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.

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.

A January Wedding – Larry and Violet

Larry and Violet Oval

Mr Larry Lewis and Miss Violet Stockelle

In January 1906, one hundred and ten years ago, my great grandmother Violet Stockelle married Larry Lewis in the Gorbals district of Glasgow.  The marriage took place on 3rd January, just five minutes away from the Royal Princess’s Theatre (now the Citizen’s Theatre) where Larry was appearing as the Mysterious Stranger in the pantomime Simple Simon. That panto ran until the end of January 1906 so it is more than likely Larry and Violet popped along to the Sheriff’s office on Nicholson Street, taking two witnesses with them, adjourned to a local pub to celebrate and Larry returned to the theatre for the 7.30pm performance that night.

Souvenir programme cover Simple Simon Glasgow 1905-06 (2)

“Simple Simon” Royal Princess’s Theatre 1905-06 Glasgow

Larry was 25 and Violet 20. I had a romantic notion that Violet and Larry may have met and fallen in love in Glasgow that pantomime season, but I can find no trace as to where Violet was performing that Winter.  Although I have discovered that Larry appeared in pantomime in previous seasons with future sister-in-law Daisy Dormer, and it seems more than likely that it was Daisy who introduced her sister to this mysterious stranger.

The two witnesses to the marriage were Harry Taylor, described as a ‘comedian’ on the marriage certificate, and Jane Riddell (who I can’t identify). Harry Taylor was also in Simple Simon and together with Mr James Ross were “an energetic pair of knockabouts, who are always in the thick of the fun”. Harry Taylor had been in one of the Fred Karno companies (a training ground for Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel) so he was well-schooled in the art of knockabout. Another significant name in the cast, described as a new recruit to panto at the Princess’s, was Jack Lorimar, the father of Max Wall. He played the bell boy Saunders M’Rory and received excellent notices in The Era:

He was one of the decided successes of the first night, and his various eccentric songs and dances and the pawky humour of his catchwords he uses took the fancy of the audience right away

Although we don’t have footage of Jack Lorimar in his eccentric songs and dances we know that Max Wall continued the eccentric dancing tradition with his Professor Wallofski character, a huge influence later to the Pythons and their Ministry of Silly Walks.

Larry too was well-received by The Era:

Mr Larry Lewis as the Mysterious Stranger, played with much mock dramatic emphasis, and was also of much value to the cast. He gave a clever song, Monotony, with much point.

Later in 1906, Violet and Larry travelled by steamer for Australia to fulfil a series of engagements there for the impresario Harry Rickards. In their first year of marriage they travelled to Sydney, Melbourne and mining towns in Western Australia and were away for nearly a year. I know that they called in at the Talma Photographic Studios in Melbourne (119 Swanston Street) as I have a number of photographs taken there, some of which are shown below. In 1907 Talma was a leading Australian photographic portrait studio for theatricals and wealthier patrons.