Tag Archives: male impersonator

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

 

 

 

 

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

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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