East End Memories


The Hackney Empire


Once the band’s introduction was complete and they had received a rousing round of applause, we were all ready for the second half to begin. The hands of the audience always seemed to be brought together with a great gusto in response to the band’s second medley and this, I was convinced, was from the influence of the alcohol consumed by many during the interval. Still, I must confess that the band did work hard and deserved their response. Mind you, as a child I was eager for the clapping to end so that we could get back to the matter at hand – the second half.

The second act would start, as did the first, with the return of the chorus girls. Despite their being dressed in different outfits and their efforts being as energetic, the dance routine would be remarkably similar to that of the first half. However, at my young age, as long as they wore a headdress of feathers, I did not care and so was never disappointed and clapped heartily when they completed their turn.

The quality of the acts of the second half was generally superior to those of first half. However, on occasion, and much to my annoyance, a few acts from the first half would return. One thing that did please me was that, on the whole, the comedians were more amusing. Their jokes and stories were presented in a more professional manner and I would often find myself laughing and joining in the fun with those about me. The performers were more seasoned and their acts would be of higher quality and of a more sophisticated nature and one such act, which was saved for the second half, was the specialty dance performed by a dazzling duo.

At the time of my childhood, and for many years preceding, the specialty dance had been a very popular act. It was performed to Latin or South American rhythms and considered exotic. At that time, although dancing was still a reasonably popular pastime, the average person did not know how to dance to such rhythms, and when they did, they proved far from dexterous. This style of dancing had been introduced to the public through film and most musicals produced up until that time would always include one or two such dances performed by professionals. The professionals were a duo consisting of a dark handsome man with a remarkably narrow waste with a name such as Juan, Jose or Marco and his partner who would be a dark and surly temptress of remarkable beauty and who would be dressed in a revealing gown that would have a train at the back but which would be cut away at the front to reveal very shapely legs. This gorgeous and glamorous creature with her alluring eyes would be called something like Juanita, Maria or Lucinda.

Prior to the start of the specialty dance act, the band would wait for the applause for the previous act to end before the drummer would begin to beat a slow and exotic rhythm on the bass drum. This would be my signal to begin to sway in time to the beat and would cause my mother to lightly slap my hand or leg, which told me to sit still. After about a minute of this pulsating rhythm pulsing through my veins, the band would began to play suitable mood music, which would cause me once again to go into my sway. By now, my mother would be as captivated as me and no longer noticed my slow and gentle movement to the music and I would be free to groove in peace. Just then, the curtain would very slowly open and there on the stage one would see the silhouette of Juan, Jose or Marco against the backdrop curtain. As one became accustomed to the light, I would see that this menacing figure was wrapped in a cloak and wearing a large Spanish style hat on his head. Suddenly, a spotlight would now bathe him in limelight. Flamenco DancerAfter a suitable period of time for the audience to take in his majesty, the dashing hero would fling off his cloak and hat with grand flurry and then with an exaggerated swirl and whirl, send these garments spinning off stage. Meanwhile the band would continue to play, but now at an increased timbre and pulsation. A second spotlight next illuminated Juanita, Maria or Lucinda who would be seen striking a picturesque and stationary pose. Following my gasp, this vision of beauty would begin to move slowly to the music, and with stealth and dexterity, she would make her way to stage centre where she would eventually become frozen in an exaggerated pose and glisten in the limelight. Naturally, I would be very much taken by this scene and become quite breathless. By now, I would have moved to the edge of my seat while maintaining my gentle sway to the constant, pounding and hypnotic rhythm. Each dancer now stood poised face-to-face, each with their heads held high and with noses in the air. Their chins would be pointed forward and their shoulders would be pulled back. To me, they appeared like two stationary snarling felines, each ready to spring at the other at any second.

Naturally, at my young and tender age, I was fascinated and overwhelmed by the interaction of the dancers. Later I learned that they were eyeing each other while giving one another that prideful yet defiant look long associated with such artistes. Not normally seeing this sort of interaction in my routine life, I found myself completely intrigued and totally captivated by it. In fact, I was bewitched by it, so much so, that I wished to emulate it. And emulate it I did. For many weeks, I spent much time before a mirror performing and perfecting it and the accompanying stealthful walk. Naturally, this behaviour did not please my parents, as I would have the habit of entering a room slowly and deliberately in this exaggerated manner when summoned. However, all of this was the thin end of the wedge, as once I proved that I could behave myself when taken to the theatre, I was allowed to accompany my parents to see the great Antonio & His Dance Troupe. It was only then that I truly learned what it meant to display pride and to know the true meaning of the word exotic. Following this experience, I became totally besotted with flamenco and was never quite the same again. But more of this later - Ole!

Speciality Dances:

Click Here!Tango

Click Here!Samba and Rumba

Now that the dancers had set the scene, the band would break away into suitable music to accompany the wild fandango that John & Mary were about to fling themselves into. Sometime later I learned that Juan & Juanita & Jose & Lucinda et al were no more exotic than me and generally came from Scunthorpe or Gateshead or somewhere equally as fascinating in the romantic North of England. In spite of their humble beginnings, one had to give them bravos for being able to create a mood and convince us that they were from Havana or Rio or somewhere as equally as exotic. Anyway, John & Mary now sprang at each other and each threw themselves into their dance. They swayed and performed to the rhythm and created a mood that certainly carried me off to a more exotic and sophisticated place. I was amazed how Mary did not suffer broken bones from the way that John took hold of her and hurled her about the stage.

Apache DanceAll too soon their dance would be over. John would look as if he were about to kill her while Mary would have a look that dared him to do so. At this, the audience, led by me, would burst into thunderous applause and John & Mary would seemingly regain their composure and walk slowly to the edge of the stage. As they made their way, I noticed that the duo did not break the mood and maintained it while they took their bows. Mary would perform an exaggerated curtsy with her head bowed low and John would have taken her hand and elegantly bow from the waist. Each would never smile, but would maintain that proud and defiant look on their faces. Once the curtain had come slowly to a close, a buzz would sweep across the audience and I would fall back into my seat quite exhausted from the spectacle just seen.

Although I was greatly taken with the Latin dance duo, the most spectacular dance that I saw as a child, prior to Antonio et al of course, was performed at the Hackney by a couple where the woman was really flung around the stage by what I took at the time to be a brute of a man. This was the famous Apache Dance. For those unfortunate enough never to have seen this dance, it originated in Marseilles and is performed by a man in a dark blue and white horizontally stripped shirt and beret and a woman in a white blouse and black pencil skirt with a long slip to one side also wearing a beret. He would have a lighted cigarette dangling from his mouth, which I am told was a necessary prop. The two would dance closely at first or rather he would take a number of steps backwards at top speed, while she would collapse and fall onto him and he would drag her backwards with him. She would next come alive and would next take the same number of fast and furious steps backwards, taking him with her this time. The music would then speed up and he would twirl and swing her around like a rag doll and finally fling her across the stage. She would be sent off spinning and twisting. The poor and apparently abused creature would eventually crash into a table, but would land in a chair and sit there with that defiant look on her face. All of this would be completed in time with the music. They would now spar and cavort back and forth, each flinging the other around and eventually the dance would end with him hurling her away with seemingly marked brutality. One would assume that she would land exhausted and broken in a heap on the floor, but as he stealthfully prowled towards her as she lay on the stage, she would spring to life one final time and would send a bottle crashing down on his head. He would stumble somewhat and she would next fling him around as she punched and kicked at him. Finally, he would overcome her blows and scoop her up into his arms with her continuing to kick and fight him off. Then they would look into each other’s eyes, obviously decide that they loved each other really and then embrace, which would be the sign for him to grab her by the hair and drag her off the stage for further discussion alone.

Click Here!Apache Dance

Now, that was a dance! I remember that when I was living in Paris, a friend and I passed a whole night going from bar to bar in the Bastille region looking for a place where this dance was performed. Sadly, we never did find one. The only time that I saw it performed in France was at the Moulin Rouge and, as good as this was, it did not and could not compare to that seen at the Hackney all those years earlier.

The final turn of the second half would be reserved for the big act – the star attraction. This person or persons would be well known to the audience and was generally the reason why most patrons had bought tickets. The star would have their name printed larger than all others in the programme and on the various advertisements that appeared in newspapers and on marques and play cards (which is how I thought placard was pronounced – remember, I was young then) throughout the area.

