Vernon Corea mentioned in a Sunday Times Sri Lanka article on the famous Galle Face Hotel in Colombo

Radio Ceylon broadcaster Vernon Corea was recently mentioned in a Sunday Times Sri Lanka feature on the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo:

From 1864, it has seen it all

With one of Colombo’s legendary landmarks, Galle Face Hotel reopening its doors after a facelift, Vinusha Paulraj walks down its corridors from a dim distant past to modern times.

Lined by Dutch cannons strategically placed to ward off returning Portuguese fleets, the mile-long promenade by Colombo’s sea front was the favoured spot for the colonial gentry ‘to take in the air’.

The way it was: Galle Face Hotel in its early days

It was British Governor Sir Henry Ward who commissioned the Galle Face Green, as we know it, in the late 1850s. Earlier the Green had sprawled over a much larger expanse with horse races being held there until they were moved to Colombo’s Race Course in the early 1800s.

Like the Green it overlooks, Galle Face Hotel’s stately façade is an integral part of Colombo’s landscape and one that has morphed with time.

As the historic hotel last month proudly unveiled its refurbished interiors with the management’s vision focused on restoring some lost grandeur, one of the hotel’s newly installed resident historians Sandali Matharage walked us through from past to present.

A team of British entrepreneurs constructed the Galle Face Hotel on the Green’s Southern end in 1864 where a Dutch building housing ammunition for their cannons and the soldiers manning them had once stood.

Vintage touch: Torch lamps light the con servatory. Pix by Indika Handuwala

The Dutch structure called “Galle Face House” was completely torn down, says Matharage, and rising in its place was “What we call the Hotel’s North Wing” designed by renowned architect Thomas Skinner.

Prior to the Suez Canal’s opening in 1869, the hotel had only consisted of the North Wing but shorter travel times saw a greater influx of visitors brought in by the ships calling at Colombo and the “South Wing” was built in 1890 to meet this demand.

The verandah runs across the building’s length, opening up to an arrestingly regal pillared porch which has seen the likes of Rudyard Kipling, Pope John Paul II and Steven Spielberg pass through.

Where once horse-drawn carriages bearing the Galle Face Hotel crest drew up, today taxis wait outside the same low walls hoping for a guest in need of a quick ride.

Vintage photographs of the main entrance show some notable changes during the 1960’s -70’s. Glass panelled doors were replaced by thick wooden ones with ornate oriental carvings.

If these walls could speak: The Coconut Room, now the Jubilee Room has witnessed many a rollicking party from yesteryear

The balustrade trimming a terrace over the porch was substituted by “something resembling tiles”.

“Originally there weren’t any majestic carved doors,” says Matharage explaining that in their place stood elegantly framed glass, with no local elaborations.

“There’s been significant streamlining of added frills which don’t seem evident in the few pictures of the hotel’s original interior. We have many pictures of the outside, but not as much of the inside.”

A colour photograph is how they discovered that the Galle Face Hotel was actually pink, Matharage says. The rosy hue owing to building materials used is now covered under layers of plaster.

Legendary parties are said to have been hosted in the “Coconut Room”. Famously known by that name in the early 1900s, the room had witnessed New Year’s Eve parties particularly during WWII that had even drowned out the sound of air raid sirens.

“Luckily it was just a drill and the band played on,” she smiles. In the 60’s the Coconut Room played host to talent searches like Radio Star Ceylon, hosted by Vernon Corea.

Local touch: Tissa Ranasinghe’s terracotta mural installed in 1970 now in full view at one end of the lounge

It was here that the Jetliners were discovered and the band went on to record their first album in the lobby. Minus dated tapestry trailing down from the skylight, today this space is called the Jubilee Ballroom.

No colonial hotel is complete without a grand ballroom. Before renovations guests could peer down into Galle Face Hotel’s grand ballroom from the balconies but these have now been sealed off to keep noise from echoing throughout the hotel.

Between the two renowned venues is what we’re told is “the Conservatory” which serves as an extended foyer to both ballrooms. Brass torch-like lamps resembling the original lamp-shades found in the dining room are new additions here.

