Category Archives: Entertainment

Music hall, cabaret, dance hall

The Chestnut Tree: A Very British Entertainment

The Chestnut Tree’ by Jimmy Kennedy, Tommie Connor & Hamilton Kennedy, published by The Peter Maurice Music Co (London, 1938) and illustrated by G. Peres.

In these posts we already turned our attention to a few British dance crazes. Think of the springy Sir Roger de Coverly, or the Northern Soul dance style of the 70’s. Perhaps you do remember the catching, working-class Lambeth Walk. Well, here is another one of these singing dance sensations: The Chestnut Tree. Hip hip hurray!

The Chestnut Tree was the second in a series of five novelty dances, of which the Lambeth Walk was the first. The dances were launched in quick succession by the outbreak of WWII, and were produced by the Mecca Dance Halls —at the time the largest dance hall chain in England. At the head of Mecca Dance was clever Carl Heimann, advertising himself in the medallion on the cover.

The Chestnut Tree’ by Jimmy Kennedy, Tommie Connor & Hamilton Kennedy, published by Shapiro, Bernstein & Co (New York, 1938). source: John Hopkins, Sheridan Libraries – Lester S. Levy sheet music collection

The American version of The Chestnut Tree cover shows us that even King George VI was tapping his breast and his head while singing along. Or wasn’t he?
In a newsreel of 1936 we see King George VI, then still the Duke of York, joining in a singalong while visiting a camp for teenage boys. Together they sing Under the spreading chestnut tree, an action song of only one verse, that is repeated again and again while certain movements replace some of the words.

Under the spreading chestnut tree,
Where I held you on my knee,
Oh how happy I should be,
Under the spreading chestnut tree.

The action song was a great hit for the royals as witnessed by this other newsreel from 1939 — even the Queen and the princesses are joining in.

It was the success of these images of the King tapping his knee, breast and head, that inspired the creators at Mecca Dance to package the children action song as a new novelty dance. Indeed, hadn’t the publicity already been done by the King himself? Thus, The Chestnut Tree was born…

‘How to dance The Chestnut Tree, by Adele England’, dance instructions on the 1938 sheet music’s back cover.

Adele England was the leading teacher in the Locarno, Mecca’s flagship ballroom in Streatham, south London. She devised the dance hall routines for Heimann’s five novelty dances. For The Chestnut Tree she was not only inspired by the action song, but also inserted elements of the polka in order to appeal to the older patrons: the dancers were invited to circle the dance floor mimicking a tree, and to conclude by boisterously shouting ‘Chestnuts!’

Mecca tried to replicate its success by creating a third dance: The Park Parade about a couple taking a romantic stroll in the park on a summer’s day and by distributing free straw hats for the dance’s launch. In the newsreel below we can see and hear Miss Adele England explaining the ball room routine.

‘The Park Parade’ by Arthur Young, Anthony Page & Tommy Duggan, published by The Peter Maurice Music Co (London, 1939)

Heimann’s novelty dances all had the same mix of ingredients. They were quintessential English with English composers, producers and developed by an English dancer. They were meant to be performed by (mostly white) Britons of all ages, with or without dancing experience, rich or poor alike. The dances were a simple arrangement of steps performed in repetition while the patrons circled the dance floor in couples. All routines included shouting together and were meant to be a good laugh.

Heimann didn’t leave to chance the success of his novelty dances. Instead he devised huge promotional campaigns to launch them all over England. First the sheet music including dance instructions was sent to the press and to both the Mecca and non-Mecca dance halls, free of charge. It came with a warning that the dance was not to be performed in public before the date of the national launch.

The Handsome Territorial‘ by Jimmy Kennedy & Michael Carr. Published by The Peter Maurice Music Co (London, 1939). source: Sheetmusicwarehouse

The dances then all had a simultaneous debut at the Mecca dancing halls throughout the country. Professionals demonstrated the dance first and then invited patrons to join in. The words of the song were displayed on large banners along the dance halls so that everybody could sing along. And the very same day the sheet music and gramophone records would go up for sale.

