Jailbirds (Fred Karno)
Hilarity was a box office hit, due in no small measure to Edith's ability, and Fred was on his way. His next production Jail Birds, taken from his visit to Nottingham prison years before, established him as a producer and impresario and also demonstrated his extraordinary flair for publicity. To move the company, costumes and scenery from one theatre to another, he bought an old Black Maria, bedecked it with streamers reading 'Fred Karno's Jail Birds', and filled it with his cast dressed up as policemen, warders and convicts. The advertising proved invaluable, especially when he took the Black Maria with the whole company decked out in costume to the Epsom Derby.
Established now, Fred bought two large houses in Vaughan Road, Camberwell, knocked them into one to become his home, office, a nursery for stars, and a storehouse for stage properties. It became known as the 'Fun Factory' or as he himself called it 'The House that Karno Built'. And as he himself pronounced: 'We'll turn you out anything theatrical from a pantomime, cast, scenery, dresses, everything complete, down to a property periwinke.'
By the end of 1901 Fred was running four sketches, Hilarity, Jail Birds, Early Birds starring Billy Reeves, and The New Woman's Club, sometimes putting on all four at one music hall and filling in with star performers such as Little Tich and Harry Randall.
Fred noted the publicity ideas of theatre manager Arthur Jefferson, father of Stan Laurel, who would send round Glasgow a portable zoo cage with a live lion inside mauling a man's body - of course, the body was a dummy. Or, depending on the show, it might be a hansom cab carrying a man with a dummy knife sticking out of him and blood all over the place.
Karno bought himself a primrose and scarlet Rolls with the name 'Fred Karno' daubed on it. His income was now £600 a week. Carrying as many as his actors as the Rolls could manage, Fred would go on a pub crawl where he would treat everyone at the bar then leave behind a stack of playbills and posters. Landlords didn't mind the extra custom. And the Rolls would 'conveniently' break down in the middle of a crowded street and he would ask volunteers for a push before handing them a tip and more playbills and posters. Or he would have 'warders' chasing two escaped 'convicts' through a town's rush hour, anticipating the chases of the Keystone Cops.
The following year Fred produced his first comic play, His Majesty's Guests, featuring Fed Kitchen with his slow speech and a shambling walk in enormous boots as prescribed by Karno. The play shot Fred Kitchen to stardom.
Edith (pictured right) no longer travelled about with Fred and their last child named Leslie was born in the Febuary of 1902 at Vaughan Road. Three weeks later Edith received a package through the post from Fred containing photographs of himself and a girl both naked and in various poses - Fred's way of informing his wife that he had a mistress. After a lot of tears and showing them to her son Freddie, who was old enough to understand, she wrapped the photographs up again, saying: 'I may need them.' Within an hour she had packed and left with Freddie and baby Leslie to take refuge a few miles away with one of Fred's top actors, Charlie Bell, and his wife Clara.
Soon after, Fred arrived at Vaughan Road with his mistress Marie Moore, (pictured right) one of the 'Amazonian Chorus' of His Majesty's Guests. Though opposite to Edith in that she was a big, raven-haired brunette with a large bust, a sexual extravert, and a shrewd business mind, she was similar to Edith in that she also loved Fred Karno. Marie would prove to be Fred's loyal standby through the bad times and Edith never took up with anyone else.
Edith sought a separation but Fred refused to pay any maintenance - he believed Edith would return to Vaughan Road to make up a menage-a-trois. When the case came to court in 1904, it seemed that Edith might lose and in desperation she produced the pornographic photographs. Edith won separation, £10 a week maintenance and custody of Leslie while Fred won custody of Freddie.
Edith rented a house in Brixton Road and entertained a wide range of friends including Marie Lloyd, (pictured right) star comedienne of the stage, dancer Ida Crispi, Naomi Jacob and Marie Kendal. Fred Karno never stopped trying to wriggle out of paying her maintenance or trying to gain custody of Leslie.
Now known as 'The Guv'nor', Fred believed in 'make do and mend'. Neither was he over generous in paying wages. When anyone asked for a pay rise he always had the same answer, handing them an enormous bowler hat and saying: 'For Big Heads.' And with some truth he argued that he provided his performers with constant and regular work which other impresarios could not.
Fred took pains to train newcomers in delivering lines, to slop about the stage and to look 'wistful' - the great appeal of 'Karno's Komics' was to tug at heart strings as well as create laughs. He preached that laughs came when the performer didn't know what was going to happen to him but the audience did - throwing custard pies was the earliest example of this. As a tireless talent-spotter he gathered talent about him, turning unknowns into stars. His scripts became legendary, not only for their brilliance but for their brevity, usually just two or three sheets of paper. Fred would write 'business' in the script which meant anything the producer or actor could devise. Comedian Bert Murray said later: 'My part consisted of what Fred wrote for me on the back of an envelope.'
A continual stream of sketches came out of the 'Fun Factory' and the sketch Mumming Birds, called A Night in an English Music Hall in America, became the most successful music hall sketch of all time which ran for nearly forty years in a dozen countries. A show within a show, (pictured right) it featured two theatre boxes either side of the stage, and the acts, as bad as Fred and his performers could make them, were barracked by an inebriated swell in one box and an uncle with his loud-voiced nephew in the other. The drunk would scramble out of his box to throw an actor off stage, or grab a girl, while the nephew would join in the wrestling bout.
The Drunk was first played by Billy Reeves and afterwards by Charlie Chaplin and occasionally by Stan Laurel though Stan played most of the other roles and later described the show as: 'One of the most fantastically funny acts ever known.'
Syd Chaplin had a permanent job with the Guv'nor and persistently pleaded with Fred to give a part to his brother Charlie who was out of work after appearing in the play Sherlock Holmes. Fred knew Charlie, having shared the same bill with him at the Nottingham Empire in 1901 when Charlie was appearing with the Eight Lancashire Lads. Karno later said: 'He was puny, pale and undernourished and frightened, as though he expected me to raise my hand to hit him. Even his clothes were too small for him.' Charlie must have been reasonably fit since he had won a walking contest over 25 miles at Nottingham in 1907.
Both Chaplin brothers appeared in London Suburbia while learning the Karno style of comedy during the day at Montpelier Theatre - the 'Fun Factory' was overflowing.
Charlie Chaplin appeared in Karno's next production The Football Match, appearing at the Nottingham Empire in January 1910, and to everyone's surprise turned down the lead in the next production Jimmy the Fearless. Fred shrugged and gave the part to Stan Laurel who made a resounding success of it. Charlie then apologised to Fred and said he wished he had taken the part and to Charlie's surprise Fred did give him the part - Fred had plans for Stan in America.
By 1907 Fred had eight different sketches running at the same time in America and the UK. The sketches, dialogue, jokes and characters became part of the culture of the day, spawning catchphrases like: 'Meredith, we're in!' from The Bailiff.
In 1909 Karno ventured into leasing theatres that included the Exeter public hall which he re-decorated, re-seated and provided with a modern stage. General Bramwell Booth of the Salvation Army, having booked the hall months previously, became angry at all the re-arrangements. Fred soothed the General down with his story of listening to his father and his Salvation Army band years before in Nottingham and while Fred agreed to go to the General's meeting, none of the Salvationists visited Fred's show. The Exeter shows starred Madam Albini, Maidie Scott, Little Tich, George Robey, Eugene Stratton, Ada Reeve and Mabel Hackney, amongst others.
America soon wanted Mumming Birds and in 1910 Fred sent two casts including Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel (pictured right), Billy Reeves and Fred Karno Junior across theAtlantic - Sydney Chaplin remained at home to play the lead in Mumming Birds. Re-titled A Night in an English Music Hall, the sketch played at Hammerstein's in New York for eight weeks and continued to run in America for three years. Because of Fred's stingy pay of £15 a week, Chaplin and Laurel shared cheap lodgings and when a refusal for an increase was turned down by Karno, Stan quit and returned home. Stan later returned to America and joined the Hal Roach Studios, teaming up with Oliver Hardy.
Mack Sennett, producer of the Keystone Cops - born out of Karno techniques - saw the show in Los Angeles and lured Chaplin away to a Hollywood career. Billy Armstrong, Eric Campbell, Sydney Chaplin, Alf Reeves, Billy Ritchie and Leo West were other Karno players who never returned from America.
Three of Fred's former stars appeared in the very first Royal Command Variety Performance on 1 July 1912 - Clarice Mayne sang 'I'm Longing for Someone to Love Me', Little Tich appeared as 'The Gamekeeper and His Big Boots', and George Robey (pictured right) presented 'The Mayor of Mudcumdyke'.
Amongst others who appeared were Edith's friend the dancer Ida Crispi, Vesta Tilley, Harry Lauder and Anna Pavlova with members of the Imperial Russian Ballet.
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