Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Truth About Booth

Agnes Booth, that is.

Last night, I was … as is my wont … researching in ancient texts, trying to track down the history of a burlesque blonde who went by the name of ‘Belle Land’. A very minor character in the world of the theatre, but sometime a member of Lydia Thompson’s celebrated ‘British Blondes’.
Which may well be the subject of my next book.

Well, I got more than I bargained for. For, to cut the shaggy edges off the tale, Belle turned out to be a sister to someone who was indeed celebrated in the Victorian theatre world: ‘Agnes Land’ by any other name, who made a fine career on the American stage under the surname of her second husband, the well-known actor Junius Brutus Booth.

So, I thought, where one finds little Agnes one should find little Belle, so with the skilled aid of my friend Allister, of Melbourne, Vic, I went a-looking. Why Allister? Because Agnes always said she was born in Sydney, Australia. Why do I say ‘said’? Because doubt has been thrown upon the fact, notably by Mr Pat N Ryan in a book on Notable American Women and therefrom delicately compounded on wikipedia. Et al.

Now, theatrical personalities of the Victorian age, like those of today, were inclined to invent histories for themselves, so I was pleasantly surprised to find Agnes being (as it turned out) fairly accurate. [Marian] Agnes Land Rookes, was recorded as the daughter of one John Land Rookes of Powderham, Devon (x 19 November 1814) and his wife Sophia Keeble Salter (b London 20 October 1811), and at least the third child from the marriage (Bristol 28 February 1837), after sisters Fanny Eliza (x 28 December 1838) and Isabel (1840). But I do wonder…

Now we get to the biographists and their fictions. Agnes is said to be the daughter of an army man, born during his posting in Australia. Bunkum. Rookes never left England. And Captain? Hah. He was a lawyer’s clerk until he became a ‘gentleman’. Much nearer to fact is the tale that Sarah emigrated in 1843 with her parents and Agnes’s older sister, and that Rookes died before he could join them. Yes, Sarah and Richard and Rebekah Salter did emigrate, with her two older daughters, as above, and her third daughter was apparently born in October of that year. Australian records are hard to trace at this time. That one is still to be proven.

But nobody died. The pregnant Sarah and her family were walking out on Mr Rookes and getting away to the other side of the world. I wonder why. Something to do with the paternity of daughter no 3? Anyway John Rookes remarried (!), and had a sheaf of other children before his death in 1867 (20 May), while Sophia changed her life drastically, also remarried, had no more children and launched what I presume was a new career.

It is a puzzlement to me that I can find none of these people in the 1841 census. Nor any record of the family’s arrival in Australia. However, I spot ‘Richard Salter of Sydney’ fined for skipping jury duty in 1844, and ‘Richard Salter, grocer’ going bankrupt in 1847. And Richard Salter (aged 70) of 26 Union Street ‘many years the confidential clerk to Mr J G Waller wine merchant’ dying in the same city in June 1854.
Sarah shows up in 1848, marrying the widowed (?) son of the respected Major Charles Thomas Smeathman, Mr Henry Osborne Green Smeathman ‘gentleman’. And clerk. And then in 1852 … on the stage ‘after an absence of four years’! So what was calling herself on the stage in the 1840s?
And is she the Mrs H Smeathman who is running Parker’s Family Hotel up till October 1855?

The disbelieving Mr McKay says he can see no sign of Agnes on the colonial stage. Well, he didn’t look very hard. In March 1856, ‘Miss Marian Agnes’ can be seen, alongside mother, in Azael at the Royal Victoria. At the Lyceum, in 1856, we have Mrs Smeathman, Miss I Smeathman and Miss Agness. In 1857, mother is managing a troupe featuring both daughters at the Queen’s in Maitland where ‘the dramatic performances will be frequently diversified by singing, [and] by the dancing of Miss Agness’ (French hornpipe), Mrs, Bella and Aggie (sic) are subsequently at the Theatre Royal, Castlemaine, and then at Hobart (‘Miss Agnes Smeathman made her debut between the pieces in ‘a National Dance’). Agnes – from the start, the attraction of the family – then became a fixture at Sydney’s Royal Victoria Theatre, until on 5 November 1858 she took one last Benefit, and she and Bella sailed for California and what would indeed turn out to be fame and fortune.

The San Francisco shiplists confirm the arrival, in February 1859, of the William Kirschner from Newcastle, bearing, in cabin class, Mrs Smeathman and Misses Elizabeth (oops) and Agnes Smeathman. Step-papa must have joined them later. And the biogger who assures us that the girls made their debut dancing at Maguire’s Opera House in 1858 clearly got his dates wrong.

