For the pantomime season of December 1926 to January 1927 my Great Grandmother, Violet, was contracted to play the part of the Principal Boy in a production of Dick Whittington at the Royal County Theatre in Reading. At this stage of her career Violet was using the stage name ‘Violet Levy’ – in fact it was her legally correct married name (Larry’s birth name having been Louis Levy). She had been playing Principal Boy for some years, her figure being, the press told us, ideally suited to the part. What they meant of course, was that she looked good in tights and breeches.
Violet, aged 41, was engaged by Will Parkin, a small-time theatrical producer. On 9 December 1926, Will Parkin placed an advertisement in The Stage listing the Calls for the four pantos he had in production that season:
Violet attended an interview with Parkin’s agent at Dellacey, a London theatrical costumiers. She was awarded the part of Principal Boy and then ordered some of her dresses and tights for the part for the sum of £2 10s 6d. It is interesting to see that in some cases, performers were expected to provide their own costumes. A contract was subsequently entered into on 26 October 1926 between Parkin’s agent and Violet for a six week run at the County Theatre, Reading and thereafter a regional tour, at £10 per week. Time spent in rehearsals was unpaid. Using the Bank of England inflation calculator this translates to around £550 per week today. In an age when the average weekly wage was around £2.50 per week, Violet was clearly doing well.
It is not clear from the sources if Will Parkin had a face to face meeting with Violet. From what happened next, it seems unlikely. After signing the contract and the Calls appearing in The Stage, Violet received a telegram from Parkin advising that she was no longer required as Principal Boy as she was “unsuitable” for the part. The telegram was described by Violet as “quite insulting” and one can only imagine the tone of the rejection.
Violet’s first port of call was the Variety Artiste’s Federation, her trade union, of which she was a keen supporter. They advised her to present herself in Reading as per the contract. Violet turned up on the first morning of rehearsals and was dismissed by Frank Terry, Parkin’s manager, “in front of the whole company”. Her pride was dented and she rejected the offer of an alternative role as the Second Boy in Parkin’s The Forty Thieves at the Theatre Royal, St Helen’s, Merseyside.
Violet wasted no time in issuing a claim against Parkin for breach of contract and loss of wages and expenses. The case was heard in April 1927 at Lambeth County Court and warranted a spot in The Stage’s Cases in Court column.
In his defence, Will Parkin alleged that Violet Levy had misrepresented herself and that she was in fact Violet Stockelle, “in which name she had for many years past performed at music halls and theatres”. Had he known who she was he would not have engaged her because “she was not suitable for his production as Principal Boy in a provincial touring production”. What he meant was – she was too old. He had apparently told his agent that he “wanted a girl between nineteen to twenty years of age” to take the part. An actress by the name of Eileen Fowler subsequently took the Principal Boy part, “as sparkling as champagne” and who may also be the same Eileen Fowler that went onto become Britain’s first keep-fit guru. If it was her, then Parkin got what he wanted – she would have been 19 years old at the time.
Violet had had a solid reputation as a pantomime Principal Boy and she was booked from 1922 to 1925 in this part, although she advertised herself as being “Vacant for Pantomime” in The Stage in October 1925:
It doesn’t appear that she was successful in finding a role for the December 1925 season as she was appearing in a variety bill at the Exeter Hippodrome over Christmas 1925. So the chance to return to the role in Dick Whittington must have been a blessing for Violet – the income boost and a chance to stay in one place for a six week stretch.
Fortunately for Violet, Judge Parry at Lambeth County Court found in her favour. He was satisfied that she was billed to appear in the role and was party to a legally binding contract. Violet was awarded £60 for breach of contract and £3 8s 6d for travel and clothing expenses, around £3,595 in today’s money. Violet’s days as a Principal Boy were not over yet, she was still playing the role in 1933.