THE Christmas Pantomime is still the predominant
feature of the theatrical winter season in Great Britain.
Nowhere else in the world does King Pantomime reign
so securely in the affections of the people. Every decent- sized town in
the Kingdom has its own special pantomime which may run from a month to
six or eight weeks continuously. The leading London comedians and
comediennes look to the pantomine season for engagements at larger fees
than they can earn during the rest of the year. Indeed I have known
specially buxom young women who had difficulty in getting work at any
other time being in special demand as "principal boys" while others,
particularly qualified to play such parts as Cinderella, Red Riding Hood,
or Goody Two Shoes were always sure of a long Christmas engagement even if
they were unheard of for the rest of the year.
In the case of known performers a successful "panto"
contract was, and still is, a passport for subsequent engagements at
enhanced salaries. I have known artistes jump from five pounds a week to
fifty merely as the result of hitting the high spots in some local
pantomime. A pantomime audience is the most appreciative crowd of human
beings that can be packed into any theatre. Everybody comes to enjoy them
selves and if the fare provided is at all excellent the artistes have a
"cinch" of a time.
I knew all this.
Especially about the money to be made in panto! So when I was approached
to sign an engagement to appear in "Aladdin" at the Theatre Royal,
Glasgow, under the management of Messrs. Howard and Wyndham, the only
question I asked was "How much per?" To be quite honest I did not get what
I asked for but as I had made a very liberal allowance for "argument" I
was more than satisfied with the salary fixed up. If I say that it was in
the region of two hundred pounds per week I will not be very far wrong.
This was an extraordinary jump from the seven or eight pounds a "turn" I
was earning in London—and would have had to go back to, if the pantomime
proved a failure! So you may depend upon it I determined to leave nothing
undone on my part to make -"Aladdin" a triumphant success.
Which it was! I think it ran for thirteen weeks and we played to packed
houses. All Glasgow went mad about this pantomime; even the railway
companies ran special trains from the districts so that the people could
see Harry Lauder as Roderick McSwankey. The "book" was as good a panto
mime story as has ever been put on the stage and Howard and Wyndham had
got together a perfect combination of artistes for its presentation. There
was Bessie Featherstone, one of the loveliest girls in the profession, as
Aladdin, Dan Crowley as the Widow Twankey, Imro Fox as the Wicked
Magician, Alice Russon as the Princess, and Jose Collins as the second
girl. Poor Bessie Featherstone died in the middle of the run; Dan Crowley
passed away several years later and Imro Fox is also dead. Alice Russon
is, I believe, still alive and Jose Collins is today well-known as a
musical comedy star both in this country and in America. Jose was only
about sixteen years old and this Glasgow engagement was her first on
leaving her convent school. She was an exceptionally pretty and vivacious
girl but showed no promise at that time of becoming the beautiful singer
she turned out to be in after years.
I had kept a "rod in pickle" for this pantomime in Glasgow. From the day I
signed the contract some months previously I had been anxiousIy looking
round for, and thinking over, ideas for a new song or two. I wanted
something really special. Not a burlesque, or a comic song, nor yet a
character study; by this time I had quite a large repertoire of good
songs, all of them popular and I knew that I could "get over" in pantomime
with the material I had on hand. What I wanted was a jingling, simple
love-lyric. I felt all the time that I would like to strike a new and
dominant note. Then one night, on leaving a London theatre, the stage-door
keeper handed me a letter. It was in a pink envelope, it had a seal on the
back and the handwriting was in large sprawling letters.
"That's sure from a lady, Mr. Lauder," said the attendant. "I suppose you
love a lassie?"
"Yes," I replied, "I do love a lassie—and I'm gaun awa' home to her noo."
I love a lassie! I love a lassie! I love a lassie! The words rang in my
head all the way down to Tooting. I hummed them. I sang them to a dozen
different musical phrases. I tried to get a verse out of them but the
elusive something just failed me. A few nights later I met Mr. Gerald
Grafton, a well-known London song-writer. I mentioned the phrase which had
so impressed me. He was interested and said he would see what he could do
with the idea. He worked on it and I worked on it, and at last we hammered
out the framework of the song which I have sung in every part of the world
during the past twenty-one years. It took Grafton and myself several weeks
to get the words "just pat" but the melody I wedded to them came to me all
at once and I do not think I ever afterwards altered a note of it. I knew
I had got a great song. I knew it would be a winner. But I was scarcely
prepared for the triumph it proved the first time I sang it on the opening
night of the Glasgow Pantomime of 1905. The vast audience took the song to
its heart instantly. Every night for thirteen weeks "I Love a Lassie" held
up the action of the pantomime so long that it is a wonder to me the other
artistes didn't enter a protest against my singing the song at all!
I only sung this song and done nothing else in the pantomime I think I
would have been worth my salary to Howard and Wyndham. But I had a very
"fat" part in the show—thanks to the man who wrote the book and to the
extra work I was able to throw into my character of Roderick McSwankey.
Roderick was supposed to be a young Glasgow boy who had apprenticed
himself—for a premium of five shillings—to the Wicked Magician, who on his
part, had agreed to teach Roderick all the tracks and alchemies of the
Black Art. My constant anxiety, after parting with my five shillings, to
keep in the closest personal touch with the Magician, never letting him
out of my sight for a moment, proved to be much to the liking of the
Glasgow people. Even in these early days, it seemed, I had earned a
reputation for —shall we say?—financial shrewdness, and my repeated
wailings about my "five shillin's" never failed to send the house into
roars of merriment. I had some very good scenes, too, with a stage polar
bear and there was a rich bit of comedy fooling between Dan Crawley and
myself, both of us dressed up as women and talking scandal over a cup of
tea and a cookie. Every now and then I poured a "wee drappie" from a half-mutchkin
bottle into Dan's tea and the way he and I acted the garrulous women
gradually getting "fou" was one of the hits of the show.
I sang several songs in this pantomime. One I recall was a female
character song called "Once I had a Bonnie Wee Lad" and another was a song
I had tried out in London and elsewhere entitled "Rob Roy McIntosh." They
both went well but my great success was "I Love a Lassie." I think I sang
this song for about three years without a stop. I couldn't get off the
stage anywhere without singing it. Do I ever get tired of it, I am
sometimes asked. Of course I do. I got so tired of singing "Lassie," as we
call it in the family, that I determined to get a companion song to it.
But this didn't materialize for several years until I struck "Roamin' In
The Gloamin" which is a story all on its own to be told later.
My work in that Glasgow Pantomime really put me on the map as a popular
favourite in Britain. I was besieged with requests for "dates" all over
the country but to each and every enquirer I had, alas, to give the same
answer— sorry, am booked up for years ahead! My gramaphone records began
to sell like hot cakes and here again I had reason to regret the
precipitancy with which I had made arrangements during my early visits to
London. It was no unusual thing for me to go to the recording offices and
make half-a-dozen records in a day for a pound a time! Yes, "Tobermory," "Calligan,"
"She's Ma Daisy," "Stop yer Ticklin', Jock"—they all went for a "quid a
nob"—or six songs for a flyer down!
It looked a lot of money to me in those days. Why, five pounds for singing
a few songs was as much as a miner could earn by hard work in a fortnight!
The Gramaphone Company of Great Britain did one of their best strokes of
work when they got me "on the cheap." In justice to them, however, I must
say that when my contracts with them came to be renewed they took a very
generous view of my earlier stupidity and I have been very good friends
with them and the Victor people of America for twenty years. A few years
ago I signed a life-contract with the British company. Occasionally, when
in a reflective mood or when going over the bank-book, I fall to dreaming
of just how much money I ought to have earned from the millions and
millions of gramaphone records of mine sold all over the two hemispheres.
