The Stubborn Genius (7th December 1876 – 28th October 1951)
Shaftesbury Avenue is London's Broadway. Today, this magical stretch still includes The Criterion, Shaftesbury, Palace, Gielgud, Queens, Apollo and Lyric Theatres. The Saville was once amongst those at the north end. Construction of this 1,426-seater began in the 1920s but the theatre did not open until late 1931 and it was later converted into a cinema (currently the Odeon Covent Garden).
The Saville’s ornate auditorium had three levels: stalls, dress circle and upper circle plus four boxes. Its façade incorporated a large imposing arch and a 40-metre frieze sculpted by Gilbert Baynes, who in 1929 had just finished working on the BBC’s Portland Place site and the legendary clock, Queen of Time (left) above Selfridges’ front entrance.
The frieze, entitled Drama Through The Ages, (above) has been described by the Theatres’ Trust as “perhaps the most significant sculpture of the 1930s on a prominent building”. It reflects theatrical genres such as minstrels, Greek chorus, gladiators of imperial Rome, Shakespeare, harlequinade, romance and twentieth century. Almost concealed in St Giles’ Passage is Khaki, the final panel (right). Art critics have referred to its depiction of a uniformed soldier as a sombre moment in an otherwise exuberant piece.
Unfortunately, the facts have altered over time. What is now considered to be a serious statement in stone was originally quite the opposite. Khaki was in fact a show, an anarchic farce about military life written by Herbert C. Sargent and Con West. One of the reasons for its success was the reaction of the Lord Chamberlain (then the theatre censor) to it: “The play is a farrago of idiocy, vulgarity and sham sentiment”. Its star was the very man portrayed as a private in the Baynes frieze, the now-forgotten comedian, Ernest Lotinga (left).
Born in Sunderland into a Danish-Jewish family, Lotinga was the son of an industrious shipper who financed the Moor Street synagogue (right) and was a respected community leader. This family wealth extended beyond the immediate prosperity of Lotinga’s parents and siblings to his cousin William, who became famous in the sports world as a race horse owner.
Disregarding easy comforts, Lotinga chose to make his own way in life: at the age of thirteen he became an apprentice to a London baker in preference to continuing at school. The location of the bakery – Peckham - meant that Lotinga made regular deliveries to south London's theatres, including The Camberwell Palace and The Grand Theatre, Clapham. These were music hall venues funded by a consortium of performers led by comic legend, Dan Leno (left).
Lotinga soon began sneaking into the auditoria to watch the occasional show. When reprimanded by the one of the cooks for his disappearing act, he told the truth: he simply enjoyed watching Leno and friends. The cook’s husband happened to be the manager of a local venue - The Kings’ Smoking Club - so she arranged a visit for Lotinga in the hope that the experience might satisfy his hankerings.
The scheme backfired. Within weeks, Lotinga was clamouring for a chance to perform. His act merely consisted of singing Dan Leno’s songs, but the couple could see Lotinga's potential and began to increase the regularity of his appearances under the stage name “Dan Roy”. His salary increased to two-and-six, five times his bakery pay, minus the cook’s regular commission, a box of chocolates.
It wasn’t long before top acts performing in nearby Peckham Crown Theatre (top left) began to visit the club, simply to watch this young whippersnapper dazzle the late-night crowds. As word spread, producers of local music halls and supper rooms jostled to book Lotinga into their venues.
By the 1890s, Lotinga (as Dan Roy) was an established music hall performer, playing big rooms like The Granville at Waltham Green (top right), The Putney Hippodrome (bottom left) and The Shepherds Bush Empire (bottom right).
After five years of working up and down the country, positioned in every spot in the running order, Lotinga finally made it to top of the bill in 1889 when he debuted at The Tivoli, Dover (right). But being the star of the show with his eight-minute act was not enough: Lotinga wanted to be the show.
He had noticed an act called “The Three Karnoes” whose appearances took up most of each night’s bill. They included Bob Sewall who possessed a great singing voice but was also very funny; Ted Tysall - another great comic and a brilliant musician; and the man behind the sketches and playlets performed by the trio - Fred Karno (right).
It was in this direction that Lotinga decided to go. He created a brand new troupe called “The Six Brothers Luck” (left) which, although made up of unrelated performers (including Shaun Glenville who became a pantomime legend) was promoted as a group of siblings. Very much like the Karno troupe, they consisted of eccentric dancers, acrobats, singers, jugglers - and of course, all of them had funny bones. They performed in the many burlesque sketches written by Lotinga. An audience favourite was A Night In An English Café, complete with his characteristically elaborate wordplay and one-line gags.
As well as the six ‘brothers’, the show included other musicians and an ensemble of female dancers and singers. One of the women who sang with the troupe in the early years was Winifred Emms (right). She had made her first professional appearance (as Hetty King), at the age of six, performing with her father the comedian Will King, at The Shoreditch Theatre. King and Lotinga soon started a relationship, and after a short courtship they were married.
KIng didn’t last long in the Six Brothers Luck show because in 1905 she reinvented herself, and became one of the most famous male impersonators on the Music Hall circuit (left). She topped bills as a debonaire man-about-town or as members of the navy and the army. In the guise she popularised the song All The Nice Girls Love A Sailor and made it her own. KIng, like her husband, toured Asia, Australia and the US, performing both solo and in her husband's company.
The Six Brothers Luck went from strength to strength, appearing as the headlining act at the number one theatres on four continents. Lotinga was now regarded as an impresario. Not only did he write and direct the shows, he was also the producer. Lotinga was, in his mind, a step ahead of a certain rival, now known as ‘The Guv’nor’ - Mr. Fred Karno - who had two of the greatest comics of the time, Bert Murray and Billy Reeves, appearing in Mumming Birds (right).
During their 1908 tour of America, The Six Brothers Luck were informed that A Night In An English Café would have to change its name to prevent being confused with Karno’s new touring show, A Night In An English Music Hall. This clash, an unashamed attempt by Karno to steal his rival's loyal audience, led to Lotinga trying to cash in on America's recent taste for the macabre by renaming his own show The Demon In The Cellar.
The show, complete with some new hastily-written routines to differentiate oits authorship, was patchy and as a result was not well-received. One paper called it “childish horseplay and buffoonery, without a redeeming virtue”. Lotinga, disgruntled by the situation he had been forced into by Karno, quit the act and then the following year went back on the road with his wife.
The pair toured extensively, but the touring circuit was diminished by the outbreak of war. Lotinga and King performed for the troops in France and Belgium where they met American singer-songwriter Jack Norworth (right). He was the lyricist of Take Me Out To The Ball Game and became their regular support act. The war shows went extremely well and King became a favourite with the forces. Things were looking up for Lotinga - until he started to notice Norworth leaving King’s dressing room with greasepaint on his lips.
By 1917, King and Norworth’s affair led Lotinga to file for divorce. King made counter-claims of her husband’s debauchery and sex parties, but Lotinga won. The judge summed up the case with these words: “There are some wives, better to lose than to keep”. It was one of Britain’s first great entertainment scandals, and the many people who were keen to forget their own wartime hardships flocked to buy papers as the story unfolded.
The outcome had no effect on their careers. Hetty King continued to perform until her death in 1972; Lotinga started to perform in what he referred to as “funny plays” in a range of celebrated west end venues. He became one of the most sought-after comedy leads in the country, so popular that the poet T.S. Eliot (right) mentioned him when writing to Virginia Woolfe:
“Have just been to see Ernie Lotinga in his new play at the Islington Empire. Magnificent. He is the greatest living British histrionic artist, in the purest tradition of British obscenity.”
Rare 1916 & 1923 film of male impersonator, Hetty King, and Ernie Lotinga (+ 1934 recording Fill Em Up!)
By 1928, Lotinga had made eight short comedy films for the DeForest Phonofilm company, all shot in a converted stable in Clapham Road, London. Some of these were directed by the movie pioneer, Thomas Bentley. Around this time, Lotinga created a hero character for the screen, the hapless Jimmy Josser, and although this put-upon chap was blunt and vulgar, he appealed to the public. Of the nine feature films in the Josser series, sadly only one seems to exist today, Josser in the Army.
Lotinga pulled together his own comedy cast for these movies: handsome, smooth-talking actor Jack Hobbs (right), masters of physical comedy Jack Frost and Wallace Lupino, the brilliant character actor Wilfred Hyde-White and the burlesque actress Kathleen Barbor, whom Lotinga later married. P.C. Josser, Doctor Josser K.C., Josser In The Army and Josser Joins The Navy were bawdy, knock-about comedies which, as their titles suggest were disparaging of authority.
The films suffered from the same censorial problems as Lotinga’s live shows. The Lord Chamberlain hated the characterisation of officers and judges as villains, and working-class Josser’s taunting opposition to these respectable gentlemen.
Unfortunately for the censors, the films regularly received a great reception from the very class they ridiculed but Lotinga’s final film was deemed outrageous by all: one of the stars of Love Up The Pole was the risqué Phyllis Dixey (left).
Phylis Dixey had been a performer in The Windmill Theatre’s (right) nude tableaux vivants: naked living pictures. Lotinga felt that such a stunt would bring something unique to his own live show, so he had employed the young Dixey to join the tour and present her peek-a-boo act.
When theatre owners complained about the sketch, Lotinga would respond “What is good enough for London is good enough for Hull (Dover, Rhyl, Greenock…)” and win the argument.
Lotinga was considered to be a loose cannon by the studios, who withdrew their backing after Love Up The Pole. He didn't care and carried on performing live, and still commanded a hugely enthusiastic crowd.
At the outbreak of WWII he helped ENSA to entertain the troops at battlegrounds, and also broadcast radio shows to boost morale.
However, by the mid-40s the public’s taste had changed and the silly wordplay of Music Hall had been replaced by Variety’s more highbrow and well-constructed sketches.
Stubborn and headstrong, Lotinga chose not to move with the times. In 1947 he was still turning out standard ‘punning’ routines: a sketch character called Drinkwater would ‘mistakenly’ be referred to by him as Pinkwater, Stinkwater, Bathwater… Lotinga was losing his audience as fast as he was losing his position on the bill, but he was undeterred and continued to perform similar material up until his death in 1951.
There is scant record of Lotinga’s career but his style of humour had a domino effect on the comedy world. This began with Fred Karno’s plagiarisation and the discovery of two stars within his Army. These were Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel who became the godfathers of film comedy and the predecessors of all great comedic work since. All that is left to mark Lotinga's career is a stone bas-relief, the true history and meaning of which is disappearing fast.
Sources and Suggested Reading
R. Baker British Music Hall: An Illustrated History (2014)
R. Baker Old Time Variety: An Illustrated History (2013)
Picture Show Magazine (June 10th 1933)
Doing His Duty (1928)
The Raw Recruit (1928)
The Orderly Room (1928)
What Did They Do ? (1928)
Acci-Dental Treatment (1929)
P.C. Josser (1931)
Doctor Josser K.C. (1931)
Josser On The River(1932)
Josser In The Army (1932)
Josser Joins The Navy (1932)
Josser On The Farm (1934)
Josser's Detective Agency (1935)
Smith's Wives (1935)
Love Up The Pole (1936)