Category Archives: Male impersonators

What do the cards tell us?

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Florrie Forde

Music hall and pantomime postcards were sent for reasons from the elevated to the mundane, to increase a collection of photos of a favourite artiste or to tell a friend there was tripe for dinner. In 1907 Ethel apologises for not sending the Florrie Forde postcard that Amy really wanted and sends Florrie in a greatcoat instead. We don’t know if Amy ever  found the desired card but we have it here – Florrie Forde in Dutch costume.

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Happy Fanny Fields

Happy Fanny Fields was an American who performed in Dutch costume with clog dancing being an important part of her act. The sender of the card adopts a humorous tone explaining that ‘sa‘ cannot write as she is busy making bloomers. The writer is pleased to have finished the washing and got Frank’s stockings darned with a chips and fish supper to look forward to, followed by ice-cream and (hard to read, so possibly not) tripe. The next day there will be liver and onions and savoury pudding for dinner.

Ella Grahame sends a card from Warsaw featuring herself and Rosey Anslow in their roller-skating act. She asks if the recipient likes her in pants – ‘ what price this for swank’ – and says that the people there can’t get past the size of her bottom.

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Anslow & Grahame

Hetty King, the male impersonator and pantomime star features on two cards sent by the same person, who identifies himself using only initials. In 1907 he writes to Mrs Baldwin to say that he is still surviving but mother ‘has got them again.’  The same recipient learns that the sender got two valentines ‘one a rotten the other a nice tie.’ He also had a fine lecture off ma.

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Hetty King

 

 

 

 

Marguerite Broadfoote tells us modestly that ‘there is a much better picture of myself on the postcards – a profile head. This one is not considered a good likeness.’ Vanity, vanity.

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Marguerite Broadfoote

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Merry Nelly Power

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Nelly Power

Merry Nelly Power was born in 1854 and according to an article in the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News started out on stage in 1863 at the Southampton Music Hall which was owned by her uncle. Her charm and vivacity  carried her to success in the provinces and London, where she entertained in pantomime and burlesque. In those days burlesque was a drama, usually with song and dance, which spoofed serious productions and made fun of the politics of the day. The topical references would often change from one performance to another and there were often exchanges between the actors and the audience. The risqué element was provided by women playing the part of men, dressed in tights and short trousers and sometimes smoking. The costumes were embellished with feathers, silks and fringes.

In 1867 Nelly was appearing at the London Metropolitan Music Hall in the Edgware Road with no star billing but by 1870 she was in the Four-Leaved Shamrock at the Canterbury Hall in London. The advertisement in The Sportsman tells us she is appearing every evening in the Grand Ballet, as Dermot, as the Pet Jockey and as Apollo. She also gave her celebrated imitations of the most popular songs of the day. She is obviously a big draw as the management is keen to point out prices will not rise during the engagement of this charming burlesque actress and the advertisement is devoted solely to Nelly. Here are two photos of burlesque costumes from the 1870s.

Augustus Harris engaged her as principal boy in pantomime and the up and coming  Vesta Tilley had her nose put slightly out of joint when she realised she was to play second fiddle to Nelly and also to be her understudy. In her recollections, Vesta makes the best of it, commanding a high salary and having a scene to herself to sing one of her popular songs. She points out, It was the one and only time I had played second fiddle’ while acknowledging Nelly Power was a great star in those days.

In 1874 Nelly married Israel Barnett who seems to have been an unscrupulous character and the marriage was not a happy one. In 1875 Nelly’s admirer, Frederick Hobson, was charged with assaulting Barnett who was by now living at an hotel in Covent Garden while Nelly lived with her mother in Islington. Nelly was filing for a divorce but Barnett hoped for a reconciliation and was upset to find Nelly in Hobson’s company on several occasions. From the reports of the trial we find out that Barnett had been involved in dodgy financial dealings and had spent a brief time in prison. He was unable to remember if there were any charges of fraud against him but did remember he was a bankrupt. Nelly gave a strange statement in which she said since she had known Barnett all her jewellery had been ‘swept away’ . Hobson was bound over to be of good behaviour for six months on a bond of £50. Nelly’s statement made more sense when I came across a report of a theft of jewellery from her home to the value of £1,500 in 1874. There was no evidence of a break-in and the theft was described as mysterious.

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La-di-dah!

Nelly made a name for herself as an early male impersonator wearing tights, spangles and a curly-brimmed hat. She had a great hit with a song entitled La-di-dah which made fun of the swells of the day.

                                       Ee is something in an office, lardy dah!

                                       And he quite the city toff is, lardy dah!

It seems that females didn’t wear authentic male attire in the early days of male impersonation and Nelly may have been adapting a burlesque costume.

