‘I BECAME a male impersonator in 1905. Now you work out how old I was. How old would I be? That you can work out for yourself. Don’t ask me to do it. 1905. You can easily work it out. I’m eighty-eight now. Well, don’t make a mistake. Get it right.”
Hetty King glared at me crossly. The unexpected question had turned my brain to porridge. “Er . . . twenty-two,” I ventured after an interminable few seconds. “I think you would have been twenty-two in 1905.”
Her face softened. “Good boy,” she murmured. “Good boy.”
It was August 1971, and after many misunderstandings and delays I was finally talking to the last of the great male impersonators at a little private music hall museum in Wimbledon, crammed with photographs, faded theatre bills, song-sheets and decomposing props.And in the middle of this clutter of memorabilia, with a shaft of dusty sunshine for a spotlight, sat a portly, ancient woman, carefully and fussily dressed, sporting the kind of elaborate hat associated with elder members of the British royal family, and, incongruously, knee-length black leather boots perhaps more suitable for a seventeen-year-old assistant at the supermarket down the road. Her intricately lined face was puffy and heavily rouged and powdered, and her eyes, flashing with amusement or impatience, were lively, defiant and young.
Hetty King had topped bills all over the world for seventy years. She was born the year Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island and six years later, as the Eiffel Tower was being built and Charlie Chaplin was being born, she made her first appearance before the public as a dancer in her father’s seaside troupe. She had been a star in the days of Harry Champion and Marie Lloyd, Harry Lauder and Little Tich, who were her artistic contemporaries and equals.
There had been many women who dressed as men on the music halls, but only three top exponents: Vesta Tilley (1864-1952), Ella Shields (1879-1952) and Hetty King, born in 1883. Even though the curious vogue for male impersonation was a distant memory by 1971, Hetty King, stubborn, uncompromising and a legend in the business for cantankerous and temperamental behaviour, refused to consider any other type of performance as fashions changed. A male impersonator was what she was and what she stayed, through good times and bad. Retirement was unthinkable and she was far from wealthy, so she battled on, travelling the country – sometimes with her sister and dresser, Olive, but usually on her own, leaving a trail of rows with theatre managements over billing and money in her wake.
LOCATING her had been difficult because Hetty King had been absent from the stage for some months through illness and did not seem to actually live anywhere. She stayed with a series of relatives, friends and acquaintances, moving on when they got fed up with her autocratic ways and imperious demands.
One such, Terry Doogan, an accordionist and former dancer who had been comedian and singer Randolph Sutton’s companion for many years and who worked with Ran and Hetty in Don Ross’s Thanks for the Memory touring shows in the 1950s, told me: “She came to stay for three days after a row with her sister. Three days turned into at least three weeks. I had to give up work to look after her and nearly had a nervous breakdown!”
Terry’s friend W.A.Smallman, with whom he shared a house, took up the story: “When Hetty stayed with us she decided to confine herself to the bedroom. Well, we had a visitor who came round and she was absolutely delighted to meet Hetty King, who received her in bed, like Sarah Bernhardt or someone, and off she went. And Terry took the dog out for a walk and Hetty decided she would toddle into our upstairs bar for a Scotch because she was very fond of the Scotch. And she started to natter, and then she got a bit odd.
“She told me that nobody had ever given her a thing, and that everything she’d ever had she’d had to work for and then she started to tell me about the times when she used to walk up the road hand-in-hand with her father when she was a child, to go to some date somewhere or other, and the reminiscence of it made her cry. And I came round from the other side of the bar and she kept crying and, stupid as it may seem, I started crying, too. So there were the two of us, bursting into tears all over the place, then Terry came back with the dog, and he tried to stop the two of us and then he started crying! So we’re all having a good bawl and then all the crying turned to laughter and we told each other what bloody fools we were and had another Scotch and went to bed.”
I had just missed Hetty King at Terry Doogan’s, but then a contact known to me only as Musaire, an old-time entertainer who had a musical novelty act, tracked her down to comedian Sandy Powell’s home at Eastbourne. “Between you and me,” confided Musaire, “Miss Hetty has had some upsets and is awaiting her brother’s return from France, as she wants to have a place of her own, but not a boarding house or hotel, just where she can look after herself in her own way. Small flatlet or such, and really she is quite upset in herself, though if you do write, say nothing about it. My suggestion would be to say ‘When it is convenient to you, I would be very pleased to make my time suit your convenience.’ Don’t pinch it, as it is my own phrase, but use it this time, yes?”
