THE GOLDEN AGE OF BRITISH THEATRE (1880-1920)
by Sydney Higgins
Vesta Tilley who was born on May 13, 1864, became Britain's most popular male impersonator and one of the country's most successful music hall performers.
Named Matilda Alice Victoria Powers, she was the second of thirteen children fathered by an ex-factory worker who, using the name Harry Ball, presented his own comedy act in the halls and was a sometime theatre manager. No doubt encouraged by her father, she made her stage debut as a child singer and dancer when only three and a half. With her father as her manager, she was soon performing regularly, billed as 'The Great Little Tilley' ('Tilley' being the family's diminutive form of 'Matilda').
In 1870, when she was six, she appeared on stage in boy's clothes, billed as 'Pocket Sims Reeves', in an impersonation of the then famous music-hall singer, J. Sims Reeves (1818-1900). It was a great success and her father quickly developed her music-hall act into a series of male impersonations, for which she wore specially tailored costumes. Her stage name was changed to Vesta Tilley ('Vesta', although an original first name, was well known to her audiences as the trade-mark of the most popular safety-match, 'Swan Vesta'). In 1877, she performed in Portsmouth in her first pantomime and, the following year, made her first major London theatre appearance at the Royal Holborn. Under the constant supervision of her father, her stage career continued to blossom. In 1882, she was cast as Captain Tralala in Sinbad at Drury Lane.
In 1888, her father died. Two years later, she married Walter de Frece, the son of a theatre owner. Under his management, she established herself as one of the highest paid and most loved music-hall performers. Wearing a succession of elegant man-about-town costumes, she sang in her clear and very feminine soprano voice songs like 'Burlington Bertie', 'The Midnight Son' and 'Following in Father's Footsteps' that gently mocked the foppish manners of the rich to the delight of her working-class audiences. At the same time, her husband built a chain of music halls; all called 'The Hippodrome'.
VESTA TILLEY - Song Sheets
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In 1894, Vesta Tilley embarked on her first tour of the USA, starting at Tony Pastor's music hall in New York.
VESTA TILLEY'S PRODIGIOUS WELCOME AT TONY PASTOR'SA rousing reception was given to Vesta Tilley, from the London music halls, at Tony Pastor's last night. The house was jammed, and 'society' was not without the representatives in the attentive and enthusiastic audience. The new 'character' singer and 'change' performer faced a heavy storm of applause when she first came into view... Vesta Tilley is something very rare on the variety stage - an artist. She is, evidently, not a woman of genius; she has no startling new message, comic or sentimental; her humor is fine and dry; her singing voice, though it is clear and agreeable, is very thin. But her small powers are held perfectly in control. Every gift she has is cultivated to the highest degree. She is the mistress of the art of vocalization as it is known in the London music halls... Nearly every muscle in her lithe, slender, graceful body has its part to play in her 'turn' and is absolutely in control... She wears male attire without grotesqueness, not to hint of vulgarity, and her tailor must be a jewel.
The New York Times, April 17, 1984
She became almost as popular on America as she was in Britain and would return to the US on subsequent tours playing in New York and Chicago. In 1903, she appeared at New York's Murray Hill Theatre in Under Cover. A New York Times review of the show noted that as she entered on the stage, "the house fell - at her sprightly and nimble feet."
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For long the best paid variety performer in Britain, she performed in 1912 at the first Royal Variety Performance as - The Piccadilly Johnny with the Little Glass Eye - The most perfectly dressed young man in the house'. It is said that Queen Mary was so shocked to see Vesta Tilley wearing men's trousers that she buried her head in her programme.
During the First World War, she and her husband won even greater popularity with their military recruitment drive. He wrote patriotic songs for her. She dressed as a Tommy and sang 'The Army of Today's All Right' and 'Jolly Good Luck to the Girl Who Loves a Soldier'. She visited hospitals and sold War Bonds. Their effort did not go unnoticed. In 1919, he was knighted for his war services and Vesta Tilley became Lady Matilda Alice de Freece and so she decided that, with her husband's title and intention to enter the world of politics, it was no longer appropriate for her to perform in the variety theatre. Although she had contracts for stage appearance for the following six years, she announced that she would retire after her goodbye performances at the Coliseum Theatre in London in June 1920. After the show she was presented with several books, signed by a million fans and well-wishers. And so, at the age of 56, Vesta Tilley's stage career ended having lasted for over 50 years.
In the 1924 elections, she campaigned for her husband, who was duly elected as the Conservative Member of Parliament for Ashton-under-Lyne in Lancashire. She did some charity work until her husband retired from Parliament in 1931 when the couple moved to live in Monte Carlo. After his death in 1935, she returned to London, an affluent and cultured woman with a life-style far removed from her humble beginnings that she never forgot.
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