The Female Impersonator Bert Errol
One of the most influential and major stars of the British variety stage in the Jazz Age was Bert Errol. Hugely under-rated and now long forgotten, he was one of the few, seriously, successful female impersonators on the British stage and had the advantage of an incredible vocal range that was the key to his success.
Throughout a long career spanning the period of about 1907, until his death in 1949, Bert Errol travelled all over the UK appearing in a show of his own making in variety halls and did several tours to America, Australia and South Africa. But, appearances on the legitimate London stage were elusive since in the UK, female impersonation was certainly frowned upon by the producers of legitimate theatre in London. Of course, one area where he could perform on the stage was in pantomime and he did relish his Christmas appearances, particularly as one of the ugly sisters in various versions of Cinderella.
Bert Errol carved a niche for himself because of his unique voice and his polished act and was constantly in demand. Indeed, it may have been his voice and his singing range that was the catalyst for him to try female impersonation as an act in the first place, rather than anything else.
He was careful not to fall into the trap of being labeled as homosexual – as often anyone who was a female impersonator was thought to be that way inclined. Bert Errol married at the outset of his career and his wife and daughter were part of his act. This became an important statement to deflect any suspicion. He was also extremely careful to construct his act in a way that was not camp, outrageous or having any element that could be thought of as flamboyant or ‘gay’ and without the patter of innuendo. He was clever, used his voice to great advantage, wore incredible gowns and was stylish, sophisticated and mesmerizing. He always made it clear he was a man masquerading as a woman. Sadly, few images of him survive and are very rare but there are a few that provide a unique glimpse of this extraordinary man.
He was born Isaac Whitehouse on 11th August 1883 at 106 Aston Road, Aston, Birmingham, the son of Isaac Whitehouse, a brass lock founder, and his wife, Elizabeth. In 1901 at the age of 17, he was living with his family in Handsworth, Birmingham, and was working for his father as a ‘brass dresser.’
It was revealed that at the time he was studying chemistry and destined for a career in that subject. But, by a freak of fate, his voice had not changed much to his chagrin. One day his sister’s singing coach Grace Ivell, arrived at the house and heard a wonderful soprano voice upstairs and Isaac’s unusual singing voice was discovered. She asked Isaac to sing for her, she was captivated and began teaching him for free. In a short space of time he became a choir-boy and was groomed to appear on the stage.
He began his career in 1901 as a concert singer and for a few years was part a concert party. For example, in January 1905 he was part of Will Leslie’s White Coons entertainment at the Aston Liberal Club along with Dorothy Ward and others. He continued with this group in 1906 and 1907 appearing at such places as Montpellier concert hall, Cheltenham in summer shows. He also appeared in a concert show at the Aston Conservative Club in Birmingham.
At some point – perhaps in 1907 and 1908 – he appeared for a year in black face as a member of Harry Reynolds’s Minstrels and it was probably at this time that he ventured into drag. Reynold’s later described him as ‘that famous male soprano and double voice vocalist’ who had a remarkable voice and became known for his artistic singing. He ‘created a great impression with his cultured singing and finished burlesque prima donna business. When he first joined me he had a rather poor speaking voice which somewhat handicapped him in the sketches and burlesques.’ But within a short space of time he ‘had developed quite an exceptional, robust tenor voice that added interest to his clever show. In his particular line of business he now seems to stand in a class by himself.’ For example, in May 1908 he was with Harry Reynold’s Minstrel Quintette at Hastings Pier where he was described as being very popular and his falsetto register and female impersonations that were ‘captivating.’
However, at the same time he was also appearing with Adeler and Sutton’s Pierrots in a show called Old Virginia and was seen at Llandudno Pier Head Pavilion in the summer of 1908 and seemingly at Douglas on the Isle of Man. At time, the London producer, Harry Day was on tour up North with Frank Glenister, the manager of the London Pavilion, looking for new acts.
At Blackpool they stopped to see one of the pierrot shows. After sitting for an hour and a half through a particularly uninteresting programme they were about to leave when the programme girl approached us and said ‘there’s a real good turn coming in about five minutes. You’ve given me a good tip, so now I giving you a tip in return.’ So they waited until Errol appeared. Day said that he was badly dressed but as soon as he heard his voice he knew at once that he had found an exceptionally fine artiste. Errol was signed to a contract and ‘his struggling for a living as a pierrot had finished.’
Bert’s act was clearly spruced up and he made his appearance at the London Pavilion on 5thOctober 1908. Sporting News announced that ‘a marvelous phenomenon has been discovered in the shape of Bert Errol.’ It was thought that he was quite indistinguishable on the stage from a lady and possessed a most natural soprano voice. Music Hall and Theatre Review continued the accolades and added ‘if it were not for comedy asides, with which breaks the illusion, he might easily pass for the real thing.’
Through 1909 and 1910 he was seen in various London and regional variety halls and the Bystander observed that he had ‘been endowed by nature with a really effective soprano voice’ and was ‘able to give effect to the illusion with a considerable amount of grace and charm.’
In the late spring of 1910, Errol married the actress Ray Hartley in Lambeth and she eventually became part of his act as a dancer. Not long afterward Errol was using the advertising line ‘the Tettrazini of the Halls’ a nod to the excellence of the world famous Italian opera singer Luisa Tetrazzini.
