Albert Chevalier and ‘My Old Dutch’
Albert Chevalier was an actor and music hall entertainer who became known as the ‘Coster’s Laureate’ because of his songs in Cockney dialect on London common life.
The connection between Albert Chevalier and Felbridge may not be obvious but he takes centre stage through his ‘Old Dutch’ – Florrie Chevalier. Wife of Albert, Florrie moved to Ann’s Orchard, Crawley Down Road in 1928/9, shortly after his death. She lived here for many years and after her death some of their possessions ended up in the Felbridge Bowling Club jumble sale, among them a large crocodile leather covered photograph album bearing a silver monogram AC, and in silver wire lettering ‘From Harry and Ivy, Christmas 1906’. This album contained several photographs of houses, scenes and people. Some of the photographs of people looked like family portraits, but one man kept appearing in character costume. This man was the owner of the monogram, AC – Albert Chevalier.
Albert Onesime Britannicus Gwathveoyd Louis Chevalier was born at 21 St Ann’s Villas, Royal Crescent, Notting Hill, London, on 21st March 1861. He was the son of a French Master at Kensington Grammar School and a Welsh mother. He was not from a theatrical background, but showed a keen interest in acting from an early age. He performed his first piece at the age of seven called ‘The September Gale’, to his father. His father was so impressed that he encouraged him and entered him in a local Penny Reading programme, where he eventually reached the position of Principal Penny Reading Comique. Albert’s first public performance was in 1869 at the Cornwall Hall, Cornwall Road, Notting Hill, with Shakespeare’s Mark Antony oration over the body of Julius Ceasar.
Albert’s mother did not want him to pursue a career in acting preferring that he became a Priest, so he was sent to St Mary’s College, Richmond to train for the Priesthood. It was whilst carrying the collection plate at the Church of Francis of Assisi, Notting Hill, that he picked up the Irish brogue which he was later to incorporate in his early stage acts. Needless to say, a life in the Priesthood was not to be! At the age of fourteen, he joined an amateur theatrical club called the Roscius Dramatic Club at the Ladbroke Hall, Notting Hill where he made his first appearance under the name Albert Knight (knight being English for chevalier). Not being satisfied with the parts allotted to him he decided to go into management on his own account.
For a short time he was a clerk in a newspaper office. During this time his Editor arranged for him to be engaged to sing, for one night, between the acts of ‘Still Waters Run Deep’, at the King’s Cross Theatre. This was his first professional appearance for which he received a fee of 10/-. At the age of fifteen, after a brief stay at the newspaper office, he became a pupil teacher at a school in Shepherd’s Bush. He remained here for about a year. It was whilst here that he tried his hand at writing for the stage. His first piece being entitled ‘Begging the Question’.
Albert’s father realised that his son was unlikely to settle down to either a clerk or schoolmaster, and the idea of Priesthood had long since died. To these ends he wrote to Dion Boucicault asking if he could use his influence to give Albert an opportunity of making a start in the theatrical profession. A letter of introduction was duly sent to Blackmore, an agent, who in turn introduced Albert to S B Bancroft. This was to be his big break. At the age of sixteen, he was chosen to play a small speaking part in ‘The Parents and Guardians’ at the Prince of Wales’s Theatre in Tottenham Street, Tottenham Court Road. He made his professional debut on 29th September 1877 with the Bancrofts at the Prince of Wales’s Royal Theatre.
When ‘The Parents and Guardians’ was taken off to make room for the more important production of ‘Diplomacy’, in which S B Bancroft played Count Orloff, Albert managed to secure a role in the new production. He now had a foothold in the theatre as a serious actor. After a succession of roles, he became the principal comedian in an opera company, based at the Bijou Theatre, Bold Street, Liverpool, and in 1883 he began to write musical farces. This was the start of his ‘Coster’ songs for which he is best known. In 1887, he toured with Willie Edouin in his own adaptation of H J Byron’s burlesque ‘Aladdin or the Wonderful Scamp’ which opened at the Strand Theatre, London, on 25th February 1888. In this Albert sang ‘Our ’Armonic Club’, the first Cockney song he performed in public. Willie Edouin was the manager of the Strand between 1888 and 1894. Albert was not from the music hall, nor did he feel he belonged there. He had been a straight actor for fourteen years, and it was only the result of a lengthy period without work that he succumbed to the persuasions of a few friends that he should try the halls. He feared his quiet style would be hooted off the stage.
