Ettore Rella.

A history of burlesque (Volume 1939 14) online

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He is in the play but not of them, until the
last moment. He has a various fancy, and with
his camp-stool, his pipe, his cards, fishing-
rod and fan, his inseparable lusgage he accom-
plishes many grotesque effects."^''

The Lone Fisherman creation of George Knight stands
as one of those few original conceptions which freshened the
withered burlesque form in the latter part of the nineteenth
century. Unfortunately it also stands, along with the bur-
lesque of melodeons, as one of those irrecoverable portions
of theatrical history. The Chaplinesque quality of this
innocent fisherman, completely immersed in a scene which he
does not Influence nor which affects him to any great extent,

* Argonaut , April 13, 1878.


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Burlesque 177

is obvious. George Knight had created a cinematic character
a little too early for permanence in celluloid. By these
events, the relation of Chaplin's silent films to the whole
tradition of pantomime is clarified. The Commedia dell 'Arte
in its decadence shined out occasionally in such figures as
Grimaldi and George Knight, The efflorescences of this old
comedy of the people have been very rare in contemporary
society. The movements of Charles Chaplin, one of the few
outposts of the tradition, are fortunately preserved in the
little, whirring squares of celluloid. If the tradition
should again collapse, which is unlikely considering the ex-
treme pitch in the twentieth century of social antagonisms
and ferment, it could still be witnessed in the art of one
of its greatest practitioners.

Betsy B. returned to the run of Evangeline with
some hopefulness, seeing that Catherine Lewis had supplanted
the unfortunate choice of Florence Ellis as star:

"I believe if I were a manager making a combina-
ation, I should come to California and pick up
the floating material. They have picked up
Catherine Lewis in this way for Evangeline at
the Grand Opera House, Artistically, Miss
Lewis is a vast improvement on Florence Ellis,
She has some talent, chic, magnetism. If Rice
will do a little reconstructing he has found a
treasure. That garment in the first act should
be committed to the flames. Those black boats
should be sent out to the Parallons and sunk
with heavy weights. That red robe should be
forwarded to Alameda and cut into sashes for the
bullfighters. Next week, Russell, they say is
to play 'Catherine* while Harry Golden will
play 'Le Blanc. •" - '

^ Argonaut . April 20, 1878,


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Burlesque 178

Miss Lewis, however, was not attractive enough to
move the show from the red into the black and a last attempt
to bolster up the falling off of the audience was made by-
George Knight in the last week of the show's run:

''George Ivnight has been making up as Emperor
Norton. It is rather a frowsy costume, but
very natural, as the actor seemed to think one
night when, coming out he confronted the old
Emperor himself a foot or two from the stage.
Both seemed vastly pleased, and derived the
same satisfaction apparently that is to be ob-
tained from a long look in the glass, "-"'•

There was nothing left but a violent move on the
part of the impresario, so Rice announced a sudden change of
the bill to the old burlesque of Conrad the Corsair . Nothing
happened but further monetary loss for Rice and another series
of attempted rescues on the part of the stars in the company.
Catherine Lewis applied the oxygen with the drinking song
from Girof le-Girof la , but this maneuver netted nothing but
the dry quip from the reviewers that it was a shame Mies
Lewis did not look as well as she sang. George Knight applied
the Lone Fisherman episodes heavily, but the praise of the
press for his work had evidently no realistic ratio to box-
office receipts. The variations which he brought into his
costume are no longer clear. The Argonaut for May 4 found
that ''He looked like Caliban, in a pair of tigerish locking
tights, and he sang like a hoarse owl." Rice's spring season
was closed by Betsy B. of the Argonaut with a meditation on
Sol. Smith Russell's hair:

<i Ibid.

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Burlesque 179

"I find myself lost in amazement at the freaks
of that wonderful lower lip. It assumes many-
strange forms. There is also a great deal of
expression to his hair. When a solitary Napole-
on look lies on his forehead, he is the school
orator; when the front of it rears up like a
set of spikes he is the pompous attorney; when
it is smooth and sleek and properly set, he is
Sol. Smith Russell."*

With the persistence of the hero in a success story.
Rice returned to the scene of his economic debacle in Novem-
ber. The retvirn was practical; he was now backed up by a
superb cast. Alice Harrison and W. A. Mestayer had become
available after a noteworthy Boston engagement. Willie Edouin
and his wife, Alice Atherton, were sure to arouse enthusiasm
in their "home-town'' after their successes in the Eastern
cities. And there was Ella Chapman, consistent headliner in
burlesque for many years.

