Tag Archives: Pantomime

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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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

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

 

 

 

 

Vesta Tilley

The Vesta Tilley exhibition is coming along nicely so I’m going to use the info to blog about her as well. Born in Worcester in 1864, Matilda Alice Powles was the second child in a family of thirteen. Her father was a china painter and amateur musician who developed an act featuring Fathead, the family dog. As he became better known he was offered the job of manager of a music hall in Gloucester. He accepted and became responsible for managing the hall, booking the performers and acting as chairman for the evening. Tilley would go with her father to the music hall and sit with him, memorising the songs and singing them at home. When her father was offered a better job at St George’s Hall, Nottingham, Tilley sang at his benefit when he left Gloucester. This was her first public appearance. She went on to appear at St George’s Hall as ‘The Great Little Tilley’ at four years of age.

Aged four

Aged four

Vesta Tilley says in her autobiography that she felt she could express herself better if she were dressed as a boy. One night she took her father’s hat and coat up to her bedroom and put them on. He came in and found her in front of the mirror singing and acting a song usually sung by a man. Her father got her a little evening dress-suit and she kept the jacket all her life. At this time there was a popular tenor called Sims Reeves and she learned some of his songs. She was billed as ‘The Pocket Sims Reeves’ and wore her dress-suit and a large black moustache. She was five years old.

The dress-suit

The dress-suit

Audiences were not sure if ‘The Great Little Tilley’ was a boy or a girl so her father wrote down three names from the dictionary and put them in his hat. She drew ‘Vesta’ and so Vesta Tilley was born.

Dick Whittington

Dick Whittington

Music hall stars often doubled as principal boys in pantomime and Vesta Tilley was no exception. Her favourite role was Dick Whittington. It was during a pantomime that Vesta met her future husband, Walter de Frece, son of a theatrical proprietor who was a friend of her father’s. She and Walter married in 1890, two years after the death of her father and Walter became her manager, also following his father into music hall ownership.

Vesta Tilley portrayed characters recognisable to her audiences that reflected the times she lived in. The ‘masher’ was a favourite character. He was a man about town and a dandy wearing the latest fashions. Vesta sang about the toffs but also about the clerk on his one-week holiday who imagines himself a swell. Her costumes were made by a Bond Street tailor in London. There were lightning costume changes between each song. She kept her hair long and wound it into small plaits to go under her wig and when off-stage was always careful to dress in very feminine clothes.

Boater, waistcoat and cigar

Boater, waistcoat and
cigar

The masher

The masher

Off-stage

Off-stage

She was hugely popular at home and a favourite in America too, becoming a leader of men’s fashions in the States with outfitters producing the Vesta Tilley boater and the Vesta Tilley waistcoat. Fans could also buy the Vesta Tilley cigar. Vesta Tilley was invited to take part in the first ever Royal Command Variety Performance at the Palace Theatre, London in 1912 which gave the music hall a seal of respectability. Vesta sang ‘Algy, the Piccadilly Johnny with the little glass eye – the most perfectly dressed young man in the house’. There are stories of Queen Mary being so shocked at the sight of a woman in trousers that she buried her face in her programme and advised other ladies in the royal box to avert their eyes.

Algy, the Piccadilly Johnny

Algy, the Piccadilly Johnny

Vesta Tilley often used a uniform to help define her characters. Before conscription was introduced during the 1914-18 war she would assume a military role on the stage and encourage men in the audience to enlist. There is an archive recording of a woman called Kitty remembering her young husband being recruited in this way. They were at a music hall watching Vesta Tilley who went into the audience and touched Percy on the shoulder. He went on to the stage with other young men and joined the army. He was killed on the Somme and his body was never found. Kitty was pregnant and later gave birth to a son. Vesta Tilley was known as ‘Britain’s greatest recruiting sergeant’.

She impersonated policemen, judges, telegraph-boys and vicars noting walks, mannerisms and facial expressions. Although she was under five foot tall she was able to convince her audience of the truth of her characters.

The recruiting sergeant

The recruiting sergeant

The telegraph-boy

The telegraph-boy

Vesta Tilley retired in 1920 at the age of fifty-six and her farewell tour around the country took a year. Her last appearance was at the London Coliseum where she was presented with books filled with nearly two million signatures and it took two pantechnicons to carry the flowers. Her husband was knighted the same year and so Vesta Tilley became Lady de Frece. In retirement she supported her husband during his political campaigning and he became a Conservative MP. When he retired they moved to Monte Carlo. Her husband died in 1935 and she moved back to London, living in a flat overlooking Green Park. At the age of eighty she took a lease on a flat on Hove seafront where a blue plaque pays tribute to her. Vesta Tilley died in September 1952 at the age of eighty-eight and still had the little dress jacket and her wig stained with greasepaint. From poor beginnings she became the highest paid music hall performer but was said never to have forgotten her roots, always being proud of the fact that her greatest fans were working-class women.

Star Trap

Star Trap from the  Drury Lane Theatre.

Star Trap from the Drury Lane Theatre.

A recent visit to the theatre section of the Victoria and Albert Museum led me to the Star Trap from the Drury Lane Theatre in London. This enabled performers to shoot up on to the stage at great speed and was especially popular in pantomime, allowing an element of surprise and excitement. The performer stood on a platform below the trap which was held steady by stage-hands, a board was removed from below the trap and then a counterweight, previously winched up and held steady by as many as six stage-hands, was allowed to drop so propelling the lucky artiste through the trap. The performers needed to make sure they cleared the trap as the wooden pieces fell back level with the rest of the stage. A board would be quickly placed under the trap to make a solid floor again. As you can imagine, the possibilities for accidents were numerous. The platform was not always held steady which meant the performer would hit the wooden sides of the trap before appearing, the board under the trap wasn’t removed or put back or the performer didn’t clear the trap. Despite this, the traps were in use in some theatres until the middle of the twentieth century before being banned by the actors’ union, Equity. The trap in the picture was in use between 1800 and 1900. Could the performers wear hats or headdresses and did they they put their arms over their heads for safety as they hurtled through the air. Did anyone shoot out of the trap too soon? Below is a modern example of a star trap including a slow motion demonstration.

http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=17bR-8HVMMA

The stage-hands communicated by whistling and that’s why it’s considered bad luck to whistle backstage. An ill-judged whistle could cause a nasty accident. Did the theatre management allow the stars of their pantos to risk the Star Trap or was it for those further down the bill?

In November 1873 the stage paper, The Era, comments on a new ballet at the East London Theatre of Varieties which had some good trap feats. ‘The applause which greeted the artistes as they suddenly made their disappearance and reappearance through the star trap, the vampire trap, and other novel appliances, was deafening.’

Newspaper report from the British Newspaper Archive britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk