Fred KarnoKarsino (Fred Karno)

Fred bought a houseboat on the Thames at Tagg's Island near Hampton Court where he spent his weekends. Girls were invited, not all of them actresses. One morning in the spring of 1912 Fred suddenly decided to build his own boat; and in the wake of his success, stinginess was overcome by squandermania. The houseboat christened Astoria had a marble bathroom, the finest woodwork throughout and a sun deck that could hold an orchestra. It cost 20,000 in 1912! And looking out from the deck, Fred could see Tagg's Island, an untidy morass of sand and grass. It was then that Fred decided to build on the island the most splendid, opulent entertainment centre in Britain.

Engineers were brought from Holland to survey the river bed; thousands of tons of concrete were poured in, huge piles sunk, plus pipelines for drainage. Called Karsino, the complex comprised a hotel, theatre, ballroom, restaurant, bar, pleasure gardens, river and sports facilities.

On Sunday 18 May 1913, five thousand people turned up at the opening including Lord Birkenhead, F.E.Smith, Charles Cochrane, Lord Curzon, and most of the glamour girls of the day including Gaby Deslys. Sir Joseph Lyons helped out in the kitchen and gave Fred some practical suggestions. There were fireworks nearly every night thereafter and on one occasion when the weather was bad, Paderewski gave an impromptu recital on the piano. On one hilarious occasion 250 members of the Massed Band of guards turned up to play but could not be fitted on the island.

Karsino also turned out to be costly to run. While Fred knew how to run a theatre he had to learn the hotel business from scratch. Waitors swindled him, served indifferent wine at vintage prices, and one waitor vanished with the entire week's takings. Staff not only stole from Fred but also from the guests - Lord Birkenhead became angry when a rug was stolen from his car. And business was bad when the weather was bad which was often.

Fred Karno's Army

With the outbreak of war in 1914, Karsino became packed with young officers and their girl friends especially from the RFC who could land at Hurst Park and meet their girl friends at the Karsino. Customers included jockeys, boxers, actors, chorus girls, journalists, lawyers and detectives - the place was at one time thought to be full of spies.

During the war Fred still lucratively produced musical hall shows - one contract with Moss Empires was worth 70,000. And he was winning enduring fame on the Western Front when the soldiers began to sing various versions of 'We are Fred Karno's Army.' One printable version was:

We are Fred Karno's army
We are the ragtime infantry.
We cannot fight, we cannot shoot,
What bleeding use are we?
And when we get to Berlin
We'll hear the Kaiser say,
Hoch, hoch! Mein Gott,
What a bloody rotten lot,
Are the ragtime infantry.

Later even tanks became named after Jail Bird, Early Bird, etc. The Daily Mail, criticising the obsolete Royal Navy ships stationed at Dover, called them 'Fred Karno's Army' and so became part of the English language used to describe a chaotic outfit.

The Love Match

By 1919 public taste in entertainment was changing to sophisticated revues. Fred hung on for a while producing shows without slapstick though they were still encrusted with his own brand of comic artistry. One of the best was the The Love Match starring Billy Danvers and Jean Alliston set in a match factory. Jimmy Nervo, later of Nervo and Knox appeared in Nosey Nose, and Alice Lloyd, sister of Marie Lloyd who would never work for Fred because of his treatment of his wife Edith, starred in The Surpassing Show.

Bankrupt

The cinema began to make inroads on the music hall and with Karsino dogged by too many rainy days, Fred was in financial trouble. The 'Fun Factory' had to be sold, the stage props going for a song, and he was declared bankrupt in October 1926.

Homeless and penniless Fred may have been but he was lucky in love. Both his wife Edith and his mistress Marie loved him, both ever loyal and resourceful. Marie had seen the crash coming and with the liberal allowance Fred had given her - far more money than Edith ever saw - had secretly bought a house and car in her name.

Edith

With Fred's bankruptcy Edith no longer received her allowance of 7 10s and had to live on her savings. She did not complain. Everyday she cleaned her house and always kept two pillows on her bed embroidered 'Fred' and 'Edith'.

