The Fred Karno Troupe was the pre-eminent company of British Music Hall physical comedians. Karno’s most distinguished alumni included both the man who revolutionized the art of silent comedy (Charlie Chaplin) and the man who brought its techniques farthest into the sound era (Stan Laurel). Other notables from the company included Sydney Chaplin, Eric Campbell, Albert Austin, Fred Kitchen, Billie Ritchie, Billy Armstrong, Billie Reeves, Alf Reeves (no relation), Jimmy Aubrey (whose parents Karno had earlier performed with in an acrobatic quartet), and (later) Will Hay and Sandy Powell. Outside the context of his own productions in later years he also worked with acts like the Crazy Gang, with its constituent members Nervo and Knox, Flanagan and Allen, et al. All told, in the end, an estimated 2,000 performers served time in “Fred Karno’s Army” — almost a literal army, in scale anyway.
“The Guv’nor”, as Karno was affectionately called by his colleagues, was one of the most powerful and influential figures in music hall history. Born Fredrick Westcott in 1866, he began as a circus acrobat circa 1881. The name Karno was appropriated from that of another act. Later in the decade he presented his first hit music hall sketch “Hilarity” which scored a big hit with audiences. By 1901, he had added three more sketches to the group’s repertoire, and had grown from a trio to a large troupe, which was to continue growing until he had separate companies on the road simultaneously. In the years 1904-1914, Karno’s violently comical knockabout really hit its stride with the public. Britain at that time was undergoing a modest social revolution, from an aristocracy to a more level and fluid social structure along the lines of what had been enjoyed in the United States. Karno’s rough housing scenarios usually had plots centered around trades people and working men, allowing such people in the audience to purge some of their pent up frustration at injustices in the workplace.
One of his most successful sketches was called: “Mumming Birds”. It consisted of a vaudeville show within the vaudeville show, including members of the “audience” who would be played by Karno regulars out in the house itself. The centerpiece of the routine was a “drunk” who arrived late, causing a big commotion and calling a great deal of attention to himself. The part of the drunk was first played by Billie Ritchie (who later became a silent comedy star), and then later by Billie Reeves. The Chaplin connection was not a coincidence. Charlie followed his half-brother Sydney into the troupe in 1908, and rapidly became the company’s star, playing the lead role of the drunk. His understudy, a young man named Stanley Jefferson (better known to posterity as Stan Laurel) joined in 1910.
The troupe was so successful that Karno undertook an American tour in 1910. In an attempt to calibrate for American tastes, he replaced “Mumming Birds” with “the Wow Wows”, a sketch especially conceived for Yanks, about secret societies (which were then very much in vogue among the Booboise), but the bit didn’t resonate. They switched back to “Mumming Birds”, renamed “A Night in an English Music Hall” for the sake of American audiences. They started out with six weeks on the Percy Williams circuit, then did 20 weeks with Sullivan and Considine.
Karno’s salaries were pitifully small; actors stayed with him for the prestige. In their line, Karno’s comedians were known to be the best. Karno drilled his company for several hours a day for months on end, demanding that all of his actors have total command of their bodies, much as a ballet dancer or classical musician must be absolutely tops in his craft. Every actor had to be able to play every part in the show, so that any could substitute for any other in the event of an emergency. Apart from his natural talent and grace, Chaplin owed his superiority as a slapstick film clown (with Keaton his only serious rival) to his training with Karno. Chaplin also appropriated many Karno gags and situations for his films. The 1915 Essanay short A Night in the Show is essentially Chaplin’s drunken turn from “A Night in an English Music Hall.” The Dentist and The Rink were are also very likely inspired by Karno sketches. Laurel, though not Chaplin’s equal, brought with him an indefatigable work ethic, and the technique that allowed him to always discover the funniest possible “take” for any given moment. From Karno both Chaplin and Laurel took the practice of injecting a touch of pathos into their comedy. These two most famous Karno alum went on to have nearly opposite experiences of show business success after they left the nest.
Karno continued to expand his empire over the years. He branched off into producing holiday pantos, and West End revues and musical comedies, and he purchased or invested in several music halls and other venues. His worst long-term miscalculation was his creation of a fabulous holiday resort hotel called Karsino on Tagg’s Island in Richmond-Upon-Thames, which finally succumbed to bad weather and improved transportation (which allowed Londoners to vacation farther afield at the seashore). Built in 1912, it finally went bankrupt in 1927, taking its creator down with it. Then came the Depression. Karno slowly started crawling his way back, returning to music hall with his classic sketches, and even traveling out to Hollywood to seek work from his old employees Chaplin and Laurel. After his death in 1941, his son Fred Karno Jr revived his dad’s sketches in various incarnations for about a decade.
For the last word on this inexhaustibly rewarding topic, I highly recommend David Crump’s 2021 book Fred Karno: The Legend Behind the Laughter.
To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, for more on physical comedy please see Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube