Flowers in her arms, flowers at her feet, Gracie Fields seemed to have had every red rose in Lancashire thrust upon her.
"Our Gracie" stood center stage in Rochdale's new Gracie Fields Theater. The cast of a concert in her honor and the audience sang with her the song that has been her theme for 47 years: "Sally, Sally, pride of our alley, you're more than the whole world to me."
At 80, Gracie Fields has not lost the tendency to break into song at the slightest encouragement. One voice shouts, "Sing 'Sally,'" and she's off.
The concert here last month climaxed Rochdale's two-day tribute to the "ordinary mill girl" who became the highest-paid entertainer in the world in the 1930s. It was here that she was born and, as Grace Stansfield, made her debut in 1906 singing on the stage of a cinema.
"Me mother was crying in the front row and me father was drunk behind the piano stool," she recalled recently. From here, she advanced to international stardom as vocalist, comedienne, music hall artist and film actress.
Her jutting profile has softened with age.After two days of impromptu recitals in the open air, her voice - although strong and melodious - could no longer fully support the trills and yodels with which she punctuated her songs.
"One ear has been deaf all my life," she told reporters. "The other one's always been good, but right now in my 80th year, it's beginning to get wonky."
But her cheek, the direct humor that has engaged audiences since her music hall days, remains unblunted.
At the emotional end of last month's concert, when many in the audience were getting a bit weepy, Fields said: "We'll see you in the market tomorrow." And a bit later "I'm very happy about this theater called the Gracie Fields, but I'm just wondering if I have to be here at 9 o'clock to clean it."
Asked earlier about her life in her Mediterranean home, she had said: "I'm just a Capri housewife like anyone else. I get up in the morning and make my porridge. There's always someone coming in, so you've got to wash your face."
The woman who is universally "our Gracie" to people here hasn't lived in this town, 10 miles from Manchester, for more than 60 years. She has lived on Capri for many years. But the queen herself would be lucky to receive such a reception here.
Several thousand people jammed into a narrow plaza Friday afternoon to see her dedicate a new covered market and shopping precinct. She sang "Sally" to the accompaniment of the great Manchester police ban - as she had earlier that morning - and then sang again from the platform after her official duties were over.
She was always anxious to please, whether by posing in a policeman's helmet or pushing her nose up against the window to kiss and wave to admirers who were peering in at a reception attended by local worthies. With her throughout the visit was her third husband, 75-year-old Boris Alperovici, whom she married in 1952.
At every engagement, a large proportion of the audience was old-age pensioners - people who remember the same Rochdale that she does a textile mill town where women wore shawls and clogs and children left school at the age of 11 or 12 to work in the mills.
They also remember years of depression when the mills closed down and Fields returned to give concerts for the benefit of the unemployed, and years of war when she gave concert after concert for British. American and Commonwealth troops.
For many of the younger people of Rochdale, however, her reputation means little. They're grown up hearing "our Gracie" stories like they've heard war stories, and both began to pall with repetition. Few have seen her films like "Looking on the Bright Side" (1932), "Sing as We Go" (1934) and "Look Up and Laugh" (1935), whose humor is still not dated.
With few exceptions, "Gracie fever" was confined to older generations. Contributors to the Rochdale Observer's "memories-of-Gracie" letters competition had to be over 65. Their efforts were published in a 20-page "Gracie Extra."
Even among the elderly, approval was not unanimous. As one woman squeezed through a crowd waiting for Fields she groused, "She's done most for Rochdale, she's only cadged for herself."
An old man who overheard this said, "What a cheeky beast."
Exchanges like this illustrate the terse Lancashire manner that Fields herself never lost.
"She speaks out what she thinks - she doesn't wrap anything up," explained Mrs. C.V. Clough, 81. "She's completely natural; I think that's what people in Rochdale like."
Another woman who had come to Rochdale just to catch a glimpse of Fields said, "You get it straight from the Rochdale people. They don't go and tell someone else, they tell you."
Some people have never "forgiven" Fields for leaving England in 1940 for the United States. Accusations that she had "deserted" and taken all her wealth with her were later refuted, but the episode is still a topic of conversation.
Most people here appear to agree with Clough, who said, "All during the war she was a big worker. She was never asked in vain to do anything."
To mark the visit, the local museum put on a special exhibition about Field's life. A local cinema arranged a special program of two of her films.
Even RAP (Rochdale Alternative Press) could not ignore her visit. But its attempts at debunking the legend seemed muted and half-hearted, dwelling on her luxurious villa on Capri, whose worth it estimated at $10 million. The magazine was glad that she escaped poverty "without losing her humor and without acquiring the less pleasant habits of the rich she has joined."
However, it concluded: "But her way out provides no solution for many who remain where she once was. Individual success never does."
Fields' triumphant homecoming grew out of an invitation by local children to present prizes at their school. Ths local council then decided to name a new $1.6 million, 670-seat theater after her and to dedicate it with a concert.
She agreed to sing a few songs at the end, but she made it clear that she didn't consider this a farewell concert. "You cannot say you're going to do a farewell concert any more than you can say you're going to drop dead," she said.
Tickets for the concert cost $5 and $10, and demand was so great that Rochdale council set up another 700 seats at $2 each, in an adjoining gymnasium for a closed-circuit telecast of the concert. The concert also was taped for a television documentary.
"We could have sold 5,000 tickets for the live performance," said Francis Lee, the council's entertainment director, "We're still being pestered for tickets to the show and we've heard that one changed hands in Rochdale last week for 150 pounds ($300)."
Most of the performers in the concert were local amateurs - the brass band, operatic and dramatic societies, a school orchestra and choir, dancers from a local academy and a young representative of a speech festival who declaimed "John Brown's Boy." Three English comedians Larry Grayson, Sandy Powell and Ben Warriss - also donated their services.
At the end, "our Gracie" sang 16 songs, walking over to the piano after each number to check with the accompanist. Not only does she sing as she goes, she has the knack for getting everyone around to join in. This audience was no exception, but her voice rang clear above them all.