Musaire’s somewhat obsequious phrase did the trick, and the meeting at the private museum in the Wimbledon home of Reg Aubrey, a music hall devotee, was set up, with the genial and protective Sandy Powell acting as go-between.
‘I WAS born at New Brighton,” she told me, “just across from Liverpool, and a lot of my younger life was spent in Liverpool – Manchester and Liverpool. But I was born across the water. My dadda used to go there nearly every summer with his Minstrels and as the years went on I used to appear with my father in the troupe. There were about ten or twelve, and my sister, my dadda and myself.”
Dadda was William Emms, who changed his name to Will King and ran a show called Uncle Billy’s Minstrels, travelling a horse-drawn portable theatre in the 1880s from village to village and around the northern seaside resorts. Born in 1850, Will had been a sailor – perhaps one that all the nice girls loved – on the tall ships before he became a full-time entertainer and was shipwrecked twice, off the coast of Italy and later off the coast of England. Both times he swam to shore with his concertina – his sole means of earning a living on land – protected by an oilcloth and clenched between his teeth.
“My father taught me my little songs and by the age of six I was working. When the police weren’t watching, they used to push me on to do my little act, and hide me if they thought someone looked like a bobby.”
In his autobiography, which was never published, Don Ross wrote: ‘Hetty King told me that when she was a little girl, her father ran a portable theatre with variety acts just like a music hall show. In the sketches he played the handsome leading man, usually in the character of a sailor because the uniform was the best in his stage wardrobe. Her stepmother played the heroine. The entire family worked in the theatre: box-office, selling programmes, helping with the scenery, making props and costumes. Each did an individual act and also performed in the sketches. They most enjoyed pitching in a village or town large enough to support them for a few weeks without moving on.’ (1)
Perhaps to confuse the authorities, Will usually dressed his daughter, whose given name was Winifred, as a boy. When she was small, he’d teach her a song and let her use her own instinct and imagination to interpret it – “this is a song about an old man who mends shoes for a living,” he might tell the child, or “here’s a number about a soldier home on leave.”
Sometimes she dressed herself as an old Irishwoman and sang:I’m a dacent Irish woman As you can plainly see. Me husband is a blackguard. He’s always thumping me.
During the winter, when touring was impractical, the family settled in Manchester, appearing in concert-rooms known as the ‘Free and Easies,’ which had sawdust on the floor and ale on the tables. Money was often very tight. When Hetty was about ten, she and Will found themselves stranded in Sheffield one summer after they had had to sell the horse. They saw an advertisement for a contest on the South Pier at Blackpool for the best new comic singer. The prize was five pounds and a season at a local venue. They didn’t have the fare, so father and daughter walked the whole way, over 70 miles, in easy stages, taking about a week to do it, Will throwing a ball up the road and Hetty running to catch it. And, of course, she won the contest and the season’s work.
She built on this success, touring the provincial music halls, doing imitations of stars of the day: Gus Elen, Eugene Stratton and Vesta Victoria – “Not Vesta Tilley; don’t make that mistake. Vesta Victoria – you know, who sang There Was I, Waiting at the Church. Not Tilley. Make sure you get it right. I was ‘Little Hetty King’ on the bill. Don’t laugh, but they used to bill me as ‘Dainty Hetty King’ as well. Of course, people see me smoke a pipe on stage now, they can’t imagine I was ever dainty. But that was my full billing: ‘Dainty Hetty King, Mimic and Sand Dancer’.”
While still in her teens, Hetty married Ernie Lotinga, a popular comedian. And then, bored with the dancing and imitations she had been doing since childhood, she secretly resolved to try her hand at male impersonation when she was appearing at the Palace Theatre, Bradford.
“I wasn’t a headliner in those days. I was just a small act. I was a bit fed up with not having anyone to take the place of some of the old impressions I was doing, and it worried me very much.”
The star she most admired was George Lashwood, a handsome and dashing lion comique singer who had women swooning in the aisles. “He was so wonderful, so perfect in his clothing. Everything was just right. So I thought: ‘I wish I could be like him.’ And that was the start of my trying to be a male impersonator.”
She didn’t tell the management she was changing her act and confided in her husband only a few days before. Lotinga tried to dissuade her. It was too risky, he said. There were already plenty of male impersonators on the halls, and she’d just be compared unfavourably to Tilley, who was a huge star.
