BETWEEN the Scottish tours I was kept fairly
busy with individual concert engagements and with frequent music-hall
bookings over the border. A really great success at Birkenhead under the
management of my very dear friend, Dennis Clarke (a white man in the
variety business if ever there was one) set simmering in my mind the
notion to try my luck a bit further south—as far as London, I told myself.
In Liverpool, Birkenhead, Newcastle, Carlisle, and elsewhere in the north
of England I had proved that I could get my material and my personality
across the footlights and I began to see no reason why I shouldn't have a
cut at the metropolitan stage.
I was the
more encouraged to do this by hearing from time to time at the Empire,
Glasgow, some of the more preeminent of the London stars of the day. I
went specially to the Empire and listened to men like George Leybourne,
Harry Randall, James Fawn, George Lashwood, and Gus Elen. But none of
these stirred my artistic soul to its depths. They were all clever and
talented in their own spheres. They were probably worth all the money they
were draw- ing although, to be perfectly frank, I had my doubts on this
Then one Monday evening I was in
Glasgow fixing up a concert or two with J. C. MacDonald when he said to
"Harry, the one and only Dan Leno is at
the Empire this week. Why not go down and have a look at him? Person
ally," added J. C., "I admire the little man immensely but he is the type
you can only stand once or twice in a season— at least that is how he
appeals to me."
An hour later I was sitting in the pit of the Empire waiting for Dan Leno,
the idol of London, to come on the stage. I had eyes and ears for nobody
else on the bill and when the wonderful little Dan rolled on with his "Shopwalker"
song I watched every movement, every twist of the face, every raising and
lowering of his eyelids, and I followed as best I could his quick Cockney
patter. Immediately Leno's turn was over I left the building. Going
straight home I said to Nance, "I've a fortnight 'out', Nance, and I'm off
to London tomorrow. If Dan Leno can get a hundred pounds a week for
singing London songs in Glasgow I can get at least twenty for singing
Scotch comic songs in London. He's a good artiste but I am equally as good
in my own line."
"Far better, Harry, and
I've never seen Dan Leno!" was my wife's reply.
She was always like that, bless her! She offered no objections to my
Next morning, the
nineteenth of March, 1900, I packed my "props"
into two Gladstone bags, took twenty pounds of golden sovereigns from the
"stocking" we kept in a secret- spot beneath the kitchen bed, kissed Nance
half a dozen times, and set off to the Central Station, booking there a
third-class single ticket for London. Not a soul I knew saw me off. I
might have been a thief slinking out of Glasgow for the south. But a
thief, anxious not to arouse attention by the eccentricity of his personal
adornment, would not have been dressed as I was!
So far as I can remember I wore a shepherd-tartar
pair of trousers above a pair of yellow spats and brown boots, a coloured
waistcoat and a black frock coat. A standing-up collar, with very large
square peaks, and a black-and-green tie completed, along with a tile hat
which did not fit me very well, a tout ensemble which I have no doubt
whatever I regarded as slap up-to-date and calculated to give agents and
others the impression of a very prosperous, perfectly dressed
comedian in mufti. Over my arm I carried the coat with the astrachan
collar. Any man of my size and build walking down the Strand or Broadway
today dressed as I was the night I struck London for the first time would
be mobbed or arrested for holding up the traffic.
The first evening I spent at a
cheap hotel in the Euston Road. My bed and breakfast cost three and
sixpence—a lot more than I had been in the habit of paying while on tour
in Scotland and I resolved that I would have to economize in other
directions. So I walked all the way down to Cadle's Agency. This firm had
given me some "dates" in the provinces and I felt sure they would be able
to get me a show in London. But the head of this firm—I forget his name at
the moment---only smiled pityingly when I said that I wanted to get work
as a Scotch comedian in one or other of the big West End Halls.
"Harry, my boy," he said, "you
haven't an earthly. We have had one or two of your kidney down here before
and they have all been dead failures. If you have any money saved up for
this trip get away back again before you do it all in!"
This was a most disheartening
start. But there were other agents in London, hundreds of them, and I
resolved to call on every blessed one of them before I caved in. Late that
afternoon I met an old variety agent named Walter Munroe whom I had met in
Glasgow. I offered to buy him a refreshment. Like all good professionals
he accepted with alacrity and I could see he was most powerfully impressed
by the fact that I paid for it with a golden sovereign. Walter took me
round several offices but with no result the agents were all averse to
handling the unlucrative business of an unknown Scottish comedian. Late in
the afternoon we were walking rather mournfully along the Strand when we
ran into Mr. Tom Tinsley, the manager of a little hall known as "Gatti's
In The Road." The "Road" referred to was the direct thoroughfare leading
south from Westminster Bridge. Tinsley was the first actual manager I met
in London. We adjourned to a public-house and again I "flashed" a
sovereign for publicity purposes. Once more it had a good effect, Tinsley
opening his eyes in palpable amazement at a Scots "comic" being in such
affluence. But whenever I mentioned that I was looking for a job his
geniality dried up on the spot.
"It's no good, me lad," he assured me. "My patrons at
the "road" would eat me alive if I put you on. I tried a Scot last year
and he had to fly for his life. You're in a foreign country and the sooner
you realize it the better!" Tom had another drink at my expense and left
us but before taking his departure he noted my "town address" (I had fixed
up a third-floor room in the Lambeth Road at fifteen shillings a week) and
said he would let me know if anything fell out of his bill at any time
within the next week or two. Walter Munroe took me to several more
agencies but we met with the same reception at them all. "Luv-a-duck, 'Arry,"
said Walter Munroe in his most lugubrious tones, "it ain't no bleedin'
good. You ain't wanted up 'ere and that seems the finish!" And then Walter
went his way.
spent a very cheerless night in my back-third at the Lambeth Road but was
up bright and early tackling more agents and more managers. I must have
walked ten or twelve miles in that weary search for work. But everywhere
the result was nil—a blank wall of discouragement. When I got home I asked
the landlady—"Any letters, messages or telegrams ?" Had I stopped for a
minute to consider I would never have put so stupid a question for it was
a million to one against any communications awaiting me. My wife did not
know of my address in London yet and Tom Tinsley was the only person who
had taken a note of it. To my amazement the landlady replied, "Yes,
there's a telegram up in your room!" I dashed upstairs two steps at a
time—had my legs been longer than they are I would have tackled
three—rushed into the room and there, sure enough, was a telegram
addressed Harry Lauder, Comedian. It read as follows:
One of my turns ill. Can you
deputize at ten o'clock
tonight? Reply at once—Tinsley, Gatti's.
Inside two minutes I was in a
grocer's shop near by appealing for the use of his telephone. I was so
excited that the grocer was constrained to ask me if anybody was dead.
"No," said I, "but I've just got my first London job an' it's awfu'
important to me!"
"That's the worst of you Scotties," dryly observed the
grocer. "You always take your work too d---d seriously. But you'll find
the 'phone round the end of the counter there." Tinsley was in his office.
I assured him that I would be on hand in good time the same evening and I
thanked him profusely for keeping his promise. From the grocer who had
been so kind to me in the matter of the 'phone I bought a fivepenny tin of
salmon and went home and ate the lot to the accompaniment of a pot of tea
and some bread and butter. Feeling pretty chirpy after the repast I began
to debate within myself what songs I would sing to the hard- baked lot of
Londoners whom I would have to face that night at Gatti's-In-The-Road.
I decided to risk everything on "Tobermory."
It was easily the best song in my armour at that time from the point of
view of spontaneous humour and "swing." Remember also that I had been
singing the number for two or three years in Scotland and in the northern
towns of England with really great success. I had the song, word and
action, perfect. The value of every phrase, each movement of hand, eye, or
limb, the intonation of the laugh, even, as I tell how, "the next time I
see McKay he has his arms roon' the neck a bottle" had all been studied a
hundred times. Yes, if I was to make good in London it would be my "Tobermory"of
that I had no doubt in my own mind. If the audience liked it I would
follow up with "The Lass o' Killiecrankie," another rollicking song with a
good air. And, in the event of them wanting more, well, I would sing "Calligan,"
the Irish character song which I had recently tried out in the north and
the tune of which had already been put on to the barrel organs of the
country. So you see I did not at all anticipate failure. But I had made
tip my mind, all the same, to go back to Scotland the next day if my
"extra turn" at Gatti's proved a wash-out. Again it was a case of do or
I was in the
dressing-room an hour and a half before I was due to go on the stage. I
took immense pains with my make-up. When it was finished and I was ready
for my call I found I had fully half-an-hour to wait. It was dreadful. I
couldn't sit, I couldn't stand still; my nerves and emotions were in a
state of tempest. My memory of what happened in the next hour is
completely blurred. But I have a hazy recollection of dashing on the
stage, my crook stick thumping the floor to give the orchestra the correct
time—an almost unconscious habit to which I have been prone for many
years—of starting my first song in dead silence before a rather sparse
audience, of suddenly hearing a snigger or two all over the house, and of
finishing "Tobermory" amid an outburst of applause. Down came the curtain.
Evidently the stage manager was under the impression that one number was
quite enough for an extra turn. But the applause and laughter continued.
"Can you give 'em something else, young Scottie What's Yer Name?" asked
the s.m. "Yes, number four in my music-books—'Killiecrankie!'" I excitedly
replied. "Kill a What?" asked the stage manager. "Never mind," I replied,
rapidly changing in the wings while we were speaking. "Ye'll ken a' aboot
it when I've finished."
"The Lass" went even better than "Tobermory." The
audience went mad over the unknown Scot who was making them laugh and they
raised the roof for another song. "Calligan, Call Again" left them still
unsatisfied but I had taken up far more time than the programme permitted
and the only thing left for me to do was to go on and make a speech of
thanks. I assured the audience that although this had been my first
appearance in London it would not be my last. My name, I told them, was
Harry Lauder, and I asked them to come and hear me whenever they saw the
name on a music-hall bill in London.
"Sure we shall, 'Arry," shouted a
cockney voice from the fourth row of stalls. "You've made my ol' woman
'ere laugh for the first time since I married 'er!"
This sally put the house into a
fit of merriment and I made my exit from the stage the most successful
extra turn that ever descended on London from the fastnesses of Caledonia,
stern and wild.
Old Tom Tinsley was waiting for me "off" and promptly booked me for the
rest of the week—salary three pounds ten shillings! He was delighted with
my success and assured me that I was a "made man." All the agents would be
down to see my act before the week was out. "And don't sign up for a penny
less than five pounds a week, 'Arry! But I must 'ave you for as long as I
like at my own terms!" Later I burst another of my store of golden
sovereigns on "drinks all round I" Lest there should be any doubts on the
veracity of this story I would point out that I was very excited—in fact I
must have lost my head for the time being!
The manager was perfectly right
about the agents. They turned up at Gatti's not in single spies but in
battalions. They pulled out sheafs of contracts all of which I signed
gladly without even discussing terms. This is another statement which
folks all over the world will have difficulty in believing. Yet I assure
them that it is quite true. I was so bewildered by my instantaneous
success that my main thought was work rather than money. Vaguely I hoped
that the latter would follow the former but I was as yet too lacking in
shrewdness to make good bargains. The result of my impetuosity to sign
these early contracts was that I found myself tied up with London
managements for years ahead at salaries which were simply ridiculous in
view of my drawing capacity. However, this is a sore point with me and
always will be and as I shall have occasion to refer to it again later we
will let it drop for the moment!
Tinsley wanted me to stay on at Gatti's for an
indefinite period. He seemed to take it for granted that I would do so.
And I remember with what a feeling of personal importance I told him that
this was impossible—I had to go to Nottingham to fulfill a contract made
many months ago. My first week in London, therefore, was not the start of
a long metropolitan success. That was to come some months later when I
returned and began to play three halls a night.
It was then that the press came
in to consolidate the reputation I was rapidly building up all over
London. While I have always been grateful for any kind thing that is said
about my work in the newspapers I must confess that I have never kept a
press "notice" in all my life. Of all the tens of thousands of columns
that have been written about me and my stage life by the journalists of
the world I am certain I have not kept more than half-a-dozen "cuttings"
and these have been retained because they made me laugh. So that I am
unable, even if I wished, to give you any indication of the truly
wonderful manner in which the London press boomed me in these early days.
Looking back on them now it seems
to me that half my time was taken up in being interviewed by newspaper men
and being photographed in a hundred different costumes and attitudes so
that editors could illustrate the articles. This was, of course, very fine
publicity for me. But it was nothing compared to the publicity I received
in later years by the broods of tales and stories circulated about my
personal characteristics in acquiring and husbanding "the baw- bees"! At
first I resented them, then I tolerated them, afterwards I began to invent
them myself and encouraged other people to invent them. They made up a
battery of the very finest free advertisements any stage personality could
have wished for! Yes, all the "Harry Lauder stories" that have winged
their way round the globe during the past thirty years have only had the
effect of putting more siller into my pouch. Indeed, if I go for a week or
two without hearing a new one, or an old one revarnished, I think there
must be something wrong with my unpaid publicity staff.
But I am wandering, as many of
the old Scottish ministers used to do when they became all heated up with
their pulpit fervour. Times and customs in the variety world of London
have changed since the days I "worked" three and four halls a night for
seven pounds a "turn." Nowadays it is the exception for an accepted "star"
to play more than one house. Twenty years ago, however, every leading
artiste made one West-end appearance per night and filled in the rest of
the evening by visiting two, three, or even four suburban halls.
Before the days of motor-cars the
"top-liner" had a privately hired cab or two-horse brougham to take him or
her to the different places of entertainment. It was often touch and go as
to whether the driver could make the grade, as my American friends say,
between halls widely separated, and often an earlier "turn" had to hold
the fort until the belated arrival of the star. Sometimes the latter did
not arrive at all but this did not happen often—a tribute to the driving
capacities of the old London cabbies. When I bought my first motor-car, a
small coupe driven by an engine that 'chugged" like a locomotive, Tom was
able to take me allo ver London and its suburbs without ever missing a
turn say more than a minute, or two.
We often played four halls a
night, two of them twice where the double programme system had been
introduced. Every policeman in Greater London knew my little car and I
think they must have loved Tom, for they allowed him to do the most daring
things in the way of traffic-dodging, cutting- in, and stealing a yard or
two of road wherever possible. Working at this pressure meant leaving
home—Nance had come up to London from Glasgow and we were now living in a
villa at Tooting—soon after six o'clock and not getting back until long
after midnight. But it meant that even in my poorest weeks I was earning
from twenty to thirty pounds a week—a fortune as that seemed to me in
those far-off days. All the same it did not take me long to realize that I
had made some shocking bad contracts with the London managers and
singing and my songs had taken the town by storm. I was received
everywhere with tremendous enthusiasm; I never played to anything but
capacity. Halls in the various districts such as Poplar, Shoreditch,
Crouch End, Islington, Willesden, Mile End, Hackney, etc., which might
have been doing bad business for weeks before suddenly found their doors
besieged when my name was on the bills. My success was beyond doubt or
cavil, as I once heard a London lawyer put it. I always gave of the very
best that was in me. My nightly arrival at the stage doors was an event
and my departure a triumph, with cheering mobs of admirers yelling all
sorts of good wishes and congratulations.
At the old Tivoli, in the Strand,
I definitely established myself as one of London's favourites. This was a
very small hall, as variety theatres go nowadays, but its programmes were
the best of their kind in the world. It was the home and haunt of the
young-man-about-town and a London trip by a provincial would have been
considered a complete failure did it not embrace several visits to the "Tiv"!
Engagements at the Tivoli were not given for a week but for a month, six
weeks and two months if you were a leading artiste. And as many as ten,
twelve or fifteen of the world's best performers were often grouped
together on one Tivoli bill.
The first time I played the old "Tiv" was a memorable
night in my London career. The people wouldn't let me leave the stage
until I had sung every song in my repertoire, this much to the disgust of
several famous artistes who were due to follow me. Afterwards the
management became wise and I was generally last turn, or very near it.
This kept the house together until my arrival, and, I suspect, was much to
the good of the bars! These were the hey-days---or nights—. of London
variety. They have gone forever, I am afraid.
I have seen Tivoli bills which
included, in one long list, such names as R. G. Knowles, George Robey,
Wilkie Bard, Harry Fragson, Marie Lloyd, Vesta Victoria, Little Tich,
Harry Tate, Dan Leno, Paul Cinquvalli, and some of the best straight
singers and actors of the day. There was only one dressing-room, presided
over for many years by a pale- faced man called Ted and the genial manner
in which he handled his nightly collection of temperamental "stars" always
won my unstinted admiration. Ted was one of my greatest admirers and fans.
One night a red-nosed comedian came off the stage in silence, walked into
the dressing-room and complained bitterly about the audience being either
asleep or dead.
"Oh, no, Joe," said Ted, just then assisting Tom to get me ready, "they're
waitin for 'Arry, 'ere!"
This enraged the other so much that he lifted a boot
and threw it at the dresser's head, missing it by inches. On the whole,
however, the other artistes appearing on the Tivoli programmes with me
were warm in their appreciation of my drawing-powers. Some of them openly
warned me that my amazing popularity wouldn't last and urged me to sting
the managements for as much money as I could get away with while my vogue
was strong "in front."
It was in my early days at the Tivoli, and,
later, at the Pavilion and other West-end halls that I began fully to
realize how precipitate I had been in signing up for periods of years at
salaries out of all proportion to my actual worth from a proprietor's
point of view. But as time went on a silver lining, aye, a golden one,
appeared beyond the clouds of my financial missed markets. A wonderful
pantomime engagement in Glasgow came along. And America began to beckon