The Music Hall and Theatre History Site
Dedicated to Arthur Lloyd, 1839 - 1904.

Celebrating Twenty Years Online 2001 - 2021

Memories of Show Business by Percy G Court, 1953


Index and Preface


Gracie Fields - From 'Music Hall at The Palace' a production at the Brighton Palace Pier Theatre.Icannot quite determine the exact date of Gracie Fields first visit to Kingston but a near guess would be with Archie Pitt's "Tower of London" - midsummer 1921 after the second fire - our first fire was in 1914. Miss Gracie Fields was married to Archie Pitt. After her fourth visit to Empire Kingston, she always played to capacity, her performance was magnificent, in fact she was a riot. When she was young she was even more clever, than at the present time, because she revelled in acrobatics; Proprietors, Managers, Agents of the Music Halls all rushed to see and wonder at this remarkable lady from Rochdale. I could not write too much about Miss Fields for she defies description.

Right - Gracie Fields - From 'Music Hall at The Palace' a production at the Brighton Palace Pier Theatre.

To the Gentlemen. I would say that dear old George Robey has an affection and all his long and prosperous career proves it. This goes with Bransby Williams with his masterpieces of "Dickens", Chirgwin, White eyed Kaffir, Harry Randall, Joe Elvin, Arthur Lennard, Phil Sheridan, Tom Learmore, Frank Seeley, Billy Williams, Bert Coote, Charles Coburn - "Man who broke the bank of Monte Carlo", Eugene Stratton, G.H. Elliott, "Chocolate coloured goon", Tom Finglass, J.H. Wakefield, Phil Kauffman, G. S. Melvin, Syd Chapli (brother to Charlie Chaplin), George Clarke, a wonderful performer, Talbot 0'Farrell, "Old Fashioned Mother of Mine`; Randolph Sutton, popular light comedian, Billy Danvers, he visited Kingston Empire. scores of times, George Wood in his domestic sketches, Dolly Harmer, Percy Honri - in "Concordia", Gus de Clerq, otherwise Gus Mcnaughton, T.E. Dunville, the eccentric and leg mania comic, Charles Austen, "Parker's progress and Fred Kitchen "His Majesty's Guests", Fred Duprez, John Humphries, Fred Hallam, Gus Elen, "E dunno where e are", Lew Laker, Pat Rafferty, Hardeen, Houdini - the greatest showman of "breakaways".

Then we have famous double acts: Bros Artois - "Bar wonders", Wilde Willy and West, in "Putting up the New House", Frank Craig - "Coffee Cooler", Foreman and Fannan - "Cross talkers", The Poluski Brothers, Carlton Sisters, team of lady jugglers, Dale and O'Malley Irish comics, Sisters Emerald, world known, Gerrette sisters, Johnson and Bert, Ike and Will Scott, O'Gorman Bros, The Kellins family of wiley acrobats. Their scene, a trip to Venice, played in every country "Kafaa, Stanley and Mai" Gymnasts and now the Coleano family who have travelled the world and topped the bills at each town. At Kingston Bonar, the film star, he was with the troupe. Maurice who is perhaps the clever one, married Elsie Bower who was formerly of Bower and Rutherford.

The Royal Aquarium - from 'The Face Of London' by Harold P. Clunn 1956.

Above - The Royal Aquarium - from 'The Face Of London' by Harold P. Clunn 1956.

I must say something of the famous Lupino family. I first met them at Gravesend where I was Stage Manager at the Grand Theatre. They were five or six in the company known as Jones and Lupino, in the scene Jack Sheppard. They arrived, with scenery and baggage, the whole of the company sitting on top: all the way from the Aquarium Theatre, London, in the Westminster Road.

Barry Lupino was a boy about sixteen or seventeen years of age; old George Lupino used to come up a trap in the stage, and leap about ten feet high, afterwards to complete one hundred pirouettes which are counted to the audience. The Lupino family, if I remember right, is Old George Lupino, Barry Lupino, Wallace Lupino, Arthur Lupino, afterwards others followed the stage including Ida Lupino film star, Mark Lupino was a very clever comedian but he died in his early twenties.

