The Music Hall Pantomimes
Pantomime, as we know it today owes a great deal to the rise of British Music Hall stars appearing in major productions around the country. Just as today we often find our “top of the Bill” is likely to be a television star, the Victorians Theatre Managers drew from the most popular art form, and put their Music Hall giants into provincial and London pantomimes.
The public wanted to see their idols performing more or less their usual Music Hall acts, and most certainly singing their “hit” songs in pantomime, and the plots and scripts were changed to accommodate this. The Music Hall stars were box office draws wherever they went, and, just as happens today, securing the services of a G.H.Elliott, or Marie Lloyd was a sure fire guarantee of full houses for the run. Today we draw from “The Bill” or “EastEnders” and even “Big Brother” to ensure a packed house- this tradition was set firmly in place by those canny theatre managers of the 1880’s onwards.
Here are a few examples of Pantomimes starring Music Hall artists – they were to hold sway in panto until the decline of music hall, only to be replaced by the stars of Variety, then radio and finally (and currently) television stars. Today you are more likely to see actors appearing in pantomime, just as they did almost exclusively before Music Hall, due to the almost total decline in light entertainment programs on television. Since television (and indeed theatre) rarely produces a variety or light entertainment show, there are no longer platforms for variety and “speciality” acts to appear. Today there are fewer and fewer “Spesh” acts about, let alone appearing in pantomime. No longer can we witness the panto specialities of a “Dumarte & Denzer in Skeleton’s Alive!”, or watch the flying carpet of “Emerson and Jayne”, let alone witness the comedy sand dance of Wilson, Keppel and Betty!” The era of “Anna Lou and Maria” with their magical doves appearing in different parts of the auditorium is no longer with us, and ventriloquists are a small breed in the world of pantomime.
This section hopes to illustrate a few examples of the merging of Music Hall and pantomime- the merger that created stars like Dan Leno and Herbert Campbell ending with the last of the great “Music Hall” style acts, Ken Dodd. Thankfully this season we have the brilliance of Brian Conley, who, although a film and television actor has his roots firmly in variety, and the skills of Dawson Chance, a superb ventriloquist to recapture that era once again!
Puss In Boots
Prince of Wales Theatre, Birmingham 1898/9
The programme claims an “unprecendented array of Unequalled talent” for this production including “a full and powerful chorus of 150 voices!”
It certainly has a dream cast- topping the bill was Eugene Stratton, described as “The Birmingham Favourite”. Stratton was the minstrel star of music halls who first brought the song “Lily of Laguna” to the stage. Born in America in 1861, Eugene Stratton arrived in Great Britain with “Haverley’s Minstrels” in 1881, and starred in Music Hall from 1892. He specialised in sentimental songs in blackface, among them “Little Dolly Day Dream” and “I May Be Crazy”.A member of the Grand Order of Water Rats, he became “King Rat” of this charitable organisation in 1896, and again in 1900. He died in 1918.
Paul Cinquevalli also known as “The Human Billiard Table” (a part of his act) he could play billiards on his own back better than most people could on a table! He was originally a trapeze artist, becoming a juggler after suffering an accident. He first appeared in Britain in 1885, and became the premier juggler and equilibrist in the United Kingdom. He had played “Slave of the Lamp” to Dan Leno’s Widow Twankey in Aladdin at Drury Lane in 1895. He too died in 1918.
Marie Dainton, playing Principal Girl in this production was one of Music Hall’s leading ladies- she, along with Marie Lloyd, Little Tich and Joe Elvin were the headliners who began the “Music Hall War” of 1907. These artists persuaded others to strike for better pay and conditions in Music Hall, and to picket those theatres that broke the strike. The strike lasted for a month, following the creation of the V.A.F (Variety Artist’s Federation”) and was the forerunner of our present day “Actors Equity Association”.
Fred Emney, the burlesque comedian who played Dame Shortly in this pantomime was the father of the character and film actor of the same name. He was born a year after this production finished its run in Birmingham. Fred Senior was born in 1865, and first appeared in pantomime at Sadlers Wells in 1895. He appeared as Dame in the Lyceum Theatre London in 1894, and as Nurse in “Sleeping Beauty” at Drury Lane in 1900, and again in 1906 as Empress opposite Harry Randall as Mrs Crusoe. In 1916 Fred Emney appeared as Baroness in Cinderella at the London Opera House . It was to be a tragic pantomime for him- on the opening night, whilst performing the “Whitewashing scene” with the Brothers Egbert, he slipped on some soapsuds and fell heavily onto the stage. The audience, thinking it was part of his routine laughed and applauded, but it was his last appearance. Fred Emney died a week later on 7th January, 1917.
Prince Of Wales Theatre, Birmingham 1913.
Another pantomime bill packed with the popular stars of Music Hall. This production of “Puss In Boots” stars WILKIE BARD as King Tappem. Unusual for this “top of the Bill” artiste, as his forte was appearing as Dame in pantomime.
