7th January 1929 – for six days – THE SHOW’S THE THING
The Shows The Thing brought Gracie Fields to Southampton for the first time. It was presented by Archie Pitt, Miss Field’s husband, the fourth of a run of revues by him starring his wife; the first had been “It’s a Bargain” in 1916. The most successful was “Mr Tower Of London” which had run for over four thousand performances over seven years. Prior to the new offering there had been “By Request” which had run for three years touring the country. “The Show’s the Thing” opened in Southsea at the King’s in December 1928 after a one night presentation at Alexander Palace a week before. Archie Pitt’s shows were well known in Southampton having played at both the Palace and Hippodrome, but none had featured his headlining Gracie. At this time Gracie Fields was an up and coming star, it was before she started making films, but she was becoming a household name.
Remarkably, Gracie Fields had not started a recording career until 1928, although, she had recorded four unreleased tracks in 1923. Once started, however, the output was extensive. One of the first songs she recorded was ‘Laugh, clown, laugh’ and this became her opening number in the show. The scene was ‘The Fairground’ where a showman, played by Edward Chapman, introduced the rest of the principals in characterisations roughly describing their role in the revue. The light comedian was Gracie Field’s brother Tommy, the juvenile lead Harry Milton, the bareback rider Mary Ludlow, the dancing girl Monti Ryan, the heavy lead June Meredith, and the boxer Archie Pitt. Last to make her entry was Gracie Fields as ‘the lady with the elastic voice’. Before Mr and Mrs Pitt had arrived on the scene there had been an opening chorus, a dance and, as the lead up to their entrance, the song ‘Come to the show’. Gracie variously featured as, The Lady With The Elastic Voice, The Maid Victoria, a Spanish Dancer, The Cleaner and even Archie’s daughter in one scene. The musical numbers listed for Gracie in the Southampton performance are: ‘Laugh Clown Laugh,’ ‘I Love No-one But You‘ and ‘The Show’s the Thing.’ Although, it is likely she performed more numbers in her solo slot in Act One. There were constant changes in the scenes and songs, honing it to perfection before it arrived in London.
There followed a succession of sketches, dispersed by ‘tab’ numbers. The first was a dancing sequence entitled ‘Dancing Shoes’ with Messrs Fields and Milton and the Misses Ludlow and Ryan, the principal dancer. The agile Monti Ryan had her showcase at the opening of act two in a Spanish setting. The first of the sketches was ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ a cynical look at the ‘refaned’ manners of Suburbia. Gracie Fields played Victoria the Lancashire parlour maid who stepped into the breach at the last minute to serve the meal for the Banktops and their guests, the Gullivers. She cut through all the pretence with her crude common sense. Archie Pitt had played the harassed husband in that sketch, and in the next, ‘A Cute Little Flat’, he was a sailor, a favourite character of his in his shows, in a hackneyed hired furniture and honeymoon couple sketch that had been seen in many variations in many other shows. Not so hackneyed was ‘The Village Schoolroom’ where he played the carpenter and Gracie Fields the cleaner who believed she could play the harmonium and sing. Unfortunately, her musical accomplishments were limited, but in sublime ecstasy she played and sang a few bars of ‘Where are you now?’ and afterwards joined in the Village Male Quartet.
The item ‘Local Colour’ was in sharp contrast to the level of gaiety that ran through the entire show. It enabled Gracie Fields to show her acting, and more specifically, emotional acting ability. The piece was a melodramatic playlet in which she, as an East End girl, had fallen in love with the family’s lodger. However, the lodger was only pretending to be down and out for he was a dramatist researching local colour for his new play. It was a moving and pathetic little study by Miss Fields. Emotion of a different sort was seen in her rendering of ‘Sonnie Boy’ which was far from the pathetic little study that many singers had made it. She sang it straight, but with just a slight exaggeration of the sob in the voice, to an imaginary child for whom she wiped away a tear, and, at the curtain, kicked and sent flying into the wings. The show was such a huge success in Southampton that Archie Pitt would bring it back for a further week before its London transfer.
14th January 1929 – for six days – THE WHITE CAMELIA
The opening of “The White Camellia” was ahead of a short West End run at Dalys Theatre. The show was written by Laura Leycester and the music composed by Pat Thayer and starred Harry Welchman and Australian leading lady Dorothy Brunton. The plot was standard Ruritanian and conceived to give Harry Welchman the maximum opportunity of being dashing and singing virile numbers. It was not a success with the public nor the critics. A surprise as Welchman had already achieved two substantial successes at Dalys, ‘Sybil’, and ‘The Lady of the Rose’, which, as The Times put it; ‘contained a famous duet in which Welchman tried without success to storm the affections of the heroine, played by Miss Phyllis Dare.’ In 1925 he made his Broadway debut as Rudolph Rassendyll in ‘Princess Flavia’. He had a greater success in a string of West End operetta-style musical hits, playing leading man roles. These included the Red Shadow in ‘The Desert Song’ (1927), which ran at Drury Lane for more than 400 performances; in ‘The New Moon’ (1929) at the same theatre.
21st January 1929 – for six days – GOOD NEWS
Bobby Jarvis and Goodie Montgomerie opened in “Good News”, a musical with a book by Laurence Schwab and B.G. DeSylva, lyrics by DeSylva and Lew Brown, and music by Ray Henderson. The story is set in the Roaring Twenties at Tait College, where football star Tom Marlowe falls in love with studious Connie Lane, who is tutoring him so he can pass astronomy and be eligible to play in the big game. One of the hit songs from the show is ‘The Best Things In Life Are Free’. The show opened on Broadway in 1927, the same year as Show Boat, but though its plot was decidedly old-fashioned in comparison to Show Boat’s daring storyline, it was also a hit. It had been the first Broadway show to play the West End’s Carlton Theatre in 1928 where it played 132 performances before setting off on tour.
28th January 1929 – for six days – SO THIS IS LOVE
So This Is Love, a two act musical written by Stanley Lupino and Arthur Rigby which ran for 8 months at London’s Winter Gardens, closing on Saturday 26th January and opened in Southampton on the Monday 28th, 1929. It starred Guy Payne and Laddie Cliff who was a British writer, choreographer, dancer, actor, producer and director of comedy and musical theatre and film, who had a long association with Stanley Lupino. He was noted for his versatility. His many London West End theatre appearances and films. The music was by “Hal Brody”, which was a pseudonym for a mixture of four British writers, mostly H.B. Hedley and Jack Strachey, on the assumption that only “American music” was likely to draw in the public. It enjoyed a good run, and became a kind of model for several similar song-dance-jokes-and story shows over the next few years.
One hard-nosed reviewer wrote “There is so much hard talent, so much sheer fun in this vivacious entertainment that it would be absurd to examine its texture too closely. The innocent intrigues, the wild extravaganzas are a mere convention that serves to temper the hectic pace and give the dancers breathers. When the chorus is not carrying out its massed manoeuvres or the principals dazzling us with pas de deux, out pops that prime comedian Laddie Cliff to make the ridiculous sublime’.
4th February 1929 – for six days – BRITISH NATIONAL OPERA
February 4th, 1929 saw the Southampton debut of British National Opera, its first and last visit to the town. The company presented opera in English in London and on tour in the British provinces between 1922 and 1929. It was founded in December 1921 by singers and instrumentalists from Sir Thomas Beecham’s Beecham Opera Company, which was disbanded when financial problems over buying The Bedford Estate forced Beecham to withdraw from the music scene for a short period. The new company bought the entire assets of the Beecham company, comprising the scenery, costumes, scores, instruments and performing rights for 48 operas. The company was short of money throughout its existence, and the resumption of international opera seasons at Covent Garden deprived the BNOC of its lucrative London seasons, which in the first years had subsidised its provincial tours. The company ceased to exist in 1929 following a tax demand, which forced it to go into voluntary liquidation. The company effectively re-formed as the Covent Garden English Opera Company in September 1929, with Barbirolli as its musical director, and continued under that name until 1938. The programme comprised Wagner’s “Lohengrin”, Rossini’s “Barber Of Seville”, Puccini’s “La Boheme”, Verdi’s “Aida”, Bizet’s “Carmen”, Wagner’s “Mastersingers”, Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” and Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”.
11th February 1929 – for 2 weeks – MERRY MERRY
Peggy O’Neill’s first visit to the Empire was on 11th February, 1929 when she starred in the World Premiere of “Merry Merry” alongside Bill Berry and A W Bascombe, which ran for two weeks before it moved into London’s Carlton on 28th February with a transfer to the Lyceum where it ran until 22nd June. The musical by Clayton and Waller was based on a Broadway show of little consequence with a complete new score and choreography by Ralph Reader. By today’s standards it would seem extravagant as it had a chorus line of 30 and an orchestra of 27.
The storyline is of a middle-aged noodle named Henry Penwell who is sued for £5,000, accused of breaking the rib of Sadie la Salle, a musical comedy star. The injury is said to have occurred when he squeezed her too tight whilst driving her home after the show one night. This is a put-up job, organised by Jimmie Diggs, a Press agent, who needs his share of the money to marry his girlfriend, Conchita Murphy. Sadie persuades her friend, Eve Walters to impersonate her injured self, and this raises much jealousy from Adam Winslow (Eve’s lover) and Stephen Brewster (Sadie’s possessive boyfriend). At the time it was considered “first rate entertainment of its kind”. Peggy would be back at the Empire as a dramatic actress in 1930.
25th February 1929 – CHARVARIA
Not all Revues became huge successes; one such early show opened at Southampton’s Empire on 25th February 1929, “Charivaria” had opened the previous week in Southsea at the Kings. It was produced by Melville Gideon Ltd., and was billed as ‘a musical pleasantry’. When it arrived in London two months later at the Vaudeville Theatre it had become “Coo-ee!”, and was promoted as a Revue – it was now presented by J C Williamson Ltd.
The original title and billing for the show indicated a medley of sounds, presumably those of musical instruments with voices, however, “Charivaria” contained many sketches and was not over burdened with songs. The writers, Lauri Wylie, Harold Simpson and Morris Harvey were all expert revue contributors and it was not surprising to see skits and sketches taking a prime place. Melville Gideon, who was one of the original four stars, co-wrote the music. He had returned from the United States where he had spent much of his time since he left “The Co-Optimists”. He had produced a revue using much of his old Co-Optimists material called ‘The Optimists’ which had been seen at the Casino de Paris in New York in February 1928 but had only run 24 performances. Gideon appeared in that production, as did Eleanor Powell in her first Broadway show and before her Hollywood career had started.
When “Coo-ee!” started its life it was an odd mix of concert party and revue, however it missed the ensemble gaiety of the former and the liveliness and settings of the latter. There was no chorus and few sets. The mix never really altered but the programme changed towards the revue format and had the added value of ‘Girls’. The cast remained more or less in tact with the exception of Melville Gideon who had left and Stanley Holloway who came in. The other leads were Billy Bennett, who had done well the previous year in “Will ‘O the Whispers”, and Claude Hulbert in his first revue for almost a decade. With three male leads there had to be a charismatic leading lady and that was the case with Dorothy Dickson who had become an important star since her introduction to England in 1921 in Cochran’s London, Paris, and New York.
“Coo-ee!” had much burlesque and a trifle of satire. The cleverest sequence was ‘The Balcony Girl’ a mini musical comedy of the Clayton and Waller genre based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It took the great play’s basic plot with hints of Virginia, the latest Clayton and Waller success in London that was full of scenic and modern musical comedy effects. Billy Bennett played the modern Romeo with his own added lines and Dorothy Dickson his Juliet in a characterisation of Emma Haig the star of Virginia. It was a lively little skit of the popular Americanisation of the musical with satirical touches such as the continuous inconsequent song plugging so often seen in a show to make a song a ‘hit’. There was a less extravagant, but equally knowing, comment on the day in ‘The Un-Blue Lagoon’ which was also the title of the song that Dorothy Dickson sang. It was delightful little interlude that showed Miss Dickson as a ship-wrecked vamp with only the ‘proper’ Claude Hulbert as a companion on the desert island. It was a satirical glance at suburban standards of decorum and chivalry.
