Secrets of a Savoyard
HOBBIES OF A SAVOYARD.
Luckless ventures in Theatrical Management - Farces that failed - New outlets for Enthusiasm - Baldness in the poultry run - Captain Corcoran and the crooks - Floricultural topsy-turvydom - The flowers that did not bloom in the Spring - Recreations that remain - Prize Costumes at fancy-dress balls - The big-game shot and the tiger.
LIKE "Mr. Punch" in another connection, I have a sound piece of advice for those who may ever think of embarking on theatrical management. "Don't !" I say this after bitter experience. It was not only that my gallanty show as a boy ended disastrously. This, of course, was itself a bad omen, and it ought to have taught me that public taste is fickle and that the gamble of theatrical management is surrounded by all kinds of perils. A West-end audience may be just as capricious and as hard to please as my audience of village lads in the garden.
My first real venture, a London one, was at the Criterion Theatre, which with a few others I took on lease from Sir Charles Wyndham, in order to produce "The Wild Rabbit." It was by Mr. George Arliss, who has since given up writing plays in order to act them, and he is now a star in America. It was one of those rollicking farces which, one would have thought, would have filled the house every night. I was playing elsewhere at the time, but we got together a really excellent company, amongst whom were the Broughs. But fate was against us from the very beginning. The production coincided with a heat wave, which is bound to be disastrous to all but the best of shows, and one of the facetious complaints of the newspaper critics was that they had to come to the theatre when the temperature was eighty in the shade.
"The Wild Rabbit" survived three weeks only. It drew £34 the first night - and that was the high-water-mark in the matter of receipts. One night the box-office took a mere £8. Seeing that the expenses were about £600 a week, it will be understood that the failure was severe and complete, and in most circumstances one lesson of the kind would have been enough. However, a number of friends of mine had secured the rights of "Melnotte," an operatic version of that good old comedy, "The Lady of Lyons." They did not ask me to invest any capital, but they invited me to let them have the use of my name in booking a tour for the provinces, as they themselves were unknown to theatrical managers. Upon that basis an eight weeks' tour was arranged. Gathering together about sixty artistes all told, they rehearsed them and bought all the scenery, and were almost on the eve of the first production of "Melnotte." Then one fine morning there came the thunderbolt. They told me that all the money they had put into the venture had gone. It had gone before the company had even left London. What was to be done? Seemingly their idea was centred in how speedily they could cut their losses and abandon the venture. Such a thing to me was impossible. With my name attached to the tour, a breach of faith with so many provincial managers would have been a serious blow to my reputation, and apart from that, the fact that sixty of my fellow artistes were in danger of being thrown out of work compelled me to take both a moral and a financial obligation on my shoulders and run the show myself. I could only hope for the best and wait patiently for the report of my manager that the tour was flourishing. That report never came. Every week I had to post a big cheque to cover the deficit on the takings, and every week made it clearer that, although the play itself was a good one, it was a thoroughly bad speculation. Something certainly was amiss. I could not leave London myself, and the only alternative was to offer a friend his railway fare and expenses and ask him to run into the country, see the play and tell me frankly what was amiss. "Harry" said my friend very meaningly "I've never done you a bad turn. I've seen it - once." Once was enough!
Eight weeks saw the end of "Melnotte." From the first it was a forlorn hope, and in any case it was impossible to run a company successfully unless one could be on the spot to superintend the production. The only satisfaction I had out of it - and I admit it with some feelings of pride - was that of standing by my fellow professionals, and, at whatever cost to myself, "playing the game." I have never made - and never shall be lured to make - another plunge into management.
The risks are too great. Sometimes I am inclined to contrast my bad luck in these business ventures with the good fortune of a friend who once asked me for a loan of £90. He was in humble circumstances then, but he had a little money of his own and his ambition was to buy the licence of a public-house in Holloway. I lent him the cash, and later on he came to repay me, with many thanks for thus giving him his opportunity. Years afterwards we met again. Upon the basis of that little public-house he had built a comfortable fortune, for he was a director of a brewery concern, had a big interest in various industrial undertakings, and eventually became a well-known member of Parliament. "You have been my mascot," he said - and there have been others who for various reasons have said the very same thing!
Once I met a "dear friend" - you may know the kind yourself - who was terribly anxious that I should be "in" with him in a rich gold mine in Alaska. He brought some nuggets to show me, and they were so plentiful, he told me, that he had picked these from the top of the ground. Evidently I must have been a particularly credulous person, because he got a good deal of my money, whereas all I got was experience.
