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Leila Webster: A natural entertainer who once charmed Bob Hope

Leila Webster, Belfast's queen of song and laughter down many years, has died aged 90.

She will be remembered for her talent as a comedienne and her beautiful soprano voice, which charmed Bob Hope.

Leila helped the late playwright Sam Cree become a household name by starring in his works, usually at the old Arts Theatre in the city, where she had audiences rolling in the aisles.

Leila's ad libs became a regular part of the show.

Leila, who began as a dancer in the old Empire Theatre, had to make up her mind right at the beginning whether to pursue a career as an opera singer or as an actress.

She chose the latter career. Josef Locke, the celebrated Irish tenor, always asked for Leila to be his support when he was at the Opera House or the Empire.

"A highlight of the show would be when she joined me on stage for a duet," he once told me. "The audience loved us together. And so did I."

Leila was also a respected tutor and singing teacher and she helped many young performers on their way.

Her friend and fellow actor and writer Dan Gordon said: "Leila was definitely the jewel in the Ulster theatrical crown.

"She loved to tell the story of how she appeared in the Hippodrome in Belfast with the great Bob Hope."

Hope apparently tried to persuade her to join his national tour with a view to returning to America with him to launch herself across the Atlantic.

Dennison Mahood, house manager at the Arts Theatre for many years, said: "Leila loved to entertain.

"She was still singing and telling yarns at her 90th birthday party last October."

As a child she spent six months in bed with a heart complaint and was poorly until into her early teens.

It was when her father bought her a piano and she learned to play that Leila was transformed.

Leila, whose husband Tom Mercer, a well-known musician, died five years ago, is survived by her son Jim.

A service of thanksgiving will be held on Monday at Mary Magdalene Church of Ireland, Donegall Pass, at 12.30pm.

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