Category Archives: Performers

Stories and biographies of singers and dancers.

A Frog Swallower

‘Ranita’ by Gil d’Azil, published by Cicada (Paris, 1927) and illustrated by André Marcy.

“Eat a live frog every morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day”. The Frenchman Mac Norton took this advice from Mark Twain quite literally. About a hundred years ago he started his magician career by eating live frogs on stage. No wonder that our cute frog on the sheet music cover seems a bit worried.

Mac Norton ‘Das menschliche Aquarium’ – 1912

For his ‘human aquarium’ performance Mac Norton, artist name of Claude Delair, took from a fishbowl five frogs and six goldfish, and swallowed them alive one by one. Then he made a point of nonchalantly lighting a cigarette. After a relaxing moment of small talk with his audience he started to disgorge all the small animals, still alive. It is said that he could keep fish, frogs or other aquatic animals moving around in his stomach for more than two hours.

All Mac Norton’s shows centered around his stunning ability to hold large quantities of water in his stomach and to disgorge it afterwards. Sometimes he would emphasise the enormous amount of water by ordering a parade of waiters to bring him 50 glasses of it. He would then demonstrate La Fontaine: he expelled the water he had just swallowed into a delicate jet in which he washed his hands. Or he performed La douche. The water then gushed from his mouth with force, but still seemingly without effort.

In Berlin, Mac Norton did his trick with beer. Houdini who watched the show behind the scenes was not that impressed. “The filled glasses were displayed on shelves at the back of the stage, and had handles so that he could bring forward two or three in each hand. When he had finished these he would return for others and, while gathering another handful, would bring up the beer and eject it into a receptacle arranged between the shelves, just below the line of vision of the audience…”.  So at least some of it was a trick.

‘l’Amour Magicien’ (Mister Magician) by Charles O’Flynn; James Cavanaugh & Frank Weldon, French lyrics by Jan Marotte & Jean Cis. Published by Salabert (Paris, 1934) and illustrated by Ch. Roussel.

Houdini goes further. “I remember his anxiety on one occasion when returning to his dressing-room; it seems he had lost a frog—at least he could not account for the entire flock—and he looked very much scared, probably at the uncertainty as to whether or not he had to digest a live frog.”

‘La Grenouille au Nénuphar’ by Clapson & Teredral, published by Clapson (Paris, 1919) and illustrated by Lt. Fetaz.

Mac Norton himself believed that he had an extra stomach like a cow. But more likely he suffered from rumination syndrome. This is the effortless regurgitation of undigested food from the stomach back up into the mouth. There is no retching, pain or other inconveniences as in the case of vomiting.
Thanks to the treasure trove that is Gallica, I found out that Mac Norton became the subject of medical examinations in 1912.

Drawings of Mac Norton’s stomach. Fig 1: after ingestion of 125 g milk of bismuth. Fig 2: after ingestion of 400 g milk of bismuth. Fig 3: after ingestion of 3,5 litre liquid. From ‘Archives d’Electricité Médicale experimentales et cliniques’ – 1912

With radiography a doctor revealed the structure of the performer’s stomach. One would expect that he would have taken images of Mac Norton’s insides after swallowing the frogs. But no, he just made him drink some fluid and concluded that his stomach was ‘very muscular‘ and that was about it. How absolutely deceiving!

To illustrate once more that songs were made about anything, we insert a Dutch sheet music cover of a song about Röntgen’s discovery: X-stralen (X-rays). On the cover we see the first ever photograph of a human body part using X-rays. It is the hand of Röntgen’s wife on a photographic plate.

‘De X-stralen’ (The X-Rays) by Tommy & Bassy, published in 1896.
Mac Norton’s international career took him all over Europe and in various parts of South America. The protest actions of the American Society for the Prevention of Animal Cruelty made North America a no go for the frog eater. Claude Delair (1876-1953) continued his Mac Norton tricks until he was well into his seventies.
Claude Delair, aka Mac Norton, in the Forties.

I found a similar regurgitation act from 1931 by Hadji Ali in a Spanish-language version of Laurel and Hardy’s Chickens Come Home. Enjoy and have a drink!


Further reading on magicians and illusionists:  ‘Miracle-Mongers and their Methods’ by Harry Houdini.

Sobre the Vagues – Sur las Wellen – Uber le Olas

Sheet music 'Sobre las Olas' by Juventino Rosas
Sobre las Olas‘ by Juventino Rosas. Published by Friedrich Hofmeister (Leipzig, s.d.)

It is not our collector’s goal, but we have many duplicates of the sheet music ‘Over the Waves’ (Sobre las Olas in Spanish, Über den Wellen in German, Sur les Vagues in French, Sopra le Onde in Italian).

Not surprisingly the waltz, Sobre las olas, has sometimes been incorrectly attributed to Johann Strauss. But is was composed by a Mexican, Juventino Rosas (1868-1894). His life has been documented and filmed. Beware though, because many lies and fantasies have been written about him.  What is true —and sad—  is that he died too young at the age of 26.

Juventino Rosas in 1894 (source: wikipedia:en)

We want to concentrate on the iconic representation of Sobre las Olas on all the above covers. Where does it come from? Why did the music publishers all over Europe apparently follow the convention to represent a young nymph, fairy or woman floating above foaming water, always with bare arms, twirling and undulating, wrapped in lots of light fabric? Send us a postcard if you know the answer, please.

At that time Art Nouveau is in full bloom, and the flowing gowns echo the characteristic whiplash curves employed by many fin-de-siècle artists.

Sopra le Onde‘ by Juventino Rosas. Published by Carisch & Jänichen (Milano, s.d.)

What strikes us, is the graphical similarity with the representation of the famous Serpentine Dance created by Loïe Fuller at the Folies Bergère, as seen on posters around 1900.

Loïe Fuller, left: by PAL (Jean de Paleologue); middle: by BAC (Ferdinand Sigismond Bach),1892; right: by Jules Chéret, 1897.

Of course, seeing Loïe Fuller in action is another thing. Here she is, metamorphosing from a bat, in an original silent film by Segundo de Chomon. He was a brilliant Spanish film pioneer who worked in Paris and is often compared to Georges Méliès, due to his frequent camera tricks and optical illusions. The film is from 1902 (and not 1905 as indicated on YouTube). Although Segundo de Chomon hand painted some copies, this one is recently stencil-coloured.

In another Segundo de Chomon film The creation of the Serpentine (1908) Mephistopheles interrupts a peaceful evening of dancing in a French salon. Showing his real face, the demon creates a woman who multiplies in numerous Serpentine dancers, all twisting their robes until they finally explode into flames. Wow!

And here is an excerpt from La Danseuse a 2017 biopic of Loïe Fuller, played and danced by none other than I’ll Kill Her Soko. Perhaps not really a must-see, but it gives a good impression of the colour effects that were originally used and designed by Fuller herself.

Now back to our Sobre las Olas with an Uzbek interpretation. It surely beats kittens on Facebook.

Table of six ‘Sobre las Olas’ sheet music above: (clockwise starting top left) (1) published by Ernst & Paul Fischer (Berlin, s.d.); (2)published by Alfred Michow (Berlin, s.d.); (3) published by Adolf Kunz (Berlin, s.d.); (4) published by Otto June, Leipzig, s.d., illustration signed G.B; (5) published by Anton J. Benjamin (Hamburg, s.d.); (6) unknown publication.

Big Tich and Little Tich

tichborne-galop
‘The Tichborne Galop’ by M. C. Barter, published by John Blockley, London (ca 1870)

This cover from our sheet music collection bears a portrait of the Claimant to the Tichborne title and fortune. The story about the sensational reappearance of the long-lost Roger Tichborne captivated all of England’s Victorian public. The tale is still shrouded in mystery, at least as to how people are craving to be fooled, again and again…

The aristocratic Roger Tichborne grew up in Paris and spoke English with a pronounced French accent. As a young man he was travelling in South-America when he learned that his father had succeeded to a baronetcy. Roger would be next in line to inherit the tile. Shortly after receiving this news in 1854, Roger sailed to Jamaica but never arrived. Four days after his departure from Rio de Janeiro, the wreckage of his ship was found without a sign of its passengers: Roger Tichborne was lost at sea.

