Sliema’s ever-shining star: Terry Bencini

Memories of an era gone by

From her first performance at the Gaiety Theatre and a stint living in Milan, to singing for the Maltese community in Australia and her emotional performance when she announced her retirement, singer, comedienne and actress Terry L. Bencini walks Sliema’s residents along some of the highlights of her colourful career.

Terry L. Bencini retired from the performing world as a singer, actress and broadcaster before I was old enough to see her in her element.

Even though she retired in 1993, her performances are still fresh in the minds of many, and people still blow her a kiss, or come up to her to tell her how much she made them laugh or cry. Just reading the renowned dramatist and novelist Francis Ebejer’s newspaper sendoff gives a wealth of insight into how much this artiste was loved, and appreciated:

“Our soubrette sans pareil has announced she is retiring from the stage. News which brings out, almost cruelly, the truth always present in clichés – like, a bright light has gone out,” he had written. Ebejer recounts how when she made the announcement, the whole theatre burst out with a prolonged “no, no…”.

“I was shaking,” admits Bencini of the moment she made her announcement. “But I didn’t want to fade. I wanted to quit while I was at the height of my career.”

The retired actress explains how she was eternally grateful for her audience, who would fill the theatre when she was performing. Tickets would sell out in hours.

“My audience made me,” she notes, and she wanted them to always remember her while she was in her prime.

I meet Terry L. Bencini, 87, in her beautiful townhouse in Sliema, the white house which Obama left her, she had quipped to me on the phone earlier. She is dressed to the nines in a smart red cardigan over a white blouse and matching red lipstick, her hair is coiffed perfectly as she sits, poised on the armchair next to me. We talk for close to an hour and a half, and could have talked longer, as she takes me down an eventful memory lane, her subtle humour peppering an already spirited creative career.

The youngest of 14 children, Bencini started acting at the age of 17, appearing in productions such as Il Manichino di Legno and Żeża tal-Flagship. The latter remains a bright highlight for her, most definitely her favourite production. The performer also starred in many operas, including with Hollywood star Oreste Kirkop. She interpreted leading roles in Geisha, The Belle of New York and The Desert Song. Her list of achievements goes on including her winning the Best Singer Trophy at the first Malta Song Festival as well as singing on RAI radio and TV in 1960.

Bencini is evidently keen to underline that she was naughty as a little girl, recalling how she would often find another schoolmate to do her “I must not talk in class” copies. Although she spent some time at school in Valletta, Bencini always remained “from Sliema”, all the more so when her Montessori school was moved from Valletta to Sliema during WWII.

She reveals how she started getting interested in singing when she was around 15 years old. Finding the discipline more interesting than boys, she plucked up the courage to approach the conductor Bertie Manché, whose orchestra she had fallen in love with and with whom she wanted to sing.

She recounts the story in minute detail, recalling how she went to the building where they would rehearse at Dingli Circus to find Manché on the violin and his wife on the piano. On being offered a small part she ran home to tell her mother.

“I think I would have overtaken a gazelle, I ran so fast,” she reminisces of the opportunity that led to her first performance alongside Johnny Navarro, at the Gaiety Theatre in what is today the Tagliaferro Centre.

The newspapers reported that while she was young, Bencini had a bright future. “This gave me courage,” she reminisces as she looks back on an event that set the ball rolling for an almost 50-year-long career.

I didn’t want to fade. I wanted to quit while I was at the height of my career

Bencini slowly started building up her repertoire as she joined Izzo Navarro’s company and performed in various locations, often in parish churches, helping them raise money for charity. For her wedding, “the parish priests all wanted me to get married in their church,” she quips.

The singer continues to walk me through her colourful past, often citing how when she was younger she would always ask for her mother’s consent. When asked by producer Nosì Ghirlando whether she wanted to join his company, Ribalta, she said she first needed to check with her mother. “Of course I’d adapt the story so that it worked in my favour,” she says, a twinkle in her eye.

It was during her rehearsals with Ribalta that she improved and got her training.

“They could see my talent emerging and they wanted to introduce me to new works,” she remembers. Another thread that runs through Bencini’s artistic career is a “yes” attitude. Even though at the time her Italian was not that good, Bencini accepted a part in Aldo de Benedetti’s Il Manichino di Legno, learning her lines by heart. The papers wrote of her as “la nuova stella”, although after this she was more inclined to emphasize her preference to sing, her true calling.

“I really did have a lovely voice,” she says, adding how her dream was always to play Carmen, “a bubbly, naughty character, like me”. She was singled out after a concert by a certain Mrs Camilleri Bonaci who lent her her flat in Milan so that she could build her career there. Indeed while there, the world famous Mro Mascheroni, an Italian who had often presented singers at San Remo Song Festivals approached her, commenting on her “voce impostata”, a singing voice, and how she had a “line that connected both heart and brain”.

But with a young child in Malta, Bencini returned, this time to study and it was then that she won the Best Singer Trophy.

Bencini went from strength to strength, building her career as a renowned performer among the Maltese public.

We look through her scrapbooks of photos, newspaper cuttings, reviews, often with her own notes, all meticulously stored and dated. Every now and then the singer reminisces about a particular event, for instance, the memorable moment when she sang L-Emigrant for the opening of Television Malta, which was also aired for the first time, and dedicated to the Maltese who had left for Australia, as well as her many fond memories of the 14 years she spent with Radju Muskettieri, whose driving force was Charles Clews.

We’re running out of time, but Bencini is keen to touch upon her favourite show again, which is Żeża tal-Flagship.

We look at a beautiful photo of her taken during one of its numerous (some 35) productions.

The charismatic Bencini tries to convince me to stay for a cup of coffee – she has prepared the cups and saucers so neatly on a tray for us – but sadly it is time for me to go, although looking back now, I wished I had stayed longer to learn more about this fantastic lady’s career and charisma.

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