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Talk on ‘The Art of Music Hall and Variety’

Not to be missed!

Music Hall Alice

The Art of Music Hall

On Wednesday 9th October 2019, I will be giving a talk at The Water Rats, 328 Grays Inn Road, London WC1X 8BZ on ‘The Art of Music Hall and Variety.’  No surprises to hear that Walter Sickert will pop up as well as Laura Knight, Maggi Hambling and Alfred Concanen. And ‘AB’, Alfred Bryan, my favourite caricaturist of the period is likely to feature.  I am sure I won’t be able to resist slipping in a few family references – maybe some Daisy Dormer sheet music.

This talk is part of the British Music Hall Society’s monthly ‘In the Limelight’ talks where some aspect of entertainment from the past is explored. All are welcome and you don’t have to be a member of the Society to attend.

Tickets can be purchased in advance via TicketSource, link here:

If you aren’t organised enough to pre-book, there will be tickets available…

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All manner of accomplishments

In the wake of International Women’s Day and to celebrate Women’s History Month I’ve put together a group of very different women. They may have shared a stage or an orchestra, they may never have met but they all knew the hard life of the performer and the vagaries of managers and audiences alike. They are largely forgotten but live on through their photographs and I would like to pay tribute to them.


Gertie Rex


Gertie Rex was described as a character comedienne and Scotland’s leading comedienne. She wrote and produced at least one pantomime in which she also appeared. She staged Humpty Dumpty in 1923 and took the part of the ‘leading boy‘. Gertie was described as a highly entertaining artiste with her catchy songs. Another report tells us that ‘Gertie Rex knows the way to the heart of her audience’ which is tribute enough.





La Tortajada

La Tortajada was a Spanish dancer who roused great passion in her male admirers. She had jewels thrown at her feet and duels fought to protect her honour. She accepted these things modestly.



One of the Delevines

The next card has the inscription’ one of the Delevines’ not giving her a first name. I found a picture of a card signed by all the Delevines and I matched her with Minnie. The Five Delevines were made up of two women and three men and they made music and danced in a sprightly fashion. They were also acrobats and comedy artistes, playing guitar and providing acrobatic and musical entertainment which seems to have been based around a short sketch. Imagine doing all this several times a night, travelling all over the country and then not being granted a first name.



Mdlle Amelia

Mademoiselle Amelia cuts a determined figure looking out  from beneath her curls. She appeared with music hall and circus acts and is described as a sylph-like equestrienne. She wasn’t top of the bill but performed for a good many years, the photo suggesting acrobatics or gymnastics on horseback.


Iron-jaw act


This is an iron-jaw act where the artiste used their teeth to hang from a leather strap while performing acrobatic movements. This is a later photo but is the only one I have in the collection to show the act in progress. I don’t have the name of the performer. Originally the strap had a metal hook at one end to attach to a trapeze etc while there was a leather mouthpiece at the other end which was gripped by the performers in their teeth. The mouthpiece shown here was used by Pansy Chinery and is in the V&A collection.


Mouthpiece for iron-jaw act

Her teeth marks can still be seen.





Margaret Cooper trained at the Royal Academy of Music and was persuaded to perform on the halls. Managers were always aiming for respectability. W. MacQueen-Pope in his book ‘The Melody Lingers On‘ describes Margaret as ‘beautifully dressed, she would sail on to the stage. Then she would seat herself, take off her elbow length gloves with great care and in the most leisurely manner, and then proceed to remove her numerous rings and bracelets, which she placed one at a time on top of the piano. The audience would watch spellbound. Although her voice was neither strong nor powerful, she had the knack of making every syllable heard, every word tell, and that without a microphone’.


Margaret Cooper

Margaret defied superstition, always insisting on dressing-room thirteen in which she put down a green rug, considered an unlucky colour, which she brought with her.