Roger’s mother clung to the rumour that some of the passengers on the wrecked ship had been picked up by a passing vessel on its way to Australia. In 1862, when her husband died, she desperately searched for news from her son. Her advertisement in Australian newspapers described Roger as being rather tall with light brown hair, blue eyes and a delicate constitution. It also mentioned that Roger was the heir to the extensive estate of the deceased Sir James Tichborne. Lo and behold, in 1865 an Australian announced that he had lived under the pseudonym of Thomas Castro, and now claimed that he in fact was Roger Tichborne. He started corresponding with his English ‘mother’.

rogertichborne
Portrait of the real heir to the baronetcy Roger Tichborne (ca 1854).

Roger Tichborne’s last picture taken in South America showed a thin, somewhat effeminate man. So Thomas Castro wrote to his wannabe mother that he had gained some weight. When he set sail – the voyage paid by Mrs Tichborne of course – he weighed 100 kg and by his arrival in England he had put on another 30 kg.

The Tichborne Claimant gaining weight.

He then did an odd thing. First of all he went to Wapping in East London where he inquired after the family of his Australian friend, Arthur Orton. After he learned that the Orton family had left the area he met Mrs Tichborne in Paris. Although by that time his weight had reached 150 kg, the excitable mother immediately clasped him to her breast, as if she instinctively had recognised her son. Roger’s Parisian tutor was more percipient: he declared the Claimant an impostor and disclosed his ploy as a fraud. Nonetheless, the gullible Lady Tichborne settled him a yearly income and accompanied him to England.

The rest of the family was very sceptical and objected to the Claimant because of the following reasons:
– his letters were illiterate whereas Roger was well educated;
– he didn’t speak nor understand French;
– he had a Cockney accent;
– he didn’t recognise his family;
– he didn’t have Roger’s tattoos;
– his picture was recognised in Australia as that of Arthur Orton, a bankrupt butcher.

When his ‘mother’ died in 1868 the prodigal son was deprived of his money. In 1871 he claimed his heritage in a tribunal. But he lost his case (not his weight though because by then he tipped the scales at just over 200 kg) and was accused of perjury. A criminal trial followed in 1873 upon which the Claimant’s fraudulent world fell apart: the jury found him guilty and he was exposed as Arthur Orton. He was sentenced to fourteen years in prison.

staffordshire-arthur-orton
Victorians could add to their clutter with a Staffordshire figurine of the Tichborne Claimant. The bird and shotgun indicate his claim, as a country gentleman, to the title and land of Roger Tichborne.

The two trials were a huge sensation giving rise to extensive media coverage. Bizarrely the Tichborne Claimant became a working-class hero, a defier of the establishment. His supporters, the Tichbornites, saw him as a victim of the aristocratic elite in cahoots with the government, the legal profession and the queen herself. A poor, humble man like the Claimant was denied the right to belong to the la-di-da upper class. His cause became a large popular movement and a Tichbornite candidate even won a seat in Parliament.

After his release from prison the Claimant, who had already revelled in public attention during his trials, toured with circuses and appeared in music halls. A real music-hall artist, Harry Relph, who was 1,37 m tall, adopted the stage name Little Tich in contrast to the bulky appearance of the Claimant. Little Tich became a successful British comedian, specialising in energetic dances, comedy numbers and songs.

little-tich
‘Big Boot Dance’ by Joseph Fredericks, published by L. Wilson & C° in London.

The comedian’s talent  sparklingly comes to life with his popular routine act in ‘Little Tich et ses Big Boots’, short film made by the Frenchman Clément-Maurice for the 1900 World Fair in Paris. Don’t try this at home.