Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Jimmy the Jester or, finding one's niche

Stumbling upon that Paul Jones photo the other day, the spotty one of Harry Monkhouse and Albert James, made me think a little . I know about Harry Monkhouse, I have even devoted an article to him in my Encyclopaedia of the Musical Theatre, but all I knew of Albert was that he was a striving singer who remade himself as a comic in this thirties and thereafter spent his career largely touring the provinces in -- at his considerable peak -- leading roles. Paul Jones and its sequel, Marjorie, were the highlights of his London theatre career.

So I thought I'd dig around a bit and see what I could find out. The first place one digs when the object of the digging is a performer from the D'Oyly Carte companies, is in David Stone's Gilbert and Sullivan Archive, and there, duly, I found a detailed record of Albert's career in the Savoy touring companies. Excellent. I know David's listings are impeccable, so I'm not even double checking them. But there was still heaps to discover. Dates of birth and death, family origins, early life (he was nigh on 30 when he joined the Carte), wife or wives, children ...

Next stop, therefore, the family history sites. Hmmm. Bit of a mess there. Most of the family haven't tried very hard. A descendant of his youngest brother, who emigrated to Australia seems to have done the best. I suppose it is understandable, for, predictably, his birth name was not 'Albert James'. However, if the websiters have not done so well, Albert has been remembered by some of his descendants. I find one, Eleanor Lybeck, in a photograph with my friend Richard Gauntlett, apparently from a BBC publication. Then, another piece by great-granddaughters, Rosie and Ellie Lavan, in which they tell us of their exhibition at Cambridge's English Faculty Library about 'A Clown of Real Life': the Performance Worlds of Albert James'. I should have loved to have seen it. But since I didn't, I'll just give you my version.

Albert was born Albert Charles Baker in the Fleet Street area of the City of London 19 January 1852. His father was Joseph Baldwin Baker (1812-1896), a tobacconist, his mother Sarah née Coakes, and we can see them in 1861 at 10 Gough Square, St Dunstan: father, mother, sister Priscilla Elizabeth (sewing machinist), brother Joseph Henry (butcher), and youngsters Frederick, Albert and Ernest. When the time came to work, Albert took up the trade of vellum-binder, but he clearly had a yen for the performing arts. David has found an article which says that he work as call boy at the Globe Theatre and walked on in the 1872 revival of Cyril's Success. Also that he appeared at the Polytechnic and the Holborn. Perfectly possible, but I haven't yet found traces. Anyway, it was a sideline. He was still binding vellum in the daytime.

My first sighting of Albert -- already rechristened 'Albert James' -- is in 1869 (17 November) at Islington's unpretentious Myddelton Hall on a bill with the proven George Renwick, Emily Muir, Louisa Jane Sauerbrey et al. He sang Hersee's 'By Bright Day' and Lehmeyer's 'My bright-eyed village girl' and was adjudged to have 'a nice voice which requires development'. 'Jimmy' James, however, with the rashness of youth, seemingly thought nothing was beyond him: at Lily Simester's concert he tackled 'The Pilgrim of Love' and 'My Pretty Jane', at Kate Gordon's concert he got through 'The Message' but came horribly to grief in the tenor part of the Rigoletto quartet and won the scorn of the critics. Nothing deterred, he gave the Trovatore Miserere with Kate Frankford at Shoreditch, 'Parigi o cara' with Ellen Glanville, 'Love's Request' and 'Tom Bowling' at Store Street ... the young singer seemed determined to be Sims Reeves, or at least Alexander Reichardt. There were two things against this: one, he was exceedingly short of stature and two, his voice was similarly lacking in size. But Jimmy soldiered on. 'Alice, Where art thou', Blumenthal's 'Evening Song', and, when he got a date at the International Exhibition at the Albert Hall, he dared 'If With All Your Hearts'! But worse was to come: billed as 'from the Albert Hall', he took on the tenor role in The Creation at Northampton, alongside Ellen Horne. 'His voice is quite unsuitable for so large a building as the Exchange Hall' recorded the local press politely, while covering Miss Horne with encomia. The experience seems to have been a turning point.

