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?

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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.

Pantomime Gals!

Daisy Dormer and sisters in panto

December is here and in theatrical terms it can only mean one thing – the panto season is upon us!  I have been trawling through the many  press clippings haphazardly kept by my Great Grandmother Violet, trying to piece together the pantomime years.  It is clear a stint in panto was when a music hall performer could be guaranteed a steady income for at least a month and a home from home in theatrical digs for a longer period than the usual week.

In the 1890s it became popular to cast a music hall star in a leading role in pantomime  – in much the same way that today’s soap and reality TV stars pop up in panto.  Popular music hall songs would feature just as pop hits do today. The top of the panto tree were the spectaculars staged at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane – but as today – pantos were taking place all over the country and my grandmother, great-grandmother and great aunts appeared at various points in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Leeds, Cardiff, Liverpool, Huddersfield, Stoke Newington, Portsmouth, Aberdeen, Eastbourne and Abergavenny.

Daisy Dormer had two younger sisters, Violet and Norah, who also caught the theatrical bug.  Like Daisy they were born with the surname Stockwell but this was transformed to the more musical “Stockelle” for their stage personas.  Violet Stockelle was my great-grandmother. I shall be writing about them in future but it would be fair to say that their careers never took off in the way that big sister Daisy’s did. They represent the thousands of female music hall turns trying to eek out a living from performing in the Edwardian period.

Whereas Daisy Dormer scaled the dizzy heights of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane panto, Violet had consistent success in principal boy roles particularly in Cardiff (two seasons at the New Theatre including Puss in Boots, 1912) and Portsmouth, her home town. My last record of Violet in pantomime was in 1933, at the age of 48, playing Aladdin “the Bad Lad of the Family” in Abergavenny.

Earlier in her career a reviewer wrote:

Violet Stockelle is a singer of chorus songs, and she owes not a little to her popularity with her audiences to her physical qualities, which would make her an ideal principal boy in a pantomime.

And here are those physical qualities on display:

Violet Levy 1912 Hana Studios

Violet, 1912

Violet Stockelle, Corn , Metropole Studios Cardiff 1

Cardiff, Metropole Studios

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 1922 she appeared at the Theatre Royal, Huddersfield in Humpty Dumpty (at this stage of her career using her husband’s surname Levy):

Theatre Royal Huddersfield 1922

1922 Humpty Dumpty, Theatre Royal, Huddersfield. Note “In the Interest of Public Health this Theatre is disinfected with JEYES FLUID”

The Era, December 28 1922 reviewed her performance:

 Violet Levy as Rudolph, the principal boy, is the possessor of a magnetic personality, which endears her to all hearts. She has what is commonly termed a “way with her” and her singing of “Whoops-a-Daisy” is one of the hits of the piece”.

Where Violet played the principal boy, big sister Daisy played the principal girl.

Daisy Dormer Glasgow Grand Theatre Goody Two Shoes

Daisy appeared in many Glasgow pantomimes having played her first principal girl role there at the The Royal Princess’s (now the Citizens Theatre) in Goody Two Shoes in 1902. The last record I can find of Daisy in panto is Cinderella at the Royal Court Theatre in Liverpool for the 1918/19 season.

The youngest Stockwell sister, Norah, appeared as a “serio comedienne” and toured the provinces, but as far as I can tell never made it to principal roles in pantomime. Big sister Daisy, the star of  the 1917/18 Howard & Wyndham’s “Cinderella” production at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow was able to secure Norah a role alongside her.

Norah Stockelle photo

Norah Stockelle

For anyone interested in further information about pantomime now or from the past then I recommend the excellent It’s Behind You hosted by Dame extraordinaire Nigel Ellacott.