No one loves a Principal Boy over Forty…

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.

Violette Stockelle Principal Boy Cardiff 1912

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:

panto-calls-the-stage-9-dec-1926

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:

vacant-for-panto-29-oct-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.

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.

From The Guardian, Family life: Grandma’s theatrical calling card

Snapshot: Grandma in her theatrical glamour

Molly O'Day

This photograph shows my grandmother’s theatrical calling card from the 1920s, when Norah Ada Beatrice Levy became the cheerfully named Molly O’Day. With fashionable, flapper finger-waves in her hair and a fur collar framing her face, she was a coy soubrette. Born in Camberwell, south London, in 1908, she was the only surviving daughter of two music hall artistes.

At 18, Norah ignored the plaintive cry of many a theatrical parent not to follow a career on the stage. She had benefited from the largesse of my very successful music hall great aunt, Miss Daisy Dormer, and been privately educated. Norah succeeded academically and was an accomplished pianist and singer. She was due to study at Girton college, Cambridge – an unusual story of social mobility for a girl whose own mother had been a Portsmouth docker’s daughter.

In the summer before she was due to “go up”, so family legend has it, she took a holiday job at Harrods. One lunchtime, flicking though her parents’ copy of The Stage, she saw a call for chorus girls at the Palladium. The roar of the crowd and the smell of the greasepaint was too strong – she skipped off to the audition and it was goodbye to Girton.

Her parents’ fears of the precarious nature of a life on the stage were well founded. They had struggled to make ends meet in an exhausting touring schedule that took them all over the UK and abroad, never quite making their way to the top of the bill. Norah dreamed big, yet after the euphoria of the Palladium she was soon to be found playing panto in Merthyr Tydfil.

By 1937 she was married to an engineer and living in West Sussex, in a house provided by Daisy’s estate. She had three sons, yet her marriage was unhappy, her husband so scarred by his second world war experiences that he took his own life in 1955. I often wonder how she managed in 1950s Britain, where attitudes to both suicide and single parenthood were unforgiving.

As a child, visits to Grandma always involved a musical singalong and she would sit at her piano wrapped in a beautiful embroidered shawl, bashing out the old favourites: My Old Man, Daisy Bell, I’m Henry VIII I Am. My sister and I would sit entranced as her nimble fingers tore across the piano. She died when I was 10 years old but the memories and the melodies linger.

Alison Young

This was published in The Guardian, Saturday 4 June 2016

Link here: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jun/04/family-life-grandma-theatre-england-dan-john-ford-coley-scone-pudding

Adventures Down Under

In my last blog post I wrote about the marriage of my great grandmother Violet Stockelle to Larry Lewis in the Gorbals district of Glasgow. Since then I have been investigating their Australian adventure in August 1906.

During 1906, Harry Rickards, a former English music hall performer but now established in Australia as a theatre owner and agent, was touring the British Isles on the look out for new turns to engage for his Australian enterprises.   At some point Violet and Larry were booked as they both started touting the fact that they were “booked by H Rickards, depart for Australia August” in their theatrical card published in The Era. This was a means by which performers of the day kept theatre managers and agents updated as to their movements.

They set sail from Tilbury on 10 August 1906 on the RMS Ormuz, the Glasgow built pride of the Orient Line. The cost of their return passage was paid by Mr Rickards as part of their contract.

Graces Guide - RMS Ormuz

RMS Ormuz – image courtesy of Grace’s Guide

Their voyage to Australia took six weeks, via the Suez Canal stopping over at Gibraltar, Marseilles, Naples, Port Said in Egypt, and Colombo in Sri Lanka (formerly called Ceylon). From there the route continued across the Indian Ocean to the Port of Freemantle in Western Australia, then onto Adelaide, Melbourne and finally arriving at their destination Sydney on 21 September.

So what was life on board like, and how would Larry and Violet have occupied themselves for that six-week voyage? A report from The Times in January 1887 at the time of the Ormuz’s launch commented that:

The comfort of the residents in the ship has been studied to the point of luxury. The dining saloon, or coffee room as it is called, is a work of art. The panels are of rosewood inlaid with satinwood, and a large square window alternates with a mirror the whole length of the saloon.

There was also a library, a drawing room, smoking rooms, a theatre (one wonders whether Violet and Larry were invited to do a “turn”), an on- board orchestra, marble baths capable of being filled with hot or cold water in five minutes, a barber’s shop, a magnificent promenade on the uppermost deck wide enough for six to walk abreast where passengers could walk in mild weather and play deck games such as quoits and badminton. There was also the bar presided over by an expert in American drinks. Family reputation has it that it was probable that Larry spent some quality time here! The sights that Larry and Violet witnessed from the ship deck seem incredible to me – the beauty of the Mediterranean, the vistas and sounds of Egypt, Sri Lanka and yet this is a journey of which no one in the family was aware. There must have been postcards and letters yet none survive. All we suspect we have is an unusual carved bamboo pot!

Mr Rickards wasted no time in getting his new artistes from England before his audience and two days after their arrival, Violet and Larry made their Australian debut at the 2pm matinee at the New Opera House, Bourke Street, Melbourne on Saturday 22nd September. They were very well received by the Melbourne Press and continued to perform at the New Opera House throughout October and November, moving onto Rickard’s Sydney Tivoli (in Castlereagh Street) for a matinee performance on Saturday 17th November where they stayed for a further six weeks. They were joined on the “Rickards Tour” by Alf Chester, another comedian, Miss Florrie Henderson with her troupe of performing dogs and monkeys and the Harry Tate Company who were performing their sketches Motoring and Fishing.

