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AN ACTOR'S STORY




Photo. l>y~\ [Hana.

BRANSBY WILLIAMS IN THE COSTUME OF THE DICKENS
PERIOD.

{Frontispiece.



AN ACTOR'S STORY



BY

BRANSBY WILLIAMS



WITH NUMEROUS ILLUSTRATIONS



LONDON

CHAPMAN & HALL, LTD.
1909



To

MY WIFE



PREFACE

IN submitting this book to the public, con-
scious of all its shortcomings, I can only hope
for the same good-natured indulgence in my
new role off the stage as is invariably given me
in my well-tried roles on it.

The book owes its existence to my many
friends who have pressed me into this new
"part." Having accepted it, not a little un-
willinglyfor I know my limitations perhaps
better than they I can but trust that the
public will be lenient in its judgment of my
performance.

I am bound to confess, however, that I am
seized with no little amount of " stage fright "
now that I make my first appearance in this
new character, although I was as willing to
try my hand at authorship as the gentleman



Vll



viii PREFACE

who, when he was asked if he could play the
violin, said, " I never have, but I don't mind
trying " !

My best thanks are offered, for kind per-
mission to use photographs, to Mr. G. Hana,
Bedford Street, Strand; Mr. Reinhold Thiele,
Chancery Lane ; Mr. Lewis R. Protheroe,
Bristol ; Messrs. Foulsham & Banfield, Ltd.,
Old Bond Street ; Messrs. Campbell-Gray,
Ltd., Cheapside ; Mr. R. Vining ; Mr. A. E.
Peacock ; to my friend Mr. F. J. Arlton, the
nephew of J. L. Toole, for the snapshot of
Toole and Irving ; and to Messrs. David
Allen & Sons for permission to reproduce
Mr. Albert Morrow's poster.

Lastly, I wish to express deep gratitude
to my good friend Mr. B. W. Matz, the
Editor of The Dickensian, for the kindly advice
and assistance he has given me in seeing the
" story " through the press.

BRANSBY WILLIAMS

March 15, 1909



CONTENTS

CHAPTER PAGE

I. IN THE BEGINNING i

IT. AMATEUR DAYS NEGRO COMEDIAN AND

LIGHTNING SKETCHER 10

III. FROM WORKING MEN'S CLUBS THEATRICALS

TO THE STAGE 22

IV. CHARACTER ACTING IN PLAYS STRUGGLING

DAYS 33

V. MY FIRST MUSIC-HALL ENGAGEMENT IMI-
TATION OF ACTORS . . . . .52

VI. HOW I BECAME A DICKENS ACTOR . . 60
VII. DICKENS CHARACTERS I HAVE PLAYED . . 80

VIII. SOME DICKENSIAN STORIES, GRAVE AND

GAY 93

IX. SHAKESPEAREAN AND OTHER PERFORMANCES 114

X. FIRST VISIT TO AMERICA 127

XI. SECOND VISIT TO AMERICA . . . . 143

XII. ROYAL COMMAND 160

XIII. DAN LENO AND OTHERS, AND SOME NOTABLE

BENEFITS 172

ix



x CONTENTS

CHAPTER p AGB

XIV. JOHN L. TOOLE AND " 87, OR THE VETERAN'S

BIRTHDAY" 196

XV. WILLIAM TERRISS CLEMENT SCOTT PHIL

MAY 207

XVI. BEERBOHM TREE GEORGE ALEXANDER
FORBES ROBERTSON AND SIR CHARLES
WYNDHAM 217

XVII. SOME MUSIC-HALL MAGNATES . . . 230

XVIII. SOME MUSIC-HALL STARS .... 244

XIX. PANTOMIMES .... . . .257



LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS

TO FACE PAGH

BRANSBY WILLIAMS IN THE COSTUME OF THE DICKENS
PERIOD . . . . . . Frontispiece

BRANSBY WILLIAMS, AGED 12 8

SCENE FROM " HONEYLAND" AT LONDON HIPPODROME

BRANSBY WILLIAMS AS PRINCE CHARMING . 50

BRANSBY WILLIAMS, AGED 26 52

MRS. BRANSBY WILLIAMS 56

BRANSBY WILLIAMS BOOKLAND 60

A Pictorial Poster, designed by Albert Morrow, reproduced
by permission of David Allen 6 s Sons.

