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Music hall is a type of British theatrical entertainment that was popular from the early Victorian era circa 1850 and lasting until 1960. It involved a mixture of popular songs, comedy, speciality acts, and variety entertainment. The term is derived from a type of theatre or venue in which such entertainment took place. British music hall was similar to American vaudeville, featuring rousing songs and comic acts, while in the United Kingdom the term "vaudeville"' referred to more working-class types of entertainment that would have been termed "burlesque" in America.
Originating in saloon bars within public houses during the 1830s, music hall entertainment became increasingly popular with audiences, so much so, that during the 1850s, some public houses were demolished and specialized music hall theatres developed in their place. These theatres were designed chiefly so people could consume food and alcohol and smoke tobacco in the auditorium while the entertainment took place. This differed somewhat from the conventional type of theatre, which until then seated the audience in stalls with a separate bar-room. Major music halls were based around London and included early music halls like the Canterbury Music Hall in Lambeth, Wilton's Music Hall in Tower Hamlets, and The Middlesex, in Drury Lane, otherwise known as the Old Mo.
By the mid-19th century, the halls created a demand for new and catchy popular songs. As a result, professional songwriters were enlisted to provide the music for a plethora of star performers, such as Marie Lloyd, Dan Leno, Little Tich, and George Leybourne. Music hall did not adopt its own unique style. Instead all forms of entertainment were performed: male and female impersonators, lions comiques, mime artists and impressionists, trampoline acts, and comic pianists such as John Orlando Parry and George Grossmith were just a few of the many types of entertainments the audiences could expect to find over the next forty years.
- The Oxford Music Hall, 14/16 Oxford Street (1861) – built on the site of an old coaching inn called the Boar and Castle by Charles Morton, the pioneer music hall developer of The Canterbury, who with this development brought music hall to the West End. Demolished in 1926.
- The London Pavilion (1861). Facade of 1885 rebuild still extant.
The Alhambra, Leicester Square (1860), in the former premises of the London Panopticon. This sophisticated venue was noted for its alluring corps de ballet and was a focal point for West End pleasure seekers. It was demolished in 1936.
- The Old Bedford, 93–95 High Street, Camden Town (1861). Built on the site of the tea gardens of a pub called the Bedford Arms. The Bedford was a favourite haunt of the artists known as the Camden Town Group headed by Walter Sickert who featured interior scenes of music halls in his paintings, including one entitled 'Little Dot Hetherington at The Old Bedford'. The Old Bedford was demolished in 1969.
- Collins', Islington Green (1862). Opened by Sam Collins, in 1862, as the Lansdowne Music Hall, converting the pre-existing Lansdowne Arms public house, it was renamed as Collins' Music Hall in 1863. It was colloquially known as 'The Chapel on the Green'. Collins was a star of his own theatre, singing mostly Irish songs specially composed for him. It closed in 1956, after a fire, but the street front of the building still survives (see below).
- Deacons in Clerkenwell (1862).
Harry Dacre, composer of "Daisy Bell"
- Augustus Durandeau, writer of "If You Want To Know The Time, Ask A Policeman", "Come Where The Booze Is Cheaper", "Never introduce yer Donah to a pal"
Noel Gay, writer of "Lambeth Walk", "There's Something About a Soldier", "Leaning on a Lamppost"
- Fred Gilbert, composer of "The Man that Broke the Bank At Monte Carlo"
Harry Lauder, writer of "Stop your Tickling Jock", "I Love A Lassie"
George Le Brunn, writer of "Oh! Mr Porter!"
- Fred W Leigh, composer of "Don't Dilly Dally" and "The Army of Today"
Arthur Lloyd, over 100 songs.
Lionel Monckton, composer of "Moonstruck", "Soldiers in the Park", "The Pipes of Pan"
C. W. Murphy, composer of "Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?"
Felix Powell, writer of "Pack up Your Troubles"
George Alex Stevens, writer of "On Mother Kelly's Doorstep", "Mother I Love You", "Chump Chop and Chips" and "When the Harvest Moon is Shining".
Joseph Tabrar, writer of "Daddy Wouldn't Buy Me a Bow Wow" and at least 7,200 other songs
Harry Wincott, writer of "The Old Dun Cow"
Joseph Bryan Geoghegan born 1816 Barton upon Irwell, Lancashire (musician and songwriter) writer of "Down in a Coal Mine", "John Barleycorn", "Ten Thousand Milesaway", "Pat works on the Railway", "Johnny, I hardly knew ya", and many others. In later life he managed Music Halls including Bolton Music Hall.
Matthew Hall (Merry Matt Hall) born 1849 Batley, West Yorkshire. Music Hall comic, married Joseph B Geoghegan's daughter Kathleen. Their many children became actors and entertainers.
Lion comiques: essentially, men dressed as "toffs", who sang songs about drinking champagne, going to the races, going to the ball, womanising and gambling, and living the life of an aristocrat.
- Male and female impersonators, perhaps more in the style of a pantomime dame than a modern drag queen. Nevertheless, these included some more sophisticated performers such as Vesta Tilley, whose male impersonations communicated real social commentary.
Aerial acts, of the sort usually seen at the circus
- Adagio: essentially a sort of cross between a dance act and a juggling act, consisting usually of a male dancer who threw a slim, pretty young girl around. Some aspects of modern dance choreography evolved from Adagio acts.
Magic acts and escapologists, such as Harry Houdini.
- Cycling acts: again, a development of a circus act, consisting of either a solo or a troupe of trick cyclists. There was even seven-piece a cycling band called Seven Musical Savonas, who played fifty instruments between them, and Kaufmann's Cycling Beauties, a troupe of girls in Victorian swim wear.
Ventriloquists, or Vent acts as they were called in the business.
- Electric acts, using the newly discovered phenomenon of static electricity to produce tricks such as lighting gas jets and setting fire to handkerchiefs through the performers fingertips.
Drag artists. Female entertainers dressed as men, such as Vesta Tilley. Or male entertainers dressed as women, such as impressionist, Danny La Rue, or comedian, Rex Jameson, in the character of Mrs Shufflewick.
Knife throwing and sword swallowing. The most spectacular of its time was the Victorina Troupe, who swallowed a sword fired from a rifle.
Juggling and plate spinning acts. Another variation was the Diabolo.
Feats of strength by both strongmen and strongwomen.
Fire eaters and other eating acts, such as eating glass, razor blades, goldfish etc.
Wrestling and jujitsu exhibitions were both popular speciality acts, forming the basis of modern professional wrestling.
Mentalism acts. Commonly a male mentalist, blindfolded on stage, and an attractive female assistant passing among the audience. The assistant would collect objects from the audience, and the mentalist would identify each by "reading" the assistants mind. This was usually accomplished by a clever system of codes and clues from the assistant.
Mime artists and impressionists.
- Animal acts: Talking dogs, flea circuses, and all manner of animals doing tricks.
Puppet acts, including human puppets and living doll acts.
- Comic pianists, such as John Orlando Parry and George Grossmith.
- Cowboy/Wild West acts.
Shadow puppet acts.
- About half of the film Those Were the Days (1934) is set in a music hall. It was based on a farce by Pinero and features the music hall acts of Lily Morris, Harry Bedford, the gymnasts Gaston & Andre, G. H. Elliott, Sam Curtis and Frank Boston & Betty.
- A music hall with a 'memory man' act provides a pivotal plot device in the classic 1935 Alfred Hitchcock thriller The 39 Steps.
- The Arthur Askey comedy film I Thank You (1941) features old-time music hall star Lily Morris as an ex-music hall artiste now ennobled as "Lady Randall". In the last scene of the film, however, she reverts to type and gives a rendition of "Waiting at the Church" at an impromptu concert at Aldwych tube station organised by Askey and his side-kick Richard "Stinker" Murdoch.
- The Victorian era of music hall was celebrated by the 1944 film, Champagne Charlie.
- The comedy of Benny Hill, first seen on British television in 1951, was heavily influenced by the traditions and conventions of Music hall comedy and he actively kept those traditions (comedy, songs, patter, pantomime, and female impersonations) alive on his more than 100 television specials broadcast from 1955 through 1991.
- Similarly the variously titled Ken Dodd TV series recorded between 1959 and 1988 were heavily influenced by those traditions, and as of 2017, Dodd still tours a variety show including quick-fire stand-up comedy, songs, ventriloquism and sometimes other speciality acts.