The Perizoff family were a very clever troupe of acrobats, musicians and jugglers. One of the features of their entertainment was to throw a turnip up into the gallery, a turnip, which was again thrown from the gallery by anyone who could throw and Noni would do a flip flap somersault and catch the turnip on a fork which was inserted in his mouth. Years afterwards Noni became world known as a clown. His first name was Noni and Horace. He appeared in the leading halls of America, England, and practically all over the world. Horace his partner was very clever known as Billy De Haven - afterwards De Haven and Page.

Drawer, Hambo and Frisco, this was a peculiar combination which featured boomerang throwing. Zellini who was known as the "Human Chimney" smoke coming out of everywhere, Signor Arvi - a Peppers ghost show modernised. The Tourbillion troupe of lady cyclists who ride up and down a staircase, Heeley and Marbre, hokum acrobats and now The Sisters Waters.

The Kingston Empire in 1939 - From a programme - Courtesy Alan ChudleyThese well known ladies in their early days used to perform an instrumental act and were well known to Sunday League audiences, afterwards their burlesques, of domestic London characters, are too well known for me to express enough praise and value for their performances at Kingston.

Right - The Kingston Empire in 1939 - From a Kingston Empire programme - Courtesy Alan Chudley

Celeste, a wire walker, who had an unusual act of a high wire "taut" act, which suddenly made slack; to swing at a very dangerous angle. Then from Japan we had the Hammer muri family, a troupe of acrobats featuring their famous water novelty, water exuding and squirting like fountains from every part of their body. Menotti the Stockholm wonder on a high wire emulating "Biondin". He changed his name many years afterwards to "Lariat" riding a motor cycle on a twelve feet revolving table. The Makeway's their act was universally known and accepted as a high spot on variety's programmes in hokum comedy. Gautiers troupe of canine actors in a scene - "Bricklayers" in which the dogs carry the bricks up the ladder, catch brick in their mouths and wind a winch etc. - a very novel act.

Lipinsky Dogs is a revelation. The scene is a village in the Tyrol and opens at midnight. The town hall clock chiming, the night watchman pacing his round, then dawn and as daylight sets in a dog delivers cans of milk. Then a newspaper dog delivers at each door with a postman following. A bell is heard and it's the school bell and a rush of children to school with a teacher, spectacles, mortar board and handkerchief from back pocket and a cane "all dogs were the actors" - organ grinder appears, turns the handle and the children or some of them dance around the organ. Afterwards a team of dogs drawing a cart and from it dogs erect stalls in the market place which is soon crowded by buyers of the wares displayed - the climax is a shop on fire - the dogs use syphons of sodas as they syringe the flames. A grand finale of a dog act.

I must name a conjuror or magician and I select Chung ling Soo - a wizard of wizards - too much cannot be said about this remarkable man, his name was Robinson - born in Liverpool. He always secretly arrived at a door of each theatre at which he was playing. That was not the usual "Stage Door", to escape notice he never spoke to anyone, only through the medium of "Frank" his manager and assistant. I cannot relate the many escapes and exploits of this wonderful man but here is an account of his death. One of his tricks was to catch a bullet (marked by the audience) in his teeth fired from a rifle by Mrs Robinson; somehow it missed. Some weeks before this, whilst playing at Empire Kingston, a young and beautiful lady was noticed to be in a "Box" close to the stage at every performance and Mr Ching Lung Soo, would throw her violets at the finish of his performance.

An Empire Palace Theatre Programme from 1897Oswald Williams can be counted as a clever magician - whilst "De Biere the famous" gave an exhibition of the egg and bag trick - first on the stage, then went down amongst the audience to hold everybody spell bound.

Herr Goldin will always be remembered by his illusion - sawing a woman in two - and to catch fish on the end of a rod in mid air. This was very popular.

The equally famous Carmo as a strong man and a magician was with La Fayette best known by the disappearing Tiger. La Fayette was killed in a fire at the Empire Edinburgh early in the year of 1911 trying to save his pet dog.

