Jen Latona, real name Emma Jane Letty Carter, was born in 1881 in Birmingham. By the age of sixteen she was appearing in music halls under the name of Jennie Gabrielle. In January 1896 the Hull Daily Mail commented on her appearance at Hengler’s describing her as ‘the child musician, who possesses a singularly sweet and mellow soprano voice’. We learn from a review of her performance at the Palace Theatre in Edinburgh that she sang humorous songs and accompanied herself on the piano and concertina.
Jennie married an American performer twenty-five years her senior, born Benjamin Franklyn Titus, whose stage name was Frank Latona. Jennie Gabrielle became Jen Latona. Frank performed as a tramp musician, playing the trombone and a one-stringed fiddle, and included various effects in his act which he constucted himself. In a handwritten pencil note on a scrap of paper Frank reminds himself to ‘make whiskers to blow out and curl up – air pumps and rubber tube’.
Jen and Frank worked together as a double act with music, song, gags and repartee. In the archive of their work, presented to the Mayor of Lambeth by Jen Latona in her retirement, can be found handwritten sheets of ‘gags’, while jokes were often constructed from cut out newspaper articles. A handwritten notebook of sketches and gags contains this gem – ‘Why, that is the meanest man you ever saw. He is so mean he goes to the track and makes faces at the engineers so they will throw coal at him’. Newspaper personal ads were fair game too, with ‘Two girls want washing’ setting the standard. The couple performed extensively in New Zealand and the United States scribbling down material for their act on hotel notepaper and receiving offers of new songs from American songwriters.
When Frank Latona retired, Jen became a successful solo performer. She was on the bill with Vesta Tilley at the opening of the Croydon Hippodrome and was described as an ‘entertainer of exceptional merit’ to be compared with Margaret Cooper, a classically trained pianist who moved over to the music hall. However the writer quickly explains that Miss Cooper’s songs are of quite a different nature but that Jen is ‘a turn quite above the ordinary found at the halls’. Jen composed much of her stage music and the sheet music of the day shows she had a prolific repertoire with such songs as I’m going to buy you the R.I.N.G. and You can’t blame a Suffragette for that.
Frank died in 1930 and Jen retired a few years later. She lived in Streatham in London and when she died in 1955 her home and possessions were put up for auction, including a Schrieber grand piano and a souvenir programme of Sarah Bernhardt at the London Coliseum in 1913. The proceeds of the sale went to the Variety Artists Benevolent Fund.
Frank had a genius for mechanical invention and invented and patented the Ednor Tank Washer. Of more interest to music hall fans here is a drawing in Frank’s hand of the workings of a dog to be used in an act with a mule.
We’ll leave the Latona’s with a final joke. ‘You are the most ignorant man I ever saw. Why, only yesterday I saw you giving hot water to the hens to make them lay hard-boiled eggs’. I hope you hear the echo of laughter.
Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive and Lambeth Archives. Images Monomania.