- Charlie Chaplin's 1952 film Limelight, set in 1914 London, evokes the music hall world of Chaplin's youth where he performed as comedian before he achieved worldwide celebrity as a film star in America. The film depicts the last performance of a washed-up music hall clown called Calvero at The Empire theatre, Leicester Square. The film premiered at the Empire Cinema, which was built on the same site as the Empire theatre.
The Good Old Days (1953 to 1983) was a popular BBC television light entertainment programme recorded live at the Leeds City Varieties which recreated an authentic atmosphere of the Victorian–Edwardian music hall with songs and sketches of the era performed by present-day performers in the style of the original artistes. The audience dressed in period costume and joined in the singing, especially the singing of Down at the Old Bull and Bush which closed the show. The show was compered by Leonard Sachs who introduced the acts. In the course of its run, it featured about 2000 artists. The show was first broadcast on 20 July 1953. The Good Old Days was inspired by the success of the Ridgeway's Late Joys at the Players' Theatre Club in London: a private members' club that ran fortnightly programmes of variety acts in London's West End.
John Osborne's play The Entertainer (1957) portrays the life and work of a failing third-rate music hall stage performer who tries to keep his career going even as his personal life falls apart. The story is set at the time of the Suez Crisis in 1956, against the backdrop of the dying music hall tradition, and has been seen as symbolic of Britain's general post-war decline, its loss of its Empire, its power, and its cultural confidence and identity. It was made into a film in 1960 starring Laurence Olivier in the title role of Archie Rice.
- In Grip of the Strangler (1958), set in Victorian London, the raunchy can-can dancers and loose women of the sleazy "Judas Hole" music hall are terrorised by the Haymarket Strangler, played by Boris Karloff.
J. B. Priestley's 1965 novel Lost Empires also evokes the world of Edwardian music hall just before the start of World War I; the title is a reference to the Empire theatres (as well as foreshadowing the decline of the British Empire itself). It was recently adapted as a television miniseries, shown in both the UK and in the U.S. as a PBS presentation. Priestley's 1929 novel The Good Companions, set in the same period, follows the lives of the members of a "concert party" or touring Pierrot troupe.
- The parodic film Oh! What a Lovely War (1969), based on the stage musical Oh, What a Lovely War! (1963) by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, featured the music hall turns and songs that had provided support for the British war effort in World War I.
- The popular British television series Upstairs, Downstairs (1971–1975) and its spin-off Thomas & Sarah (1979) each dealt frequently with the world of the Edwardian music hall, sometimes through references to actual Edwardian era performers such as Vesta Tilley or to characters on the show attending performances, and other times through the experiences of the popular character Sarah Moffat, who left domestic service several times and often ended up going on stage to support herself when she did.
- Between 1978 and 1984, BBC television broadcast two series of programmes called The Old Boy Network. These featured a star (usually a music hall performer, but also some younger turns like Eric Sykes) performing some of their best known routines while giving a slide show of their life story. Artistes featured included Arthur Askey, Tommy Trinder, Sandy Powell, and Chesney Allen.
- The modern Players' Theatre Club provides a brief impression of contemporary music hall in the film The Fourth Angel, where Jeremy Irons' character creates an alibi by visiting a show.
Sarah Waters's book Tipping the Velvet (1998) revolves around the world of music halls in the late Victorian era, and in particular around two fictional "mashers" (drag kings) named Kitty Butler and Nan King.
- Music hall had a profound influence on The Beatles through Paul McCartney, who is himself the son of a music hall performer (Jim McCartney, who led Jim Mac's Jazz Band). Many of McCartney's songs are indistinguishable from music hall except in some of their instrumentation. "When I'm Sixty-Four" and "Honey Pie" are two examples, as are "Your Mother Should Know" and "Maxwell's Silver Hammer".
Herman's Hermits, led by Peter Noone, also incorporated music hall into their repertoire, scoring a major hit with their cover of the Harry Champion music hall standard, "I'm Henery the Eighth, I Am", in 1965 (but Noone's version included only the chorus, not the many verses of the original).
- In James Joyce's short story The Boarding House, Mrs. Mooney's boarding-house in Hardwicke Street accommodates "occasionally (...) artistes from the music halls". The Sunday night "reunions" with Jack Mooney in the drawing-room create a certain atmosphere.
- In Vivian Stanshall and Ki Longfellow-Stanshall's musical, Stinkfoot, a Comic Opera, the lead performer is an ageing music hall artiste named Soliquisto.
- British rockers Queen incorporated music hall styles into several of their songs, such as 1974's "Killer Queen" and 1976's "Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy".
Garry Bushell's punk pathetique band, The Gonads, did rock versions of music hall songs. Many punk pathetique acts were indebted to the music hall tradition.
- The Theatre of the Absurd was heavily influenced by music hall in its use of comedy, as well as avant-garde cultural forms (such as surrealism) being a more obvious influence.
- The spirit of the music hall lives on in the form of pensioner rapper, Ida Barr who mashes up music hall and rap. Based on a real artiste, the act is performed by Christopher Green.
- Abra, Allison. "Going to the palais: a social and cultural history of dancing and dance halls in Britain, 1918–1960." Contemporary British History (Sep 2016) 30#3 pp 432–433.
- Alexander, John, Tearing Tickets Twice Nightly: The Last Days of Variety (Arcady Press, 2002)
- Bailey, Peter, ed., Music Hall: The Business of Pleasure, (Milton Keynes, Open University Press, 1986)
- Beeching, Christopher,The Heaviest of Swells - A life and times in the Music Halls, (DCG Publications, 2010)
- Bratton, J.S., ed., Music Hall: Performance & Style (Milton Keynes, Open University Press, 1986)
- Bruce, Frank, More Variety Days: Fairs, Fit-ups, Music hall, Variety Theatre, Clubs, Cruises and Cabaret (Edinburgh, Tod Press, 2000)
- Busby, Roy, British Music Hall: An Illustrated Who's Who from 1850 to the Present Day (London: Paul Elek, 1976)
- Cheshire, D.F., Music Hall in Britain, (Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1974)
- Earl, John, British Theatres and Music Halls (Princes Risborough, Shire, 2005)
- Earl, John and Stanton, John, The Canterbury Hall and Theatre of Varieties (Cambridge, Chadwyck-Healy 1982)
- Earl, John and Sell, Michael (eds.) The Theatres Trust Guide to British Theatres, 1750–1950 (A & C Black Publishers Ltd, 2000)
Farson, Daniel (1972). Marie Lloyd and Music Hall. London: Tom Stacey Ltd. ISBN .
Fierro, Alfred (1996). Histoire et dictionnaire de Paris. Robert Laffont. ISBN .
- Garrett, John M., Sixty Years of British Music Hall, (London, Chappell & Company in association with Andre Deutsch, 1976)
- Green, Benny, ed. The Last Empires: A Music Hall Companion (London, Pavilion Books Ltd. in association with Michael Joseph Ltd., 1986)
- Honri, Peter. John Wilton's Music Hall, The Handsomest Room in Town (1985)
- Honri, Peter. Working the Halls: the Honris in One Hundred Years of British Music Halls (Farnborough, Eng., Saxon House, 1973).
- Howard, Diana. London Theatres and Music Halls 1850–1950 (1970)
- Hudd, Roy. Music Hall (London, Eyre Methuen, 1976)
Lee, Edward (1982). Folksong and Music Hall. London: I Routledge. ISBN .
- Maloney, Paul, Scotland and the Music Hall, 1850–1914 (Manchester University Press, 2003)
Mander, Raymond; Joe Mitchenson (1965). British Music Hall. London: Studio Vista. ISBN .
- Mellor, G.J., The Northern Music Hall (Newcastle upon Tyne, Frank Graham, 1970)
- Mellor, G.J., They Made us Laugh: A Compendium of Comedians Whose Memories Remain Alive (Littleborough, George Kelsall, 1982)
- O'Gorman, Brian, Laughter in the Roar: Reminiscences of Variety and Pantomime (Weybridge, B. O'Gorman, 1998)
- Scott, Harold, The Early Doors: origins of the music hall (London, Nicholson & Watson 1946)
- Stuart, C D and Park, A J, The Variety Stage (London, Unwin 1895)
Williams, Bransby (1954). Bransby Williams by Himself. London: Hutchinson. OCLC 2227654.
- Wilmut, Roger. Kindly Leave the Stage – The story of Variety 1919–1960 (London, Methuen 1985)
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