The 'Immortal' Grimaldis Die Together In Car Crash - By Don Stacey
First published in 'World's Fair' July 23-29, 1999 - See Note
On their last appearance in a British circus, at Chessington Zoo in 1954, the musical comedy act of Vesta and Ashton was billed as "The Immortal Musical Clowns". Throughout their lives, they were used to commanding newspaper headlines and they even went out in a blaze of publicity, reaching their own Immortality on June 7, with the headline "The Grimaldis die together In crash"
The lives of Audrey and Ken Austin, known for many years as Vesta and Ashton as well as The Grimaldis', ended violently in a road accident just outside Orlando, Florida, as they drove their Airstream living wagon to an Airstream Club gathering. They were killed instantly in a collision with a truck although their pet poodle, 'Lucky' was rescued with only minor burns from the ensuing truck fire. Aged 81 and 87 respectively, Vesta and Ashton had been inseperable both professionally and as a married couple for 60 years.
Marion Krajewski, a fellow Airstream Club member and close friend, said of them: 'They were the nicest couple. The two of them went together, which I think is a blessing".The pair were typical old-fashioned variety artiste 'pros', Vesta with her Lucille Ball-style bright red hair and, to the end she wore full stage makeup whenever she went out Ken epitomised the rakish, eccentric British variety artiste with his impeccable manner, always wearing a cravat and gallantly kissing women's hands. Even until the end, they performed for shows and friends. Both Vesta and Ashton were performers from very early ages, making their first trip to America in 1955 and later settling in Sarasota, Florida, surrounded by circus friends. Although they remained very British personalities, at the time of their deaths they were apparently awaiting American citizenship.
Above - The programme produced for the funeral service of the Grimaldis / Vesta and Ashton, whose real names were John Kenneth Austin and Audrey Vesta Austin, on June the 12th 1999 - From the Arthur Lloyd Archive.
Ken Ashton, christened John Kenneth Austin, was born in Leeds,
Yorkshire in 1911. Aged
four, he tumbled onto the stage for the first time as a replacement,
playing Dick Whittington's cat but his professional career finally took
off 10 years later, in 1925, when he played the cat in Dick Whittington
again. After working with his sister, Dorrie Ashton, in revues and variety
shows, as part of a comedy eccentric dance and banjo act, he moved into
concert party shows and toured with his own concert party, The Music
Makers from 1930 to 1931. He then produced his own musical act, Ken
Austin and his Accordion Queens, partnered by two girls, Ella and Millie,
playing in variety and on the radio. For
a time he also appeared with the banjo king, Eddie Peabody.
In. 1936, Ken and his Accordion Queens found themselves in Ireland with the cine variety show under a big top run by John Duffy Snr. They were one of the five variety acts booked to support of the main attraction, the film of The Invisible Man. But the show was a big disaster, the acts were sacked and the film was changed although Duffy offered Ken's act a six-month season with his travelling circus, which they gratefully accented, as they found the promised living trailer was a primitive wooden one, only six feet wide, ten feet long, for three people and pulled by a horse. Although the show moved on average only 12 miles a day, each journey in their wooden van averaged three hours and the only day off all season was a 30-mile jump that took a whole day. They endured a season of tortuous one day stands and one of his girls, Millie, ran off with a drunken circus trumpet player who had been beaten up by the circus workers for missing a show.
Left - A poster for the variety show 'You Shall Have Laughter!' at the Theatre Royal, Stockport on November the 29th, 1943, with Vesta & Ashton on the Bill. - From the Arthur Lloyd Archive.
Ken's adventures with Duffy, his first circus, were enough to fill a book. He said "Duffy was a good circus owner, but large and heavy with a bad limp and always used a walking stick. He had a large scowling grey face and penetrating eyes, so nobody approached him unless his need was dire". Ken later recalled the day Duffy walked into a ring while an act was performing, waving his stick and stopping the band in mid-number. When he'd got the entire audience hushed, he pointed to the band and yelled "I want more bloody volume, I can't hear you outside the tent, now carry on!" Ken recalled that, at that command, 'the brass instruments almost blew the tent down'. His first season in the circus was clearly a memorable, although unhappy, one and he returned to England, vowing never to work in a circus again. But fate decreed otherwise and he and Vesta later appeared in many more circuses.
Vesta was born Audrey Grimaldi on November 3, 1917, in Nottingham, a descendant from the most famous of all 18th century pantomime clowns, Joseph Grimaldi, who had gained his fame on the boards of the Theatre Royal, Drury lane. She also claimed ancestry with another branch of the Grimaldi family who, for generations, have ruled Monaco. She was brought up in Brighton, being taught dancing and music and leaving school at the age of 12 to join a semi-professional show run by Harry Drury at the West Pier, Brighton. She left home at 16 to work in the Rhythm Sisters' act before developing her own solo act, tap dancing playing the xylophone and travelling all over the British Isles in the leading variety theatres. She also appeared in the famous Professor Doorlay's Tropical Express revue.
In 1939, she met and teamed up with Ken Austin, marrying him in February of that year. The marriage took place in Glasgow, on the last day of their week's engagement at the Princess Theatre and was a theatrical occasion with the church full of fellow performers. Their honeymoon was supposed to be spent in Aberdeen, where they had a booking at the Palace Theatre in variety for a week. However, rushing from one booking to the next was always a fraught event for variety artistes, closing on a Saturday night, collecting baggage and props from the theatre before catching the train to the next venue. So, Vesta went on ahead to find two seats on the Aberdeen train, leaving Ken to manage the luggage, but he took the wrong train and spent their honeymoon night in London. Their eventual reunion was an emotional one, with Vesta admitting that she had believed he had either missed the train or jilted her, absconding with her precious marimba xylophone and belongings. She'd ended up in Aberdeen without even a toothbrush or a nightie.
