Warm tributes have been paid to one of Ulster’s leading ladies of the arts world, following her death yesterday at the age of 90.
Leila Webster, who grew up on Belfast’s Rutland Street, had a successful career that included performing with the late Hollywood entertainer Bob Hope and local singing legend Josef Locke.
The performer passed away at a care home in Newtownabbey close to her son Jim, having lived at Donegall Pass in her later years.
After a difficult start to life, suffering ill health and battling agoraphobia at the age of 10, Leila became a star of the stage.
Just one year ago she sang at a gala tribute to fellow entertainer Frank Carson, something she was initially wary of doing but went on to relish, according to long-time friend Ian Dougan.
“When I asked her to perform at the Carson gala she was nervous, and she thought about it but then she just said ‘Yes’,” he told the News Letter.
“She sang ‘Send in the Clowns’ and it was beautiful and she got a standing ovation, at the age of 89.”
Later last year, at her 90th birthday celebrations, Leila even entertained those gathered with a few special sketches.
Good friend Dan Gordon had described her as “the jewel in Ulster’s theatrical crown”, a statement Ian – who produced a 2011 documentary on her life – wholeheartedly agrees with.
“I met Leila when I was 16 and worked at the Arts Theatre. She was the star of the show – she was formidable but we spoke a bit and I always remembered her.
“I really enjoyed making the documentary with her. It came just after her husband – Tommy, the love of her life – died and I think it gave her a real boost.
“She was in a bit of a slump and that recharged her.”
Even towards the end Leila maintained the star quality that had made her such an enchanting performer, Ian said.
“I was with her in recent weeks and she had become very frail but there were still bursts of humour,” he said.
“She gave a look or made a joke that showed she was still the actress we all knew and loved, right to the end.”
Leila also leaves behind beloved grandson Mark.
The funeral at Mary Magdalene Church of Ireland on Monday will, Ian said, undoubtedly be a fitting tribute to a woman who lived the life of star.
“It will be quite a theatrical event with speeches about Leila,” he said.
“She was very much aware she will be the star on that day, as she was throughout her life.”
Journalist Liz Kennedy, who spoke to Leila after her birthday celebrations last October, said she was a true professional.
“They don’t make them like Leila anymore,” she said. “She sparkled in the spotlight.”
Leila will be remembered exactly how she wished when mourners gather for her funeral at Donegall Pass on Monday, Ian added.
The obituary she wrote with her great friend Dennison Mahood many years ago will be read out during what, it has been suggested, will be quite a theatrical affair.
When news of Leila’s death broke, Ulster comedians William Caulfield and Jimmy Cricket were quick to pay tribute to a woman they respected and admired as a successful comedienne.
William Caulfield said: “Sorry to hear of the death of Leila Webster. Only met her twice, seemed to be a lovely lady. Thoughts with her family circle.”
Jimmy Cricket tweeted: “Very sorry to hear that. It was a pleasure to work with her at Frank Carson’s tribute show at the @GrandOperaHouse last year.”
Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin said the star was an inspirational figure whose talent and enthusiasm will be sadly missed.
“A singer and performer who excelled on both stage and screen, Leila entertained audiences of all ages. She began singing at the age of 10,” said the minister.
“It was the beginning of a career which evolved to show Leila’s versatility across many disciplines – from comedy to drama, from opera to improvisation.
“Leila shared the stage with a range of stars, from James Young to Bob Hope.
“She left a lasting impression on both audiences and those she worked with.”