Cary Grant's Bristol roots celebrated at new festival

By Rhiannon Beacham
BBC News

image captionCary Grant stayed at what is now the Bristol Royal Marriott Hotel on College Green during his visits home

A festival this weekend will remember one of Bristol's most famous sons - Hollywood legend Cary Grant.

Born Archibald Leach, in the Horfield area of the city, Grant went in search of fame in the US at the age of 14.

But he never forgot his roots, returning regularly to favourite haunts such as the Avon Gorge Hotel and the Floating Harbour.

A bronze statue of the actor was unveiled in Bristol's Millennium Square in 2001, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of his Hollywood debut.

Anna Farthing, one of the festival's organisers, said the new event was needed to tell the story of his life in the city.

The star of films such as North by Northwest and Bringing up Baby was born at 15 Hughenden Road on 18 January 1904.

image captionGrant took his mother for cream teas at the Avon Gorge Hotel

Research for the festival shows he also lived at a number of other addresses, including Campbell Street, Cheltenham Road and Seymour Avenue, before leaving to seek his fortune.

As a schoolboy Grant attended Bishop Road Primary, in Bishopston, and briefly North Street Wesleyan Primary, in Stokes Croft, before transferring to Fairfield Grammar, in Montpelier, in 1915.

Troupe of acrobats

It was at Fairfield that a science class assistant is said to have taken him on a trip to Bristol's Hippodrome Theatre.

"That's where he first got the acting bug," Ms Farthing said.

"He was taken there to look at new lighting and was more interested in what he was seeing on the stage, rather than backstage.

"That was the point he realised it was 'an actor's life for me' and he ran off and joined a troupe of acrobats."

Sarah Milne, Bristol Hippodrome's spokeswoman, said: "Archibald joined the theatre staff as a callboy and later on he joined a company who were appearing here, Bob Pender's troupe of acrobats.

"During his time with them he sang, danced and juggled and when they went to America in 1920, he went with them and the rest is history."

image captionCary Grant is said to have frequented the docks as a boy, dreaming of sailing to exotic lands

Grant had also worked as a limelighter, illuminating performers at what was then the Empire Theatre in Old Market.

One Bristol resident, John Burt, said he has reason to believe Grant's acting career actually started there, as his uncle Harold used to recount stories of working there with him.

Mr Burt, 66, of Bedminster Down, said: "They were working as limelighters-cum-dogsbodies at the Empire around about 1917 when they were both 13 or 14 years old.

"Archie used to call round for Harold in St Pauls and they'd walk to work together. They'd act as extras or whatever was available.

"The story that's come down through our family is, around 1920 Bob Pender's troupe of acrobats came to the Empire.

"We don't know if it's family hearsay or fantasy but the story is Harold was asked to join the troupe, but he had a girlfriend, Alice Young, who was the leading lady in the chorus line at the Empire and he wasn't keen to leave her behind.

"The job was offered to Archie, and Alice eventually became Harold's wife.

"He used to go off and meet Archie, or Cary, when he came back to Bristol."

The films that made Cary Grant

image copyrightOther
  • Cary Grant got his first major screen credit as co-star to Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus in 1932
  • Mae West liked his performance and cast him in her 1933 film She Done him Wrong, which was nominated for an Academy Award and set him on the road to becoming a Hollywood favourite
  • Grant's birth name, Archibald Leach, crops up in the dialogue of His Girl Friday and also appears on a gravestone in Arsenic and Old Lace
  • He donated his entire earnings from The Philadelphia Story to war relief funds and was later presented with the King's Medal for his services to the British war effort
  • Grant's performance in Notorious reportedly inspired Ian Fleming to create James Bond, a role he turned down
  • Grant retired after Walk Don't run in 1966 to concentrate on fatherhood. Fan sites claim a photo on his desk in the film is of his own parents

Mr Burt said it was interesting Archie chose the name Cary, as the entrance to the Empire was on Carey's Lane.

Archibald Leach became Cary Grant in 1931 when, with several Broadway credits on his CV, he was signed by Paramount Pictures and the studio insisted he needed a better stage name.

He first suggested Cary Lockwood - a character he'd played on Broadway - but while the studio accepted his first name, it asked for a different surname.

image captionCary Grant was born in the Horfield area of Bristol in 1904

Before he caught the acting bug, Grant was told by his father, at the age of nine or 10, that his mother had died.

In reality, she had been committed to Bristol Insane Asylum.

It was not until 1935, when his father died, that Grant learned the truth and arranged for his mother's release.

'Cream teas'

When she declined to join him in the States, he bought her a house in the Westbury Park area of Bristol.

"Once he did realise she was still alive, he came back very regularly and paid for her to have the very best care," Ms Farthing said.

"He used to take his mother to the Avon Gorge Hotel for cream teas and there are photos of him standing on the balcony with the suspension bridge in the background."

Grant was photographed at Bristol Zoo while on honeymoon with his fourth wife, Dyan Cannon, in 1965. The couple were staying at what is now the Marriott Royal Hotel, on College Green.

Ms Farthing said: "When his daughter was born, he made a point of bringing her here because of the childhood he had lost himself."

When Grant became a director and brand ambassador for Faberge in 1966, he had access to the company's private jet which allowed him to increase his visits to Bristol until his death in 1986.

image captionGrant's visits to Bristol increased from 1966 once he had access to a private jet

Ms Farthing said: "The Cary Grant story is a very major story for Bristol, but has never been told.

"If you don't know who he is, the statue doesn't mean much, so we're asking people to make short films for the festival about what Cary Grant means for us now.

"He still inspires fashion and still inspires actors because of his role combining the suave, debonair actor with the slapstick comedian. It's unusual to be both a sex symbol and a clown.

"The story of Archie Leach, the young Bristol boy, turning himself into major film star Cary Grant is inspiring to everyone of all ages.

"It proves no matter where you start you can control your own destiny - from Horfield to Hollywood."

The festival, Cary Grant Comes Home For the Weekend, takes place on 11 and 12 October.

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