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Catching up with Pip

Sunday, December 17, 2000

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Editor

The tiny English town of Teigh is in loam-rich farming and fox-hunting country, a heartland England of hedgerows and history. And among its 38 people clustered in 16 houses around a manor house and 13th-century church, there's a particular attraction -- Pittsburgh emigre Pip Theodor, 84, retired to what looks like a cozy life of country calm.

But as Miss Marple, the definitive psychologist of the English countryside, once observed, an English village holds all the complexity of the wide world. Pip's life has taken him over much of that world, but now, in Teigh, it is grounded in tragedy.

Many Pittsburghers remember Pip as the elderly bow-tied sprite who from 1988 to 1997 was a prime-time host on WQEX-TV (Channel 16) with special concern for its array of Britcoms. Pip -- everyone calls him that -- also put his plummy English accent and agile mind to work for 13 years as theater and movie critic for WDUQ-FM, and for a few years he reviewed movies for WDVE-FM. Then in mid-1997, after 17 years in Pittsburgh, he and his Pennsylvania-born wife, Veronica , decided to retire to England. They found Teigh and a charming 300-year-old farm cottage, everything you could want in picturesque rural domesticity.

Tragedy struck in September 1998: Their small car was demolished by a two-part truck ("blood red," Pip recalls) that jackknifed on a country road. Veronica, 57, was killed instantly, and Pip, then 82, was left in a battered heap, most of the way toward death himself.

"There were a helicopter and medics who picked us up, not knowing who we were," he says. A policewoman told him that in the chopper he said, "In the event of emergency, please notify Pat Morley in the village of Teigh." The first thing he knew he was waking up in Queen's Hospital in Nottingham and finding his son, Jeffrey, beside him, flown in from South Africa.

"I can't tell this part without crying," Pip says. And it's true. Right there in the Black Bull pub, a year and a half later, his eyes fill: "When I came to, Jeffrey said, 'Don't go, Pippy. We love you. We need you.' The greatest quote of my life. To live 80 years and learn that! I like to think it was that moment that turned me around."

Teigh in winter

Gregarious, articulate and opinionated, Pip makes a strong impression on all who meet him. Lots of Pittsburghers count him as a friend. But how many know much about his life? Two visits this year extracted his story.

The first was in late winter, as the fertile land stirred with early news of spring. In spite of a busy signpost pointing in every direction, you might say Teigh (pronounced tea) isn't near much of anything at all. It's somewhere in the East Midlands, in Rutland, the smallest English shire -- blink and the train will pass through before you know you've been there. Even in railway-rich England, you have to change to get to Oakham, then take a taxi the rest of the way.

Pip's house, like all in Teigh, is built of soft yellow-ochre brick and stone. The stone walls dovetail neatly, topped with dark reddish tile. When Pip and Veronica went house-hunting in 1997, they dealt with 17 real-estate agents and covered 300 miles in two weeks.

"And we found this place," he says with a rumble of satisfaction mixed with melancholy. "We put in thousands of bulbs. We'd sit here marveling: To come back to England and smell that hay in the fields!" But now he points across the road. "And there me darling rests."

As a Roman Catholic, Veronica had to have a special dispensation to be buried in front of the 1215 Anglican church, where a stone rectangle reads, "Veronica Dymphna Anderson-Theodor, born Pennsylvania USA, died tragically 10 Sept. 1998, a mere 57 years old. 'I loved her so much.'"

Veronica is continually on Pip's mind. "I wish I had my doll with me: She was a born Anglophile. Some of the neighbors called her 'The Lady with a Large Hat.'

"She was often forbidding to those who did not get to know her. There was no gray in her world. She was a confirmed and unyielding Catholic -- although known to yawn during Mass. She was generous and loving and loyal. Superlative in child care, though childless, a superlative cook and organizer of events and household. Now alone in my dark hours, I wonder how much I underestimated her."

He has had lots of time to think. It's been a long mend -- 12 weeks in the hospital, and, two years later, still counting.

"Jeff stayed 10 days. The hospital put him up." Many weeks later, Pip finally declared, "If you don't get me out of this eff-ing place in four days, I'm going to go mad, very mad, and you don't want me to go mad, do you?" On Dec. 6, Jeffrey came back to England to move him to Teigh.

