Sunday, August 9, 2020

Billy: the far-famed Cartesian Clown

Billy has been neglected. In the 117 years since his death, his celebrity has faded. And yet, he was an actor for more than thirty years, including one with D'Oyly Carte at the Savoy and on the road, and a star comedian on four Continents for twenty of them .. 

It wasn't ever the habit of the Carte organisation to 'borrow' established stars from other areas of the theatre. Very occasionally, from Mrs Howard Paul to Florence St John, but never -- in the company's heyday -- I think, in the roles of the leading comedian. Frank Wyatt was probably the closest. But in 1897, Mr Carte hired Billy Elton. The all-dancing, all-singing, leading low comedian of the Gaiety Theatre, London, of Wallack's Theatre, New York, and of unlimited colonial stages. Billy played Baron Puck in La Grande-Duchesse and the Duke of Plaza Toro in The Gondoliers and, then, returned to musical comedy and America and farce for the final years of his career. Yes, his Savoy experience had come, unlike so many, not at the beginning of his career, but at the age of fifty, with a huge career and thousands of delighted notices behind him.

William ELTON [SHUTTLEWORTH, William John] (b Salford 1 May 1847; d Blackheath, Kent 27 January 1903) was the son of William Shuttleworth (surgeon) and his wife, Eliza Anderton née Brown. 

In the course of the his much-interviewed life and career, Billy told his career story a good number of time to the press. It wasn't always quite the same story -- a good anecdote was not to be missed -- and, obviously, the interesting bits were included to the exclusion of the less jolly -- but I have checked it all with contemporary sources and it adds up reasonably accurately. Here's one of his summaries

And another

And here's mine. Which, of course, repeats some of the above.

But, firstly, I should say that it will be, almost all, about his professional life. His personal details have been decidedly difficult to winkle out. I see him, aged 3, with his mother 'annuitant', 'visiting' in a humble home in Manchester in 1851. But the only time I see any of them again is when Billy marries. His father is not marked 'deceased' but there are no Shuttleworths at the Everton wedding ..

Adding together all the interviews, we have him starting out in 1859, and/or 'as a 9 year-old' at the Liverpool Adelphi as the Old Man of the Sea in Sinbad, and/or at the Theatre Royal Bolton, or in Hop o'my Thumb ... I know it isn't life-threatening that those don't agree, but I do like to know, so...
The minor Liverpool Adelphi Theatre did Sinbad at Christmas 1853. In 1862, they did Hop o' my Thumb and the giant ogre of the seven league boots, in which is supposed to have played Hop. Fifteen years earlier 'Tom Thumb' had played the same role on the Adelphi boards. As for Bolton, well they did Sinbad there in 1855 ... only a programme would tell us for sure. Master Shuttleworth? Master Elton?

Liverpool's Adelphi in 1863

Then the fuzzy bit: 'an orchestral player' 'actor in fit ups' 'bones in a minstrel company', 'opéra-bouffe' .. a corrorobating ancedote when he tells of being plucked from among the extras when a cornet solo was needed ... and then Roebuck. Just when, is variously dated, but he was a member of the United Services Company before Christmas 1869, after which all is clear .. Mind, you, I do see a Mr John Shuttleworth singing at the Accrington White Horse Music Hall in 1866. But also a comical 'Mr Elton' at the Britannia as early as Whitsun 1862 (The Idolators, The Perilous Pass) and for years thereafter, another (I suspect) at Scarborough with Katharine Hickson, in 1863 and 1864, playing both The Honeymoon, The Lady of Lyons, The Lottery Ticket, The Marble Heart, Still Waters Run Deep and a burlesque Hamlet and Cinderella. There is a Mr Elton singing Hecate and playing Shecabac in Bluebeard ('deserves a far better part .. sings capitally') with the Bath and Bristol company in 1864-5, and probably the same one at Rosherville and at Bolton (ha!) in 1867-8 as Sebastian in The Tempest and Lodovico in Othello, and what! Here is 'Mr Elton Grayston' playing bones in a minstrel company at York. Mr Elton as Dame Nursery in the pantomime at the Queen's, Manchester who scored by 'the frequent and rapid use of the clogs' 'to the air of 'Skedaddle': this must be he (although there's a Mr Elton also at Exeter!), as, I suspect are many or most of the others, clearly excepting the Britannia one, and the Mr Elton 'motto vocalist' and the Mr Elton ... this multiplicity may be the reason that Billy decided to become 'Mr W Elton'.

'Mr W Elton' appears to my eyes for the first time in 1869, playing the Tyrant in Little Goody Two Shoes at Cheltenham 'with his customary excellence'. He was plain 'Mr Elton', shortly before, playing Abanazar in Aladdin 'with considerable ability' and Black-Eyed Susan alongside Lottie Venne and Emma Ritta. Roebuck's company was changing its identity from its Society Amateur origins, and among the professionals engaged for the pantomime was Pietro Carle, of the well-known dancing family, as Clown. But Mons Carle fell ill, and Billy took his place. His eccentric dancing brought down the house. 