Most of the stars that topped the bill during the time I visited the Hackney were either singers or comedians. I was fortunate enough to see many of the great comedians of the day – Arthur Askey, Ted Ray, Jimmy Wheeler, Max Wall, Ben Warris & Jimmy Jewel, Reg Dixon, Tommy Trinder and of course the great Max Miller. I even saw Benny Hill during his early days, long before he adopted the style seen for his television shows. In those days, Benny Hill was a stand up comedian but would sing amusing songs that he had written. The only song that I can remember of his now was The Ballard of Ernie the Milkman, which was written many years later and which was very popular. Benny Hill was a master of the surreal and understood the tastes and manners of the working man. He was a devotee of the double entendre. In other words, he was rude – not overtly rude or directly dirty – but rude, nonetheless. He had the habit of saying something, which could be taken as something completely innocent. However, he would next turn his head slightly to one side and then return it and look at the audience in a certain way. This, along with the smirk on his face and the impish gleam in his eye, would really inform the patrons of the real intention of his words.

Comedians - Jimmy Wheeler, Max Wall,  Arthur Askey and Ted Ray

These comedians had spent years honing their craft and understood the importance of timing. They had perfected their art through long years on the road and touring the circuits that existed at that time throughout the country. As a result, they were more skilful and definitely funnier then their earlier counterparts of the first half. By now, these entertainers had become well known from their shows and appearances on the radio. And since I was an avid radio listener as a child, I was more than familiar with them all.

At that time, I do not recall any female comedians. There was the odd woman who performed impressions and who would tell jokes while maintaining the persona of a well-known comedian, but none that I can remember who was a comedian in her own right. Many comics of the era had a trademark theme to their jokes and stories. Some would poke fun at their mothers-in-law or their wives while others would talk about their seemingly poor health. Reg Dixon, a great favourite of mine at one time, would start his act by telling the audience that he had been feeling poorly of late. At his saying of this remark, the audience would burst into a round of applause along with gales of laughter, since he was associated and recognized by it. Others also had trademark catch phrases. For example, Arthur Askey would say I thank you in a silly voice a number of times in his act. Later, he would add prior to the telling a joke, the expression and now, before your very eyes. These catch phrases would often enter into the public’s psyche and one would be hearing them from kids and adults alike. This could often be most annoying. However, when exercised with caution and care by a specific comedian, the trademark catchphrase would be warmly received by all, including me.

Other comics would be known for their props. The most favoured prop was the musical instrument, which would be incorporated into their act. The most common instrument would be the violin. Most would hold the instrument at their sides and use the bow to point in order to accentuate their jokes. Others would integrate various thrusts across its strings to accentuate a punch line or else to denote the end of the joke. Eventually, at the conclusion of their act, the comedian would place the violin under his chin after taking out a clean white handkerchief and placing it on his shoulder and finally he would play a popular tune of the day. Jimmy Wheeler, with his toothbrush mustache and amusing hat along with Ted Ray would always play a tune on their violins at the end of their acts. I seem to remember that both played quite well and demonstrated some skill in doing so. However, most comics would either sing a song or tell a joke that would end with them delivering the punch line loudly and the band striking up their signature tune, as they waved and bowed in appreciation as the curtain closed on them.

Tommy TrinderThere were other comedians who topped the bill, some memorable and others not so.  There were comedians who were memorable for both their acts and for their appearance.  One such comedian was Tommy Trinder with his remarkable long chin and another was Max Wall who was truly remarkable for everything.   Max Wall was a master comedian and had an imposing voice.  He would appear on stage in a costume resembling that of Richard III complete with black jerkin, tights and shoulder length black hair with a fringe at the front.  He made for an hilarious figure.  I also remember the comedian Davy Kaye, not because his act was especially memorable, but rather because I thought that I was going to see Danny Kaye. I am sure that I was neither the first nor the last to make this error.

Click Here!Tommy Trinder at Great Yarmouth

Of all the comedians that were popular at the time I was taken to the Hackney, I think that I liked Max Miller the best of all. I think that his stage costume had a lot to do with my liking of his act for it was outlandish to say the least. He would wear a somewhat battered straw hat on his Max Millerhead and sport an oversized raccoon-styled overcoat. The coat was long and seemed a bit ratty to me. He would often wear plus fours as if he were about to go off to play a round of golf. He had an amusing face with somewhat pointed features and shiny red cheeks and looked rather like a clown in a circus. I suspect now that his complexion was such, since he may well have suffered with Rosacea. Max Miller was a remarkable interpreter of the punch line and had a wonderful delivery when telling stories and jokes. Even though I was young when I saw him, I could not but notice that he was a master of timing. He knew when to say something and when to wait to allow the required audience response to occur. I seem to remember that he also had a catchphrasenow listen! He would employ it to accentuate his joke to great effect. Naturally, he over-acted and exaggerated all of his gestures and responses, but that was what comics did in those days. Later I realized that the content of his act was somewhat risqué and more than a trifle blue. This may well have been the case, but at my age, I did not notice and so was free to enjoy his style and delivery without influence of content.

Despite the immense popularity of the comedians at that time, most of the final acts of the second half were singers. Some would be those of recent popularity thanks to their ability to sell gramophone records and be requested on the radio while others were more seasoned performers who had built up a following over the years and who had a large repertoire of songs much loved by the audience. These professionals, although singers, were best described as entertainers since they not only could sing, but they could engage the audience in a one-sided conversation that often proved as pleasing as their melodies.

HutchOne such entertainer that I enjoyed very much was Hutch. I am uncertain if he sold many gramophone records, or indeed if he made many, but nevertheless, he was a great favourite at the Hackney and with me. I had the great pleasure of seeing him perform a number of times and was never disappointed with either his choice of song or with his delivery. Hutch was a true entertainer, a creator of mood. He would accompany himself on the piano while singing slow and lilting sophisticated songs of love. He always appeared in a dinner jacket and would be found seated at the piano as the curtains opened. I don’t recall seeing him ever standing and bowing and have the impression that he remained seated at the piano when accepting his applause. Hutch was considered to be a toff – someone from the upper classes, who would be at home singing at an expensive club in Mayfair or at the Royal Variety Performance. I remember a cigarette constantly burning in an ashtray on the piano top. This prop added to mood that he set. Behind him would be long billowing sheer curtains that gentle moved to a gentle breeze created by an off-stage wind machine set on low. His set was lit with low and slightly subdued lighting except for the spotlight that surrounded him as he performed.

Although, I don’t recall Hutch as having an especially remarkable singing voice or being brilliant in his playing of the piano, it mattered little. Neither of these qualities was essential or important as to what was the essence of him. Hutch’s charm was in his ability to create a mood. Within minutes, he was able to develop an ambiance between his audience and himself and one felt the whole place relax as he did and to fall under his spell. He sang, or rather spoke, of love and of love that had generally gone wrong. I seemed to remember him singing one song in particular - These foolish things - with great pathos and tenderness. Even now, his version of the song lingers in my memory and is the yardstick by which I judge other performers when they attempt this song.

The Way You Look Tonight

While on-stage, Hutch was mesmerizing. I had never seen anyone like him before and he set off something previously unknown in me – a kind of melancholy that I could feel but not understand at the time. Hutch created a way for his audience to face that certain sadness that memories can often bring. However, this was not one that brought misery or a feeling of despair. Rather it was one that brought pleasure, but pleasure of a different kind, and that allowed the audience to revisit old memories and relive them from a different perspective. Years later, once I learned the term bitter sweet, I thought of Hutch and the something that he had introduced me to and I realized it was this term was the perfect definition of the feelings and mood that he created. I still sigh when I hear his name and I find that my attention wanders off and soon stumbles on memories of painful situations that I wish I could somehow change but know that I cannot.

There were many other singers that topped the bill at the Hackney that I saw. Some were excellent while others were not to my taste. There are some that I remember with great affection and Ann Shelton was such a singer. She was a large lady with a pleasant manner and a powerful voice. She was always impeccably dressed and was fond of wearing long dark blue dresses modestly cut at the neck with sequins or something similar that caused the bodice to glitter. She was a great favourite of the public and behaved graciously and modestly as she bowed in acceptance of their applause.

In those days, performers were required to be professional. What this meant in terms of the public was that they knew how to behave on stage. Performers knew how to respond to applause and to acknowledge their thanks with either a bow or a curtsey. In addition, performers were able to talk to the audience, which seems to have become a lost art today. I remember reading an article about The Beatles during their first American tour. Apparently the journalists covering their tour were surprised by the ability of the boys to know how to behave on stage and how to talk to an audience. Apparently, young American singers of the time were unable to do either of these things, which might explain the meteoric demise in popularity of Bill Haley & His Comets when they toured Britain. Brian Epstein credited the Beatles’ stage presence to the experience gained from touring the Musical Hall Circuit during the early part of their career where they had the good fortune to watch and learn from many seasoned performers.

I also enjoyed the singing of Jimmy Young. He later went on to fame as a radio presenter on BBC Radio Two. He was well known at the time for his cover version of Too Young and was a special favourite of my father. My Father had the gift of being able to play the piano by ear. This was a talent greatly valued when he was young, before homes had record players and before the radio constantly played music. This talent apparently ensured him invitations to parties and gatherings and brought such virtuosos many free drinks when they played for the clientele of a public house. After hearing the song Too Young, my father quickly learned to play it on the piano and would entertain us with his rendition on Sunday evenings along with many other tunes of the times and of yesteryear. I was always amused to hear him sing, at the top of his voice, and with great feeling, about his being told that …… they tried to tell us we’re too young … and … too young to know that love was just a word, a word they’d only heard and can’t begin to know the meaning of. He would continue by telling us that … they were not too young to know … and finally that … someday they might recall that we were not too young at all! All very powerful stuff, no doubt, but its feeling and significance were beyond me at that time.

Steve ConwayThere was one singer that I remember who was a particular favourite of my parents. This was Steve Conway. I think that he was a local boy and must have been known to my parents. Anyway, he was once very popular and I recall that we owned a number of gramophone records made by him. Sadly, he sang and popularized My Foolish Heart. Naturally, being a devotee of Hutch, I preferred his version and never quite gave Mr. Conway a chance to convince me of his merit as a singer. I believe that he died at a young age, which saddened my parents when they heard the news.

One person that I had no trouble enjoying, but who could never be described as just a singer was a personality who was larger than life, as they used to say, and who could truly be described as an all round entertainer. This was the wonderful Tessie O’Shea or Two Ton Tessie, as she was known at that time. Tessie O’Shea always gave her audience what one used to call your money’s worth. She had great vitality and energy and the audience was exhausted after experiencing her act. She sang, played the banjo and amused the audience with jokes and stories, and poked fun at herself while doing it all. She was greatly loved by just about everyone. Years later in the early eighties, I saw her a final time on the New York stage. Broadway was obviously attempting to demonstrate to a new audience what Vaudeville had been about and a season of variety was being produced at one of the theatres. Although she was a star act in her own right, Tessie O’Shea was being billed either second or third on the bill. She was a lot older by now but her energy and vitality remained. She amused the audience by having them play along with her.

As I have said, it is the welcome practice in America to hand out a small magazine to patrons when they enter the theatre. This magazine not only contains a brief synopsis of what one was going to see, but also some information about the actors and actresses, a few articles of interest and some plugs for restaurants in the area. Along with the magazine for the show starring Tessie O’Shea, curiously a brown paper bag was also given. In the middle of her act, Miss O’Shea asked us to take out our paper bags and asked us to twist it to form a neck about two or three inches from the opening and then to flatten out the remaining part of the bag. We were next encouraged to hold the neck in our left hand while strumming the flattened out part with our right. Although it was a cold and snowy night in New York and the theatre was less than half-filled, the strumming was loud and sounded like people dancing on sand, which used to be a popular act in Music Hall during my visits to the Hackney. She then asked us to play along, and at that, she launched into a lively number on her banjo. The audience was obviously thrilled by her and especially by their own efforts – all except for one – me! As I said, I was never one to enjoy sing-a-longs and found that I could not quite bring myself to be become a part of the world’s largest brown paper bag strumming band despite my admiration for Miss O’Shea. So I sat and enjoyed her and her entertainment in silence.

Issy BonnOf all the real singers that I heard at the Hackney, my favourite without any question was Issy Bonn. He is a singer now long since forgotten except by Music Hall enthusiasts. In retrospect, I suspect that he was not an especially great or accomplished singer, but I knew nothing of what made for a great or good singer at that time. All I knew was that I liked him very much and enjoyed his singing. He sang with great gusto and with passion and I admired these qualities. As I remember, he was a short, rather dumpy man who wore a double-breasted suit along with a wide loud tie, which was very much the fashion of the day. He had a powerful voice and like many singers of that time did not need a microphone to be heard at the back of the balcony. I remember that on one occasion, he asked for requests from the audience. Not far from where I was sitting was a man who started to yell very loudly sing My Yiddisher Momma in response to Mr. Bonn. Sadly for this man, Mr. Bonn sang someone else’s favourite and then asked for more requests. Again, he chose someone else’s song. This did not deter the man and each time Mr. Bonn asked for requests, he yelled louder than before. Eventually, Mr. Bonn, being the showman that he was, graciously yielded to his public. He turned to his pianist and gave him the slightest of nods, whereupon he played the introduction into the song with great verve. The crowd went wild and drowned out the introduction, requiring it to be played again. After staring at the floor of the stage during its playing, Mr. Bonn straightened himself, threw out his arms wide and began to sing or rather belt out the opening lines. My Yiddisher Momma is a very emotional song. Songs like this have long since fallen out of fashion and may even seem laughable today. However, when one is alone and listens to this song, I am sure that to the listener, no matter who she or he is, painful memories return and the listener cannot but be left with twinges of regret. Issy’s injection of emotion was one hundred per cent proof, as he put his whole heart into his rendition. The pianist played a great flurry of notes at the end while Issy walked away to one side of the stage, turned his back on the audience in order to regain his composure. Once the crescendo of notes died away, there would be a second or two of silence and then Issy would turn to face us and would stand there with fallen shoulders and with a look of hurt on his face. The audience erupted in appreciation. I was quite exhausted by this time as I took every word that he sang very seriously. Naturally, now I realize that he had waited until almost the close of his act to sing this song. It was obviously his piece de resistance and he knew well that it was not only emotionally draining to perform but that he would not be able to top it with any other song. In spite of his short statue and dumpy appearance, Issy was a great showman and someone that knew how to sell a song.

Issy Bonn - Pathe short from 1939

My mother and I would disagree, on many occasions, regarding our admiration of Issy Bonn. Although she found him to be a reasonable singer, she did not especially enjoy his rendition of My Yiddisher Momma. My mother felt that it was exaggerated besides which she much preferred the elegant version of Sophie Tucker. I have to confess that over the years, I have learned the wisdom of this choice. Still, I was a child in those days, so what did I know?

Singers - Anne Shelton, Issy Bonn, Jimmy Young, Josef Locke

Click on each picture to hear music

Top row: Anne Shelton and Josef Locke
Bottom Row: Jimmy Young and Issy Bonn

Another singer that was greatly loved and appreciated at the time was the great Irish tenor Josef Locke. Josef Locke had a radio programme when I was young and so was well known to the general public and to me. He was recognized for a number of songs, but the one that I liked best was Hear my song. This song allowed him to display his singing range to perfection. He, like Issy Bonn, was, as I recall, a short and over weight man and with an oversized personality to match. He disappeared from public view soon after I saw him for years and I was at a loss as to know why. According to the film, Hear my song, he owed the taxman a lot of money and decided to escape to Ireland where he apparently led a life of seclusion. I am unsure how true this is. Despite the passing of time, I still enjoy hearing Hear my song, Violetta …….

Although singers and comedians were generally the star attraction at the Hackney, occasionally another type of act would be granted this honour. My first taste of the big band sound came at the Hackney when I saw two large bands when they topped the bill. The first was Joe Loss and his band. Joe Loss led a dance band and enjoyed a certain success on radio and in dance halls or Palais de Danse, as they used to be called. I remember that my father did not enjoy his set too much as he found the band to be too loud. My father found the lack of a violin section to be unfortunate. I have to confess that I found the band loud and felt that they could have benefited by including a string section.

Joe Loss’ signature tune was In the Mood, a tune made famous during the Second World War by the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Mr. Loss was a man of great energy and he would dance and prance about in front of the band and seemed to me to do little to actually lead his band. As a result, I gained a new respect for the house band and its leader. In spite of this, I heard the big band for the first time and I will always be grateful to Mr. Loss for opening the door to this style of music to me.