Another turning point had already been reached. On 26 July 1874 Jimmy had wed Miss Emma Elizabeth Williams, daughter of John Williams 'publisher', and they were on their way to their first child. They were to have two sons: Albert John Joseph (b 77 Crampton Street 27 May 1875; d Thundersley 24 May 1955) and Charles Leigh (b 14 Nelson Square, Southwark 1877; d Edmonton, 9 May 1937) in the brief time that their marriage lasted.

After The Creation, Jimmy seems largely to have been heard in local concerts -- Kelvedon, Brentwood, Grays etc -- singing in cantatas such as The Wreck of the Hesperus, The Merrie Men of Sherwood Forest, The Fairy Ring, The Rose Maiden, or in part-music with Henry Leslie's choir, until his change in life came.

He abandoned wife and children and headed off to tour as chorister and understudy with D'Oyly Carte. Understudy to the tenor? Oh no. The days of 'If with all your hearts' were gone for ever. He was cover to the comedy players.

David details: 'He joined Mr. D'Oyly Carte's Opera Company "B" in October 1880, appearing in the chorus of The Pirates of Penzance and playing the small part of Joseph, the page, in the curtain raiser In the Sulks. The Company was redesignated as Company "C" in March 1881, and in December 1881, James filled in for David Fisher Jnr. as Major General Stanley in Pirates.

James's next appearance in a D'Oyly Carte program was from April to December 1882 on tour as Major Murgatroyd with Mr. D'Oyly Carte's No. 1 Patience Company.In February 1883 he joined Carte's No. 2 Patience Company as Reginald Bunthorne and as stage manager.When that Company was disbanded at the end of June 1884, James transferred to Carte's "E" Company, where he toured in Patience and Iolanthe as Bunthorne and the Lord Chancellor until May 1885, while continuing to serve as stage manager. At that point "E" Company gave the first provincial production of The Mikado, with James as Ko-Ko. "E" Company toured with James starring in and stage managing The Mikado exclusively until December 1887, at which point he left the D'Oyly Carte to pursue stage managing on his own'.

The venture he pursued was as co-manager with Ben Wilkinson of a company playing those two sure-fire hits Fun on the Bristol and My Sweetheart. Jimmy of course played Menaggio and Tony Faust, and he and the good supporting company (including a certain Miss Annetta May ex-D'Oyly Carte) got splendid reviews. But not enough money. The venture, which had looked good for years on the no2 road folded in only a few months. Jimmy was in the red, and 'Annie May' (who had been his paramour ever since he had shuffled off Emma) and he were out of a job.

But Jimmy was quality goods, now, as a comic opera lead comedian. He joined Lingard and van Biene's classy company to play Pepita (General Pataquès) and Falka (Brother Pelican) on the 1st-class road, and then was hired by the Carl Rosa Light Opera for Paul Jones. You can read about Paul Jones and his success, within the success of the show, alongside Harry Monkhouse, in my elsewhere books. The London production ran for a year, and was succeeded by Marjorie in which Jimmy and Monkhouse were so successful that the had an extra duet added to their roles, before Jimmy was whisked off to America to direct and to repeat his triumphant Petit Pierre in Paul Jones for the company launched by the (American) original London star, Miss Agnes Huntingdon. Hallen Mostyn was now his oppo, in Monkhouse's role of Bouillabaisse, and the company included such familiar British names as Eric Thorne, Hervet d'Egville and Fanny Wentworth. He stayed on to play Duvet in Captain Thérèse with the company (Annetta was 'a chambermaid', so she was there), before heading home.

In 1893, he appeared as Francis Carnex at the Shaftesbury Theatre in friend Monkhouse's old-fashioned musical La Rosière, and went on tour in Monkhouse's famous pair of comedy hits, Larks and Pat, and in Denham Harrison's Miss Decima troupe, before re-joining the Carte organisation.