Lottie Venne and Walter Fisher, two other stars en herbe, were also in the cast, and Billy told another tale: when Lottie was unable to play Black Eyed Susan (see above), he popped on a frock and depped for her.

Roebuck's troupe occupied much of Billy's time between 1869 and 1873, but between seasons he spent time at Newcastle as first low comedian with W H Swanborough, (Kind to a Fault, Cinderella, Rob Roy, The Pretty Horsebreaker) and even in the music-hall ('a gentlemanly comic'), with the Liverpool Prince of Wales opéra-bouffe company (Vanderprout in Geneviève de Brabant, pantomime), in Elliot Galer's play Alone in the World, et maybe al. The cast at the Prince of Wales included a young lady by the name of Fanny Eliza Lewis (b St Clement Danes x 17 April 1850) who swiftly became Mrs Shuttleworth-Elton: they would have two children, after which Fanny seemingly left the theatre.

Roebuck's company played a vast repertoire of every kind of play and burlesque, and Billy not only played in Lady Audley's Secret, Griffith Gaunt, Aurora Floyd, Spanker in London Assurance, John Chedd in Society, East Lynne, Masks and Faces, Siebel in Faust and Marguerite and the ilk, on a nightly-changing basis, but used his 'wonderfully elastic powers of dancing' as the Inspector in the burlesques Don Giovanni, Dick Whittington, Brown and the Brahmins or as Don Floriono Pomponio Disraelio in The Rows of Castille in which he indulged in the currently popular politician-parody imitation. In 1870, he was Clown for Roebuck in the Bath pantomime. He finally resigned from the Roebuck company in 1873, when the Captain decided to go on an extended African tour, and instead joined Sefton Parry's troupe at Hull. The fare offered there was similar (but less hectic) to that to which he was accustomed: I see him playing in drama and also as Minerva in Ixion, doing his Disraeli in The Happy Land and playing Buttoni ('exceedingly funny') and Harlequin in Cinderella.
He played with Charles Mathews in Dublin, giving Jenny Lind at Last with Agnes Markham as a forepiece; he toured (with Fanny) with L J Sefton's troupe in Pygmalion and Galatea and The Palace of Truth, accompanied by Richelieu Re-dressed, in which, this time, he played the Cardinal as Gladstone, then settled at Sefton's Sheffield Theatre for Christmas as the King of Spades in Twinkle Twinkle Little Star ('the life and soul of the pantomime'), The Octoroon (Pete), The Ticket of Leave Man (Melter Moss) et al, until it  was time to return to Liverpool for more of the same, including a Whitsun Special of a rewritten Black Crook, in which he played Dandelione alongside operatic mezzo, Jenny Pratt ('Mdlle Prati').

Fanny having been delivered of her second child, they now decided to go back to Africa with Roebuck, whose season down there had been stretched vastly by success. Billy went down a treat (and in local theatrical history) with his performances, and it was October 1877 before they returned to Liverpool and Frank Emery's Prince of Wales Theatre (Plot and Passion). Next stop was Brighton, where Billy played Dame and Harlequin in Jack and the Beanstalk ('displayed high-class talent as a singer, comedian and dancer'), Pierre in The Two Orphans ... and was spotted by capitalist Lionel Levy, who mentioned him to his partner, John Hollingshead: as a result, Billy was hired for a three-year stint in the London Gaiety company.
He seems to have made his first appearance there, alongside Kate Lawler, in the old Middy Ashore (equipped with his hornpipe), and went on to play in such as Stage Struck ('exciting incessant merriment'), The Serious Family (Aminadab Sleek), Boulogne (Count Navariski) but, most notably, in burlesque, frequently in a team with Nellie Farren and Edward Terry (Mephistopheles in Little Doctor Faust. Tremolini in Jack the Giant Killer, Beppo in Young Fra Diavolo, Pretty Esmeralda, Rashleigh in Robbing Roy. When a vocally undercast version of Leccoq's Le Grand Casimir was staged, he played the Clown. When they visited Brighton, he starred as Conn in The Shaughraun.

He took a hitch in his Gaiety engagement, in 1880, to voyage to America as chief comedian at Wallack's Theatre. Here, it was all comedy and comedy drama -- and outstanding success. Theodore Macclesfield in The Guv'nor, Mo Jewell in The World ... The Upper Crust, Forget-me-Not, The Money Spinners, The School for Scandal (Moses), The Parvenu et al, from East Coast to West, before a quick trip home to the Gaiety, where he appeared as Ben Barnacle in Billee Taylor. He returned to Wallack's (The Queen's Shilling &c) and toured with Wallack into 1883, and then it was time for London and the Gaiety again ... Nubbles in Virginia, Barnacle in Billee Taylor, Whiskerandos in The Critic, Mr Galatea in Galatea and Pygmalion Reversed, the Shah in Camaralzaman, The Goose with the Golden Eggs, Ali Baba in The Forty Thieves, more Young Fra Diavolo, Chinkible in A Wet Day, Old Sinnery in Called There and Back. He visited the Prince's Manchester to give another Ali Baba in pantomime ...

Then, in 1885, Wallack called again, and Billy and his family were off across the Atlantic. They would be away for six years, but only the first months were spent in New York... Edward Walker in In His Power, Marplot in The Busybody, Ben Chibbles in Hoodman Blind, a repeat of his triumph in The Guv'nor .. and then, in May 1886, they arrived in San Francisco and boarded the Mariposa, direction Australia. Under contract to Williamson, Garner and Musgrove.

Unlike Wallack, Messrs W, G & M produced comic opera, so Billy put on his dancing shoes and tootled up his tenorish tones and made his first appearance in Australia an Ben Barnacle in Billee Taylor, with Alice Barnett as his Eliza, and in Joe in Charity Begins at Home. He 'carried local playgoers by storm', reported the press, 'At one point, Miss Barnett lifts the clever little man up, puts him under her arm, and walks easily off stage with him, amidst shrieks of laughter from the audience'. Billy made as big a hit in Australia as he had elsewhere, but playing now in thoroughly mainstream musical theatre -- Pataques in Pepita, Poupart in The Old Guard, Jack Point in The Yeomen of the Guard, Plaza Toro in The Gondoliers, King Gama in Princess Ida, Lurcher in Dorothy, Laurent in La Mascotte -- through Australia and New Zealand.

This is the last time I see Fanny. I can't find her death anywhere in the British records ... but I'm pretty sure she left Australia 3 October 1891 with husband and children. She has got mislaid ..

Back in London, Billy took the part of the Seneschal in The Wedding Eve at the Trafalgar Square Theatre, and when it was replaced by a revival of Dorothy, repeated his Lurcher. A third short run was that of La Rosière at the Shaftesbury, before he joined Augustus Harris at Drury Lane to play the Jew money-lender, Scasi, in A Life of Pleasure. That one was a hit, tranferring eventually to the Princess's Theatre, where it was followed by a revival of The World ...
But Billy decided to return to Australia. He bought the rights of the hit musical comedy Morocco Bound, and, with a cast including Wilfred Shine, Elsie Cameron, Nannie Harding and Aggie Kelton, produced it down under. It wasn't a total flop, but it lost money steadily as it headed doggedly round Australia. Billy ended up in court later, sued by a lady who had 'loaned' him money to keep the ship afloat. 
He took a job at the Melbourne Bijou (Esther Sandraz, The Judge, The Foundling, The Wife's Ordeal, The Thoroughbred), at the Sydney Criterion (The Guv'nor), he returned to musical comedy to play Hooley in The Shop Girl and, next, in the local musical Djin Djin ... and then he went home. 'He is resting in his cottage in Blackheath, Kent' reported the press. But rest was not for long. In February 1897, he headed back to South Africa, for Ernest Searelle. He didn't stay long, and by April he was booked to play Major Treherne in Osmond Carr's new London comic opera The Maid of Athens (3 June 1897). It ran 27 performances. Next, he gave a grand performance as Adam Pembleton in Shadows on the Blind, but it tardied coming from Liverpool to London and when it did, manager Edward Terry took to star role ..

My WC wall ...

And then someone thought to hire him for the Savoy. So, 4 December 1897, Billy became a Cartesian. The wonder is that nobody had thought of 'the gentlemanly comic' with his superior dance skills before. If the Act I finale from the original Grande-Duchesse were retained ... was it? Billy Elton (Baron Puck) in a can-can ...! He followed up by repeating his Plaza Toro ... but he didn't stay. I see him next witnessing daughter Fanny Eliza's marriage (1898), taking over from John Le Hay in the role of Christopher Potter in Little Miss Nobody (1899), playing in Lydia Thompson's Benefit ... and then he was off again. Back to America. And the non-musical theatre.

He starred in W S Penley's role in A Little Ray of Sunshine at Wallack's, in Naughty Anthony at the Herald Square, in My Daughter in Law, with Ada Rehan in Klaw & Erlanger's Nell of Old Drury and as Triplet to the Peg Woffington of Rose Coghlan (1901) and in 1902, he was playing Jimmie Noonan in Robert Emmett at the 14th Street Theatre. All was going well. Except it wasn't.

Billy had stomach cancer. He went home to die.

Papers on four continents recorded his death, and recalled his career (more, or less, accurately) ... for it had been a marvellous one. But now, forgotten. I suppose he didn't create that one outstanding role, which was the lot, for example, of Penley. But, as the Australian obituarist said 'There were quite a lot of ham-fat comedians we could have better spared'.

As I said, I lose Fanny. But daughter Fanny (b Liverpool 1873) married bank-clerk John Triston Barnard and had a son who was killed, aged 19, in the war. Son, George William (b Sheffield 22 March 1875) became a durable performer as 'George Elton'. He played the chorus role of 'Time' in The Arcadians and, apparently, never missed a performance in all the show's vast run. In 1936, he appeared at Drury Lane, as the Chinese priest, Lao-Lin, in Careless Rapture.


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