Category Archives: Music hall artistes

La Belle Otero

9580BBBF-26FC-40F7-AB5A-717125DD61E8‘I was extraordinarily pretty’ states Caroline Otero in her autobiography My Story and this much is true. Music hall singer and dancer, courtesan and gambler, La Belle Otero lived a life of extremes and exaggerations that would raise eyebrows today. She claimed her mother was a beautiful Andalusian gypsy, Carmen, who danced, sang and told fortunes. Such was her beauty that a group of passers-by including a young Greek army officer, gazed at her in admiration as she was engaged in the unromantic task of hanging out the washing. The autobiography makes much of the courtship and devotion of the young man and tells of his death in a duel with Carmen’s lover. It is more likely La Belle Otero was born into a poor family in Galicia  in November 1868 and given the name Augustina although she adopted the name Caroline at a young age. As a child she was sent away to work as a servant and is said to have been raped at the age of ten. It’s no wonder she gave herself a more romantic beginning.

 

At thirteen or fourteen Caroline Otero seems to have run away with a young man 334D4B3F-BC4D-4EF3-AA73-F0B81E0278F0who found her work as a dancer in a Café. She moved up the scale from theatre to theatre, starring at the Folies Bergère , collecting and discarding admirers and lovers. It is said men fought duels over her and left themselves penniless after showering the object of their affection with flowers and jewels. A writer in The Sketch in 1898 reports that Mdlle Otero came on to the Alhambra stage in a salmon-pink dress covered in diamonds and turquoises with her fingers heavy with rings, the dress setting off her pale complexion and black hair to great advantage. The diamonds, worth millions of francs, were tokens of the esteem in which she was held by her admirers. The writer goes on to say that ‘most performers humbly seek the suffrages of their audience; La Belle Otero, whose equipment is in many respects inferior, from the artistic point of view, to that of her competitors, demands them as a right.’ 

 

0097154A-42F7-43D3-9B4C-99D11BEDACFEOtero was adept at self publicity and in 1902 the Paris correspondent of the Express writes that an engineer in Brussels was constructing an airship for her ‘by means of which she hopes to make a triumphal entry next August into Biarritz.’ She was worried it could be dangerous and so the balloon was to be dragged along by a car attached by a thin wire. If there was an accident she could ‘descend to the car by means of a rope ladder, which she will have tied in to the airship. The airship will float gracefully above the automobile at a height of 100ft.’ Mistress to ambassadors, princes, including the future Edward VII, and nobility throughout Europe, La Belle Otero scandalised and fascinated society in equal measure. Her weakness was gambling and she lost vast sums of money at the tables, sometimes her own and often her admirers’ fortunes. The Tatler tells us that in 1909 police raided a gambling club in Paris and found fifty women and ten men. On further investigation another woman, Caroline Otero, was found in a cupboard.

 

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Liane de Pougy

Stories were rife of her exploits including a report in a Mexican newspaper that Otero had shot a love rival, Liane de Pougy, through the heart. Liane de Pougy was another famous courtesan and actress of the day. Both ladies were said to be very much amused by the report. In 1907 she insured her ankles for £15,000 each and was advertised as the only dancer with ankles worth £30,000. She was not universally admired and in 1895 the Evening Telegraph and Star reported a court case from Paris concerning the notorious Otero. She was living in an apartment in the Rue Charron rented by her English friend, Mr Bulpett, and the landlord charged him with not fulfilling the terms of the lease, namely that the apartment should be kept in a respectable manner. The landlord claimed Otero was damaging to the value of his property as other people objected to her. Two other tenants had signed a petition saying if she did not move they would break their leases. The defence denied any scandal had been caused by Otero’s presence in the apartments and that she and Mr Bulpett had as much right as other tenants to give dinners, hold receptions, have a carriage at the door and live a life of luxury. The judgement was in favour of Mr Bulpett.

 

The author, Colette, knew Otero when the great dancer was in her forties and describes her in My Apprenticeships as dancing and singing for her guests for up to four hours and having a body that had ‘defied sickness, ill-usage and the passage of time.’ The character of Lea in Colette’s novel Chéri is largely based on Otero and her lifestyle.

