Whistling has become a casualty of modern life. In the post-war years, millions whistled while they worked: window-cleaners, builders, deliv-ery boys and, of course, the seven dwarfs. Ronnie Ronalde was ac-claimed as the best and most successful whistler in the world. He topped variety bills and every one of his records passed the old grey whistle test. Al Jolson told him, “You’ve got a good whistle there, sonny boy.”
He was born Ronnie Waldron in the London borough of Islington in 1923. His father Charles was sometimes out of work and his mother Ann would play the piano in local pubs for a few shillings. Ronnie soon discovered that he could whistle effectively and he would join her, col-lecting tips in his school cap. He always knew he could enhance his pocket money by whistling in the street.
Ronnie was a bright boy and he took a clerical job when he was 14 but soon left to join Steffani’s Silver Songsters, where he was singled out as “the Pink of Perfection”. They toured the UK during the war and then Ronnie was conscripted for army service. After the war, Arturo Steffani disbanded his Songsters and offered to manage him, giving him a new name, Ronnie Ronalde. Ronalde studied singing in London and went to Switzerland to learn yodelling techniques.
In 1949 he caused a sensation when he appeared on a variety bill at Radio City Music Hall in New York for 10 weeks. At first he would appear just before Roy Rogers and Trigger, but his whistling caused the horse to urinate. Rogers told him that winning horses often had to be tested after racing so Ronalde could have a new career if he wished. On subsequent visits he met Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. Russell sat on his lap, stuck her fingers in his mouth and told him to whistle, and as Ronalde told me in 2000, “Marilyn Monroe said my whistle made her shiver, now why did it do that? It must be something spiritual, I think.”
In 1950 the EMI record producer Norman Newell was in a pub on the Edgware Road when Ronalde performed If I Were A Blackbird on the radio. As the customers were silent as he performed, Newell realised that this could be a hit record. That and In A Monastery Garden became best-selling records and favourites on the BBC programme Housewives’ Choice.
He recorded the songs of the day, singing and whistling his way through Hair Of Gold, Eyes Of Blue and Mocking Bird Hill. He dis-cussed bird song with the ornithologist Percy Edwards and when he re-corded Ballad Of Davy Crockett he made sure that his choice of birds of birds was right for the area. He could mimic flutes and violins, while his version of I Believe highlighted his commanding tenor voice.
his commanding tenor voice.
In 1954 an imposter toured the Netherlands pretending he was Ronalde and borrowing money from elderly ladies, saying he was expecting a cheque from the BBC. The imposter was jailed for four years – but he must have had considerable talent to be impersonating Ronalde.
Ronalde was a major attraction and audiences marvelled at his lightning-fast versions of Tritsch Tratsch Polka and Can-Can. He hosted variety series for the BBC and ITV, but in the late 1950s there was a decline in variety acts and he was seen as an anachronism. Undeterred, he bought a large hotel in Guernsey, which was very successful. He met his wife Rosemarie, on a holiday in Austria and they were married in 1961. They had three children and she later became his manager.
When the children were adults Ronnie and Rosemarie emigrated to New Zealand, where they called their house Whistler’s Lodge. Ronnie’s piano had belonged to Richard Tauber, who had been his favourite singer.
Ronalde came back to the UK in 1998 to promote his autobiography, Around The World On A Whistle, a publication which showed he had kept every variety bill and programme in which he was involved. He started performing in the UK again, and in 2002 he even recorded a ses-sion for John Peel. He received a standing ovation for his one-man show at the Hackney Empire in 2012, but he had a stroke the following year and was admitted to the Water Rats’ retirement home, Brinsworth House.