Who’s Here: Tony Walton Set & Costume Master

Tony Walton, the Academy and Tony Award winning costume and set designer (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Chicago, Pippin, Uncle Vanya) has lived with his wife, Gen LeRoy, and their children for 25 years. Before that they had holidayed here with some regularity. He’s an Englishman born and raised and, now approaching 80, he continues to do what he loves, designing stage sets and costumes and now directing plays, sometimes at Bay Street, sometimes at Guild Hall and frequently at the Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan, a theater company that he is devoted to.

He’s a man who, as you will soon see in this interview, was born with this tremendous talent, which, regardless of early efforts to pursue a different career, rose to the surface and chose his career for him, bringing great pleasure to Broadway and Hollywood and the rest of us who have seen his work.

I can’t show you some of the blazing stage sets or costume designs he has done over the years in this interview, but I can tell you about something else he enjoys, which is telling great stories about encounters he has had with some of the great directors and actors in the entertainment business. Walton celebrates life. He loves every moment of it. And he relishes sharing his experiences with everyone around him. It all shines through during an interview. It shows when he bundles himself into the passenger seat of a car—which he has not been allowed to drive, at his family’s request, for almost 60 years—more about which later.

I sat with him for an hour in a rehearsal room at Guild Hall during a long lunch break. He is preparing Noel Coward’s show Tonight at 8:30, which opened on Saturday, July 20 and will run through August 4.

“It says in your biography that you were born in Walton-on-Thames,” I said. “Any connection?”

“None. Dad found the perfect house to buy, which he thought was in Shepperton, a town next to Walton-on-Thames. He didn’t want to be in Walton-on-Thames because it would be a lifetime of bother explaining there was no connection. But then he went to the closing, and it turned out it really was in Walton-on-Thames. So he thought about it and went through with it anyway.”

Tony was born the second child of four children to Lancelot Henry Frederick Walton, a surgeon, and his beautiful wife Dawn. They lived a classical British middle-class life, according to Walton, deeply caring for their children, but, in the upper class British way, neither spending much time with them or making public displays of affection. Walton took to entertaining them.

“For a while, when I was about eight, I would come to dinner being a different person with every course. I would make a quick change between each one. With a five-course dinner, my parents experienced five different eight-year-olds, in different costumes. I’d be a Turk, then an Afghan priest, then a Chinaman, and so on. It would sometimes hold up the meal a bit while I was making costume changes, especially if they involved complicated whiskers, which many of them did.”

He was sent to Radley College at about that time, not a college, of course, just a prep school. He was, he had agreed, to become a surgeon like his father.

“But I was more interested in marionettes,” he said. “I’d design them, build them, put costumes on them, and perform with them.”

He told me he was not much for the sight of blood. If he saw an injury, he was more likely to pass out than to come to the injured one’s aid. So although his family was hoping he would grow up to be a physician, he, instead, got involved with theater while at Radley. But it wasn’t really enough. He took his courses and he would muddle through Radley until he was 16.

Tony Walton was a boy of 4 when World War II broke out and the Germans assaulted London from the air. He has memories of rushing to get down into a shelter his father had built by a Roman stone wall in the garden during the Blitz. He recalls that five years later, with the Germans in full retreat, they then again attacked London with rockets and buzz-bombs. He shared memories of these experiences with his classmates at Radley.

During school vacations, he tried to see as much professional theater as possible. In one such production he saw “this wonderful girl I fell in love with the moment I saw her on stage,” he said. “She was playing Humpty Dumpty. She had the most beautiful legs sticking out of her giant egg shell.”

As it happened, after the performance, he and his brother and a third friend were on the train coming back to Walton-on-Thames when they found themselves in the same carriage as this girl, who was Julie Andrews. They proceeded to do stupid little tricks for her, which she of course didn’t like.

“Then, it turned out, she got off at the same station as we did. One of us turned to her and said, ‘Where do you live?’ and she said ‘My mum’s waiting for me over the bridge,’ then she turned and ran toward it. Clearly she hoped never to see any of us again.”

The next day, having discovered where she lived, Tony and his brother, Richard, showed up at her house. They spent a pleasant, if awkward, time there, and then were shown to the door.

But Tony Walton couldn’t forget Julie Andrews. He wrote her a letter.

“I am one of the boys who came and visited you last Sunday. (The fattest one, who was 13)…It was grand coming to your house and talking to you, and I hope we did not keep you too long…I am trying to write a sort of children’s book, it is all about a rabbit called Wiggin. I am doing it because I like drawing and painting.”

He accompanied the letter with half-a-dozen pen-and-ink drawings from the book, and, at the end, a caricature of Julie, as Humpty Dumpty. Julie decided not to reply, but her mother insisted that it was all charming and that she should reply. Thus began a correspondence between them, which soon blossomed into a friendship.

“I married my childhood sweetheart,” Walton says. But it was a long, long courtship. It went right through Julie Andrew’s Broadway debut in The Boy Friend and through her superstardom beginning with My Fair Lady. Their marriage was in 1959; it lasted seven years, and they’ve remained friends since.

When Walton was 14, he got booted out of Radley, sort of.