Thanks to,  The Melody Lingers On – W. MacQueen-Pope, V&A, Kilburn and Willesden History

The Dolly Sisters

imageThe name Harry Gordon Selfridge, founder of the London department store, was linked to some of the most popular and sought after women of the day. His generosity towards them knew no bounds and age did not diminish his enthusiasm for being seen in their company. In the early 1920s Mr Selfridge saw a performance by the Dolly sisters and was immediately struck by the beauty and talent of Jenny Dolly. I’ve never understood why he chose Jenny on sight alone as the Dolly sisters were identical twins. Jenny and Rosie Dolly, birth names Yansci and Roszika Deutsch, were born in Hungary and moved to the States when they were twelve, beginning a dancing career in the theatre that would make them household names in Europe as well as America. They started in vaudeville making up their own dances, their mother putting together the costumes, and gradually got themselves noticed with their liveliness and enthusiasm although their singing seems to have been mediocre. They had that indefinable something made even more special by the fact that they were identical twins.

imageThe Dollies appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies and in films, trying solo careers and then getting back together. They came to Europe in 1920 and wowed London audiences with their costumes and their style. By this time they had learned that sumptuous costumes and stage sets put them in the public eye and made them memorable. This together with their vitality and sheer personality made up for the fact that they were not the greatest singers and dancers. They were popular backstage, being generous and friendly towards ordinary theatre workers. During their stay in the capital they were thrilled to be taken up by London society, dancing with Edward, Prince of Wales and attending parties thrown by the rich and famous.

They had a good sense of fun and there are stories of them putting their identical appearance to good use. On one occasion it is said that Rosie was invited to lunch by an admirer who was getting a little too keen and she ate her way through a great deal of food before excusing herself for a short time. Identically dressed Jenny replaced her, proceeded to say she was still hungry and demolished another mountain of food. The admirer was keen to escape from this particular lunch date.

imageThe Dolly Sisters moved to Paris and were equally popular there. They had become aware of their own worth and in 1926 they sued the management of the Moulin Rouge Music Hall for 500,000 francs for breach of contract. They were unhappy that Mistinguett, a famous revue star, was topping the bill. The Moulin Rouge management counter-sued for the same amount of money as the Dolly Sisters had walked off in the middle of a rehearsal and joined the cast of the Casino de Paris. They won their case and were awarded the full amount of damages plus costs. They became members of the smart set, gambling in Deauville and following the social season. They were known for arriving at the casino dripping in jewels, gifts from wealthy admirers, and gambling vast amounts of money, often bank-rolled by those same wealthy individuals.

Mr Selfridge was one of those admirers, showering gifts on Jenny and accompanying her to the casino, handing her wads of notes with which to gamble. He is said to have proposed to her several times but she refused to marry him. Selfridge was in his seventies by now and using his diminishing fortune to indulge the woman he had fallen in love with. He helped her buy and furnish a house in Paris and when Jenny had a serious car accident he paid medical and care bills. There are accounts that Harry Gordon Selfridge spent as much as twenty million dollars mainly on Jenny Dolly but with Rosie receiving expensive gifts as well. He eventually lost control of his department store ending up in debt and with unpaid taxes.

imageIt is hard to imagine that the Dollies had anything other than a happy ending but sadly this was not the case. The world they knew was disappearing and other stars were taking the stage. Jenny never fully recovered psychologically or physically from her dreadful car accident and committed suicide. Rosie lived for almost thirty years without her sister. In an interview in the 1960s Rosie Dolly said, ‘I found out that America has changed— I’m in New York, old friends you call up when you arrive – they’ve forgotten you. They don’t call back.’

If you’d like to know more about the Dolly Sisters there is a great biography The Delectable Dollies by Gary Chapman published by Sutton Publishing.

