Panic at the Newport Empire

After her childhood success in the role of Little Lord Fauntleroy, Ray Maskell (my great grand aunt) remained in the UK to try her hand on the music halls. By the mid 1890s she was touring her ‘turn’ – a song and acrobatic dance routine.
For the month of August 1896 she was engaged by Oswald Stoll to perform at his South Wales Empires; in Cardiff, Swansea and Newport. Since his move from the management of the Parthenon Music Hall in Liverpool, Stoll had been consolidating his business empire in South Wales. He lured artistes with the appealing offer of three weeks employment, one week at each of his halls. Ray Maskell’s Welsh sojourn began at the Cardiff Empire for the week of the 10th August 1896.
The following week of 17th August saw Ray, “a charming songstress and remarkable dancer” on the bill at Newport in company with the following acts;

newport-empire-ad-sth-wales-daily-18-aug-1896

South Wales Echo, 18 August 1896.

The Three Polos were a “gymnastic novelty”; the Sisters de Castro and Maud Stoneham presented a farcical sketch, J H Hurst, a vocal comedian; Lily Adair was a serio-comic vocalist; the McConnell Trio and the the Three Sisters Slater were yet more vocalists and magician Paul Valadon bestowed “legerdemain and thought transmission” (legerdemain refers to sleight of hand).

The South Wales Daily News observed, “Notwithstanding the season, Mr Stoll keeps up splendid programmes at all his houses. At Newport this week the show is quite up to the high standard that is always maintained…There should be large houses at Newport throughout the week.” Stoll was bolstering his success in Newport after the destruction by fire of a rival business, the Victoria Hall in May of that year. Fire was a very real hazard becuase of the old wooden building structures, the inflammable nature of stage scenery, curtains and other furnishings. Stage lighting was also by limelight – quick lime heated by an open gas jet – undoubtedly a serious fire risk, as proved by the incident that took place to Ray Maskell on the night of Tuesday 18th August, recounted here by the South Wales Echo:

screen-shot-2017-01-26-at-13-02-23

“About ten o’clock last evening an exciting scene occurred at the Newport Empire. Miss Ray Maskell, comedienne and dancer, was just finishing her second turn, and was pirouetting on one foot in the front part of the stage, when she suddenly fell over the wire guard and onto the footlights. The leader of the orchestra, seeing her in such a perilous position, rose and pushed her back from the footlights, but in an instant it was seen that her skirts had taken fire and were blazing. She quickly regained her feet and endeavoured to crush the blazing skirts between her knees. Mr J Pople, the stage manager, rushed to her aid and smothered the fire with his hands. Just then the back of her dress was seen to be on fire, and reaching to her long hair. The assistant stage manager (Mr C. Wellington) ran across to where the lady and her mother and Mr Pople then were, near the opposite wing, and threw himself literally against the fire, thus smothering it. The audience got excited, and some shouted, “Take off your coat,” “Get a blanket,” and so on. Something like a panic too, began to set in, but then the audience were reassured by Mr Hurst, a comic singer, who went around and begged the audience to keep their seats. A few minutes later Miss Maskell, happily none the worse for the fiery ordeal she had been through, appeared before the audience in her burnt dress, and did three somersaults – “wheels” in the technical parlance – to show that she had come out unharmed. The stage manager has burnt hands and arms as a token of his courageous part in the incident, and praise cannot be withheld from Mr Wallington, his assistant, for his tussle at close quarters with the fire fiend.”

One month later, there was a presentation of gold medals to Mr Pople, the stage manager and Mr Wellington, his assistant, for “having so gallantly aided Miss Ray Maskell, the danseuse, when in peril from fire at the Empire performance…”. A local Newport jeweller, Mr Abrahamson, supplied the medals to the order of Miss Maskell, each with the inscription:

“For bravery, 1896. From Ray Maskell”.

What a contrast to today, where the Health & Safety Executive would undoubtedly investigate, insurers would be informed and the Manager with burnt arms and hands would receive something more than a gold medal – legal proceedings would undoubtedly ensue and compensation would be paid. Two years later the Empire Newport was re-built for Oswald Stoll by renowned theatre architect Frank Matcham. Newspaper reports championed his introduction of an asbestos safety curtain and a water sprinkler system across the stage. This was all to no avail – in 1942 the Empire was destroyed by fire (thought to have been started by an electrical fault) and subsequently demolished.

Later in September 1896 at the Palace Theatre of Varieties in Aberdeen (later The People’s Palace), another fire was started during the evening performance when some scenery came into contact with the gas jets. The theatre was destroyed, six lost their lives and there were many more casualties. Ray and the audience at the Newport Empire that night had a lucky escape.

 

 

 

Advertisements

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.