A chance purchase of a postcard drew me into the intense world of the quick change artist, popular in music hall and theatre at the beginning of the twentieth century. Audiences loved the performers who would take on many characters changing costume, usually behind a screen, time after time in just a few seconds. One such was Fatima Miris, real name Maria Frassinesi, from Bologna in Italy who was inspired by Leopoldo Fregoli an admired quick change artist and singer. In 1907 she came to the attention of Oswald Stoll, music hall owner extraordinaire, and was engaged to appear at the London Hippodrome straight from her success in Bologna. She presented the Marchioness Divina at the Hippodrome acting seven different characters of various ages, never being off-stage for more than five seconds. There is much farcical content with characters hiding in cupboards, mistaken identities and finally pistol shots and a chase in which all the characters run through the room in rapid succession. The chase was so fast that the audience could believe they were seeing several figures at once. There is an excellent video on YouTube showing Fatima Miris in action posted by albarnardon.
In Bologna the artiste had produced The Geisha, performing fifteen parts and changing costume 175 times over three hours. She could sing soprano, alto, tenor and baritone. In fact, she was so skilled that rumours began to circulate that she used a double in the act. The management of the Hippodrome took this as a slight on their reputation and offered a reward of £1000 to anyone who could prove a double was used. The reward was never claimed. She toured for some years, taking in North and South America, Australia, New Zealand and Egypt before retiring in the mid 1920s. However in 1932 Fatima Miris embarked on a final farewell tour and returned to South America where the public had never forgotten her.
Also around 1907 there was a young Italian quick change artist, said to be twelve years of age and calling herself Fregolina, billed as The Miniature Fregoli. The reporter for John Bull found ‘the juvenile prodigy, as a rule – – a burden grievous to be borne’ but that Fregolina was an exception – indeed a genius. Her quick changes of costume included the characters of policeman, French comedienne, Italian peasant girl, priest and a musical clown. She also portrayed composers such as Liszt, Wagner and Verdi conducting the resident orchestra with much energy and using much facial expression, being recalled again and again.
Our third quick change artiste, Madame Fregolia (that name again) appeared in Ireland and England a little later, mainly between 1912 and 1914. She was Austrian and the Daily Express described her as one of those high class turns from the Continental variety stage going on to say this exceedingly clever turn must be seen to be thoroughly appreciated. Having survived railway collisions, fire and flood in her travels Madame Fregolia took audiences by storm with her rapid changes of costume. During her act she showed a film taken behind the scenes giving away the secrets of her lightning changes. She opened the act with double-voiced singing, moving on to her fifty or so quick changes in hour, employing a complete change of character for each. On receiving a standing ovation at the Royalty Theatre Madame Fregolia took a series of quick curtain calls making a lightning change between each to appear in different Court dress. In an interview in 1914 Fregolia, who was appearing in Dublin, said she was delighted by her reception and that she found Irish audiences more responsive and more lively than the English while French and Italian audiences were too lively for her taste. Perhaps a risky comment in a newspaper interview.
Thanks to British newspaper archive.co.uk, Monomania Collection, albarnardon
Thank you for another fascinating read and shining a light on these forgotten performers. If only one could time-travel and see them in action.