Time has invariably muffled much that went on inside the Galle Face Hotel. Reports of a spa run by two sisters in one of the rooms, fail to mention where their establishment was in fact located.

Another shot in the dark for the staff was to assume records of a sport “enjoyed by both men and women” was a reference to croquet. Guests are soon to receive instructions on how to play the game as the hotel recently inaugurated its own “The Colombo Croquet Club.”

The South Wing: Wood panels and Otis elevator

The Sri Lankan touch is seen in the lobby where artist Tissa Ranasinghe’s large terracotta mural installed in 1970 depicting multi-ethnic worship in the country, previously visible over the former front desk, is now in full view at one end of the lounge.

The former smoking-lounge complete with wood panelled screen doors where Arthur C.Clarke is said to have penned the final chapters of his Space Odyssey trilogy isn’t included in the in-house tour.

But here behind the screen door is another ‘find’ from the 1940’s – an incomplete mural of brightly coloured dancers and fresh green foliage by Russian artist Alexander Sofronoff.

Connecting the North and South Wings is the black and white corridor synonymous with the Galle Face Terrace where countless cups of afternoon tea have been savoured.

Old photographs suggest that initially this was the restaurant itself, overlooking a larger lawn. Now the restaurant has grown, occupying more lawn-space.

The Southern Wing not used to capacity for the past 50 years has “a different feel to it” our guide shares. “We discovered that the elevators first installed in 1890 were manufactured by Otis, the same brand we use to date.”

Attention-grabbing exhibit in the museum: The cannon ball

Today its wood-toned interior houses guest rooms, a library featuring works of all celebrity guests and a museum in the conference area where plaques with familiar faces – former 007s, sportsmen, Olympic athletes, celebrated politicians, revolutionaries, clergy, royalty, explorers and authors who have visited the hotel stare back at you.

Next to the china “imported from the UK” imprinted with each modification of the hotel’s logo, a particular exhibit catches our attention.

The cannon ball sitting on a velvety bed has a curious tale. Misfired by a soldier in training, it had sailed through the hotel’s roof landing on the ground and rolling under a table around which a family was enjoying breakfast.

Thankfully it failed to detonate. It is a potent reminder that the Galle Face Hotel has seen it all and still stands strong.


The Nation Newspaper in Sri Lanka: Vernon Corea in a History of the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo

The Coconut Grove was Sri Lanka's premier entertainment venue at the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo. Vernon Corea has presented Radio Ceylon programmes here and introduced The Jetliners on stage. (Photo by Krankman)

The Coconut Grove was Sri Lanka’s premier entertainment venue at the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo. Vernon Corea has presented Radio Ceylon programmes here and introduced The Jetliners on stage. (Photo by Krankman)

A Feature in the Nation newspaper in Sri Lanka mentions Vernon Corea in a History of Galle Face Hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Top Photographer Graham Crouch mentions Vernon Corea in connection with his photograph of Galle Face Hotel

Award winning Australian Photographer Graham Crouch (based in New Delhi in India), mentions Sri Lanka’s legendary broadcaster with Radio Ceylon/SLBC, Vernon Corea in connection with his photograph of Galle Face Hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Vernon Corea – a bubbling personality says Sri Lankan mega star Mignonne Fernando

Sri Lankan mega star Mignonne Fernando of The Jetliners fame. Pho courtesy of the Sunday Times Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan mega star Mignonne Fernando of The Jetliners fame. Photograph courtesy of the Sunday Times Sri Lanka.

Vernon Corea of Radio Ceylon photograph taken in the 1960s.

Vernon Corea of Radio Ceylon photograph taken in the 1960s.

Sri Lankan mega star, Mignonne Fernando of ‘The Jetliners’ fame, paid a special tribute to legendary Radio Ceylon/SLBC broadcaster Vernon Corea. Mignonne wrote:

‘A bubbling Radio personality. a charming gentleman and a sincere friend to us. Happy Birthday Vernon and may the angels sing for you!’ Mignonne.

Vernon Corea’s birth anniversary fell on 11th September 2013. He would have been 86 years old.

