Tag Archives: Music Hall

The Latest Scourge

The latest scourge – a term used to describe the flu pandemic of 1918/19 when the country was already reeling from the devastating effects of the First World War. Theatres and music halls were a welcome escape for many of the population and the authorities saw them as a morale booster in difficult times. There was much debate as to whether music halls should remain open and which, if any, preventative measures should be taken. Local authorities took their own decisions. By October 1918 no regulations had been issued in Oxford as to the closing of places of amusement, even though influenza was rife. Audiences declined considerably and the military authorities placed music halls out of bounds for infantry cadets, although Royal Air Force cadets could still attend. In contrast, at the beginning of November 1918 the licensing committee in Birkenhead issued regulations covering the opening of music halls. The first performance was to take place between 6.30 and 8pm with the premises thoroughly ventilated until 8.45pm when the second performance began. Children under fourteen were not to be admitted under any circumstances and overcrowding should be avoided. Scrupulous cleanliness was expected.

In many areas the military of all ranks were forbidden to attend the halls which had a severe effect on their takings and led to calls for restrictions to be eased. Various medical experts shared their opinion that it was useless to close places of amusement while allowing travel on omnibuses and trains. Oswald Stoll, music hall manager, declared that the epidemic was much more likely the result of a diet lacking in fats and sugar than visits to the music hall. The London Palladium installed an ozone ventilating system and sprayed a strong germ killer all over the theatre between each performance. The Illustrated London News suggested there was no better preventative than a good sneezing fit once or twice a day and various manufacturers talked up the efficacy of their products.



Despite some measures to combat the virus it dealt a blow to performers as well as audiences with popular artists unable to perform. The trade papers sought to play down the seriousness of the outbreak but were reporting many stand-ins for advertised artists. Daisy Jerome, irreverent mimic and singer, cancelled her appearance at the Palladium after succumbing to influenza while coster act, Duncan and Godfrey, appeared at the Holborn Empire still suffering from the after effects of the illness. Anthony Burgess, the writer, tells us of his mother’s death from influenza in 1918 when he was two years old. He talks about her life in music halls and her marriage to his father, a pianist in the pit orchestra. I can find no other evidence of Elizabeth Burgess/Wilson appearing on the halls and would be grateful for any information.

Elizabeth Burgess Wilson

Music halls were perhaps more fortunate here than in the States, Canada and Australia where the halls closed for weeks at a time inflicting severe hardship on performers and venues. In her autobiography, Take it for a Fact, Ada Reeve talks of being hospitalised with flu in South Africa with theatres closed and the public warned not to go to places of amusement. All in all, many parallels with the current pandemic and then, as now the fervent wish was to get back to normal.

Ada Reeve


Thanks to British Newspaper Archive, thestage.co.uk, Take it for a Fact – Ada Reeve
Photograph of Elizabeth Burgess/Wilson reproduced with kind permission of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation


I’m an old hand at love

0FD29E9F-BBD6-42EC-A545-1BD413C1468AMinnie Cunningham was a music hall singer and dancer, best remembered for featuring in a painting by Walter Sickert. She was born in Birmingham in 1870, the daughter of music hall comic singer Ned Cunningham. He was well-loved and successful, being described by the Birmingham Gazette as the ‘greatest comic singer in the world.’ His daughter started her music hall career after his death when she was ten years old. Minnie Cunningham tells us she began as a male impersonator and sang her father’s songs, although reviews of the time don’t mention male impersonation, only her singing and dancing. She moved from the provincial halls to London where she performed at the principal halls of the day.