The second big band that I saw topping the bill at the Hackney was one that had a pronounced effect on me both from a musical standpoint and as a result of their exotic dress and behaviour. This was Edmundo Ros and his Latin American Band. This was the first time that I was exposed to a rumba rhythm and the first time that I heard a conga drum. I cannot stress the effect that the rhythm of the rumba had on me. To this day, I find its rhythm to be hypnotic and to symbolize seduction. The mere sound of a conga drum causes my heart to pound and causes me to sway in time to the beat. I was completely unprepared for the rhythms that I heard that night, and on reflection, even I have to admit that I was probably too young to be subjected to such potent music. I left the theatre that night in a daze and remained under the spell of what I had heard for sometime afterwards. In addition, I most certainly was not ready for the exotic dress of the band members. They wore shirts with billowing sleeves decorated with ruffles. Their attire absolutely stunned me, and this in combination with the rumba rhythm, sent me into a Latin American mood that I have never quite been able to shake off. I begged my mother to buy me such a shirt for ages after, but she never would, and never did. I was very, very upset about that and have always felt deprived at being denied such a simple request!

Edmundo Ros, Joe Loss

I remember Edmundo Ros and his Latin American Band with great affection and discovered many new instruments, sounds and dances thanks to them. Naturally, over the years, I have realized that the band was no Tito Puente or even a Desi Arnez. However, at that time, it was enough to introduce me to the concept of sultry maidens gently moving their hips from side to side while palm trees swayed to the rumba rhythym that echoed seductively through the night by the surf as it moved gently to and fro across the sand.

Click Here!
Edmundo Ros: The Wedding Samba

After seeing and hearing this band, I could not get enough of this music and I became a regular listener when the band was given a weekly radio programme. My parents never quite shared my obsession with such rhythms and preferred the more bland tunes of the days and escaped the spell of the marimba and conga drum. However my interest in this style of music did bring about something quite remarkable. I remember hearing on the radio that a great Latin American star would soon be visiting London. Immediately I set about trying to persuade them into taking me to see her. As a result of my almost constant nagging, I managed to achieve my goal and so was fortunate enough to be taken to see the great Carmen Miranda when she appeared at the Palladium. The spectacle was breathtaking and I will be eternally grateful to my parents for taking me. Naturally her personality and her performance completely overwhelmed me and I became besotted with her for a number of years, but more of that later.

According to my mother – and I cannot vouch for the truth of this story – Mr. Ros was flirtatious and enjoyed a certain reputation as a ladies man. My mother said that his wife always accompanied him to performances and sat in a box, alone and hidden from view, and kept her eye on her husband. As romantic as this notion is, I cannot corroborate it and the whole story may be nothing more than an exaggeration on my mother’s part.

Music Hall, in its purest form, was always meant to be good clean fun. Despite what the authorities said of Marie Lloyd and of the bluish tinge to the jokes of some comedians it was an art form where there was no overt smut and where there was not meant to be any nudity. At one time such things as living tableaux formed part of the entertainment, but this was not the general case during my years of going to the Hackney. What was allowed to find its way onto the circuit periodically during that time were certain mildly provocative productions. These presentations were called peep shows. Such shows were mild in nature when compared to those produced in Paris where specialized establishments had been built for the presentation of specific productions aimed at titillating and tantalizing both the visitor and local alike.

Somehow, on only one occasion, I was allowed, while still being at a very young and tender age, to participate at the presentation of such a show. I cannot be certain of the title of the show, but I believe that it was Piccadilly Peep Show or Hayride. Being totally urbane, and knowing nothing about the joys of living in a rural setting, I had no idea of the fun that could be had on a hayride with the right company, and so the full implication of the show’s title was lost on me.

I believe that I saw this show from the comfort of one of the front rows of the fauteuils since I remember certain sights clearly and feel that I could only have done so had I been close to the stage. The show started off like any other, but then became different in that I don’t recall there being any magician or tumblers or animal acts. I do remember that there was lots of dance. One dance I remember especially since I found it both sensual and enlightening. The dance involved three women, two who hardly moved and did little else except add to the scenery while the third woman danced around the stage aided by two enormous fans of ostrich feathers. Perhaps this is where my preference for feathers comes from!

I remember that this act took place under somber stage lighting and with a single spotlight that followed the principal dancer about the stage. The set was of a number of white columns and a series of steps at the back of the stage and with a backdrop of an unusual blue, a light blue with a hint of grey in it. The dancer’s companions wore little gray-blue coats without buttons and tights. What was interesting about the companions was that they wore nothing beneath their coats. I remember seeing clearly the curvature of their breasts. They moved little during the dance, only turning to face the audience on rare occasions, mostly standing motionless on either side of the dancer while she cavorted around the stage.

