Harry, Larry and Violet: Safe Bind, Safe Find

My great grandfather, Larry Lewis, carried a leather bound autograph book on his travels. I have this battered and well-loved book containing over 100 autographs of performers of the period – from Marie Lloyd and Harry Lauder to the lesser known bottom of the bill artiste.

It was common for music hall performers to carry autograph books, passing them around dressing rooms and boarding houses during their week’s residency. Some of the entries are beautifully illustrated and would have taken some time — a means to while away the hours before the evening performances. Often a photograph was included, bringing those signatures to life.

As a child, I gingerly turned the aged pages and at one particular entry, I was always awestruck — it was the autograph of Harry Houdini.

Houdini

The autograph, with a muscle man style photograph, is dated 11 March 1909 and signed Harry Handcuff Houdini. There is a very careful pen and ink handcuff and chain illustration. During the week of 8 March, Violet, Larry and Houdini were performing at The Empire in Old Market Street, Bristol. Harry Day (sometime British agent to Houdini) was also Larry and Violet’s agent and this may explain the booking.

The programme at the Bristol Empire that week was described as ‘an attractive one’ and along with the top-billing star Houdini, Larry and Violet were also on the bill with the Dacey & Lewis Duo, a somersault and song combo; The Milliards, a parallel bar act; The Showells, duettists; Leo Merode, looping-the-loop on a bicycle; and Lottie Leighton, a dancer. Violet was reviewed favourably,

‘more pleasing than ever and her song, “She Sailed Away,” will be responded to with no little fervour before it is a night older, judging by the way the refrain was “caught up” by the gallery’.

The audience certainly was in good spirits! Houdini’s presence may well have had something to do with that.

Houdini, ‘The World’s Greatest Mysteriarch,’ was back in Europe to promote his new act, the Milk Can Escape. He was keen to move away from the handcuff act with which he had made his name, as he could not keep up with the ever-growing number of imitators and rivals. He needed something new to maintain his sensational reputation. Houdini had last been in Bristol in 1904. Advertisements had been running in the local press in the run up to this engagement encouraging punters to book seats ‘to avoid disappointment’. The capacity of the Empire was around 2,500; it was described as having ‘big house[s]’ every night as audiences flocked to see him.

Houdini’s dramatic and visually arresting posters for the Milk Can Escape proclaiming “Failure Means a Drowning Death” would have been showcased outside the Empire. Houdini’s tour of the United Kingdom had been accompanied by an endless series of publicity-seeking bridge jumps, jail breaks and escape challenges. These challenges were actively invited from members of the public. During his week in Bristol Houdini accepted two such challenges. The first on Wednesday evening (and reported in the Western Daily Press on Thursday 11 March) was presented by three local harness makers. Their challenge was that Houdini should free himself from a restraint, more frequently found in padded cells, in full view of the audience. The restraint itself was described as a sailcloth bag with collar and closed sleeves, fitted with straps and buckles. The escape challenge was met and Houdini freed himself in just over ten minutes, to the loud cheers of the audience. As per the motto Houdini set out in Larry’s autograph book – “Safe Bind, Safe Find Does Not Apply to the Undersigned”.

The second challenge was publicised in the Friday edition of the Western Daily Press (to take place at the second house that night) as follows:

Western Daily Press Bristol Houdin Challenge ad

Proposed by three asylum attendants (William Malcolm, Frederick Pohlman and Walter Green), their challenge was to strap Houdini to a ‘crazy crib’ (an asylum hospital bed) with a leather neck collar and straps to secure every part of his body. After they had strapped him down, they stipulated that none of the Empire staff or Houdini’s assistants were to interfere with the apparatus in any way. And as with the first challenge, the escape was to take place in full view of the audience.

“Will He Get Out?” screamed the challenge advert. Would Houdini be “Defied”? Houdini wriggled, gyrated and strained his way out, although it took him an agonising 17 minutes and 35 seconds. All of this and then the Milk Can Escape yet to come. The audience must have been at a fever pitch of excitement and anticipation.