Wilkie Bard had come to this production having appeared as Widow Twankey at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1909. He began his career in 1895 as a singer of “coster Songs”, and some developed a style of tongue twisting chorus songs that lent themselves to pantomime as well as Music Hall. Among his famous songs were “She sells sea Shells”, “The Leith Police Dismisseth us” and his famous Opera Sketch “I want to Sing in Opera”.
He incorporated his hit song “She Sells Sea Shells” into “Dick Whittington” in Drury Lane in 1908. The verse and chorus went:
“I’ve just had a letter to say I’m engaged
To appear in the pantomime:
The part I’ve to play is the Principal Boy,
So I’m in for a beautiful time.
The panto’s “Dick Whittington”- I’m dirty Dick,
The fellow who once rode to York.
The manager says I must get a good song
About which the public will talk.
I’ve commissioned some authors to write me a song:
A very fine chorus they’ve sent me along!
She sells sea shells on the sea shore,
The shells she sells are sea shells, I’m sure,
For if she sells sea shells on the sea shore,
Then I’m sure she sells sea-shore shells!”
Wilkie Bard continued to appear until he retired, shortly before his death in 1944 aged seventy.
Also topping the bill in this panto was G.H.Elliott, minstrel singer of famous songs such as “Lily of Laguna”, “Little Dolly Daydream”, “I Used to Sigh for the Silvery Moon” and many others. He first appeared in America and Canada, and made his first British appearance in Music Hall in 1902. He was often written in to Pantomimes as an excuse to sing a full medley of his popular numbers, with a part written especially to accommodate his “spot”. In this production he is “Count Chocolate- a distinguished foreigner”. His costumes were immaculate, often resplendent in white frock coat and top hat. G.H.Elliott was later to tour in the revival of Music Hall “Thanks For The Memory” with many other (now elderly) Top of the Bill’s. He toured until his mid seventies, and died in 1962 aged seventy-nine.
The female star of this pantomime was Violet Loraine- most famous for her duet with George Robey “If You Were The Only Girl In The World”. As Colin, the Principal boy, and Johnny Fuller, acknowledged as one of the finest animal impersonators of his time, as “Tibbie” the cat- the titular role in “Puss In Boots”.
Prince Of Wales Theatre, Birmingham 1910/11
“Jack Horner”, The Prince Of Wales Theatre, Birmingham. This Pantomime ran from Dec 24th 1910 until Saturday March 11th, 1911.
It starred the famous male impersonator Hetty King. Famous for her songs, usually dressed as a sailor, a “toff” and during the first world war, as a soldier. Her hit number “All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor” was first heard in 1905. Her other “hit” songs included “Piccadilly”, “I’m Afraid To Go Home In The Dark” and “When a Fellah is Twenty-One”.
She made her first appearance at the Shoreditch Theatre, London in 1897, and consequently toured the world. At one time she was married to Ernie Lottinga, the comedian and theatre proprietor. He had appeared on Broadway the year before this pantomime, and in a number of films.
In later life Hetty King joined the touring “Thanks For The Memory” show, and continued to appear in theatres up until her death, aged eighty-nine in 1972.
Appearing with her in this pantomime was G.H.Elliott, a firm favourite with Birmingham audiences, born in Rochdale Lancashire, but brought up in America. He had first appeared as a child artiste in New York, and returned to Great Britain aged 12 as “Master George Elliott, the boy Soprano” on the music Halls. Both G.H.Elliott and Eugene Stratton were at the forefront in recording Minstrel Songs, and after Stratton’s death in 1918, Elliott adopted several of the songs written for Stratton by Leslie Stuart.
Theatre Royal, Birmingham
“The Queen Of Hearts” at the Theatre Royal starred “The Prime Minister of Mirth”, George Robey in the title role. Robey had a phenomenal career which spanned from 1891 to 1954, at the end receiving a Knighthood shortly before his death aged eighty-five.
Robey was the star of Music Hall, Pantomime, revue, “straight” theatre and films. He made his debut at the Oxford Music Hall in 1891, and his first hit song was “The Simple Pimple”. Other Hit songs were “Fancy That”, “Archibald- Certainly Not!” and “Oh How Rude!”. His duet with Violet Lorraine “If You Were The Only Girl In The World” is still sung today.
In this pantomime he is accompanied by his wife, Ethel Haydon, billed as “Mrs.George Robey”. She was an Australian artiste from Melbourne, who had first appeared in London in 1895. They were married in London in 1898. In 1900 she had a son, Edward, later to become one of the chief prosecutors of the British courts, and a daughter, Eileen.
Robey had a wandering eye, and eventually they separated. At the age of Sixty Robey fell in love with Blanche Littler. Blanche was the sister of the theatrical impresarios, Emile & Prince Littler, who produced pantomimes throughout the country. Blanche was running the Woolwich theatre, and presented George under the title “Blanche Littler Productions”, when, aged thirty she met the man she was to marry. She was thirty, and George Twice her age, but a charismatic figure who enchanted her. She became the second Mrs. Robey nine years after meeting him, while Robey waited for Ethel to divorce him.
Tivoli Music Hall
This page was last updated 5th July 2005