TRIPOLI’S GRAND HOTEL–PERFECT FOR FILM CREWS

In the 1950s Tripoli was an ideal setting for adventure movies–World War II battles had been fought in the Sahara desert and the U.S. Marines were involved in an 1805 battle with the Barbary Pirates in Tripoli Harbor. John Wayne made two movies in Libya: one with Maureen O’Hara and one with Sophia Loren, and they had stayed in the Grand Hotel. The British thought it was the perfect location for “The Black Tent’  and booked the cast and crew into the Grand Hotel. One of the noted stars of that film was Donald Pleasence, who had a long film, TV, and stage career.

British actor and author Terence Sharkey was only 16 when he flew to Tripoli in 1955 to be a member of the cast of “The Black Tent” and chronicled his adventures in Love, Life & Moving Pictures, which is for sale on Amazon. I’ve already used some of his material in my blog, and asked him to contribute more from his book. He found romance at the Grand Hotel, but I’ll let him tell his own story.

Terence Sharkey & Donald Sinden, actors in "The Black Tent"

Terence Sharkey & Donald Sinden, actors in “The Black Tent”

The Thomas Cook archive in Cambridgeshire is enormous as you would expect of the world’s oldest travel company. Great shelves bulging under travel posters, tickets, hotel labels and brochures from almost 175 years of trading. Enticements to Victorians from London to a week at the Pyramids for thirty dollars, all inclusive.  Or the 1853 World’s Fair at Bryant Park, NYC,  for even less. But the ephemera had beaten the archivist; she shook her head. “There’s not much here. The place you search for was demolished thirty years ago.” Thus I learned of the fate of the palatial Grand Hotel Tripoli, which had been my base in 1955. (It was rebuilt in 1983.) We were an English film company and the Sahara was the location for a war drama, so popular with moviegoers in the decade following WWII.

A few days after my arrival, an aircraft from London had crashed on arrival at Idris, Tripoli’s primitive airport, killing fifteen and injuring many of the forty-nine on board. The Grand Hotel had held a warm place in my memory over many years, not least because of the romance that had developed between myself a young woman survivor. We were both teenagers and anxious to explore the world that had so far lain outside our experience.

A few days after Rosemarie’s arrival, the Underwater Fishermen of Tripoli had organized a function in the hotel ballroom and our star, a young Italian actress playing my mother, would be presenting prizes. There was to be another celebration. Producer Bill MacQuitty and a Libyan policeman had earlier that week scuba-dived in the harbor for a WW2 unexploded shell and had removed it to deeper, safer water.

I had come down early to the ball and the band was still setting up as Rosemarie appeared. At the top of the grand marble staircase she paused and looked around. She spotted me and waved and I waited on the bottom step as she glided down towards me. Her entrance had not escaped the Arab drummer who struck a drum roll as she descended with a great crash of cymbals when she reached the bottom. She blushed delightedly.

Unit-Wardrobe, in the form of Alice, hearing that her luggage had been destroyed, had made clothes for Rosemarie on her arrival and now had worked her generous magic again. A halter neck of gold lame crossed the top of an intense white full length slim-fitting silk gown, scarcely concealing her bosom.  The silken sheen followed her body, over curving hips to where it descended to the floor. Around her slim waist a wide gold lamé belt draped to where a low frontal strategic knot drew the eye as it  fell as a wide glistening tie to her knees. Fastened to the back like butterfly wings, two silk pieces in iridescent blue served to cover her bandaged arm and were clipped to a gold bracelet at each wrist, fluttering and shimmering as she walked. The ensemble needed no traditional gilded Cleopatra headdress. Rosemarie’s golden hair tumbled around her neck and a neat black rope wound into her curls. The gold glinted on her slim wrists and her perfume assailed my nostrils. She was quite simply, stunning.

The evening swept by with Arabic music influenced by the West. The air was full of familiar dance music, but still redolent of the East with tarabaki drums, piccolo and cymbals a constant reminder of Tripoli’s world around us. Robed Arab sheiks in square-cloth chequered headdresses bound with gold rope gyrated beside Rosemarie, giving an odd authenticity to her Queen of the Nile appearance, the whole totally enchanting. The Libyan music was augmented by a hillbilly band from the U.S. base at Wheelus Field and the appearance at one point of a bejewelled Eastern belly-dancer undulating to  “I Want to be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart”  was an unforgettable mark of east meeting west.

 

 

 

 

 

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