Albert’s first appearance in the music hall was at the London Pavilion, his opening song being ‘The Coster’s Serenade’. He was dressed in a chequered jacket, peaked cap, neckcloth and bell bottomed trousers, all trimmed with the velvet and pearl buttons of the Coster comedian. To many of his friends and fellow actors he was considered to be committing ‘social suicide’ by moving into the music halls, but Albert was to prove them all wrong. Although unsure in himself as a music hall artiste to start with, his first performance was a great success. He was an immediate hit and was hailed by the press as ‘The master among variety artistes’, ‘The Kipling of the halls’ and ‘The Coster Laureate’. Although strictly a stage Cockney, he was a fine artiste who was conscientious in points of detail like make-up, wardrobe and accent, and had a stage presence that managed to portray a convincing Cockney. His music hall contracts extended over a period of seven years, out of which about three years were actually spent in the halls the remainder of time was spent touring the provinces. Moving into music hall provided independence to perform outside the stereotype image that had been created for him. He had become associated with burlesque and comic opera or with parts of the ‘crotchety old man’ type. Albert wanted to break fresh ground, but in doing so became stereotyped as the ‘Coster Laureate’. (He just couldn’t win).
Albert enjoyed his provincial tours and spent a considerable portion each year in the provinces. As a rule his brother Charles Ingle, (Auguste Chevalier), would take bookings three or four months in advance and Albert would seldom stay more than two nights in a town. He would often spend as much as six months away from home touring. In 1896, he crossed the Atlantic and toured America for nearly three years. His first performance in America was on 23rd March 1896 at Koster and Bails in New York. The first song he performed was the ‘Future Mrs ’Awkins’. He had resisted going to America for fear that the American audience would not appreciate a repertoire in Cockney dialect, but his fears were unfounded. On his first night the audience were very encouraging and he later said that he had not experienced anything quite like his first night there. He said ‘that to work for such an audience was a real pleasure’. After his engagement at Koster and Bails, he took a three-month vacation in the Adirondacks, the beauty spot known for its woods and mountains just outside New York State. Here his wife Florrie joined him.
Florrie Chevalier was born on 17th November 1867, the eldest daughter of George and Annie Leybourne. George Leybourne was a music hall artiste known as ‘Champagne Charlie’, who was born in Newcastle in 1842, lived in Lambeth and died in Islington in 1884. Florrie had been a one-time music hall comedienne, and it is likely that Albert and Florrie met whilst performing in the halls. It is widely believed that Albert wrote ‘My Old Dutch’ the song as a tribute to his wife Florrie.
After his break, Albert continued his American tour and visited all of the principal cities of America and Canada. He was well received in all the big cities by both the public and the press. However, some of the small towns did find his Cockney a handicap as he had feared.
Albert finished his American tour and returned to England in 1898, he began touring the provinces with the ‘Land of Nod’, a musical comedy he had written in America. His first appearance back in London was at the Drury Lane Theatre on the occasion of Nellie Farren’s benefit. Shortly after this appearance, he performed two recitals at St James’ Hall. The object of performing here instead of making his reappearance at the music halls was that he was anxious to break new ground. The limitation of being associated with Coster songs and the music hall offered little opportunities and he wanted to break away from this new label that had been attached to him. Recitals also enabled him to attract a wider audience. He sometimes wrote the words of his songs and sketches in collaboration, but for the majority of his work, he wrote alone, examples include ‘Future Mrs ’Awkins’ and his most famous piece ‘My Old Dutch’. He used several composers for the music, including his brother Charles Ingle, who composed the music for ‘My Old Dutch’. Albert found that many of his songs and sketches that had failed in the music halls were now most successful in his recitals.
