Sunday, September 9, 2007

Killed By an Ostrich -- September 9, 2007

Please see my 13-January-2008 update at the bottom.

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". My second post was Fred Karno's Army.

For the third time, 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.

Many silent comics started their careers by imitating Charlie Chaplin. Harold Lloyd created Lonesome Luke by trying to do everything the opposite: tight trousers instead of baggy, a big coat instead of a tight one, a thin moustache instead of a toothbrush. Billy West imitated Chaplin almost exactly. Both men moved on to adopt other characters. Harold Lloyd did pretty well with his career.

Billie Ritchie, on the other hand, claimed he was wearing the tramp costume two or three years before Chaplin was born in 1889, and that Chaplin was imitating his act. He may have had a point. Much of the information I found about Billie Ritchie came from Robb Farr's wonderful Mug Shots website, which appears to have gone out of business.

William Monro was born in Glasgow, Scotland on 05-September-1874. He was performing professinally as early as 1887. He worked for Fred Karno, playing many of the roles that Chaplin later took, including the drunk in "Mumming Birds"/"A Night in an English Music Hall".

Ritchie left Karno and travelled the world performing in slapstick shows. Here is an ad from the Washington Times, 11-October-1908 for a show in a burlesque theater. This was during the period when burlesque focused more on broad comedy.

Here is an ad from the Washington Times, 08-September-1909 for a show at the same theater. Notice that the show, "A Night in a Music Hall", must have derived from Karno's production.

Ritchie claimed that he had played the drunk character 5,000 times. Here is an item about the show from the same edition:

The Gayety -- "Vanity Fair."
The latest musical entertainment that is to hold the boards at the Gayety Theater next week is called "Vanity Fair," which has been chosen as a fitting medium for the introduction of the Ritchie London Comedy Company, a band of players who are without a peer in their particular branch of work andwho were one of the real hits last season when they presented their world-famous travesty called "A Night in a London Music Hall." The company includes Billie Ritchie, Dick McAllister, Clark and Turner, Nelda Noble, the Cycling Brunettes, Winifred Francis, Charles Cardon, and a chorus of thirty show girls and "ponies." An extra added attraction is Conchitte, the world-renownedHindoo nautch dancer.

A nautch dance is apparently an adaption of some dance from India.
After Chaplin's early success, movie producers signed Ritchie. He started to make L-KO Comedies under director Henry "Pathé" Lehrman in 1914. In 1917, Ritchie moved with Lehrman to Fox/Sunshine Comedies.

Not many of Lehrman's films survive, but he is known for making rough and ready slapstick comedies. Ritchie's character did not grow the way Chaplin's did.

Ritchie's career was cut short in what sounds like a scene from a slapstick movie. In fact, it was a scene from a slapstick movie. While shooting a scene in 1919, he was attacked by one or more ostriches. Ritchie was seriously injured, and never recovered. He died in 1921.

I'd like to say a final thanks to Thom for organizing the Slapstick Blog-a-Thon. I've had fun writing these articles, and had even more fun reading the articles written by other people.

Update 13-January-2008: I joined a mailing list about silent comedians ( What did I find there but a thread started by Frederica Merrivale entitled "I'm Going to Miss Thse Ostriches." She dug up a copy of Ritchie's death certificate and found that the cause of death was listed as stomach cancer. I shouldn't say I am sad to hear that. Sometimes the stories play better than the truth, but the truth is better to know.


Anonymous said...

Joe - What fun piece to end your blog-a-thon run (thanks for contributing so much). This write-up is a contender for the most unanticipated punch-line of the whole blog-a-thon. Alas, poor Billie—but that scene must be re-created on film somewhere :D

Anonymous said...

After reading your parting words I just wanted to add "you're welcome." I'm glad that you participated in the blog-a-thon, and thanks for providing plenty of feedback to other bloggers too.

Pierre Fournier said...

I was sorry to hear of Billie Ritchie’s tragic demise, but as a slapstick pioneer, I’d like to think that, somehow, he might have appreciated the premise of a comedian being done in by a very large, stupid looking, flightless bird.

That was a great set of posts, Joe. To quote from the Gayety Theatre ad, it was a “Cycloramic Whirlwind of Hilarity”.

Joe Thompson said...

Thom/Pierre: Thanks for the kind comments. Poor Billie, indeed. I hope he's in a better place and appreciates the slapstick potential in the situation. At least people are remembering him and talking about him. In some cultures, that is all the immortality people can hope for.

Joe Thompson ;0)