Left - An Empire Palace Theatre Programme from 1897

Val. Walker, a lesser known illusionist known as the "Wizard of the Navy and he was an unlucky artist, he had some novel tricks and escapes. He was billed to enter an upright glass tank, which was fourteen feet high - with a frontage of three feet. Inside a box was inserted which was lowered from the top and Val Walker inside - who was at all times visible through the glass. The box had a glass front too and it was made exactly like a lift. On the second performance Monday evening he was seen to be in distress. Stage hands and myself rushed on to the stage and tried in vain to haul the box up again. It would not move or budge - the suction kept it down. Luckily however the glass front broke, water poured over the stage, nearly drowned the musicians in the orchestra and we pulled Val Walker out - more dead than alive, blood was streaming from the nose and the ears. The audience however gave him a rousing reception, on his revival, and the trick was repeated with great success - on the Wednesday evening and onwards, but amongst his tricks was a challenge to anyone, who would bring any straight jacket, then tie or truss him up. His challenge was to escape from it - or he would pay fifty pounds. A Mr Bull from Twickenham challenged him, and on Friday, second performance, he was trussed up by Mr Bull, who had been a ex warder of a prison. Mr Bull was instructed that he must see how Val Walker would escape from a seat in the Stalls.

Val Walker, after being viewed by a committee, rolled on the stage, he wriggled with his hands and arms strapped behind him, he sweated, he tried all sorts of contortions, the orchestra were playing loud music, but no - the straps held. Fifteen minutes done, thirty minutes gone - Walker's movements were more feeble. After thirty six minutes a crack - a snap - and a strap broke - the audience shouted - the band played forte, then another strap broke - the audience were at fever point but no he was still in the jacket and Walker shouted to me to throw a Union Jack over him leaving his head visible, which I did, and as I was stooping over him he told me to insert a penknife through a guy hole, near where he was laying and he would do the rest, (a guy hole is one of the holes in a stage flat that is used to attach and fix apparatus used as a trapeze). I did as I was directed, then Walker rolled over on to the upturned knife, and cut the jacket and straps, after forty seven minutes he escaped. The curtain was lowered quickly but there was a few who took sides with Mr Bull and Police had to be called in. In due course a law action was taken by Mr Bull against Val Walker. The day arrived, the court was packed - and the judge summing up said, after studying the word of the challenge, he said there was nothing to say. How - Mr Walker - would get out or escape - so if he cut Mr Bull's property he Mr Bull - should expect that something of this nature would happen - and Mr Val Walker won - the day.

Fred Karno, it is a magical name and, as long as Music Hall, is counted as a form of English entertainment - so will the name of Fred Karno - Eve. One of the great marching songs of the First World War was:

We are Fred Karno's army
What BI ... y good are we
We cannot run, we cannot fight
As you can plainly see - But when we got to Berlin
The Kaiser he will say Hoch - Hoch - mein Gott - They're a jolly fine lot
Are the English of today.

So - Fred Karno must have a niche in my history of the theatre, his many companies of burlesque. Hilarity was his first, it was a success, and the forerunner of many although there was a similar act, in the first scene of Renad's Swiss Express, even Renad Bros seem to have copied the French version - of the Hanlon-Lees - Les Voyage en Suisse, Jail Birds Saturday till Monday, Moses and Son, the Bailiffs, the New Slavery and his best show "His Majesty's Guests".

(For Arthur Lloyd's family ties with Fred Karno see Harry Robert Lloyd's page here...)

Postcard for the opening of the new Gaiety Theatre and it's first show (The Orchid) - 26th October 1904Fred Kitchen was the star of this show in which a lot of the material from the above sketched were incorporated. Another production was "H.M.S. Won't detain yer". It was in two scenes a front cloth - then a full stage set, a battleship's saloon. It was built on a framework of H. girders, there must have been five tons of steel in its construction, on which the scenery was bolted. At each side and on the back of the stage were three hydraulic rams which locked the ship. An old Shanks "fire engine" was harnessed to it. This was placed in the large scene dock where also was a huge tank, used to govern its flow of water to which hose pipes from the fire hydrants, added to the success (or failure) to this weird contraption of stage craftsmanship. At least forty artists were seen dancing on the deck of the saloon, The principal artists were Charles Kitts, and Rhoda Windrum, well know especially in the Gaiety production of "Messenger Boy".

