Memories Three


by Nigel Gordon

"What the fuck do you think you were doing?" Arthur, our manager yelled at Max as he stumbled into what passed for a dressing room at the back of the stage area of a decrepit nightclub in Soho.

"I thought it was funny," Max replied.

"Well, just see how funny it is when you're fired," Arthur replied. Max looked worried. I could understand why, he needed this gig. For Max it was about the only gig in town. Because of jokes like the one he had just told; he had been quietly released from nearly all the others.

It was not as if the joke was not funny. In fact, it was hilarious. It certainly was not obscene. That did not mean it was not suggestive, in fact it was very suggestive. The problem was it was suggestive about a certain member of the government, in a manner which was very likely to result in proceedings for slander.

I would have liked to stay and comfort Max but just then the strains of It Ain't Necessarily So, which finished Clive's spot, sounded over the speaker system, and I knew that I was on next to close the first half. I pulled my hair into a bundle, fastened in with a band, then pinned it up before covering my head with a bandana. Then I slipped off my shirt and put on a black leather waistcoat. The black trousers, which finished halfway down my calf, were the same that I wore when I had been on for the opening number. However, there, their shortness had been hidden by the knee length black leather boots that I had been wearing.

Although technically we were a variety troop, in practice we were more like a circus troop. All of us played at least two roles, some of us three. I was one of the Cossack dance group, that opened the show. Not that I could do any Cossack dancing. All I really did was stand at the back or the side of the stage, clapping with the beat and pointing to where the audience was required to look. I admit that at times I did link arms with Barry and Clive, two lads from Doncaster, who formed the other male members of group. Like me they had no idea about how to do a Cossack dance. Unlike me, they could dance, so did their best. Not that the audience were that concerned. Their interest was in the two girls, Diana and Lulu, who, for some unexplained reason, kept losing items of their costume as the dance progressed.

We were also only a semi-professional group. All of us had some sort of job in Town, where we toiled nine to five, Monday to Friday. At least that was the theory. Some of us toiled much later hours in roles that were best not discussed but were said to be traditional for members of the theatrical profession.

On Friday evening we would assemble at the Dance Centre in Floral Street before piling into a van and being driven off to whatever seaside location Arthur had managed to book us into that weekend. Whether the fact that we never got two weekends at the same venue was a comment on our standard of performance or not I do not know. Arthur always maintained that he was trying to give us all the maximum possible exposure. He certainly seemed to want to give Diana and Lulu the maximum exposure. I was sure sometimes they were going further than the law permitted.

The troop had been together since Easter, but I had only been with it since the first week of August. To be honest, I am not sure why I was in it. If I needed an Equity card, I am certain that I could have got one with no problem. What I knew about some of the leading officials in Equity would have guaranteed me a card. I could have also been making lot more money being picked up by friendly gentlemen in some of the more disreputable clubs in London's West End.

However, the troop needed a fire-eater and a magician (preferably in one and the same person). If that person could also take part in a couple of the dance numbers, all well and good.

The dance numbers were, of course, the reason for this need. Unlike me, David, my predecessor, had been a dancer. As such he had taken a role not only in the Cossack dance at the start of the show but in the somewhat more energetic Can-Can that ended the show. An unfortunate incident during the lift of one of the girls, during that dance routine, had resulted in him now being confined in a rather rigid support corset and shoulder brace. This not only prevented him from taking part in the Can-Can routine, but also stopped him from being able to assume the convoluted body position required for the major illusion which opened the magic act in the second half of the show.

David and I were both members of the same magic society in London. Almost certainly not the one you are thinking of. Following his accident in the closing number, David needed somebody to fill in for him. He also knew that I was not, in his words, gainfully employed. So, he approached me with an offer. That I should take over his spot in the show until he recovered from his injury, which I was assured would only be a couple of weeks or so.

It being the first week of August and most of my regular clientele departing for the wilds of Yorkshire or other locations in the North to celebrate the glorious twelfth, with every intention of staying there until they had decimated a large proportion of the local wildlife, which would be sometime in late September. None of them seemed inclined to take any of us club boys along to provide entertainment at the various establishments they would be residing in. No doubt there were plenty of local boys at such locations more than willing to serve them.

I had been offered a sojourn in a villa not far from Nice for a few weeks, until mid-September. The offer had been made by an elderly gentleman who informed me he would have a number of guests staying over that period. The understanding had been that I would be available to entertain the guests. It had not been established if the guests would be expected to reward me for my efforts on their parts or not. That matter had still been under discussion when a major technical hitch had made the arrangement unworkable. I would have needed to obtain parental consent to get a passport, and obtaining such consent was totally out of the question.

So, not having anything else to do I had accepted David's offer to stand in for him. That had been six weeks ago and there were only two more weeks of the season to run and no sign of any possibility of David's return to the show. Besides appearing in the opening dance routine, I closed the first half with a display of fire-eating and was the last but one act in the second half as the masked illusionist. The Can-Can routine which had resulted in David being injured had been modified, in order to accommodate the fact that I was not able to dance to the required standard.

Let's be honest, anything beyond the horizontal tango was beyond my standard of dance.

Of course, my usual clientele was by this time in the process of returning to Town, and I had no doubt that I could be quite gainfully employed in clubs of London's West End. I would be even more gainfully employed in the hotel rooms or bedrooms of some of the more affluent members of our ruling class. However, having been with the troop during the whole of August, I did feel some comradeship with them and had no wish to leave them in the lurch, especially with only two weeks left of the season.

Max was a recent addition to the troop, the previous comedian, Lionel, having had an unfortunate incident in Brighton, involving a good-looking young man in a sea-front cottage[1]. Lionel apparently had appreciated his physical attributes as they stood side-by-side at the urinal. Unfortunately, for Lionel the young man in question was a plod[2] and Lionel found himself wearing a pair of bracelets and being escorted to the local police station, where he was charged with importuning an act of indecency in a public toilet. The following day, the magistrates sentenced him to ninety days in prison. That had been on Monday. Arthur recruited Max to the show on Wednesday.

All right, comedians were expected to be racy. At least they were in a show like ours. However, there was racy and there was racy. Max's routine was definitely the latter and there was only so much one could get away with in a conservative seaside town.

Max was still upset when I got back to the dressing room after my spot.

"I don't know what Arthur is upset about," Max was telling Lulu, one of the dancers. "Danny gets away with far worse."

"Danny's in drag," Gloria, our singer, pointed out, referring to Danny Le Rue in the presumption that he was the Danny that Max was talking about.

"And if you want to do material like that," Diana, the other dancer, stated, "you need to be in drag. That's the only way you will get away with it."

"Then let's put him in drag," Lulu suggested.

"What!" Max exclaimed.

"Well, darling," Diana stated, "if you want to get away with that sort of material you will only do it in drag. Now, you open the second half, so there are twenty minutes to get you into drag or you rewrite your script. Which is it?"

"I suppose it's drag," Max whimpered. With that surrender Diana and Lulu dragged him behind the screen which separated the boys' half of the dressing room from the girls' half.

By time the audience, at least that part that had decided to stay for the second half, had returned from the bar, Max was tottering at the edge of the stage, ready to go on in high heels. He was dressed in a black basque, fishnet stockings, a blond wig and a top hat. I recognised the outfit, it was what Gloria used for her spot in the second half.

"But that's your costume," I told Gloria.

"I know, darling, but it is the only thing we could find that fitted him," she replied.

I nodded but wondered how Gloria would manage when she went on in the second half. I also wondered how the audience would react to Max in drag. It did not take long to find out. The compère announced Maxine von Tittle, and Max staggered on stage in his high heels, giving the impression of a drunken Dietrich. There was immediate laughter from the audience.

For the next twelve minutes the laughter continued. Then it ceased as a husky baritone voice sang out Dietrich's famous song 'Falling in Love Again'. I must admit that he did a better rendition of it than Gloria had done in the past, which left me wondering what Gloria was going to do.

Not that I had much time to wonder. I had go get busy and set things up for my appearance as the masked illusionist. The thing was I could not find Lulu, who had to provide the legs for when I was cutting Diane in half. I went to the dressing room. Barry and Clive were busy blacking up for their last routine, a minstrel number. I asked them if they had seen Lulu. Barry indicated the girl's half of the dressing room.

After calling out a request to know if they were decent, and receiving an affirmative reply, I went around the screen. There Lulu was helping Gloria remove her make up. What was a surprise was how heavy Gloria's make up was. Of more of a surprise was that where it had been removed, Gloria had a deep tan.

She looked at me.

"I've been passin'," she informed me. It took me a moment to realise what she was saying. Gloria was coloured.

"Why?" I asked.

"You know how hard it is for a coloured girl to get work?" she asked.

"Not why you were passing," I stated. "Why come out now."

"Well, Max's taken my Dietrich numbers, so I'll have to do something else. No way a white girl can sing Porgy and Bess and that's what I will be singing."

"OK, but I need Lulu, we're on in five."

"Shit!" Lulu exclaimed. "I had lost track; it'll take me that long to get into costume."

"Fuck!" I exclaimed.

"Forget the sawing through, do that thing you did in the bar last Saturday," Gloria suggested.

I had to think what I did in the bar after the show last Saturday. Then I remembered. The Living and Dead test. It was a piece of mental magic. I was not sure how it would fit in with the rest of David's act, but it would fill a good five minutes, so I decided to do it. Did not take that long to set up.

In the end the Living and Dead test went down well. A lot better than the rest of the stuff I did. Arthur grabbed me as I got of stage at the end of my spot.

"Didn't know you could do that sort of magic," he stated, pulling me into a quiet corner of the backstage area.

"It's mostly what I do," I admitted. "Not really into David's type of stuff."

"Look, Nigel, I've got a few club and dinner bookings lined up for the winter season. That sort of stuff goes down well with them. How about doing some for us."

Just then Gloria passed us. She was wearing a tight, red, evening dress, which I did not think I had seen her in before. It emphasised her golden brown colour. I decided to watch her from the wings.

Barry and Clive had finished their slapstick minstrel act and the compère announced Miss Gloria and she walked out on stage and took the mic. A moment later the voice rang out:

Summertime and the livin' is easy …

"Christ! She can sing," Arthur commented from behind me. I just nodded. For the last six weeks I had been with the troop, Gloria had done a reasonable impersonation of Dietrich, but it had been that, an impersonation. Now she was singing in her own right, and it was powerful.

It would be nice to say that this was the start of everybody's career in show business. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case. Max never got the chance to repeat his drag presentation. The following Monday, Lionel was out of bail, pending an appeal. It turned out his uncle was not only a leading barrister but also one of the backers of the troop, so he not only got Lionel out of clink[3] but also put him back in the show. On the grapevine we heard that Max was doing one-off stand-up comedy spots but was considered to be too racy by many venues. Some ten odd years later I was to bump into him. He was a waiter in the restaurant car of the train I was on.

Gloria never went back to doing the Dietrich numbers. She did the Gershwin numbers for the rest of the tour. After that she made a career for herself as a jazz singer and was frequently to be found singing in London clubs. She even managed to make a couple of spots on TV, but never got the break she needed to get a recording contract. She did though attract a number of men and eventually married a banker.

Diane and Lulu, I lost track of completely within a few months of the tour ending. I do not think either of the girls had any interest in a long-term career on the stage. It was just something to fill in the time. That was not the case of Clive and Barry. They were committed to show business and worked a variety of acts until they were well into their sixties, working cruise ships throughout the world. Eventually though they got too old for even that and I heard they had retired and bought a bar near Marbella in Spain. No doubt they are entertaining their customers there.

[1] Cottage - a public toilet.

[2] Plod - a policeman, specifically one who is on foot, walking a beat.

[3] Clink - prison - slang term derived from The Clink, the Bishop of Winchester's prison on the South bank of the Thames.