As part of a death-defying knife act, Olga Frei-Denver toured the world and befriended the biggest names in showbusiness. She tells Grant Woodward her remarkable story.
AT the age of 18, Olga Frei answered an advert for “a girl with nerves to join an established act”. It was a decision that would land her a dashing husband and friendships with the likes of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. The only downside was that it involved having knives hurled at her head.
“Even now when I go to the hairdressers they look at my scalp and say, ‘How did you get all these dents and scars?’” she chuckles, blue eyes still sparkling at the age of 85. “When I tell them I was in a knife-throwing act they look at me as if I’m mad.”
Nonetheless it made for a show-stopping performance that took Olga around the world. In America she found herself sharing the bill with stars including Tony Bennett and Mickey Rooney, along with the still relatively unknown Marilyn and Elvis.
The latter was a “real southern gentleman” whose onstage gyrations concealed a shy, sensitive personality. Monroe was a fragile, complex character whose emotions see-sawed constantly.
She and Olga, who always called her by her real name, Norma, struck up a friendship that would see them regularly hit the shops together and even led Monroe to give her a spare key to her New York apartment.
“When we went out she would put on a headscarf and not wear any make-up. But even then people would recognise her. They would come up and say, ‘Aren’t you..?’ So I would turn round and say, ‘Oh, yes, I know what you mean, she gets that all the time’.”
Born in Davos in Switzerland, Olga was a baby when she moved to England, her parents running the Clarendon House Hotel in Leeds. Intent on pursuing a career in showbusiness, she won places at both the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Then came her big, if somewhat unusual, break.
Having responded to that advert posted by knife-thrower extraordinaire Hal Denver she was invited to an interview in London, where he was appearing in a travelling show. Their meeting, for her at least, was a case of love at first sight.
Denver was the stage name of Ralph Norman, second son of Tom Norman, who as ‘The Silver King’ was one of the most successful showmen of the 19th century, with The Elephant Man among his sideshows.
Ralph followed the family tradition to become a renowned star on both sides of the Atlantic. But by the time he met Olga he was going through a divorce – and needed someone to replace his wife in the act.
“He was standing on the steps of the theatre as I walked up,” Olga recalls at her home in Garforth, Leeds. “He said, ‘You’re Olga, aren’t you?’ with this sweet little smile and I fell in love with him there and then.
“He did explain that he would be throwing knives at me but I was so smitten I wouldn’t have cared if they were elephants. It was only when we were on stage and the first one came flying at me that I was terrified to the extent that I went numb. They were coming thud, thud, thud to the left and right of me. I must have been out of my mind.”
The hatchets were the worst. “I got hit by those more than anything,” she winces. “Mainly it was the handle as it went into the board. I’ve still got the scars where they had to stitch me up.”
Despite the occasional flesh wound, she and Hal were soon married and the pair found themselves in demand across the Atlantic, where they mostly worked in nightclubs. They first encountered the young Elvis when they were booked to appear at a fair in Memphis.
The tutor who had given Olga elocution lessons for a lisp back in Leeds had moved there after marrying into the Presley family. She invited them to dinner and Elvis was there. Over the next few years they would appear alongside him on a number of occasions, becoming first-hand witnesses to the birth of a music icon.
“The first time I saw him on stage I just thought he was absolutely marvellous,” recalls Olga. “He really did draw people to him and had such a lovely personality. He was so polite too, it was always ‘Ma’am’ this and ‘Ma’am’ that. He’d almost carry me through me a door rather than just hold it open.
“He was a really good laugh too, he’d mimic himself, making fun of the way he performed onstage, and have us all in stitches. He and his gang would often come in late after they had finished playing so I used to make bacon sandwiches for them. I even made him some Yorkshire puddings once, which he loved.
“He was just an ordinary boy really. I remember him being fascinated by the different things we used in the act. We spent ages showing him how to handle the whips. I think he wanted to be a cowboy.
Once offstage, however, Elvis could just as easily retreat into his shell. “He always struck me as being quite shy and quiet away from the theatre side of things, the showing off bit. He was a very sensitive soul.”
So too was Monroe, who Olga met and befriended during promotional stints for fledgling supermarket chains. “There were two sides to her,” she says. “Sometimes she was Marilyn Monroe and other times she was Norma. She could be offhand with you one day and the next she would be lovely, giving you a big cuddle. She used to come in, sit me down and spend ages brushing my hair. I think it calmed her down because she was always very nervy.
“When she was taking tablets was the worst. She took one to get to sleep and one to wake up. And she always thought someone was out to kill her. You could be sat nice and quiet, just relaxing with her in her home, and suddenly she would jump up, all the lights would go on and she would be going from room to room checking them all.”
On her return to Britain in 1957, Olga developed her own stage show featuring a troupe of chihuahua dogs, appearing in theatres and on television. The comedian Les Dawson borrowed some of them for a Hound of the Baskervilles inspired sketch.
Then, with her marriage to Hal failing, she set up a children’s zoo in the grounds of their large home in Garforth, complete with chimpanzees and a lion cub who she would regularly kiss. “I never dreamed she would hurt me,” she says now.
In later years, her fondness for dogs saw her both show and judge at Crufts and help organise the Leeds Championship Dog Show. She continues to be both president and patron of the Northern Counties Chihuahua Club, which she helped to found in 1958.
Amidst all that she has survived two brushes with cancer and recovered from a stroke. Yet her grandson Beau – her son Carl’s baby boy – helps ensure her lust for life is as strong as the day she first dodged those flying knives.
“Now,” she says, “did I tell you Tony Bennett still owes me money?” And with that she’s off into yet another tale of showbusiness royalty.