Thanks to The British Newspaper Achive and The Delectable Dollies by Gary Chapman


Gaby Deslys


Gaby Deslys

The television series, Mr Selfridge, returns to our screens and Harry Gordon Selfridge steps into our blog with his amorous links to women in music hall and variety. He was fifty-three when he opened his department store on Oxford Street, London, in 1909 and put the customer at the heart of the experience. If the customer was his chosen one she could glide through the store choosing clothes and jewels to her heart’s content, knowing that the bill would be picked up by her besotted lover. He came to London from America with his wife and four children but formed close relationships with stars such as Anna Pavlova, the ballerina, and Gaby Deslys.

imageGaby Deslys was a French singer and dancer who started off in the chorus line and became a huge success in Paris, London and New York. She was said to be charming, deeply religious, but with a quick temper and ‘One who knew her‘ writing in the Globe claimed she lived an abstemious life, seldom touching wine, never gambling and allowing herself to spend lavishly only on clothes. As well as Selfridge, Gaby also had a long lasting affair with the King of Portugal which it was widely assumed continued after his deposition, although she refused to talk about it. He was reputed to have given her a necklace worth about £40,000 after their first meeting. No wonder she saved her own money with admirers like these. Despite the generosity of her admirers Gaby made some extra money by promoting Reudel Bath Saltrates which, it was claimed, would get rid of superfluous fat, double chin and thick ankles. It came in convenient half-pound packets and was ‘quite cheap’

Gaby’s affair with Gordon Selfridge ended and she died, aged 38, in 1920 from complications of a severe throat infection as a result of catching influenza during the serious epidemic of the time. She had several operations but would not allow surgeons to cut into her throat as she did not want a scar. She left her fortune to the poor of her birthplace, Marseille, and specified that her villa should be turned into a hospital for the poor.


Villa Gaby Deslys

After her death a Hungarian man, Mr Navratil, put in a claim for Gaby’s estate on the grounds that his daughter, Hedwige Navratilova, was in fact Gaby Deslys and that she did not come from Marseille. This claim was made ten years after Gaby’s death and Mr Navratil and his wife had lost touch with their daughter for some years. Hedwige was living in Biarritz and bore a remarkable resemblance to Gaby Deslys. The newspapers of the time don’t make it clear how the claim would work if Gaby was still alive but had died and left a will! Two business men who had known Gaby Deslys for thirty years supported the fact that she was from the Caire family of Marseilles, her real name being Gabrielle Caire. They said she ‘spoke with a Marseilles accent, and although she knew a little English, she was not acquainted with any Central European language‘. Mr Navratil was unsuccessful in his claim.

Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive


Dipping into the postcard collection

Preparing for an exhibition to accompany a one-woman show about Vesta Tilley, featuring Claire Worboys  so blog time is limited. This is mainly pictorial which makes it easier for me and, with a bit of luck, interesting for you. A new addition to the collection is Mignon Tremaine, a singer and dancer with a name I couldn’t resist.

Mignon Tremaine

Mignon Tremaine

Vesta Tilley impersonated men who were very recognisable to the music hall audience. Her costumes were made by tailors in Bond Street, London and were meticulous in their detail.

Here, she is a curate and makes it work through facial expressions and mannerisms as well as costume.

Vesta Tilley, vicar

Vesta Tilley, curate

Ukuleles are popular again and we can nod sagely and point out there is nothing new under the sun. This is probably a later card as the young women have short hair, possibly wigs, and strappy tops. Eccentric dances to accompany songs were popular in earlier music hall and, although I subscribe to this form of dancing, it’s not generally found on theatre stages these days.

Eccentric dance

Eccentric dance

Ukulele players

Ukulele players


The Diving Belles

The Diving Belles

Lastly, an advert for the Diving Belles, mentioned in a previous post. Daphne obviously caught the publics’ interest as she is often mentioned in reverential tones. As leader of the troupe she has the privilege of sitting down. You can click on the advert and dance picture to get a larger image.

Who sent the cards?