The fourth (Handsome Territorial) and fifth (Knees Up, Mother Brown) novelty dances were less successful. During the war the dance business, owing to the presence of the large number of American servicemen and the jitterbug craze, would become explicitly less ‘British‘ and more Americanised.

Time to get your knees up!


Further reading: Doing The Lambeth Walk: Novelty Dances and the British Nation, by Allison Abra

Lalla Rookh

Sheet music cover 'Lalla Rookh' by George L'Estrange, illustrated by W. George
Lalla Rookh‘ by George L’Estrange, published by Cramer & C° Ltd (London, 1913) and illustrated by W. George.

In 1817 the Irish writer Thomas Moore published his bestselling epic book: Lalla Rookh. Hundred years later George L’Estrange —a now totally forgotten composer wrote a sentimental and unremarkable waltz of the same name. This L’Estrange was not the first who got inspired by Moore’s Oriental romance. From the start Lalla Rookh roused the romantic imaginations of several artists.

Illustration by John Tenniel, from the book ‘Lalla Rookh, An Oriental Romance’ by Thomas Moore, published by Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts & Green (London, 1862).

Moore’s tale narrates how the beautiful Lalla Rookh, daughter of the Mughal Emperor, travels from Delhi to meet —for the first time— her fiancé, the king of Bukhara (in what is now Uzbekistan). She is accompanied by Fadladeen, a self-righteous, obnoxious chamberlain and also by the handsome minstrel Feramorz, who distracts her from the long journey by telling her charming stories. Predictably, the princess falls in love with the young poet and dreads the moment she will have to face her royal betrothed. In the end the amiable storyteller appears to be none other than the king who had wanted to know if Lalla Rookh would love him for his own merit rather than for his wealth. All’s well that ends well.

Sheet music cover for 'Maid of Athens'
Maid of Athens‘ by Edward J. Loder & Lord Byron, published by Jefferys & C° (London, s.d.)

It was Lord Byron who had advised his very good friend and literary rival Thomas Moore to try Orientalism. He in turn was tipped off by Madame de Staël, a French-Swiss writer and influencer avant la lettre. Byron wrote to Moore in 1813: “Stick to the East. The oracle, Staël, told me it was the only poetic policy. The North, South, and West have all been exhausted…”.

Moore had never travelled to the East and thus spent six years of extensive research to come up with his armchair traveller’s view of the Orient. But it was time well spent —and sound advice from Byron— that earned Moore a princely sum of money.
Byron also had orientalist ambitions and had by then already travelled to the east. In 1810, while in Greece, Byron wrote the poem Maid of Athens, which has been set to music by numerous composers. On the cover above we recognise Byron and Theresa Makri, the daughter of his landlord in Athens. Theresa was twelve years old when Byron (he was twenty-two at the time) fell head over heels in love with her. Reportedly he offered £500 for her hand in marriage. The offer was rejected. Byron wrote the girl a poem, and set to his new destination, Constantinople.

Lalla-Roukh‘ by Félicien David, arranged by H. Marx, published by F. Girod (Paris, s.d.) and illustrated by Célestin Nanteuil.

Félicien David, a French pioneer of musical Orientalism, was another composer excited by Lalla Rookh‘s fairy-tale plot. In his opéra comique Lalla Roukh the heroin kept her phonetic name, but the poet/king Feramorz became Noureddin. Lalla-Roukh is also accompanied by her servant Mirza and by Baskir (Fadladeen in Moore’s version), the pompous, critical and conniving chamberlain.

Emma Calvé, Eustase Thomas-Salignac and Hippolyte Belhomme in the opéra comique ‘Lalla-Roukh’. Photographs by Nadar. source: gallica.bnf.fr / BnF

Contrary to Thomas Moore, Félicien David did travel to the Orient. He even had a specially reinforced piano built to withstand the heat and long journeys. With this small piano that could almost be slung over the shoulder, he travelled to the Middle-East, Algeria and Egypt. He stayed for two years in Cairo where he gave music lessons and explored the desert. These years were decisive for the Orientalist character of his musical work.