‘Fairy Tales for Grown Ups’ was a three section piece showing an adult slant to children’s stories. The first had the three bears as landed gentry with Sir Fuller Growles learning of his wife’s elopement. The classic question ‘who’s been sleeping in my bed?’ took on a whole new meaning. Sleeping Beauty was found under anaesthetic in a Dentist’s chair and little Red Riding Hood discovered an elegant, if tipsy, gentleman occupying Grannie’s bed. Another sequence showed how Jolson’s ‘Sonny Boy’ affected different couple’s lives – a clever way at poking fun at both the song and the film. Further fun was made at medical examinations in ‘Getting Insured’, a sketch built around the talents of Billy Bennett, and ‘Present Day Courtship’ which had the actions but only one word spoken. ‘Four Little Ballet Girls’ had Reginald Palmer telling of how the girls danced through life in a picturesque simple little ballet.
One of The Green Room Rags had been the original showcase for a sketch entitled ‘Work Tea’ by Austin Melford. It was added to the London production and gave the males the opportunity to don female attire. The hostess of the tea party discovered that her knitting was behind the times as her modern lady guests had taken up carpentry, shoemaking and chimney sweeping.
Billy Bennett had his solo spot for his ‘Almost a Gentleman’ turn and gave a series of farewell addresses on the rapidly changing conditions of modern transport through the eyes of an old time Cabbie, a driver of a broken down taxi and a pilot. And, there was a different type of romantic duet with Dorothy Dickson in ‘The cabbage and the rose’ set in a garden plot. Dorothy Dickson danced with her expected style and grace as shown in a number with Stanley Holloway and Charles (called Chas out-of-town) Collins called ‘Mia Bella Rosa’. Stanley Holloway, accompanied by Wolseley Charles, had a solo spot which included his very own ‘Sam’, a monologue he had written the year before and which was proving a success whenever he performed it. This was its West End premier. Claude Hulbert showed his comical footwork and his comical silly ass acting in the sketches – type casting that took him through both his stage and film career with a great deal of success.
“Coo-ee!” was greeted as ‘a fairly bright and amusing after-dinner entertainment’ (The Stage) and ‘a light and amusing and quite unpretentious entertainment’ (The Era). The Times compared it to an end-of-pier show and only went into raptures over two unnamed (in the programme) performers. The performers were Haven and Nice who had a burlesque ballet sequence, which included a balloon dance in ballerina style – it had been a very funny sequence. “Coo-ee!” lasted two months at the Vaudeville; it had been too slight to last any longer.
4th March 1929 – LUCKY GIRL
The stage musical comedy ‘Lucky Girl’ opened for a week, setting off on its UK tour following a run at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre and transfer to London Pavilion. Written by R.P. Weston & Bert Lee with music by Phil Charig & Charles Prentice from the book by Douglas Furber. The cast featured Roy Royston, Charles Heslop and Anita Elson (pictured).
Based on Reginald Berkeley’s play “Mr Abdullah”, the impecunious King Stephen of Karasalavia and Hudson, his irresponsible young Chancellor, mistake the luxurious country mansion of the Duke and Duchess of Pevensey for a shady night club. The two young men are taken for burglars and are chased around the mansion, meantime falling in love with the Duke’s daughter, Moira, and his niece, Barbara.
Listen to a selection of the music from the show – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BVvM2tNVlUA
11th March 1929 – LOVE LIES
This new musical played Southampton for one week (6 days) ahead of its opening at the Gaiety Theatre in London where it ran for 347 performances. With music by Hal Brody, lyrics from Desmond Carter and additional songs by Da Sylva, Henderson & Brown, Billy Mayerl, Frank Eyton & Leslie Sarony. The book was by the star of the show Stanley Lupino & Arthur Rigby who also directed the musical.