It was during her London success that Minnie Cunningham was introduced to the 31A333B7-D7C4-4610-B0B0-EAC59D94897Epainter Walter Sickert by the poet and music hall critic Arthur Symons. Both men were smitten by the popular artiste and Sickert arranged to paint her portrait. The figure of Minnie Cunningham was painted from life in Sickert’s studio in Chelsea in 1892. For this painting she stood on a raised stand as if she were on stage but when asking her to pose for a later painting Sickert writes that he had built a proper stage  ‘six foot square, with steps up to it.’ The background is thought to be the Tivoli on the Strand in London where Sickert had seen her perform. The painting was originally entitled, Miss Minnie Cunningham ‘I’m an old hand at love, though I’m young in years.’ This was one of her popular songs at the time and while singing it she dressed as a young girl which made the performance more daring. The painting became known as Minnie Cunningham at the Old Bedford. It was exhibited for the first time at the New English Art Club in 1892 to a mixed reception, with a reviewer in the Pall Mall Gazette writing ‘The red dress of Minnie Cunningham glows with refined richness in its setting, but the proportions of the figure and the feet and hands seem altogether absurd.’ The subject and setting were just too shocking for many at the time and it was said by some to represent degradation and vulgarity.

Minnie Cunningham remained popular for some years, performing, writing songs for herself and others and appearing in pantomime. She maintained it was very difficult to gauge the public taste in choosing a song but her compositions ‘The hen that cackles the most’ and ‘Give us a wag of your tail, old dog’ seem to have hit the mark. Minnie spent time in Ireland, calling herself ‘the Little Irish Gem’ and a tale is told of male admirers turning up with glass bottles to throw at the performer who replaced her at the top of the bill, giving us an idea of her popularity.

While in Ireland she claimed £500 through a court case for alleged breach of 9D63B80C-0979-452C-A9E1-EBFD29E749B3contract in which she was engaged as principal girl in the Jack and Jill pantomime at £30 a week. She refused to wear the costume for her part saying it was too short and offended her standards of decency. Discussions with management were unsuccessful, often ending in tears. Eventually another performer, Edith Fink, was appointed to the role and had no complaints about the length of the costume. At one point in the court proceedings the two performers removed their hats and boots and stood back to back on a table to see who was the taller of the two. Minnie Cunningham was undoubtedly the taller and was asked to put on the costume for the jury’s eyes only. There were rumours that she was worried that Dorothy Ward playing the part of Jack, an extremely well-known and talented performer, would outshine her. The jury could not agree on a verdict and were discharged.

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Dorothy Ward

Minnie Cunningham lived with her mother in Southgate Road, Hackney. Her mother died in 1916 and Minnie seems to have retired shortly after this. She died in 1954 at the age of eighty-four and her later life is a mystery. She remained in Southgate Road, but her obituary tells us only of Minnie’s performing life taken from her own words.

 

 

 

Thanks to britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk
                   monomania postcards (@monomaniablogs)
                   Walter Richard Sickert & the Theatre 1880-1940. PhD thesis submitted    University of St Andrews by William Rough 2010

 

An update on the mysterious relative

I’m very pleased to have found out a little more about the life of Marie Levison/Kate Toole who featured in the previous post. Thanks to the help of @heathertweed my enthusiasm was renewed for more research. Marie/Kate was born in 1859 in Worcester and her original name was Catherine Lee. She was one of nine sisters which included my friend’s Great Grandmother, Jane Lee. It seems the family cast her adrift when she went on the stage. This story had come down through the family but was still not really talked about. According to her obituary, Catherine started her career under the stage name Marie Levison, singing and acting with various companies until she was engaged by the D’Oyley Carte company. It seems she spent some years there and then as Kate Toole took to the music halls and pantomime where, for a time, she enjoyed success. She was said to have an excellent stage presence and a rich sympathetic voice.

While my friend found out about Catherine’s beginnings I looked into her death and burial guided by @heathertweed. Kate Toole, as she was still known, died of alcohol poisoning and had been found in bed by her landlady. She was living in Bermondsey and was buried on March 5th 1903 in Nunhead Cemetery. She was 44 years old when she died. Kate was buried in consecrated ground but in a public or communal grave along with twenty-one other people. This usually happened when the deceased had no resources to pay for a private grave or no relatives prepared to pay the costs. As Catherine had changed her name twice it’s possible her family had lost track of her – a better thought than that they refused to help. The site of the grave is now a nature reserve.