 

La Belle Otero retired after the First World War having built up a vast fortune but her love of gambling was to be her undoing and she died in relative poverty in 1965 at the age of 96. The Tatler had rather prematurely announced her death in 1947. Her autobiography is a ripping yarn rather than a factual account but she had a sensational life and career and who can deny her a little economy with the truth.

 

Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive, My Story – La Belle Otero,

My Apprenticeships – Colette

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Behind the scenes

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Waiting to go on at the Royal Music Hall

Music hall life was often far from the glamour and glitter we might imagine as this description of a dressing room by singer Lilian Warren shows. She is being interviewed for the trade Paper The Era in 1905 and remembers how artistes would apply their make-up by a ‘small piece of candle’ and a mirror which they supplied themselves. She tells of a music hall in Aberdare where thirteen performers shared one dressing-room where they clubbed together to make the room more acceptable. Lilian bought coal for the fire and the other girls provided the candles. By the time of her interview there had been a marked change with more comfortable, clean dressing-rooms provided.

 

 

 

Jenny Hill

Jenny Hill, ‘The Vital Spark’ became a successful and respected serio-comic but started life in poverty. At a young age she was articled for five years to the Bradford Tavern and her life was not her own. She started work cleaning the bars at a very early hour and then was expected to be changed and in the singing room by mid-day  to harmonise with the drinkers. She often worked until 2am and food was scarce. Jenny died in her late forties and her early life took a great toll.

 

 

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Marie Lloyd

Marie Lloyd was known as being kind-hearted and was well aware of class distinction and the poverty of the working classes. One day she was leaving a music hall at the end of a performance when she found a group of children round the stage door. They had no shoes and generous Marie took them to a local shop and bought them boots. The next day they were at the stage door again but with no boots. This was recounted by another performer who was with Marie Lloyd at the time.

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Vesta Tilley

 

Vesta Tilley encountered a different kind of behind the scenes experience when performing at a dinner for ‘the poor of London’ given by the King. She arrived at a large building in the city wearing her Eton schoolboy costume and found there were several rooms being used for the dinner. She was running up and down the stairs trying to find the right room passing various officials on the way. Vesta heard one of them indignantly comment that the problems were not helped by these boys getting in everyone’s way.

 

 

In her autobiography Vesta Tilley remarks on the rivalry that could exist between performers amid the desire to be top of the bill. There could be appropriation of a successful artiste’s songs or of part of their act and music hall managers were often unsympathetic as they could pay the imitator less money. Vesta felt that in some cases the audience wanted a particular song rather than a particular singer. She mentioned the case of mimics such as Cissie Loftus who was acknowledged as an excellent performer but would have songs lifted from her act by others who made little attempt to portray their subject in a way that was recognisable to the audience.

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Cissie Loftus

 

Music hall performers had their highs and lows on and off the stage but they understood their audiences and their audiences loved them for it.

 

 

Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive, Recollections of Vesta Tilley, The Early Doors – Harold Scott

 

 

 

 

 

 

Raising the bar

imageIn Victorian and Edwardian society women were often portrayed as the weaker sex but music hall was another world altogether and audiences flocked to see women of prodigious strength full of confidence in themselves and their right to perform. One such was the Great Athelda, born Frances Rheinlander in Manchester, who performed on the music hall stage from around 1912. Athelda was reported to have made her debut in Buenos Aires in December 1911. She was also known as the miniature Lady Hercules and Britain’s Beautiful Daughter.

We know from reports at the time that her act began with various poses showing sinew, fibre and muscle without distortment and that her posing created something like a sensation in Dewsbury. She would pose while manipulating a dumbbell. In her own advertisement in 1913 she describes her act as dignified posing without ornamentation or drapery, showing genuine muscular development void of fat or pencilling. She sees herself as a graceful figure of beauty, muscle and concealed strength. I haven’t found reports of her height but she weighed 9st 5lb, just under 60 kilos, and was said to hold the record amongst ladies for lifting a half-hundredweight by means of her little finger. She would invite people on to the stage to check the weights were genuine.