But it is always a painful business! Once I discussed the matter with my
old friend Caruso and the figures he gave me from his angle made me so ill
that I suddenly changed the conversation from "royalties" to voice
As so often happens in the most important happenings of a
man's life I have never been exactly clear about the course of events
which led up to my first visit to the United States. I know that previous
to the Glasgow Pantomime one or two different people in the profession
suggested that I should try a trip to America. But I did not pay the
slightest heed to them. Some day, I told myself, I might be able to afford
to cross the Atlantic for a holiday but the thought of playing to the
American people certainly did not enter my head. Besides I was too keen on
establishing my position in my own country. I must confess, however, that
after my success in the pantomime at Glasgow—and at subsequent similar
productions in Newcastle and Liverpool—it was rather galling to have to
return to London and resurñe "turn" work under old contracts at something
like a twentieth part of the money I had been earning in pantomine. I felt
that I was every whit as good a draw in the music-halls as I had proved in
the big Christmas productions. Indeed my return to the London stage after
closing down in Glasgow saw me receive a series of the most extraordinary
welcomes at the Tivoli and elsewhere ever given to a popular "star" in
England. Crowded houses, tremendous enthusiasm and reams of news paper
My London managers were, of course, delighted. But not one of them thought
of coming to me and saying, "Lauder, old man, you're the biggest gold mine
we have struck for years and I, for one, don't think it fair that you
should only be getting seven or eight pounds a turn. I propose to scrap
your existing contract and pay you a hundred!" Oh, no, a contract was a
contract! My pulling powers as an artiste were admitted but the managers
did not forget to point out that they, on their side, had made bad
contracts with other artistes which they were compelled to stick to. So
that my success was really only balancing the losses they were sustaining
elsewhere. With this logical attitude I could not, of course, quarrel and
so I had just to grin and bear my troubles as best as I could. But I made
up my mind that when the time came I would be amply revenged for what I
considered—wrongly, I grant you from a purely legal point of view—was
little short of a "grave miscarriage of justice." Sure enough in after
years I found myself in the position of being implored by a well-known
London manager to accept a contract from him for two of his biggest halls.
"Tell him," I said to George Foster, then my agent, "that he can have me
for four hundred pounds a week!"
Foster rang me up in a few minutes and said he had delivered my message,
but that the poor man had had an attack of heart disease on learning any
terms. He was frothing at the mouth and quite inarticulate. Could I not
come down in my price to a reasonable sum?
"Yes.," said I, "I'll come down to four hundred and fifty! And if he
doesn't accept that my next "reduction" will be five hundred. Ask him if
he remembers refusing me an extra pound twenty years ago!" The contract at
four hundred came along inside an hour.
There was one British manager, however, who always gave me more than a
straight deal. This was dear old Dennis Clarke of Birkenhead. In the days
when 1 was very young he gave me one or two engagements every year. I
think my first salary with him was four pounds. 'At the end of the week he
gave me five. When my salary was seven he gave me ten. And every year
since then I have given Dennis a date or two without there being so much
as a "scrape a' the pen" between us. He pays me what he thinks I have been
worth to him and I take it without even counting the money. Again I can
see some readers of these memoirs smiling a sardonic smile over this last
sentence. But it's the truth I'm telling you. By his kindly treatment of
me when I was a struggling young chap in the latter years of last century
Dennis Clarke made a friend of me for life. He is a true-blue Englishman.
Poor old Dennis had had a rough time in health of late, having lost a leg
as the result of an accident. But his great heart keeps him cheery. Here's
tae ye, Dennis, me lad! You've the "heart o' corn"—an' no mistake!
But I must get back to the story of how I ultimately fixed up to go to
America. It was all due, in the first instance, to a lady! Her name
escapes me for the time being—I may remember it afterwards—but she was the
British representative of Messrs. Kiaw and Erlanger, at that time one of
the largest firms of agents and impressarios in the United States. She had
heard me in London and in the provinces and had written urging her
principals in New York that I was a most likely bird for an American
"try-out," to put the position no higher! The upshot was that they got in
touch with George Foster and he, in his turn, came to me at Manchester and
reported that he had got a tentative offer for my services for a five
weeks run in New York—what did I say about the scheme? I told Foster fiat
that I wasn't at all interested in America. And in order to stop all
further negotiations I said I would only consider a trip if they agreed to
pay me—well, I mentioned a sum which I thought would effectually put the
brake on even American vaudeville enterprise.
George set the cable working overtime at once and in a day or two I was
face to face with a contract which literally made my mouth water! I forget
just what I was earning that week in Liverpool but it would not be more
than £20. The first thing to do was, to ask Nance what she thought. So I
sent her a telegram to London telling her all about the offer and asking
her if she would go with me to America in the event of the deal going
through. Next morning I got the following telegram from my wife.
Book of Ruth, Chapter One, Verse Sixteen.
At first I couldn't understand what it was all about and George Foster,
who is a Jew and ought to have known all about his biblical ancestors, was
completely befogged. But my old Sunday School training came to my rescue.
I remembered vaguely the story of Ruth and Naomi—"Whither thou goest I
will go"—and on looking up the passage to get the hang of it clearly I had
certainly to hand it to Nance for a most apt and affecting reply to my
telegram. So, after some more careful consideration, I signed my name on
the dotted line. At that time I thought it a great risk and I remember
that I sighed heavily.