The obituary states that, in her day, Kate Toole was a popular and much appreciated artiste but that in later years her name had entirely disappeared from the London programmes. We will probably never know if her star faded and she took to drink or if alcohol was the cause of her downfall, as it was with so many music hall performers. I’m glad we could give her some recognition and I feel moved by her story and grateful to have had the chance to get to know her in a small way.

Thanks to @heathertweed, British Newspaper Archive, Nunhead Cemetery

 

 

 

The Mysterious Relative

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This photo is signed Marie Levison and is of the relative of a friend. Information is hard to come by and it seems Marie may have been the person in the family that no one talked about. Was she considered beyond the pale for embracing the theatrical life? We don’t know but would love to find out. The photo shows her as Dandini in the pantomime Cinderella at the Theatre Royal, Cardiff in January 1888. Marie Levison was not her real name, which could have been Kate Lee, and she changed her name again to Kate Toole in October 1888. It wasn’t unusual for performers to change their names if they took on a new act or hoped to leave an unsuccessful career behind, but why did she do it?

We know that Marie Levison had been with the D’Oyley Carte Company for some years and then switched to music hall. We don’t know why she did this. As Kate Toole she appeared on various bills and seems to have been well received although never appearing as the star turn. She was represented by Hugh J Didcott who was one of the leading agents of the time. Didcott had a dispute with the leading music halls which he lost and many of the music hall stars left his agency which meant he was left with the less popular artistes. When did he represent Kate? Did she stay with him? We don’t know the date of her birth but sadly we know how she died. The Brighton Gazette reported in March 1903 that Kate Toole was found dead in bed by her landlady. The cause of death was given as alcohol poisoning.

If anyone has any more information on Marie/Kate it would be wonderful if you could share it and I’ll pass it on to the friend with the mysterious relative.

 

Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive and the British Music Hall Society.

Roller-Skating: An Aid to Health

The general population in the early 1900s was as susceptible to fashion and new-fangled ideas as we are today. The craze for roller-skating came over from America and swept the country. As ever, the music hall reflected life in the outside world and took the opportunity to bring new delights to its audiences. Roller-skating acts were soon included in music hall programmes and managers were encouraged to update the halls with flooring to accommodate skaters, or rinkers as they were known. As seen below, the suggestion seems to be that rinkers could use the halls for skating between performances and managers could cash in at the same time.

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Specialist roller-skating rinks opened all over the country for the general public but were not universally popular among those already providing other forms of entertainment. In some areas publicans organised an anti-rinking campaign and billiard saloon owners met to discuss the way to combat the attraction of roller-skating. The trade paper, The Era, tells us that music halls seemed not to suffer a decline in trade and the manager of a large venue declared that skaters liked a quiet seat at an entertainment at least one evening a week. This may have been wishful thinking as Mr Alfred Graham, proprietor of the Hull Hippodrome and Middlesbrough’s Oxford Music Hall, was declared insolvent and blamed skating rinks for his troubles.

Health benefits were said to be gained from roller-skating with even the most BE3D3A36-13DE-4723-98BF-8BB09D9B57F6delicate people finding it beneficial. Headaches would become a thing of the past as the blood coursed more vigorously through the veins. Little is said about falls and broken limbs. Seeing the experts performing at rinks and music halls increased the popularity of the pastime with participants attempting dance steps and couple dancing, with mixed results.
326EEF08-1E76-4E68-9F79-BF0C1E4CB870Dolly Mitchell was a young Scottish roller-skater who teamed up with her American teacher, Harley Davidson, to give displays in rinks and music halls. Advertised as the greatest skaters in the world and giving a wonderful exhibition of trick, fancy, acrobatic, graceful and artistic skating. They displayed over £1,000 worth of gold and diamond medals won in competition. When appearing in Scarborough they cake-walked, two-stepped and waltzed on roller-skates before executing a perfect ballet dance. Harley Davidson described Dolly Mitchell as being sixteen years old, the daughter of a doctor in Aberdeen and the granddaughter of ‘old John Begg’ a whisky distiller. They visited London to have a portable maple floor made to fit any stage at a cost of £140 and Harley boasted they would be ‘the first roller-skating dancers and poseurs to travel with such a flooring’.