The music halls of Victorian and Edwardian times provided entertainment for a basically poor, working-class audience, and the stars, invariably from humble backgrounds themselves, represented the dreams and longings of that audience. Marie Lloyd, Little Tich and all the rest had ‘made it’ out of the mean streets.
Vesta Tilley, Ella Shields, Hetty King and many lesser exponents of the art of male impersonation represented a different social dream. At a time when women were not allowed to vote, and were generally repressed, it must have been heartening for them to see one of their own on stage, mocking the lion comiques, dressed as a man, strutting, winking, perceptively pointing out male foibles with sly, feminine satire. And for the men in the audience, a woman in masculine attire, her breasts taped flat and her curves disguised, evidently constituted a sexual appeal that now seems rather mystifying, although today’s androgynous fashion models are distant relatives.
NATURALLY, this kind of gender masquerade meant that Tilley, Shields and King attracted a strong lesbian following, and while Victorian society contained many closets, it seems certain that none of these three occupied this particular one. Tilley enjoyed a long and happy marriage to theatre-owner Sir Walter de Frece and Shields, the only one of the three to have a child, a daughter, was married to William Hargreaves, who wrote Burlington Bertie from Bow for her.
Hetty King was married twice; Lotinga divorced her, citing American singer Jack Norworth as co-respondent. Her second husband was Alex Lamont, who was office manager for Julius Darewski, her agent, and she divorced him after a few years.
Impresario Don Ross remembered that Ella Shields was at one point stalked by a woman bus conductor, who sent her love letters and flowers. Shields shook off her admirer with great charm and tact, Ross told me, but Hetty King was typically more brusque, on one occasion hiding from the well-known lesbian writer Naomi Jacob, who dressed as a man in real life the way that King did on stage. “I don’t know her and I don’t wish to know her,” she exploded, which was a shame, said Ross, “because Naomi was an exceptionally nice woman.”
Anyway, back to the Palace, Theatre, Bradford, in 1905, where Hetty, having bought a suit for a few pounds, stood trembling in the wings, ready to make her debut onstage as a man.
“I thought: ‘Well, if it’s a flop, it’s a flop. I won’t do it next house. I’ll go back to my old imitations.’ As I went on, I nearly ran off again because I got this terrific round of applause. Anyway, I went through the first song and it went down very big. I went through the next song and it as the same. I only had two songs, that’s all. Well, I didn’t think it would be anything, just a try-out. When I finished, the audience wouldn’t stop. The stage manager kept saying: ‘Go back, go back again.’ I said: ‘I haven’t got another song,’ Then the manager came round and he also said: ‘Go back on again.’ I had to go back on again and do my sand dance; the audience just wouldn’t stop.
“When I finally came off, I said: ‘Why did they give me such applause when I walked on?’ And the manager said: ‘Because you’re billed as a mimic. And you’re the image of Vesta Tilley.’
“ ‘But,’ I said, ‘I don’t want to be Vesta Tilley. I’ve never seen the woman in my life. I never had a chance to imitate her because I never saw her.’ The manager just said again: ‘You’re the image of her.’ And that’s what the audience evidently thought.
To see Hetty King performing almost 100 years ago, at a First World War soldiers’ hospital benefit, press here
“And, you know, there’s always a break for someone. In the audience that night was a very big manager. And afterwards he took my hands and he said: ‘I want you in my office tomorrow.’
“And from there I was taken from ‘wines and spirits’ on the billing and put right at the top of the bill wherever I went as a male impersonator or pantomime principal boy. And I’ve been a headliner ever since. So there you are. I never saw Vesta Tilley and as the years went on I made it my business never to see her. You see, Vesta Tilley was not a character male impersonator. I am the only character male impersonator.
“By that, I mean that if I am going to do a character, be it soldier, sailor, navvy, padre, I go and look for my subject, study them, see what I can pick up. It might only be a little walk . . . a touch of the hand . . . something, but I’d go and I’d study them. When I did my Guards song, I used to stand outside Buckingham Palace and watch them with their rifles. Every movement. I’d study them in detail and I’d work on that.
“Then, when I did a sailor song, I went on a merchant ship, and the first one I went on was at Bristol. I went on there one day dressed all glamorously and the captain knew I had come to have a look at the boys and just study a bit. Of course, the sailors all dried up; they didn’t want to come near me. They didn’t like a woman coming on board. I thought: ‘I’ve got to get at them.’
Vintage footage of Hetty King. Two clips – the first, at a charity event in 1916, shows her clowning around with Lotinga. The second is a more formal piece showing some of her impersonations, including a cowboy who expertly twirls his gun then rolls and lights a cigarette with one hand. The accompaniment is one of her best songs, Fill ‘Em Up.
“So I went and put on a man’s suit, and instead of trying to be a little lady I just became one of them. ‘Hello, boys,’ I said. And they came out and started talking to me. A fellow came up from down below, all grease and that sort of stuff, and I watched him filling his pipe. And I thought: ‘That’s it!’ I was talking about one thing and another – where I’d been, Africa and Australia and so on – and I watched him light his pipe. And the loveliest part of it was that he took out of his pocket a piece of thick twist. Well, of course, I was in my glory watching that. He was cutting it here and cutting it there. And that’s the sailor I copied, and still copy, in my act.”
Male impersonation has two imperishable songs: Shields’s Burlington Bertie from Bow, and Hetty King’s Ship Ahoy, better known as All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor, composed by A.J.Mills and Bennett Scott in 1909. In those days artists often bought songs outright.
“All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor is my own song, bought and paid for. People think it’s a free song, but it’s nothing of the kind. I didn’t pay much for it because I didn’t like it much at first. And I made the mistake of first singing it as a naval officer. Dressed as a naval officer, I was too aristocratic for the song, I was too swanky. But then I did it again because I was short of a song and I sang it as a common sailor. Not like today, when I do it in a dinner jacket and sailor’s hat. In those days I used to dress my characters down to a button to be correct. But now they don’t wait for that. They will not wait for changes like they used to.
“I’ve toured the world, you know. I used to go to America every two years. I was starred there on Broadway. And I’ve been to Australia three times. I did pantomime there. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been to South Africa. I had an offer to go there again this year. When you’ve been eighty-three years on the road, you’re bound to touch a few places.
“I don’t want to sound boastful as an artist, but I’ve always been very fortunate because I think my reaction with an audience is this: as I told you, my work is in characters, and I am evidently like some mother’s son, some lady’s husband, or a brother, because you hear these comments – ‘Oh, isn’t that like our Tom?’ And I really think that is the reason for any success I’ve had, because I’ve been like some mother’s son. I really think that. Being a woman, perhaps I was rather perceptive in this respect. Another thing I’ve always tried to do is that, although I’ve always tried to copy – as near as possible – the man, I will always give a little smile, or a little wink, and I will immediately become a woman, to kill anything they might misunderstand. That is another trick that comes to you naturally.
“I can really say that I have enjoyed marvellous success throughout the whole of my career, and I can boastfully say that I’ve never had the bird. Only once. And I’ll tell you when that was. I went – serves me right for being there – to a place in Scotland called Greenock. And everything was marvellous, and the audience was thrilled that I was coming, and the house was packed and everything was marvellous. Now I’m telling you the house was packed because it is true.
“And I walked on in a lounge suit and straw hat and I was going to sing seaside songs. And as I walked on, a voice from the stalls yelled out ‘Gerroff!’
“I hadn’t opened my mouth. I said: ‘I beg your pardon?’ and this same Scots voice came back: ‘Gerroff!’ I said: ‘Certainly,’ and I walked off. I’d only just walked on! Well, the house was shouting: ‘Go on, throw him out! Garn!’ Shouting and yelling, and applause coming through. The manager went out and he said to this chap: ‘What did you say that for?’ And in a very beery voice he looked up and he said – of course, they told me this afterwards – he said: ‘I paid to see Hetty King, not that feller!’
“I’ll tell you another funny little story. I was engaged to go to Morecambe. And it was the first of the season. It was quite recently and I was working for Mr Don Ellis. I was very angry with Don. I said: ‘Don, it’s too bad. Look at the old bills flapping around in the breeze from last season. That’s not fair.’ And he said: ‘Well, there are three new bills around the posts.’ There were posts there, holding up the front of the theatre, I think. Well, I laid down the law to Don, and the manager, who was with us, said: ‘Well, I do agree with you, Miss King. I’ll do something about it.’ Then two Lancashire women came along. And one looked at the other, and looked at this very dilapidated theatre, with all these bills torn to pieces, and said: ‘Eh, Maggie, what’s this?’
“ ‘Ee,’ the other one said, ‘I don’t know. It says ’Etty King.’
“ ‘Don’t be daft. ’Er’s bin dead for years.’ “
‘Oh, aye, aye, that’s right. It must be t’waxworks’.”
She chucked deeply at the memory, even though she’d probably told the little story against herself many times over the years. “And then there’s my pipe,” she said.
“My pipe. When I sing the last bit of All the Nice Girls Love a Sailor I do all this business with the pipe and the tobacco, and that’s what made the song. That’s the secret of that one. But one or two things have gone wrong over the years while I have been filling the pipe. Once the pipe fell in two! I picked it up; I don’t get stuck. If anything happens on the stage, I don’t worry.
“One night I forgot to fill the pipe before I went on. I fill the pipe and light it beforehand, you see, then let it go out, so it’s all ready to take the first match. Well, when I came to light it there was no tobacco in it. I was at the Palladium, too. First of all I stopped the band. I called to the side of the stage – because you can do a lot if you’re dressed in costume. What I do when I’m dressed as a sailor, I will not do when I’m dressed in tails. So I stopped, and I did a lot of faking: ‘Now what have I done with my tobacco. Has anyone got any tobacco?’ Well, you never saw anything like it. ‘Here you are, love,’ they shouted. The stage was covered in tobacco.
“Two or three years later I was at the Palladium again and I forgot my matches. So then I had the stage covered in matches. Afterwards the stage-hands said: ‘Is it a gag?’ I said: ‘No, it just happened.’ Another time at the Palladium – it always seems to happen to me at the Palladium – I was doing a quick change from one costume to another, and my collar stud fell and rolled down inside my shirt to my stomach.
“I couldn’t undress to get it out – I was in a panic. And the band is blasting away, blasting away with my introduction music. There was a tremendous wait. Anyway, I got hold of one of the stagehands and he gave me his collar stud. Very cool, I walked on the stage and stopped the band. I said: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’m frightfully sorry to have kept you waiting. But you chaps out there – have you ever lost a collar stud?’ It’s better to take the audience into your confidence. I believe in that. Don’t let them think you’ve fallen and broken a leg or fainted or something or gone to have a pint of wallop. No. Let the audience know.”
BECAUSE male impersonation was already unfashionable by the 1930s, as society and attitudes to women changed, Hetty King had been working in nostalgia shows for decades, sharing bills with Robey, G.H.Elliott, Wee Georgie Wood and even Buster Keaton (who commented: “That Hetty King is the real tops in my book”).
Uncompromising and prickly, fiercely protective of her billing and salary, she was not a comfortable friend or colleague. Terry Doogan put it simply: “Hetty was always a little bit of a madam.” June Franey, Elliott’s widow, told me: “Hetty was a temperamental person. She’d be charming one day and the next completely ignore you. When George [G.H.Elliott] and Hetty played the Theatre Royal in Brighton, I sensed she was unhappy in digs and I suggested she move to our place as our guest, but she wouldn’t do it. She wouldn’t accept friendship.”
There’s no doubt her take-no-prisoners attitude to managements did her a disservice professionally. Don Ross: “I was getting the cast together for my first Thanks for the Memory and my first thought was to have Hetty King. So I went down to Lewisham Hippodrome on the Monday night. It wasn’t a good night to talk business to artists, Monday night, but anyway I watched the first house and then I went backstage to see her. And her whole attitude changed the moment you started talking business to Hetty – you were talking to a different person. Not that nice, amiable person that you knew. The face changed and went hatchet-shaped. And she said: ‘Well, I know what you’ve come for, Don. You’ve come to see me about your show, Thanks for the Memory. Now let me tell you this: I must be first top of the bill and in control of all publicity matters. I must have £175 a week – that is my salary. I must be able to say who I will follow on the programme, where I will go on the programme, and I will not work on a bill with Randolph Sutton.’
“I said: ‘Well, it’s been very nice to see you, Hetty. My love to you, darling, but just remember – it’s my show, not yours.’ And that was the end. And of course she told many people: ‘That’s the worst night’s work I ever did in my life, behaving like that with Don.’ And years later, when Ella was gone, she did come into the show and work in place of her.
“She seemed to have no friends. ‘My work is my only friend,’ she’d say. When she was Eastbourne I went to see her and I said: ‘Look, Hetty, come to my house every Sunday. I’ll give you a good dinner and you can have a sleep in the afternoon, then I’ll take you back to your hotel.
