Category Archives: Music Hall

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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