PE0287. CHEEP! (Harry Gratton, Clay Smith, etc.), recorded 1917, w.Arthur Grudge Cond. Mayfair Theatre Ensemble; Beatrice
Lillie, Lee White, Teddie Gerard, Clay Smith, Walter Williams, Columbia Revue Company, etc. (England) Palaeophonics 133, w.Elaborate 'The Play' 20pp. Brochure replete with numerous photos of the Vaudeville Theatre 1917 production & biographies. Excellently transferred from the legendary Acoustic 78rpm English Columbia & HMV rarities. [Without a doubt, Dominic Combe's finest and best-sounding achievement!]
"In the light of later events, CHEEP! was the first time the sleek and urbane Beatrice Lillie appeared in her true colors as a comic genius of the first order!"
- Noel Coward
“Beatrice Lillie, who during a half-century theatrical career was often called ‘the funniest woman in the world’, who used a long cigarette holder to punctuate the barbed ripostes for which she was famous, was the widow of Sir Robert Peel. But she never took her official title Lady Peel seriously, and called her autobiography EVERY OTHER INCH A LADY.
The very name Beatrice Lillie could evoke memories of mirth and merriment for the hundreds of thousands of people she entertained in theaters, movie houses, vaudeville palaces and supper clubs and on radio and television, over a period of more than 50 years.
In Alexander Woollcott's estimation, Miss Lillie was ‘a comic genius’ with her trademark close-cropped hair and fezlike cap. She was, in fact, one of those rare entertainers whose talents and qualities are extremely difficult to measure and describe. One had to see her to believe her - or perhaps disbelieve her. She was a great clown who learned early how to ’play’ an audience. Because of that fact, it was often said that no two Lillie performances were ever the same. She explained that for most of her performances, when things went well, ‘the wand was on; something happened between myself and the audience, for they recognized something I'd known for years - I was a natural-born fool’.
Anyone who ever saw her sketch about a slightly tipsy, tongue-tied Mrs. Blagdon turning Harrods department store in London into a state of havoc, would consider her an adorably nutty fool. In the sketch, Mrs. Blogg tried unsuccessfully to buy ‘two dozen double-damask dinner napkins’, a request that soon started coming off her thickened tongue as ‘two dazzle dimask dibble dimmer napples’, and so forth. In her sketches and songs, most of which were constructed to puncture the pompous, Miss Lillie could send her audiences into fits of laughter by merely lifting an eyebrow, twitching her nose as she spoke a certain phrase or turning her longish face into a rubbery U-shape with a somewhat equine smile. With great ease she seemed able to contort and mold that face into a thousand shapes. Often it was not precisely what she said or sang that garnered so many laughs, but the way she delivered the material. As the critic George Jean Nathan put it, ‘With one dart of her eyes, she can spare a skit writer a dozen lines’. Sir Noel, Miss Lillie's devoted friend and often the writer of her material, her director or her co-star, finally grew accustomed to her idiosyncrasies. ‘For an author-director to attempt to pin Beattie down to a meticulous delineation of character is a direct invitation to nervous collapse’, he said. Miss Lillie had a natural instinct for humor. One spring day, while she was serving tea to friends in her East End Avenue apartment in New York, a pigeon flew in the window and sat on the arm of a chair. Some of Miss Lillie's guests were startled, but she merely looked at the bird and asked, ‘Any messages?’
Beatrice Gladys Lillie was born in Toronto on May 29, 1894. Her father, John Lillie, a native of Northern Ireland, had served with the British Army in India before he married Lucie Shaw, an Englishwoman. Beatrice had an older sister, Muriel.
Mrs. Lillie, who enjoyed a modest reputation as a concert singer, had great expectations for her daughters - Muriel would be a concert pianist, Beatrice a soprano - and their musical training began early.
The Lillie Trio - Mrs. Lillie, Beatrice and Muriel - entertained at local soirees and did a bit of touring, but Beatrice was showing signs of being an undisciplined soprano. The trouble was that she had discovered early the pleasures of making people laugh while she sang. At 8 years of age, she was thrown out of a church choir for making funny gestures and flopping her fan about during serious moments, causing small boys to giggle uncontrollably. At 15, Miss Lillie ended what had been at best a mere pass at a formal education, and sailed for England, where her mother had taken Muriel to study music. Her first stage appearance, which ran a week, was as a male impersonator, a role she was to play off and on, in top hat and tails, for several years. ‘I was the best-dressed transvestite in the world’, Miss Lillie said. In 1914, she was hired for a minor role in NOT LIKELY, produced by André Charlot, a Frenchman who had brought to London with great success the concept of the little revue of fast-paced, sophisticated songs, skits and blackouts. With her slim build and her hair cropped in the latest fashion, she was often cast in male roles due to the fact that so many men were being called to war. During her time on the London stage, she crafted her unique comedic style as well as one of her trademarks: twirling a long string of pearls. Beatrice needed to work in front of an audience because it provided her with immediate feedback and could allow her the latitude to improvise as the mood of the audience suited. This did not always amuse the other actors or the producers, prompting André Charlot to post a note backstage after one of her improvisations: 'Beatrice Lillie Fined Five Shillings for Trying to be Funny'.