Between Newcastle and California the Misses Smeathman had, however, had a name change. They had become the Misses Land. I would guess that it is Agnes (‘Miss Land’) playing the title-role in the pantomime Don Juan opposite Sydney’s Andrew Torning, and Laurette to his Jocko, in October 1859, dancing in The Naiad Queen at Christmas and then, as Miss A Land, playing with the Nelson Family in Captain Charlotte. Miss I Land starts to appear on bills in April 1860, but in a more modest capacity.

Agnes Booth
Agnes was on a fast track upwards. She rose to leading lady status, married (11 February 1861) – in spite of shriek of ‘prior claim’ from Milwaukee -- the ‘famous English actor’ (he was neither) Harry A Green, who died soon after (22 January 1862), and then his colleague J B Booth … and the rest is history.
Belle stumbled. When the girls came to California they took lodgings in a boarding house run by one Mrs Sarah Coles. They can be seen there in the 1860s census. Mama and step-papa were living elsewhere. Anyway, Belle attracted the attention of a well-off local (married) businessman, Charles Hosmer (1815-1889), and the result was a small Nellie (1864) and a small George (1866). Belle’s career in the theatre trickled on fairly unenthusiastically until both it and she died. Unnoticed.

Belle Land
As for the Smeathmans … papa actually got the best final notices of all. He switched from being a clerk to being a cleric and as the Rev H O G Smeathman set forth to proselytise the Navajo Indians. But the Navajo didn’t wish to be proselytised and, one fine day in 1864, they put a terminal bullet through the Revs head.

Sarah ended her days living in Manchester, Mass, with the Booths, and died there in 1890, while Fanny (Mrs J Fred J Lincker) stayed to the end in Australia where she died 1 October 1906. Agnes outlasted them all.

So there we are. Most of the tops and tails of the tales of the Rookes girls: one who became famous, one who had a long and comfy Australian life, and one who sinned and suffered. But who strutted her stuff, nevertheless, as a ‘British Blonde’.

Thursday, July 20, 2017


·     .

·         I live on top of a lovely hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Opposite me is a green, bird-filled cliff-top park, which I have to cross to get to the steep slope leading down to ‘the flat’ where most of the shops arein this day and age.

·       The other night we had a storm. The loudest, strongest tropical storm I have ever experienced. The noise of it actually knocked me to my knees as I raced to shut the front door. But in fifteen minutes it was past … leaving wrecked telephone and internet facilities in its wake.

·       Come the morning, I stepped out into the white sunshine, off to do my shopping. Everything was washed spotlessly clean. And there, on the park railings, was a pair of ladies’ shoes. Not jandals or beach shoes, proper extremely-high-heeled slippers … Odd. Had someone gone for an early morning bathe in everything but her footwear? Oh well.

·       Next morning they were still there. I couldn’t see a suicidal Cinderella floating in the ocean … Odd.
     Next morning they were still there. They clearly weren’t going to go away. A fat female person of daunting aspect walked by: ‘They yours?’. Cheeky tart. Imagine me in silver slippers with the heel five inches higher than the toes. I, who can barely walk in sandals!

·       Finally, today, I brought them home. I don’t know why, they just looked so dramatically silly there. No, I’m not going round all the size 10 damsels in Yamba looking for one who fits … by of Cinderella likes to send a pumpkin with four white horses this way, she can have her shoes back.

Monday, July 10, 2017


I’m cleaning out. One does after age 70.Who is going to want all those musical-theatre birth and death certificates ... hundreds, from all round the world … they cost me a heap, but had to be had, for the ENCYCLOPAEDIA. And now?
Who is going to want a vast set of Viennese operetta Theaterzettel? And who … omigosh, this….

A folder of letters and autograph documents … From Robert Planquette to Tim Rice and John Hollingshead, and … Hyacinthe to Guy Bolton to Anna Neagle, Lillian Gish and Boo Laye ... who all three sat together on our couch and I didn’t take a photograph! Ivan Caryll, Louis Alter, Pradeau, Percy Greenbank … How did I get these? The old ones: flea-markets, mostly.