The Western Daily Press described the Milk Can Escape:

‘The new mystery consists of an air-tight and water-tight galvanised can, with cover provided with clasps for six padlocks. After the can is filled with water and Houdini is locked inside, and the whole placed in a cabinet, and in a few minutes the apparently impossible feat of escape is accomplished. The performance was accorded in Bristol, as elsewhere, a great reception.’

You can imagine the throbbing mass of the audience, all captivated by Houdini’s apparent daring and bravery – would he do it ? How did he do it? The tantalising possibility of failure and death. But what of Larry and Violet and the other support acts backstage? What was it like for them? Unlike plays and other dramatic forms there was no sense of a final bow for the acts on a music hall stage. You did your turn and usually left the theatre. As the closing act Houdini would have been the only one to receive the final deafening applause of the audience. I wonder if Larry and Violet hung around to witness the spectacle, lurked in the wings to get a glimpse of Houdini at work? Or sat in their dressing room and felt the impact of the tension and then thunderous applause when the escape was done. Or had they headed back to their theatrical digs? There is always the possibility that Houdini was staying at the same digs. Was Houdini viewed as anything above the ordinary in terms of fellow artistes? After all, the music halls were teeming with conjurors, escape artists and muscle men and Houdini to them might not have been the semi-mythical figure he is viewed as today.

At the end of that week, Houdini was off to the Alhambra in Brussels to showcase the Milk Can Escape there, then heading onto Paris. However, he was soon back in the British Isles and for the week of 5 July 1909 he was at the Hippodrome, Brighton. And he was reunited once again with Larry and Violet who too shared the bill. Almost friends by now, I like to think!

Notes
The Bristol Empire was demolished in the early 1960s to make way for a new ring road. Cary Grant had his first job there as a lime-lighter.

Houdini continues to capture our imaginations – whether via children’s books or TV series. He was most recently televised in ITV’s Houdini & Doyle. For all things Houdini, I recommend John Cox’s website Wild About Harry.

Thanks as always to The British Newspaper Archive.

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Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Worthington!

Whilst my great grandmother Violet was visiting Liverpool in 1912 and was subject to a “deplorable error” by the Liverpool City police (see my last blog post), she was the mother of a four year old daughter – my grandmother, Norah.

Norah was born on 22 January 1908 in Kennington Park Road, Lambeth. Where was Norah when all of the Liverpool commotion was going on? How did theatricals constantly on the move and with no fixed abode manage their children?

As to where Norah was – she was more than likely with her maternal grandmother in Ash Vale, a village in Surrey. Her grandmother brought her up, so time spent with her parents between theatrical engagements was rare and precious. Violet and Larry’s traversing of the British Isles (and Empire) to perform showed no signs of slowing down after Norah’s birth. Violet’s photo album contains this dog-eared photograph of Norah, with the words, “ My darling baby” written across the front:

Young Norah Lewis

One gets the feeling that this photo was frequently handled and wistfully gazed upon by Violet, as she travelled from one venue to the next.
Norah attended the local school in Ash Vale and at the age of 8, in 1916, was sent away to Godwin Girls’ College in Cliftonville (at that time an exclusive area to the east of Margate, Kent). An unusual choice, given at that time the Kent coast was under bombardment by Zeppelins.

The theatrical press were full of advertisements for educational establishments, mainly small private boarding schools, promoting their services for “Daughters of Artistes and Members of the Profession”. These home schools were more often than not run by a Clergyman’s Daughter (married) and offering a “Mother’s Loving Care and thorough education”. Or run by an unmarried Miss. Such schools were often located on the South Coast – Margate, Herne Bay, Brighton – fresh air and a sea breeze being deemed essential to a healthy and good education.

The Stage Apr 1925 Educational ads

The Stage, 25 April 1912

An advert from the Sheffield Daily Telegraph of 6 March 1913 advertises Godwin Girls’ College thus:

Advert Godwin Girls' College 1913

Although Larry and Violet prospered financially in their early years ‘on the Halls’, it has always been understood that it was extremely successful Aunt Daisy Dormer who paid the school fees. Aunt Daisy supposedly supported both Norah and her cousin, Michael Gardner (son of Norah Stockelle, the third of the performing Stockwell sisters) who attended Cliftonville College for Boys, a similar set up to that of Godwin Girls College.