Early in 1927 she became ill with diabetes. Both her sons Freddie and Leslie were married with children of their own and while Freddie was touring the United States, Leslie was dealing in cars, having given up the stage. Leslie and his family moved in to look after her and she died peacefully in her sleep on 24 May 1927. Fred could not bring himself to announce her death in the newspapers since he had been passing Marie off as his wife for a quarter of a century. In her will Edith left her wedding ring to Fred 'to prove no one could take his place in my heart.' Twenty days later Fred married Marie at Parkstone in Dorset.

America

With Mumming birds continuing to earn money - staged as a Christmas attraction at the Crystal Palace in 1928 before embarking on a Provincial tour - Fred decided to try his luck in America. Marie stayed behind to cut costs.

Hal Roach, Fred Karno and Stan LaurelNobody wanted to know Fred in New York so he went on to Hollywood. When he arrived at the Chaplin studios, Charlie shut down filming for the day, took him home, and set his publicity machine in motion. The 'Arrival of the Comedy King' became headlines but nobody was interested in giving him a job till he met Stan Laurel again who introduced him to Hal Roach. (Hal Roach, Fred Karno and Stan Laurel pictured right.) Offering to let Fred sit in on the lot and learn how things were done, Roach also offered him a salary. This must have been difficult for the impresario to accept used to teaching everyone else about comedy but he needed the money. When Chaplin tactfully slipped him 500 and arranged an apartment for him to cut hotel bills, Fred sent for Marie.

Karno, Hardy and LaurelHal Roach Studios

Discretion was not among Fed Karno's gifts. (Karno pictured right with Laurel and Hardy) Having a caustic and critical tongue and used to being listened to, Fred did not make many friends. His confidence that he knew better than anyone else what made an audience laugh, and his disdain for American studio methods that used old gags he had long discarded soon soured the atmosphere. After six months he blew his top over a scene with a dog that went wrong and raged to Hal Roach: 'I'm packing it in. I'm no bloody use to you here, I'm going home!'

Fred and Marie boarded the boat at New York after driving across America. Fred always insisted that America ganged up on him.

Karno's Krazy Komics

Back in Britain, Fred produced a new type of touring show called Karno's Krazy Komics which was put on at the London Palladium and called Laffs. The show was a smash hit and became the nursery for the Crazy Gang. Fred auditioned a young girl for the show named Phyllis Dixie who later became famous for pioneering strip-tease in Britain. Fred's long held reputation for introducing the casting couch did not bother Phyllis who gave him short shrift, and in her later shows she always sang a song that included the lines:

'I failed my first audition . . .
I couldn't sing in a horizontal position.'
Margaret LockwoodSix Films

Under Karno's direction, Ealing Studios filmed The Bailiff starring Flanagan and Allen. Fred managed to sort out a chaotic film set - he never did understand why they needed so many technicians for lighting, music, sound, cameramen etc. and why there had to be so many takes. The technicians grudgingly admitted that Karno was a bastard but at least he knew what he was doing.

Jean KentFred directed five more small-budget films which provided an opportunity for young actors and actresses including Margaret Lockwood (pictured top right) and Jean Kent (pictured bottom right).

Real Life, a show that Karno produced for the theatre in 1935, did well at the cheaper theatres and flush with this success Fred formed the Fred Karno Film Company with the help of backers.

Will HayAt the trade showing of his first venture, Don't Rush Me, starring Robb Wilton, Fred received well-wishing telegrams from Charlie Chaplin, Flanagan and Allen, Jimmy Nervo, Bobby Howes, one from Will Hay (pictured right) signed: 'From one of your old apprentices', and one from Stan Laurel that read: 'One touch of Karno makes the whole world grin. Keep up the good work and make the whole world happy.'

The End

The film was an out-and-out failure leaving Fred with a substantial overdraft. Fred realised, that at 70, it was the end of his show business career. The Music Hall Benevolent Fund with the help of a 1,000 donation from Charlie Chaplin bought him a share in an off-licence in the Dorset village of Lilliput. He made a success of it till the war started when trade declined.

Fred Karno died suddenly of diabetes, like Edith, on 17 September 1941. He left little money but what a legacy of laughter and humour the great showman bestowed on us - and a name that still lives on as part of the English language.

Sherwood Times