David continues: 'in December 1893 he was back with the D'Oyly Carte organisation: this time with Carte's Company "B" where he toured as Rupert Vernon in Haddon Hall until February 1894, then as King Paramount in Utopia Limited. Company "B" began to expand its repertoire in October 1894, adding Patience (though James took no role in the aesthetic opera). In January 1895 they added H.M.S. Pinafore (James as Sir Joseph Porter), and in February The Chieftain (James as Peter Grigg) replaced Utopia. In July 1895 James left the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company again.'

Over the next half dozen years, Jimmy and Annie toured endlessly.

He turned repeatedly to William Greet's and Charles Macdona's tours of The Gay Parisienne, in the plum role of comical Ebenezer Honeycomb who is the prey of the lady of the title (Annie had a tiny part), the couple joined Minnie Palmer for her tour of The School Girl, he linked up with George Phillips to direct and play in pantomimes and in the old-fashioned musical Kitty, he took a round for William Greet in the play The Gipsy Earl, and in 1899 he played a hugely appreciated Quince in F H Macklin's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Louie Henri was 'second singing fairy'.

David's last contribution: 'James's next tour with the D'Oyly Carte organization was from April to December 1900 as stage manager for Company "D" on tour in The Rose of Persia. He was back on stage with Carte's Company "E" from July 1901 to February 1902, touring as Professor Bunn in The Emerald Isle. In March 1902 he left for South Africa on a D'Oyly Carte tour that would last until May 1903. His main duty was stage manager, but he also appeared as the Physician-in-Chief in The Rose of Persia, the Learned Judge in Trial by Jury, and Phantis in Utopia Limited.

The South Africa tour marked the end of his career as a D'Oyly Carte performer. He continued to serve the D'Oyly Carte organization as stage manager until 1910, and as publicity manager from 1911 until his death in December 1913. His wife, Annie James, appeared in the chorus on tour with him in the early 1880s'.

During these later years, between his Carte engagements, Jimmy appeared for Greet in other pieces, taking the comic lead in the all-consuming The Lady Slavey.

'His wife'? Jimmy's liaison with Annie/Annetta May (whatever her real name was) lasted for more than two decades. But they were never married. They couldn't be. Emma was still alive and caring for the two boys. Whether with help from her husband, I know not. Maybe. Younger son, Charles, christened his first son 'Charles Albert'. Emma died on 3 August 1906, at 57 Grand Parade, Harringey, and soon after, Jimmy remarried. But it was not to Annetta May. After the South Africa trip, I lose her. Maybe he did too? In 1908, he married a young widow and mother by the name of Eliza Ann (dit 'Annie') Pike. Née Kilby, daughter of a baker and confectioner from Homerton. Annie had previously married a clerk by name Henry Nicholas Pike, who had barely had time to lay a babe on her before quitting the world. His posthumous son was christened Harrie Pike (1895-1982). I don't suppose Jimmy ever saw him. He was shunted off to Annie's unmarried sister Harriet, with whom he lived for many years while working as a theatrical costumier. Hmm Harriet/Harrie ....

Jimmy and his new young wife settled in Streatham, and lo! a third son saw the day in 1909. Noel Albert Charles Baker. I guess this is from whence the descendants come. There are none from son number one, Albert J J the dispensing chemist of Thundersley. His only child, James Valentine Baker, was drowned in the River Ouse 21 July 1949 unwed. Charles Leigh, shipowner's clerk... oh yes, he had a wife (Martha Cole) and children ...  a son (b London 10 October 1906; d Midsomer Norton 10 December 1990) and a daughter, Mrs Herbert Boxer (b London 18 November 1909; d Buckinghamshire 1996)

But all that's getting away from Jimmy.

Albert Charles Baker aka Jimmy James died 24 December 1913. The D'Oyly Cartesians will remember him for his long and prominent service with their touring companies. I remember him for Petit Pierre. We'll all forget the Miserere and The Creation: it can take a fellow time to find his niche.

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