She faded for a while, suffering ill health, but in 1885 was appearing at three London music halls nightly and was said to retain all her old go. She died two years later, performing to the end, but there was no money to pay for the funeral. A subscription was got up to pay the undertaker but in the following year her agent, George Ware, was sued for £18 19s 6d as the full funeral costs had not been met. Not long after Nelly’s death her mother Agnes was taken to court by a draper who claimed £4 4s 3d for various articles supplied to the deceased in 1885 and 1886. These included bonnets, underclothing, gloves, fancy aprons, dress materials etc. The judge remarked that there was no money even to pay for the funeral and found for Mrs Power. Nelly’s greatest hit was ‘The Boy in the Gallery’ adopted cheekily and successfully by rising star Marie Lloyd.

Nelly Power was buried in Abney Park Cemetery in north London and her funeral procession was attended by at least three thousand people. The British Music Hall Society restored her neglected grave in 2001 and the inscription reminds us she was only thirty-two when she died.

NOTE – on some devices the last illustration of Nelly Power in male impersonator costume is showing upside down. I have tried to rectify this to no avail, so many apologies if she is standing on her head in your version.

Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive, Michael Kilgarriff, Recollections of Vesta Tilley

 

 

 

 

Vesta Tilley

The Vesta Tilley exhibition is coming along nicely so I’m going to use the info to blog about her as well. Born in Worcester in 1864, Matilda Alice Powles was the second child in a family of thirteen. Her father was a china painter and amateur musician who developed an act featuring Fathead, the family dog. As he became better known he was offered the job of manager of a music hall in Gloucester. He accepted and became responsible for managing the hall, booking the performers and acting as chairman for the evening. Tilley would go with her father to the music hall and sit with him, memorising the songs and singing them at home. When her father was offered a better job at St George’s Hall, Nottingham, Tilley sang at his benefit when he left Gloucester. This was her first public appearance. She went on to appear at St George’s Hall as ‘The Great Little Tilley’ at four years of age.

Aged four

Aged four

Vesta Tilley says in her autobiography that she felt she could express herself better if she were dressed as a boy. One night she took her father’s hat and coat up to her bedroom and put them on. He came in and found her in front of the mirror singing and acting a song usually sung by a man. Her father got her a little evening dress-suit and she kept the jacket all her life. At this time there was a popular tenor called Sims Reeves and she learned some of his songs. She was billed as ‘The Pocket Sims Reeves’ and wore her dress-suit and a large black moustache. She was five years old.

The dress-suit

The dress-suit

Audiences were not sure if ‘The Great Little Tilley’ was a boy or a girl so her father wrote down three names from the dictionary and put them in his hat. She drew ‘Vesta’ and so Vesta Tilley was born.

Dick Whittington

Dick Whittington

Music hall stars often doubled as principal boys in pantomime and Vesta Tilley was no exception. Her favourite role was Dick Whittington. It was during a pantomime that Vesta met her future husband, Walter de Frece, son of a theatrical proprietor who was a friend of her father’s. She and Walter married in 1890, two years after the death of her father and Walter became her manager, also following his father into music hall ownership.

Vesta Tilley portrayed characters recognisable to her audiences that reflected the times she lived in. The ‘masher’ was a favourite character. He was a man about town and a dandy wearing the latest fashions. Vesta sang about the toffs but also about the clerk on his one-week holiday who imagines himself a swell. Her costumes were made by a Bond Street tailor in London. There were lightning costume changes between each song. She kept her hair long and wound it into small plaits to go under her wig and when off-stage was always careful to dress in very feminine clothes.

Boater, waistcoat and cigar

Boater, waistcoat and
cigar

The masher

The masher

Off-stage

Off-stage

She was hugely popular at home and a favourite in America too, becoming a leader of men’s fashions in the States with outfitters producing the Vesta Tilley boater and the Vesta Tilley waistcoat. Fans could also buy the Vesta Tilley cigar. Vesta Tilley was invited to take part in the first ever Royal Command Variety Performance at the Palace Theatre, London in 1912 which gave the music hall a seal of respectability. Vesta sang ‘Algy, the Piccadilly Johnny with the little glass eye – the most perfectly dressed young man in the house’. There are stories of Queen Mary being so shocked at the sight of a woman in trousers that she buried her face in her programme and advised other ladies in the royal box to avert their eyes.

Algy, the Piccadilly Johnny

Algy, the Piccadilly Johnny

Vesta Tilley often used a uniform to help define her characters. Before conscription was introduced during the 1914-18 war she would assume a military role on the stage and encourage men in the audience to enlist. There is an archive recording of a woman called Kitty remembering her young husband being recruited in this way. They were at a music hall watching Vesta Tilley who went into the audience and touched Percy on the shoulder. He went on to the stage with other young men and joined the army. He was killed on the Somme and his body was never found. Kitty was pregnant and later gave birth to a son. Vesta Tilley was known as ‘Britain’s greatest recruiting sergeant’.