Felicien David by A. Lemot. source: gallica.bnf.fr / BnF

David returned to France where his Lalla Roukh was first performed to huge acclaim in 1862 and would remain popular till the end of the century. It was the catalyst for an explosion of operas set in the ‘Exotic East’.

David’s Lalla Roukh was almost forgotten, but was revived in 2014 by Opera Lafayette in Washington DC. Enjoy an excerpt of their production with a classical Indian dance.

The story of Lalla Rookh also found its way in popular culture. Kate Vaughan, allegedly the first woman to flash her petticoats, also inventor of the skirt dance, had a vaudeville act as Lalla Rookh in the London Novelty Theatre during the 1880s.

Kate Vaughan als Lalla Rookh, Novelty Theatre London

In the United States showman Adam Forepaugh presented in 1880 a street pageant Lalla Rookh’s departure from Delhi. Atop of an elephant sat the most beautiful woman in the world, for which title she had been awarded ten thousand dollars. Curiously, it was not the beauty queen who was named Lalla Rookh but the elephant.

The Hen with the Golden Eggs, a Féerie

'La Poule aux oeufs d'or. Grand Quadrille Féerique' by Paul Henrion,sheet music published by Colombier (Paris, 1850) and illustrated by Victor Coindre.
La Poule aux oeufs d’or. Grand Quadrille Féerique‘ by Paul Henrion, published by Colombier (Paris, 1850) and illustrated by Victor Coindre.

17th century Jean de la Fontaine wrote the fable La Poule aux oeufs d’or (The Hen with the Golden Eggs). It tells about a farmer with a hen that lays an egg made of gold, every single day. To discover the source of his good luck —and hoping to increase his prosperity— he opens the hen thus killing the animal without finding anything. The moral conclusion is that greed can ruin one’s good fortune.

The sheet music above was composed for a play that diverges entirely from the original moral tale. This quadrille is part of a féerie, or fairy play. In a féerie the plot is subordinate and auxiliary to the spectacle and the stage effects.

This typical French theatrical genre was known for its fantasy plots and spectacular visual effects. Think smoke machines, stunning lightning and sound, and mechanical contraptions to magically change stage sets. Féeries combined captivating music, colourful ballet, pantomime and acrobatics. They developed in the early 1800s and became hugely popular in France throughout the nineteenth century. Their stories were melodramas borrowed from fables and fairy tales, with a penchant for the supernatural. A full-length féerie often ran for several hours.

People queuing at the opening of ‘La Poule aux oeufs d’or’ at the Theatre National in Paris. Source BNF.

The 1848 premiere of La Poule aux oeufs d’or was at the Théâtre National on the famous Boulevard du temple, now gone but at that time the Parisian Broadway. The Théâtre National was previously a circus, and therefore commonly called Cirque national. La Poule aux oeufs d’or was a great success, if we can rely on the drawing of the crowd on the opening night. And it was relaunched in 1859.

The actor René François Boutin as Cocorico in La Poule aux oeufs d’or. Circa 1859. Source: eBay.

I started reading the scenario but gave up after two pages. It was enough to realise that the play was rocambolesque: an absurd mix of ridiculous adventures, burlesque characters and the obligatory ingenue. In the mocking words of the French writer and critic Théophile Gautier: “The characters, brilliantly clothed, wander through a perpetually changing series of tableaux, panic-stricken, stunned, running after each other, searching to reclaim the action which goes who knows where; but what does it matter! This dazzling feast for the eyes is enough to make for an agreeable evening.”

L’empire des animaux‘, one of the 24 tableaux in La Poule aux oeufs d’or, at the Cirque national. Lithograph by Alexandre Lacauchie, 1848. (source BNF)

In La Poule aux oeufs d’or the characters were brilliantly clothed indeed as shown by the pretty costume drawings.

