aunt and asked if Miss Gingold was willing to say hello. Sure enough, we were invited into her dressing room and she signed the program. And she also called in Jean Simmons whose dressing room was next door. That wouldn’t happen now.”

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