Leila Webster has just turned 90 and she’s still a wise-cracking Ulster treasure.
Known to many as the woman who packed out Belfast’s popular Arts theatre with her Sam Cree plays and one-woman comedy shows, the homegrown legend also trained as an opera singer and starred with the late Hollywood superstar Bob Hope.
Leila went from being an agoraphobic 10-year-old to working alongside world-famous stars like Hope himself and Ulster singing legend Josef Locke.
The actress, comedienne and singer held a birthday party this week for over 40 friends and close family which included tributes and live entertainment, with a couple of special sketches from Leila herself. Leila said that praise from actor and friend Dan Gordon had meant a lot to her.
She chuckled as she recalled Dan’s speech: “Dan was very funny. He was talking about me playing a serious role as Brecht’s Mother Courage at the Lyric theatre, which he said was ‘no mean feat’ and all about my comedy, 20-25 years of performing at the Arts and touring.
“I did panto too and films and acted in theatres in other parts of the UK as well. Dan said ‘she could do anything and she was nice-looking into the bargain.’ That was very kind of him.
“Of course, my biggest night was appearing at the Hippodrome, when Bob Hope topped the bill.”
Actor Dan Gordon said yesterday that he looked on Leila Webster “as the jewel in Ulster’s theatrical crown.”
In many ways, Leila feels she’s lucky to have survived as long as she has, as she had a very bad start health-wise.
After two episodes of scarlet fever as a 10 year-old, Leila developed a heart condition and spent six months in bed recovering. She then had rheumatic fever.
Mental health problems followed and brought on severe agoraphobia, leaving her reluctant to leave her house or even talk to anyone.
And she was still grieving for her little brother, who had died of diphtheria, aged six.
But Leila’s parents found a way out of family tragedy, when her father bought Leila a piano and her mother brought a singing teacher home to give her daughter lessons: “Mr Jack McAlpine, who was blind, listened to me sing and he must have said to my mother that I had a good voice, now I never heard the conversation, but Mr McAlpine then took me on as a pupil,” she said.
The rest, as they say, is showbiz legend.
But now Leila’s biggest concern is that her broken arm is holding her back from driving: “I can’t wait to be back into the driving seat. I had an accident and broke my arm, but it’s healing nicely, so I’ll be back driving soon. I have a friend, who travels with me, just to see I don’t have any problems.”