Last January 1992, the Andorra International Theatre presented “ Victorian Music Hall “. It proved to be great fun and enjoyed as much by the artists as the audience.
But why “ Music Hall “ ? There is very little “International” about this form of entertainment. Far from it. The whole style is very English, and very “ Cockney “, from the heart of London.
Most of the songs are well known to Londoners but I am sure many of them have never been heard outside. Indeed, our Musical Director, René de Knight, had never heard of most of the songs and much of the cockney words were a foreign language to him. He has now been won over and can’t wait to get cracking on the next Music Hall.
For the beginning of the Music Hall we must go back well into the last century. There were Theatres and Opera Houses in London but these drew their audiences from “ society “ and the wealthy, For those with little to spend on entertainment there were taverns or pubs, where drink was cheap, they could sing along with their friends, the popular songs of the day.
It was inevitable that in a bar full of singers, some would stand out as having bigger voices or more striking personalities. So they would call upon to lead the song or sing the verses. This soon led to “ Sing us a song, and we’ll buy the next round of drinks “, and from there it was only a small step to the singers wishing to be paid.
The Taverns prime object was to sell drink and food, and as the more they sang, the more they drank, it well worth employing the most popular singers, and the taverns were soon in competition for the star acts.
The landlord would preside over the evening himself and encourage the crowd to drink. He would introduce each of the singers and their songs and frequently threaten that the next singer would not perform until another round of drinks was ordered. This form of entertainment proved so popular that most of the taverns in London built special rooms for the purpose. These were the original “ Music Halls “. Rooms large enough to hold several hundred patrons at tables with a platform or stage at one end. By this time the landlord was so busy that e would employ someone else to run the evening. So was born the “ Chairman “. Music Hall became so popular that at the peak, about 1850, there were over five hundred such halls in London alone. However, they were not all devoted to lowbrow comic songs and melodramatic ballads. Some included more serious work including ballet and opera. Indeed the first performance in London of Gounod’s opera “ Faust “ was given at the Canterbury Arms in Westminster.
Music Hall made the stars and the Stars, in turn, made the Music Hall. So many of the great names live on in the history of entertainment. Such names as Vesta Tilly, Little Tich, Dan Leno, Marie Lloyd, and so many more. Many of them came from nowhere, achieved fame and fortune, but died young and in poverty. They had not been used to money and it went out as fast as it came in.. One of the greatest stars of that time, Marie Lloyd, died at the age of 52 with only one weeks’ salary to her name.
The Stars of the Music Hall were soon in demand at other theatres, especially for the great pantomimes at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. One thing led to another. Panto to Variety, Variety to the more modern Revue. Many of the original Music Halls became theatres including the “ Old Holborn “ which became the Holborn Empire, and the “ Old Mo “ which became the Wintergarden Theatre in Drury Lane. Incidentally this was the only theatre truly in Drury Lane. The more famous Theatre Royal has no real claim to that address as only the scenery workshops are in Drury Lane.
Not all the entertainment of the period was linked to hard drinking. The temperance movement was very strong at the time and many music halls were opened in Tea Rooms and Coffee Rooms. London’s famous Old Vic was originally the Victoria Coffee Rooms.
All this was of course long before my time, but I was brought up in the days of the “ Musical at Home “ when friends would gather to sing and play for their own entertainment, so, long before my teens I had got to know many of the comic songs of a bygone period. In the mid 1960’s when I was working for Bernard Delfont, my year was mapped out for me. I would go where I was needed. One summer it was planned that I should direct the Max Bygraves Show at Torquay before joining Michael Bentine to play a number of comic characters in his “ Square World “. However this left about three weeks at the start of the summer so I was packed off to the Wintergarden Theatre, Bournemouth, to stage a show with real old timers. It gave me the joy of working with artists who were stars when I was a child. Elsie and Doris Waters (perhaps better known as Gert and Daisy), Leslie Sarony of the double act, “ The Two Lesleys “, “ Hutch “, Leslie Hutchinson, and Billy Russell, who was best know for his character based on Bruce Bainsfather’s cartoon character, “Old Bill “. The youngster of the troupe, apart from myself, was Ben Warris from the famous double act Jewet and Warris. I had a wonderful three weeks with little to do but enjoy their company and listen to their stories of their “ Good Old Days “. That is my only claim to first hand knowledge of Music Hall but my interest has remained, and that is one reason why we will be presenting our second “ MUSIC HALL “ on December 11th, 12th, and 13th. and with the help of ourselves we will make it an even greater success.
Ron Richards 1992
First published in Inter-Comm 2-2 1992