In 1916 Athelda claimed to introduce an entirely new novelty in her speciality act which consisted of a group of women in classical poses, featuring acrobatic bending, singing etc which was all arranged to work in harmony. She had previously worked with female assistants, one of whom was called Tiney Loretta. In 1918 she specified she could work on any size stage as she travelled with an elaborate, unique fit-up which was in sections and that she had the equipment to produce her own posters, daybills and throwaways. This strong woman seemed determined to be independent in any way she could.

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Vulcana and Atlas

Athelda was always keen to portray herself as an honest performer and made a point of saying she did not write her own press notices or encourage reporters to say good things about her. There could well have been some needle in her pronouncements as she had a rival in the strong woman world whose name was Vulcana. I’ve written a previous post about Vulcana so won’t go into detail about her here. Performers placed adverts in the trade publications of the day and it is interesting (and amusing) that in The Stage whereadverts being featured in alphabetical order,  Athelda is placed immediately before Vulcana who appeared with the Atlas troupe.

In 1912 the two women were keen to win over promoters and managers and be at the top of the pecking order with Athelda writing that instead of swanking about her abilities she is a real weight-lifter while Vulcana claims to be the strongest lady living. The Great Athelda maintained she asked no favours and said she let her act speak for itself whereas Vulcana made great play of the fact that she had defeated every woman who claimed to lift heavy weights. Vulcana threw out a challenge that she would lift heavy weights against any woman who had the courage to cover her money. The following year in June 1913 Athelda accepted a challenge made by Vulcana but was defeated. She claimed she did not have fair play and issued a £10 side challenge to Vulcana to appear at Vint’s Palace in Llanelli on a Friday evening to ensure a fair test of skill of the two strong women. So far I can’t find evidence that the challenge was taken up. It was exciting for the audience and guaranteed good houses for the managers.

I’m including cards of two more strong women, Herculine and Madame Soffritti as well as a photo I came across of a would-be Athelda. Any information on Madame Soffritti would be much appreciated.

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Madame Herculine

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Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive. All images from the Monomania collection.

 

 

 

 

 

Brighton Hippodrome

The Brighton Hippodrome started life as a skating rink and then became a circus before finding it’s true calling as a venue  for dramatic and variety performances in 1902. Tucked away in a narrow side street the rather plain exterior hid a glamorous venue designed by Frank Matcham, the theatre architect extraordinaire. IMG_0029It held around 2000 people and had five bars, refreshment rooms, lounges and promenades, warehouses, stabling and a large open yard. Before the grand opening a journalist from the trade paper, the Entr’acte, remarked that the facilities for dispensing liquors are very considerable while an advert for musicians states that evening dress and sobriety are indispensable. There was to be an orchestra of eighteen musicians, all to be experienced in the variety and circus business, and a first violin, piano, cello and bassoon were needed to complete it. In July 1901 first-class acts of all kinds were directed to write immediately to secure their bookings.

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Vesta Victoria

We know that the biggest music hall stars of their day appeared at the Brighton Hippodrome, including Marie Lloyd, Vesta Tilley and Hetty King. Vesta Victoria, a very popular singer and comedian, had an off-stage adventure during her time at the Hippodrome in 1906. She went for a moonlight motorboat ride with some friends and when they were seven miles out to sea the petrol for the engine caught fire. They couldn’t put out the flames and the Derby Daily Telegraph reports that just when the situation appeared to be desperate, Miss Vesta Victoria lit upon the expedient of tying her motor-veil to a boat-hook and of waving it in the moonlight. This was seen by fishermen who rescued the group and brought them ashore.

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Vesta Tilley

In her autobiography, Vesta Tilley tells of her experience in Brighton when playing the Hippodrome in the First World War. As Brighton was a coastal town no lights were permitted at all and she says she was obliged to literally feel her way from the Hippodrome to the Metropole Hotel each night after the performance. On one particularly dark night she and her maid found their way to the seafront and Vesta suggested guiding themselves by the railings. They finally realised they were getting no closer to the hotel and found they were walking round and round a small circular  garden in the centre of the road. VestaTilley is reputed to haunt the Brighton Hippodrome, but in a dress rather than stage costume, and there is said to be a whiff of her favourite perfume backstage.

