Not enough room in autobiography for whole life story


SO much has happened in Laurie Marsh's life that he has been asked to write a sequel to his autobiography.

There was simply not enough room in his debut book, The Philanthropist's Tale - The Life Of Laurie Marsh (Urbane Publications, 16.99), to recount everything he has done.

From befriending leading ladies such as Joanna Lumley and Diana Rigg to hanging out with some of the best-known names in theatre and film such as Boris Karloff and Brian Rix, as well as redeveloping theatres and cinemas, Laurie has done the lot.

But he walked away from his multi-million property business - and has since given away much of his fortune. Hence the name of his book.

"My idea initially was to record a memoir, not to write a book," Laurie told me. "I hired a woman to type all my memories up and she suggested it be turned into a book."

It is all a long way from his early days on Lambeth Walk, in south London.

He was raised above his aunt's haberdashery shop in an area which had barely changed since Victorian times.

Laurie, who is now 85, said: "There was my mother, my father, me and our dog. We had two gaslights, no water, no bathroom and no kitchen.

"We basically lived in two rooms which were actually storerooms for the shop."

Life was tough at school, too, as he was one of the few Jewish pupils.

"My mother told the headteacher that she didn't want me to go to morning prayers, so me and the other Jewish kids sat in a room when it was taking place.

"The rest of the kids knew immediately that we were Jewish. Some of the older ones attacked me on a couple of occasions.

"I suddenly became Forrest Gump and ran away very quickly!"

Laurie, who is of German paternal descent and whose maternal grandparents came from the Russian empire, was evacuated to Brighton and Gloucestershire during the war.

The original family surname was Marasch.

After his parents' financial situation improved, he was sent to the Perse Upper School, an independent secondary school in Cambridge.

In later years, he donated the money to build a sixth-form centre there.

And Laurie continues to make regular - and significant - contributions to the school to increase its bursary fund.

After his military service, he started a plastics manufacturing business, becoming one of the first Brits to export materials from Hong Kong.

He applied for - and received the rights - to design and make Noddy outfits for children.

And Laurie also received consent to license merchandise depicting characters from Walt Disney cartoons, following a meeting with his brother, Roy.

He then became a director of a property company and went on to develop and operate hotels, theatres in London and New York, a 150-screen cinema chain and founded an international distribution firm.

And he shared a flat with Larry Hagman, who would later find fame and fortune as Dallas' arch villain JR Ewing.

Laurie recalled: "My dad, when I was a youngster, did one or two tours as a magician under the stage name Dave Evad.

"I sometimes assisted him on stage when I was eight. I guess you can say that was the start of my theatre career."

Renovating and saving theatres became one of Laurie's passions.

He bought the famous Windmill Theatre from the Jewish Van Damm family and also saved the legendary Shaftesbury Theatre, in the heart of London's West End.

Laurie, who lives in St John's Wood, north London, said: "I saved the Shaftesbury from destruction.

"Years ago, it had a removable roof because it did not have air conditioning.

"One night, an enormous chandelier fell down into the auditorium.

"The owners used it an excuse to sell up because they could not repair it, so they tried to sell it to a property developer.

"I remember (the actor) Sir Alec Guinness protesting outside about that plan. Our company bought and repaired it.

"I also saved the Theatre Royal, in Bath, was which due for demolition. It is now deemed to be the most beautiful theatre outside London."

After establishing the Classics cinema chain, Laurie was a producer on more than 70 films.

They were mainly in the horror genre and included the 1968 cult classic Witchfinder General.

And the only time Laurie's name - kind of - appeared in any credits was when Hammer Horror icon Boris Karloff played an occult expert called Professor Marsh in The Crimson Cult (Curse of the Crimson Altar).

"I persuaded Boris, or Billy, as I called him (Karloff's real name was William Henry Pratt) to come out of retirement by offering him tickets to Lords," Laurie continued. "He was a big cricket fan."

It was during his entrepreneurial and impresario days that Laurie also gave a donation to JNF, which would today work out at 400,000.

He was rewarded for that with a medal and an invitation to dine with then-Israeli prime minister Golda Meir.

"I actually stopped practising Judaism the day after my barmitzvah," Laurie explained.

"My mother and father were religious, but they were only following what their parents did.

"It became a tradition rather than a necessity.

"I became more interested in evolution and believed it because there was evidence."

Laurie, who has been married to second wife Gillian for 38 years, later sold his companies to the media baron Lew Grade's organisation, Associated Communications Corporation.

And, since then, he has created assets in theatre and property development using his experiences in various fields.

His latest philanthropic endeavour is the transformation of the Mill Theatre at Sonning Eye, an island on the Thames.

Actor George Clooney and his wife Amal own the house next door.

"My target is to create a long-term income for the Mill Theatre in order to support future productions," Laurie said.

"I look upon this kind of thing as a privilege to work on. It is about the future of theatres."

Despite approaching 86, he has no plans to kick back and relax.

"I have so much to do and want to continue to help others," Laurie explained. "Gillian and I are busy with many engagements during the week.

"Just last week, because I am on the voting committee at BAFTA, we have seen a couple of films, as it is is BAFTA season."

© 2016 Jewish Telegraph