She impersonated policemen, judges, telegraph-boys and vicars noting walks, mannerisms and facial expressions. Although she was under five foot tall she was able to convince her audience of the truth of her characters.

The recruiting sergeant

The recruiting sergeant

The telegraph-boy

The telegraph-boy

Vesta Tilley retired in 1920 at the age of fifty-six and her farewell tour around the country took a year. Her last appearance was at the London Coliseum where she was presented with books filled with nearly two million signatures and it took two pantechnicons to carry the flowers. Her husband was knighted the same year and so Vesta Tilley became Lady de Frece. In retirement she supported her husband during his political campaigning and he became a Conservative MP. When he retired they moved to Monte Carlo. Her husband died in 1935 and she moved back to London, living in a flat overlooking Green Park. At the age of eighty she took a lease on a flat on Hove seafront where a blue plaque pays tribute to her. Vesta Tilley died in September 1952 at the age of eighty-eight and still had the little dress jacket and her wig stained with greasepaint. From poor beginnings she became the highest paid music hall performer but was said never to have forgotten her roots, always being proud of the fact that her greatest fans were working-class women.

Bessie Bonehill

Bessie Bonehill

Bessie Bonehill

Bessie Bonehill was born into a poor family in 1855 in West Bromwich and was originally part of a clog dancing act called The Three Sisters Bonehill. It is said she first started dressing as a young boy in 1862 which would back up her claim to be the first male impersonator in the music hall. She was a highly paid principal boy in pantomime and became famous on the halls for singing patriotic songs including one entitled ‘Here stands a Post’ in which Bessie was dressed as a young soldier. The song became an instant hit. It was originally sung by Miss Rosa Garibaldi who was the niece of General Garibaldi. Rosa was engaged at the Royal Music Hall, Holborn in March 1878 at a sum of £3 weekly but her voice didn’t go down well with the crowd and she wasn’t asked back for a second week. Bessie adopted the song and had the success denied to Rosa with horse-drawn London buses carrying posters advertising the tremendous success of Bessie Bonehill.

Her success continued and she travelled to America to appear at Tony Pastor’s theatre in New York. Apparently she received at least a dozen proposals of marriage a week and was so popular she was re-engaged with an enormous salary increase. However, the Daughters of the American Revolution were not impressed by a woman dressing as a man and tried to have her thrown out of America. In one of her scrapbooks Bessie kept an anonymous note she had received. It quoted this passage from the scriptures; ‘The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, for all that do so are an abomination’. It claimed to have been sent ‘in love’. Bessie cut her hair short for her impersonation roles, unlike many male impersonators who wore wigs, which probably helped to fan the flames of righteous indignation.

Bessie Bonehill with her short hair.

Bessie Bonehill with her short hair.

At one point at Tony Pastor’s theatre Bessie Bonehill and Millie Hylton, another male impersonator from the West Midlands, carried out three hundred and sixty consecutive sell-out performances over five weeks with Bessie earning $450 a week. She was an astute business woman and invested in a farm on Long Island which had a fruit farm, granary, dairy and cheese factory.

Bessie Bonehill and Millie Hylton were linked in another, less pleasant way. Performers were open to blackmail in those days, with gangs threatening to disrupt their performances if a payment wasn’t forthcoming. Bessie was playing in the pantomime Aladdin in Sheffield when she was followed home by a group of people of the ‘coster type’ who asked for money for the applause they had given her during the evening. They claimed to have been paid by other performers in the past. She refused and on the Saturday evening there was a loud hissing as she began a song. Bessie told the audience what had happened and the would-be blackmailers were removed from the theatre to loud applause. She was accompanied home by a constable every evening in case she was attacked for her bravery. Millie Hylton was not so lucky as she and her brother were attacked on their way home from her performance in a pantomime in Birmingham. The New Zealand Herald tells us they were set upon by two ‘roughs’ and five women. According to the newspaper account her brother was beaten unconscious and the women dragged Millie to the ground, kicked her and made as if to strangle her. She had refused to succumb to the blackmail of paying for applause and the police thought this attack was the would-be blackmailers’ revenge. There is a wonderful photo of Millie Hylton and others waiting for their turn at the Royal Music Hall, Holborn. She is in the middle with a white stick. Performers didn’t always get dressing-rooms to wait in and conditions were crowded and rudimentary, particularly for those lower down the bill.