The vehicle for this glittering constellation was
stubbornly enough — after the experience with early American
history in Evangeline - named Hiawatha . This proved to be
ill-timed covirage. The graph of Rice's fall season was to
assume a pronounced curve; from the failure of Hiawatha , up
to the pronounced successes of Robinson Crusoe and Babes in
the Wood back down somewhere in between, to the production
of Revels .

The machinations of the plot of Hiawatha are no-
where recorded. The sort of melange Rice had tried to stick
together is pointedly analyzed by the Argonaut critic, Novem-
ber 2, 1878:

^' Argonaut , May 4, 1878,

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"I admire }l\r . Rice as a plagiarist ..« .Who
else would have dared to plan the first strains
of the old time melody of 'Jennie who lives on
the Hill' under so transparent a disguise as
' Into the Water We Go ' ; while a dozen other
Boucicaultian eccentricities cast one into a
haze of perplexity while trying to recall the
original air out of which the new was manu-
fact\ired. . . .Its ( Hiawatha's ) puns are feeble
and stale, and its situations are not amusing,
although the author has introduced the play
within the play, which latterly has grown to be
a specialty in dramatic writing, I think Mr.
Rice must agree with Owen Meredith that 'old
things are best,' for he utilises yet once
again the paste-board d-umb-bells and weights,
and the wooden horse, which have become stand-
ing properties in a minstrel troupe."

The audience was immediately hypersensitive to a
certain remoteness in Alice Harrison and interpreted it as
Boston hauteur. It proved to be merely a bad cold, and her
temporary withdrawal from the company removed one of the es-
sential props from Rice's shaky edifice, W, A, Mestayer,
last seen in San Francisco as an actor in legitimate drama,
showed a sudden rise in talent with his burlesque interpre-
tations which, the Argonaut familiarly assured him, "sit bet-
ter upon 'Lo,' the poor Indian, than upon the legitimate
characters over which you used to groan. •'"■"" Miss Louise
Searle, a newcomer, was found ''a really delightful singer.
She is pretty, in a characterless way, and in pink silk and
spangles reminds me of a French doll sitting open-eyed in a
toy window at Christmas time."""* The other stars of the
production are then taken care of by this same authority:

* Argonaut , November 2, 1878,


Burlesque 181

''He (Willie Edouin) was cast for 'William Penn'
in that vague elastic way peculiar to bur-
lesques, and perpetrated a series of lightning
changes frora Quaker to Athlete,.,. I am taken
with his wife, Alice Atherton . . . .She manages to
hit off the stolidity of the Indian Squaw in a
very amusing and thoroughly life-like way, and
accomplished a very amusing duet with 'I/Ir. Lo,'
although she has the merest skeleton cf a voice.
I must tell you of a tiny midget billed as Ella
Chapman. She sings a little song, and dances
a little dance, and plays a little baby banjo,
and has a wee little voice, and is altogether
such a little creature that one feels rather as
if they are looking on an Infant prodigy than
the burlesque actress of the period."-'^

Hiawatha's canoe proved much too fragile a craft
for the size of Rice's venture. The v/ater had barely closed
over the wreckage however, when the obstinate impresario
thrust another prow into the rapids of the press and the murky
waters of public reaction. There was a simple and unanimous
statement in the newspapers, November 9, following the open-
ing of Robinson Crusoe ; Hiawatha had been a failure, Robin -
son Crusoe was a hit,

Alice Atherton was the Crusoe, and the Friday foot-
prints which she discovered were those of Willie Edouin.
Miss Atherton 's Crusoe costume made green again the memory of
Lydia Thompson's first California tour, for it was the pio-
neer Thompson's creation;

''I wish you could see her (Alice Atherton) in
her suit of goatskin, with only a dash of color
let in, in the shape of a red wing in her cap,
and a set of red ribs in her Japanese umbrella.
I remember the cudgelling of brains Lydia

■::- Argonaut , November 2, 1878,



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Burlesque 182

Thompson had to conjure up this costume, and
what a hit it was.''^^'-

Other aspects of the production stirred up as much nostalgia
as the suggestively draped goat skin. There was a certain ef-
fect of stage lighting on Miss Searle :

''Apropos of resemblance, they cast the full
blaze of the calcium light on Miss Searle the
other night while she was singing- -singing ex-
quisitely, too- -and for a moment she was a pic-
ture of what Minnie Walton used to be in the
glory of her beauty, when Cherry and Fair Star
. was running at the old California. "•"'•

