I have written before about the mystery of the early life of Larry Lewis, my great-grandfather. I have been exploring his performing life as a music hall comic who plied his trade “on the Halls” for twenty years before exhaustion and excessive alcohol consumption caught up with him. Like many a music hall performer, he died in his early forties.
Music hall performers worked extremely long and unsociable hours, under weekly contracts. What were known as “Calls” were published in the theatrical press, listing both the artistes expected to perform for the following week and the time the artistes were expected to appear for the first rehearsal and band call.
Performers were required to work two performances a night (“twice nightly”) plus matinees. The last performance of the week’s booking would be on Saturday night, then it would be back to theatrical digs and Sunday would be spent travelling to the next town or city. Performers would have to present themselves at the new venue for Monday band rehearsal. In those days every theatre had their own resident orchestra; each turn would run through their act, watched over by the theatre manager who would finalise the billing order and resolve squabbles between the artists vying for top billing. Then, more often than not, they would all adjourn to a local hostelry to prepare for the first performance of the day – usually at 6.10pm to an audience full of local theatre landladies.
Many performers appeared at several theatres on the same night. In the week of 10 December 1904, Larry appeared in London at the Cambridge Theatre of Varieties (Commercial Street, Bishopgate) at 6.30pm and then at the Middlesex, Drury Lane (now the site of the New London Theatre) for the 7.15pm performance. You did your turn and left the stage. It was then back to the Cambridge for the 9pm show. That was an extremely tight schedule but not unusual for music hall performers. No wonder they were exhausted and physically drained by middle age.
‘Stand up’ comedy as we know it did not exist in the music halls. Comics presented a mixture of songs, patter and gags and the reviews of Larry’s “turn” refer to his use of all three. This format was still influential during my 1970s childhood – the Morecambe & Wise Show, The Two Ronnies, The Mike Yarwood Show, The Ken Dodd Show all played with this version of comedy.
Larry’s songs included “Meet Me Charlie at the Corner of the Street”, “You’re the One” (by music hall song writing legend Fred Godfrey), “What a Remark to make” and the catchily titled, “I Shall Strike you with a Banana” by Harry Castling and C W Murphy. Castling & Murphy were the song writing duo behind the famous “Let’s All Go Down the Strand” which anyone familiar with a good old fashioned sing-a-long will know is usually interspersed with the cry of “’ave a banana!” They liked their banana themed tunes. Although I have the words to the song I do not have the accompanying music so can only ponder how this chorus would have been sung:
Earlier in his career, at the newly refurbished New Islington Empire in March 1902, The Era commented:
“Larry Lewis, a capital comedian sings “What a Remark to Make” in an exceedingly clever style and quite fetches the audience.”
The words that are used time and again to describe Larry’s turn/act are “droll” and “eccentric” and one gets a flavour of that from these photographs:
The Nottingham Evening Post on Tuesday 25 June 1907 reviewed Larry at the Empire that week:
“Unstinted approval was showered upon Larry Lewis, a comedian of the imperturbable type, and lucky enough to hold of some undeniably funny songs.”
His “quietly comic” style is also referenced. It leads me to imagine him as an understated performer, subtle and ironic in delivery: a counter to the popular image of music hall as simply raucous singing.
The Era, Saturday 20th March 1909 writes of his performance at The Granville, Walham Green (Fulham Broadway):
“Mr Larry Lewis is a comedian with an exceedingly dry style peculiarly his own, which appeals to any class of audience”.
In the years leading up to the First World War, Larry appeared at all of the major palaces of variety in England, Wales, Scotland and Eire and also in Australia and South Africa. The arrival of war made life a little harder for theatricals and I will investigate that in a future post.