The impressive cast included Laddie Cliff, Stanley Lupino, Connie Emerald, Harry Wotton and Stuart Mellor. The musical included these original songs: I Lift Up My Finger, I’m on the Crest of a Wave, So This is Love, A House on a Hill Top, After the Girl, You’ve Made a Difference to Me, Runaway Girl, You Will Love Me
The plot is about Rolly Ryder, who runs an art school in Torquay, and just married Joyce even though his Uncle Nicholas in Australia has written his firm opposition. Rolly’s friend Jerry Walker similarly has a distant uncle, Uncle Cyrus, in South America – but in this case the uncle is urging his nephew to find a girl, get married and settle down. A third friend, Jack Stanton, has fallen in love with Valerie St Clair, but since she is so far above him, he has pretended to be a Lord Luston – picking the name out of thin air. Naturally both Uncles and the real Lord Luston turn up unannounced, and many complications ensure, involving knockabout farce and even crossdressing.
Click here -> Pathe have captured these scenes from the production
A non-musical film version was made in 1931 starring Stanley Lupino
18th March 1929 – HIT THE DECK
A large scale American musical by Herbert Fields and Vincent Youmans moved into the Empire following a run of almost a year at London’s Hippodrome. It was ahead of its time and set the scene for some of the great Hollywood musicals of the 40s. The thin storyline centres around Looloo, played by Frankie Seymour, who runs a club which is frequented with Royal Navy sailors on shore leave, including officers. Two officers, accompany a wealthy socialite, Mrs. Payne, to the establishment. Mrs. Payne (Cavenda Stainslaw, established performer in both the West End and on Broadway)) is an heiress, and when she engages in conversation with Looloo, she expresses admiration for the necklace Looloo is wearing. She offers to purchase it for a substantial sum, but it is a family heirloom and Looloo refuses. Later, two sailors arrive at the diner, on is looking for Lavinia. His sweetheart who has run away. The other is smitten with Looloo, and begins to romance her. Opening up to her, he reveals his desire to become the captain of his own ship after he leaves the navy. Before things go too far, he is dragged back to his ship, which is scheduled to set sail. Based on her conversation, Looloo decides to sell her necklace to Mrs. Payne, in order to get the funds necessary to buy a ship for the sailor. When the ship docks once again, the two are re-united, and he proposes to Looloo, who happily accepts. However, when she tells him about the money, and the plans she’s made to help him buy his own ship, his pride makes him indignant and he storms off. However, he later returns and the two agree to marry. Easily remembered songs including two huge, all time, hits ‘Sometimes I’m Happy (Sometimes I’m Blue)’ and ‘Sing Hallelujah’ are a feature of this all singing, all dancing musical.
‘Sing Hallelujah’ as featured in the 1955 film remake – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hRkL7CLoY48
‘Sometimes I’m Happy’ – from the 1955 film remake – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YVojJbRnosQ&list=RDYVojJbRnosQ&start_radio=1
25th March 1929 – The Vagabond King
THE VAGABOND KING – Derek Oldham and Winne Melville returned to the Empire for the week of March 25th, 1929 in another of Rudolf Friml’s musical pieces “The Vagabond King”. This was a return to the show for them as they had appeared in the show some 480 times in the West End run at the Winter Gardens. They weren’t originally lined up for this initial British tour but with their run in “Winona” beginning and ending at the Empire they were more than happy to return to this mammoth hit show. It tells the story of Francois Villon – poet, braggart, thief and darling of the Paris rabble – who has been sending anonymous love poems to the King’s intended bride, Katherine de Vaucelles. Intrigued by this unknown admirer, she arranges a secret rendezvous, but is followed by the disguised King, who is furious to hear Villon mocking the failures of his reign and saying what he would do instead “if I were king.” The king threatens Villon with death for his treachery, but says the death sentence will be delayed for 24 hours so that Villon can have all the powers of a King, command the army and free Paris according to his boast. If he fails, he will be hanged, if he succeeds, he will be exiled. He emerges victorious, and the king decides to reward him with his life in exile but taking Katherine with him as his wife. In Southampton and throughout its tour “The Vagabond King” repeated its Broadway and West End successes.