Saturday, July 11, 2020

Walter Fisher: 'The English Dupuis'

Walter Henry Fisher. I've never really looked into the tale of Walter Fisher, not properly anyhow. I should have. He sang/acted with Emily Soldene, and over the past thirty years I've delved, as deeply as I could, into everyone and anyone who came within a COVID social-distance of my heroine. 

I see what has happened. In my Pollaky-probings into the backgrounds of the C19th folk of the D'Oyly Carte, I haven't touched the famous people, the well-known players. Others have done that. But, I realise that I am speaking of 'well-known' to ME! Which doesn't mean generally familiar. Yesterday, a chance conversation brought up a query about Mr Fisher... and I dived into my dropbox to find what I had stored there...

Yes, six pages of uncorrelated notes from my pre-internet Soldene days ... surprisingly, the only picture was the well-known series from The Happy Land ... where are the snaps of what Emily called 'the handsome tenor who was once a member of my company'? Elsewhere on the web ...? Good grief, he has a wikipedia article. Bad grief, no birth date, no death date, and -- although the performance facts therein seem selectively OK -- a rather truncated version of his career. What is up? If anyone knows and cares enough about Fisher to wikipede him (and I'm very pleased someone does!) why are these basic facts missing. Hmmm. My notes don't have those dates either. And, damme, in my Encyclopaedia of the Musical Theatre, I have him listed as 'b Bristol 1845'. Oh, I included him in the Encyclopaedia as an appendage to his even better-known wife, but I do say that he was for a decade one of Britain's most popular music-theatre leading men. And I give some of his roles. 

Time for a clean up. Back to basics. 

Humph. Walter Henry Fisher is not listed in the putatively correct periods for either birth or death. Just marriage. Why? Obvious answer, because he was not born as W H Fisher. Nor in Bristol. Nor in 1845. Nearly, on all three items, but just enough 'off' to muddle the researcher. But, if you spend a few hours scrabbling in old papers and records ...

Plain Walter (no Henry) Fisher was born in Clifton in the year of 1848, the second son of James Fisher and his wife Mary Anne née Powell. I don't know the exact date, but it can be found for the price of however much the British authorities now charge at 'June quarter, Clifton 11.264'. James Fisher was an interesting chap. A portrait painter of some repute. And Miss Powell appears, at their marriage in 1839, to have been 13 years old. I sha'n't linger over Miss Powell: she gave Fisher an Albert James, a Walter and an Amy Florence (1850) and then seems to have departed. Not life, for James is still listed as 'married' in 1891, but no 59 Whiteladies Rd, Clifton, the family's home and James's studio. Anyway, the best I can do here is to enclose James's obituary ...

Who died three years ago'? Wait a moment. Wikipedia has 1890, and I have '?d 1889 Liverpool NO'. I had the wrong W H Fisher. But still ... if he were alive in 1891, where was he? Not with father who is at Whiteladies Road with sister Amy (Mrs Campbell) and her son .. wait a mo, where is wife Lottie and the children ... puzzlement ... and 'three years'. And then I found it. 28 November 1892, Mr Walter Fisher was admitted to the Cleveland Street Infirmary at the Strand Union workhouse ... and he died there 1 January 1893. Father's obituary was right ...

Well, that's the beginning and the end of the story finally put in place. Now for the bit in between. The theatre and music bit. It has become common to think of Walter as an actor who happened to have a nice voice. I thought that, too, until I began to work on him. And the fact is exactly the opposite. He was a concert tenor vocalist from the age of fifteen ..

I've included the competition advertisement ... because it includes the young 'Mr Fred Clifton, comique'!

Brother Alfred played harmonium solos, Mr Morris played flute bravuras, Miss Farler of Rosemount, Nailsea warbled, and 16 year-old Walter's 'imitation' of the Reeves allowed him to show off his 'eminent' tenor voice.

He had plenty more chances. He sang at local events, particularly with the Bristol Volunteer Artillery Corps Dramatique, with whom he also put on a frock to play ladies' parts in their all-male plays, giving 'Adelaide', 'Goodnight, beloved', 'Come into the Garden Maud', 'She Wore a Wreath of Roses' and the 'Mother's Song' of local musician George Rennie Hutton Powell; he sang at Harrison's Rooms with 'his teacher' Signor Catalani and the gentleman's ?wife Luigia Leali 'niece of Madame Catalani' in excerpts from Atilla and Ernani, at the Rifle Drill Hall with the Welsh Nightingale, Lucy Williams (while Titiens and Grisi were at the Victoria Hall), at the Broadmead Rooms with Mackney, in Wales with Rennie ('he is popular in the West as a tenor of considerable merit'), at Shepton Mallett with the Volunteers, and when Carlotta and Fanny Addison took a Benefit at the Theatre Royal (April 1866), he joined them, as Henry Bertram, in a performance of Guy Mannering ('a local tenor of undoubted ability').

A week later, he was heard at the Broadmead Rooms giving 'Give me but my Arab steed' and 'Then you'll remember me', and another week on, at the Victoria Rooms. Three days earlier, Sims Reeves had appeared on the same platform in Roeckel's Anne Boleyn. Then it was off to Shepton Mallett, the Bristol Histrionic Club singing a Garibaldian song in Italian yokel costume ... The local paper confided 'He leaves shortly for Italy...'. Well, if he went it was for a matter of weeks, for by August the still teenaged Walter was engaged in his first professional theatre job, as a 'singing man' with J D Newcombe's fine Theatre Royal, Plymouth, company. Maurice de Solla was the other vocalist. But when Newcombe staged Der Freischütz it was Mr Fisher who was cast as Rodolphe (Max) alongside Marian Taylor and Maggie Brenner. The hometown press was soon able to crow

From Plymouth, he moved to Nye Chart's Theatre Royal, Brighton (Don Ottavio in Little Don Giovanni, Lord Woodbie in The Flying Scud, Valentine and Orson with music from La Grande-Duchesse, The Marble Heart, Don John in Much Ado About Nothing with Mrs Scott Siddons, The Spitalfields Weaver, The Merry Zingara with a certain Mr R Barker and his wife Maria Cruise, 'The Pilgrim of Love', 'The Death of Nelson', Osbaldistone in Rob Roy with Rosina Ranoe) with time out for concerts, Benefits and for a performance of Haydn's Fifth Mass, back in Bristol.

Maria Cruise

In 1869, he moved on to his next engagement  one for which the repertoire work with Newcombe and Nye Chart had well prepared him. He joined Captain Disney Roebuck's United Services Dramatic Company. There was no question of a Freischütz here, although a 'My Guiding Star' between the acts was always in order. Mr Roebuck specialised in well-known plays, and over the next seasons the budding actor played in such as A School for Scandal, East Lynne, The Ticket of Leave Man, Beauseant in The Lady of Lyons, Sir Mulberry Raikes to the Captain's David Garrick, George Peyton in The Octoroon, Dolly Spanker in London Assurance, Captain Absolute in The Rivals et al.
Occasionally Roebuck featured a burlesque, a pantomime, an operetta, and Fisher was cast in Lischen and Fritzchen, Captain Maidenblush in The Little Treasure, Don Carlos, Brown and the Brahmins, and as Humpty Dumpty in Little Goody Two-shoes, in each case with the company's young singing lady, Lottie Venne. And a little chap named Billy Elton as Clown. A quarter of a century on, wee Billy would be lead comic at the Savoy Theatre.

During this time, Walter got caght up in a bit of stupidity. The stupidity was on the behalf of the actor David Fisher, the sometime fiddle-playing Orpheus of Planché's opéra-bouffe adaptation of Orphée aux enfers. Mr Fisher had a striving comedy actor and buffo singer son, by name Walter David Fisher, and, in what seems a foolish effort to publicise the boy, he took an advertisement saying, effectively, 'managers take care you get the real thing'. Our Walter responded:

The pair returned to Brighton where they played Steerforth and Emily in a David Copperfield adaptation, and Kit and Little Nell in one of The Old Curiosity Shop, before Walter set out for Glasgow from a brief run as Jack in The Two Roses. The following month he was at Nottingham playing Dame Margery in The Mistletoe Bough alongside Marguerite Debreux and Sam Winkle in Checkmate, then he and Lottie joined Francis Farlie's burlesque company. He was Montpesson in Caste, she was Jonathan Wild in The Idle Prentice. At Nottingham, they played in a 5-scene 'burlesque' of Chilpéric with Walter as the King and Lottie as Frédégonde, which opened the same night that Soldene opened her Geneviève de Brabant in the same city. 'If his light tenor voice had more compass his singing would add considerably to his acting, which is very good indeed' wrote the critic. Things had turned around. They remained at Frank Musgrave's Nottingham Theatre through into the new year (Tom Burrows in The Stranger, Leah, The Idle Prentice etc etc), and, on 20 March 1872, they were married. Walter had now become Walter HENRY Fisher ... but Mr D Fisher and son didn't let go ...

A week later, amid continuing episodes of stupidity, Walter began his first London engagement at the Court Theatre. Poor Walter David would never catch up. He died aged 32, in 1882. But for the meantime, Walter Henry had a bit of fun at his expense

The Court Theatre made Walter something of a 'name'. He played in the drama Broken Spells (Ambroise Valamour), 'a good importation from the provinces'), To Oblige Benson, the Hon Augustus in Extremes, and in the new season was seen as the Comte de Valmont in A Son of the Soil, Dandolo in the burlesque Zampa with Dolly Dolaro, W J Hill, Righton and Lottie as Rita, which was replaced October 19 by a revival of W S Gilbert's Creatures of Impulse in a shorn down version. Walter was cast as Sergeant Klooge (originated by operatic tenor W M Terrott) while Lottie was cast as Peter. 

After a fortnight, this stopgap gave way the a 'version of Dryden's' Amphytrion with Walter in the title-role, then it, in its turn to Charles the Second, or Something Like History, with Righton as Cromwell and Fisher as Lily, and Gilbert's Quits (aka An Old Score) in which he played Harold Calthorpe, alongside Marie Litton and Herman Vezin. The two pieces were played with the duologue A Happy Pair played by Fisher and Ada Dyas. 

The comedy Extremes, from last season, and an umpeenth revivial of Ixion (Walter was Jupiter, originally played by a woman, Lottie was Cupid) followed, before Walter was cast in yet another Gilbert piece, the burlesque The Happy Land. He played the part of Ethais in the fairy-story, which involved appearing as a burlesque of Mr Gladstone, and the performances given by him and by his 'political' colleagues, W J Hill and Edward Righton caused a riotous storm. Politics maketh the man: in spite of his other grand work at the Court, this was the role that Walter would be remembered for.

Marriage Lines, The Jealous Wife, Playing with Fire ... and 9 August 1873 the season, and Walter's (and Lottie's) engagement came to an end. It had been a great success for the young couple who had wholly established themselves as West End leading players. 
Walter already had his next shop. He was engaged for Henry Neville's company at the Olympic Theatre, and cast for another vapid fop, Vayne Limpet, in the H J Byron comedy Sour Grapes. And the burlesque Richelieu Redressed. Next up was a Beaumarchaisian piece The School for Intrigue in which he played Cherubino, then Neville and Ada Cavendish played Lady Clancarty with Walter as the juvenile man, Lord Woodstock, teamed with the Court's Miss Fowler. Lady Clancarty was a fine success, and during its long run the company played, with Fisher as Lord Tinsel, The Hunchback at the Gaiety for George Coleman's Benefit.

Henry Neville

At the end of his contract with Neville, Walter was again lined up for his next job. 3 October 1874 he opened at the Philharmonic Theatre in ... opéra-bouffe. Giroflé-Giroflà had been a huge success in the original French version, as played in London, and Charles Head, owner of the 'Phil', desperately chasing another Geneviève de Brabant to keep his theatre fashionable had forked out for the sole English rights. And he had cast it pretty richly. Julia Matthews, London's Grande-Duchesse had the star role, Harriet Everard the plum comic role of Aurore, splendid contralto Jenny Pratt (sometimes 'Prati') was Paquita, and the rival husbands were played by Teddy Rosenthal of touring opera renown, and Mr Fisher, the actor from the Olympic as Marasquin. It should have worked wonderfully, but ...  
The newspapers marvelled that this 'actor' could sing so well and by January he was in a new job. He joined old colleague, Selina Dolaro, from the Court Theatre in her season at the little Royalty Theatre. In opéra-bouffe. Walter Fisher was becoming, veritably, as Punch labelled him, the British Jose Dupuis. Like Dupuis, the creator of some of the greatest of opéra-bouffe roles, in Paris, he was a comic actor cum skilled vocalist ... or the other way round ...