I noticed when I was reviewing the Australian newspapers online that throughout December Violet began to disappear from reviews. It only seemed to be Larry and the other usual billed artistes that were getting a mention. And then I found the following in The Newsletter, a Sydney publication:

Mrs Larry Lewis (Violet Stockelle) was singing gaily at the Tivoli on Friday night and on Saturday morning a little stranger arrived – two months before it was expected. Both doing well.

But then on the same date as The Newsletter piece, the Sydney Morning Herald in Deaths reported the following:

Levy, December 7, 1906, at Paddington Ada Ray Sydney, daughter of Mr and Mrs Levy, professionally known as Larry Lewis and Violet Stockwell, age 6 days.

Having been born unexpectedly on Saturday 1 December, Ada Ray Sydney Levy had died within the week, the cause of death given as “premature”.  In amongst the tangle of papers and photographs I have inherited from my Dad was a black-edged photo I had always thought ghoulish and couldn’t bear to look at. I pulled it out and took a magnifying glass to read the coffin inscription – it was Ada. No one had understood before who she was. In those early days of photography, families were known to take a photograph of the deceased as a momento mori.

Ada R S Levy Deceased Dec 1906

Ada was buried on Saturday 8th December at Waverley cemetery in Sydney, one of the most beautiful spots in the world, located on top of the cliffs at Bronte in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. It is also the final resting place of Harry Rickards, the man who had brought Ada’s parents to Sydney in the first place.

Throughout this period Larry continued performing nightly with two matinees (Wednesday and Saturday 2.30pm). In theatrical parlance – the show must go on. The Sydney Morning Herald tells us that Violet made her return to performing on Boxing Day:

                Miss Violet Stockelle reappeared [at the Tivoli, Sydney] after her recent indisposition, and was warmly welcomed

Tivoli Theatre Sydney 1906

Image of Tivoli, Sydney with boards advertising Larry Lewis and Violet Stockelle

So great grandmother Violet was back on stage two and a half weeks after the sudden birth and death of her daughter but had also travelled half way round the world whilst preganant. What resilience and stamina she must have shown! She also managed to successfully hide her pregnancy bulge as all reviews refer to her daintiness and elegance. It may be that with Ada being so premature this had not fully manifested itself but it must have been a struggle to get her stage costumes on as the Australian tour continued. There was a happy outcome however – by the time of Larry and Violet’s return to England in March 1907, another baby was on its way. My grandmother Norah Ada Beatrice Levy was born in Kennington Park Road, Lambeth on 22 January 1908.

Daisy Dormer

“…the dainty little lady with the bewitching ways, who is here with all her latest songs”

Having inherited no discernable theatrical talent of my own, I have been dining out on tales of my music hall family for some years. I have been basking in the reflected glory of having a great grand aunt who once trod the boards of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Her name was Daisy Dormer and in her day she was Portsmouth’s equivalent of a 21st century Cheryl Cole, and by far the most successful member of my music hall family troupe.

She was a great beauty as can be seen in these photos, and at the time of her death in 1947 her funeral cortege brought Streatham High Road to a standstill. Her name lives on today by a housing development in Brixton – Daisy Dormer Court on the Trinity Gardens estate (not far from Morley’s Department Store). Like many music hall stars she spent her final years in Clapham and Brixton, drawn to the area by the quick and easy access tram travel provided to the theatres of the West End.

“Dainty” Daisy was born Kezia Beatrice Stockwell on 16 January 1883 in Southsea, Portsmouth and died at her home in Clapham, London on 13 September 1947, aged 67. I often wondered how she got her stage name until I read that Daisy Dormer is old English slang for a bottle warmer! Her rise from working class poverty in Portsmouth, where her father was a riveter in the Dockyard, was common to many young girls who saw the music hall stage as a way to get out and on in the early years of the Twentieth Century. Sarah Water’s character Nancy “Nan” Astley in Tipping the Velvet makes a similar escape from her life as an oyster girl in Whitstable.  And what a life Daisy had. From a pantomime debut at the Theatre Royal, Portsmouth in 1894 she was soon appearing at all of the leading London music halls and those in Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds. In 1912 she was the Principal Girl in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane pantomime, under Augustus Harris, whose lavish productions were trailblazers for what we now think of as modern pantomime.

Daisy had many hit songs (I have traced over 40) but the song that is reported to have launched her career was “I Wouldn’t Leave My Little Wooden Hut For You” by Charles Collins and Tom Mellor (1905). It is a tale of a ‘pretty Southern Maid’ seeing off a suitor, with a rousing chorus:

I wouldn’t leave my little wooden hut for you-oo

I’ve got one lover and I don’t want two-oo

What might happen there is no knowing

If he comes around so you’d better be going

Cause I wouldn’t leave my little wooden hut for you

Unfortunately Daisy didn’t make many recordings of her songs and the quality of those that survive is poor. She also made a couple of films, neither of which survive. In the absence of sound and vision I can only conjure up her stage persona from the many glowing reviews she garnered, here are a couple of examples:

“Miss Daisy Dormer, a comedienne who is full of real ability and artistic intelligence”

“a charming artist who not only has a most captivating way but is a really magnificent dancer”

My Dad and his brother often visited Daisy in Clapham and recalled her cart-wheeling around her sitting room when well into her mid-50s, voluminous undergarments flowing, much to the embarrassment of a couple of eight and nine year old boys.

Kenneth Williams talked of his beloved mother Lou’s admiration for Daisy – he wrote to my Grandmother to say as much and he recounted a story in this 1985 article where he claimed Daisy asked his mother to be her dresser.

In 1908 Daisy married Albert Jee, better known by his stage name Albert Egbert of the Brothers Egbert (“The Happy Dustmen”).  Now that is a story for another day.