Revues

Revues were very popular in Britain during the 1950s and 60s. They were entertaining theatre shows based around comic sketches and featured many well-known actors, singers and dancers.

The best of these were written by Ronnie Cass and Peter Myers. A successful revue could run for many months in London's West End and between them Myers and Cass had notched up a series of notable shows, including Intimacy at 8:30, For Amusement Only and The Lord Chamberlain Regrets, a show that ran for nearly two years at the Apollo Theatre. David was a close friend of Ronnie's and had asked him to write music and songs for many of his corporate presentations. Ronnie reciprocated by asking David to create magic and illusions that could be used in his revue shows.

Sometimes the assignments were straightforward. In a show called London Swings David had to create a way of making singer-actress Moira Lister appear magically on stage. The show opened with an empty swing swaying to and fro across the darkened stage. It was decorated with twinkling lights and garlands of flowers. Music played and singing was heard as the swing continued to move eerily back and forth. When the music reached a crescendo Moira Lister, singing a high note, suddenly appeared standing on the swing. She was dressed in a white gown patterned with flowers and, as she sang, the swing, still moving, was gently lowered. At it lowest point she stepped smoothly onto the stage, still singing, and walked forward to applause. It was a stunning opening.

David used black art for the illusion. Moira was standing on the swing all the time but a black roller blind concealed her from view. At the appropriate moment she operated the blind which shot down into the hollow seat of the swing. The musical crescendo disguised the noise of the blind as it rolled itself up. Careful attention to lighting was required and a direct spot on the swing was avoided. Some illumination was provided by the twinkling lights wrapped around the ropes of the swing but not enough to reveal the presence of the roller blind. If anything, they distracted the eye from the area between the ropes. At the very moment the blind was gone the spotlights picked out Moira who stood out in her white dress.

On many occasions the magic was used to enhance the zany quality that revues were noted for. In one sketch David Kernan sang Roses Grow on You to a young woman on stage while producing flowers at his fingertips. As each one appeared he took it in the other hand and placed it in his pocket ad infinitum. Then suddenly a flower appeared on his lapel. He took it and placed it in his pocket but it reappeared on his shoulder. No matter how he tried to get rid of it the flower kept reappearing in unexpected places. And all the time this was happening he sang to the girl. The sketch came to a spectacular finale when the girl's dress became covered in roses as did the picket fence just behind her. David taught the singer the flower routine, (an item he had used in his own act for many years) and devised the various transformations. Jack Hughes was called in to build the special blooming fence.

Transformations seemed to be something of a speciality. In one sketch called Mum's Café the set had to change several times during the performance to indicate the passing of time. David worked out a series of novel changes that could be done undercover of a blackout. In that instant, the gimmicked props that made up the set would be activated by half a dozen stage staff, all wearing black, who were running about in the dark, reversing furniture, activating flaps and operating various ingenious pieces of apparatus which David had devised.

The Post Office Sketch

The blackout was something of a revue show tradition. Sketches were often short and the blackout would be used to signal the punch line. Take for instance this sketch written by British comedian Spike Milligan. Two men walk into a post office and ask the old lady working there whether a parcel has arrived for a Mr. Smith. She looks around behind the counter and

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then says that a parcel for Smith has indeed arrived. She hands it over and asks one of the men to sign for it. "Do you mind if we unwrap it here?" they ask. "Not at all," says the postmistress.

The men unwrap the parcel, reach inside and take out a gun. They flick up the collars of their overcoats, gangster style, point the gun at the postmistress and say, "This is a stick up. Hand over the money!" The scene freezes for a moment and there is a black-out whilst the audience laughs and applauds. When the lights come back on the scene has changed and another sketch begins.

Cass and Myers liked the Milligan sketch but asked David to devise something more ambitious. He did. The new sketch begins with two men and a woman walking into a post office. They politely ask if a parcel for a Mr Smith has arrived and the postmistress tells them that it has. She hands it over and they ask if they can unwrap it there. "As long as you don't make a mess," she says.

They tear off the paper and string to reveal a box about two feet high and 14 inches square. Opening it they take out an instruction booklet. The woman reads from it: "Take out part A and fit to part B." The men begin taking all sorts of strange looking items out of the box. It's obviously some kind of kit.

She continues to read out increasingly complicated instructions, "That goes into C. There's a C2 and a C3." More and more parts come out of the box. Some of the parts are bigger than the box they are coming out of while others unfold and extend to make even larger shapes. As the two men assemble the items the audience realises that they are building a field gun in the middle of the post office. Carefully, they aim the gun in the direction of the post

office counter.

The last things they take out of the box are three military helmets. They put them on, the lighting changes, and they hand a note to the postmistress. She reads it out loud, "This is a stick up. Hand over the money."

