On the anniversary of John Lennon's death, a local restaurateur legend remembers how the Beatle helped his family launch a home for kids with autism.
Late British acting royalty Robert Morley was the father of the man behind beloved South Tampa pub Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Wilton Morley, 71, grew up surrounded by seemingly endless elements of show biz. Whether he was hanging out with his maternal grandmother Dame Gladys Cooper—who portrayed Mrs. Higgins in “My Fair Lady” in 1964—or drinking tea with Humphrey Bogart, there never seemed to be a shortage of stardom in his life.
One of his dad’s best friends was fellow British actor David Tomlinson, best known for having portrayed George Banks in “Mary Poppins.” Tomlinson’s son, Willie—who dealt with autism—inspired Robert to raise money to assist in opening a new home for autistic children in 1967, a year in which autism was hardly recognized at all.
“He was trying to get all his showbiz acquaintances to give a thousand pounds each and was not having much luck,” Wilton told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. As a result, Wilton told his father to reach out to The Beatles.
The band’s soon-to-flop Apple Boutique was virtually right next door to his father-in-law Herbert Buckmaster’s members-only club Buck’s, located on Old Burlington Street, which runs off Savile Row. Not to mention that The Beatles almost certainly knew his films, having grown up while he was at the top. Robert seemed to have plenty of hope in his heart that members of the biggest band in the world could help him out with his major act of kindness in some way, even if it meant giving him some free clothing from the boutique, which shuttered less than a year later.
Robert headed for Apple a few days later to make his proposal, and met up with no other than John Lennon himself. The Beatle—who was shot dead in New York's Central Park 42 years ago on Dec. 8, 1980—was so intrigued and touched by the actor’s idea that he threw £2000 towards the new home. A week later, Robert took Lennon—as well as longtime Beatles roadie and assistant Mal Evans—down to the existing, run-down home, in an effort to show them what was going on, and why a new one needed to be established as soon as possible.
The three engaged with the children as much as they could, and Lennon in particular was very good at playing with one child, who kept knocking a small trash can full of paper over. Every time the child did it, Lennon would put all the paper back in, and the cycle would start anew for about an hour.
Later that night, while heading back to London, Lennon asked Robert if he would play Father Christmas at an upcoming party for Apple employees that both marked the holiday season, and the launch of the Magical Mystery Tour
era. Both the EP and film released in December 1967, following the prior U.S. release of the yellow-covered album on Capitol Records.
Morley accepted Lennon’s offer, and went on to play Father Christmas at what evolved from an enigmatic event that was only billed as something to do with Magical Mystery Tour, to one of the most star-studded, extravagant shindigs ever put on by the Fab Four.
The entire cast of the new film was invited, and an entire Christmas feast was provided for all attendees. A number of unannounced stars showed up to perform, too. The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band put on one of their sessions, Lennon’s father Alfred—a banjo player—joined in the fun, and even Mike Love and Bruce Johnston of The Beach Boys showed up as last-minute guests.
And rest assured, Morley—who was giving out chocolate bars and other holiday related novelties—was not the only one in costume. Cilla Black came dressed as Charlie Chaplin, Ringo Starr a regency buck, and Paul McCartney and at-the-time girlfriend Jane Asher were clad in “pearly king and queen” regalia.
The day after the party, Robert got a telegram from the Beatles, thanking him for being such a great Father Christmas the night before. “I have it somewhere, only wish I could find it,” Wilton told CL Tampa.
Not many Floridians can say that John, Paul, George, and Ringo were mutual friends, so here’s hoping it’s just safely lying in a box somewhere.