The first ever superstar group from Sri Lanka - The Jetliners.

The first ever superstar group from Sri Lanka – The Jetliners.

The late Tony Fernando and Mignonne Fernando

The late Tony Fernando and Mignonne Fernando

He introduced Mignonne and the Jetliners at the Coconut Grove at Galle Face Hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka in the 1960s and on the airwaves of Radio Ceylon. Mignonne’s late husband, Tony Fernando was a close friend of Vernon’s.

The day Sir Laurence Olivier landed at Ratmalana Airport

Sir Laurence Olivier was in Ceylon during the filming of Elephant Walk in January 1953.

Sir Laurence Olivier was in Ceylon during the filming of Elephant Walk in January 1953.

He was one of the world’s greatest actors married to the beautiful Vivien Leigh. But he had to take an unexpected trip to Ceylon landing at Ratmalana Airport in January 1953. His wife Vivien Leigh who was given the starring role in ‘Elephant Walk’ was having a massive breakdown. Irving Asher, the producer of Elephant Walk sent frantic message to London urging Laurence Oliver to fly to Ceylon.

The stars fly to Ceylon.

The stars fly to Ceylon.

Richard Boyle of the Sunday Times of Sri Lanka tells the story –

‘Just one week later, in January 1953, they flew to Ceylon, Olivier requesting Finch at Heathrow “to take care of her”, not specifically stating that he meant she was afraid of flying. “Don’t worry,” replied Finch, “I will.” And he certainly did, far beyond the fear of flying.

“When their plane arrived at its destination,” writes Capua, “Vivien and Finch [remember he had encountered the island as a child] were enchanted with its natural beauty and by the local culture, which evoked many memories of her childhood.” Memories apart, inexorably the exotic ambience fuelled their already intense love affair, probably the most dazzling and spellbinding to have occurred among stars during the history of location filming in Ceylon/Sri Lanka.

Vivien’s unconventional behaviour on the production began several days after her arrival. During make-up, a Ceylonese assistant responsible for calling actors to the set came to check if she was ready. In awe of her beauty he couldn’t help but stare at her. She started shaking. When he departed the make-up artist asked what was wrong and she replied, “I’m so frightened of black eyes. I’ve always been frightened of black eyes.”

Providentially, Vivien’s Elephant Walk experience, referenced with subjective emotion in Olivier’s autobiography and in a detached manner in Vivien’s and Finch’s biographies, has been augmented by Bevis Bawa’s first-hand descriptions in Bevis Bawa’s Brief (2011). Their sense of humour is engaging, but more profound is the way he treats Vivien as an ‘ordinary’ person: “I spent hours in my chair at the Galle Face Hotel where she stayed, which was in the direct line from the lift to the cashier’s desk which she appeared to visit more frequently than most people. She fortunately did not trip over my feet but did drop a swizzle stick out of her bag when looking for her traveller’s cheques.”

Gallant Bawa launched his considerable frame in a dive to the floor to retrieve the stick and said to her: “I believe this is yours”. “She thanked me as any lady would, but her smile, which was a combination of her film and stage self, made me feel like Sir Laurence, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, Peter Finch and the whole motley lot rolled into one.”

Considering the relatively short shoot, and the heavy demands of a film production, Bawa spent much time with Vivien and Peter during the production, as well as Olivier during his stay. There is a misconception that Vivien was a couch star. In fact most observers, including Bawa, were astonished by her levels of energy. Moreover, Bawa conveys her desire to experience the country in some small way:

“We were in the middle of dinner at the Muslim Hotel in Kandy when she said, ‘I am climbing Adam’s Peak tonight. I must get to the top before sunrise.’ My heart thumped to a halt and Peter swallowed a chicken bone, ‘Don’t worry. The bedroom boy and my chauffeur have agreed to escort me.’ At lunch next day she was rather groggy at the knees but looked as fresh as ever . . . I questioned her escorts later and they told me that not even Vivien could have climbed the Peak and worked the following day, so they had taken her up Bible Rock instead.”