When we lived in St Paul de Vence, Ian and I took a weekly bus jaunt down to Nice for a stroll through the splendid Monday flea-market and lunch at the wonderful Acchiardo restaurant (about an undevalued pound a head … delicious!). Ian searched for musical theatre recordings, I searched for simply anything paper-made to do with my subject. Programmes, sheet music, ephemera. I remember I got the complete works of Meilhac and Halevy in umpteen volumes for about 30 quid. And amongst a folder of junky old stuff I found a selection of letters. Pradeau, Hyacinthe, Julia Baron … well, who apart from myself would, in the 1980s, have known even who they were. A few francs apiece. Bought them. Now that I know so much more, decades later, I’m sure that I left some 1860s treasures behind.

Julia Baron. Just a name. All I knew was the she had created the role of Dindonette in Hervé’s L’Oeil Crevé. And this was a simple note, arranging a rehearsal. But 6 francs ..? So I bought it, and it has sat on a shelf, with the others, for 30 years. But today a photo of said lady surfaced on my radar. Hmm. Luscious lady. So I got fascinated, and thought I’d research a little.

I didn’t find anything about her birth and early life. I can’t believe one would choose ‘Baron’ as a stage name, given that there was a dynasty of Barons in the French theatre ... but anyway French encyclopedias skip around that and just say born c1836. And what emerges thereafter falls into three categories. (1) Her huge success as Dindonette (2) her renunciation of opéra-bouffe for the comedy of the Palais-Royal and (3) her colourful side career as one of Paris’s top courtesans. She was following in the footsteps of the three-years-older Hortense Schneider (of whom she was touted as the ‘successor’) not only as performer on the stage but as a performer off the stage.

Hortense Schneider
Her career ON the stage can be summed up pretty briefly. It was almost entirely successful.  She began small. At the Bouffes-Parisiens, it seems. (Not Italy as one source says: that was Clara Baron). Until Hervé took a fancy to her and hired her for a featured role in his 1865 remake of the famous féerie La Biche au bois for Marc Fournier at the Porte Saint-Martin. Hervé himself played the Prince, house star dancer Mariquita was Robin, and Julia was voted ‘ravissante’ in the saucy part of Giroflée. The show ran an entire year.

From there, Julia returned to the Bouffes, where she can be seen as Juno in the famous Cora Pearl (for 12 nights) edition of Orphée aux enfers. ‘Elle est bien la reine d’Olympe’ sighed the press. But one or two saw past the beauteous face and deliciously plumpish form and decided ‘Julia Baron avec sa voix ferme et mordante, son jeu vif et intelligent, avait mis le rôle de Junon au premier plan’.

But Hervé wasn’t about to let his star go. When his new crazy opéra super bouffe L’Oeil Crevé  was staged at the Folies-Dramatiques he imported Mlle Baron from the Bouffes to star as Dindonette. She rocked Paris. ‘Jamais Hervé ne trouva interprète aussi parfaite pour le rôle ultra fantaisiste de Fleur de Noblesse’ elle ‘fit courir tout Paris’, ‘Mlle Julia Baron avait assumé une grande responsabilité dans l'Oeil creve et, rendons-lui justice, avait obtenu une grande part du succès…’

The newspapers, which had but little featured Julia’s high-society sex life alongside more starry others of her ilk, such as Schneider and Léa Silly, moved, now that she was a star, into full flight. An Englishman, it was reported, had asked her to ‘make him happy’ and she had responded ‘on the 100th night of the run’. The journalist continued: L’Oeil crevé has just passed its 300th night, so we suppose he has been ‘made happy’ three times.

Her name was linked with a ‘gold refiner’ who was said to have bought her a house, with the libertine Saint-Cère, with Prince Anatole Demidoff, whom she allegedly shared with her understudy Mathilde Lasseny, although his children were by a third actress-singer Céline Montaland …  she was listed prominently in Arsène Houssaye’s piece on Les Courtisanes, and followed only Cora Pearl and Giulia Barucci in a colourful list entitled Les Highlifeurs in 1868. One paper dismissed the whole bunch as ‘cocottes’, not to be compared with grand ‘courtisanes’ of earlier times, but they seem to have done their job effectively enough. Another, more susceptible, spent half a page comparing the off-stage talents of Baron and Lasseny. Julia came out as ‘classier’.

Mathilde Lasseny
But she was top of another list too. No-one, insisted the press, time and again, could play and sing the crazy works of Hervé with such verve and ease and effect as could the delicious Julia Baron.

But she threw it in. Hervé had written the role of Frédégonde in Chilpéric for her, the Folies-Dramatiques had scheduled her for Le Canard à Trois becs (both to turn out huge hits), but Julia walked, and followed where the older Schneider had led to the Palais Royal. She would stay there for the six years of her career remaining. She sang Métella and later la Baronne in La Vie parisienne, Schneider’s role in Les Diables roses, created the part of Castagnette in the international hit Le Carnaval d’un merle blanc (Nemesis) and in 1871 starred in the premiere of an even bigger hit as Fanny ‘Bombance’ in Tricoche et Cacolet. Engaged for three years at the Palais Royal, she remained for five, after which….