Where hobbies are concerned my luck always seems to be appalling. I have had a mania for turning my hands to all sorts of things. It began, I remember, with my determination to commence breeding poultry, and having made up my mind to this, it had to be done very thoroughly. I bought quite a number of chickens and wired them within a very small space, The poor things had nothing like enough room, and they began to get bad tempered, to fight one another, and to pull out their feathers. Further, having pulled out their rivals' feathers and found the oil at the roots very tasty, they set to in earnest, and before long there was not one bird with a feather left in the place. They were all bald! A more miserable collection of freaks you could never imagine. With characteristic humour Dan Leno sent me a bottle of Tatcho for them!
From hens to ducks was not a far cry. So I bought a number of ducks' eggs, hatched them in an incubator, and at last decided that it was time the little wretches had their first swim. I accordingly carried them down to a pond to put them in. Alas! once more for my amateur enthusiasm! The ducklings were too young for that, and they got cramp and died.
Nothing daunted, I turned now to bulldogs, and in order to do things well I bought seven big kennels, complete with iron gates. They would have done credit to a big estate, where breeding is done on up-to-date lines, and were quite out-of-place in my suburban garden at Chiswick. To begin with we could not get the kennels into the garden. For hours they were on the street pavement while we cogitated just how we were going to get them round to the back of the house, and it was only after a police-officer had intervened with an order to remove them forthwith, because they were a nuisance, that we found that if there is a will, there must be a way.
"Captain Corcoran" was the name I gave to my best bulldog, and as he brought me luck, I was glad I had chosen that name from "Pinafore." He was a sturdy fellow, the winner of very many championships, and his progeny have since also carried off valuable prizes. But even my one successful hobby was doomed to be blighted. One day two crafty-looking individuals came to my house and said they wanted to see me about a dog. They were Americans, and they wanted, they told me, to buy "Captain Corcoran." I told them I would not sell him - not at any price. They found it a waste of time to try to fix up a deal. "Well," they said as their parting shot, "we're going to have him, anyhow." Within a day or two police officers called to warn me that two expert dog thieves had taken rooms in the neighbourhood, and I was forced to the conclusion, much as I disliked it, that I must dispose of "Captain Corcoran." Later on I commenced to breed dachshunds and Borzois, but somehow I did not care for the "doggy" people with whom I had to mix, and the end was that I gave up dogs altogether.
Then I determined I would venture into the more tranquil arts of floriculture. I would have my own flower garden, and what was more, everything in it should be done by myself. My wife, shrewd woman, said nothing. It was a case of "leave him alone, and he'll play for hours." From Holland I ordered an immense number of bulbs and put them into the ground. Months went by, but not a sign was there of my hyacinths. I pondered deeply over my manual of useful hints for gardening. Watered them? Yes. Raked the soil? Yes. What was wrong? Certain it was that these flowers never bloomed in the spring!
Eventually, I saw a tiny yellow spike creeping out of the earth, but the colour and nature of it were not "according to plan." At last I called in a gardener. "Oh" he declared, doing his best to soften the blow "you've planted the bulbs upside down." And so I had! The poor little shoots had to dig down into the soil before they could curve round and creep into the light. Nearly everything in that unfortunate garden had been planted upside down.
Friends of mine chaffed me unmercifully over that topsy-turvy exploit. When they came to my house they would turn all the ornaments upside down. Before I entered the room they would reverse the chairs, the settee and anything they could lay their hands upon, and then they would explain themselves by saying "We thought you liked things like that, old man. The bulbs you know. We've just heard about the bulbs."
Well, after the failure with the hens, the ducks, and the flowers, there seemed only one other diversion to try, and that was photography. Even that did not survive very long, nor yet did my attempt to cultivate mushrooms in my cellar, a craze that threatened very literally to get the place into bad odour. But there are two recreations to which I still remain faithful, and they, after all, are worth all the rest put together. One is golf and the other painting. Golf is a great game for keeping the actor fit, and his mind clear for his work, and it is very popular in our profession. Now and then, too, a day with the palette and easel is a wonderful pleasure to me, and seldom do I take up the brush without a thought of poor old Trood and his studio at Chelsea.
One diversion at least in which I have had my share of success has been in the fancy dress balls at Covent Garden. Once I took the first prize with a representation of Nelson, the costume of which was copied in every detail from the uniform of the great seaman preserved in Greenwich Museum, and I remember that my entry was signalised by Dan Godfrey's orchestra striking up " 'Twas in Trafalgar Bay." Then I took the chief honours with a wonderful bust of Nero, in connection with which I received enormous help from my old friend, the celebrated sculptor, Albert Toft. >From my waist downward I was encased in what appeared to be a blood-marble pedestal. My face was whitened, my eyes were closed, and my brow was adorned with the laurel leaf, and when the lights were focussed on my rigid figure and the plaster frame it was acclaimed as a marvellously clever imitation of the statue of the great Roman Emperor. Once again I took the first prize at Covent Garden with the subject of the Knave of Clubs. The costume was a silk one, half black and half white, and on it were fastened the names of all the well-known clubs in London. Even the members of the Beef Steak Club found that their institution had not been over-looked - and that this title appeared on the costume in an appropriate place!