“One night after a gruelling day’s work she drove all the way from Anuradhapura to Kurunegala to watch a devil dancing ceremony which had been laid on for her.” The story goes that she became convinced that the devil had taken possession of her, but Bawa makes no mention of such a calamitous situation.

Other stories claim she tried to seduce a 64-year-old assistant, refused to act if Dieterle was looking at her, and always wanted to wear her costume wig tilted back. There was a growing fear of those dark eyes, night fires, the jungle, the heat. Finch and she drank heavily. Soon she became pale and emaciated. Dieterle, at his wit’s end, ordered her to rest, which made her defiant.

In his autobiography, Confessions of an Actor (1982), Olivier recounts that although Vivien had departed for Ceylon a fortnight earlier, “It seemed hardly two minutes before my peace was shattered”. This was due to a frantic phone call from the film’s producer, Irving Asher, to Olivier’s agent, Cecil Tennant, imploring him to send his client to Ceylon as work was at a virtual standstill.

Oliver obliged in haste. Paramount declared a holiday on his day of arrival so that Vivien could go and meet him. However, she decided it would be better if he came to meet her in Kandy. “So we went for a picnic about ten miles away from Kandy,” Bawa writes. “Halfway through our sandwiches and beer, she said: ’I think I will go down and meet Larry after all.’ . . . It was a drive I’ll never forget . . . At Ambepussa we dropped in for a quick gin and tonic. We had another at Galle Face, and then aimed at Ratmalana. We arrived just in time to see Larry getting into a taxi looking very cross indeed.”

Olivier insisted she return to work immediately. “This was met by a blaze of rage that surprised even me,” he writes. “In the unhappy colloquy that followed, I thought ruefully of the wretched waste of time, effort and money that I had been party to.” When they reached the Queen’s Hotel, Kandy, Olivier found that Finch was in as much control of the situation as he would have been. He was superfluous.

Vivien’s maid claimed that Vivien and Finch had not been to bed together but had stayed up and “lain together all night on the hillsides” – which meant she staggered to work each morning, was haggard, and often forgot her lines.

Inevitably Vivien, who had an increased libido due to her illness, brought up the subject of sex during dinner, which confirmed the predilections of Olivier and Finch: “I was most impressed on how she used her fingers when eating, using only the very tips most elegantly. She suddenly started talking about sex. As I felt she was skating on very thin ice I told her I was homosexual. She laughed and said, ‘But isn’t everybody? Larry is inclined that way too.’ Peter said, ‘Good Lord, I am gay too.’ This put me at my ease as I knew I was with broad-minded friends.”

During Olivier’s visit, Bawa made husband and wife climb the hill to Minette de Silva’s house. What happened sounds contrary to Olivier’s autobiography. “Vivien and Sir Laurence, in between our climbing and panting, thought they should put on a one-act play for me. They were so brilliant that I clearly saw them as the characters they were portraying, two British cockney naval ratings talking in the crudest of language. Vivien’s voice was gruff and she occasionally spat over the rails of an imaginary destroyer. She was being scolded by the boss, and what they said to each other kept me doubled up with amusement.”

As Olivier relates: “I’d arrived on Tuesday, and having expressed my regrets to Asher and wished him all the luck that he needed – which was a superabundance of it – I got myself onto a plane on the Friday morning and was in Paris on the Saturday [to work on The Beggar’s Opera]. My situation did not really bear any more thinking about, and I managed to insulate my feelings in a soft coat of numbness.”

Capua reports: “Once Olivier left the situation deteriorated: Vivien would follow Finch everywhere calling him “Larry”. She also started having hallucinations that were obviously not caused by exhaustion. Production decided to remove her from the set and fly her to Hollywood for a few weeks of rest before resuming work at the Paramount studio.”

Luckily Finch accompanied her on the trip, for as soon as the plane took off from Ratmalana Vivien unfastened her seatbelt, stood up and screamed that one of the wings was on fire. Assisted by the flight attendants, Finch tried to calm her, but she became hysterical, beating the plane windows with her fists and threatening to jump out of the plane. Then she started to strip off her clothes, clawing at everyone who tried to intervene, until finally they managed to sedate her.

