Tessie O’Shea: The Wonder of Wales

Today we celebrate Irish-Welsh performer Tessie O’Shea (Teresa Mary O’Shea, 1912-95). By Irish-Welsh, we of course mean that her parents were Irish and she herself was born and raised in Wales, though she eventually became popular throughout the U.K. and even made a respectable dent in the U.S.

Yes, the U.S.! So first I’ll highlight a few of her American credits, for the benefit of my fellow countrymen. Already a star in her home country for several decades, she crossed the puddle in 1963 to appear in Noel Coward’s Broadway show The Girl Who Came to Supper, for which she won a Tony. This led to lots of work in American television. She was on The Ed Sullivan Show the same night as The Beatles in 1964, made appearances on the shows of Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Johnny Carson, et al, and was a regular on a short-lived CBS variety shoes called The Entertainers (1964-65) that also starred Carol Burnett, Bob Newhart, Ruth Buzzi, John Davidson, Dom Deluise, columnist Art Buchwald, and Italian-French singer Caterina Valente. She’s in the classic comedy film The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming! (1966); a 1968 TV movie version of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1968) with Jack Palance and Denholm Elliot; and the Walt Disney classic Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971). She also did 3 more Broadway shows, the last of which was Broadway Follies (1981). And she retired to Florida, where she spent her last years.

As for her first years? She began performing in British music halls (billed as “The Wonder of Wales”) from age 6, and became a British radio star from her teenage years. She was known for playing a banjolele in the style of George Formby, and was associated with the song “Two Ton Tessie from Tennessee”, which became a sort of theme song for her. For a little context: when she got a bit older, her appeal was quite a lot like that of Sophie Tucker, whom the British public also loved, an earthy working class plus-sized dame who carried a vaudeville legend with her like multi-colored armor. O’Shea was a regular on the long-running British variety show The Good Old Days (1969-76), and starred in one short-lived British sitcom As Good Cooks Go (1969-70). She was the subject of a 2011 BBC documentary called Two Ton Tessie. 

To learn more about the variety arts, including British music hall, and radio and television variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous