In this edition of Music Hall Studies you will find these great performers. Click on their names for a short taster.
Will Evans was not just a pioneering silent film comedian, but also what S.Theodore Felstead in Stars Who Made The Halls described as “a supremely fine artiste and wonderful laughter-maker”. Maurice Willson Disher in his book, Winkles and Champagne, went even further. Referring to Evans’ finest years as around the First World War, when his bungling sketches were at the height of their popularity and he was in the middle of a magnificent run of pantomime successes at Drury Lane, Willson Disher was in little doubt that “in the golden days of his clowning, Will Evans was the funniest comedian on the London stage”.
Free and Easies
There is little romance attached to the free-and-easy. Unlike the song-and-supper room of notorious ancestry, the free-and-easy has been an unremarked and, perhaps, unremarkable staging post in the annals of music hall history. A musical entertainment, dating from the 1830s and lingering for upwards of forty years, it took place in a public house, relying upon amateur performers and the consumption of alcohol to sustain it. Nineteenth-century writers frequently reflected upon how marvellous it was that the glory of the music hall should have evolved, tadpole-like from such inauspicious beginnings.
Jimmy Wheeler, the raucous Cockney comedian, bounded confidently out before the diamond and white-tie audience at the Savoy Hotel, London. He wore his usual music hall outfit of loud suit, cheeky Trilby hat and a false moustache made from a piece of dyed rabbit fur, but he had memorised a sedate routine which he considered suitable for high-class cabaret. He told the first three polite jokes and received polite smiles in return. Wheeler’s agent, Billy Marsh, sensed disaster. “I wanted to crawl under the table,” he says. Thirty years in variety, however, had taught Wheeler how to overcome polite smiles. He raised his voice and switched rapidly to the act he was going to give the sailors at the Chatham Empire the following week.
Herbert Campbell was a colossus of music hall, the head of the profession at the time of his death. Any comedian who appeared in the Drury Lane pantomime for 22 years in succession was entitled to be called that. And yet Herbert is a more obscure figure today than he deserves to be. He died just as the recording industry was beginning to widen its repertoire and he made only four sides. In a way, it is ridiculous to say that his great Drury Lane partner, Dan Leno, overshadowed him. Many of their comic effects derived from the fact that it was the other way round. Herbert was vast and Dan was tiny. But when it comes to posthumous acclaim, Dan is the dominating one. He continues to be cited as the greatest of them all, while Herbert is a relatively forgotten figure. And yet his is a fascinating story.
Although Fred Karno’s mythical ragtime army never did conquer Berlin and rout the Kaiser, their expeditions to the USA during the 1910s proved quite successful and numerous defectors occupied Broadway and Hollywood for decades, much to the gratitude of America and the rest of the world. Karno’s speechless comedians were not the only British invaders welcomed by Americans. Since the closing decades of the nineteenth century, American vaudeville bookers had looked to London for talent. Whenever a performers’ union called a strike or initiated a blacklist or a renegade group of theatre owners threatened to compete with the entrenched powers for vaudeville box office and so created a shortage of home-grown talent and a bidding war for headliners’ services, bookers headed to London. Throughout the twentieth century, comedians and singers from Britain continued to conquer the stage and screen industries in the USA.