Tag Archives: Millie Hylton

That special something

IMG_0012Ada Reeve was born in London in 1874 into a theatrical family and she made her debut at the age of four in the pantomime Little Red Riding Hood at the Pavilion Theatre, Whitechapel. Using the name Little Ada Reeve she continued to appear in plays and pantomime to great acclaim. Her elocution was said to be ‘peculiarly free from Cockney taint.’ In an advertisement in the trade paper, the Era, in May 1884 Little Ada Reeve announced she was at liberty for speciality and Christmas for the principal child’s part and was said at ten years of age to be a singer, actress, dancer, reciter and drum soloist.

Ada turned to the music hall when her father became ill as a way of earning more money to support her large family. Her first appearance at the age of fourteen was at the Hungerford Music Hall, better known then as Gatti’s-under-the-Arches in Charing Cross. She delivered comic songs, the words of which she is reported to have spoken with a little singing at the end of each line. She was a dainty dancer and not averse to finishing her act with a cartwheel across the stage encouraged by the audience shouting, ‘Over, Ada’. Eventually she gave up on this, telling them, ‘I’m grown-up now!’ Her popularity was such that when she appeared at the Hippodrome Portsmouth in November 1907 her name featured seven times in the advertising material with theatre patrons urged to buy tickets at once owing to the great demand for seats. We are told it was a special engagement at a millionaire salary. The rest of ‘the wonderful star company’ is squeezed in at the bottom of the advert.

IMG_0011Ada also made a name for herself as an actress and performed in musical comedy travelling to the States, South Africa and Australia appearing in theatres and music halls and winning admirers wherever she went. In interviews she was quick to dispel the myth of drinking champagne out of slippers and insisted it was all very proper with the evening ending with a thank you and goodnight on the doorstep. She received many letters from stage door johnnies and in a production where she played the part of an actress she would sometimes amuse herself by reading out these real billets-doux instead of sticking to the script.

In 1905 Ada sued the Weekly Dispatch for misrepresenting her in a published interview. She was read the article before publication and objected to certain content but it was published anyway with her signature as if she had written it. The article stated in a headline that Ada Reeve earned £250 a week and she denied having said this as it was untrue and would make her look foolish and boastful to say so. Other performers had mentioned it to her and it was thought to be in bad taste. She also denied signing the article. The defendants claimed she had not quite understood their intentions but agreed to pay her costs and the action was terminated.
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Ada was herself taken to court by Millie Hylton, ‘her stage rival’, whose counsel asked for Ada to be committed to prison. She had breached an undertaking not to sing Miss Hylton’s song I couldn’t help being a lady. Miss Reeve said she only sang the song once, as an encore, ‘because she had received so many encores that she did not know quite what to give.’ The judge said that Ada could have forgotten the undertaking in the excitement of the encores. He accepted her apology but she would have to pay the costs of the case.

 

 

IMG_0013Ada Reeve continued to work as an actress on stage and in film. Her last stage role was at the age of eighty and she appeared in her last film at the age of eighty-three. She died in 1966 at the age of ninety-two. She had that special something which audiences responded to and in this clip we can see that charm and hear that voice, still clear in her eighties. She is talking to Eamonn Andrews after an appearance on the television show This is your life.

 

 

 

Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive, Fifty years of Vaudeville-Ernest Short, The Northern Music Hall -G. J. Mellor, The Big Red Book

 

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Bessie Bonehill

Bessie Bonehill

Bessie Bonehill

Bessie Bonehill was born into a poor family in 1855 in West Bromwich and was originally part of a clog dancing act called The Three Sisters Bonehill. It is said she first started dressing as a young boy in 1862 which would back up her claim to be the first male impersonator in the music hall. She was a highly paid principal boy in pantomime and became famous on the halls for singing patriotic songs including one entitled ‘Here stands a Post’ in which Bessie was dressed as a young soldier. The song became an instant hit. It was originally sung by Miss Rosa Garibaldi who was the niece of General Garibaldi. Rosa was engaged at the Royal Music Hall, Holborn in March 1878 at a sum of £3 weekly but her voice didn’t go down well with the crowd and she wasn’t asked back for a second week. Bessie adopted the song and had the success denied to Rosa with horse-drawn London buses carrying posters advertising the tremendous success of Bessie Bonehill.

Her success continued and she travelled to America to appear at Tony Pastor’s theatre in New York. Apparently she received at least a dozen proposals of marriage a week and was so popular she was re-engaged with an enormous salary increase. However, the Daughters of the American Revolution were not impressed by a woman dressing as a man and tried to have her thrown out of America. In one of her scrapbooks Bessie kept an anonymous note she had received. It quoted this passage from the scriptures; ‘The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, for all that do so are an abomination’. It claimed to have been sent ‘in love’. Bessie cut her hair short for her impersonation roles, unlike many male impersonators who wore wigs, which probably helped to fan the flames of righteous indignation.

Bessie Bonehill with her short hair.

Bessie Bonehill with her short hair.

At one point at Tony Pastor’s theatre Bessie Bonehill and Millie Hylton, another male impersonator from the West Midlands, carried out three hundred and sixty consecutive sell-out performances over five weeks with Bessie earning $450 a week. She was an astute business woman and invested in a farm on Long Island which had a fruit farm, granary, dairy and cheese factory.

Bessie Bonehill and Millie Hylton were linked in another, less pleasant way. Performers were open to blackmail in those days, with gangs threatening to disrupt their performances if a payment wasn’t forthcoming. Bessie was playing in the pantomime Aladdin in Sheffield when she was followed home by a group of people of the ‘coster type’ who asked for money for the applause they had given her during the evening. They claimed to have been paid by other performers in the past. She refused and on the Saturday evening there was a loud hissing as she began a song. Bessie told the audience what had happened and the would-be blackmailers were removed from the theatre to loud applause. She was accompanied home by a constable every evening in case she was attacked for her bravery. Millie Hylton was not so lucky as she and her brother were attacked on their way home from her performance in a pantomime in Birmingham. The New Zealand Herald tells us they were set upon by two ‘roughs’ and five women. According to the newspaper account her brother was beaten unconscious and the women dragged Millie to the ground, kicked her and made as if to strangle her. She had refused to succumb to the blackmail of paying for applause and the police thought this attack was the would-be blackmailers’ revenge. There is a wonderful photo of Millie Hylton and others waiting for their turn at the Royal Music Hall, Holborn. She is in the middle with a white stick. Performers didn’t always get dressing-rooms to wait in and conditions were crowded and rudimentary, particularly for those lower down the bill.

Waiting to go on at the Royal Music Hall

Waiting to go on at the Royal Music Hall

This post is a tribute to Richard Bonehill who died in February 1915. We never met but swapped notes about Bessie. Richard published a book called ‘England’s Gem’ – the story of Bessie Bonehill.