FINDING myself one of the unemployed owing to the sweeping changes George Edwardes thought it his policy to make when casting the Little Michus, it occurred to me that I could not do better than follow the example set by so many of my colleagues of the stage and try my hand at music-hall work. No sooner thought than done. After an interview with the courteous Mr. George Ashton, who represented to Mr. Oswald Stoll that "now was his opportunity," he seemed to think it was ; and I signed a contract for eight weeks, with option of a further eight, with a certain amount of trepidation at the novelty of giving a "turn" by myself. I wrote a song which I called The Moody Mariner, intending to sing a couple of verses, then tell a story, and wind up with a final verse. The story I chose was one of Jacobs's most humorous efforts, in my estimation (about the seal serpent), which is to be found in his book Many Cargoes, and which I had frequently told with great success at concerts and suppers; somewhat abridged, of course, but with none of the fun left out. Walter Slaughter wrote the music of the song for me, and the management provided a delightful scene. The "turn" was to finish with a sentimental ballad (also by myself and Slaughter), about a sailor and his lass, called "Across the Silent Way," the last verse being sung with the lights down, and a vision of the lovers on the shore, where they were supposed to "walk," thrown on the back cloth. Both the songs invariably went well, but for some reason or other the galleryites would not have the recitation. I fancy it was too long, but anyhow, on my first essay, they began to murmur, then said something I failed to catch; but I grasped the situation correctly, for when I said to Slaughter, "I think I'd better sing," there was a round of applause. This of course happened at the matinée, and the trouble was how to fill out the time for that evening, for I determined not to risk it again.
My old friend "topical verse" came to the rescue, and by night-time I had written two, both of which were successful, and the situation was saved.
This "turn" lasted the whole eight weeks, with of course a constant change of verse, and it was in this song that I created a record for myself. The final tie of the Association Football Cup was being played at the Crystal Palace, and I determined to sing them a verse giving the score at half-time, hoping to know it before I went on. I had written the verse and had an alternative two lines to suit whichever team had scored, but when the curtain rose for my turn the news had not come. While I was singing the song I saw the stage manager in the wings waving a telegram. After finishing the verse I went to the wings, got the envelope, opened it before the audience, and sang them the information that Aston Villa was a goal ahead at half-time. I do not think I have ever had a greater success with a verse.
I was greatly indebted for my success to the efforts of the choir, which in those days filled the boxes just outside the proscenium, and apart from singing glees (often encored) were invaluable in the refrains of my two songs. It must have been an awful strain to them, being present at four performances a day, not to speak of rehearsals at odd times between, but I am sorry to see they have disappeared.
Meanwhile I had been busily engaged preparing another sketch in case it should be wanted, and towards the end of the eight weeks I had word from Stoll that he would like a change if I could manage it; so we began to rehearse The Tramp, to which Walter Slaughter had also put music. There was a quite beautiful little introduction sung by the choir to take up the curtain, and then a cart and horse came on, the real thing too (it seemed wonderful to me), with some children in the cart and others walking, and the tramp, who was an old soldier, helping himself along by holding on to the tail-board, which he let go, to sink on an old stump and rest. The children gathered round him, and a rough boy dragged his sister away and sneered at the old fellow for "a tramp." He then sang about his soldiering and finally fell dead. This was by way of being a new departure for me, but it proved popular enough to run for the remaining eight weeks of my engagement. The rehearsals for all the items used to take place on Sundays ; there was no other possible day on which to try scenery and dresses, and I remember that on the day we had the final rehearsal of The Tramp, the choir and all the extra people had been called at ten in the morning, and when we left (I was last) it was past eleven at night, and then there remained a few odd jobs to attend to on Monday morning before the first performance, which was known to the artists as "the Dust-bin," and not very popular.
The revolving stage was of great assistance in setting the scenes, two or three being in readiness, and only requiring the lowering of a sky-border or ceiling when turned to the auditorium. The first time I came down and found my scene set like this, right at the back, I thought I would wait and travel round with it, which I did, but the sensation was so peculiar that on the rise of the curtain I forgot my words and felt very awkward for a time.
One night I was informed on arrival that the heavy curtain, which was worked by hydraulic power, had refused to act, the water-main had burst somewhere in Piccadilly, and it affected several theatres. I was told that I should have to walk off after I had finished my sketch, which was rather awkward, as I was supposed to fall dead. All they could do to help me was to turn all lights down completely, and even then two of the stage hands must have thought I had failed to understand the position, as they came on and helped me up, one of them saying, "You've got to get up and go off, guv'nor." There was a laugh, but not so great a one as I feared.
The programme occasionally got overcrowded as to length, and there was tremendous trouble in getting some of the artists to curtail their "turns," and one night, to my dismay, the stage manager came to me on my arrival with "Mr. Stoll's compliments, and could you oblige him by singing one verse of your song?" This mutilation struck me as so extraordinary and also useless that I said I would much rather cut the whole number. However, this, according to the stage manager, Mr. Stoll objected to. I went to the front of the house to interview him if possible, but in vain, and came back to announce my determination to sing two verses and no less (leaving out one). As I crossed the stage to go to my room, to my dismay I heard the band play the opening music of my scene! How I did it I hardly know, but I dressed, made up (badly), and got on in time. I afterwards heard that Mr. Stoll's request had been distorted on the way, and he had asked me to "leave out " one verse, a very different affair, and when I saw him he was much annoyed at the trouble the misstatement had caused me.
There was a very zealous and inventive stage manager there who gave, as a rule, invaluable assistance to the artist, but he nearly spoilt my Tramp scene by the introduction of too many lantern-slide effects, depicting the war scene the old man was singing about, and I was so curious to see them myself that the second time they were used I turned half round all the time, and this did not add to the intelligibility of the song.
During my stay here I wrote a little kind of "Rip-van-Winkle" sketch for Courtice Pounds, who made a great success with it, and the inventive manager aforesaid introduced a capital dance for Pounds and a crowd of little children, which was most effective. Among other turns Mrs. Brown Potter appeared in a condensed version of Pagliacci, which was wonderfully well put on, but failed to become very popular for some reason.
Before my sixteen weeks were up I had signed with Frank Curzon to appear in The White Chrysanthemum at the Criterion, Mr. Stoll very kindly waiving his option to send me round the country or renew for London, but at his request I went for a special week to Manchester, where I had a most disappointing experience. I played both The Moody Mariner and The Tramp on different evenings during the week, and they did not seem to care an atom about either of them. I was rather surprised, as one expects anything with the London seal of success on it to go at least fairly well in the provinces. It was a depressing week, and I was glad to get back to London for rehearsals.
This engagement at the Coliseum was not my first appearance on "the halls," as I have played for benefits at the Alhambra, the Empire, and the Palace. The latter was on the occasion of some kind of birthday compliment to Mr. Morton, the father of music halls, and I determined to make a fresh departure in my contribution. I therefore elected to sing a coon song of my own, and "black" for it. Daly's Theatre being so handy I thought I would make use of my own room and just run over when ready, but I was met at the stage door by a small crowd of little children, who followed me all the way to the Palace stage door, waited, and escorted me back again, all the while making personal remarks of a not too complimentary nature, much to the amusement of the passers-by who noticed the little comedy.
It was some consolation to find the critic of the Daily Telegraph the next day saying in his notice of the performance that it was a treat to find me giving them a change from the unvarying song or recitation so usual among artists appearing at benefits.
The contrast between the stage at the Coliseum and that of the Criterion, which was the scene of my next engagement, is rather marked, and for the first few rehearsals I felt as if I dared hardly move for fear of knocking against somebody or something.
