1st April 1929 – THE DESERT SONG
THE DESERT SONG – opened at the Empire on 1st April, 1929 for a two week run following its 432 performances at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and 465 performances on Broadway. It had opened in the West End around the same time as “The Vagabond King”. On this, its first tour the stars were Alec Fraser and Herbert Cave. The musical with music by Sigmund Romberg and book & lyrics by Otto Harbach & Oscar Hammerstein II, was inspired by the 1925 uprising of the Moroccan Riffs against French Colonial rule, and by the current exploits of Lawrence of Arabia – at a time when romantic tales of Arab North Africa were popular on stage and in the silent cinema. This premiere production was very successful, and returned to the Empire for a further week on 20th January, 1930.
A selection of numbers from the show –
15th April 1929 – JACK HYLTON & HIS BAND
Britain’s top band leader, Jack Hylton brought his band to the Empire for the week of 15th April. So successful was this engagement that they were back in 1930 for the week of 9th June making their first UK appearance since completing an extensive Continental tour where the band played 35 cities on 35 consecutive nights. There was to be a third visit for the week of 5th January in 1931. Jack Hylton had set up his own band in the twenties after being fired from the band at the Queen’s Hall Even though he was not professionally trained for business, he brought his band to success even at a time when the Great Depression hit hard into the 1930s. His ensemble consisting at times of over 20 musicians, the Hylton Band quickly stood out from the rest. Unlike many other bandleaders who took up residences at nightclubs and ballrooms, Hylton often embarked on lengthy tours of England, which ultimately moulded the concept most Britons had of jazz. By the time of his first appearance at the Empire he was usually referred as the “British King of Jazz”. His bands’s line-up included some of the most skilled musicians of the time such as saxophonists E.O. Pogson and Noel “Chappie” d’Amato, trumpeter/cornetist Jack Jackson and (from 1928) singer Sam Browne, standing out especially in the 12-inch “concert arrangements”. He sold between four and five million records in 1929 (out of 50 million overall) according to the Daily Herald in 7 June 1930. In 1930, Pat O’Malley replaced Browne as Hylton’s vocalist. Hylton also became a director and major shareholder of the new Decca record label, switching from HMV in late 1931.
22nd April 1929 – SHOWBOAT
On the stage – for six days – what would become recognised as one of the most important musicals of the twentieth century arrived at the EMPIRE- SHOWBOAT.
This was the original London West End production, which opened May 3, 1928, at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and ran for 350 performances, but re-cast for the tour, the stars were Florence McHugh and William Senior, Mabel Mercer, later famed as a cabaret singer, was in the chorus. It had been anticipated that it would stay for a two week run at the Empire but it was shortened to a one week stay, just ahead of opening.
Based on Edna Ferber’s novel, this is one of the most significant musicals of them all. It is notable for its integrated plot and for being the first musical to deal with love between different races. It dealt with “real” issues – alcoholism, poverty, gambling – and integrated them into the kind of show which up to then had been a frothy, glamorous frivolous escapist form of entertainment.
Edna Ferber’s novel Show Boat, was the story about a disappearing American entertainment venue, the river showboat. Jerome Kern was impressed by the novel and, hoping to adapt it as a musical, asked the critic Alexander Woollcott to introduce him to Ferber in October 1926. Woollcott introduced them that evening during the intermission of Kern’s latest musical, Criss Cross. Ferber was at first shocked that anyone would want to adapt Show Boat as a musical. After being assured by Kern that he did not want to adapt it as the typical frivolous “girlie” show of the 1920s, she granted him and his collaborator Oscar Hammerstein II the rights to set her novel to music.
After composing most of the first-act songs, Kern and Hammerstein auditioned their material for producer Florenz Ziegfeld, thinking that he was the person to create the elaborate production they felt necessary for Ferber’s sprawling work. Ziegfeld was impressed with the show and agreed to produce it, writing the next day, ‘This is the best musical comedy I have ever been fortunate to get a hold of; I am thrilled to produce it, this show is the opportunity of my life…’ Show Boat, with its serious and dramatic nature, was considered an unusual choice for Ziegfeld, who was best known for revues such as the Ziegfeld Follies.
Though Ziegfeld anticipated opening his new theatre on Sixth Avenue with Show Boat, the epic nature of the work required an unusually long gestation period and extensive changes during out-of-town tryouts. Impatient with Kern and Hammerstein and worried about the serious tone of the musical (he strongly disliked the songs Ol’ Man River and Mis’ry’s Comin’ Around), Ziegfeld decided to open his theatre in February 1927 with Rio Rita, a musical by Kern’s collaborator Guy Bolton. When Rio Rita proved to be a success, Show Boat’s Broadway opening was delayed until Rita could be moved to another theatre.
Showboat was both a critical and commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic.
29th April 1929 – THE CHINESE BUNGALOW
on the stage – for six days – EMPIRE – the shortening of the provincial runs of Showboat meant that the theatre had a week to fill and so it was that the first drama graced the stage. THE CHINESE BUNGALOW, a 1925 play by Marion Osmond and James Corbet, based on Osmond’s 1923 novel; it is a three-act melodrama set in the Far East. It was the first time that Matheson Lang had appeared in Southampton and this was a role he had played in the 1926 film of the same name and one he would repeat in a 1930 remake, in this production he was supported by Donald Wolfit. It opened on the 29th April, transferring from a West End run at the Duke Of Yorks and tells the story of young girl Sadie all but a prisoner in the exotic Malayan retreat she shares with her Chinese financier husband, Yuan Sing, she begins a dangerous affair with nearby plantation owner Harold Marquess But when Sing discovers his wife’s betrayal, he plots to regain his honour by slowly torturing her lover to death. Matheson Lang made his stage debut in 1897. He was known for his Shakespearean roles in such plays as Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet. He also appeared in plays by Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw. Lang and his wife, actress Nelly Hutin Britton, subsequently formed their own company, which toured India, South Africa, and Australia. In 1916, Lang became one of the first major theatre stars to act on film and became one of Britain’s leading movie stars of the 1920s. He was to return to the Empire with a further three dramas.
6th May 1929 – THAT’S A GOOD GIRL
Jack Buchanan’s London Hippodrome hit, “That’s A Good Girl” came to Southampton for the week of 6th May 1929 starring Jack Buchanan straight from it’s run at London Hippodrome for 365 performances opening on March 19, 1928. Before coming out on tour with music by Joseph Meyer and Philip Charig and lyrics by Douglas Furber, Ira Gershwin, and Desmond Carter, based on Douglas Furber’s book. The show was produced, choreographed by, and starred Jack Buchanan with Elsie Randolph, Kate Cutler, and Debroy Somers and his band.
A vehicle for the English musical comedy star Jack Buchanan who, after a brief attempt to follow his late father’s profession and a failure at acting in Glasgow, came to London and became a music hall comedian under the name of Chump Buchanan. He first appeared in the West End in September 1912 in the comic opera ‘The Grass ‘ at the Apollo Theatre. Hardship dogged him for a while before he became famous whilst on tour in ‘Tonight’s the Nigh’t. He produced and acted in his own plays both in London and New York. Buchanan’s health was not robust, and, to his bitter regret, he was declared unfit for military service in the First World War. He appeared with some success in West End shows during the war, attracting favourable notices and achieved front rank stardom in André Charlot’s 1921 revue A to Z, appearing with Gertrude Lawrence. Among his numbers in the show was Ivor Novello’s ‘And Her Mother Came Too’, which became Buchanan’s signature song. The show transferred successfully to Broadway in 1924. He became famous for “the seemingly lazy but most accomplished grace with which he sang, danced, flirted and joked his way through musical shows…. The tall figure, the elegant gestures, the friendly drawling voice, the general air of having a good time.” He made his film debut in the silent cinema, in 1917 and appeared in about three dozen films in his career, the final film being ‘The French, They Are A Funny Race’ in 1955.
George and Ira attended the opening night of “That’s A Good Girl” during their extended 1928 European vacation. In his diary of the trip, Ira describes it as a “lively peppy show that’s full of laughs,” though he’s somewhat less than complimentary toward librettist/co-lyricist Douglas Furber, who “put his name (first) on 3 of my songs & will collect on them when all he did was change a few lines, not for the better either.” Though Buchanan directed a successful film version in 1933 (apparently without any of Ira’s work), “That’s A Good Girl” has never been produced in the United States.
13th May 1929 – THE YELLOW MASK
A spectacular and very funny entertainment, with the songs and music serving as a kind of add-on, opened at the Empire on 13th May, 1929, “The Yellow Mask” opened at the Carlton Theatre on 8th February, 1928 and transferred to His Majesty’s Theatre for three months (until the pre-scheduled ballet season) when it finally moved to the Palladium where it had closed in August and set out on tour in late 1928. It was based on a book by Edgar Wallace and had music by Vernon Duke with lyrics by Desmond Carter. Additional songs were added by Eric Little and Harry Acres. The stars of the show were Phyllis Dare, Norma Griffin and Margaret Gengers and it opened to very good notices.
20th May 1929 – VIRGINIA
Virginia had opened at London’s Palace on 24th October 1928 where it ran until 11th May 1929. It opened its national tour for a week’s run at Southampton’s Empire on May 20, 1929. It received good notices in spite of a number of suggestions that it was an obvious attempt to cash in on the success of “Showboat”. “Virginia” offered a similar mix of cotton field scenery, humming negroes, and the hit song “Roll Away Clouds” was sung by Walter Richardson (‘another negro baritone to reach these shores’–Stage). Adapted from the book by Herbert Clayton & Douglas Furber, the music and lyrics were provided by Jack Waller, Joseph A. Tunbridge, R.P. Weston & Bert Lee. The choreographer on the show was Ralph Reader. The production starred Cora Goffin and Arthur Riscoe. Cora Goffin was a well-known 27 year old actress having been on the stage since she was 9. She was best known for her roles in the biggest West End pantomimes where she would often play principal boy and she met her future husband Emile Littler. Her co-star in “Virginia” Arthur Riscoe was better known for his film work than his stage appearances, although he did feature in several tours of musicals. The show was a big success and returned later in the year with a change of cast this time featuring Babbet O’Neill and Carlito Ackroyd when it opened on November 25th, 1929.
27th May 1929 – THE SHOW’S THE THING
For the week of May 27th, 1929 Archie Pitt brought The Show’s The Thing, back to where it had been such a huge hit and with Gracie again leading the company. In the programme for its second week at Southampton Empire, Gracie is listed as singing ‘Painting the Clouds with Sunshine’ in Scene 1 and is given a duet dance number ‘Thank Heaven For You‘ with Monti Ryan in Act Two. The other changes were minor cast changes, and mainly a different violin solo for Tommy Fields and it remained that way until the show opened in London.
Whilst rehearsing for the London run of the show, Gracie and Archie had an argument over Gracie’s relationship with John Flanagan, as a result Gracie left the show two days before it was due to open and set off for Cannes, where Flanagan and Henry Savage were already holidaying. “I packed a small case quickly, and feeling like a criminal, I got a taxi to Victoria station and caught the boat-train for France.” When Gracie arrived at Paris, a sense of guilt overwhelmed her and she rang home. Tommy Fields was upset as it was to be his first big break in London, so she rang Archie to ask if she could return home. He replied that he had ‘Never asked to leave‘ and that she could come back if she wished. When she arrived home, Annie Lipman opened the door at Tower, greeting her with ‘I knew you’d come back.’