So what did the “good modern education” promised to Norah comprise of? In traditional boarding school cliche, there seemed to be a lot of “Games” – hockey and cricket played on the school sports field. There was also lawn tennis, with tournaments at the nearby Westgate-on-Sea tennis club. With Palm Bay right opposite the school, presumably much was made of the coastal setting. Below is a photograph of Norah (centre) on the beach with some friends, Doris and Marjorie, school regulation gym slips on:

Doris, Norah and Marjorie

I like to think that Norah and friends might have run into the path of TS Elliot, staying at the next door Albermarle Hotel in the autumn of 1921 to convalesce and scribbling away at The Waste Land. Maybe Norah, Doris and Marjorie skipped off to ride the scenic railway at Dreamland, to a concert at the Winter Gardens or a play at the Theatre Royal. Margate was certainly not short of diversions and distractions for young gals at boarding school.

There was also much school drama and music at Godwin Girls’ College and in a later advert from the 1930s, music was described as ‘a speciality’. Norah became an accomplished pianist whilst there. During the school holidays, she would act as accompanist to a rehearsing Aunt Daisy. T. S. Elliot influenced or not, Norah loved literature and was awarded the school 1924-25 English Prize, a collection of Tennyson’s Poems.

Here is a photo of Norah and friends (possibly Doris and Marjorie again) engaging in some school girl dramatics:

School girl dramatics

In being sent away to school, Norah fared better than many theatrical offspring and had an atypical experience. Many were toured around the country with parents, changing schools as often as their parents changed venues, spending most of their waking hours backstage at the theatre and often being incorporated into the family act as juvenile performers. Prior to an element of compulsion being introduced to school attendance (it was not until 1918 that full-time education to the age of 14 became the general rule in England and Wales), many never made it to school. Hetty King, a male impersonator, best remembered for the song, All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor, tells in her Desert Island Discs of concealing herself under her mother’s crinoline skirts to hide from the school board man, known to tour theatres looking for pupils in order to enforce attendance rules. Mary Pickford, the American silent movie star, who was from a Vaudeville family, recounted learning to read from the hoardings on the side of rail road trucks.

Larry and Violet were keen to educate Norah and to ensure a life away from the insecurity of the theatre, they knew “the profession is overcrowded and the struggle’s pretty tough” as outlined by Noel Coward in his song, Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage Mrs Worthington. Like many a theatrical parent then and since, they had hopes that Norah would prosper in a different world. However, the allure of the stage was too much and ‘showbiz’ was already in the bloodstream as by 1928 Norah was already treading the boards having successfully auditioned for the Palladium pantomime as a chorus girl. Had her good, modern education been wasted or had it given her the confidence to take on the challenge and the relentless demands of a theatrical life?

Violet and the Deplorable Error

Violet Stockwell

My Great Grandmother Violet

In October 1912, my great grandparents, Larry and Violet were in Liverpool. The previous three weeks had seen them performing in Glasgow, Belfast and Dublin under contract to Moss Tours Ltd. Although they often managed to appear on the bill at the same theatre, they were never a double act, their turns being very different. Now Larry alone had a week at the Olympia on West Derby Road; Violet is not recorded in theatrical ‘Calls’ for that week but she certainly accompanied Larry for his week in Liverpool. Topping the bill at the Olympia was ‘lovely, lively Lily Langtry’, not the more famous actress known as ‘The Jersey Lily’ rumoured to be a mistress of Edward VII, but another by the same name. She was a serio-comedienne (a performer with a mix of comic and serious songs interspersed with a bit of patter) with an act not dissimilar to that of Violet. Lily was the bigger ‘name’ and the managers of the theatrical circuits were ruthless as to the composition of their bill; they didn’t need two women touting the same sort of turn, so this might be why Larry and Violet were not both employed for that week.