It is said she went to Russia. For the second time, she had cut in the blossom a major career…

Marie Cico
I don’t know what became of her. Neither, seemingly, did the French press. But as her fellow highlifeurs and good-time-girls — Marie Cico, Blanche d’Antigny et al --  bade their lives and their diamonds farewell ‘before their first wrinkle’, Julia was quoted as being still alive. When L’Oeil crevé was revived in 1882 the Dindonette was slated and a reviewer remembered:  ‘Je revois encore cette gaie, grosse, grasse, blonde et rose Julia Baron avec ses belles lèvres rouges et rieuses dans son joli visage...'.

I really hope she lived long and happily. I think the French knew. They just didn’t tell. Schneider is said to have outlived her. Me, I just wonder what Julia Baron might have been and done in Schneider’s celebrated original roles had she been in the right place at the right time. Well, we’ll never know.

But, as one writer said of her ‘elle avait l’eloquence de la chair’.  She simply oozed sex.

So that little 6-franc page of paper from les Puces in Nice has quite a story behind it. I have a letter from a nineteenth-century Parisian … cocotte?

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Magic of the Minstrels

 A seventy-one year old man, a little crippled these days, lying in the too-scorching sun by the Australian seaside, reading a book which arrived in a neat brown package this morning. With a wee lump in his throat.

It’s a biography. A twentieth-century biography. A twentieth-century show-business biography. The sort of thing I usually skim through in a short afternoon. And here it is, cocktail time, and I’m only up to page 93 of a whopping 450. Why?

Several reasons.

This is the sort of biography I like. Chuckle. The sort of biography I write. Not all jolly theatrical anecdotes and dubious stories, and bother the facts, but a real piece of history, freely-told non-fiction for the generations to come. The author even goes as far as to debunk some of the publicity stories surrounding … oh, did I say the biographee is the great George Mitchell, the inventor and soul of the show known for decades last century as The Black and White Minstrel Show. The most popular light entertainment show of British stage and screen of its time, winner of the Golden Rose of Montreux …

Oh well, I might as well fess up. For just a twelvemonth the very young Kurt Gänzl was an insignificant member of the chorus in the Minstrels. I was doing summer season with them at the Futurist Theatre, Scarborough, when whatshisname walked on the moon, and then opened at London’s Victoria Palace in The Magic of the Minstrels for several monthsI enjoyed Scarborough a lot.

 Anyway, just to say I have a wee personal interest in this particular biography. Many of the people who parade past in its pages, I once knew. Daphne the work, Beryl the money, bald red-faced Bob the boss (who cheated on my NI), little George Inns ‘director’, antique Roy the choreographer, not to mention the performers and, of course, dear, if not frequently-seen, Mr Mitchell himself ... are not just names to me.

 But this can be a disadvantage to a writer and a reader as well as an advantage. I was there..! I’m not gaga yet! Don’t try to tell me something untrue …  Well, this author doesn’t. She avoids the undersides but tells the important parts as they were.

 Mrs Eleanor Pritchard, the writer, was she a Television Topper? She tells the tale with a lot of insights. Or is this really a compilation of George Mitchell’s writings plus interviews? Which ever it is, it comes out as a thoroughly satisfying read and a totally satisfying record of the history of the most remarkable variety show ever to come out of Great Britain.

 While I was in the show, a meagre American performer (of colour) by the name of Gloria something thought she’d get herself in the papers by (figuratively, I'm sure) chaining herself to the front of the Victoria Palace, where we were playing, and screaming ‘racist’. New word then. Well, the media always fall for a gag like that. She got her coverage. If not many more jobs. But this under-educated woman didn’t know her theatre history. And neither did the British press. The nigger minstrel show is America’s one truly special and original contribution to the world of the musical theatre. But the BBC, which shows murders, rapes, death and all its favourite perversions nightly, couldn’t take a bit of black pancake…

 And so, The Black and White Minstrels came to an end. But it will be a while before they and George Mitchell are forgotten. And this excellent book records the whole career of the man, his music and his musicians in charming detail for posterity. Bravo!

PS I appear in an anecdote on p83. And it is absolutely correct. Except that my umlaut fell off. Pfui. And, well, there was more …