The young, bubbling Miss Lillie was besieged by hordes of stage-door Johnnies. The one who won her was the handsome Robert Peel, whose ancestor Sir Robert Peel served as one of Queen Victoria's Prime Ministers and organized London's Metropolitan police force. Its members were nicknamed ‘bobbies’ after him. Miss Lillie was married to the future Sir Robert Peel at his family's estate, Drayton Manor, in 1920, but the bridegroom's parents stayed away, disapproving of ‘theatrical folk’. The couple's only child, also named Robert and called Little Bobbie, was born a year later. A few months afterward, a bored Beatrice Lillie returned to the stage in Charlot's revue NOW AND THEN. Miss Lillie's insistence on not giving up her career was dictated in part by economic necessity. Her husband was virtually penniless, a man who was never able to hold down a job and a gambler as well. ‘It was fortunate that I could trek back and forth across the Atlantic, earning a living for my son and husband’, Miss Lillie said. The couple grew apart, and Sir Robert died of peritonitis at the age of 36, in 1934, in the home of his mistress.
Miss Lillie's private world was shattered in 1942 when her son who had enlisted in the Royal Navy was killed in a Japanese air raid on the port of Colombo, Ceylon. Miss Lillie spent much of the war entertaining troops in the Mediterranean region, Africa, the Middle East and, later, in Germany. Over the years, she appeared in at least one revue a year, and sometimes two or three. Among them was THIS YEAR OF GRACE in 1928, written by and co-starring Sir Noel. One of Miss Lillie's most famous songs was ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’, introduced in her THIRD LITTLE SHOW on Broadway in 1931. It became a standard in her repertory as well as in Sir Noel's.
In her 1972 autobiography, Miss Lillie told how another of her standards, ‘There Are Fairies in the Bottom of My Garden’, was introduced, against her will, into her repertory. Her friend Ethel Barrymore thought the song was a lovely, serious one, but Miss Lillie made it a side-splitter, especially when she sang it garbed in a long formal gown, then raised her skirt and roller-skated off stage.
She toured the United States many times, in AN EVENING WITH BEATRICE LILLIE, INSIDE U.S.A., and half a dozen other shows. Her friends were fond of telling the story about the time Miss Lillie and several chorus girls went to a beauty parlor in Chicago to have their hair done before an opening. An heiress to a meatpacking empire came in and informed the beauty salon's proprietor that she was ‘mortified and infuriated to learn this establishment has been taken over by showgirls’. As Miss Lillie left her booth, she loudly told the salon proprietor, in her most proper and meticulously enunciated English: ‘You may tell the butcher's daughter that Lady Peel is finished’, and she sailed out.
Beatrice Lillie was an original, but one who never took herself seriously. Once a reporter asked ‘Miss Lillie what lies at the bottom of your art?’ ‘There are fairies at the bottom of my art’, she answered.”
- Albin Krebs, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 21 Jan., 1989
“If you are interested in what original audiences of early 20th century English operetta and musical comedy heard, there is a great source for such recordings – the record label Paleophonics. Dominic Combe prepares CDs for them from his huge collection of shellacs and a few cylinders.
I came across these somewhat hard-to-find CDs on the website of the mail-order company NORBECK, PETERS AND FORD, (norpete.com) which is specialized in historical performances from the beginning of recorded sound all the way through to the 1960s.
There are now over fifty Paleophonics CDs, and more are being prepared or scheduled for future release. Each CD comes with a lavishly illustrated program booklet with reviews, information about the shows and fantastic publicity photographs, and artwork from the original London productions, in the form of reproductions of the magazine PLAY PICTORIAL.”
- Thomas Krebs, OPERETTA RESEARCH CENTER - PALEOPHONICS - A JOURNEY TO THE DAWN OF RECORDED SOUND IN MUSICAL COMEDY, 1 July, 2020