29 January 2019

British musical theatre - Little Tich

By the 1870s and 80s, British musical theatre creators like Gilbert and Sullivan could make a good living. And Music Hall became even more popular late in the C19th. The big stars were so success­ful that they would perform in numerous halls each night, crossing London in their carriages. By performing in several venues a night the top stars could earn big money. They worked hard and lived fast, but the stresses of this lifestyle meant that many died young. By the 1890s, there could be as many as 20 acts per show and performances would last up to four hours. Soon music halls were presenting shorter, twice nightly programmes. Performers were now contracted for a period of time, rather than by performance. This meant that popular performers no longer had to dash across London to appear in several halls in one evening.
  
The star was Harry Relph (1867-1928). He  was the 16th child of an elderly publican, from the Kentish village of Cudham. Harry stood only 4’6” high, with dwarfish legs, had 5 fingers and a thumb on each hand, and 6 toes on each foot. From his earliest professional perform­ance, at Rosh­erville Pleasure Gardens Gravesend in 1880, his deformity and short stature were emphasised for public­ity and comedic reasons. At 12 he made his first stage appearance with a black-face comedy act he had developed himself.

He made his London debut at Foresters Theatre in 1884 & the good folk of Kent flocked to London to be amused.

Harry became Little Tich, the nickname taken from the huge, 25 stone Arthur Orton at the infamous Titchborne Claimant Trial of 1873-74.  The name Little Tich was thus an ironic name. Like other short men, he made up for his physical deficiency with comedy and props. By the time of his London music hall debut in 1884 he’d created a speciality dance in which he appeared to defy gravity, balancing and dancing on the tips of 28” wooden boots. He became famous for his characters including the Spanish Senorita, Tax Collector, Tram Conductor and Gas Inspector.

Little Tich dancing on the tips of 28” wooden boots

Then there was Drury Lane, his second home. Pantomime audiences loved Little Tich, especially in the Humpty Dumpty and Hop on My Thumb pantomimes of 1891-2. Just to see Harry walk on stage made people break up laughing, with his evening dress, top hat, cigar and his angel­ic silly-man smile. In fact between 1891-94, his three Drury Lane pantomimes established him as one of Britain's foremost comedians. And music hall made Little Tich rich. He loved to ride around London and into Kent, in a smart car. But this star never forgot his humble beginnings.

During a 1887-1889 tour of the USA Relph abandoned the black-face act to concentrate on dancing and charact­er sketches, repeating his Big Boots routine and a burlesque of famous Serpentine dances.

Tony Pastor was in the UK in 1886 and signed Little Tich for a tour of the USA. The comedian sailed to the USA in 1887 to earn an amaz­ingly high salary! Originally famous as a blackface artist, promot­ers on the American tour made him drop the act, fearing his British accent would be distracting. So Little Tich performed his Big Boot Dance instead, becoming very successful in the USA.

Harry was born in the Blacksmith's Arms, in Cudham Kent

In 1896 he made his debut in Paris at the Folies-Bergère, where he became a good friend of equally short Toulouse-Lautrec. The young Charlie Chap­l­in (1889–1977), in Paris with a travelling troupe, saw Tich perform and based his walk on him, though later everyone assumed Tich copied Chaplin. Offstage, Tich was a skilled painter, skilful in­strumentalist (cello), composed music, was an accomp­lished linguist and read widely.

His comic rout­ines influenced both stage and early film performers internationally. The surviving film of the Big Boots dance was made for Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre in 1900. Despite his int­ern­ational fame he only appeared in three further films, in 1905, 1907 and 1909.

1905’s biggest star on the Australian Tivoli Circuit was Little Tich! This funny little gentleman received a salary of £250 a week, by far the largest sum actor-manager Harry Rickards had ever paid. Local artistes earned no more than 3-12 pounds. And there was a series of funny sketches of suburban characters: the love-sick tram conductor, incompetent black­smith, sea-sick sailor and a series of ecc­entric elderly ladies.

Back in the UK, he became the hero of the old Tivoli Theatre in the Strand, beginning in Jan 1910. By then he had already begun to replay his peculiar Big Boots Routine for which he became famous. In two large, flat, heavy clogs, he danced, leant horizontally to find his lost hat, and finally rose on tiptoe to full height. As the curtain closed, he took his bow with a quick horizontal stagger which bumped his bald head against the stage. He also appeared in the pantomime Cinderella, as an Ugly Sis­ter.Until 1902 Little Tich performed in his own musical theatre com­pany, and spent much of his time in Paris. In 1909-10 Little Tich was made an officer of the French Acad­emy Française for services to French music-hall, the first music hall performer to be honoured.
  
Back in Australia in 1926, the audiences were disappointed and they threw pennies to him. He had come on the stage brash and certain, and he left it a heart broken old man. Tich ret­urn­ed to London but his self-esteem never recov­ered. His final performance was at the London Alhambra Theatre in 1927, had on-stage accident, suffered a stroke and died three months later. He was buried in East Finchley Cemetery.

1916 photo

See Little Tich, Giant of the Music Hall by Mary Tich and Richard Findlater, 1979.






19 comments:

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Little Tich's case stands out because his deformity made him more pitiable, but many performers (and athletes) had a similar case--a period of intense fame followed by the abandonment of a fickle public, or just getting outmoded because of changing tastes. Child stars had it even worse--great adulation in their formative years, followed by abandonment as they grew out of their childhood looks or talents. No wonder that so many of them grew up badly or even never reach adulthood.
--Jim

Train Man said...

Hey Helen

Remember when we looked at Little Tich as very different characters like a gruff police inspector or a grovelling waiter or the sexy female dancer Loie Fuller. Very funny characters.

Andrew said...

I wrote a bit about Titch, because you wrote about him just last year. Nevertheless, a new slant and more detail about a fascinating character.

CherryPie said...

It is a sad way to end a successful career.

Hels said...

Parnassus

Correct. Like so many very short men he overcome his physical differences by NOT hiding in the house as he had as a child, by poking fun at himself and others, and with his acute power of observation. And in the late 19th century and early 20th century, Little Tich was absolutely in tune with public taste. Until he wasn't.

"They worked hard and lived fast, but the stresses of this lifestyle meant that many died young". No wonder :(

Hels said...

Train Man

he selected his characters very carefully and worked hard on developing them recognised stars in their own right. If one character didn't receive a huge response from audiences, he found a new one that did.

Hels said...

Andrew

good grief... I think my retirement has started the dementia process :(

So I went back and changed the post's title and some of the paragraphs.

Hels said...

CherryPie

A horrible end. I believe tragics might be able to get their depression under control by hard work, marriage and endless travel, but eventually the depression rises to the surface again. Yes public taste had moved on while Little Tich's performances had not, but his body and mind suddenly aged and he quickly died.

The Telegraph said...

Charlie Chaplin’s costume may have come from different, late-Victorian music-hall sources: Dan Leno’s ill-fitting jacket was buttoned too tightly, George Robey’s bowler hat was too small and Little Tich’s size 14 shoes were too big as well as being worn on the wrong feet. Only Fatty Arbuckle’s baggy trousers seemed 20th century.

Christopher Frayling
The Telegraph

Hels said...

Christopher

thank you. I knew that Chaplin started working a generation after Little Tich, so if anyone was influencing anyone, Little Tich's characters/costumes/walk came first. But clearly Chaplin was a smarter performer than I realised.

bazza said...

There are some good clips of Little Tich on YouTube. His act will still make you smile but his sad ending is always there in the back of your mind.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s usually uxorious Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...

bazza

I found the YouTube film from 1900, many thanks. It lasts almost 3 minutes.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MFB4oHajwGw

Considering the years of Little Tich's fame, I was surprised that he did not become more involved in the growing cinema industry, when other stage performers were at least appearing in films. But Who's Who of Victorian Cinema reported that he probably only appeared in Pathé's Little Tich (1907) and in the British cinemagazine Around the Town (1920).

Sue Bursztynski said...

A fascinating post! I had heard of Little Tich, but not all these details. Sad endings for people like him are not unusual.

Jeffrey Hudson, Queen Henrietta Maria’s dwarf, was much shorter than Little Tich. He got the job because he wasn’t much use in the family butcher shop and the Duke of Buckingham wanted a “gift” for the Queen. So he became an entertainer at court till the Queen had to escape England. Then he got into a duel with an annoying courtier, killed him and had to leave. He eventually got back to England after years as a slave in North Africa(pirates!)but he was middle-aged and had grown - no career available for a middle-aged dwarf who wasn’t cute any more, so he died in poverty.

I agree about the child stars. Some of the problem, though, was that they were fed drugs to keep them awake so they could work all those hours, and some grew up addicted, even if they became adult stars.

Sue Bursztynski said...

When you think about it, if Little Tich had been normal size, would he have just helped out in the family pub? Would Jeffrey Hudson have lived a long, uneventful life as the local butcher? Would they, perhaps, have preferred that if given a choice? At least there are other things short people can do now.

I once saw David Prowse(original Darth Vader)and Kenny Baker(R2D2) sit together on a panel at a science fiction convention and thought, one is tiny, the other is huge, and both of them rely on their height to get work in their chosen careers. Kenny Baker said, “ I know I’m never going to play Hamlet” , and was fine with it, but spoke of a dwarf actor who committed suicide because of that conclusion.

Hels said...

Sue

Great comment! there is a serious game that historians play called "What Might Have Happened If...?" Just one example will do. If the German U-boat had torpedoed the Lusitania in 1915 and _missed_, would WW1 have progressed differently?

If Little Tich, and the other examples you referred to, had been normal size, would they have lived normal adult lives? Yes absolutely... the opportunities available in the late 19th century were so restricted, I would not have wanted my child to be impoverished, dwarfish, blind, Jewish, black or intellectually handicapped. From his childhood, Little Tich even avoided going out of the house, to avoid ridicule.

By the way, I had forgotten that many child stars were fed drugs to keep them awake so they could work all those hours.

Jenny Woolf said...

It is a shame that his life seems to have ended sadly at the very end but it was good most of the time. In a life where few have choices, it sometimes helps to be different, but making people laugh is a very curious profession isn't it? There is nothing less funny than worrying about whether you're going to be funny enough. And, perhaps nothing quite as rewarding as being welcomed and admired when otherwise you wouldn't be.

Hels said...

Jenny

Little Tich had a wonderful career, at home of course, plus whenever he made his trips to overseas countries. But it was a tough career choice. How did he know that London audiences would laugh at the same jokes as Glaswegians? French and American audiences? Young people and their grandparents?

If I was a husband and father, I would have rather supported my family with a reliable income stream. He was, after all, a skilled composer, instrumentalist and linguist.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - I didn't know this much about him ... but an amazing character and so talented, such a pity he had to die not being respected ... I guess he couldn't give up. Thanks so much - very interesting - cheers Hilary

Hels said...

Hilary

the best thing about blogging is that we sharpen our knowledge on themes we are already familiar with, and introduce subjects we would never of otherwise heard about. From time to time I would tell the students to look up a particular blog post, to read the core history of a person or event in 1000 words, knowing they would never read a complete book on that subject.