Gracie Fields had two solo spots, one in each act, in which she sang the songs she was busily recording such as ‘When summer in gone’, her chief straight number, ‘Ee, by gum!’, and ‘That’s what put the “sweet” in “home sweet home”. She sang the show’s title song in the finale and brought on the whole company, presumably to prove that she was not really ‘the Show’. The rest of the company had worked hard, especially Tommy Fields who was trying to independently build his own career. It had moved fast and colourfully but the material was not exceptional and without Gracie Fields it would have never been seen in the West End.
Although the show was heralded as Gracie Fields’ show by the press it was as much a showcase for her husband, who had written the book, and directed and choreographed. His impact on stage was far less than hers; he had remained an adequate comedian but he was never able to rise, on his own, to genuine star status.
3rd June 1929 – THE PLEASURE CHEST
A new revue “The Pleasure Chest” [previously titled Many Happy Returns] opened at the Empire with this last minute title change, but that was not sufficient to save this production. Even in a revue there needs to be a little fundamental brain work. This ingredient was totally missing from this show, so much so that out of its 22 scenes the most pleasing are the simple, straightforward ones and even then a period dance scene to the familiar Blue Danube is interrupted by up-to-date dance tricks and some redundant side stepping. In the little tabloid plays too much emphasis was placed on vulgarity as a substitute for true humour. The artists, including Jane Cooper, Bert Murray and Freddie Fowler worked hard to make the show attractive but unfortunately they lacked the basic material. It is no wonder that this show disappeared without trace.
10th June 1929 – THIS YEAR OF GRACE
“This Year of Grace” came to Southampton after a very successful run at the London Pavilion. It had an effective and original opening. It was set at the ticket office of a tube station. An office boy bought his ticket as the stage gradually filled with passengers buying their tickets and newspapers. All was silent except for the noise of the ticket machine and the rustle of newspapers. The boy started to whistle and slowly and almost unconsciously he set the whole company dancing, picking up the tune and singing ‘Waiting in a queue’. As the passengers left through the gates leading to the lift, two aristocratic young ladies appeared intent on using public transport for the first time. After some comical business regarding their inability to use such a simple thing as a ticket machine, the stage was set.
Although dancing was an important ingredient it was not such a feature as it had been on Cochran’s more recent productions. Comedy and burlesque were well served; the best being a ten minute piece in silent pantomime. This was in ‘The Bus Rush’, in which a lady shopper was waiting for a bus, being jostled from her place in the queue by the crowd and missing bus after bus. It ended with her getting together her torn and battered parcels and feebly hailing a taxi, the word ‘Taxi’ was the only word spoken. She had one solo number in ‘It doesn’t matter how old you are’.
Coward’s satirical look at England was most evident in his comparison between the French Lido and the English beaches. The former was drenched in beautiful sunlight and there was an open approach to life and fun to be seen while back home under dark clouds and cold winds the Victorian attitude to life was seen. It ended with a Channel swimmer leading the mothers and children in a mock patriotic number. It was a cruel satire. Coward was a little more gentle in his look at policewomen in ‘Law and Order’ with two ‘ladies of the law’ who were too rapt up in their own gossip to notice a murder taking place.
The closing number was as original as the opening. The members of the company took their bows as they passed the stage door-keeper saying ‘good night’, they were then all seen motoring home in a stage effect that had cut-out cars with blazing lights facing the audience with the company appearing to be seated and driving their vehicles.
Critical praise came from all quarters of the press. The Era described it as ‘a quickly moving, highly varied, lively and amusing, witty and gay show’. ‘A splendid show from beginning to end’ stated The Stage. It was treated with intelligence by The Times who seemed surprised to find ‘entertainment in revue’. Cochran billed it as ‘the best revue ever written’ and had already taken it to Broadway where it had opened at the Selwyn Theatre on 7 November 1928. The Times reported on the American reception pointing out that the praise contrasted it with the typical over elaborate and opulent American revue. ‘They ransacked their vocabularies for superlatives’. Not since the first Charlot revue had opened in New York had there been such a reception for an English show. These reviews preceded the Southampton opening and ensured a very healthy box office for its one week run.