Fan DanceThe dancer gracefully entered the stage from stage right while holding her two large grey-blue ostrich feathered fans close to her body. One fan totally hid her front view while the other was maintained close to her back. I remember noticing that she wore no shoes or headdress except for some beads worked into her black hair. I also remember thinking that she was beautiful. She moved about the stage with elegance, and as she did, her fans would swirl and twist about her offering hints of her form from the side. I remember feeling that she moved the fans effortlessly and with great dexterity and speed. I was bedazzled. I would in the midst of her movement occasionally catch a glimpse of her form and realized that there was nothing between herself and her fans. I have to admit that I found the dance to be exhilarating and totally captivating. I am sure that I sat there watching this creature of beauty twirl, leap and pirouette with my mouth wide open. The sight before me was mesmerizing. The movement of the fans proved to be hypnotic. I had never seen anything like this before. I sat there spellbound while she moved her fans back and forth about her – one held fast against her body while she moved the second delicately and effortless around her as she danced. She would then launch into a series of quick elegant turns that carried her across the stage. As she moved, the fans would quickly change positions in a flash, and in that split second, we had the hope of seeing her loveliness, but although promised, alas was not given.

The dance went on for some unknown period of time, but as it neared the end, the dancer moved to the top of the steps and stood between two of the white columns facing stage right and remained perfectly still with the fans held so as to cover her form. I remember the music began to die away just as the curtains were being drawn across the stage and just as the curtains came together, the dancer slowly moved her fans away from her body and allowed us a brief glimpse of herself. The glimpse lasted for less than a second, but it was enough. She had revealed herself, and I for one, found her to be beauty personified. Loud applause followed but no curtain calls were taken. Within a second or two, the little red lights at the side of the stage announced the number of the next act, and, as they say, the show went on.

The Hackney being a theatre of variety was not in the habit of presenting straight plays. However, I can recall three plays being presented there. If there were more, I don’t recall them. One of these plays was Tobacco Road. This was advertised on the safety curtain during the interval as a play for adult audiences. This meant that I would not be allowed to attend. This did not sit well with me and despite my entreaties, my parents said that I would not be able to go. I was more than a little vexed when on the following Thursday evening, I found myself left at home with someone to look after me while my parents went off to enjoy the play. Naturally, I was not happy about this. Later in life, I read the book on which the play was based and understood why I was barred from attending. Not too long ago I watched the film that was based on the play and noted that the most controversial parts of the book had been omitted.

Arthur Lucan (Old Mother Reilly) and Kitty McShaneAnother play that I remember being produced was Charley’s Aunt. This was a play that had apparently been revived a number of times before and always proved to be immensely popular with audiences. The plot concerned a young man that had to pretend to be his aged aunt. This type of plot lent itself very well to farce and would rely on good timing on the part of the players for it to be a success. The double act of Old Mother Reilly & Kitty played the principals. Old Mother Reilly was the stage name of a comedian whose real name was Arthur Lucan and who was married to Kitty McShane. Old Mother Reilly was very popular at the time and even had a comic strip in either the Dandy or the Beano each week. Old Mother Reilly dressed as an old Edwardian lady with a long black skirt, a black shawl and bonnet tied under the chin. She carried a handbag that had long thin handles, which were entwined about her wrist and would often double as a weapon to fight off villains whenever she was troubled or pursued by them. The play ended happily when the real aunt arrived, who was a much younger and more attractive looking woman, and the young man was forgiven for whatever he had done and won the heart of the fair Kitty. The play was great fun to see and provided the women in the audience with the joy of seeing a man make a total fool of himself.

The final play that I recall that was presented was No time for tears. This was a tearjerker and starred the wonderful Freda Jackson playing a woman who fostered orphans in her home and who was cruel in her behaviour of them. Even at my young age, the symbolic nature of the play’s title was not lost on me. I remember that my mother was not able to get tickets for any performance at the Hackney and we were forced to see the play at another Empire. I am unsure if we saw it at the Finsbury Park or East Ham Empire. But I do recall that the theatre was certainly not as grand as the Hackney, although I do remember that the décor and seats of the auditorium were a deep dark scarlet colour and that the entrance doors to the foyer had very ornate glass windows that impressed me at the time. I found the play quite upsetting and had a hard time clapping Miss Jackson at the end when she returned to the stage for her bow. Naturally, I had taken the play very seriously and had some difficulty in distinguishing the actress from her role.

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