Willie Edouin's conception of Crusoe's man, Friday,
was the most discussed aspect of the production. Edouin had
done the part in the East where, report had it, he had lifted
burlesque up to something of its old pantomimic subtlety.
His performance was treated as seriously by the newspapers
of San Francisco. The Argonaut for November 9 declared so-
berly: "Burlesques always fizzle out toward the end, but in
the first part there is more in Friday than can be taken in
with a passing sense of pleased amusement.'' Brief reference
to competent acting jobs by Harry Dixey and Lou Harrison com-
pleted the early press coverage of the production*

Ella Chapman failed to gain the spotlight until the
production of Babes in the Wood , which opened November 18.
Her first press notice, November 23, merely implied that she
was still little and cunning and that she skipped rope . *''''>'■
Her second notice was shared with Willie Edouin:

•"■ Argonaut . November 9, 1878,
-""::-Ibid. November 23, 1878.


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Burlesque 183

''Ella Chapman as one of the naughty hahes has
an awfully jolly time of it. She dresses like a
little tot of four years, and V/illie Edouin
dresses and acts like an imp - a small male Imp
of six."'**

With the general opinion, and the definite proof in

his pocket, that the Babes in the Wood had been as successful

a burlesque as Robinson Crusoe , Rice confidently plunged into

the final catastrophe of his long San Francisco engagement.

The much advertised Revel s, or Bon Ton George Jr . , woke up

to the following review of its opening:

''The audience was sparse and cold, and of that
character that demanded satisfaction for antic-
ipation, and was disgusted when it did not even
get it by waiting till after twelve o'clock;
for Revels opened as a weakling and strung along
the most ridiculous lot of rubbish that was ev-
er dignified with the highsounding name of spec-
tacle. Another English imposition without co-
herency of plot or movement, containing nothing
new or novel, unless it be the diabolical at-
tempts at punning that so invariably afflicts
the text of anything that Rice and Co. have to
do with."^="^'*

The press despaired of summarizing the plot, find-
ing the events had something to do with Saint George and the
dragon, with the opening scenes vaguely Biblical, and the
closing scenes somehow divided between contemporary England
and India, The luminosity of all the stars but Willie Edouin
had dimmed, "Situations intended to be ridiculous .. .are only
saved from actual stupidity by the interpretation of the
character 'Gallapat' by Willie Edouin, who has carried the
performance and given what little satisfaction has been had

<{■ Argonaut , November 30, 1878,
-i:-^;-Ibid. December 28, 1878.


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Burlesque 184

from if declared the Argonaut for December 28. Dwindling
audiences confirmed this opinion. Rice slashed the admission
prices; there was an upsurge in gate receipts, but the audi-
ence could not be held. The transformation scene and the
corridor setting, which had cost so much money, were cliches
of burlesque staging, no longer of interest to the public ex-
cept in the almost sentimental revivals of The Black Crook .
The music of Revels was, according to Rice's honest practice,
freely lifted from any available source; this time the steal-
ing was conducted without any taste whatsoever. The fate of
the production was clear from a last, irrevocable statement
in the Argonaut ' s review for December 28, 1878:

"It ( Revels ) has not even the huiiiorous features
of lost Evangeline , the magnificent spectacular
failure of a year' ago . ''

The year was complete, and Rice's Surprise Party
had become a sort of boomerang. The public, at the last, had
been frigidly unsurprised. Rice's meditation on the closing
night of his Revels , as he leaned over a bar or, with disgust
and exhaustion, snapped his suspender from his shoulder in
his hotel room, are among the invaluable, forever-lost rec-
ords which novel writers pretend to recover. Even so, the
year's production of burlesque in San Francisco had been his;
and the years to come would often recur to his Surprise Party
troupe, if not to his own writing of burlesque, as one of the
high criterions of burlesque history.

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Burlesque 185

The small deaths of individual careers are easily-
observed and furnish entertaining newspaper copy. The larger
more important deaths of an art form - a political institu-
tion, the buffalo, or the technique for making violins — are
more evasive of observation, and slippery of analysis. Min-
strelsy, -under the aegis of Billy Emerson and Charlie Reed at
Standard Theatre on Bush Street in the early eighties ;was ex-
hibiting (and neither the public nor the minstrels knew this)
the jerking muscles of its rigor mortis. When burlesque ex-
travaganza had risen to its height of popularity in The Black
Crook , the minstrels had competed by lending as many bur-
lesque elements as possible to their own performances. Now,
in the eighties, when Gilbert and Sullivan had shifted the
whole trend of theatrical entertainment toward light opera,
the minstrels took on as much of that color as possible. The
old end man, interlocutor, olio formula was discarded^ min-
strelsy as a particular kind of entertainment had lost its
reason for being.

