Who Was Mrs Lucia Mary Boston (aka Kitty Lee)?

The mystery who she was and where she came from

Kitty Lee in 1928
Southend Times 1928
Kitty Lee with Phil Leno at The Grand in Falkirk. This was in a photo section titled "Favourites in Scottish Entertainment This Week."
The Sunday Post 27th November 1921

Mrs Boston is a lady for whom it is difficult to find any official information. We know she died in the second quarter of 1972 probably in the period between Saturday 13th May and Thursday 19th May 1972 as her obituary was printed in the Evening Echo for Friday 19th May 1972.

I have discovered a Probate record for her husband giving the address of her house and her name as his wife. However I have not been able to track down any marriage record. I suspect this does not exist as it appears that Albert Boston was already married. As a result I cannot track down her birth record as I do not know her maiden name.

She does not appear to have had any children so there are no birth records to check.

Helpfully though, the summary of her death record gives her date of birth as 2nd August 1890 making her 82 when she died. That is as far as the official records go in helping us for Mrs Boston.

Mrs Boston states in the Evening Echo article of 29th September 1971 that her stage name was Kitty Lee. And for Kitty Lee I have managed to find out far more about.

Was Mrs Boston Scottish?

There are several clues as to whether Mrs Boston was Scottish.

  • As Kitty Lee she worked extensively in the theatres in Scotland and the north of England.
  • Her long term comedy partner, Phil Leno, appears to have been Scottish.
  • She knew Walter Freer of Glasgow, the man who used to run the music halls in Glasgow, well enough to invite him down to visit Boston Hall.
  • When the studio was redeveloped as houses they were all named after Scottish rivers.

All this evidence strongly suggests that she was Scottish.

Kitty Lee’s Stage Career

She also stated that the best years for her were between 1919 and 1929. I was given information by Brian Heale at the BCA Show in March 2012 about a scrapbook that was full of cuttings about Mrs Boston’s show business career. When he was a teenager his brother Alan had rescued it from a skip that was being used to clear out Mrs Boston’s house. The skip was also full of scenery and other bits of film memorabilia.

I therefore checked the archives of “The Stage” magazine and found a number of items for Kitty Lee.

The first mention is in 24th December 1908 edition and states that letters were waiting for collection by a Miss Kitty Lee at The Stage Letter Box. This makes her 18 years old and in the acting profession.

The next mention is a report in the section marked Provinces for 24th March 1910 where she was playing in the Royal Muncastle Theatre in Bootle in a variety entertainment show. It is noted “An accomplished comedienne is Kitty Lee.”

After that there is no mention until 15th August 1918 when she again had letters to collect. After this follows a number of adverts and reviews in her good period from 1920 to 1933. In this period she always had work in travelling Revues or Concert Parties, nearly always in the north of England or Scotland. It was only towards the end of this period that she started doing productions in London and this is presumably when she met Albert Boston. She was never top of the bill but always a highly rated support act with her comedy partner Phil Leno.

Kitty Lee’s Talents

The evidence shows that she was a fine soprano, a dancer, a clever comedienne, especially of knockabout humour, and also a skilled impressionist. In particular she was skilled in burlesque. This does not mean the American version of a strip show artist but the British interpretation of somebody who could cause laughter by caricaturing serious works by treating them in a ludicrous manner. Pastiche or satire would be more appropriate. An example is a 1929 review which states: “In a scene with Kitty Lee, Phil Leno, the comedian, creates laughter by making travesty of a well known chorus from ‘Il Trovatore'”.

She also championed some comic songs with titles such as “I’ve taken to smoking” and “I’ve got that married look”. In fact she was the all round music hall star – witty and entertaining. A review of a sketch with her partner Phil Leno in March 1929 states “Lee and Leno in ‘A Little Bit of Everything,’ are really funny.”

Also in 1929 she often impersonated Charlie Chaplin on stage. A review in April 1929 states “Kitty Lee delights with her clever impersonation of Charlie Chaplin. It is one of the finest pieces of mimicry ever staged at the Plaza”.

However, during this period there is no evidence of any film work. In fact at the crucial stages of the film studio in 1929 to 1933 she was continually on tour. This might be possibly to bring in money to keep the studio running.

After 1933 there is no record of her name until 1943 when a short tour took place There is nothing after that. This is possibly due to her playing Soubrettes. These were young ladies who flirted with the audience and sang. But by 1933 she was 43 and actresses to this day complain of the lack of parts for women over 40. So the work apparently just stopped.

Film Work

The interview with Kitty Lee states that “She starred in her husband’s two-reel silents”. A two-reel film runs for between 20 and 30 minutes and was the chief vehicle for the great silent film comedians. This format was ideally made for comedy where a story did not have to be carried.

The interview also stated that “Early film fans saw her in films like East Lynne and Dante’s Inferno, both made at Benfleet.” These are long and complex stories for which famous silent versions already existed. There is a 1913 version of East Lynne that runs over 6 reels or just over an hour. There is also a 1911 version of Dante’s Inferno called L’inferno which runs for 71 minutes. Both of these are big projects and crucially would require more time than a two-reel silent could provide.