Thinking it's a telegram she quickly adds up the words and says, "Nine words. That will be two shillings and sixpence."

The thieves are nonplussed. They look at each other and then at the postmistress before spelling out their demands once more, "No, you don't understand. This is a stick up!"

"Oh in that case," says the postmistress and presses a big button on the counter marked 'Alarm'. Immediately the post office counter begins to transform. Shutters come down, the table reverses, flaps fold, tracks and armour make their appearance. As this is happening the sound of loud clanking and grinding of metal and machinery is heard. When the transformation is finished the post office has turned into a large military army tank! It slowly starts moving towards the three would-be robbers who back away in a panic. The post mistress pops her head up through the turret, her face lit by a single spotlight, and innocently says, "Did you want to send that Overnight Rate or is it urgent?" A blackout brings the sketch to a close.

The Estate Agent Sketch

One of the true gems of this era was David's routine for the Doll's House illusion, which formed the backbone of an elaborate Cass and Myers song and dance sketch that took place in an estate agent's office. The curtains open on a dimly lit stage, an office interior containing several desks and a row of model show houses. Three of them are quite large and inr

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stand on three tables set across the stage.

It's early in the morning and in a choreographed dance routine we see two cleaners polishing the desks and dusting down the model houses. They open the front of the two outside houses and the audience sees that they are filled with doll's house furniture. A high-pitched whistle sounds (it's on tape) but the audience don't know what it's for. Then they see smoke coming from the chimney of the centre house, a model of a large mansion. A cleaner walks up to it and opens the front. Inside is a steaming kettle, the steam exiting the chimney like smoke. Also inside the house are cups, saucers and a tin of biscuits. It's time for the cleaning ladies' early morning tea!

There's a change of lighting and the cleaners leave. The stage is empty. A dim spotlight hits the house on the left and the sound of snoring is heard. Suddenly an alarm clock goes off and the audience hears someone waking up, cursing and getting out of bed. The upper story window of the house lights up as if someone is inside.

Footsteps are heard and another window in the house lights up, the bathroom. There are sounds of water being run, teeth being brushed, water gargled and a toilet being flushed. Footsteps walk down unseen stairs and a light is switched on in a ground floor window. The sound of sizzling eggs and bacon tells the audience that breakfast is being cooked in the kitchen. The story being told purely by sound and the illumination of the windows in the house is remarkably convincing in the theatre.

The morning continues and a woman's voice, the unseen man's wife, is heard, "What about George?" A telephone number is dialled and the sound of ringing is heard from the

house on the right of the stage. A bedroom light comes on. "Hello?" says a sleepy voice. "It's eight o'clock, George," comes the answer. George is late. Everything that happened in the left hand house now happens in the right hand house, except it happens at twice the speed. The lights in the bathroom, stairs and kitchen are switched on in quick succession while George rushes through his morning routine. Finally, the tiny front doors of each house open simultaneously, then suddenly slam shut. As they close the roofs of the houses burst open and up stand two bowler-hatted men dressed in business suits each carrying an umbrella and briefcase.

They nod to each other then step down out of their houses and perform a short soft-shoe shuffle routine before going over to the mansion house. They ring the bell on the door and a melodic chime is heard. The roof opens and out pops another man, Leslie Crowther, a well-known television personality and comedian of the day. He seems to grow incredibly tall, taller than the other two men who are now craning their necks to look at him. It is impossible that he could have been inside the tiny house. He steps out and joins them on stage then realises he doesn't have his hat, case or umbrella. He's left them in the house. The front of the house is opened and the audience can see that its interior now resembles a baronial hall. On a tiny hat stand is a miniature bowler. Leslie reaches in through the roof and picks the tiny hat up between his fingers. As he lifts it out of the house the hat becomes full size. He reaches into the house again, this time for a tiny briefcase by the hat stand. Again, it becomes full size as it is removed. Finally, a tiny umbrella enlarges to become a full size one as it is brought out of the house. All three bowler-hatted gentleman go into a song and dance routine.

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More gags, dances and song follow during which the mansion house is opened once again to reveal that it now contains lots of office files. At the end of their day the lighting changes to suggest evening. One of the men opens the mansion house to reveal that the files have disappeared. Inside the house is now a fully equipped cocktail cabinet with bottles and glasses, pink mirrors and interior lighting. They pour out drinks, clink glasses and leave the stage.

At the end of the show the roof of the mansion house opens and out steps the entire cast, one by one. How they all manage to appear from inside the house is a complete mystery to the audience.

The routine was very complicated and David worked closely with Ronnie Cass and Peter Myers to ensure that the magic remained strong and baffling and yet integrated well with the song ancf dance numbers. Two Dolls' Houses were used, one on the left and one on the right of the stage. David commissioned Dick Chavel to build them. Chavel was a familiar face on the London magic scene. He owned and ran a magic shop in Tottenham Court Road and was very adept at building props. Even the miniature furniture was made with a forced perspective so that the inside of the houses looked deeper than they actually were.

