Archive for panto

On the Tiller Girls: Pioneers in Precision Dance

Posted in British Music Hall, Broadway, Dance with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2017 by travsd

British music theatre director John Tiller (1854-1925) was born on June 13. While skilled and trained in music and theatre arts since childhood, Tiller initially made his fortune in the family cotton business in Manchester until circumstances permitted him to pursue his theatrical interests more seriously around 1890. At that point, Tiller began presenting pantomimes and training young girls to perform in them at the professional level. He maintained a school for young performers much akin to the one Ned Wayburn would later start in America. As an outgrowth, he appears to have been a crucial innovator in the development of precision dance.

Now, it is often claimed that Tiller was the “inventor” of precision dance, but I doubt that, since images (photos, sketches paintings) of women in dance choruses arrayed in neat lines are readily available dating from many decades earlier than this. Another influence had to have been drill teams — believe it on not, male military drill teams were also popular on variety stages in the late 19th century. At any rate, Tiller seemed to have honed and refined the practice, demanding absolute uniformity in appearance and movement, becoming an early adapter of the kick-line and the feathered headdress, and apparently inventing the useful techniques of the dancers linking arms or holding each other’s waists in order to help coordinate and steady movement. He was also a pioneer in branding and promoting. His “Tiller Girls” were booked all over the world: Paris, London and the States, were booked for Broadway revues like the Ziegfeld Follies and George White’s Scandals, and were the inspiration for the Radio City Rockettes as well as the film routines of Busby Berkley. 

Tiller himself died in 1925 but various incarnations of The Tiller Girls have persisted and thrived with great popularity down to the present day.

For more on the history of show businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever vitally informative books are sold

On the Christmas Pantomime

Posted in British Music Hall, Clown, Comedy, Drag and/or LGBT, Variety Arts (Defined) with tags , , , , , , , on December 21, 2013 by travsd

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A timely topic and one I warrant has been a source of confusion for many Americans  travelling abroad during the holidays. Pantomime is one of those theatrical terms, like burlesque, vaudeville, cabaret and many others, that possesses several forms and meanings. The kind we aim to discuss today is NOT the silent, French Marcel Marceau type. Nor is it the ancient Greco-Roman type (which I bet most of you don’t care about anyway, although I sure do!) Today we speak of the British Panto, which has long been an annual Christmas tradition in the UK, Ireland, Australia, and Canada.

As we have written about many stars of the Panto here (Joseph Grimaldi, Dan Leno, Little Tich,  the Hanlon-Lees, Lily Morris, Bert Errol, Wilkie Bard, Nellie Wallace, G.S. Melvin, Bessie Bonehill, Wee Georgie Wood, Ada Reeve, et al) we thought it high time we provided a little more detail about what it was (and is).

British Panto evolved ultimately from the commedia dell’arte, an Italian import that gave the world a rich pantheon of comical stock characters (Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon, etc etc). In England this evolved into the Harlequinade in the early 18th century, a silent form (spoken dialogue being illegal in all but a couple of licensed theatres) very much focused on a small handful of the original commedia characters, the lovers Harlequin and Columbine and their escape from Pantaloon). The Harlequinade was initially presented on a bill with such entertainments as opera and ballet.

As time wore on, the show began to incorporate magical transformations by Harlequin, in which the presentation shifted to the telling of a story from classical mythology, a fairy tale or nursery rhyme. Eventually the Harlequinade fell away completely in the 19th century, leaving only the fairy tale (Puss in Boots, Jack and the Beanstalk, etc etc). The modern Panto is very much NOT silent. But there are several other distinctive features that make the Panto a unique theatre form:

* Drag. The Panto makes much use of comedy drag in the form of the Pantomime Dame (a guy dressed as a woman), and the Principal Boy (a gal dressed as a guy)

* Audience participation. The audience is coached by the actors to shout certain traditional things, such as “He’s behind you!” when the hero doesn’t see the villain creep up.

* Double entendres. The Panto is a family entertainment as opposed to a children’s entertainment. While the kids watch the fairy tale, the actors often make downright obscene jokes, but told in an oblique way designed to go over the smaller kid’s heads.

* Panto animals. Since time immemorial, the inclusion of a couple of actors in a horse or cow costume has been de rigeur

* Celebrity guests. A feature of the modern panto, at least the big productions, is that well-known tv and movie stars will drop in and take part.

Yes, the panto continues to be a living, breathing thing. Here is a random poster for a contemporary British panto from a couple of years ago featuring one of my favorite comic performers Dame Edna:

dame edna everage dec 2011

No panto in the U.S., you ask? Well, we had very little theatre at all back when we were British colonies. There was some panto activity here in the 19th century (see my article here on George L. Fox) but it didn’t stick. But fairy tale theatre of a sort was all the rage in the late 19th/ early 20th century in the form of what were called “extravaganzas”. I’ll no doubt be treating of them in future.

For more on the variety theateconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. 

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For more slapstick and clown history don’t  miss 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

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Lily Morris

Posted in British Music Hall, Comediennes, Singers, Singing Comediennes, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2013 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Lily Morris (Lilles Mary Crosby, 1884-1952) a great singing comedienne in the English music hall who also scored big in American vaudeville. She started out in panto at age ten; and was a big star by the mid 1890s. She was known for wearing comical hats and dresses. Her signature tunes were “Why Am I Always The Bridesmaid?”, “Don’t Have Any More Mrs. Moore” (the title of which referred to alcohol), “I Don’t Want to Get Old”, “What You Gonna Do About Salena?” and “In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree”. You can see her sing in the 1930 revue film Elstree Calling (I just found a bunch of clips). This 1932 clip shows her working an audience and has a nice intro:

To find out more about vaudeville past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss 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

chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

 

Ada Reeve

Posted in British Music Hall, Singers, Singing Comediennes, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , on March 3, 2012 by travsd

This post is one in a series honoring Women’s History Month

Today is the birthday of Ada Reeve (1874-1966). Born into a London theatrical family, she began performing in the pantomime by the age of four, and from there went on to play children’s roles in melodramas, then worked up a singing and comedy act for music hall. She was a headliner by her teens, and continued to keep a hand in all three forms (panto, legit and music hall) for most of her career. In the 1890s she added the new form of musical comedy to her already impressive reume. Given the stardom she enjoyed in her home country it was inevitable that she would be invited to play American vaudeville. She toured the states several times, including 1893 (when she played Tony Pastor’s and Koster and Bials), the Keith Circuit in 1912, and again in 1925 and 1928. When live variety began to die out in the 1940s and 50s she began to work in films. She retired in 1957. A little arithmetic reveals that her career lasted 79 years.

Here is an an extremely rare record of her music hall act, from 1932:

To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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