Nowadays, when we are on tour, it is very pleasant to be able to travel by motor-car instead of by train. With my Austin-20 car I have now covered well over 42,000 miles, and probably the only occasion when I deliberately exceeded the speed limit was once outside Plymouth. A doctor with a troublesome car was held up in the roadway. When I drew up and asked whether I could help him, he told me he had been a quarter-of-an-hour trying to get the engine to go, though he was due at a very critical operation some miles away. It was, indeed, a matter of life and death, and in my own car he was very speedily taken to the hospital. It was in the same district, I think, that I gave a "lift" to a man who was footsore and weary, and who said at the end of the journey, "I suppose you won't tell the gov'nor about this, will you?" Evidently he had mistaken me for somebody's chauffeur.
Some years ago, when I was setting out from my home at Chiswick, I was held up by a 'bus bound for Twickenham. It was crowded already, and the conductor had to refuse a poor old woman who wanted to board it, and who was very distressed, because she had a job at Twickenham, "and if I don't get there," she told me, "they'll think I'm too old for work and they won't want me again." The problem was easily solved. I offered to take her where she was going. She had never been in a motor-car before, and in trying to stammer her thanks, she asked me to tell her my name "so that I shall never forget you." So I handed her my card - she certainly did not know anything about me or what was my profession - and went on my way. Judge of my surprise when, soon after the end of the war, I found that that old lady had bequeathed to me the two little rooms and all the furniture that had been her poor, but neat and cosy, home, at Hammersmith. Luckily, I heard of a demobilised soldier who, with his wife and child, was urgently in need of a shelter, and it was a great pleasure to me to be able to turn this touching legacy to such good account.
Speaking of hobbies, I don't think I knew a more curious taste than that of an old friend of mine who was a big-game shot and traveller, and who had a miniature zoo of his own at his home at Derby. Once, when the company was playing in that town, he invited me to go and stay the night with him after the performance, and in his library we sat chatting until the early hours of the morning. He told me many graphic stories about his expeditions into strange lands, about the tigers and elephants he had shot, and about his marvellous escapes. One story was about a faithful servant of his, a powerfully-built black, who stood right in front of an infuriated wounded elephant, which trampled on him and killed him, as the poor fellow doubtless knew would be the case, though he was ready to chance all so that his master might be protected. I remember that my friend, having told me this incident, added, "They are the greatest men on God's earth, are these blacks."
"Just half-a-minute," then said the explorer. Listening to those strange adventures in the jungle had already set my nerves on edge, and to be left alone in that dimly-lit room, with everything outside and inside it silent and still, was really uncanny. I heard my host walk along the corridor, open one or two doors, and apparently enter the garden. He had left me alone in that house! In a few moments I heard an unnatural tread in the corridor. Pit-pat, pit-pat! My eyes almost sprang out of my head. Pit-pat, pit-pat. Nearer and nearer it came until at last into the room there sauntered a-tiger! My friend walked in behind it.
"For God's sake take it away," I screamed, drawing my feet up into the chair and expecting every second the beast would pounce, "Take it away!" The tiger was really only a cub, but coming like an apparition into that room, it seemed to be the biggest and most ferocious and most ghastly sight on earth. Large beads of perspiration were on my forehead, my heart was beating itself out of my body, and through my mind flashed the countless sins of my youth. My last hours had come. "Take it away," I yelled, again and again, "it will tear us to pieces."
Now I think of it, the tiger did not really look as if it had much of an appetite, or if it had, the idea of making a tough meal of an actor did not appeal to its palate. The hunter tried to assure me that the beast was "quite all right." It flopped down by his side, and as he stroked it, the cub purred in a manner which, to me at all events, was not at all pleasant. "I know just how long you can keep them," my host explained. "This one will be harmless for another month. Then it will be dangerous. It is quite all right to-night. Come and stroke it."
Not I! So long as the tiger remained there I kept cringed up in my seat on the other side of the room, and mighty thankful I was when he had taken his strange pet away. I've an old-fashioned notion that a library is not the happiest place for a menagerie. I heard that just a month afterwards the beast did, in fact, turn on the big-game shot, and his arm was terribly ripped. He must have trusted it just a day too long.
Page created 18 July 2004