17th June 1929 – THE TRUTH GAME
Ivor Novello brought his new light comedy to the Empire on June 17th 1929, “The Truth Game”, was written under the pseudonym H.E.S Davidson and played in London at the Globe in October 1928, where it enjoyed a sensational first night, and played for six months, followed by this tour before returning for another London season, this time at Daly’s. Novello was born into a musical family, and his first successes were as a songwriter. His first big hit was “Keep the Home Fires Burning” (1914), which was enormously popular during the First World War. His 1917 show, Theodore & Co, also was a wartime hit. In the 1920s, he turned to acting, first in British films and then on stage, with considerable success in both. He starred in two silent films directed by Alfred Hitchcock, The Lodger and Downhill (both 1927). On stage, he played the title character in the first London production of Liliom (1926). Novello penned a number of romantic comedies including “The Truth Game” (working title ‘Taken by Storm’) with a specific cast in mind, particularly Lily Elsie as the heroine. This was a most ambitious idea, following so closely on his involvement in a series of theatrical failures at that time culminating in Sirocco. To Novello, Elsie was glamour personified. He had first met her, at No. 10 Downing Street, when he was in the Royal Naval Air Service.
To his surprise Elsie accepted the role, by letter from Biarritz, on July 15th 1928;
I received your letter of July 3rd engaging me to play lead in your play Taken by Storm at a weekly salary of £150 (one hundred and fifty pounds) and a further increase of fifty pounds a week or 10 per cent. of the gross should the play run over three months [it did]. Rehearsals to begin as near as possible September 15th – the play produced round about October 15th. I think this covers everything but of course it is very important to get the best and most suitable theatre possible. Do remember, Ivor dear, it is an intimate play and must have a lovely intimate theatre. How thrilling now I’m, going to sign my contract with you.
And later that same day;
“Ivor my dear, here is my contract. At least it started by being my contract and then I started to talk to you in it. So like me! Just imagine this, you really engaging me as your leading lady (at least I hope I’m a lady). It is strange, Ivor darling, isn’t it? I do hope with all my heart you are going to have a grand success with it and that I shall help with you and all the others to make it so.
“It is such marvellous weather here, blazing sun and ever so hot. I’ve been feeling so rotten I don’t ever wish to eat and not sleeping well. However, it is all the result of a long, long time of worry and ghastly strain. I’m having sun baths, etc., etc., so I shall be here till August 2nd. Send me the play and part and when I feel, more like myself I’ll go through it quietly. Have you been able to get the Haymarket ? Oh, I do hope so. Do get a lovely intimate theatre darling, please. Lily Elsie.”
This production too very nearly ended in disaster. Having invested nearly £3000 in the show, advance rent for the theatre, costumes, and so on, his producer (Sir Gerald du Maurier) and principal players, (Constance Collier, Ellis Jeffreys) let him down very badly. Elsie stood by him. ‘The Truth Game’ of the title takes place at a house party in the second act and enables Max Clement, a penniless adventurer, (Novello) to reveal his feelings for Rosine Browne, a wealthy widow, (Elsie).
It ended in Southampton on the Saturday and reopened in the West End on the following Tuesday, this time at Dalys Theatre. The play, without Elsie, was then produced in New York and made into a film – twice.
24th June 1929 – BUSINESS IS BUSINESS
“Business Is Business” with Scott & Whaley, African-American music hall and radio favourites who came to Britain in 1909 and in 1934 became the first black performers to star in a British film – Kentucky Minstrels. Harry Scott and Eddie Whaley performed minstrelsy skits, donning blackface and adopting racist stereotypes. This may be surprising and shocking to us now, yet it was commonplace for black actors to wear blackface at this time. Typically, one half of the double act played the intelligent, smart ‘gentleman’, while the other wore exaggerated face paint mimicking blackface and played the ‘fool’, acting up to derogatory caricatures of African Americans that were considered popular entertainment at the time. They were one of the earliest African American performers in Britain and were credited with bringing the style and spirit of the Harlem Renaissance to London’s theatres and cabaret clubs.