“In our Classics course, every week, I’d have to recite a Latin or Greek piece from memory. Ovid. Horace. All the students did. One week I couldn’t resist livening things up.”

He chose, he said, a poem by Marriott Edgar called “Albert and the Lion,” made famous by Stanley Holloway. He began to recite, in a heavy Liverpudlian accent (like the Beatles).

 

 There’s a famous seaside place called Blackpool

 That’s noted for fresh air and fun. 

 And Mr. and Mrs. Ramsbottom

 Went there with young Albert, their son.

***

 They didn’t think much of the ocean;

 The waves, they was piddlin’ and small.

 There was no wrecks and nobody drownded.

 ‘fact nothin’ to larf at at all.

 

“The teacher kicked me out of class, and soon thereafter I was sent to the a nearby art school, known as the Oxford School of Technology, Art and Commerce.”

At 16, an event occurred at Radley College that set Walton off on his lifelong career. He was the leader of a group of theater students putting on a series of marionette shows, sometimes in the gardens of Oxford’s Christ Church College where Lewis Carroll had started his Alice in Wonderland books. Walton had designed and built the hands and heads of the marionettes, and had created the many little stage sets.

“We performed some Vaudeville, Gilbert and Sullivan, then went on to do Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute.” At the third performance of The Magic Flute, which Walton was now also directing, they learned that the celebrated English painter and stage designer John Piper was coming to see the show.

“I was usually very confident. But that day I was nervous. For one thing, the boy playing the part of Papageno was ill. I would have to sing the part. But I was also doing the lighting and moving the scenery. Somehow we all got through it. And when it was over, Piper came backstage. He was tall, gaunt and silver-haired, a very imposing figure to a bunch of 16-year-olds. ‘Which one is Walton?’ he inquired softly. I raised a finger. ‘You should do this,’ he said. And I said ‘what’s this?’ and he said ‘stage design.’ And that was that.”

Piper, a professor emeritus at The Slade School of Fine Art, in London arranged for Walton to attend there, which he did a few months later.

“My dad once asked if I was happy at Radley. ‘Barely for a moment,‘ I replied. He said he couldn’t remember why he had sent me there but did recall that it seemed to be the thing to do at the time.”

Now Walton could let his creativity bloom. Also, his relationship with Julie Andrews blossomed. After all, she was in the theater too…

At the age of 18, Julie Andrews came to New York City to appear in the Broadway show The Boy Friend. Walton stayed behind to finish up at the Slade. He also began getting work designing costumes and sets on the London stage.

“We missed each other terribly. Overseas phone calls were too expensive. So the Dictaphone company, playing Cupid, lent me a machine, and Julie got one in New York. So we began corresponding by Dictaphone. I’d speak into it and be recorded onto the red band. I’d mail it off and Julie, after listening to it, would respond back.”

Two years later, Julie asked Tony to please come to America. She was in rehearsal for My Fair Lady. She suggested he bring his songs, little ditties that Tony had created as a teenager.

“But when I heard Lerner and Lowe’s songs for My Fair Lady, I said to myself, ‘No sense trying to compete with that!’”

Walton came over on the Queen Mary.

“When I got to America, I found that to do set design, you had to be a member of the ‘United Scenic Artists Union of Painters, Decorators and Paperhangers.’ They really called it that. And you had to pass an exam, which was given only once a year, and for that year it had been given the week before.” He spent the ensuing year doing caricatures, covers and other graphic work for Playbill. He then took the union exam and passed it.

His first New York design job was for a revival of Noël Coward’s musical Conversation Piece, which Coward himself would be supervising.

Walton delightedly told me stories about this brilliant and multi-talented theater icon.

“I expected him to be very acerbic and demanding. But he was not that at all. He was so generous and gentle. I recall we had an elderly female actress, quite famous, who had a leading role in the musical. She simply could not remember her lines.”

There was a disastrous final dress rehearsal. After which Coward came up to her, and with everyone fearing the worst, said, “My darling, it gives me such great pleasure to see you back on the boards again, that I fear I have nothing further to offer.” She collapsed with relief, and thereafter had no trouble with her lines.

During another rehearsal, Coward came in and passed Tony’s girlfriend, Julie, on her hands and knees with a needle and thread, hemming a curtain on the set that needed to be shortened. He walked past her. She was now a big star. My Fair Lady was the toast of Broadway. Coward looked down at her sewing and gave encouragement. “Keep up the good work…whoever you are!” he said.

Tony and Julie lived together for a while at the Hotel Park Chambers at 58th Street and Sixth Avenue, which they referred to as “the chamber of horrors.” But Julie’s agent, concerned with journalists in the city who might photograph them living together unmarried, arranged for them to move to a lovely cottage in Flemington, New Jersey from which they commuted to Manhattan. Eventually, when he was 26 and she 25, they married.

If Julie’s career was taking off, so was Tony’s, almost as soon as he got off the boat. Julie appeared in Camelot, Mary Poppins, The Americanization of Emily, The Sound of Music and Hawaii. Tony designed the sets for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which fully launched his career, then did The Apple Tree, which brought him a Tony nomination, The Love of Three Oranges, The Rehearsal, Caligula, Otello, Mary Poppins and the film Fahrenheit 451. He and Julie flew all over the world for their careers, to England, Italy, Austria, Spain, Denmark and France. But they never worked together, except on her BBC TV show, The Julie Andrews Hour, and when they used their respective skills for the film Mary Poppins.