Waiting to go on at the Royal Music Hall

Waiting to go on at the Royal Music Hall

This post is a tribute to Richard Bonehill who died in February 1915. We never met but swapped notes about Bessie. Richard published a book called ‘England’s Gem’ – the story of Bessie Bonehill.

Who’s a pretty boy?

Emma Don 1873-1951

Emma Don 1873-1951

Male impersonators are a fascinating part of music hall history and I have a lot of postcards of these artistes. This post is mainly pictorial and then in the next post I’ll choose one performer to talk about in more detail. I can’t resist showing the not so good along with the sublime and I’ll leave you to decide which is which.

Gertie Lewis Photo around 1908.

Gertie Lewis
Photo around 1908.

Hettie (Hetty) King 1883-1972

Hettie (Hetty) King
1883-1972

Vesta Tilley 1864-1952

Vesta Tilley 1864-1952

Deb St Welma  Aka Deb Webb and Teddie Webb. Photo around 1917.

Deb St Welma. Also appeared as Deb Webb and Teddie Webb.    Photo around 1917.

Bessie Bonehill 1855-1902

Bessie Bonehill
1855-1902

Ella Shields 1879-1952

Ella Shields
1879-1952

Flo Dixie  Photo around 1921. Described as the bantam male impersonator.

Flo Dixie
Photo around 1921. Described as the bantam male impersonator.

Belle Elmore

Belle Elmore (born Kunigunde Mackamotzki, known as Cora) was a not very good music hall performer who came to London from America with her husband, Hawley Harvey Crippen. She was a sometime male impersonator and a would-be opera singer. During a strike of music hall artists she arrived to perform at the theatre, crossing the picket line. Marie Lloyd who was supporting the strike is reputed to have told the other pickets to let Belle Elmore through as she would empty the theatre anyway. She was the Honorary Treasurer of the Music Hall Ladies’ Guild and her disappearance in 1910 was first noted when she failed to turn up for a meeting. A note was delivered purporting to be from Belle but in Crippen’s handwriting in which she said she had left for America on urgent business concerning property. Suspicions were aroused when she did not contact her friends and seemed to have taken very little with her. Crippen let it be known she had become ill while away and later announced her death.

Belle Elmore

Belle Elmore

Crippen was employed by a medical company in London, having medical qualifications from the States. A typist called Ethel le Neve worked for him. She moved into the house previously shared by Crippen and Belle Elmore and began wearing some of  Belle’s clothes and jewellery. Belle’s friends reported their concerns to the police and Crippen was questioned. He and Ethel le Neve disappeared and it later transpired they had travelled to Belgium and from there had joined the SS Montrose on the way to Canada. They travelled as father and son with Ethel le Neve disguised as a boy. Crippen had previously asked an assistant at work to buy the boys’ clothes. I wondered if Belle’s male impersonation routine had given him this idea. Remains of a body were found in the basement of Crippen’s house and he was eventually arrested, along with Ethel le Neve. The captain of the ship became suspicious and used the newly invented wireless telegraph to alert the police.

Newspaper reports during the trial suggested that Belle Elmore had been sighted in the United States and Canada and that she had run away to join a man with whom she had possibly had an affair. These were proved to be unfounded. Doubts have recently been cast on Crippen’s conviction since the advent of DNA testing but the question remains of what then happened to Belle Elmore.

Pleasures of Past Times

On Saturday I visited David Drummond’s shop, PLEASURES OF PAST TIMES, in Cecil Court near Leicester Square underground station in London. It’s packed with memorabilia, including postcards, books, posters and sheet music. I found sheet music with a wonderful picture of Alice Harvey on the front.

'The neat and natty' Alice Harvey

‘The neat and natty’ Alice Harvey

She was an early male impersonator and the song is entitled  ‘Say you love me Nellie.’ This dates from 1882 and she’s dressed as a masher, a man about town careful of his appearance. She is reported in The Era, a newspaper of the time, as having great success and being re-engaged everywhere. She is advertised as performing in three halls every evening which was the norm for music hall performers. They would rush to the next engagement in a horse-drawn cab, often changing costume as they went.

Marie Loftus

Marie Loftus, the Sarah Bernhardt of the halls

My other find was a postcard of Marie Loftus, billed as ‘The Sarah Bernhardt of the Halls.’ She was a serio-comic singer, very popular in pantomime and was a hit in America as well as here. When appearing in Brighton she travelled along the coast to Shoreham-by-Sea and took the ferry over to Shoreham Beach. She liked it so much she built a bungalow there and was the first of many music hall stars to settle on the beach. It became known as Bungalow Town with houses built from wood and old railway carriages which were pulled across the river by horses when the tide was low. I’ll be writing more about Bungalow Town and women from the Music Hall who lived there.