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Marie Lloyd

 

In 1921 Marie Lloyd appeared before the Duke of York (George VI) and the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII) at the Hippodrome and received the royal approval in that the ‘democratic‘ Prince of Wales applauded the performance despite the fact that it was not customary for royalty to applaud in theatres. So in the year before she died Marie was accepted and appreciated by the establishment.

To end with a bizarre story – in March 1907 the Mid-Sussex Times reported that the musical director at the Brighton Hippodrome had written to say that one of his hens had laid an egg weighing over five ounces. The egg could be seen at the Hippodrome any evening.

 

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This is the Hippodrome at the present time. There is a campaign to save and restore the building. The website is ourHippodrome.org.uk

Thanks to the British newspaper archive.co.uk, Recollections of Vesta Tilley, Marie Lloyd – Richard Anthony Baker

 

 

That special something

IMG_0012Ada Reeve was born in London in 1874 into a theatrical family and she made her debut at the age of four in the pantomime Little Red Riding Hood at the Pavilion Theatre, Whitechapel. Using the name Little Ada Reeve she continued to appear in plays and pantomime to great acclaim. Her elocution was said to be ‘peculiarly free from Cockney taint.’ In an advertisement in the trade paper, the Era, in May 1884 Little Ada Reeve announced she was at liberty for speciality and Christmas for the principal child’s part and was said at ten years of age to be a singer, actress, dancer, reciter and drum soloist.

Ada turned to the music hall when her father became ill as a way of earning more money to support her large family. Her first appearance at the age of fourteen was at the Hungerford Music Hall, better known then as Gatti’s-under-the-Arches in Charing Cross. She delivered comic songs, the words of which she is reported to have spoken with a little singing at the end of each line. She was a dainty dancer and not averse to finishing her act with a cartwheel across the stage encouraged by the audience shouting, ‘Over, Ada’. Eventually she gave up on this, telling them, ‘I’m grown-up now!’ Her popularity was such that when she appeared at the Hippodrome Portsmouth in November 1907 her name featured seven times in the advertising material with theatre patrons urged to buy tickets at once owing to the great demand for seats. We are told it was a special engagement at a millionaire salary. The rest of ‘the wonderful star company’ is squeezed in at the bottom of the advert.

IMG_0011Ada also made a name for herself as an actress and performed in musical comedy travelling to the States, South Africa and Australia appearing in theatres and music halls and winning admirers wherever she went. In interviews she was quick to dispel the myth of drinking champagne out of slippers and insisted it was all very proper with the evening ending with a thank you and goodnight on the doorstep. She received many letters from stage door johnnies and in a production where she played the part of an actress she would sometimes amuse herself by reading out these real billets-doux instead of sticking to the script.

In 1905 Ada sued the Weekly Dispatch for misrepresenting her in a published interview. She was read the article before publication and objected to certain content but it was published anyway with her signature as if she had written it. The article stated in a headline that Ada Reeve earned £250 a week and she denied having said this as it was untrue and would make her look foolish and boastful to say so. Other performers had mentioned it to her and it was thought to be in bad taste. She also denied signing the article. The defendants claimed she had not quite understood their intentions but agreed to pay her costs and the action was terminated.
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Ada was herself taken to court by Millie Hylton, ‘her stage rival’, whose counsel asked for Ada to be committed to prison. She had breached an undertaking not to sing Miss Hylton’s song I couldn’t help being a lady. Miss Reeve said she only sang the song once, as an encore, ‘because she had received so many encores that she did not know quite what to give.’ The judge said that Ada could have forgotten the undertaking in the excitement of the encores. He accepted her apology but she would have to pay the costs of the case.

 

 

IMG_0013Ada Reeve continued to work as an actress on stage and in film. Her last stage role was at the age of eighty and she appeared in her last film at the age of eighty-three. She died in 1966 at the age of ninety-two. She had that special something which audiences responded to and in this clip we can see that charm and hear that voice, still clear in her eighties. She is talking to Eamonn Andrews after an appearance on the television show This is your life.

 

 

 

Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive, Fifty years of Vaudeville-Ernest Short, The Northern Music Hall -G. J. Mellor, The Big Red Book

 

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

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