Costumes for ‘La Poule aux oeufs d’or’ by E. Bourdillat, 1848. Source: BNF.

An angel and Satan provided the essential magic in La Poule aux oeufs d’or. In a féerie such supernatural forces used to drive the characters through fantastic landscapes and amazing adventures, typically with magic totems (in this case the golden eggs) used to transform people, things, and places. Wow!

Améline, Satan, in ‘La Poule aux oeufs d’or’ at the Cirque national. Lithograph by Alexandre Lacauchie. Source BNF.

But in the first place the audience came to see and appreciate the tricks. For La Poule aux oeufs d’or 24 elaborate stage settings or tableaux were built. Each one created an enchanted universe of dazzling attractions, spectacular effects and sophisticated optical illusions. In full view of the audience a cottage would transform magically in a palace. In another scene windmills would turn into gondolas while a lake emerged from the ground. Of course a large crew in charge of design and stagecraft was needed.
The grand finale stage led to the apotheosis: all actors, dancers, musicians and extras were united on the Île de l’harmonie (the isle of harmony) with a musical flourish.

The grand finale: stage setting for the 21th scene, L’Île de l’Harmonie. Source: BNF.

A colourful drawing shows a detail of this tableau illustrating the clever design of the costumes and props.

Le royaume de la musique, ‘La Poule aux oeufs d’or’ at the Cirque national. Lithograph by Alexandre Lacauchie, 1848. (source BNF)

La Poule aux oeufs d’or was later staged in other productions. In the 1870s version, even the grande vedette and forcefull singer Mademoiselle Thérésa, played a role in La Poule aux oeufs d’or. This production was so successful that it would travel to London.

Left: ‘Couplets de l’effet’. Right: ‘La Boite à musique’. Both by Albert Vizentini, Ennery & Clairville and sung by Thérèsa. Published by Choudens (Paris, 1873). Source: Gallica.fr.

Ten years later La Poule aux oeufs d’or was restaged at the Théâtre du Chatelet.

Poster for La Poule aux oeufs d’or, Theâtre du Chatelet, 1882. Source: BNF.

An Italian journalist reviewing that performance reported that his jaw dropped when he saw a hundred and fifty bricklayers and carpenters, all played by children between six and twelve years, constructing a house. But what most impressed him was a house on fire extinguished by a regiment of firefighters acted by persons of short stature and he was overwhelmed by the indescribable effects of the electric light. A real nouveauté at that time. He wrote: “Just take a look at our illustration to understand how much enticement it provided to the spectator.”

Front page of ‘Il Teatro Illustrato’ – November 1884. Source: BNF.

In the 1890s La Poule aux oeufs d’or became a pretext to bring a little bit of nudity at the Folies Bergère. Yes, the end of the live feérie was in sight

Left: Bonnet. Right: Couralet. In ‘La Poule aux oeufs d’or’ at the Folies Bergère. Photographs by Nadar, 1900. Source: BNF.

It fell out of popularity by the end of the 19th century, by which time it was largely seen as entertainment for children and disappeared from French stages.

The féerie quickly reincarnated as a popular cinema genre in the 1900s. The forerunner in the genre, was Méliès but the French Gaston Velle was also a prominent pioneer of special effects. He began his career as a travelling magician, before applying his illusionist skills to the cinema.

Poster for Velle’s film ‘La Poule aux oeufs d’or’ by Faria (1905). Source: Wikipedia – EYE Film Instituut Nederland.

Velle’s silent short La Poule aux œufs d’or (16 min) was produced by Pathé Frères in 1905. The scenario of the film is much simpler than for the theatrical féeries and it goes back to the roots of the story. You can watch the complete film on YouTube, but we start at the apotheosis. If you haven’t time to watch the complete sequence, may we suggest to at least watch the strange 3:40 scene? Though at 7:55 (and at 8:48) you will not be less baffled…