The two actors sat in a kneeling position in the hidden compartment of each house and had a switchboard in front of them that operated the various room lights. All the sound effects were on tape and the men needed only to flick the correct switches on cue to provide a convincing effect of someone getting up and running around doing their morning ablutions. There was enough space in the houses to hide their bowlers and briefcases. The umbrellas

folded in two to take up less space.

The centre house, the mansion, was larger than the two Dolls' Houses. It worked on a different principle, Walter Jeans' mirror tunnel for the Million Dollar Mystery. The back of the house could be opened and stood a few feet from the backcloth. A trap opened in the scenery and allowed the stagehands to slide a mirror tunnel through it and into the house. Leslie Crowther was a tall man but the illusion of him "growing" from the box was aided by a block of wood that he stood upon as he made his eerie appearance.

Several box inserts, interior linings in effect, were constructed that could be slid through the tunnel and into the mansion. One box contained the mansion house interior complete with sweeping staircase, miniature suits of armour, an imposing working chandelier (made by David's wife Ruth) and the small hat stand.

This box could be retrieved from the house by hauling it back with a long rod and another box pushed into its place. One contained the kettle, cups and biscuits that the cleaning ladies used. Others contained the files and office equipment and later the cocktail cabinet and bottles revealed by the dancing businessmen.

The tunnel itself was mirrored on three sides. The underside was a dark colour but had the audience been able to look under the tube, due to the height of the stage and table, then it too would have been mirrored and the floor camouflaged accordingly. The backcloth was made up of a bold regular pattern which when reflected in the mirrored sides rendered the tube invisible. The choreography of the routine allowed the cast to walk around the back of the mansion when the mirror tunnel was not in use and the tube was only pushed through the

backcloth when it was needed. It rested on the rear of the centre table.

The miniature items for the Alice in Wonderland style growing effect, the umbrella, briefcase and bowler, were skilfully crafted by Ali Bongo. Each item was beautifully made, the bowler even had Leslie Crowther's initials inside the hatband and David still has them in his collection. The full size bowler and briefcase were in a hidden side compartment of the house. When Leslie Crowther reached into the house to pick up the tiny hat he dropped it into the hidden compartment and exchanged it for the full size bowler. Done smoothly the change was unexpected and magical. A similar action transformed the miniature briefcase into a full size case. The real umbrella was hidden in the hollow leg of the table and was drawn up through the house and into view to complete the effect

The finale was carefully choreographed to generate the maximum applause. It ended with the three bowler-hatted men dancing together from one side of the stage to the other. They would shuffle briefly into the wings only to return accompanied by another member of their cast, keeping step. Soon the entire cast joined them forming a chorus line, the three men at its centre.

But at one point when the three men had left the stage they were replaced by doubles that were now dancing with their backs to the audience. The original trio were already making their way backstage to the mirror tunnel. A few moments later the rest of the chorus line made its exit and danced away into the wings.

As soon as the bowler-hatted doubles had left the sight of the audience the mansion house burst open and the original three men jumped out, one after another. They were

immediately followed by the other cast members who had scooted around backstage as soon as they could. The audience was already applauding loudly as the dancers left the stage but their totally unexpected, and impossibly quick, appearance from the mansion house took the applause to an even higher level. Night after night this adroitly choreographed illusion helped bring the show to a memorable and thrilling close.

The Dolls Houses were originally designed for a tour beginning in Liverpool in the North West of England and ending in London. The son of a famous shipping family who had a liking for show business had financed the show. It was called Liverpool37892, the number, rather cleverly they all thought at the time, being the telephone number of the theatre box office. Naturally the title would change as the show toured from town to town.

The cast had rehearsed for several weeks in London and were all keyed up when they arrived in Liverpool. However, when David, Ronnie Cass and Leslie Crowther arrived at the theatre none of the props had turned up. They soon discovered the reason why. The company responsible for their transportation had not been paid. David needed them as soon as possible for technical rehearsals so he and Ronnie Cass set out to find the show's backer who so far had been conspicuous by his absence. They called at his room in the Adelphi Hotel but he was nowhere to be seen. All they found was a toothbrush and a copy of the script and a note that said, "Smell a hit. Have gone to London to raise more spondulicks." The backer had disappeared and with him the possibility of putting on the show. The show folded before it opened, leaving a trail of disaster and a traumatised cast whose livelihoods depended on it. The theatre was full of tears and Leslie Crowther, the star of the show, was absolutely inconsolable. Contrary to popular belief, no one ever looked back and laughed about it.

The story does have a happy ending though. All of the sketches and props were later incorporated in other revues using the same cast and technical team, much to the relief of David and his bank manager!

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