The music hall had evolved from an early part of the 19th century form of entertainment. Tavern landlords, seeking to draw more custom, would hire song and dance acts. These were introduced in turn in front of a simple stage. Meanwhile the audience, boisterous with alcohol, heckled and joined in with their favourite performers and songs. The phenomenon spread rapidly across Britain, creating great reputations and quick fortunes. Almost any building that could hold an audience was used. At its peak, in the 1880’s, music hall was the television of the day. Hundreds operated in London alone, and most city dwellers visited them every week. In 1902 the sale of liquor was outlawed in auditoriums striking a blow at the very heart of music hall. However, by World War I, stricter liquor licensing and building laws made it harder to entertain large audiences in a casual way. It was after this point that music hall evolved into Variety, a cleaner and broader version, with Albert Chevalier as a leading force.
In 1898, Albert gave a series of special matinee recitals. These gave him the opportunity of playing before audiences that would never have visited the music hall, including members of the royal family. The venues were The Dome, Brighton and the Free Trade Hall, Manchester. In December 1898, Albert was engaged to perform in a Christmas Entertainment organised by Robert Newman at the Large Queen’s Hall in London. This offered Albert the opportunity to discuss with Newman his belief that there was a large section of the public whose entertainment needs were not catered for. These were people who thought that the theatre was too serious and that the music halls were too lude. Newman was the manager of the Queen’s Halls between 1895 and 1901 and is known for instigating ‘The Proms’ along with the conductor Henry Wood. During the Christmas season, Albert persuaded Newman to establish this alternative style of entertainment and on 16th January 1899, the Small Queen’s Hall, London opened offering ‘Variety’. This was a tremendous success and the audiences went to be entertained with ‘clean, wholesome entertainment’ a style of entertainment that Albert had always delivered.
In June 1906, Albert Chevalier and the French singer and actress Yvette Guilbert appeared together for a season at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London. Yvette had made her name in café-concert engagements in Paris. The combination of Albert’s cockney songs and Yvette’s repertoire of songs of old France was enthusiastically received in London. They were such a success, that in October 1906, they went on a concert tour of America and Canada. Their opening night was at Koster and Bial’s, New York, where Albert had appeared in 1896. The pair appeared at Carnegie Hall; New York followed by a 7000-mile tour, playing 42 engagements in six weeks.
During much of his later career, Albert appeared in London and on tour with a dramatised version of ‘My Old Dutch’ and later in a sketch based on another of his successful songs, ‘A Fallen Star’. In 1915, Albert appeared in a film version of ‘My Old Dutch’, starring with the American actress Florence Turner. This role quickly became her signature film. While in England, Florence Turner formed Turner Films, which had studios at Walton-on-Thames, with Larry Trimble as head of production and British actor Henry Edwards as her leading male. She produced over 30 films, including ‘My Old Dutch’ before World War I put an end to her English productions. In 1925, old Turner Productions director Larry Trimble, then at Universal, wanted to remake ‘My Old Dutch’ and did a screen test with Florence recreating her role. While Universal approved the project, the lead was given to May McAvoy.
There were numerous character photographs of Albert taken by his brother Bertram Chevalier under the name B Knight. Bertram was in business as a photographer in the West End and many of Albert’s photographs adorned his studio walls. Albert also considered photography to be one of his own hobbies, along with fishing. He had a small cottage in North Devon where he would retreat for holidays for a ‘real lazy time’. It was here that he would fish and take photographs. Although he did not consider himself to be good at either, he was enthusiastic about both, and in his mind enthusiasm was a ‘great stimulus’.
Albert died on 10th July 1923 and was buried with his father-in-law George Leybourne, ‘Champagne Charlie’, at New Road Cemetery, Stoke Newington. Albert’s widow Florrie moved to Ann’s Orchard, Crawley Down Road from Ringmere, High Street, Lingfield, in 1928. Whilst resident in Felbridge she taught piano and remained here until her death in the late 1940’s.