There was another reason to be in Lancashire that week – Violet’s sister, ‘Dainty Daisy Dormer’ was performing at the Argyle Theatre, just across the Mersey in Birkenhead. A chance to catch up with her older sister perhaps? But also a chance to catch up with some other performers and theatricals and for Violet to see what else was on offer in the world of entertainment. In that week of 21 October, Liverpool and Birkenhead were abuzz with theatrical diversity: La Boheme was at the Royal Hippodrome; “Hamlet” at the Shakespeare Theatre; the musical comedy “Miss Hook of Holland” at the new Theatre Royal, Birkenhead. And at the Birkenhead Hippodrome, Mr Charles Harrington’s No. 1 Company were presenting Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. Variety fare was available at the Empire and the Pavilion. Violet would have been spoilt for choice, the Liverpool Evening Express described the week as ‘A Star Week in Liverpool’.

On the night of Tuesday 22nd October, Violet was making her way along London Road, the main City thoroughfare. I like to think she had been to see one of the above performances and was on her way back to her theatrical digs. En route she was stopped and questioned by two police constables from Liverpool City Police, Harry Greenwood and Arthur Northwick. They mistook her for a prostitute. I cannot be certain how far the “mistake” went and whether Violet accompanied them to the police station but I do know that Violet was outraged. Solicitors were instructed forthwith to clear her name.

By Friday of that week Robert Quilliam of Quilliam & Son solicitors had procured an apology by way of letter from Liverpool City Police. Here is that letter, addressed to Mrs Larry Lewis (Violet was keen to establish the fact of her married status) at the Empire Theatre, Liverpool:

Liverpool City Police let 25 Oct 1912
You will note the apology for the ‘mistake we made with regard to yourself on Tuesday night last in London Road’ and the acknowledgement that ‘our action was the result of a deplorable error and quite unjustified’. The apology was to be published in The Liverpool Express, The Era and The Encore. I have spent many hours poring over microfiches at the British Library as well as in the British Newspaper Library online, in pursuit of those apologies. I have not been able to trace them. I feel certain they must be there somewhere as the Violet I am getting to know through my research would not let this slip. An arrest could have spelt the end of her career, particularly at a time when music hall syndicate managers were desperate to encourage the middle classes to their ‘respectable’ halls. In July of 1912 the first Royal Command Performance had been held at the Palace Theatre in London before King George V and Queen Mary – respectability for the music halls was within touching distance. It is no surprise that Violet wanted the apology broadcast far and wide, before the theatrical gossip mill got working.

If I had a £1 for every time I have told someone of my music hall relatives, and they have made a retort about prostitution, I would be a wealthy woman. I would smile through the slur although admit to feeling slighted on behalf of those ancestors. So it was something of a surprise to see evidence amongst the family papers that my great grandmother had in fact had this accusation made against her. Combined with (more often than not) their working class background, the assumption that a woman who is onstage must be “up for it”, and looking to make an extra wage from something other than her performance is age old, but particularly amongst females in the music hall world.

In the Ripper Street TV series we witnessed the progression of Rose Erskine from life as one of Long Susan’s ladies to the music hall stage. That series is well-researched and it is probably true that the Halls were a realistic escape route from a darker world of prostitution. It has been said that Hannah Chaplin, the mother of Charlie, supplemented her stage income through prostitution. It is not as if society at that time was favourably disposed to supporting and promoting opportunities for women. The development of women’s rights and emancipation still felt a long way off. Whatever Violet was doing on London Road on that fateful night was soon forgotten – it was onto the Salford Regent for the next week’s engagement.

Notes
The Olympia designed by renowned theatre architect Frank Matcham, where Larry was performing that week is still an active venue. See their website here: http://www.liverpoololympia.com

The Argyle, Birkenhead where Daisy Dormer was performing was destroyed by fire in September 1940 during an air raid.

 

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.

 

 

 

Larry Lewis – the turn

Cartoon - Larry Lewis - colour

Cartoon of Larry Lewis, June 1911

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:
i-shall-strike-you-with-a-banana

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.

