ANITA Harris was 16 when she was whisked away from her Somerset home to the glamorous
ANITA Harris was 16 when she was whisked away from her Somerset home to the glamorous Las Vegas Strip, performing alongside such stars as Mae West and Frank Sinatra.
Now, almost 60 years on, she says music is still her first love as she prepares to bring her latest show to Stoke Row.
Harris will appear at the Crooked Billet in Newlands Lane next month, alongside long-time collaborator and pianist Peter Gill.
While it may be a far cry from Sin City, the singer, who married television director Mike Margolis in 1973, says she relishes visiting the different corners of the UK.
Harris said: “I’ve never properly been to Henley before but I’ve heard it’s a delightful place. It’s a beautiful part of the world and and I’ll try to have an explore while I’m there. When you’re out and about you really appreciate the countryside.
“The music is paramount, that’s my first love. It’s a show opening the pages of my life, from the early days jumping into the world of showbiz at 16.
“Peter is brilliant, he arranges classical, jazz and rock ’n’ roll music. We go through a flourish of different styles but it’s mostly music that’s touched my life. It’s reminiscing but also looking forward too, with some new music by me and Mike.”
Harris was part of a 12-person dance troupe that performed three shows a night while in Las Vegas.
She said: “Vegas in the Fifties and Sixties isn’t what it is now, it was just a desert with a few hotels dotted around.
“We stayed at the El Rancho, which was the first casino built in the city. Vegas was where I heard my first jazz music and it started my love of music.
“I was at an impressionable age but we were very well looked after. It was glorious and a wonderful training ground for me.”
Harris recalls finishing shows at 4am and taking horse rides through the desert before dawn, seeing the “bright red” of the sand when the sun came up.
She also rubbed shoulders with some of the Strip’s most famous performers, including Ol’ Blue Eyes himself.
She said: “I had a minute with Frank Sinatra, it was the most wonderful minute of my life. Those moments never leave you.”
Harris is perhaps best-known to UK audiences for her forays into acting with the Carry On film series. She starred in Follow That Camel and Carry On Doctor in 1967.
She was approached by the producers to take part in the films after appearing alongside Frankie Howerd at a variety show in the Sixties.
She said: “I was at the Prince of Wales theatre in Coventry Street, London, with Frankie when he was doing comedy and I was doing singing and dancing. We did some sketches together and had some wonderful comedy moments.
“One night the producer came to talk to Frankie about the next Carry On film. Afterwards he came to my dressing room and asked if I wanted to do it too.
“I found it a huge compliment to be able to go down these two parallel roads of music and acting. It was such a delight.”
Harris retains a great affection for the series, which comprises 31 films and dozens of TV episodes and stage shows between 1958 and 1992.
She said: “Carry On is a phenomenon which sustains through each generation. It’s naughty but so nice and it’s a bit of Britain.
“It reminds me of Blackpool in summer, going to the beach and having time with your family. The whole family can watch it together and all have a laugh.
“I have to tip my hat to that team, they did it for so many years and each of them was a superb actor, from Shakespeare to classical theatre. Something magical happened when they all came together.
“I had to prove myself at the beginning but when they accepted me it was a fabulous experience.”
Harris also co-hosted the David Nixon Magic Show and appeared on the Morecambe and Wise Show in 1971 and 1973.
Once the highest paid cabaret star in the world, Harris and her husband have suffered financial problems in recent years, losing millions when a Swiss bank collapsed in 1985. They were declared bankrupt earlier this year.
But Harris has continued to work, travelling the length of the country to perform in theatres and hotels. She says she is lucky to have worked with so many icons but one man stands out.
She said: “I’m proud to have worked with Bernard Braden, David Nixon and Morecambe and Wise, and Clive Dunn was a dear friend.
“But the best was Harry Secombe, who was with me on my first pantomime season. He was a superb comedian and a wonderful singer but as a human being, friend and mentor he gave you such a lift.”
Harris took part in 12 tours with Secombe, visiting British troops in countries including Cyprus, Germany and Malaysia.
She said: “To travel with that calibre of man, totally loved by the forces, was lovely. It still makes me shiver to think of when we landed in Kuching [Malaysia] and we watched these lads building a stage for us to do our show that night. We were in the middle of nowhere and they were making it nice for us.
“Harry sang If I Ruled The World. Well if he had ruled the world it would be a much happier place.”
Harris will perform on June 15. Tickets cost £15 and can be bought from the Crooked Billet on (01491) 681048 or by visiting www.thecrookedbillet.co.uk