The Grimaldis, as Vesta and Ashton also billed themselves, became extremely well known on Britain's variety circuit as a standard speciality act, combining music, dance and clowning, eventually adding plate spinning and animal training to their talents. At a time when variety and stage circuses flourished, it was natural that agents offered them some circus work and, despite his misgivings from the Duffy tour, Ken agreed. Thus they later worked in Harry Benet's and Captain A Prince-Coxe's stage circuses, at Waverley Market, Edinburgh as well as at Chessington Zoo. They played an eight-week season at Glasgow's Theatre Royal with Harry Benet's Circus, where they formed a friendship with Dick Chipperfield, who was on the bill with his bears. The top of the bill attraction was fakir and crocodile 'hypnotiser', Koringa, billed as being Indian but in fact coming from Paris, France. As it was wartime, there was no heating in their theatrical 'digs' and it was impossible to obtain coal and Scotland was bleakly cold in winter.
So, Vesta went to the Ministry of Fuel, telling the official that she was looking after Koringa's baby crocodiles and without heat in the boarding house they would die. A supply of coal arrived at the house as if by magic and, although there were no baby crocodiles in residence, the artistes enjoyed a far warmer stay thereafter. The strangest theatrical 'digs' they encountered, apart from a funeral home in America, was at a town in Ireland while on tour with the comic Jack Cruise. They found that the hotel 'room', which had been booked in advance, was a barred cell in what had been the local jail and was run by two scary, eccentric old ladies who locked them in their cell each night.
When World War II was declared, the couple were sailing to Dublin to join the Radio Times revue. British artistes were quickly forced out by Irish artistes fearful of losing their own livings during wartime, so they returned to England. Ken was exempt from military service due to deafness in one ear, so they took on wartime entertainment work in theatres, hospitals and for the armed forces.
While they were working in Prince Cox's stage circus, Vesta took pity on Carl Olsen's sealion, as Carl was having difficulty in getting sufficient fish for its diet She went from shop to shop, scrounging fish and returning with a huge 12Ib bag full of food for the sealion. Carl's response was "But my seal can't eat that kind of fish!". So, instead, the hungry performers enjoyed a huge fish dinner that evening. Vesta, incidentally, was always an animal lover and they eventually added poodles to their act. (See Image Right). Later they took in a talking parrot as a permanent lodger and Vesta was dismayed to find it learnt all her instructions to the poodle, coming home one day to find the bird putting the poor dog through its paces in a credible imitation of her voice.
Right - Vesta & Ashton's performing Poodles - Caption reads: Twinkle Star, the singing Poodle with over 30 T.V. appearances, and Super Star, a celebrity that blows his own trumpet. - From the Arthur Lloyd Archive.
Vesta and Ashton's travels took them around Europe and to exotic places like Hong Kong, Bangkok and Manila. The couple's last season in England, nearly 20 years after Ken had first vowed never to work in a circus again, was at the Chessington Zoo in Surrey, in a programme which included the Zola Brothers, Ravic and Babs and Lucken's animals. One day during their stay, they were asked to appear in special command' performance for an Arabic princess. Before they went on though, they noticed that none of the acts had received any applause, although they soon discovered that they were performing before just before one person, who was sketching and painting parts of the acts instead of watching. Later, in America, they were engaged for a special performance before Eleonor Roosevelt but the President's wife arrived at the theatre in the middle of their act, bringing all the assembled press photographers rushing to photograph her and leaving them to perform solely to people's backs.
In 1955, Vesta and Ken went to South America and then on to North America where they decided to settle. Apart from appearances in theatre and cabaret, rodeos and carnivals, they worked for a large number of the leading American circuses that included Jim Hetzer's Rudy Brothers', George Hameford's, and Polack Brothers'. They settled in Sarasota, Florida, where they had many circus friends.
In America, the couple also made a great many television appearances, among them Dick Martin's Wide World of Entertainment and The Ed Sullivan Show. Vesta was asked to appear in the American version of What's My Line and when she came back to England to visit to her sick father, she was asked to appear on the same show here with Eamon Andrews. At the end of the programme, Andrews asked her what her next engagement in America would be and she knew that Ken had booked them into Schenactady before her departure, although she was unsure if other bookings had come in subsequently. Anyway, she could not easily pronounce Schenactady, a town which British audiences had not heard of anyway. So instead, she quickly replied: "The Waldorf Astoria, New York". Her little white lie turned out to be miraculously true, for when she was met by Ken at New York airport, he informed her that he had just signed a deal for them to appear at the Waldorf. Although their advanced ages resulted in forced retirement, they never regarded themselves as retired and, as 'old pros' to the end, they worked at shows whenever they were asked. They were popular members of Sarasota's Showfolks Club, along with other British expatriots and Ken frequently penned his reminiscences of over 60 years together and his nearly 75 years in show business in the American circus journal The circus Report.
The 'Immortal' Grimaldis Die Together In Car Crash - By Don Stacey - First published in 'World's Fair' July 23-29, 1999.
Please note that a copy of this excellent article on Vesta & Ashton was included with the other items shown on this page when I received it, and must have originally been the property of a close friend or relative of them. If you know any more about how these items came to be together or have an issue with the transcription of this article appearing on this site please don't hesitate to Contact me. (M.L.)
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