Burlesque itself was gasping dangerously for second
wind of popularity in the spring of 1879. The Victorian
Lof tus British Blondes attempted the same fields that an over-
whelming invasion of blondes had already cropped close. The
variety acts, which were played against the outworn backgrovmd
of a blonde ballet, saved the engagement from fail-ure. There
was Harry Le Clair, a female impersonator, in an act entitled

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Burlesque 186

''The Stage-Struck Chambermaid.'' The Etzeltxne Sisters manip-
ulated Indian clubs in a ''novel and picturesque act'' which
"brought down the house. "•5^' Miss Lotta Elliott skipped into
the hearts of her critics to such an extent by means of her
skipping-rope act that subsequent notices praised her famil-
iarly as Miss Lottie. James Marlow apparently filled out to
a certain extent at least his advertised afflatus as "Banjo
King." The Victorian Loftus British Blondes was obviously a
misnomer for a variety troupe.

Matt Morgan's Living Art Pictures , at the Adelphi
in 1879, with their nostalgic remembrance of the success of
Dr, Collyer's Model Artists at the Athenaeum in 1850, were
another instance of burlesque casting about for a direction!
in this instance, the psychologists would say, a rec\irrence
to the simple harmonies of childhood. Figaro for February
25, 1879 remarked, of Morgan's Living Pictures, that

''The one that took our fancy most was the reali-
zation of that well-known picture, The Old Couple
in the Art Gallery. It is well done, and here
we would say, that there is nothing in the
production of these pictures that could possibly

On the other hand, burlesque, in one of its desper-
ate metamorphoses for its life breath, called down, very de-
liberately, the adjective "offensive." Still under the
managership of M. B, Leavitt,the combination of the Rentz Fe-
male Minstrels and the Mabel Santley troupe returned to San
Francisco in February and opened at the Standard theatre.

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Burlesque 187

Degree of undress and suggestive gesture were exploited as

the last chance for theatrical survival. Unf ortunately^ the

entertainment of the exhibit moved from the theatre to the

courtroom where most of Leavitt's engagement was performed. ■'''"

The charge of indecent exposure brought against Mabel Santley

netted her a fine of )200, while the charges automatically

filed against Leavitt as manager were finally dismissed. As

for the theatrical performance itself, the court witnesses

who were delegated to view it, could not, after sitting

through the program in one case two times, in another four

times, in another twelve times, "see anything in it." T he

News Letter for February 22,1879 had already declared itself:

"The women are all plain and mostly middle-aged.
And there is not a fresh voice in the lot. The
performance is insxiff erably stupid, but tights
are worn and limbs are shown, and bald heads and
downy tikes will pay for this sort of thing.''

On only one occasion at this time did burlesque
face the encroachment of light opera firmly and with the in-
herent method of the burlesque tradition. In the middle of
the summer, 1879, Tony Pastor annovmced a satirical produc-
tion. The Canal Boat Pinafore , take-off on the English origi-
nal, so much in vogue at this time that nothing else seemed
to stand a chance on the boards.

"There is really no sense in any manager trying
to play anything but Pinafore . There's Tony
Pastor, a man of the times, realized the necessi-
ty of playing Pinafore , and the utter absurdity
of trying to play anything elsej so he has con-
verted a whole battalion of song and dance peo-
ple into opera singers. They have burlesqued it

-;;- For details of Mabel Santley' s trial, see monograph on
The Court and the Stage , this series.

or' .' tof. <••

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Burlesque 188

ever so slightly and one can see that every in-
dividual member of the company has had a yearn-
ing to play Pinafore , and they do play Pinafore
with an earnestness of effort which shows that
they are challenging comparison. But the trail
of song and dances is over it all; and the spe-
cialists will appear, for the 'Admiral' is a
Dutchman; the 'Dick Deadeye ' an Irishman; and
the 'Buttercup' unmistakably from the London
concert hall. They are all exceedingly clever;
even the 'Josephine' is a fresh rather artless
little girl for a variety singer. As for 'Ralph
Racks traw, ' the much transposed music sounds
oddly enough in the Irwin's deep, strange, un-
comfortable voice; but she is a dashing looking
mariner. And is Pinafore played out yet? Not
a bit of it."^^

November 1879, the Colville Opera Burlesque Com-

Online LibraryEttore RellaA history of burlesque (Volume 1939 14) → online text (page 16 of 29)