BRANSBY WILLIAMS AS SIR JOHN CHESTER ... 70

BRANSBY WILLIAMS AS " MAYPOLE " HUGH ... 70

BRANSBY WILLIAMS AS SOLOMON DAISY ... 72

BRANSBY WILLIAMS AS LORD GEORGE GORDON . . 72

BRANSBY WILLIAMS AS JOHN WILLET . . . . 74

BRANSBY WILLIAMS AS OLD RUDGE .... 74

BRANSBY WILLIAMS AS SYDNEY CARTON ... 82

BRANSBY WILLIAMS AS THE OLD GRANDFATHER , 82

xi



xii LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS

TO FACE PAGE

BRANSBY WILLIAMS AS SERJEANT BUZFUZ ... 84

BRANSBY WILLIAMS AS WILKINS MICAWBER . . 84

BRANSBY WILLIAMS AS MONTAGUE TIGG ... 86

BRANSBY WILLIAMS AS BILL SIKES .... 86

BRANSBY WILLIAMS AS WACKFORD SQUEERS . . 88

BRANSBY WILLIAMS AS BLANDOIS 88

BRANSBY WILLIAMS AS MANTALINI .... 90

BRANSBY WILLIAMS AS BARNABY RUDGE ... 90

BRANSBY WILLIAMS AS URIAH KEEP .... 92

BRANSBY WILLIAMS AS FAGIN 92

BRANSBY WILLIAMS AS DAN'EL PEGGOTTY ... 98

BRANSBY WILLIAMS AS SCROOGE 108

BRANSBY WILLIAMS AS CHARLES DICKENS . . .112

SCENE IN "FRA GIACOMO" 116

BRANSBY WILLIAMS IN "UNCLE TOM'S CABIN"

AS TOPSY ; AS SlMON LEGREE ; AS PHINEAS

FLETCHER; AS UNCLE TOM 118

BRANSBY WILLIAMS AS CARDINAL WOLSEY . . .120

BRANSBY WILLIAMS AS HAMLET 120

BRANSBY WILLIAMS AS SHYLOCK 122

BRANSBY WILLIAMS AS HENRY V 122

A FAMILY GROUP . . . . . . . .132

OFF TO AMERICA (EUSTON) MR. AND MRS. BRANSBY

WILLIAMS AND DAUGHTER AND MR. S. F. EDGE 144

BRANSBY WILLIAMS (1908) .,.,,. 153



LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS xiii

TO FACE PAGE

THE GARDEN AT " ROSEMARY," BRANSBY WILLIAMS'S

HOME 170

DAN LENO IN PANTOMIME 180

SIR HENRY IRVING AND J. L. TOOLE .... 200

MODEL OF THE "MAYPOLE" INN 202

"'87; OR, THE VETERAN'S BIRTHDAY". . . . 204

DISGUISES USED BY BRANSBY WILLIAMS IN "ALADDIN"
AT BRISTOL, 1908-9 ABANAZAR ; PENNY SHOW-
MAN ; THE DUTCHMAN 262

BRANSBY WILLIAMS ix "ALADDIN" AT BRISTOL, 1908-9 268



AN ACTOR'S STORY



CHAPTER I

IN THE BEGINNING

I SIMPLY desire to record by way of a start
the fact that I was born, with a promise that
I shall not bore my readers with minute details
of my childhood's days. That they were full
of trials and troubles, full of joys and happi-
ness, full of ambitions which never matured,
full, in short, of all those things which fill out
the small span of any and every child, I have
not the slightest doubt. That they are
worth glorifying and enlarging upon to-day,
I also have no doubt. But the only persons
who would consider them at all wonderful or
interesting would be my own relatives. This
applies, I venture to assert, to many childhood
days and reminiscences ; and as a reader of
some voracity, I must confess to feeling very

I B



* AN ACTOR'S STORY

much bored myself with those passages in
most books commencing, " I was born on a dull
and dismal day as the clock struck ten," or
whatever other number it was, and the many
small family recollections of the days which
follow the event. It may be I am mistaken
in these views, but being anxious not to bore
my readers, and feeling that what I did as a
small child must have been very similar to
what thousands of other children did during
such periods, I propose to leave such things
to the imagination of my readers. Besides
which I did not keep a diary then, although
that would not be necessary for recalling
some boyhood pranks and schoolboy tricks if
need be.

I remember as a boy reading " David
Copperfield," and even then I skipped many
chapters in order to meet my hero as a " Man."
I have re-read it many times since in its entirety,
and each time have been more impressed than
ever. When I began to be successful as an
actor, I was strangely moved by Dickens's
comments on his boyhood, and his wonderful
impressions of the places he remembered in
after life. Dickens always seemed to retain



IN THE BEGINNING 3

in his mind the thoughts of himself as a poor
lad in the very humble capacity of sticking
labels on blacking bottles, and of his weary
walks to and fro between his lodgings in Lant
Street, Borough, and his work. When a
successful and great man, he felt the same
sadness in revisiting some of the scenes and
places in the very neighbourhoods of his
early struggle, as when he lived amidst
them.

So I have felt, and often thought of myself
as a little " David Copperfield." I was more
fortunate, inasmuch as I was not sent away
from home so early. My mother and her
parents lost a large amount of money in 1866,
when Gurney's Bank, and I think the British
Bank, failed. I know that when I was a boy
my father and mother were not well off. I
was a poor, weak lad, suffering terribly with
bronchitis and a very weak chest. I was not
a bright boy at school, and was never sharp at
figures. I loved history and geography, and
above all, the dead languages. The latter
seems strange, because I have never found
any use for the knowledge, and so have not
kept it up. I learned Hebrew, Greek, and



4 AN ACTOR'S STORY

Latin, the former of which I found always
most difficult to master, but very interesting
none the less. The Rev. Dr. Stern, one of
the finest Hebrew scholars of the day, who
was one of the imprisoned missionaries in the
Abyssinian War under King Theodore, used
to examine us at school ; and I have often
had to sit in the church that used to stand in
Palestine Place, Cambridge Heath Road, to
listen to him preaching in Hebrew in order
that I might write essays on his sermons. He
had a very melancholy voice, but was a charm-
ing man, and my first " imitation " was of
him. I remember the circumstance well. I
got into the schoolroom pulpit, and imitated
him in the prayer commencing " Blessed Lord,
who hast caused all Holy Scriptures to be
written for our learning." Of course it caused
great amusement amongst the scholars ; but
I was caught in the act, and had to write that
prayer out a hundred times for punishment,
and consequently have never forgotten it.

It was always my mother's wish that I
should be a clergyman, but the nearest I got
to fulfilling that desire was some time after-
wards, when, as a very young man, I joined



IN THE BEGINNING 5

the Grattan Guinness Mission in Bow Road,
and used to preach, and I think I may say I
was not altogether a failure. Many of my
sermons were printed and sold at one penny
each. One I particularly remember : " Mene,
Mene, Tekel Upharsin, thou art weighed in
the balance and found wanting," was my text,
and I delivered it with all the dramatic power
and fervour at my command. My discourse
made a certain kind of sensation at the time.
Some years later I went one Sunday to a
certain parish church. The preacher for the
day was a well-known church dignitary, and
when he gave out for his text the " writing
on the wall," I pricked up my ears. Still
higher did I prick them as the preacher pro-
ceeded to read his sermon, for I recognized
my own effort of years ago being read word
for word and sentence for sentence.

I was often offered the chance of going
abroad to commence as a missionary, but my
health was too bad. So having no further
influence in that direction, and it being neces-
sary that I should make a start in commercial
life, I was sent to a firm in Mincing Lane,
and started at the very bottom of the ladder



6 AN ACTOR'S STORY

in a tea-tasting business. I do not think,
considering my health, I could have gone to
a much worse place, although I have some
bright memories of the kindness with which I
was treated there. The name of the firm was
Turner and Clark, and the partners allowed
me to leave early every Friday in order to
attend the Chest Hospital.

These are the days which remind me of
little " David " so much.

I used to walk from Bow Church to
Mincing Lane, and whenever I go there now
that road sets me thinking of my early days,
just as Dickens was set thinking in after years
in revisiting scenes of his childhood. The
district always had a fascination for me, and
even on Saturday evenings I was drawn back
to the Mile End Road, like metal to a lode-
stone. I would listen to the " Debaters" on
Mile End Waste, and then spend much time at
the stage door of the Pavilion Theatre, look-
ing with awe at the actors going in. I would
spy the broughams and buses of the stars
going to Lusby's Music Hall (now the Paragon,
Mile End Road) ; and, above all, I was irre-
sistibly drawn to a shop almost opposite the



IN THE BEGINNING 7

London Hospital that was for a very long
time a "Penny Show" with all the Pepper's
Ghost effects. There each week I would
stand in the crowd and listen to the old
mummer telling all the wonders of the per-
formance which was always "about to com-
mence." This old man was to be useful to
me in after years I little dreamed it then.
So much did he become impressed on my
memory that I have since reproduced him
on the stage. He is the "original" of my
character sketch, The Penny Showman.
This character is called for in every town I
visit now, and has been a popular finish to
my performance in London and provinces for
three years. Some people have said I have
exaggerated. Why, I even use my old
friend's actual words ! One part I reproduce
sometimes is identical with what he used to
say, and I have never forgotten it. " To-night,
bear in mind/' were his words, " we play Faust
and Marguerite, with the great ghost and
spectral illusion as played before all the
crowned heads of Europe. Faust and Mar-
guerite for a penny ! Bear in mind the one
scene alone worth the money ! Where the



8 AN ACTOR'S STORY

Devil stabs Valentine in the vitals ! A penny !
We shall conclude with the whole strength
of the Company ! All LONDON ACTORS,
bear in mind, in a laughable farcical sketch
entitled Muddlehead in a Fix, or Whds Who
and What s What? A penny ! Now's your
opportunity," etc., etc.

When I could spare a penny I used to go
in and see the show, and I can remember all
I saw as if it were but yesterday.

Speaking of remembering, I can go back
much further when, as my father says, I was
only about five or six years old ; he took me
to the Standard Theatre, Shoreditch. There
was running at the time, to enormous busi-
ness, Dion Boucicault's Arrah Na-Pogue. I
remembered all the scenes and the business
of that show so well that when I became an
actor I easily played " Michael Feeney " from
what was in my mind's eye.

So I content myself with giving the assur-
ance that I was born and became in due course
a boy, and went to school, and that, further,
I started in the world as a " Sample" boy in
this tea-tasting line. My work consisted of
visiting the various warehouses where the




Photo, by} [David Hum d^ Co.

BRANSBY WILLIAMS, AGED 12.



IN THE BEGINNING 9

different brands of teas were, and bringing
the samples back daily to be tasted. This
was unsuitable to my health, and after a short
spell I had to give it up. I was then sent to
the designing room of the Allan Paper Works,
Old Ford, Bow. George Allan had known
my mother in her palmy days, and took an
interest in me. He ultimately gave up the
business, and it became what it is now, " Allan
Cockshutt & Co./ 7 the centre of the great
Wall Paper Combine. I worked there under
the new directors, and have received many
kindnesses from two or three members of the
family. During my stay there, I became an
amateur actor, and was sacked weekly in con-
sequence for a long time. At last I left and
became a professional, and relied upon myself
entirely. I had no help or influence, or even
encouragement. I felt acting was to be my
vocation, and I did everything in my power
to seek an opening. Eventually it came, for
I had an opportunity of making a start at
the very beginning, since when I have had
the usual ups and downs, and many ex-
periences, which now become part of "An
Actor's Story."



CHAPTER II

AMATEUR DAYS NEGRO COMEDIAN AND
LIGHTNING SKETCHER

BEFORE I ever appeared in any performance
of a dramatic nature, I had a great fancy for
the " burnt cork " business, and I used to get
special permission from home to go to see
the Mohawk Minstrels. How I used to laugh
at Walter Howard in his funny banjo songs !
James Francis, too (who died so suddenly in
a Turkish bath), Ted Snow, Johnny Danvers,
and Little Thomas they were all heroes of
mine. I used to black my face at home (and,
I'm afraid, my clothes very often) and leave
a huge mouth, so that I succeeded in copying
Johnny Danvers's annual grin from (y)ear to
(y)ear, and sing a song he sang entitled " Clara
Nolan's Ball." I was simply a torment and a
nuisance at home at least, my " black " must
have been. At last my chance of appearing



10



AMATEUR DAYS n

somewhat publicly came along. An old school
teacher of mine was then assistant-master at
a well-known West End Cripples' Home in
Kensington ; and on the occasion I allude to
the cripples were to have a big night to which
friends, relations, and subscribers were invited.
The entertainment took the form of a Nigger
Troupe. Just imagine, each performer was a
cripple in some way or the other, excepting
yours truly ! How they enjoyed it all ! They
seemed to get as much laughter out of it as
they expected to get from their audience, and
evolved jokes from their own misfortunes.
They were all correctly dressed, the conven-
tional corner man, wig and huge collars, large
shirt fronts and glittering studs, all complete.
In the opening " sit round " I was the " Bones,"
and at the opposite corner was a poor chap
with both legs off and just two wooden sub-
stitutes. But what a comedian ! The song
he sang was " Hear dem Bells," and when it
came to the chorus, he simply danced on the
two stumps, and every one screamed with a
delight that now, after all these years, strikes
a painful note when I think of him and his
brother cripples. I sang, stump-speeched, and



12 AN ACTOR'S STORY

clowned myself dead tired and hoarse. But
what of that ? I had appeared in PUBLIC !
In fact, I think I may say it was my first
appearance ; and yet it was not really my first
public performance, for I recollect I took part
previously in a Punch and Judy Show in a
mission hall. The figures were all made by
myself, and this must have been my first
attempt as an entertainer. It took place whilst
I was employed at the wall-paper business. I
had been there for about two years. One of
the designers was interested in a mission, and
was about to give a tea to a lot of poor, ragged
children, and had heard of my " larks " and
imitations of several of the people in the
works ; for there I imitated and sketched them
all, and led them, I am afraid, a terrible dance.
I must explain that to the rolls of foreign
paper that came into the works there was
attached at each end a piece of wood about
five inches long and three inches square.
I got a lot of these and started carving and
shaping them with a penknife into all the
heads of the characters in a Punch and Judy
Show. For Punch's nose I got a special piece
of wood and shaped it, and then screwed it



AMATEUR DAYS 13

into the larger piece. Then I painted them
and made them all up, and clothed them
correctly, with different sorts of materials that
I obtained. I even made the coffin and the
gallows necessary for the show ; the only thing
I lacked was "Toby." Now the next thing
was the " show." Well, as I did not intend
to give more than a performance at home, I
secured a big heavy trunk from my mother,
cut away the top part, and hung curtains over
it, etc., and made it into a fine stage. Then
my friend, the designer and mission worker,
persuaded me to give the ragged children a
Punch and Judy Show, and I promised. It
was a cold, very cold, night, and rather foggy.
I couldn't afford a cab, and to carry the things
down into the train never entered my dull
head ; so I packed the " dolls " in a box and
put them in the show stage. Now, just try to
imagine the weight of the heavy trunk and box
of dolls which I had set out to carry on my
back, so heavy that I had about every few
yards or so to sit down and rest. It was the
most miserable collection on earth, and I carried
it for about three miles, and landed at my
destination more dead than alive, for it must be



H AN ACTOR'S STORY

remembered that at that time I was a weak lad
and suffered much from bronchitis. Anyway,
I arrived there, and soon after my enthusiasm
put new life into me and I " showed." And,
after all, the shouts of laughter at the show
were payment enough. I can remember many
of those poor wan faces now, how they lighted
up after their tea, and how they laughed at
my " props " and paraphernalia, which I had to
cart home again. Oh, the horrors of it ! I
got home somehow, however, and was quite ill
afterwards, so bad indeed that I did not return
to business for two or three days. That
was my first appearance. Of course, in the
ordinary way, when "props" are made for a
show they are always made as light as
possible ; mine were as heavy as possible.

On another occasion I was making my
first appearance as a nigger with " props." I
was a bit handy at lightning sketching of
celebrities when it was a craze years ago, and
used to do two nigger songs and "patter,"
and then sketch on a blackboard. I had a
board specially made I've got part of it
now ; it was very weighty, with legs to fold
and screw with heavy screws ; then I had



AMATEUR DAYS 15

a large carpet-bag. I was engaged (oh, how
proud I was, too ! ) to appear as " Bransby
Williams, Negro Comedian, Character Im-
personator, and Lightning Cartoonist," at the
Central Hall, Bishopsgate, formerly known
as the City of London Theatre, in one of
the Saturday variety shows. I got there.
Oh, how easy to write those three words,
and how miserable I feel when I remember
how I got there, with the cumbersome black-
board under my right arm, nearly touching
the ground as I struggled along, and the big
bag with the " props " and heavy wooden
boots, etc., therein ! All my " props " were
made by myself, the pair of long boots I
wore in my stump speech having been
fashioned out of felt tops with long wooden
soles strapped on. Well, I got there, as I
say; and the enthusiasm exhibited cheered
me for the ordeal. I "blacked up," and was
all ready, feeling as nervous as a cat, and then
went on. I worked hard and had the audience
roaring and applauding my political sketches.
I filled in as much time as I could for them,
and of course they were glad, and saw, I
suppose, how anxious I was. When I had



16 AN ACTOR'S STORY

finished and had washed, I was handed the
grand salary of two shillings for my labour.
I was quite satisfied with the honour, but not
the pay. Things are somewhat different now ;
I don't have any very heavy " props," nor do
I carry them myself, and I don't work for
honour and glory only. Still, I love to look
back on the old times, when I slaved hard for
a few shillings as an amateur entertainer, and
I know it did me no harm.

After I had gained what shall we say ?
more pluck? I commenced singing comic
songs, and doing other business, without the
" black face." How strange when I think of it !
The " black " seemed to give me courage and
hide my blushes ! I learned many popular
songs of the day one, I remember, I sang
a great deal, was then being sung by J. W.
Rowley and Pat Rafferty, entitled " We drew
his club money this morning." I began to
think seriously that I must be original and
have my own songs if I were to succeed ; so
seeing an advertisement concerning the sale
of songs, I sought out the author and com-
poser, and wheedled a couple from him at five
shillings each with full singing rights. I can



AMATEUR DAYS 17

fancy what his face would be like now if
he were asked to supply songs on the same
terms. He has since become famous in the
music-hall world as T. W. Connor, and has
written many of the most popular songs of
the " stars." Well, I cannot quite remember
how it came about, but I was engaged to
appear at one of the Saturday " Pops " at the
Central Hall, Bishopsgate, as I have just
narrated. It was here, when the City of
London Theatre, that J. L. Toole made his
first appearance. It is now a " rubber factory."
I remember passing by and seeing the bills
announcing "Jesse Sparrow's Popular Saturday
Concerts at Shoreditch Town Hall," and I
was as proud as a peacock, to think that I,
too, was to appear as a full-blown artiste at
a Saturday Pop. In those days, Jesse Sparrow
(well known to-day in music halls) had such
names for his Saturday Concerts as Harry
Rickards, James Fawn, Arthur Roberts, Chirg-
win, Harry Randall, Herbert Campbell, and
the then famous negro comedian, E. W.
Mockney. To come to cues, as the mummer
says, I appeared at the Central Hall. I sang
three songs and was then due to give my

c



i8 AN ACTOR'S STORY

Lightning Sketches. I used to draw cele-
brities on large sheets of paper on a huge
board. Lightning cartoonists were very
popular in those days. I gave about thirty
minutes' entertainment, and when I had
packed up, not only my " props," but my
easel and board, I was then handed two
shillings, as I have said. I quietly asked if
that was "all," and was practically kicked out,
" props " as well, for my confounded imper-
tinence and proceeded on my way home,
carrying the large carpet-bag and my huge
board and easel, feeling very small and sad.
Still, I was just as enthusiastic and eager for
the fray next day.


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