Friday, June 1, 2018

Putting Charley to rights ...

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I feel that I have already written the biography of Charles J Campbell, long-singing light baritone turned tenor, for he played such a colourful part in my big biography of the one and only Emily Soldene. So –particularly as David Stone has covered his D’Oyly Carte years in his usual precise detail – I’m not going to do the whole thing again. But … well, he’s on George’s list, and there are a few details which need putting straight.

In 1924, the widowed Mrs Campbell applied for an American passport, to go on a trip. She was very obliging with dates: her birth, her husband’s birth, their marriage, their surname … and every single one of those was a lie. Not even a little lie … years and years and years … and, incidentally, making their daughter illegitimate.


 Let’s start with Charley. I’m not sure when folk started giving the date of 13 March 1856 for his birth. It’s become general (I hope I didn’t succumb!) and it is way, way out. Of course, difficult to disprove, because Charley wasn’t a Campbell. As of today, I know that he was born Charles James Cleaver, son of a carpenter from St Helier, Charles William Cleaver, and his wife Mary née Moore. And the date? 13 March 1849.

I see then Cleavers in the 1851 Newington census: father, mother and children Mary, Ellen, Charley and Alice; and in 1861 when papa has given up the saw and become a coffee house keeper. Father died in 1867, and I don’t see the family in 1871, but I suspect they were somewhere in Clapham, for in November 1870, Mr Cleaver appeared with an amateur Royal Aboriginal Minstrels at Clapham Hall singing ‘Come to me, Angel of sleep’.

By the time I catch up with him again, some three years later, he has become Mr Campbell and is employed over Christmas 1873 at the Liverpool Prince of Wales Theatre, in A Handsome Husband, the burlesque Lurline and La Fille de Madame Angot, star Selina Dolaro. After plenty more touring in Angot, and a brief West End season in The Black Prince, he rejoined Dolly Dolaro to play Tarapote in La Périchole and a Juror in Trial by Jury. He played the Foreman and the Counsel, later switched to Emily Soldene first as the Counsel then the Defendant … and the story as known was under way.


18 November 1876, Emily began her ‘world tour’. Knight Aston was her boyish plumpish tenor, Mr Campbell was in support, and the chorus included a lady calling herself ‘Eugenie Nicholson’. Oddly enough, the Eugenie was real. But her surname was Williams and she was from Liverpool. Mr Cleaver and Miss Williams were wed in Boston 14 April 1877. Those who called Charley ‘nauseatingly effeminate’ might have been surprised: but the couple were a couple till death, and their daughter, Violet Eugenie, lived till 1959. 

I’ve told the tale of how, when Knight Aston went home to his own problems (he had married a convicted confidence trickster), Emily simply promoted her baritone to first tenor. And he was splendid success.

The ‘Campbells’ stayed in America and Charley became a leading tenor in comic opera. In 1887-8 he travelled to Europe for a year, and toured with D’Oyly Carte’s Continental Company, but he returned America and the forces of Rudolf Aronson to play, most importantly, Eugene Marcel in the hit of the era, Erminie. He remained prominent for much of the 1880s – and Eugenie worked too – but in the 1890s the engagements, though still plentiful, were often in more modest companies and productions. 

            He was into his fifties (though admitting nearly a decade younger) when his performing career was run down, but he had begun a second career, as a librettist and/or lyricist, most often in conjunction with Ralph McGay Skinner. They authored A Friend of the Family, The Fortune Hunters, Lady Betty’s Courtship, His Honor the Mayor (The Pink Hussars), The Gay Musician and The Motor Girl with, latterly, some success before, aged 60, Charley retired.

            He died ‘of heart disease’ at 736 181st Street, New York on 27 February 1918, just short of his seventieth birthday, and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery. Eugenie, working in a shop, survived him by thirty years, and died 4 November 1949.

Eugenie in 1924

            So, there is Charley Cleaver, hopefully, set to rights. Chuckle. Say thank you, webmasters, and get fixing those names and dates on your sites!

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