On landing at Los Angeles Finch took Vivien to the house he had rented with his wife Tamara. On the tenth day of her stay at the Finches’ Vivien went to the studios to visit the set of Elephant Walk. She told Finch she felt fine, but a few hours later collapsed and was taken to her dressing room, where she became worse, quoting to Finch from Streetcar: “Get out of here before I start screaming ‘fire’! Get out of here before I start screaming ‘fire’!”

Vivien was swiftly sent to England for treatment for if she was diagnosed with mental illness she risked being confined to an institution. Thus Paramount was forced to terminate Vivien’s contract and find a substitute actress for the remainder of the filming. That person turned out to be Elizabeth Taylor, aged just 21, yet who had attained child stardom in 1944 in National Velvet. The long shots filmed in Ceylon with Vivien were used in the film, while all the dialogue and the close-ups had to be shot once again with Taylor. So the intended version was never completed, and Cinema has been left with an unsatisfactory hybrid; Vivien’s fans with just a few long shots to appreciate.

In December 1960 Olivier and Vivien were divorced. In May 1967 Vivien had a recurrence of tuberculosis and died on July 7, aged 53. Finch suffered a heart attack and died on January 14, 1977, aged 60. Olivier died of renal failure on July 11, 1989, aged 82.’

The Oliviers return to London from Ceylon.

The Oliviers return to London from Ceylon.

The Purple Plain starring Gregory Peck was filmed in Ceylon in 1954

Vernon Corea enjoyed watching the film ‘The Purple Plain’ starring the American Hollywood icon Gregory Peck in 1954. Gregory Peck stayed at the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo during the film. The Purple Plain (adapted from the book written by H.E.Bates with the screenplay by Eric Ambler) was filmed in Sri Lanka.

According to the Daily News, Sri Lanka: ‘The Purple Plain (1954) was another film that was shot almost entirely on location in Ceylon. It was based on the 1947 novel of the same name by author H E Bates, and starred Gregory Peck, Bernard Lee and Maurice Denham. The story was about a Canadian pilot serving in the Royal Air Force in Burma in the closing months of the World War II, who is battling with depression after having lost his wife. Most of the filming was done in and around Sigiriya as well as in Elephant Pass, Kitulgala and on the Kelani River. Name the American film editor, director, writer and former actor who directed The Purple Plain.’

US Vice President Richard Nixon’s broadcast over Radio Ceylon on 28th November 1953

US Vice President Richard Nixon recorded a radio broadcast over Radio Ceylon on 28th November 1953 during his visit to Sri Lanka.

US Vice President Richard Nixon recorded a radio broadcast over Radio Ceylon on 28th November 1953 during his visit to Sri Lanka.

US Vice President Richard Nixon became the first ever Vice President to visit Ceylon – his airacraft landed at Ratmalana Airport on 27th November 1953. Richard Nixon stayed with the Prime Minister of Ceylon Sir John Kotelawala at his residence in Temple Trees in Colombo. During that vidit he also stayed at the Galle Face Hotel Colombo. The next morning Nixon recorded a message for Radio Ceylon, just after breakfast – the US Vice President focused on the following factors – ‘On this visit to Asia I have been concerned that while many of the countries in which I have travelled are deeply aware of the threat of Communist expansion and the spectre of the third world war, they are also apprehensive that the mounting interest of the United States in this area may be just another phase of imperialism…I can say without equivocation: the United States firmly supports the orderly progress towards self-government throughout the world. The United States has no imperialistic ambitions whatsoever in Asia or in any other part of the globe.’

Richard Nixon’s message went over the airwaves of Radio Ceylon at 8.45 p.m. on the night of 28th November 1953.

Read a very interesting article on the reasons behind the US Vice President’s visit to Ceylon:

Vice-President Richard Nixon in 1953:

Prime Minister Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranayake met with President Nixon at the White House, during a private visit to Washington following her attendance at the United Nations General Assembly in 1971:

President Richard Nixon met with the Prime Minister of Ceylon Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike at the Oval Office of the White House in 1971.

President Richard Nixon met with the Prime Minister of Ceylon Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike at the Oval Office of the White House in 1971.