Albert Chevalier’s association with the world of legitimate drama, his recitals and especially the fact that he did not embrace the world of the music halls, inevitably distanced him a little from his colleagues. He was that rarity in the halls before World War I, an outsider from the middle class. Albert seemed able, as few Cockney comedians were, to express and get beneath that way of life. In view of Albert’s attitude to the halls, it is surprising that he was able to get into the world about which he sung and to show such sympathetic understanding about it. However, it is for his contribution to music halls and the creation of a light entertainment style for the general public known as ‘Variety’ that he is best remembered.
Dion Boucicault was born in Dublin on 26th December 1820. His original name was Dionysius Lardner Boursiquot. He was educated in England, and began acting in 1837 and went on to become a successful playwright and actor. The first play he submitted was rejected, but his second play, London Assurance, written in 1841, was a huge success and was frequently revived into the 20th century. In 1853 Boucicault and actress Agnes Robertson fled to America to escape the scandal that broke about their relationship. As man and wife they toured the country; he became a theatre manager and continued writing plays, being credited with over 150. He is also credited with raising the stage Irishman from caricature to character. To American drama he brought a careful construction and a keen observation and recording of detail. His concern with social themes prefigured the future development of drama in both Europe and America. Always controversial, in1885 he made a bigamous marriage to an American actress who was 44 years his junior. He died on 18th September 1890 in New York.
Squire B Bancroft was born in London on 14th May 1841. He was an actor and theatre owner. He made his first appearance on the stage at the Theatre Royal, Birmingham, in January 1861, as Lieut. Manley in St Mary’s Eve. He made his London debut, on 15th April 1865, as Jack Crawley in A Winning Hazard at the old Prince of Wales’s Theatre, under the management of Marie Wilton, whom he married in 1867. His views radically changed the nature of theatre as he abolished the pit in theatres, causing a riot on opening night. He also established morning performances which he called ‘matinees’, after the French word matin – morning. Marie first appeared on the stage at Norwich in 1845. Success in London followed and in 1865 she became joint manager of the old Prince of Wales’s Theatre, and from 1850 to 1885 she and her husband Squire managed the Haymarket Theatre. Squire Bancroft was knighted in1897. Lady Marie Bancroft died on 22nd May 1921 and Sir Squire Bancroft died on 19th April 1926.
Nellie Farren was born in 1848 and was also known as Ellen Farren. She was the daughter of Henry Farren and came from a family with a long tradition in acting. Both her father Henry and his brother William were actors, being the sons of William Farren, the early Victorian actor who was classed as the ‘old man of 18th century comedy’. Nellie was renowned for her comedy acting and famous for her parts as boys in the burlesque at the old Gaiety. Nellie married Robert Soutar. She retired from the stage in 1892 and died in 1904.
May McAvoy was born at the family home on 41st Street and Park Avenue, New York, on 18th September 1901. The family business was a large livery stable that her father and paternal grandfather owned and operated on the block now occupied by the Wardolf-Astoria. In 1914, while watching a friend rehearse at a vaudeville theatre, she was approached by a talent scout for Fox. She declined the offer as she was considering following in her mother’s profession of teaching. However, she found herself intrigued with the possibility of performing. She began to do modelling, and after expressing an interest in motion pictures at Metro’s New York studios and leaving some pictures with them, she received a call from the casting director. Her first job was a commercial for Domino Sugar, which was followed by a few small roles between 1919 and 1920. Her first leading role was in 1921 in ‘Sentimental Tommy’. Her performance led to a contract with Paramount, and she went on to become one of the few actresses in Hollywood to have had the most interesting and varied career. She retired from the screen to marry Maurice Cleary, Vice-President and Treasurer of United Artists. Once her only child, Patrick, was in school, May returned to MGM from 1940 until the mid 1950’s making several unaccredited bit appearances. She died on 26th April 1984.