Now he lives alone, getting around as best he can, doing his own simple cooking and laundry. He makes a very fine pot of tea. Janet Cooper, a neighboring farm wife, comes in for two hours each morning and takes him shopping once a week. ("I push the barrow," he insists.) Friends take him to Mass.

"I don't solicit pity. What's the good of it? The English aren't good at it, anyway, but what they are good at is help. But from about 6 in the evening until the next morning, you're on your own."

One arm is now permanently 2 inches shorter than the other. There's little chance he'll ever again walk without a cane. (A "stick," he calls it -- it was two sticks to start.) He's still waiting for monetary compensation for the injury and suffering. "I can't garden now, which is a great disappointment." And there's a pelvic operation in his future, to try to "reconnect my left leg to my slightly broken frame. This time, instead of nuns in attendance, I want dancing girls!"

After the crash was reported in the Post-Gazette, Pip was overwhelmed to receive more than 200 letters and cards. "Some were people I don't even know," he recalls, still astonished. "It was more than I could answer."

The Black Bull, Market Overton

Pip wants to show off the countryside, so as a taxi chugs toward Market Overton, he falls into tour-guide mode -- one of many roles he's played. The manor house we see from his front door served as the parsonage in the 1995 A&E miniseries "Pride and Prejudice." Rutland's name is from the Viking "rodland," or red land -- good rich earth. He describes one town as "one post office, one small store and a lot of thirsty men." And fox hunters? "They hardly ever catch a fox," he confides.

At the capacious Black Bull, where Sir Isaac Newton is supposed to have drunk, Pip proves a sturdy consumer of double gins. "It makes me more loquacious," he says. "Of course, everything makes me more loquacious. ... I'm loquacious already."

He makes a picturesque presence in a pub. A presence anywhere, he seems especially at home with polished wood and brass reflecting the glow in his cheeks on a blustery March day. His curly, snow-white hair sets off his still-dark eyebrows. Wiry and short of stature, he looks like a Limey leprechaun, an English Burgess Meredith.

He ought to be at home at the Black Bull: In the past two years, he's written an irregular column in the weekly Rutland Times, "Pip's Pubs," discussing their beer, owners, comforts and cuisine. Among his many insights, he explains the gradual spread of lagers at the expense of traditional English ales and bitter: "Younger drinkers have been brought up on the fizzy nipple of Coke and Pepsi."

Reminiscing about Pittsburgh, he recalls his rendition of Tom Hegg's poem, "A Cup of Christmas Tea," recorded in 1985 and a yearly tradition since. "[WDUQ announcer] Kevin Gavin made a big song and dance of that." At WDUQ, he sometimes pinch-hit as announcer, running the board. "I made some superlative cockups, there. ... Sometimes I was fair pissing myself."

He's still remembered in Pittsburgh for his creative answering machine messages for Saul Markowitz, head of Markowitz Communications. They met in 1986, when Markowitz worked for the Benedum. Pip must have identified with the young man, giving him advice based on his own 40 years in the business. As for Markowitz, "I loved the way he did interviews. Pip and Richard Harris were like drinking buddies before they were done. Then when I got my first real office, he told me he hated my answering machine message. So he started playing a butler named Jeeves on my voice mail.

"We'd target his message to different shows: During 'Cats' he'd say, 'Saul's away cleaning out the litter box.' Some people phoned just to hear his messages. When I took a job at CMU and then the zoo, Jeeves came along. We're still together -- I give Pip my answering machine code, and he changes my message from home. People love it."

As to WQEX, Pip says it was Veronica who urged him to apply. "She heard they were doing these English shows. I went in and told them, 'I have a very long experience' -- that, at least, I could claim. They said, 'OK, we'll give you five minutes.'"

Pip was a natural to introduce such British comedies as "EastEnders," "Are You Being Served?," "Fawlty Towers" and "'Allo, 'Allo." Then-head of WQEX Michael Fields says Pip "was the essence of the station -- honest and human. He never went on the air as anything but himself. We had Marie Torre, Eleanor Schano and Josie Carey, lots of people with big followings, but the catalyst was Pip. He lived an interesting life and always had a sweet, funny quip. He was everybody's mascot."

The station viewership wasn't large, but it was intense. Everyone knew that bow tie, as WQEX discovered at a senior citizens fair in the early '90s, when Pip proved the premier draw.

