Saturday, September 8, 2007

Fred Karno's Army - September 8, 2007

This post is part of The Slapstick Blog-a-Thon being coordinated by Thom at Film of the Year. My first post for the blog-a-thon was With Their Odd Little Youngster, "Buster".

"Fred Karno's Army" is an expression that still turns up in the UK. According to, "'Fred Karno's Army', meaning a chaotic outfit, became enshrined in the English language" during World War I, when soldiers sang songs like:

We are Fred Karno's army,
We are the ragtime infantry.
We cannot fight, we cannot shoot,
What bleeding use are we?
And when we get to Berlin
We'll hear the Kaiser say,
"Hoch, hoch! Mien Gott, what a bloody rotten lot,
Are the ragtime infantry."

(Thanks to The Britannia and Castle/Norfolk Section for the lyrics. Visit their site to hear the tune.)

Again I am taking advantage of the recent work of the Library of Congress, which has digitized a sampling of newspapers from 1900-1910 as a pilot for its Chronicling America project. I wanted to see where silent movie slapstick performers came from.

In this article, I will discuss a man who employed Charlie Chaplin, Charlie's brother Sydney, and Stan Laurel (then known as Stan Jefferson) at the same time: music hall impresario (isn't that a great word? I'd like to be an impresario some time) Fred Karno.

Fred Westcott was born in Exeter, UK, in 1867. He left home and went into show business as an acrobat. He changed his name to Karno somewhere along the way. Fred worked his way up in the business and gained great fame as the producer of music hall pantomime shows. Pantomime in this sense is not silent, like mime. It is a tradition of comedy, still commonly performed around the holidays in the UK, involving song, spoken dialogue, and physical slapstick. At any one time, Karno had several companies touring the theatres in Britain and other countries. His headquarters became known as the Fun Factory. Some sources claim that the pie-in-the-face-gag was a Karno creation.

Karno signed Chaplin's older half-brother, Sydney, in 1906. Sydney persuaded Karno to sign Charlie in 1907 or 1908. Stan Jefferson joined Karno in 1910 and served as Charlie's understudy. That is a pretty good roster of talent.

I found some newspaper clippings reporting on a Karno company travelling in the United States, but they were from before 1910, when Karno sent Chaplin and Laurel to America for the first time. While Charlie toured America for the second time, he caught the eye of movie producers, and was signed by Keystone in 1913.

Here is an advertisement from the New York Sun, 09-June-1906.

Notice that the manager of the Jardin de Paris was Flo Ziegfeld, and that the first-ever edition of the Ziegfeld Follies was going to be opening soon.

Karno's troupe was performing "A Night in an English Music Hall", one of their most popular shows. In Britain it was called "Mumming Birds". Chaplin played a drunken audience member who disrupted the music hall show-within-a-show. Chaplin adapted the story and played the same role in his Essanay comedy "A Night at the Show".

The same issue of the New York Sun carried a brief item about the program. Roof garden theaters were popular in New York before air conditioning. "Living pictures" were not movies, but people who posed in tableaux representing works or art or historical scenes.

The third of the roof gardens the Jardin de Paris on the roof of the New York Theatre, announces these attractions: Mlle. Dazie, Fred Karno's pantomime troupe in "A Night in an English Music Hall" Celia Galley, the Four Mortons, the Stewart Sisters and the living pictures.

Here is an advertisement from the New York Sun, 10-May-1908.

"Early Birds" was another of Karno's popular shows. Many US ads refer to it as "Slums". Eva Tanguay was a major vaudeville headliner. Note that Vitagraph motion pictures are included on the bill.

Here is a New York Sun item about the show:

Eva Tanguay will be the headliner at Percy G. Wiliams's Orpheum this week, when she will appear in her cyclonic act. Karno's "Slums" will amuse. Pat Rooney and Marian Bent are a singing and dancing duo. La Gardenia is a Spanish dancer, and she is assisted by troubadours, mandolin players. Julius Tannen is a monologist Lee Amatis is a musical act. Coram is a ventriloquist. The Jack Wilson Trio is scheduled, while the Bessie Valdare troupe are bicyclists.

Stan Laurel said "Fred Karno didn't teach Charlie and me all we know about comedy, he just taught us most of it. Above all, he taught us to be supple and precise. Out of all that endless rehearsal and performance came Charlie, the most supple and precise comedian of our time." It is ironic that the name of a man who taught precision above all became a synonym for a disorganized mob. Thanks to the Sherwood Times for the quote.

The movies ruined the music hall business and Karno went broke.

Coming up next: Other people imitated Charlie Chaplin. Billie Ritchie said that Chaplin was imitating him.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sifting through this material and presenting it, Joe. I don't remember how Karno is portrayed in Chaplin (1992), but in Bosley Crowther's "The Modern—Mellower—Times of Mr. Chaplin," published in the New York Times November 6, 1960 Chaplin, then 71 and living in Switzerland, says "I am very nostalgic about the early days. The days when I was touring America with Fred Karno's vaudeville troupe. Then I was having experiences that made the marvelous county come alive for me." With the connections you point out to pre-cinema Chaplin, Laurel and others Karno would make a tasty subject for a bio-pic.

Joe Thompson said...

Thom: You're welcome. I always enjoy digging around in old newspapers. I first heard of Karno when I read Chaplin's "My Autobiography". I agree that Karno's life would make a darn good movie.

Joe Thompson ;0)