This sensation, of course, soon wore off, though I must say I prefer a somewhat larger stage than we had for The White Chrysanthemum, a very pretty little play and an effort in the direction of comedy with music, which I think deserved a more lasting success than it achieved. Some of Howard Talbot's melodies were quite delightful, and naturally received full justice at the hands of Isabel Jay and Henry Lytton. I thoroughly enjoyed my part of the Admiral, and was fortunate with my topical song, which happened to be an easy one to write verses for, and effective in its stage setting too, with a chorus of bluejackets headed by a bos'n. This was the first time I had the pleasure of acting with Millie Legarde, an excellent exponent of the best style of light comedy, and quick to respond to any interpolations in either words or business. The piece opened very prettily with Isabel Jay discovered in a hammock, waited on by a little Jap girl, and is one of the few instances I remember where the prima donna was content without the orthodox "entrance" usually so well led up to. After her experience of rickshaws at Daly's it was no wonder that Miss Jay was nervous in attempting it again here, but possibly the very short distance to be traversed made all the difference, and there never was the slightest approach to an accident. Millie Legarde always declared that I left her very little room in the one we occupied together, and I feel sure that no one can blame me when I admit that she spoke the truth. Curzon came to me one night with the news that he had been asked by some one in authority to suppress one of my verses, and he seemed rather upset over it until I assured him it had happened before. As it was not political I took some pains to find out the reason of this clôture, and discovered that the personal vanity of the private individual lampooned had received such a shock as to necessitate an "application to restrain." I felt very much tempted to put the verse back again, and so did Curzon when I told him what I knew.
It was quite thought at the time that in Leedham Bantock and Arthur Anderson two authors had been discovered who were really going to improve the status of musical comedy, and possibly if they had been able to keep their company together, play in the same theatre, and produce as good work as The White Chrysanthemum it might have been so, but their next joint effort was none too successful, and I believe the partnership is now dissolved. Our uniforms of white drill were most effective, if perhaps slightly incorrect, but so slightly as only to be noticed by the expert naval officer, although this is really a very important point, members of either service being very particular in this respect; indeed, I once heard a criticism of a play in which some officers of a definite regiment were represented, from the lips of a genuine member of the regiment, to this effect, "I think it's a rotten piece! Why, the fellows have got the wrong buttons on their tunics!"
The end of the run of Chrysanthemum found me once again unemployed, and I unfortunately met in Regent Street one day a concert-tour agent who had been associated with me once before, proving himself a genuine hard worker, and he suggested that "now was the time for a short tour." Well, I thought perhaps it might be, so we set to work fixing dates and a programme. Nothing could have been more satisfactory than both turned out, but the results were not commensurate. My company consisted only of Harold Grimston and his charming wife, who sings under the name of Robertson, he being an accompanist and also a pianist of such class as to receive encores for his two solos, which I had always great trouble to make him accept. It is a somewhat rare thing for a pianist whose hair is only of normal length to be really successful. We went to some twelve or fourteen little towns and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, even though it was (to me) rather costly. One day's work was pretty heavy. We gave a matinée at Folkestone and then travelled to Deal to give an evening recital, and the margin on arrival was only about twenty minutes. I insisted on going to Market Harborough for a night, having once driven through the little town and been struck with its restful appearance. We did fairly well, but were told here (as in most other places) that we ought to have come a month earlier. I find this is nearly always the case with concert parties. I cannot help thinking that the sea-coast towns and provinces generally have been overdone with concerts and recitals, for I have seen some appalling figures in the way of "returns" to companies carrying some six or eight people of note. The fact is that there is little room nowadays for anything between Paderewski and Pierrots, and the outlook is not improved by the larger hotels in the seaside resorts giving their patrons a free concert after dinner, with at least one good artist to listen to. People are hardly likely to turn out and walk perhaps some little distance and pay for seats unless the attraction is really great, when they can do so well where they are. But we finished up at the Hampstead Conservatoire, and during the evening I was "approached" for a part in Charles Wyndham's revival of The Candidate at Wyndham's Theatre. Being "approached" always strikes me as such a quaint (if not silly) way of expressing a business transaction, and yet I do not quite see how else to put it. I was amenable to the approachment, and it led to one of the most delightful engagements of my career, though all too short. Wyndham, of course, I had known for years, but it was the first occasion I had ever been associated with him, and I do not mean it to be the last, if constant reminders to that effect are of any use. We were a happy little company, and I think Wyndham thoroughly enjoyed the short lapse into farce, and found it a relief from the high-minded, virtuous kind of person he has been playing so much of late. He was much amused at one or two gags I introduced, and on my telling him one night that I was going to sing at a certain exit said he would come and listen. I sang a bar or two of "Under the Deodar" with great success, but I do not think he heard me, as I received neither a compliment nor my notice.
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