Legend Lotis bows out in style
Legendary singer and actor Dennis Lotis performs his farewell concert at the 21st Mundesley Festival on Wednesday at the age of 80. He spoke to Kathryn Cross about his career spanning six decades – and why he sold eggs to James Bond.
Dennis Lotis is never happier than when he is sitting at the bottom of his garden, spotting trout in the river and watching the cows in the fields beyond.
For anyone approaching retirement this home on the North Norfolk coast at Stiffkey must be the perfect haven to wile away lazy days.
But Lotis is no ordinary pensioner. He is already 80 years old and unaccustomed to taking it easy.
As a singer his career has lasted longer than Cliff Richard, he has appeared in nine films, countless musicals, cabarets and even on the stage in a Shakespearean role.
So it is no surprise that his farewell concert was sold out almost as soon as it was announced. As an adopted son of Norfolk its music lovers have certainly taken him to their hearts.
“I have lived in Norfolk since 1982 and so I wanted this last concert to be with local musicians,” he said.
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“So most of the guys are from Norwich and around about with just a drummer from London and a trumpet player from Brighton.
“I have called this a farewell concert but, who knows, I might be like Howard Keel and do another one in a few years time!”
Dennis Lotis was born far away from the North Norfolk coast. He came into the world in Johannesburg, South Africa, on March 8, 1925 and singing soon became his life.
As a singer with one of South Africa's top bands he began to enjoy the high life and it was during this time he met and married top model Rena Mackie.
But his big break was yet to come. Spotted by Ted Heath, he won a place singing with his world famous orchestra, which became arguably the greatest British big band ever, and gave Lotis the chance to sing alongside huge names such as Dickie Valentine, Lita Roza and Bobbie Britton.
After nearly five years, and his name on everybody's lips, he decided to go solo and toured some of the major variety theatres of Britain including the celebrated London Palladium.
His popularity was soaring and he was soon snapped up for film and television work including the series Tin Pan Alley and Hit Parade co-starring Petula Clark.
While her husband toured the country, appeared in his first stage musical Harmony Close, starred in three more films and generally mixed with the glitterati of the 1950s, Rena made it her job to settle their growing family of three sons, Damon, Kim and Gareth in London.
“She was a marvellous woman,” said Lotis of his late wife.
“She did everything for me. She never came on tour because she was looking after the children but she bought and sold all our houses so I never knew what I was going to come home to.
“Our first house was in Mill Hill and we lived there about seven years before we sold it to Russ Conway. Then we moved to Kings Langley to a big house with about six acres of land.
“Rena kept saying she wanted to do something with the land but I thought it was fine just as it was for the boys to enjoy.
“I was working a lot at the time and hardly at home but I came back one day and there was a huge Nissen hut in the grounds. Rena told me 2000 chickens were arriving the next day. She decided she wanted to sell eggs so she bought a little Ford van and distributed these eggs to our friends like Roger Moore, Sean Connery and Graham Hill.
“I am sure we spent more money on feeding the chickens than we ever got for the eggs.” Who knows if it was the excellent eggs that inspired Graham Hill to call his son after Lotis's son Damon?
Within seven years the family moved again to Tring where they renovated an old shop into a restaurant and antiques business - another of Rena's ideas.
“If you liked the table you were sitting at you could buy it,” added Lotis.
“Rena worked so hard and was hopeless at delegating. We had six girls helping out but I would come home after a gig at 2am to find Rena doing the washing up.”
With an American tour with the Ted Heath Band, more television and radio work, and three major films, including She'll Have to Go with Bob Monkhouse, Alfred Marks and Hattie Jacques, as well as Royal Command Performances under his belt, Lotis decided they should step down a gear.
His middle son Kim, who lives in North Elmham, suggested they find a house near him in Norfolk.
“We found this 18th-century house in Field Dalling which had a vine in the conservatory. As I am half Greek I decided that I had found a part of my father there and fell in love with it.
“Friends thought we were mad and said nobody would go to Norfolk but I told them that was why I loved it.”
In the late 1990s however Lotis's world fell apart when his beloved wife was diagnosed with cancer but before she died she found one last home - but this time it would be without her.
“She told me that the Field Dalling house would be too big just for one person so she looked around and found this place in Stiffkey and she was right - it was perfect for me.”
He also feels she was instrumental in another aspect of his life after Rena - finding his second wife.
“I have married again, to a wonderful woman who is much younger than me. Actually she is my wife's niece, Bronwen, and I am sure Rena had a hand in that too because she would have wanted someone to look after me.”
The couple now enjoy exploring the marshes near their home - he cycles and Bronwen runs.
But while Lotis has still been performing right up to his last concert - he appeared at the Cannes Festival earlier this year with his grand-daughter and then jetted off to sing in Spain - he also enjoys entertaining his many celebrity friends at his Norfolk retreat.
“I have seen Dora Bryan several times who was in the musical Six of One with me at the Adelphi and I am surprisingly good friends with Roger Moore's ex-wife Dorothy Squires.
“We fell out years ago when we were living in Mill Hill and she and Roger had just separated.
“He had phoned me up to ask me to find him a house near us for him and a young lady called Luisa who he was bringing back from Italy.
“He was filming The Saint at the time and as the Elstree studios were near Mill Hill it would be a perfect location. But he didn't want Dorothy to know.
“However somehow Dorothy did find out and she came along one night and threw bricks at all the windows. Roger phoned me and asked if they could come and stay at our house because Luisa was terrified.
“After a few nights with us the phone rang and it was Dorothy in vitriolic fashion going crazy that we had got Roger's 'Italian cow' at our house.
“We didn't talk after that night for two years but then she rang out of the blue to say she had just heard me on the radio and that it was 'bloody marvellous' and that we should work together again. We sold out the Drury Lane Theatre and recorded an album so all was definitely forgiven.”
Lotis knows he has been very lucky to have enjoyed a career which he would have done for nothing. “And I am still getting paid for it,” he said.
“But I am getting tired. I am fed up driving around the country on these horrendous roads so I feel it is time to stop.”
It seems that this time perhaps Lotis is really going to try and take it easy.
After Mundesley he is planning to spend a year in Bronwen's native country Tasmania in the house they recently bought together but no doubt the pull of Norfolk will bring him home again - even if it is just to see that there are still trout in that river.
The 21st Mundesley Festival at the Coronation Hall starts on Sunday August 7 with an Olde Tyme Music Hall show and runs until Saturday August 12 with the Last Night of the Proms with the Taverham Band. Monday night's performance of Ollie Day with the Jonathan Wyatt Big Band and Dennis Lotis on Wednesday are sold out but tickets are available on all the other nights, including the popular Songs from the Silver Stage featuring The Upper Octave on Friday. More information and tickets from Patrick Bonham on 01263 720965, from the visitor centre in the shoppers' car park in Mundesley and in our online listings - www.edp24.co.uk/content/whatson/search/