Rosey Anslow and Ella Grahame were working in Poland AB13BD1D-B9AD-4060-8092-EDBDB7E5C0E3and had this publicity photo taken by Léo Forbert’s studio in Warsaw. Ella writes on the back of the card ‘What price this for swank. Do you like me in pants? The people can’t get past the size of my bottom here’. Let’s hope the audience appreciated their skill as well.

Information worth sharing is that Mr H. W. Izod, manager of a roller-skating rink in Earls Court London had, on two occasions, entered a wild beasts’ cage in public. The first time he played a game of ping-pong in the presence of eleven lions and the second time he shaved another man with fifteen lions around him. He was said to be a sworn enemy of monotony.

The rinking craze was short-lived and by 1911 many rinks had closed with investors losing considerable sums of money. However the music hall soldiered on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vaudeville’s happiest girl

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’.

Frank Latona

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.

Margaret Cooper

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.

Molly O’Morgan

 

It all began when I bought a postcard of a young woman in rustic dress standing b410cc75-0878-4596-8c44-0b5abc0437eawith a barrel organ. The card on the barrel organ reads ‘Molly O’Morgan’. The young woman is staring out from the photograph as if she has a story to tell. There is a story of Molly O’Morgan, the daughter of an Irish mother and an Italian organ-grinder father, who had dark brown hair and laughing eyes. It is said her mother died when Molly was young and she and her father left Ireland with a barrel organ and monkey to take their chances in Europe. Molly would dance while her father played the barrel organ and the crowds were charmed into parting with their coins. They travelled from city to city and eventually arrived in Monte Carlo where Molly’s fortunes changed. She was noticed by Duke Medici-Sinelli, an elderly widower, who naturally enough was also rich and charming. The Duke arranged for Molly to appear at a theatre and in the way of fairy tales she immediately became a star. Molly and the Duke married and unkind rumours suggested she was a gold-digger although the couple seemed devoted to each other. When the Duke died Molly did not marry again but came to Monte Carlo every year and stayed in the same suite in which she and the Duke had spent their honeymoon. She was said to live in Hungary with a distant branch of the Duke’s family.

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Ella Retford

In February 1929 the Nottingham Evening Post reported the death in Hungary of the Duchess Maria della Casa Medici-Sinelli, formerly Molly O’Morgan. The article recounts her story as true and as the inspiration for the music hall song Molly O’Morgan ‘with her little organ’. The song certainly existed, written in 1909 by Fred Godfrey and Will Letters, but Molly herself may have been part of a romantic myth. The Nottingham Evening Post article is the only reference I can find to a real Molly O’Morgan. Ella Retford had a great success with this song in the pantomime Jack and Jill and the Sheffield Evening Telegraph stated ‘Molly O’ Morgan goes with a swing that is irresistible and compelling. You positively must sing it’.

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Alice Lloyd

In the same year, 1909, Alice Lloyd had a hit with the song in New York and determined to feature it throughout her American tour. It would be delightful to believe that Molly O’Morgan existed but I’ll leave that for you to decide. The young woman in the photograph is not named and I’ve come to the conclusion she is in fancy dress – an unromantic end to a romantic story. 

 

 

 

Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive and fredgodfreysongs.ca

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

La Belle Otero

9580BBBF-26FC-40F7-AB5A-717125DD61E8‘I was extraordinarily pretty’ states Caroline Otero in her autobiography My Story and this much is true. Music hall singer and dancer, courtesan and gambler, La Belle Otero lived a life of extremes and exaggerations that would raise eyebrows today. She claimed her mother was a beautiful Andalusian gypsy, Carmen, who danced, sang and told fortunes. Such was her beauty that a group of passers-by including a young Greek army officer, gazed at her in admiration as she was engaged in the unromantic task of hanging out the washing. The autobiography makes much of the courtship and devotion of the young man and tells of his death in a duel with Carmen’s lover. It is more likely La Belle Otero was born into a poor family in Galicia  in November 1868 and given the name Augustina although she adopted the name Caroline at a young age. As a child she was sent away to work as a servant and is said to have been raped at the age of ten. It’s no wonder she gave herself a more romantic beginning.

