Archive for the ‘Piccadilly’ Category

The Dancer Bobby Britt and the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square

Friday, January 14th, 2011

Police photograph of Bobby Britt and his party guests at his flat at 25 Fitzroy Square, January 1927

At one in the morning on the 16th January 1927 Superintendent George Collins of the Metropolitan police knocked on the door of the basement flat at 25 Fitzroy Square. A woman called Constance Carre answered and was told that there was a warrant to arrest the occupants. Carre responded:

But Mr Britt was going to give us a Salome dance!

The Superintendent and his fellow officers barged past here and quickly entered the flat. They came across a 26 year old man who was wearing, as a police report would later describe, ‘a thin black transparent skirt, with gilt trimming round the edge and a red sash… tied round his loins.’ The report added ‘he wore ladys (sic) shoes and was naked from the loins upwards.’

The oddly attired man gave his name as Robert Britt and said:

I am employed in the chorus of ‘Lady Be Good’. These are a few friends of mine. I was going to give an exhibition dance when you came in.

I have been here for about eight months and pay two pounds five shillings weekly for the flat. Carre is my housekeeper. I was a Valet to a gentleman for about nine years who died last November. I did not like that sort of life, so as I’m considered good at fancy dancing I decided to go on stage… Some of the men I have known for a long time and they bring along any of their friends if they care to do so.

It eventually came to light that the police had been staking out Britt’s flat for a month or so. Sergeant Spencer and Police Constable Gavin of “D” division had spent 16th, 17th December 1926 and 1st and 2nd of January 1927 essentially peering into the abode from the front and rear of the property. They noted the activities during various parties Robert Britt held at his flat.

Police Sergeant Arthur Spencer wrote:

At 11.45pm I saw two men, who I saw enter at 11.30pm leave, they were undoubtedly men of the “Nancy type”. They walked cuddling one another to Tottenham Court Road, where they stood waiting for a bus. I stood close to them and saw their faces were powdered and painted and their appearance and manner strongly suggested them to be importuners of men.

Police Constable Gavin contributed to the report:

I saw from the a roof into a bedroom in the basement, where two men enter the bedroom, they both undressed and got into bed and the light was put out. I heard them laugh and scream in very effeminate voices.

The bedroom in Bobby Britt’s Flat as photographed by the police at the raid.

Fitzroy Square in the 1920s

Londoner Bobby Britt, the youngest of four children, had been born in Camberwell at the turn of the century and was now 26 years old. As he mentioned to the police when they raided his flat he was performing at the Empire Theatre in the dancing chorus of Lady Be Good! – the Gershwin brothers’ first Broadway musical and which starred the brother and sister team of Fred and Adele Astaire. The musical had been a huge success in New York and had now transferred to the famous theatre in Leicester Square to perhaps even greater acclaim. Bobby Britt was dancing in easily the hottest show in town.

Fred and Adele Astaire in Lady Be Good

Leicester Square “is one of the gayest quarters of London”. Almost certainly the word ‘gay’ would have already been in use by a few people to mean homosexual around this time. Albeit not by postcard writers.

George Gershwin attended the opening night in London which brought huge crowds to the theatre. Later with the Astaires he partied at the fashionable Embassy Club, where apparently he stayed until eight in the morning.

The Embassy Club, the location for the first night party of Lady Be Good!

Lady Be Good established the Astaires as international celebrities and the Times enthusiastically wrote:

Columbus may have danced with joy at discovering America, but how he would have cavorted had he also discovered Fred and Adele Astaire!

Adele and her younger brother Fred had been a successful vaudeville act since 1905 and in 1926 Adele was actually the bigger star of the two – Fred at this stage of his career played almost a supporting role. Professionally the siblings were completely different; Fred, a constant worrier, was never happy with his or his sister’s performance and usually arrived at the theatre two hours early to limber up and practice, while Adele, a much more relaxed individual, would generally turn up a few minutes before her first entrance.

Fred and Adele – vaudeville dancers in 1915

Fred and Adele

Adele enjoyed her new found celebrity status on both sides of the Atlantic and particularly appreciated the attention she had started to get from rich tycoons’ sons and wealthy young aristocrats. In 1932 she retired from the stage and her professional relationship with her brother when she married Lord Charles Arthur Francis Cavendish and moved to Ireland, where they lived at Lismore Castle.

Although she had been dancing most of her life, Adele made no attempt to hide the fact that the theatrical life wasn’t really for her – “It was an acquired taste,” she said, “like olives.”

The future Lady Charles Cavendish

The Empire Theatre around the turn of the century

Thirty years before Fred and Adele danced on the stage of the Empire to such acclaim, Oscar Wilde had his character Algernon Moncrieff mention the theatre in the first act of The importance of Being Ernest’.

Algernon. What shall we do after dinner? Go to a theatre?

Jack. Oh no! I loathe listening.

Algernon. Well, let us go to the Club?

Jack. Oh, no! I hate talking

Algernon. Well, we might trot round to the Empire at ten?

Jack. Oh, no! I can’t bear looking at things. It is so silly.

The original production of Oscar Wilde’s play ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ showing Irene Vanbrugh as Gwendolen Fairfax and and George Alexander as John Worthing. 1895.

Oscar Wilde, who wrote his last and ultimately most successful play during August 1896, would have known exactly what connotations a lot of the audience would glean from ‘the Empire’ reference.

While Wilde had been writing the play the Empire had been in the news for months, mostly because of the ‘purity campaign’ by the indomitable campaigner against vice – Mrs Ormiston Chant. The Daily Telegraph gave it huge coverage worried about ‘the prudes on the prowl’.

The Indomitable Mrs Ormiston Chant

Prostitution and the theatre, of course, had always been pretty close bedfellows, so to speak. At Wilton’s music hall, for instance, it was flagrant, the gallery could only be entered through the brothel inside which the hall had been built.

In the 1890s the Empire in Leicester Square was justly famous as a Variety and Musical Hall theatre especially for its spectacular ballet productions and its ‘Living Pictures’ – frozen-moment representations of well-known paintings or other familiar scenes where seemingly half-naked young men and women stood very very still.

In reality, the dominant attraction, and to what Wilde was probably referring, was the Empire’s second-tier promenade. This was an area behind the dress circle, where you could still see the stage if you wanted to, but was essentially a pick up joint for high class prostitutes. The theatre charged half a crown (12 1/2p) for a rover ticket that gave you licence to enjoy the promenade. There was room to wander around but there were also comfortable seats and what was called an ‘American Bar’ serving one shilling cocktails such as the ‘Bosom Caresser’ and the ‘Corpse Reviver’.

The luxurious and opulent interior of the Empire Theatre. The tier two promenade is on the bottom right.

The promenade was known as ‘The Cosmopolitan Club of the World’ and the essayist and caricaturist Max Beerhohm described it as “the reputed hub of all the wild gaiety in London – that Nirvana where gilded youth and painter beauty meet…in a glare of electric light.”

Enchanted Mrs Chant was not, and she was of the opinion that it was the risque ‘abbreviated costumes’ on stage that contributed to, and encouraged the indecent and indecorous air of the Promenade. She told the London County Council responsible for the licensing of the Empire:

“We have no right to sanction on the stage that which if it were done in the street would compel a policeman to lock the offender up…The whole question would be solved if men, and not women, were at stake. Men would refuse to exhibit their bodies nightly in this way.”

Her efforts were not in vain and she managed to persuade the council in October 1894 to instruct the Empire to build a barrier between the theatre itself and the infamous ‘haunt of vice’ promenade.

When the Empire Theatre management put up canvas screens to hide the auditorium from the Promenade they were quickly torn down by a rioting audience. They were egged on by the young Sandhurst cadet Winston Churchill who wrote to his brother:

Did you see the papers about the riot at the Empire last Saturday? It was I who led the rioters – and made a speech to the crowd – “Ladies of the Empire, I stand for Liberty!”.

The Empire Theatre in 1896

Presumably Mrs Ormiston Chant would have been even more shocked and horrified if she had known what was going on within the less prestigious and cheaper first tier promenade. Oscar Wilde, however, almost certainly did, and his ‘Empire’ reference would have had other connotation altogether to a more select part of his play’s audience.

At a cheaper price of only one shilling the Empire Theatre’s first tier promenade was said to be THE gay pick-up location in the whole of London. A letter to the council dated 15 October 1894, just six weeks after Mrs Chant’s visit to the theatre, described the rough ejection of a man from the shilling promenade by Robert Ahern, the front of house manager. The letter writer described the man who was thrown out “as a ‘sodomite’ as were perhaps half the occupants of that promenade, that it was the only venue for people of this kind, and that he ‘could lay his hands on 200 sods every night in the week if he liked.”

Oscar Wilde in 1895

It’s not known whether Oscar Wilde ever went to ‘look at things’ in the first tier promenade at the Empire Theatre but it does sound like the place he would have frequented around that time. However just a few months after Mrs Ormiston Chant’s intervention at the Empire, and only two months after The Importance of Being Ernest premiered at the St James Theatre in February 1895, Wilde was charged with gross indecency after a failed libel case with the belligerent little Marquess of Queensbury. Wilde was convicted under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, and sentenced to two years’ hard labour.

The judge, Mr Justice Wills described the sentence, the maximum allowed at the time, as “totally inadequate for a case such as this,”. Wilde’s response was “And I? May I say nothing, my Lord?” but it was drowned out in cries of “Shame in the courtroom. Five years later he was dead. A broken man.

The last photograph of Oscar Wilde in 1900

Bobby Britt, 1927 naked above his loins.

Thirty years later Lady Be Good! finished its run at the Empire on 22nd January 1927. Bobby Britt was no longer in the chorus because exactly two weeks previously he had been formally charged with keeping a disorderly house. Or to put it in slightly more detail he was charged with permitting:

…divers immoral lewd, and evil disposed persons, tippling whoring, using obscene language, indecently exposing their private naked parts, and behaving in a lewd, obscene and disorderly and riotous manner to the manifest corruption of the morals of His Majesty’s Liege Subjects, the evil example of others in the like case, offending and against the Peace of Our Lord the King, his Crown and Dignity.

After some legal arguing about what a disorderly house actually meant, poor Bobby Britt was sentenced to 15 months hard labour for essentially being a ‘nancy boy’ and enjoying the occasional party. Four of his friends were sentenced to six months without hard labour.

When Bobby was eventually released in 1928 let’s hope that he was able to go and enjoy Oscar Wilde’s Salome, perhaps to compare dances. The play, forty years after it was written (it was banned by the Lord Chamberlain on the basis that it was illegal to depict Biblical characters on stage), had its first public performance at the Savoy theatre in 1931.

After his time in prison Bobby took the stage-name Robert Linden and lived with his parents on Lansdowne Road in Stockwell and then after the war with his sister in Amhurst Road in Hackney.  Bobby went on to dance in many shows both in the West End and on Broadway in New York, working with Cecil Beaton, Frederick Ashton and Noel Coward. He danced at the initial BBC television trials at Alexander Palace and he performed for the Royal family at Windsor Castle.

Britt eventually moved to West Sussex and became a proficient painter in his eighties and he died at the age of 100 in the year 2000.

An influence for Mr Britt? Maude Allan as Salome and the head of John the Baptist in 1906.

Maud Allan became known as the ‘Salome Dancer’. Interesting character – her brother was hanged for murder of two women, she published an illustrated sex manual for women in 1900 and in 1918 it was implied by the British MP Noel Pemberton Billing in his article ‘The Cult of the Clitoris’, that she was a lesbian associate of German wartime conspirators. She sewed her own costumes though.

The silent film star and dancer Alla Nazimova stars as Salome in 1923.

