Master of Mirth
- Stan Laurel
Fred Karno's Army
The sedate black car was being driven from Manchester to Derby and was held up for several minutes at a crossroads by a policeman who stood stolidly in front of it. There weren't many cars on the roads in the early 1900's.
'Drive on past him,' said Fred impatiently from the passenger seat, 'He'll keep us here all day.'
The driver, Billy Danvers, edged forward a little nervously. The policeman heard the engine start up and turned: 'What do you think you're doing?'
'Er . . . just driving on . . .' Billy said meekly.
The policeman shook his head in wonderment: 'The way you drive, you should be with Fred Karno.'
Billy thought better of enlightening him that it was Fred Karno sitting next to him i nt he car. The term 'Fred Karno' was already being expressed to signify chaos.
'Devon born and proud of it,' Fred used to say. Frederick John Westcott, later known as Fred Karno, was born at Exeter on 26 March 1866. His father, John Westcott, was a cabinet maker who lived and worked in several towns before settling at 1 Carey's Place, Coalpit Lane, Nottingham (picture right) around 1875. Whilst not neglecting his family, John was a disciplinarian whose dictum was 'no work, no food' with a 'treat others as I've been treated' attitude and as the eldest of six boys and a girl, Fred needed to be resourseful. By the age of 14 at the nearby lace factory, Fred was earning two shillings a week which became augmented by sweeping out a barber's shop, cleaning milk carts and helping a chemist named Shepherd who traded in competition with Boots the founder of the giant pharmacy chain.
Years later when confronted by an angry General Bramwell Booth, Fred recalled to good effect seeing the General's father, General William Booth, marching down a Nottingham street with his Salvation Army band.
For some unfathomable reason, Fred became apprenticed to a plumber and indentured for 7 years. The job turned out to be fruitful years later. The plumber and Fred had some work to do at the prison and the repartee of the two inmates assigned to help them made such an impression on Fred that he later worked it into Jail Birds - his first big stage hit. And when Fred was sent to a gymnasium to do some repairs he became fascinated and signed up for instruction at sixpence a time. A natural athlete, Fred was soon good enough to win prizes and displays at local fetes and galas.
A Professional Gymnast
Now looking for a chance to be a professional artiste, his chance arrived with Alvene, a wire-walker and juggler who was appearing in Nottingham. Fred told him he wanted to be his assistant and he could do anything Alvene could do! After a gruelling audition, he was taken on by Alvene for a month's trial, their first engagement at the Crown and Cushion, Fletcher Gate, Nottingham.
At this convenient moment for Fred, the plumber died and Fred was free of his indentures. Alvene and Leonaro (Fred) next appeared in a circus at Cardiff and when this ended, Fred joined another circus where he earned 25 shillings a week playing the clown, the barker, assistant ringmaster and ticket seller.
For Fred the budding showman the next few years were hard, starvation always just around the corner. The times were best described in an article Fred later wrote for Pearson's Weekly in 1908: 'My early years in the variety world were mainly spent in circuses. Lord George Sanger's and Fred Ginetti's among others, and I learned pretty well every trick in the trade. But I wasn't particular what I did, pantomime, music hall, booths, fairs, all come alike to me. Fairs! Why, I reckon that at one time or another I appeared in every fair in England, my 'stunt' being anything in the gymnastic line.'
His aerial act was a risky business too as he also described in the same article one night in Amsterdam: '. . . the net stretched over the orchestra and came down too low. I used finish off the act by doing a double somersault from the roof into the net. But when I did it on the first night in this hall, I landed just above the conducter's music stand and crashed almost with the full force of my descent. They thought my back was broken but it wasn't quite as bad as that . . .'
Fred kept a glazier's kit at home and when out of work he and his partner would work their way to London shouting 'winders-a-mend.' Sometimes his partner had to travel ahead to break one or two in advance - Charlie Chaplin later used this stunt in his his film The Kid.
Fred later wrote: 'I was originally one of the 'submerged' and that I am not today one of the 'won't works' I attribute to the fact that good old Dame Nature gave me an energetic disposition and a taste for athletics of any kind.'
The Three Karnoes
'Poverty Corner', opposite Waterloo Station, close by the theatrical agents' offices in York Road where artists would wait for jobs to handed out by the agents, was where Fred (pictured right when a young acrobat) met two other gymnasts Bob Sewall and Ted Tysall. At short notice they were asked to fill for The Three Carnoes at the Metropoltan Music Hall, Edgware Road. They were so successful that they were asked to stay on. The 'Met' manager did not realise that they were not the real Three Carnoes so when they were given another booking they called themselves The Three Karnoes. Bob Sewall had a good singing voice and both Fred and Ted Tysall could play the mandolin so the trio would busk their way round the West End for extra money. And Fred began to use the name Karno in public.
For the pantomime season of 1888, Fred appeared at the Theatre Royal, Stockport, and in the box office was a seventeen-year-old vivacious blond with a gay, gentle nature named Edith Cuthbert. She fell for the spruce and lively Fred and loved him for the rest of her life no matter how badly he treated her - Fred could be mean and was not shy of using physical abuse. Her parents did not like Fred so she ran away from home and married Fred at Lambeth Registrar's Office on 15 January 1889. Edith gave her age as 21.
In the early years of their marriage they were poor most of the time. Edith had to work at whatever theatre he was appearing, either in the box office or scrubbing the stage, or both. When her work did not come up to his fastidious standards and he had berated her, Fred's conscience would prick him and her would buy her jewellery - pawned later when the hard times came.
Fred Karno Junior
Their first child, Frederick Arthur, was born on 27 July 1891 at 1 Napoleon Terrace, Bell Street, Nottingham, the house of Edith's sister Polly. Fred continued his gymnastic career as leader of The Three Karnos and Edith would accompany him on tour and return to Nottingham for the last weeks of her pregnancies. Seven more children were born in the years following to 1902 though six of them died. Theatrical lodgings were damp and draughty and the quality and quantity of food varied. Edith became expert at checking beds: 'If you slipped a mirror between the sheets, it showed up any dampness.'
It was in 1895 (the Hollywood film industry was a year old) that Fred introduced a small sketch called Love in a Tub from his circus days, all in mime to save the trouble of learning lines. This proved successful so Fred worked out, in conjunction with a first class pantomimist Rick Klaie, a sketch called Hilarity that was packed with slapstick comedy full of the misfortune of others. It turned out that Edith was a brilliant mimic and she was written into the sketch, though she still helped out in the theatre in some way, bore his children, and attended their funerals.
For Next Page of Fred Karno click Jail Bird