 

At thirteen or fourteen Caroline Otero seems to have run away with a young man 334D4B3F-BC4D-4EF3-AA73-F0B81E0278F0who found her work as a dancer in a Café. She moved up the scale from theatre to theatre, starring at the Folies Bergère , collecting and discarding admirers and lovers. It is said men fought duels over her and left themselves penniless after showering the object of their affection with flowers and jewels. A writer in The Sketch in 1898 reports that Mdlle Otero came on to the Alhambra stage in a salmon-pink dress covered in diamonds and turquoises with her fingers heavy with rings, the dress setting off her pale complexion and black hair to great advantage. The diamonds, worth millions of francs, were tokens of the esteem in which she was held by her admirers. The writer goes on to say that ‘most performers humbly seek the suffrages of their audience; La Belle Otero, whose equipment is in many respects inferior, from the artistic point of view, to that of her competitors, demands them as a right.’ 

 

0097154A-42F7-43D3-9B4C-99D11BEDACFEOtero was adept at self publicity and in 1902 the Paris correspondent of the Express writes that an engineer in Brussels was constructing an airship for her ‘by means of which she hopes to make a triumphal entry next August into Biarritz.’ She was worried it could be dangerous and so the balloon was to be dragged along by a car attached by a thin wire. If there was an accident she could ‘descend to the car by means of a rope ladder, which she will have tied in to the airship. The airship will float gracefully above the automobile at a height of 100ft.’ Mistress to ambassadors, princes, including the future Edward VII, and nobility throughout Europe, La Belle Otero scandalised and fascinated society in equal measure. Her weakness was gambling and she lost vast sums of money at the tables, sometimes her own and often her admirers’ fortunes. The Tatler tells us that in 1909 police raided a gambling club in Paris and found fifty women and ten men. On further investigation another woman, Caroline Otero, was found in a cupboard.

 

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Liane de Pougy

Stories were rife of her exploits including a report in a Mexican newspaper that Otero had shot a love rival, Liane de Pougy, through the heart. Liane de Pougy was another famous courtesan and actress of the day. Both ladies were said to be very much amused by the report. In 1907 she insured her ankles for £15,000 each and was advertised as the only dancer with ankles worth £30,000. She was not universally admired and in 1895 the Evening Telegraph and Star reported a court case from Paris concerning the notorious Otero. She was living in an apartment in the Rue Charron rented by her English friend, Mr Bulpett, and the landlord charged him with not fulfilling the terms of the lease, namely that the apartment should be kept in a respectable manner. The landlord claimed Otero was damaging to the value of his property as other people objected to her. Two other tenants had signed a petition saying if she did not move they would break their leases. The defence denied any scandal had been caused by Otero’s presence in the apartments and that she and Mr Bulpett had as much right as other tenants to give dinners, hold receptions, have a carriage at the door and live a life of luxury. The judgement was in favour of Mr Bulpett.

 

The author, Colette, knew Otero when the great dancer was in her forties and describes her in My Apprenticeships as dancing and singing for her guests for up to four hours and having a body that had ‘defied sickness, ill-usage and the passage of time.’ The character of Lea in Colette’s novel Chéri is largely based on Otero and her lifestyle.

 

La Belle Otero retired after the First World War having built up a vast fortune but her love of gambling was to be her undoing and she died in relative poverty in 1965 at the age of 96. The Tatler had rather prematurely announced her death in 1947. Her autobiography is a ripping yarn rather than a factual account but she had a sensational life and career and who can deny her a little economy with the truth.

 

Thanks to the British Newspaper Archive, My Story – La Belle Otero,

My Apprenticeships – Colette