However Kitty Lee was skilled at satirising classic works and it is likely that these two films were comedies based on these works and possibly using sketches from her Music Hall days. In particular East Lynne has a classic line, which is not in the original book but is in many stage adaptations: “Dead! Dead! And never called me mother!” This line alone suggests comedy. Therefore it is possible that these two works were comedies designed not to compete with the classic film works but attract another market.

As these were the only two films mentioned in the interview it is likely these were the only two produced. There is no mention of them on any database and it seems unlikely they ever had a film release. We will never know as it seems that everything in her house was put in a skip. Even if the films still existed they would be unusable. This because they would be on nitrate stock which deteriorates badly, even if kept under good conditions.

This still leaves the mysterious script shown to the Southend Times reporter: “Mr Carter gave me a glimpse of the scenario of the film of which so much is expected. He put it back in a drawer before I could read the title.” This was for a full film production and Kitty Lee only talked about starring in two reel silents. So this script appears to have never made it into production.

Meeting Mary Pickford

One of key statements in the interview is her meeting with Mary Pickford:

“It was at a London hotel that I saw her,” she recalls. “I had the chance to go to Hollywood as her understudy.”

But Lucia’s husband, Albert, was struggling to get his film studios going. Happily she told him of her big chance. Sadly he told her that without her he would be finished.

The article also mentions two letters from Mary Pickford – both now probably lost for ever.

When did the meeting take place?

The meeting with Mary Pickford had to be after the studio started and before it became obvious to everybody it was going to fail. The best time for this would be 1929.

On Thursday 5th September 1929 it was reported that Mary Pickford and her husband Douglas Fairbanks had sailed for Europe on the Mauritania for a holiday and they arrived at Plymouth on Tuesday 10th September 1929. They promptly went to Switzerland before arriving in London on Sunday night 20th October 1929 where they stayed with the Mountbattens. On Friday 25th October 1929 they flew to Paris at 12:30 pm.

Therefore the only opportunity for Kitty Lee to have met Mary Pickford is in that window of Monday 21st October to Thursday 24th October 1929. At that time she was on tour with “The Whirl of Laughter”. So it seems most likely that she wrote to Miss Pickford and asked for an audience. The first letter was probably the granting of the audience.

Why was an audience granted?

As we do not have the letters it can only be guessed at as to why the audience was granted. However Kitty Lee could have stated they were starting a studio and asked for some advice, maybe even mentioning her stage work. At the time Miss Pickford was having an unhappy time with the transition to “talkies”. The public did not take to her in the new films. For whatever reason she agreed to see Kitty Lee.

At this meeting she offered Kitty the chance to be her understudy. But why did she do this? We know that Kitty Lee was a skilled stage artist and was approximately the same age as Miss Pickford. Therefore maybe she hoped the Kitty would be able to coach her about appearing in “talkies”.

Aftermath

Kitty was delighted to receive the offer but had to turn it down as her husband’s studio was struggling. She was always looking for that big break in life. This was only a half-break, but she was a resourceful lady and would have made full use of it. If she had gone to Hollywood as Miss Pickford’s understudy she would have made contacts. As a skilled stage artist with some film experience, at a time when the talkies were causing havoc with careers, she would have picked up work even if only as a supporting actress. Instead she stayed loyal to the local studio and her husband and stayed and witnessed its failure.

Kitty probably wrote to Miss Pickford declining the offer and the second letter from Mary Pickford was probably a good luck note for the future.

Catch 22

This was a Catch 22 situation. Because of the Benfleet film studio she asked and was granted an audience with Mary Pickford and was given the offer. However because of the studio she had to turn it down. If the studio did not exist she would not have asked to see Miss Pickford and would not have been given an offer, but she could have accepted it.

Later Life

After this incident in her life she saw the studio fail, probably in 1930 or 1931. She continued to tour but after 1933 there are no mentions of her appearing in anything. Then things got desperate and she sold her hair for £14.

The late 1930s were not good to her. The Benfleet Urban District Council local plan designated the studio site as housing development. In 1939 Boston Hall and the studio were demolished and 12 houses, named after Scottish rivers were built to let by Albert Boston.

She and her husband kept all 12 of the houses until his death on the 10th April 1964 with her managing the business affairs. She lived on in her house selling some of the houses as time went by. She was forgotten until the Evening Echo interviewed her and ran a story about her life in the 29th September 1971 edition. She then died in mid-May 1972 with the obituary appearing in the Evening Echo on 19th May 1972. After that her house was cleared out and all her memorabilia were put in a skip.

That is as much as we know about this hard working, talented, resourceful, loyal and kind woman. All she wanted was a chance to be in the movies and for a brief period in her life she almost obtained it. She had a half-chance but loyalty to her husband meant she did not take it. I do admire Kitty Lee.

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