Norman H. Lee

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Norman H. Lee (b. South Norwood, Croydon 10/10/1889 – St. Kilda, Melbourne, 23/07/1962) was a stage and screen actor, playwright, cartoonist and producer.


Born Conrad Maris Sachse, Norman Lee was the son of Edward John Sachse and his wife, Rosina Hallett. At the time of the boy’s baptism his father’s profession was given as “artist”. According to his own not always reliable records, Lee went to school in rural Winchelsea and at the age of 11 was working in a shop in London’s Balls Pond Road. At the time of the 1901 Census he was not at home, but a boarder in nearby Icklesham. Then, at the age of 14, he said he tried to join the Grenadier Guards, pretending to be 16. His mother died in 1905 and in her will she left £700 to Conrad Maris Sachse, cartoonist, which was the first indication of one the professions he would follow. At 17 he became an apprentice scenery painter at a music hall in Brighton and is also said to have drawn for the Harmsworth comics.

By this time he had become Norman Lee and would continue to use this name for all but official documents. In 1908 he took to the stage, first as an actor/comedian, but then as the writer of numerous musical comedies and sketches. The Dream Girl (1915), at the Camberwell Empire, Oh! La! La! (1916) at the Queen’s Theatre were particularly successful. In addition he was a stage cartoonist and, touring the provinces, delighted audiences with his patter and rapid drawing technique. In The Stage of 1 June 1916, there appeared an advert in which Norman H. Lee announced that he was desirous of collecting information for a South African drama to be entitled Diamond Dealers and was therefore accepting an offer by Ernest C. Rolls to accompany the play Venus Ltd, with which he and others had been touring the provinces, to South Africa. He subsequently sailed for Cape Town on 27 May 1916, with Venus Ltd opening at the Empire Theatre in Johannesburg on 26 June 1916.

It is interesting to note that after coming out to South Africa with a theatre group, once here he did relatively little theatrical work. In September he announced that he had signed a twelve months’ contract with African Film Productions to supply them with original screenplays and it was as a scriptwriter that he established himself. In this capacity he contributed to A Tragedy of the Veld (Lorimer Johnston/1916), Sonny's Little Bit (Lorimer Johnston/1917), Zulutown Rink (Dick Cruikshanks/1917) and Zulutown Races (Dick Cruikshanks/1917). He also appeared as an actor in De Voortrekkers (Harold M. Shaw/1916) and The Symbol of Sacrifice (Dick Cruikshanks/1918). Lee and Denis Santry are usually credited with having made the first South African animated films, though as the films are now considered lost, it is not certain how much animation there actually was. There have been suggestions that in Lee’s case he primarily drew on his known skill as a quick-sketch artist and for his shorts he made use of hinged figures rather than cell animation. Known titles included Don’t You Believe It, The Adventures of Ranger Focus, Don't You Believe it, The Second Adventures of Ranger Focus (The Movie Man’s Dream), The Third Adventures of Ranger Focus (His Prehistoric Ancestors) and Crooks and Christmas (all 1917).

By 1919 Lee had branched off on his own to open his Rand School of Cinema Acting and in June of that year the then Mayor of Johannesburg made a speech at the opening ceremony. The enterprise was also strongly supported by Rufe Naylor. The stock company engaged to play leading parts and, presumably, to coach the students who enrolled, included Holger Petersen. The school produced a number of “topicalities”, while Lee embarked upon a feature film entitled Virtue in the City (1920), featuring Petersen, Adele Stolleri and strong man Tromp van Diggelen. The film had its premiere at the Johannesburg Town Hall in January 1920, but received poor reviews and though Lee attempted to take it on tour, it subsequently vanished from sight. In 1919 Lee had still contributed to the writing of the play The Funnier Face, with which Claude Dampier and Irene Vere appeared at the Tivoli Theatre in Cape Town, but after the failure of Virtue in the City and insufficient support for his acting school, Lee decided to return to England. Ambitious plans for the establishment of a production company to rival African Film Productions, to be called Screen Art Photo Plays, came to naught, with grandiose film projects such as The Rise and Fall of Humanity and even The Life of Rufe Naylor, unmade.

In July 1920 he arrived back in England and in November 1921 the firm of Norman Lee Productions Ltd. was registered. It aimed “to carry on the business of theatre proprietors and managers” and in 1922 Lee became the producer of revues for the Gulliver circuit of vaudeville theatres in London. In 1925 he produced The London Revue at the Lyceum Theatre, but the show ran into financial trouble, compelling him to give notice to some members of the cast. In March 1926 his company was liquidated and may have merged with the Poland Rehearsal Rooms, which was taking over the lease of some of the theatres of the Gulliver circuit. He continued to provide material for the theatre, but after the 1928 tour of the Normanlee Players, he gradually disappeared from sight.

Norman Lee died as Conrad Sachse in St. Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia on 23 July 1962. The official records identify him as an author. In 1914 he married music hall artist Lillian Webber, but the couple’s daughter seems to have been born some years before that. Interestingly, in December 1917 little Lily Lee (probably about 10 years old) appeared on the stage in aid of the Rand Daily Mail Christmas Fund as a lighting cartoonist, doing sketches of Lloyd George, Asquith and other celebrities. In 1936 Norman Lee was granted a decree nisi in the London Divorce Court on the ground of the misconduct of his wife, Mrs. Lily Lee. Ironically, two years later Lee was himself involved in an enticement suit, which the judge threw out and labelled as an attempt at blackmail. In 1927 his book The Adventures of a Playwright was published. (FO)

(Various sources muddle him up with another Norman H. Lee (1899 -1954), who had a career as a scriptwriter and director in the British cinema.) (FO)


Stage & Cinema / S.A. Pictorial (various issues)

Rand Daily Mail (various issues)

Le Roux, André I. & Fourie, Lilla – Filmverlede: geskiedenis van die Suid-Afrikaanse speelfilm (1982)

Parsons, Neil - Black and white bioscope: making movies in Africa 1899 to 1925 (2018)

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