Sometimes the comments on the back of the postcards can be quite intriguing. On turning over a photo of Vesta Tilley we find a message from Ernest to Miss Eva Cooper in Dublin, sent from Glasgow in 1906. It says ‘we broke all previous records here yesterday. Had two of the biggest houses we ever had. Had a postcard from Holmes and one from Quigley...’ This sounds like music hall or theatre performances. Was Vesta Tilley involved? Was the postcard from Sherlock Holmes? The realms of fantasy are endless. Whatever the answers, it’s a wonderful photo.

Ernest's card of Vesta Tilley

Ernest’s card of Vesta Tilley

Then, as now, there were avid collectors of postcards but no short-cuts to finding that elusive special card. Nelly writes in 1906 apologising to her aunt, Mrs Thoruley in Bolton, as she can’t get the Vesta Tilley card she wants but instead sends one of Vesta with a cigar in the uniform of a soldier. Annie sends a card from West Hartlepool to Miss Turner to say it is the only one she can get of Vesta Tilley, this time holding a cigarette dressed as a young man about town. In 1905 Charlie is pleased to be able to send a card of Vesta at all as he has had to try several shops before being able to get it.

According to Norah in 1906 Hetty King has rather a nice face and Miss Greenhalgh of Southport receives a card from GS which says, ‘I believe you like sailors?’ This is written on the back of a card showing Hetty as a pipe-smoking sailor.

Hetty King - for anyone who likes sailors

Hetty King – for anyone who likes sailors

Bert also sends a card of Hetty the sailor to Aggie in 1907. It is rather touching as he writes, ‘you may expect me home on Fryday (sic). The boat leaves here at 9 o’clock but we don’t know what time we will get to Nottingham.’  

The card writers often apologise for their poor writing, explaining it is a ‘wretched pen‘ or they are writing while standing-up. Experience of trying to decipher these messages has taught me that handwriting was as varied then as it is now and was by no means an art form which has now been lost. I have a few cards sent to Seddon Cox Esq from Babs which are in mirror writing. They all feature Gabrielle Ray and Miss Craske and Babs remarks on the sauciness of the card shown here. I’ve included the back of the card as well for translation by the keener among you. Click on it and you should get an enlarged picture.

Mirror writing

Mirror writing

Gabrielle Ray and Miss Craske

Gabrielle Ray and Miss Craske

Performers used their own publicity postcards to communicate with boarding-houses and arrange meetings up and down the country. The Kebbles sent a card from Southport to Edward Stream telling him they will travel overnight to Edinburgh and asking him to call on them at their lodgings at Mrs Shaw’s.

The Kebbles card sent to Edward Stream

The Kebbles card sent to Edward Stream

Madeline Rossiter thanks Mrs Brown ‘in haste’ for sending on a handkerchief and Ruby Rowe asks God to bless Mr & Mrs Stream in 1921. Miss Effie Fellows ‘the one and only perfect boy’  uses her postcard to tell us she is the ‘one and only male impersonator who has dared to visit Scotland Yard, London, England in male attire without being discovered. She has repeated this stunt in every large city throughout the universe.’ 

Effie Fellows - the one and only Perfect Boy

Effie Fellows – the one and only Perfect Boy

Last, but not least, is Phyllis Broughton who was a Gaiety Girl and appeared on the theatre and music hall stage. She addressed and stamped cards of performers to herself and asked them to sign and return them. I have a Vesta Tilley card and one of Sybil Arundale, an actress and star of pantomime and musicals, with Phyllis’s address on the back.

Postcard addressed to  Phyllis Broughton

An example of Phyllis Broughton’s self-addressed postcards

Phyllis Broughton was at one time engaged to a colliery owner, John Hedley, but sent him a telegram to break off the engagement when she received a marriage proposal from the heir to Earl Cowley. The heir subsequently jilted her so she sued him for breach of promise, winning the case and a substantial sum of money. John Hedley had built a house for Phyllis and he kept this empty but in good repair as a shrine to her. It is said he sent her a basket of fruit and flowers from the garden every week. When he died he left most of his estate to Phyllis but she had pre-deceased him. The house became a home for distressed actors and actresses.

Phyllis Broughton

Phyllis Broughton