After Lady Be Good’s run had come to an end Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, who had recently bought the Empire, promptly demolished the famous old theatre and built a large cinema in its place. The Empire Theatre cinema, in one form or another, still exists to this day.

The Empire Theatre just after the war, it was showing the film Bad Bascomb with Wallace Beery and Margaret O’Brien.

The Empire Cinema today. It seems a long long way from Fred and Adele Astaire. More respect for the original building please.

25 Fitzroy Square today.

To try and recreate the ‘Naughty Nineties’ atmosphere at the Empire Theatre you may want to try the cocktails Bosom Caresser and Corpse Reviver.

Bosom Caresser
1 tea-spoon raspberry syrup
1 egg
1 jigger brandy

Fill a mixing-glass one-third full of fine ice; add a teaspoonful raspberry syrup, one fresh egg, one jigger brandy; fill with milk, shake well, and strain.

Corpse Reviver
2 shots Cognac
1 shot apple brandy or Calvados
1 shot sweet vermouth

Stir well with ice and strain in to a cocktail glass.

By the way Harry Craddock, who wrote a famous cocktail book in 1930 and worked at the Savoy Hotel wrote that the Corpse Reviver No. 1 should be drunk “before 11am, or whenever steam and energy are needed.”

Cleo Laine and Johnny Dankworth – Oh Lady Be Good!

The Berry Brothers and Eleanor Powell perform Fascinatin’ Rhythm from Lady Be Good 1946


The Cafe de Paris, the Trial of Elvira Barney and the death of Snakehips Johnson

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009
Elvira Barney after her trial in 1932

Elvira Barney arriving at her parents house at 6 Belgrave Square, 7th July 1932

Visiting England apparently on a whim and a year before she appeared in her first film late in 1925, Louise Brooks became a dancer at the Cafe de Paris in Coventry Street. She was just seventeen and it was here that she reputedly became the first person to dance the Charleston in London. The Piccadilly nightclub had quickly become fashionable with London society after it had opened in December 1924, not least because the Prince of Wales became a regular visitor.

Brooks later wrote about the so-called ‘Bright Young Things’ she had met during her time in London and waspishly described them as a ‘dreadful, moribund lot’. She added that when Evelyn Waugh wrote Vile Bodies about them, only a genius could have made a masterpiece out of such glum material.

The Cafe de Paris in 1932

The Cafe de Paris in 1932

Louise Brooks in 1924

Louise Brooks in 1924

Marion Harris in London in 1932

Marion Harris in London in 1932

In May 1932, and eight years after Brooks danced in front of the rich and famous at the Cafe de Paris, the celebrated American singer Marion Harris was in the middle of one of her long engagements at the night club. Harris was known to audiences at the time as the first white woman to sing the blues and after moving to England at the beginning of the thirties was performing to great success in London. The Prince of Wales was actually a big fan and often came to see her sing. One night after she had performed, the manager came into her dressing room excitedly announcing that the Prince had been so impressed that he would like her to have a drink at his table. Miss Harris coolly declined, telling him that “If your customers get to know you too well, they don’t come back and pay money to see you. The illusion is destroyed.”

She may have been on stage singing ‘the blues’ – the acts began their set at eleven – when just after midnight on 30th May 1932 an intoxicated couple (both of whom would have undoubtedly considered themself a Bright Young Thing), entered the famous West End night for a rather late supper.

The couple were Elvira Barney and her louche bisexual lover Michael Stephen and they had travelled by cab to Coventry Street after holding one of their numerous parties at the home they shared in Williams Mews just off Lowndes Square in Knightsbridge. After they had finished their meal at the Cafe de Paris and had further drinks at The Blue Angel in Dean Street they returned back home in the early hours of that morning.

It wasn’t long before the neighbours, not for the first time, started to hear screaming and yelling from the first floor and Elvira was reported to have shouted:

“Get out, get out! I will shoot you! I will shoot you!’

Almost immediately the street heard the report of a pistol shot echoing into the night and almost immediately a neighbour heard Barney crying

“Chicken, chicken, come back to me. I will do anything you want me to.”

At about 4.50am, after a frantic call to his house just ten minutes earlier, Doctor Thomas Durrant arrived at 21 Williams Mews and came across Barney continually repeating:

“He wanted to see you to tell you it was only an accident. He wanted to see you to tell you it was only an accident.”

On the stairs, shot in the chest at close range, lay a distinctly moribund Michael Stephen.

‘There was a terrible barney at no. 21′, a neighbour later told the police, apparently unconscious of the pun.

Michael Stephen

Michael Stephen

21 William Mews and a dead Michael Stephen

21 William Mews and a dead Michael Stephen

21 Williams Mews today, the name seems to have gained an 's' in it seventies development

21 William Mews today

Macdonald Hastings wrote about the fatal evening in his book The Other Mr Churchill, (this Mr Churchill was a forgotten about firearms expert and not the prestigious Prime Minister) and he described the police being incredibly shocked when they entered the mews house:

‘Over the cocktail bar in the corner of the sitting room there was a wall painting which would have been a sensation in a brothel in Pompeii. The library was furnished with publications which could never have passed through His Majesty’s Customs. The place was equipped with the implements of fetishism and perversion.’

Shocked or not, and despite Elvira at one point striking Inspector Campion in the face saying: “I will teach you to say you will put me in a cell, you vile swine,” after she had made her statement, the police, obviously knowing their place, simply allowed her to go back to her family home at nearby 6 Belgrave Square. She was accompanied by her parents, Sir John and Lady Mullens.

Four years previously, a twenty-three year old Elvira, despite her parents protestations, had married an American singer and entertainer called John Sterling Barney. When they met, at a society function held by Lady Mullens, he had been performing in a ‘top-hat, white-tie and tails’ trio called The Three New-Yorkers. They were relatively successful in the UK at the time and often played at the Cafe de Paris.

The Three New Yorkers at The Cafe de Paris - John Barney is on the left

The Three New Yorkers at The Cafe de Paris - John Barney is on the left

The Three New Yorkers and a couple of Bell-boys

The Three New Yorkers and a couple of Bell-boys

By many accounts the facile John Barney was a rather unpleasant man and a friend of Elvira’s once recalled:

“One day she held her arms in the air and the burns she displayed – there and elsewhere – were, she insisted, the work of her husband who had delighted in crushing his lighted cigarettes out from time to time on her bare skin.”

Violent rows started within weeks of the marriage and after a few months the American returned back to the United States never really to be heard of again. Elvira, according to her biographer Peter Cotes, went off the rails and ‘started sniffing the snow…and became the demanding but generous mistress of a number of disorientated and sexually odd lovers.’ Unfortunately he doesn’t really go into any more detail but the description goes someway to explain how, at the start of 1932, she ended up sharing her bed (and her bank account) with the drug-dealing ‘dress-designer’ Michael Scott Stephen.

Sir John Mullens, with his society connections managed to persuade the former Attorney-General Sir Patrick Hastings to defend his daughter. Hastings, in his early fifties, was at the height of his fame as a Kings Council and towards the end of the trial made a final address to the jury, that the judge – a Mr Justice Humphreys – later called the best he had ever heard.

The Honourable Mr Justice Humphreys on the way to court

The Honourable Mr Justice Humphreys picking up a London Metro on the way to court

Sir Patrick Hastings on the cover of Time in 1924

Sir Patrick Hastings on the cover of Time in 1924

The jury must have also been impressed with Sir Patrick’s speech and after two hours returned a not guilty verdict. On his way out of the court Mr Justice Humpheys exclaimed:

‘Most extraordinary! Apparently we should have given her a pat on the back!’

The jury had acquitted her but Fleet Street weren’t going to let her off that easily and they gleefully reported that Elvira Mullens (the name she had reverted to) had shouted on the dance floor of the Cafe de Paris soon after the court case,

‘I am the one who shot her lover – so take a good look at me.’

Sir Patrick Hastings described Elvira during the trial as ‘a young woman with the rest of her life before her’. Unfortunately the rest of her life lasted a only four short years and she was found dead in a Parisian hotel room. After a typical long night of drinking and taking cocaine she had decided to return back to her room complaining that she felt cold and unwell. She was discovered later that night half on her bed, half off, with signs of haemorrhage around her mouth. The years of drinking and drug-taking had finally taken their toll.

The police holding back the crowd at the Old Bailey during the trial of Elvira Barney

The police holding back the crowd at the Old Bailey during the trial of Elvira Barney

Marion Harris in New York

Marion Harris in New York

Not long after Elvira Barney’s death in Paris, Marion Harris retired from showbusiness and married a successful English theatrical agent called Leonard Urry. In early 1944 their home in Rutland Street (just a few hundred yards west of Williams Mews) was razed to the ground by a V1 flying bomb.

Harris returned to America completely traumatised and never really recovered from seeing her home completely destroyed. On Sunday, April 23, 1944, alone in a New York hotel room she fell asleep while smoking a cigarette. It set the room alight and it was never disclosed whether she died of burns or suffocation from the smoke.

The Cafe de Paris, unlike the majority of theatres and nightclubs in the West End, remained open at the start of the second world war. This was probably because of the rich and famous patrons having a slight influence on the wartime licensing regulations, however it was said that the dance-floor was so far underground that it would be completely safe when the air-raid sirens sounded.

Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson

Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson

On Saturday 8th March 1941 Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson and the West Indian Orchestra were playing at the Cafe de Paris as usual. While carefully not mentioning the actual club or the band leader (due to wartime censorship) Time magazine reported what happened subsequently:

The orchestra at London’s Cafe de Paris gaily played Oh, Johnny, Oh Johnny, How You Can Love! At the tables handsome flying Johnnies, naval Jacks in full dress, guardsmen, territorials, and just plain civics sat making conversational love. The service men were making the most of leave; the civilians were making the most of the lull in bombings of London.

Sirens had sounded. Most of London had descended into shelters, but to those in the cabaret, time seemed too dear to squander underground. Bombs began to fall near by: it was London’s worst night raid in weeks. The orchestra played Oh, Johnny a little louder.

Then the hit came. What had been a nightclub became a nightmare: heaps of wreckage crushing the heaps of dead and maimed, a shambles of silver slippers, broken magnums, torn sheet music, dented saxophones, smashed discs.

A special constable with the rather splendid name Ballard Berkeley was one of the first on the scene. He saw Snakehips Johnson decapitated and elegantly dressed people still sitting at tables seemingly almost in conversation, but stone dead. He was shocked to see looters, mingling with the firemen and the police, cutting the fingers from the dead to get at their expensive rings. Ballard Berkeley many years later became famous as the actor who played the major in Fawlty Towers.

Cafe de Paris, 9th March 1941

Cafe de Paris, 9th March 1941


In 1929 British International Pictures released Piccadilly starring the beautiful Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong. The scene where Wong’s character Shosho performs her exotic dance in front of an adoring nightclub crowd was filmed in location at the Cafe de Paris. The film also includes a brief appearance from Charles Laughton playing a gluttonous diner – his first feature film performance.

In 1948, the Cafe de Paris was refurbished and seven years after the tragic death of Snakehips Johnson the doors reopened. Although it was again graced by royalty, notably Princess Margaret, the club never really regained its sophisticated aura it had before the war.

The only evening of note I can find was on 29th September 1965 when Lionel Blair introduced, to an extremely grateful public no doubt, his new dance called ‘The Kick’.I’m not sure but I don’t think it was a storming success.

Lionel Blair accompanied by Cilla Black, Joe Loss and Billy J Kramer dance 'The Kick'

Lionel Blair accompanied by Cilla Black, Joe Loss and Billy J Kramer dance 'The Kick' at the Cafe de Paris in 1965

Billie Holiday – These Foolish Things

Al Bowlly – Dinner For One Please, James