The result of this was that although Julie had given birth to their daughter Emma in 1962, they reluctantly decided that, on account of their very frequent separations, they had to end their marriage. They were divorced in 1967.

One of the more interesting things that took place when they were together was a 0trip they took to California, where they were the guests of Walt Disney. Walt had invited them because he wanted Julie to take a part in Mary Poppins. And in the end, he hired her, and also employed Tony to do the production design styling and the costumes, for which he earned his first Oscar nomination.

“He took us to his studios, and to Disneyland, which had just opened. He showed us around. At a dinner at his house, I met his wife and children, but also noticed, looking around, that there wasn’t a single thing that gave any sign of what he did. No Oscars, Mickey Mice, nothing. I asked him about that. ‘No,’ he said, ‘it’s all at the studio.’ His wife said that he once saw his daughter, who was about six, reading a Walt Disney Comic. She suddenly looked up, turned to him and said, ‘Dad, are you the REAL Walt Disney?’”

Tony Walton’s work for stage design was not only sensational, it was also innovative. For the original production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, he had wanted to project varying sky images onto a curved screen the full width of the stage. With his lighting designer, Richard Pilbrow, he devised a system for radically distorting hand-painted slides and using up-to-the-minute German lenses to achieve this dream.

To their delight, their innovative system worked perfectly and caused a sensation.

In the years that followed, Walton worked with and befriended many of the great actors and directors in show business. His works on Broadway include Uncle Vanya, Shelter, Bette Midler’s Clams on the Half Shell Revue, Drinks Before Dinner, Little Me, Grand Hotel, Guys and Dolls (Tony and Drama Desk Awards), Lend Me a Tenor, Six Degrees of Separation, Chicago, The Will Rogers Follies, Seussical: The Musical and Nobody Don’t Like Yogi. In all he has received 16 Tony nominations, and received the award three times. His 20 film credits include The Boyfriend, Deathtrap, Heartburn, Murder on the Orient Express, The Wiz and All That Jazz, for which he received the Oscar, after five prior nominations. He also won an Emmy Award for the Dustin Hoffman Death of a Salesman.

Tony Walton’s connection with the Hamptons really began when he met the woman who would become his second wife, Gen LeRoy. It was in the 1960s. She was engaged to Warner LeRoy, the restaurant entrepreneur, who also owned the old York Theatre, where Tony was in rehearsal with Sandy Wilson’s Valmouth.

When Tony and Gen each became single, and both had daughters who were less than a year apart in age, they got together, and have been together now for 47 years.

In the Hamptons, Gen and Tony and their young daughters Emma and Bridget first lived in a tiny shack on Gerard Drive in Springs, and later bought a home in Sag Harbor in which they lived for 25 years, dividing their time between Sag Harbor and their apartment in New York.

In 1991, Tony’s daughter Emma, who was now married to Steven Hamilton, teamed up with her husband and Sybil Christopher, the ex-wife of Richard Burton and good friend of Julie Andrews and Tony, to found Bay Street, the great live performance theater in Sag Harbor. Tony’s role was to design stage sets and costumes and direct plays there. He also illustrates books, most notably a children’s book series written by Julie and Emma called Dumpy the Dump Truck, and 11 other titles.

I don’t quite know how to end this profile of this talented man. Perhaps it’s time to tell about why Tony doesn’t drive a car.

Just before moving to America, Tony joined the Royal Air Force for his National Service. He was assigned to a pilot training program in Canada, where at one point, during an airborne exam following nearly two years as a pilot, the joystick he was manipulating got caught in his parachute pack. The plane looped up, then spun down in a freak, inverted spin. When he at last relaxed his hold on the stick, his instructor was able to take over and, with great effort, land the plane in a whirlwind of flying earth, in a cow field. In his exam report, he mentioned why he felt Tony should be washed out of the program (he was). “This pilot is not equipped with a proper sense of danger,” he wrote, “and will be ill-advised to drive in civilian life.” Tony had explained his disturbing calmness to his examiner as they climbed out of the leaning-over two-cabin biplane, by saying, “I relaxed my hold on the joystick when it suddenly occurred to me that everything would be alright by tomorrow.”

Later, with Gen, however, driving through Ireland, he told me she became so frightened by his completely oblivious way of driving, she took over the wheel and instructed him never to drive again. And he hasn’t. Here in the Hamptons, he hitches rides with friends, or Gen takes him. Gen once, in a recently published biography of her husband, spoke of this lack of driving skills as a by-product of his gifts.

“I do feel very protective on Tony’s behalf,” she wrote. “He gets so distracted. Sometimes, like a cat, something in his peripheral vision grabs his attention, and he doesn’t watch where he’s going, nor do I think he really knows where he is exactly. It’s only when he’s working that he’s fanatically focused, and that world envelopes him completely—his world becomes what he is doing, and he loves every minute of it. It’s terribly infectious.”

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