Jose Dupuis

This time, he was taking on a role created by Dupuis, the 'hero' Piquillo in La Périchole. Dolly, of course, was the heroine. The story has been a million times told of how Dolly and her manager, Mr Carte, looking about for an attractive forepiece/afterpiece for Périchole, secured Mr Gilbert and Mr Sullivan's 1-act musical comedy Trial by Jury ... that tried and true interpreter of Gilbert's worksWalter H Fisher, tenor, thus, was cast in the role of the Defendant and the rest is history. Fisher didn't remain in the cast throughout the run, however. He returned to Henry Neville, the Olympic Theatre, and the drama
The Gascon, starring Clara Rousby. The Gascon had a long run, after which Mrs Rousby and Walter played The Wife until his contract ended, and he promptly set out to join and ambitious opéra-bouffe company in Manchester. Manager: D'Oyly Carte. Star: Selina Dolaro. Well, one of the stars. 
Fisher played his Piquillo with Dolly, Ange Pitou in La Fille de Madame Angot with Pattie Laverne and Bessie Sudlow, and had a night off when Pauline Rita played the leading man in The Duke's Daughter. The company suffered from a surfeit of prima donnas, Dolly walked out ... and by October Walter was back in town playing David Copperfield and Dombey and Son for Charles Wyndham at Crystal Palace.
He returned to the Olympic, where No Thoroughfare and Clancarty were revived, but returned to Carte, now managing Kate Santley's Company at the Royalty. Kate was playing her own very personalised version of Orphée aux Enfers. She also gave a turn to Carte's Happy Hampstead (A Costermonger). Walter was 'off' for a while ....

Then it was back to Dolly for more Ange Pitou, Fritz, Piquillo .. a period as Grénicheux in Les Cloches de Corneville .. then back to Kate and the Royalty for the fine run of La Marjolaine, then Madcap, then accompanying the star on a provincial tour returning to the Royalty for La Jolie Parfumeuse (as Bavolet, once a travesty role), for Tita in Thibet (Brum), a piece too unsophisticated for town which ran for years in the provinces, and its companion Little Cinderella ...

After Dolly and Kate, Walter's next leading lady was no less that Florence St John, for he was cast to play alonside her as the juvenile Hector in London's Madame Favart at the Strand Theatre, before accompanying Camille Dubois on the road in the same role. Opéra-Comique, give or take an Ange Pitou, was not as much his fach, as it had been less that of Dupuis, as opéra-bouffe had been. Hector was a straight Don Ottavio-style juve.
Then I lose him. He who has gone so visibly, for years, straight from one great job. It is suggested that he had succumbed to the demon drink. And, possibly, thus lost his wife. In the 1881 census, Walter is at home with Dad. His family are in Lewisham. It's only a surmise ...
He resurfaces, though. I see him at the Royalty Theatre 22 June 1881 playing in a tryout of Le Grand Mogol, and then on the road playing the baritonic Robert in La Fille de Tambour Major, and the tenorious title-role in Billee Taylor for Charles Bernard ('a striking success'), before he joins the Soldene company (1881-2) to play Giletti in Madame L'Archiduc and Fritz to her Grande-Duchesse ... well, he was still 'handsome' according to her say so ... but he was only 32 ...
In 1882, he played the role of the Rev Henry Sandford in the Edward Solomon The Vicar of Bray, which it was reported that he left to take up a job in a Manteaux Noirs tour, but I can't find that tour. In 1883 (January) he played Harry Bumper in a London Benefit, and he rejoined old friend Carte to tour as Grosvenor in Patience ... but for periods, I see him not. The odd concert here and there ... and nothing after 1884, until Carte hires him one last time in 1887 ... alas, he got 'ill' again and had to have a long break. Was it 'illness' or was it the drink? 
He returned again to Carte in 1888-9 ... playing all kinds of roles, including, latterly, Leonard Meryll/understudy Fairfax ... until he disappears. Only to be found, it seems, in the workhouse, dying ...

He and Lottie had, in happier days, two children: Amy Hannah (b 25 Wellington Square 23 August 1873, and Henry James (b 1877), both of whom went on the stage. Amy, known as 'Audrey Ford', married actor Jimmy (eig: James Alexander) Welsh, who had been three days divorced, in 1906. Henry seems to have had a brief theatre career.

Lottie was all but a star. But I won't go into Lottie. Merely refer you to my sizeable (factual) piece on her in my Encyclopaedia of the Musical Theatre Vol III.

Punch was right. Walter Fisher was the nearest thing England had to a Jose Dupuis. He was not a singer-who-acts or an actor-who-sings (a bit). He was, like Dupuis, the real thing ... both a singer and an actor ... how sad that, too soon, it all went wrong. Why? I haven't any reliable sources to say that it was drink, but wikipedia says so. I'd like some evidence ... do you die, aged 44, from drink? Well, I suppose other folks died younger .. C W Norton, of the Soldene company for one ...

Ah well, maybe we need to buy not only that birth certificate but his death certificate as well...

End of tale. I'm sorry to leave Walter. He is a landmark performer in the British musical theatre. Now, if he had been cast as the original Alexis and Ralph Rackstraw instead of the upper-class tenorious gents that someone preferred ...  for, as the oldtime conductor Gustave Slapoffski reminisced to the press in the 1920s, he was 'probably the finest comic opera tenor the English stage has ever known'.

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