In search of Ray Maskell – Little Lord Fauntleroy

In my last post I spoke of my difficulty in tracking down the origins of my great-grandfather, Louis Levy, and in particular how and why he ended up in England having spent a good proportion of his youth in the USA.   I have found some clues in tracing the path of his sister, Rachel Levy, who was known professionally as Ray Maskell.  I have the following photograph of Ray Maskell; until recently I was convinced she was dressed as a child matador, and her stage turn must have been some sort of mock bullfight, the sort of act that one can well imagine at that time.

Ray Maskell as Little Lord Fauntleroy

Then I came across an online reference to a Ray Maskell having appeared in the New York production of Francis Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy at the Windsor Theatre in 1891.  The blouse with a lace collar, the blonde curls, the velvet breeches made sense; this was Ray as Cedric Errol , Little Lord Fauntleroy.  Further research led me to this image from the Macauley Theatre (Chicago) Collection – different collars but the same girl:

Ray_Maskell_Little_Lord_Fauntleroy

(Macauley’s Theatre Collection, 1980.20, Photographic Archives, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky

http://digital.library.louisville.edu/cdm/ref/collection/macauley/id/1305)

When Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel Little Lord Fauntleroy was first published in 1885 it caused a sensation – she was the JK Rowling of her day, and the lead character Cedric Errol, her Harry Potter.  The Fauntleroy suit as worn by Cedric, and illustrated in the novel by Reginald Birch, created a craze for children’s clothing particularly in America.  The rags to riches tale of Cedric – from child living in gentile poverty with his single mother in New York to a fully paid up member of the English aristocracy – went down a storm in America. By the 1890s there were a large number of touring productions of a play based on the novel.

Ray Maskell was one of a number of girls to play the role of Cedric.  In London Vera Berringer took the role, and in the first run in New York the part was taken by the seven or eight year old Elsie Leslie (America’s first child star).  The allure of the story has continued ever since with countless film and TV productions .  Actors and actresses who have played the title role include Mary Pickford (1921 film), Freddy Bartholomew (1936 film) and Ricky Schroder (1980 film).  Only this year London Children’s Ballet premiered their ballet version of the classic tale.

Ray Maskell alternated the part on tour with Tommy Russell, the first boy to play the part.  Some American publications refer to Ray as a boy actor and the ambiguity of the name can be no coincidence.  The tour took Ray all over the USA – Chicago, Kentucky, New York, New Jersey, Ohio – and in publicity material for the production she was reported to have played the part for over three years.  Although I cannot trace her exact date of birth she was only around eight or nine years when she first started in the role.  In the production at the Windsor Theatre, New York  in 1891 there is also reference to her mother, Mrs Maskell playing the role of Mary, the faithful family maid. What better way is there for a theatrical parent to accompany their child on tour than by being in the same production?  I have a vivid picture of Ray, her mother and presumably older brother Larry treading the boards of many a provincial theatre, living a life that I only know thanks to great American musicals depicting a similar life – Funny Girl and Gypsy – of rail roads, trains, theatrical hampers, dominant mothers and irate stage mangers.  Is it possible that brother Larry took a minor role in one of these productions?

In November 1892 it was announced in the theatrical rag, The Era,

“Miss  Ray Maskell, the well-known child actress from America, commenced a short tour on the 11th November in her impersonation of little Lord Fauntleroy”

The short tour took her to the Theatre Royal and Opera House, Bournemouth and the Theatre Royal, Ryde, Isle of Wight amongst other places. Her reviews were positive;

“The principal character being sustained by Miss Ray Maskell who has just returned from America, having delighted the theatre-going public there by her splendid impersonation of the title role”  Portsmouth Evening News, Dec 1 1892

“Miss Ray Maskell showed much ability as Cedric Errol” The Era Dec 3, 1892.

Straight after her Fauntleroy tour, Ray was engaged to play Little Red Riding Hood in the 1892 Christmas pantomime at the Theatre Royal, Manchester.  It is my theory that thereafter none of the family returned to the USA and remained in the UK to try their luck on the British stage. And that is how I believe my great-grandfather Larry ended up here.  As for Ray, like many a child star she never quite maintained the momentum into adulthood, and her short but colourful career was over by the time she reached her thirties.  She died in Battersea in 1925 in her mid-forties, with not even a mention in The Era. I will return to her adventures on and off the stage in later blog posts as there is plenty more to say.

From The Guardian, Family life: Grandma’s theatrical calling card

Snapshot: Grandma in her theatrical glamour

Molly O'Day

This photograph shows my grandmother’s theatrical calling card from the 1920s, when Norah Ada Beatrice Levy became the cheerfully named Molly O’Day. With fashionable, flapper finger-waves in her hair and a fur collar framing her face, she was a coy soubrette. Born in Camberwell, south London, in 1908, she was the only surviving daughter of two music hall artistes.

At 18, Norah ignored the plaintive cry of many a theatrical parent not to follow a career on the stage. She had benefited from the largesse of my very successful music hall great aunt, Miss Daisy Dormer, and been privately educated. Norah succeeded academically and was an accomplished pianist and singer. She was due to study at Girton college, Cambridge – an unusual story of social mobility for a girl whose own mother had been a Portsmouth docker’s daughter.

In the summer before she was due to “go up”, so family legend has it, she took a holiday job at Harrods. One lunchtime, flicking though her parents’ copy of The Stage, she saw a call for chorus girls at the Palladium. The roar of the crowd and the smell of the greasepaint was too strong – she skipped off to the audition and it was goodbye to Girton.

Her parents’ fears of the precarious nature of a life on the stage were well founded. They had struggled to make ends meet in an exhausting touring schedule that took them all over the UK and abroad, never quite making their way to the top of the bill. Norah dreamed big, yet after the euphoria of the Palladium she was soon to be found playing panto in Merthyr Tydfil.

By 1937 she was married to an engineer and living in West Sussex, in a house provided by Daisy’s estate. She had three sons, yet her marriage was unhappy, her husband so scarred by his second world war experiences that he took his own life in 1955. I often wonder how she managed in 1950s Britain, where attitudes to both suicide and single parenthood were unforgiving.

As a child, visits to Grandma always involved a musical singalong and she would sit at her piano wrapped in a beautiful embroidered shawl, bashing out the old favourites: My Old Man, Daisy Bell, I’m Henry VIII I Am. My sister and I would sit entranced as her nimble fingers tore across the piano. She died when I was 10 years old but the memories and the melodies linger.

Alison Young

This was published in The Guardian, Saturday 4 June 2016

Link here: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jun/04/family-life-grandma-theatre-england-dan-john-ford-coley-scone-pudding