Right Postcard for the opening of the new Gaiety Theatre and it's first show (The Orchid) - 26th October 1904.

This show was hailed as a big success - but - on Thursday evening second performance, the man in charge of the fire engine, had a little too much, - and fell into the tank of water, that put a strain on the fire hoses which were at six points. They all burst, flooding the stage. Two dressing rooms close to the stage occupied by some Germans, The Four Janowskys, underneath, the water rose over two feet in height, my room and the musical conductor also its major wave was a wash over the footlights into the Stalls, chaos everywhere. The head Janowsky - he said - a lot in German - and what he said in English would be the envy of a red nose comic. He yelled - raved and shouted, his moustache going up and down his little nose, like a flue bruch: se going Mr Karno - NU Karno - Sh - Sh - ze tops of de Bills, Mr Karno - se bottom se bills and Mr Karno's waters everywhere, ze waters over me dressing room - mein geback - kaput. Oh la la pssht Mr Karno - Geben se meer ein shirm - Mr Karno.


Programme for the Metropole, Camberwell, in 1879 - This Theatre was later renamed the Empire.I mentioned that the name of John Lawson - to me - spelt "Hoo - doo". First at Gravesend where I made my exit from the Grand Theatre, then, at the Grand Theatre, Woolwich in which John Lawson's sketch "Sweeney Todd" in the explosion, which blew up a portion of the stage and I am to meet them again at Kingston at the Empire on the early part of the year (1919). This company was booked on a contract called "turn working". This was a well known term of expressing, this form of engagement. Humanity would play at the Empire Kingston, early in the first house, then make a dash by motor over Wimbledon Common, through S.E. London to play the last turn at the Empire, Camberwell.

Right - Programme for the Metropole, Camberwell, in 1879 - This Theatre was later renamed the Empire.

Then it would be very early in the second house at Camberwell, and quickly return to Empire Theatre, Kingston for the last show. This however does not always work to plan, and a Stage Manager has to have a reserve of entertainment, either recourse to a film or ask each artist to gap or put in extra "tricks" according to the artists who are on the bill. On the Thursday, the timing went wrong. The company arrived twenty two minutes late. At the back of the stage, on a balcony, in this sketch "Humanity", was a large curtain, or drapery, which hung over the balustrade, from which the important staircase plays it part. Behind this curtain was a property man "concealed" - blowing a flame of Lycnopodium - through a pipe. This was timed just as the staircase "falls" and the principal actors are still fighting amongst the debris. The curtain falls and everything seemed as usual, but I think that the man in charge of the Lycnopodium pot was a little careless and left a hot clinker in the folds of the curtain, on the balcony. Through the night this must have gradually fanned itself into a flame until at three a.m. it was like an inferno. No fireman was engaged at this period so after the stage door keeper locked up nobody would see the progress of this fire until a passer by - attention was called - to my dogs which were barking. They were in some kennels on the dressing room roof and it was due to them that the whole of the theatre was not burnt down - only the stage was gutted. The dogs were all saved. This is the second fire at Empire Kingston.

One of the most lovable comedians of that period was T.E. Dunville: he was at all times eccentric, tall and thin. He could throw his arms and his legs in all sorts of postures even though he had one paralysed arm - he too was fond of "working turns" and it was just previous to the visit of Jon Lawson that T.E. Dunville was playing Hammersmith Palace and the Kingston Empire together. One night, the rain was just tumbling down, Dunville arrived from Hammersmith none too well and suggested that he would not appear. He said that on the road near Petersham he had run over a lady and he felt very ill but after some persuasion he performed with a shortened act. But this incident had a profound effect on T.E Dunville. Some few weeks later he was found in the Thames at Reading.

Continue to Chapter Three...

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