Bea Lillie was one of the most beloved performers in show business history, adored by both her fans and colleagues alike. She appeared at a glance to be very proper and British but could be as undignified, fun-loving and insane as the lowest of low comedians, such as Milton Berle and Bert Lahr, both of whom she worked with. A good example of this ability was her favorite stunt of gyrating her neck so that her pearls would spin round and round hula hoop style.
This very “British” British subject was actually Canadian — born in Toronto on this day in 1894. She took piano and acting lessons as a child. In 1913, she moved to England, where she made her stage debut at Chatham’s Music Hall the following year. Also in 1914 she appeared in Andre Charlot’s revue Not Likely, beginning a relationship that was to last for over a decade. In 1920 she married Sir Robert Peel, the last in a long line of Robert Peels stretching back at least as far as the time of Cromwell.
She made her triumphant return to North America with Charlot’s Revue of 1924, which played at the Times Square Theatre, as did the 1925 version. In 1927, she toured the Orpheum circuit, but was not so well received by the rubes of the American west. She debuted at the Palace the following year, and made subsequent appearances over the next few years. Her long professional relationship with Noel Coward began in 1928 with This Year of Grace, and continued with the Third Little Show, (1931), where she sang “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”.
Her entire song repertoire was comic, and her style was such that songwriters penned special material just to hear it come out of her mouth. She had much in common with her friend Fanny Brice. As with Brice, Lillie’s energy and character seemed focused on mockery of the role of the women singer – a parody of how women singers normally behave. Typical numbers included “Snoops, the Lawyer” and “There Are Faeries in the Bottom of My Garden”. In the recorded version of the last number, she would extend the songs highest note, which comes at a dramatically climactic point in each verse, a ridiculous length of time to build comic tension. There is little doubt that a variety of funny faces accompanied such moments in a Lillie performance.
When vaudeville evaporated she was big enough to star in musicals and films for the next several decades. Stage hits included Walk a Little Faster in London with Bobby Clarke in 1932, The Show’s On with Bert Lahr in 1936, a 1952 tour of An Evening with Beatrice Lillie, the 1957 revival of the Ziegfeld Follies, and High Spirits, a 1964 musical version of Coward’s Blythe Spirit. Film highlights included 1930’s Are You Here? and Thoroughly Modern Millie. She died in 1989.
Now here she is on the Ed Sullivan Show doing one of my favorite songs from her repertoire “There are Faeries at the Bottom of My Garden”
To find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc