Dressing Up and Making a Show

The Music Hall tradition allowed performers to truly break social conventions.

Many people associate the Music Hall Era with strict social rules and a militant adherence to conventions…

…however the audiences of the time were a lot less conservative than you might think.

It’s important to remember that the Music Hall business was a fickle and demanding one. In order to succeed in the world of the Variety show, singers and dancers had to prove that their act was truly one of a kind. Regardless of how little the audience members might be paying for their admission, it was vital that they felt they were witnessing something truly novel – something that they couldn’t see anywhere else.

Because of this appetite for the unique, the cultural tastes of a generation were warped to accept the kind of behaviour on the stage that would never be accepted outside, in the real world.

As hundreds of performers flooded the country, competing for the limelight on Britain’s Music Hall stages, the acts that made it through became more bizarre and controversial…

Max Miller

Max Miller had perhaps one of the most enduring careers of all Music Hall performers. Starting in show business relatively late in life, (at least when compared to Mrs. Sunderland!) he first took to the stage in 1926, in what was to be the waning years of the traditional Music Hall era. Miller was a motor mechanic by trade who had spent his spare time crafting the lewdest jokes the Music Hall had ever seen.

Aside from racy jokes (told from his infamous ‘Blue Book’), Miller was instantly recognisable by his brightly coloured oversized suits, diamond rings and a small white trilby hat. His role was that of a travelling salesman, using the seedy settings of pubs and boarding houses as a backdrop to his outrageous anecdotes. Despite his racy nature, Miller found himself performing at the Royal Variety Show – the only thing he changed about his performance was the colours of his suit: red, white and blue.

Vesta Tilley

Vesta Tilley (born Matilda Alice Powles in 1864) was one of the biggest crowd-pleasers of the Music Hall era. Her meticulous cross-dressing performances were loved by women and men alike. Despite her pointed impersonations of men’s attitudes, she became a fashion icon at a time when is was not socially acceptable to wear trousers – ironically it was the men of Britain who took cues from her, when it came to style.

Making her debut at the seminal Canterbury Hall at the age of 10, her performances were practiced to a tee, skewering the social attitudes and conventions of gentlemanly society. Tilley spent well over 40 years performing on the stages of London, before retiring in 1920. She’ll perhaps be remembered best as ‘England’s greatest recruiting sergeant’, inspiring thousands of men to sign up to the War effort with songs such as ‘The Army of Today’s All Right’ and ‘Six Days’ Leave’.

Dan Leno

George Galvin was born into the world of Music Hall. His parents were already successful performers in the Music Halls and encouraged him to join them at the age of 10. Although he achieved great success in the 36 years that he spent performing on the stage, Dan Leno (as he was known on stage) struggled with his happiness – perhaps a side-effect of performing daily for the majority of his life.

Towards the end of his career, pantomimes were very much Leno’s bread and butter. He’d made a name for himself stringing together a rambling comedy routine that was based on stereotypes of London characters, such as the hungry Beefeater and the gossiping shop owner. Much like Miller and Tilley, Leno’s performances were outrageous and often controversial, but his endless zeal nevertheless won the favour of the crowd. His relentless performing career, however,¬†proved to be the end of him, he died after a nervous breakdown at the age of 46.…

The Londoners That Shaped Music Hall

As with all pioneering entertainment industries, London was the first part of the country to fully embrace Music Hall.

Canterbury Hall, after 1856. From the collection of the Theatre Museum UK.

The first music hall was opened in the capital city in 1852 by Charles Morton, a pub landlord and eager investor.

He’d seen his own pubs in the city fill up with performers and had spotted the potential for money to be made. The Canterbury Tavern, London’s first ever purpose built music hall, held a capacity of 700 people. Food and drinks were served throughout the performance with entrance costing just a sixpenny (which included a refreshment).

Of course, a venue is nothing without it’s performers; the bright stars of the stage that were essentially early incarnations of the movie stars that the world adores today. With the Music Hall tradition beginning in London, it only makes sense for us to examine a handful of the homegrown talent that the city gave birth to, during this explosion of culture and bawdy sensationalism.

Marie Lloyd

No discussion of the Music Hall tradition can be begun without mentioning Marie Lloyd. Whereas Mrs. Sunderland was referred to as the ‘Queen of Song‘ by royalty, it was the paying public that gave Marie Lloyd the title of the ‘Queen of the Music Hall’. A controversial character, both on and off of the stage, Lloyd was born Matilda Alice Victoria Wood and made her professional debut when she was just fourteen years old.

Although she made her name in the Music Halls of London, Marie soon found international claim with songs such as ‘The Boy I Love Is Up In The Gallery’ and ‘Oh Mr Porter What Shall I Do’, which took her on tours to France, America and even Australia. Married three times, her relationships with men were often very public yet her dependency on alcohol was kept more private – her life was cut short at the age of 52.

Lottie Collins

Charlotte Louisa Collins had a similar early start in the world of show business, thanks to her Father who supplemented his pay as a woodworker with cash earned as an entertainer. At the age of 12, Charlotte had taken on the stage name of Lottie along with her two younger sisters, Lizzie and Marie, under the banner of The Three Sister Collins. Their skipping rope dance act was a hit with the crowds, leading her into establishing herself as a solo act just a year later.

Collins, like Lloyd, achieved considerable success overseas, which led to her taking extensive tours of the United States and picking up songs from the burgeoning vaudeville scene. Perhaps her greatest achievement will be remembered as introducing Britain to the classic Music Hall number of ‘Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay!‘, a song which she accompanied with a bawdy dance that pleased the masses so much, that she would perform the song up to five times a night at different venues.

Gus Elen

Much like other performers of the time, Ernest Augustus Elen decided to shorten his name for the stage – he also took the added step of creating a persona for the stage, assuming the role of a cockney, a stereotype that would have been instantly recognisable to the audiences of London. When Elen made the move over to America, during the English Music Hall Strike, he found less success with his act as audiences weren’t as familiar with the character.

Elen was always intent on keeping his family out of the public eye. He was married with children, but made a point to never mention them by name, fearing the voracity of the press. Unlike many of the other stars of Victorian Music Hall, Elen would go on to live a long life, eventually passing away at the age of 77.…