Category Archives: Pantomime

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

 

 

 

 

More pantomime

So here we are coming to the end of the pantomime season. In Victorian and Edwardian times we could have witnessed music hall stars dressing up in gorgeous finery as Prince Charming or Aladdin. Elaborate hats and hairstyles were the order of the day with costumes of silk and lace which  would hopefully inspire awe and wonder in the audience. Here are just a few of these wonderful women.

From left to right: May Beatty as Dick Whittington, Dorothy Ward as Robin Hood (smoking!), Carrie Moore in Cinderella and Hetty King as Aladdin.

Marie Lloyd played the part of Red Riding Hood at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1892. At one point, Augustus Harris who was managing the production, wanted Marie to say her prayers before going to bed in her grandmother’s cottage. She knelt down and clasped her hands but instead of saying her prayers suddenly felt under the bed for the chamber-pot. Not finding it, she searched the whole room, accompanied by loud laughter from the audience. Augustus Harris did not join in the laughter and Marie was close to getting the sack.

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Marie Lloyd

Pantomimes would often run for three months and provided a steady income in a precarious world. There could be other perks if the show was successful as the trade paper, The Era, tells us. On the last night of The Forty Thieves at the Theatre Royal in Hull the star, Miss Annie Montelli, was presented with a silk umbrella, a dressing-case, a box of gloves and a pearl and coral ring. It’s not clear if these gifts were from admirers or the theatre management. David Beattie, in the same production, was given a silk handkerchief and tie, a cigar case and cigars, a large pork pie, a Madeira cake, a bologna sausage and a bottle of whisky by his admirers in the audience.

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Birdie Sutherland

Birdie Sutherland took on pantomime roles and in 1901 described as the ‘bountiful Birdie Sutherland’ was engaged to play in the Drury Lane panto to be produced in New York. She had become a household name some years earlier when she sued the Hon.Dudley Majoribanks for breach of promise. The engagement had been announced and then denied by the young man’s father, Lord Tweedmouth. The newspaper reports take an amused tone, assuring us that the couple were devoted to each other with Birdie becoming ill and retiring to the country on the break up of the relationship. The Hon.Dudley was sent to Canada in the hope of curing him of his infatuation with Birdie. When the case was heard the court was beseiged with people wanting to enter but numbers were restricted and those present heard the Lord Chief Justice find in favour of Birdie Sutherland, awarding her £5000 damages plus costs. There is no comment from Lord Tweedmouth. A bit of an “Oh yes she will. Oh no she won’t” situation. Sorry, couldn’t resist it. The bad jokes are the best!

Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive

Pantomime

 

Dick Whittington as played by Miss E Beaufort, early unknown, Vesta Tilley and Hetty King

Pantomime season is here, although in Victorian times you’d have heard the cry, ‘Oh, no it isn’t‘ as pantomimes traditionally started on Boxing Day. The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London set the benchmark for pantos all over the country but in the 1870s the theatrical Vokes family monopolised the production, a strategy which ultimately failed as it was reported ‘they were on stage far too long‘ and were ‘sublimely indifferent as to whether the story of Cinderella be a Sanskrit myth or a Greek fable‘. The production closed early, losing money and the following year the pantomime was staged by Augustus Harris. Harris hit on the idea of incorporating music hall stars into his shows and putting on spectacular scenes often with four or five hundred people on stage. The pantomime could last for anything up to five hours and Harris’s successor introduced an interval part way through finding that this contributed to a considerable increase in the sales of refreshments.

Such spectacular productions demanded dedication from the cast and the trade paper The Era gives us a taste of the hectic preparation for a panto. ‘The pantomimes are now in excellent working order, and attracting large audiences. Refractory traps have become obedient — fairy cars no more require the palpable hand of the stage carpenter to appear with a dingy shirt-sleeve in the midst of them, bewildere ballet-girls and stupified super-numeraries are found no longer rushing on in the wrong scene and never appearing in the proper one, the stage arrangements at last develop the original intention of the designers’. The trap is the star trap mentioned in a previous post through which the performer was propelled at speed, not without risk to life and limb. Some newspapers carried a special section of pantomime accidents and we find in 1861 that in one production a member of the cast was wounded when a pistol shot was misdirected and in another there was an escape of gas and an explosion.

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Carrie Moore as Robin Hood

The introduction of music hall stars caused dismay in some quarters as they would perform their particular specialities which interrupted the story being told. Eccentric dances, acrobatics and topical songs were added to cash in on the popularity of the performer. Women from the music hall often took the part of principal boy wearing elaborate costumes and showing a shapely leg. Vesta Tilley was once engaged by Augustus Harris to play in Dick Whittington but just before rehearsals began the pantomime was changed to Beauty and the Beast and Vesta was to play the Prince. She found that that after the second scene the Prince was changed into the Beast and she would have to wear a mask until the final scene when the good fairy would change her back into the Prince again. Vesta was not happy with this and came up with a solution. She stipulated that she would not appear in the scenes in which her character was masked but would reappear for the final scene. This meant she could perform her own act in nearby variety theatres and she claims to have trebled her salary. Her role in the masked scenes was taken by John d’Auban but we don’t know how the audience felt about the substitution.

There’s so much to write about pantomime that the next blog will cover it as well. Oh, yes it will!

 

Thanks to ‘Recollections of Vesta Tilley’ and Westminster Reference Library