R.A. Roberts, the “World’s Greatest Quick-Change Artist”

R.A. Roberts (born Richard Arthur Roberts, 1870) was an actor, impressionist, and, above all, quick-change artist — billed as the “World’s Greatest” in that line. A Liverpool native, he first achieved success in the music halls of that city before taking his act to London in the 1890s. 1903-1905 he enjoyed great success with a playlet called “Dick Turpin” (based on the life of a famous 19th century highwayman), in which he played five different characters, including two women.

Contemporary caricature of Roberts in “Dick Turpin”
The act was such a smash, he undertook a well-publicized tour of big time American vaudeville.

American Music Hall, Chicago, 1905. Note that Roberts is the headliner

While well regarded for his thespian abilities (especially his interpretations of Dickens’ characters), his act was highly physical, In a 1910 Variety interview with Sime, he spoke of the many injuries he had sustained in smashing into rubberneckers who’d snuck backstage to see how he achieved his effects (hence his later policy of permitting no one backstage). Over the years, Roberts kept increasing the number of characters he portrayed in his act, from 5 to 6 to 8 to 19. Later turns bore titles like “Ringing in the Changes”, “A Comedy of Deception”, and “Lucinda’s Elopement”. The last credit I can find for him is at the Bristol (England) U.K. in 1919. Any info about his later life (and the year of his passing) would be most appreciated!

To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.



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