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Roamin' in the Gloamin'

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!
Had 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 production!

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 publicity!

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.
Love Nance.

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.


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