He sums it up succinctly: "I bulled a lot, played prime-time host, pitched for money." And he remembers once telling viewers "to put the little monsters to bed. I dropped a clanger there! The phones rang, and I was quickly put right: 'You tell that English fella, my kids are not monsters.'"

Teigh for tea

Back in his cozy cottage, Pip exchanges his tweedy look for a bright red Civic Light Opera sweatshirt in honor of his Pittsburgh visitors. He serves up a proper English tea and talks about his life.

Eric Theodor (his real name) was born in 1916 in Shanghai, China, and lived some 600 miles up the Yangtze in Hangchou until age 7. His father, Gustav but nicknamed Geoffrey, worked for Pip's grandfather, William, who owned a China tea firm. Pip remembers William well: "one of the great tea blenders/tasters of his time. He was a wickedly wonderful man, enormously powerful. He traveled to China 13 times, twice on the Trans-Siberian Railway, once with a rifle to deal with Gobi Desert bandits. He used to take me to cricket matches at Lords and the Oval. Memories!"

Moved back to England, the family lived in Hampstead and then Hendon. Eric went to prep school and then public school (which we'd also call prep school). His first job was with Lewis Tussaud's Art Waxwork Traveling Co. Then, just 17, he settled in with Dorland Advertising on London's Lower Regent Street, just "a little fellow with a big desk and big green lamp." He recalls getting one slogan accepted for a chocolate laxative out of 600 submitted, but he was in on the ground floor of a glamorous young profession.

After five years, he left to become a free-lance journalist and was just succeeding in the south of France when World War II came. Six years in the RAF took him all over Europe and Africa (many more stories on demand). In 1948, he answered an ad for an advertising position in South Africa and set off by immigrant ship where the hammocks were hung three deep.

"I've hurt one or two people in my life," he admits. "One was Gertie Franks: I owed her 10, and she died on me. The other was when I was going to get engaged to a girl, Gwynneth, in England, but I went out to South Africa. It was chaos after the war. I said I'd bring her out, but then I wrote her it wasn't going to work."

He joined a large advertising firm in Johannesburg and also turned his hand to this and that, as he has all his life. "To augment a weak salary, I went in for radio acting -- my two best roles were Ira Gershwin and Napoleon. I also did commercials and wrote a remarkably unpopular radio serial."

His first wife was Elsie, who "spun a web that completely captivated me." Life with her became "supercharged hell," but before they divorced, they had a son, Jeffrey, now 50, "tough, dedicated," who with his wife, Hilmary, Pip's only grandchild, Luke, "a stunningly handsome little tiger."

His second wife was Sigle, Irish for Sheila. She was "witty, vicious and much younger than I. Temptatious, I call her. She gave me two daughters who have sadly drifted into the clouds of non-contact. ... I didn't want daughters. I'm not a man good with children." He says she left him for his wealthy boss. "I was a spent Roman candle; she got herself a rocket."

"I wasn't rampageous," he says, savoring his word, "but I loved women."

Indeed, when he speaks of his friends in Pittsburgh, there are several families to send best wishes to, but "many ladies, too: Rita, you with the silver laugh; Debbie, queen of the airlines; Suzanne, the Lady of the Shadows; Leigh, elusive, exclusive; Jane, virginal with a loving heart."

The other woman who had the greatest pull on Pip was his sister, Sylvia, six years younger, who died in 1980 of cancer. "She was a real triumph of English womanhood. 'I don't like those silly things connected with sex,' she'd say. I adored her, a lovely woman, hard as hell."

Then came Veronica. A native of Ebensburg, Cambria County, with a degree from Mount Aloysius Junior College in Cresson, she moved to South Africa at 21. They were "brought together by a Portuguese market gardener. She was a rigid Roman Catholic, but there were fires burning within," Pip says. Two years later, they married.

"But after Soweto, Veronica said she couldn't stay in South Africa any longer. I felt the same. It was a good life, but it was on the backs of people." They came to the United States on the QE2 and, because Veronica had worked briefly at Horne's after college, they decided to try Pittsburgh. Pip did some advertising work and reinvented himself again as a critic and media man. Veronica worked as a nanny, as she had once for the family of Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templar -- "scourge of the Malay Communists," Pip specifies. (You wouldn't call Pip a snob, but he does like to cite an accomplishment or a pedigree.)