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.

Larry or is it Louis? Larry Lewis – the Mysterious Stranger

Larry Lewis as young man

In my January post about Larry and Violet’s Glasgow wedding, I mentioned that Larry was appearing in panto as the “mysterious stranger”.  A more apt role there could not have been – Larry’s life was most mysterious.  I have been trying to pick my way through family myths about his origins and marry them up with the facts for the past two years.  These are the pieces of family knowledge I have:

  • He was born Louis Levy in Cincinnati, Ohio around 1880; or possibly in St Louis, Missouri and from this City he took his name.
  • He was adopted by an English woman Mrs Maskell and her second husband Michael Levy, an American acrobat, who with his brother, performed as The Davenport Brothers both in circuses and music halls in the USA until the mid-1890’s.
  • He was the illegitimate child of Adah Isaacs Menken, an American performer known as the Mazeppa after her most famous character, who entranced and horrified 19th century society by her daring on stage deeds on horseback, wearing next to nothing!
  • He was a child actor in the United States before coming over to England.
  • He had a sister Rachel Levy who performed under the stage name Ray Maskell.
  • He did not enlist during the First World War; he retained his American Nationality and had to register as an alien.

The family story is that Louis was abandoned as a small child in England by Adah Isaacs Menken when on one of her European tours.  Adah’s life off-stage was just as scandalous and she was the lover (allegedly) of Charles Dickens, Algernon Charles Swinburne and Alexander Dumas, any one of whom could be his father, although Dumas was the one favoured by my Grandma Violet.  Reading The Three Musketeers as a fourteen year old had an extra thrill believing I was illicitly related to the author!  Here is an image of Adah from a 1934 biography:

The Naked Lady by Bernard Falk

As appealing as this exotic tale is to the family history (and Adah did have a son called Louis who purportedly died in early childhood), she died in August 1868 around 12 years before Larry’s supposed birth.  And by my calculations it would not be possible for my great grandfather to have been 25 in 1906 as his marriage certificate claimed.  Even with a bit of thespian-style tinkering with dates of birth, the dates just don’t add up.  But then again, was he possibly in his mid 30s instead at the time of his marriage?  I am clinging to the Menken connection!

I have a number of photographs of the infant Louis, the first taken at the Gibbs & Co Studio in Middlesbrough (what on earth was he doing there?) where he looks about 2 years old, or maybe it’s just the frilly get up that makes him look younger than he was?

Louis Levy Gibbs & Co Middlesborough

Violet, the chief perpetrator of the Adah Isaacs Menken myth, has written on the back of this photo:

“Louis Levy on show when left in England”.

Next up, he is about eight or nine years old and is in a sailor-style suit photographed at the Stevens Art Studio in the McVicker’s Theatre Building, Chicago.  When did he travel to America? Was it possible he was performing in this theatre as a child actor?

Louis Levy Stevens Art Studio Mc Vickers Theatre Building Chicago

Then there is a photo taken a few years later at the studios of A Bogardus, Sherman and McHugh at 11 East 42nd St, New York in a Little Lord Fauntleroy collar, very popular in the US in the 1890s:

Louis Levy Sherman and McHugh Photographers 11th East 42nd St NYC

I have trawled and trawled through the usual online family history sources to trace Louis or Larry’s movements.  I have scoured census’, birth certificates and passenger lists and been through every Levy that entered and left these shores in the late 19th and early 20th century (as well as the Maskells).  All to no avail.  The business of theatrical names has confused the trail.  The research has led me down some interesting byways e.g. the fascinating history of the Jewish population in Cincinnati, the City to which the Levy connection always takes me.

The first mention I can find of Larry Lewis in the theatrical press in the UK is in March 1902.  He was on the bill at the Theatre Royal, Northampton as an “eccentric comedian” and from that point onwards he frequently appears.  I just can’t get to the bottom of how and why he got here and what he was doing in the years after the New York photos.  However, there have been some clues in the path led by Ray Maskell, ostensibly his sister, which will have to wait until my next post.