“ ‘Oh, no, Don, I couldn’t possibly do that.’
“Why ever not?’
“ ‘I wash my hair on a Sunday.’
“Well wash it on Saturday night, for God’s sake! Or wash it at my house.’
“ ‘No, Don. I wash my smalls on a Sunday, too.’
“I said: ‘Well, okay Hetty,’ but I was thinking: ‘’ I’ve made the offer.’ My hand was extended but she wasn’t prepared to take it. So if she wants to spend Sundays alone in a hotel room – well, so be it. But in the last year of her life she reached out. She used to ring me and I’d take her out for meals. It was as if she’d suddenly realised how alone she was. She was well over eighty, and I think she was frightened.”
Earlier in their professional relationship, Ross glimpsed the insecurity that lay behind her arrogance. ‘One week we were going to Nottingham and Hetty was delighted at the prospect. “They love me in Nottingham,” she said. “Always have done. You’ll see.”
‘On Monday night I sat out front to watch the show. Hetty came on to a good reception and went through her act. Had she been just one of the acts on the programme, audience response would have been considered quite good, but the warmth and enthusiasm that usually greeted a favourite artiste was missing. I went back to her room and found her standing, staring into the dressing table mirror, hands gripping the chair in front of her. She did not look at me but continued staring into the mirror. “They still love their little Hetty, don’t they?”
“Of course they do, Hetty.”
‘She half smiled, looked across at me and said ruefully: “Well, nobody would have thought so tonight.”
“But Hetty. Monday night first house. You know what that can be like.”
“My dear, I know all about Monday night first house. But it wasn’t there. It’s gone!”
“You’re getting morbid, old girl. Come on, let’s have a little drink”.’ (1)
NOBODY ever doubted Hetty King’s tremendous dedication. She arrived four hours before every performance in those later years, sitting in her dressing room psyching herself up, painstakingly pinning up her long snowy hair and clamping a man’s toupee to it, shadowing her face with make-up to give the impression of harder, masculine features, applying a tiny spot of black to the corner of each eye – an old variety trick, that: your eyes had to register at the back of the gallery.
The props had to be checked and rechecked. Pipe full of cigarette tobacco? Two matches glued together so they would burn for exactly the right length of time? Cigar in top pocket of the Savile Row dinner jacket? Top hat polished?
Harry Secombe remembered appearing with her, Elliott and Yorkshire comedian Dick Henderson at the London Palladium in the 1950s. “I recall how the three of them had a ritual of opening a bottle of champagne each Saturday – when we had three shows! – and then the cork was always retained and used as burnt cork for applying a moustache. Hetty’s stamina in working so hard throughout the show, and with so many shows each week, was remarkable, and she never seemed tired. Whilst several of the company would depart the stage when the curtain came down and the National Anthem was playing, she would stand bolt upright until it ended. She commanded a great deal of respect and she had terrific strength of character, but she was always a lady at the same time. Her work was most impressive: her timing was impeccable and her voice really carried – she hardly seemed to need a microphone. She had a special magic. I only worked with Hetty King on that one occasion, but she impressed me a great deal.”
Don Ross: ‘I often sat with her in the dressing room while she prepared for her performance. Fortunately for her work, her hair was very fine and soft. Having combed the front part over her face, she would take what remained and plait it into numerous tiny plaits which she then fixed with hairpins. The front part would then be brushed over her head and thus presented an acceptable male head. The facial makeup was straightforward and quite simple. She would then don her Chinese dressing gown, light a cigarette and have a little chat, all the time composing herself ready for her work. The time would come for her to get into her stage suit. That done, she did not sit down again. Her personality also seemed to change. I thought it was my personal imagination until others who knew her well said the same thing. She became more masculine, more brusque, when she put on her stage clothes.’ (1)
Sandy Powell told me: “She’s a miracle – a walking miracle. Most elderly stars play their own age when they get older, but Hetty goes on every night and plays sailors, bridegrooms, men-about-town. And the miracle is that she is completely believable in these roles. We love her very much.”
HETTY King was getting tired of talking to me. She’d been very ill recently and needed to rest. “I’ve had a bit of a bashing about. It started when I was in a hotel room and went over to get my handbag, caught my foot, twisted round and down I went. I fell on my back, and sticking up was a gas jet thing. I broke the four ribs and hurt my shoulder. I’ve only just got over it. That’s why I haven’t worked for a while. I got a real shock. Then I got pneumonia. That’s why I’ve been off the stage for so long. But now I’m ready to go back.
“The moment I feel I’m really slipping – don’t bother to wait. You know it yourself. I don’t like knitting. I don’t like sitting at home. I like to work. I shall not retire until the audiences begin to just peter off. I shall never work to hear an audience say: ‘Poor Hetty King.’ I won’t stand for that. As long as I can give them a good performance and the management will still book me, I’ll go on. I always get a big welcome when I go onstage, put it that way, which gives you a lot of courage. I’m not ‘old’ on my feet, thank God. I take things easier now, that’s all. But I’m not a tottery woman. I’m not my age in that respect at all.”
She told me she was looking forward to a season of Music Hall at Swindon at the end of the year, sharing the bill with Fred Emney, Leslie Sarony and Sandy Powell, and then escorted me to the door. She leaned forward conspiratorially. “Would you like me to show you the boudoir?” she asked.
I was seized with panic and confusion. I knew that ‘boudoir’ was French for bedroom. What could she possibly mean? Surely not . . .? Oh my God, surely not . . .?
Hetty King, wise and old, a woman who had earned her living for so long by observing the foolishness of young men, how silly they could be, how prone to misconstruing simple things, interpreted my reaction instantly and twinkled at me with pity and tremendous amusement. “The toilet,” she said gently, as to a child. “Do you need to use the toilet?”
THE Wyvern Theatre, Swindon. By rights, there should have been marble and majesty, ornate gilt wall decorations and red velvet curtains, plaster cherubs and spittoons, the hiss of gas mantles and the smell of orange peel in the stalls. But it wasn’t 1905, it was 1972, and the venue was a little civic theatre in Wiltshire, bright and clean as a new public library, and with about as much character.
Although Hetty and I had stayed in touch from time to time since our meeting a few months earlier, this was to be the first time I would see her perform on stage. As the band played her introductory music, what did I expect? A decrepit old-timer, stretching out the frayed remnants of a half-forgotten reputation? A freak? An embarrassment?
I’d been in her dressing room before the show to wish her well, and she had seemed pretty knackered and flustered. But when she strides on stage, there is no hint of the faltering but still imperious woman I’d been chatting to. Instead, top hat at a raffish angle and cane atwirl, there is a stocky little chap, dressed as an Edwardian dandy.
At first he seems quite old, but Hetty King, with tremendous precision and economy of movement, deftly sketches youthfulness into the portrait, and the meld of appearance and action instantly takes this funny little fellow, and us, into a strange and unique place of duality: young/old, man/woman, a country where Hetty is King.
The top-hatted figure bubbles with zest; he can hardly contain his euphoria as he launches into a brisk song about new-found love with an endearing catch in the throat but scarcely a crackle on the higher notes. You can feel the energy fizzing from this little person as he breaks off to mime a neat little piece of footplay. The hands are never idle: every gesture signalling a subtlety to the back of the theatre. He bobs back to the microphone:You learn how to take, learn how to give, Learn how to love – learn how to live! It’s great to get that feeling, And, oh boy, what a feeling! It sets your senses reeling – It’s great! To be! In love!
The song ends and Hetty breaks the spell herself by dropping out of character when the applause dies. Suddenly, she is an old woman again, chest heaving, very out of breath and dressed, I realise with a start, as an old man. She stands there for a few seconds, then mutters, half to the audience, half to herself: “The old lady’s a bit winded tonight.”
She nods down to the pit and the music for her second number strikes up. And then comes another astonishing transformation, for the topper is tilted over one eye, the cane is used to sight along, judging distance, and it is a rueful drunk who wobbles up to the mike. Every step is taken with the utmost caution, and the face is set with the sloppy dignity of the inebriated toff, out on the town because the following day he’s to be married. And while the prospect doesn’t exactly appal, he is well aware of what he’ll be relinquishing.Bye-bye big town, with your hi-de-ho. So long, girls, I’ve got to go. I’ll have to tear up your addresses In case they fit somebody’s guesses. When they pin that rose on me Freedom’s gates will close on me . . . This is the last time this big town will see me single. So bye-bye bachelor days.
The words are half-spoken, half-crooned, and we can imagine the nights out with the lads that will be sacrificed. Gone forever, those evenings swapping stories in rowdy saloon bars, ribboned with cigar smoke. Plump barmaids’ bottoms will henceforth go unpinched. Chorus girls will no longer be met at stage doors and escorted off for champagne in discreet little private booths. Only a few hours of the old life left, and then . . .
Bye-bye bachelor days.
When the song ends Hetty acknowledges the laughter and applause with a nod, then goes to the wings to exchange cane for kitbag, topper for merchant seaman’s cap, and it is a cheeky, cynical Jack Tar who rolls back to the microphone. As the band strikes up the familiar chorus, Hetty exhorts the audience: “And now for the old one. You all know it, so let your voices ring!”
And all the nice girls love a sailor,
All the nice girls love a tar.For there’s something about a sailor – Well, y’know what sailors are! He’s free and easy, bright and breezy, He’s the ladies’ pride and joy. He makes love to Maud and Jane, then he’s off to sea again – Ship ahoy! Ship ahoy!
During the coda to the song, half-spoken to the tune of The Minstrel Boy, this roguish, swaggering, womanising boaster fills his pipe and lights it, throwing the spent match into the audience as part of an adroit little juggling trick. Then he mimes a cute hornpipe dance and is off.
A clip from David Robinson’s outstanding documentary, Hetty King – Performer, narrated by Lindsay Anderson, which was filmed at the Royal Hippodrome Theatre, Eastbourne, when Hetty was 87 years old. Here she’s seen walking to the theatre and then getting her costumes and props ready in her dressing-room, helped by sister Olive.
Even though the performance was a shadow of how she must have been in her prime, it was still magnificently clever, heartbreakingly courageous and moving. I’m not embarrassed to record that as I watched the last part of her act my eyes blurred with admiration and elation and an emotion not easily definable but which certainly involved a sudden and fierce love. And I wasn’t the only wet-eyed person in that audience.
“My work is my only friend,” she had told Don Ross. And, in spite of the two husbands and various boyfriends over the years, I think the audience was really her only true lover. Watching her briefly exult in her applause, I realised why this indomitable old woman still did it: not for the fame or the money, even though she needed both, but she needed something more – the life-blood of love she could conjure from an audience by turning herself into a man, with a wink and a grin.
It was some trick. More than a trick. What had Sandy called it? A miracle. And behind this theatrical miracle . . . a little girl, dressed as a boy, still chasing the ball her Dadda had thrown for her more than eighty years before.
Bon Voyage, Hetty . . .
THE last of the male impersonators died, aged 89, several months after I saw what proved to be her final performance, on September 28th, 1972. Her niece, Mrs Doris Lloyd, told the Daily Mirror: “My aunt was appearing in Swindon last Christmas and insisted on going to a party after the show in evening dress. She caught a cold which led to pneumonia and she had not been in good health since.”
This extraordinary old woman had battled on to the end, though, rather surprisingly, it seems that at one point late in her career she had at least considered retirement. Found among her papers was this farewell verse:The time has come when I must say a little word to you. A little word of fond regret – I mean the word ‘Adieu.’ Although in manly clothes I’m clad, my woman’s heart will sigh – Because I have to say the word: ‘Goodbye.’ Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor – au revoir. You have always been my friends in days of yore. Rich man, poor man, beggar man – to me you’re just the same. You took me to your great big hearts and made for me my name. I thank you and I say to you, the public I adore: Good luck. God bless you. Au revoir.
Her old friend, employer and occasional sparring-partner Don Ross read the eulogy. Afterwards he stood for a moment with his hand on the coffin on which her sailor hat had been placed, and said to himself: “Hetty, old girl, you can rest at last. No more fighting about your billing, or your salary, or who you follow on the programme. It’s all over now, and you are at peace.”
We’ll leave Hetty with the last word. Here, in another clip from Hetty King, Performer, she’s onstage, singing Bye Bye Bachelor Days and, inevitably, All the Nice Girls Love A Sailor.
All text Copyright Stephen Dixon 2013. A much shorter version of this story appeared in The Guardian newspaper in the 1970s. All illustrations, except where specified, from Stephen Dixon Collection, acquired from various sources over a 40-year period and in many cases provided by the artists themselves in the 1970s. If anyone has copyright or permission issues, please contact me.
(1) The unpublished manuscript of Don Ross’s autobiography is now in the collection of author and television producer John Fisher, and excerpts appear here with his kind permission.