Veronica also interested herself in the church. At St. Mary Church in Sharpsburg, there's a recent series of painted prophets, and in the last on the right, a very youthful Veronica shows up as an attendant angel. Together, the couple attended Pittsburgh's Latin Mass at St. Boniface Church on the North Side -- a natural enthusiasm for a Catholic Anglophile like Veronica. Without any pressure from her, Pip became a Catholic in 1996.

Flash-forward to 1997. WQEX folded. Their landlady died, and the building was sold. They said, "It's time to go." Again, Veronica was leery of violence in South Africa, so England won out. And now, for all his cheery host ways and bubbling tea service, Pip lives alone.

"I can't quite understand why this happened to me. There must be a reason. ... I think God has a marvelous sense of humor, though I don't always get the joke."

Jermyn Street, London

On Jermyn Street, where the squirearchy still shops, Pip could well pass for a crusty old colonel in from the country to order fresh shirts, shoes and shotguns. But it's October, and, rather teetery, he's risked traveling into town to visit for a few days with Paul and Jackie Busang, old friends from Pittsburgh.

"He was the perfect TV host," Paul Busang recalls: "he was never just another face." Jackie Busang adds, "He still has that sparkle in his eye."

He's pleased to be remembered by many Pittsburghers. "Americans are so amazingly friendly," he says. But the legacy of his accident is frustrating. "There's nothing more dreadful than having an old fart hanging on your arm," he apologizes as he's helped up some steps. Recently, Markowitz arranged for Pip to record a series of radio spots "in a Jeevish voice" for CoGo's that are still running. But getting around to write his Rutland Times column is hard -- his limitations rankle.

Even so, he's feisty, full of political opinions. "This wanker from Islington," he says -- that would be Tony Blair. "Our dis-United Kingdom," he grumbles. "I can't put up with their stupidity," he declares, and "they" turn out to be mainly the Tories, even though he's a Tory himself. "The Tories are too busy cutting each other up, and New Labor are like children with new toys."

Always an engaging conversationalist, over a series of meals and gins he touches on many topics. Of the royal coat of arms at Fortnum and Mason: "I think the lion's a lovely old chap you could have a beer with." He imitates an American demanding water from a waiter and produces a pretty good American accent, even though, "Veronica wouldn't let me do American accents -- she said I did them badly.

"In America, it's easier to live the good life," he insists. "They don't live a good life here. Where we beat the Americans is in pageantry." But a waiter arrives: "Ahh -- they do make a lovely gin and tonic in this country. I think it built the empire." Then he's off on a tale of his brother-in-law, Peter Palmes, a captain in the 6th Gurkha Rifles who served three years in the Burma jungle: "He had an association with gin."

Last summer, Pip visited his son in South Africa. "I'm not very good with children," he says. "I'm frightened of them and they of me." But Luke is different, his 6-year-old grandson, "born the same day Mandela became president."

Pippy, Luke calls him. He tells a story of Luke zipping up to him with a motorized scooter they have in supermarkets there: "Pippy, come!" At first Pip scoffed, but then he had an insight: "Why was I saying no? That's typical of my age. So I said OK, and I'll tell you, lad, talk about Formula One! It was mayhem among the aisles. We had the manager, my daughter-in-law and who knows who all else, running around. It was the best moment of my visit."

He calls his quick trip to London "positively antipodal. One day, I'm sitting in a tiny village in a place no one can pronounce," then off to the crossroads of the world. Now, back to "more rustication. It's been an exhausting couple of days."

Too soon, it's time to race across London to Kings Cross Station to get Pip on the train toward Teigh. As he settles onto his seat, he finally explains how he got his name:

"I was about 12, a student at Grove Park School, wearing a little Norfolk jacket and shorts with long black stockings with purple tops. It was pissing rain when we got to Tunbridge Wells, and we took a taxi from the station to Cage Green Farms. Down a path of brown mud in the rain came a large lady wearing wellies and a mac.

"Peter said, 'Hello, Mater, how are you?' She said, 'Who's this?' pointing at a terrified small boy -- me. 'Oh, this is Eric Theodor,' said Peter; 'he's come home with me for the Easter break.'

" 'Eric,' she said, looking down at me as if I were a microbe on linen. 'That's the majestic name of a conqueror or warrior. He only looks like a pipsqueak! I shall call him Pip.'"

So he's been ever since.

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