Rather erroneously, Anthony Slide in his book The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, stated that Errol’s first visit to America was in the summer of 1910. This was not the case and throughout 1910 and 1911 he was appearing regularly in various variety bills throughout the UK. His notices were superb and he was described as ‘the lady with the phenomenal voice’ who ‘mystifies and delights his audience’… ‘without doubt one of the finest lady impersonators we have’ and ‘splendid – alike in voice, gesture and mannerism.’
In August 1911 it was announced that he had been signed for an American trip by the Shubert Brothers in New York but in the end he declined the contract as it did not matched his requirements in terms of salary. Instead, at the end of 1911 he made a trip with his wife to South Africa, and a tour there was described as being a complete success running through part of 1912.
Back in the UK by May 1912, he was touring again and in Nottingham he was described as being ‘decidedly one of the best of the female impersonators. He would easily pass for a fascinating Miss until he ‘gives the show away’ and his falsetto singing is admirable but the comedy business associated with the exit required toning down.’
He was in great demand and appeared at the London Hippodrome in August 1913, but finally the lure of America was triumphant due to his agent Will Collins who secured a tour of the Keith vaudeville circuit, this time with favourable renumeration. The Errol’s arrived in New York for the first time on 30thOctober 1913 aboard Celtic from Liverpool and Errol made his debut at Keith’s Alhambra on 10thNovember. He was an instant hit and it was acknowledged that his main forte was his voice. He was declared to be ‘one of the first class in the manipulation of the paints and powders and the lingerie things’ and was compared to the leading America female impersonator as ‘almost as close to a Julian Eltinge in the art as Julian himself.’
Variety thought that Errol was ‘worth watching’ and sang ‘better than any of the female impersonators yet seen.’ He was also thought to have ‘given the female walk, arm movements and certain feminine poses careful attention as he adheres very closely to them all the way. Occasionally he drops the disguise to reveal that there’s a man beneath.’ Despite the fact that one of his ensembles was a gown of white satin decorated with rhinestones with a coat of crystal cloth, it was thought that his advertising byline, that he wore gorgeous gowns, was a little inflated and that his shoes were ‘a trifle sloppy.’
Errol toured across the Keith Circuit for at least 6 months headlining in the flagship Palace Theatre in New York in early December 1913, a stop at Shea’s in Toronto in January 1914 and finally ending up in Atlantic City before returning to the UK on 22ndMay 1914.
Further variety engagements followed in the UK before he returned to the USA for a second tour arriving in New York on 22ndOctober 1914 for another extensive tour that included Brooklyn, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Rochester, Buffalo and Ottawa, before returning to the UK in late May 1915.
Bert toured once again through the rest of 1915 before he was cast in his first pantomime as an ugly sister in Wylie-Tate’s Cinderella at the London Palladium at Christmas time 1915. This was the start of a regular affair with pantomime and a medium in which he clearly excelled. More variety engagements followed in 1916 at such places as the London Palladium, London Pavilion and Collin’s Islington and he was described as having a ‘wonderful soprano voice and gorgeous gowns’ that had ‘made his act so popular.’
Wylie-Tate cast him again in another Cinderella, this time at the Palace Theatre in Manchester for Christmas 1916. After some appearances in variety, including the Palladium in the Spring of 1917, there were much fewer thereafter, which might suggest that Errol entered the war effort in some capacity. Indeed, on Christmas day he was in the cast of the pantomime The Babes in Wood staged at a military centre in London specifically for soldiers and their families.
Certainly in 1918 there were no known appearances in the UK and in August 1918 The Sketch showed two photograph of him with Leslie Henson and his 5thArmy Concert Party somewhere in France as part of the Gaieties troupe. It was clear that he was part of a vaudeville troupe entertaining the troops on the Western front. At one village, the theatre was shelled, and he feared the roof would go and he would catch a cold because he was only wearing his ‘Indian Love-Lyrics’ costume – scanty to say the least.
When war ended in late 1918 he returned to London but in February 1919 he has recalled to Lille to be part of a Gaieties concert party in the Nouveau Theatre and Opera House to celebrate the liberation. Errol appeared in the finale as Joan of Arc. Bert also was seen at the Alhambra Theatre in Paris in April 1919. Thereafter, he resumed his touring and after the Paris engagements he appeared at Holborn and Kilburn Empire with the announcement that he was ‘back again from his Army duties and in better form and more gorgeous dresses than ever’ and was giving impressions of Alice Delysia singing ‘If You Could Care’ and Violet Loraine in ‘Something Oriental’
On 26thFebruary 1920 he made a third tour of America and opened at the Princess Theatre, Montreal on 15thMarch and then visited Toronto, Boston, New York, Brooklyn, Washington DC, Philadelphia and Atlantic City. In Montreal he was acclaimed as being ‘without peer on the stage today’ and ‘carried female impersonation beyond mimicry and placed it upon a plane of genuine art… remarkable for its finish and its refinement.’ In Boston it was thought that he ‘went over well and much is due to the fact that at all times he handles himself inoffensively.’ Variety was impressed with his act in New York and said that he was ‘equipped in splendid fashion vocally… gorgeous wardrobe… went in for comedy at all times… has oodles of personality and works in a nonchalent manner that should endear him to an American audience… he was over here before and knows the ropes… wisely injected American songs exhibiting more discrimination and showmanship that the usual continental entertainer.’
Bert Errol returned to the UK in December 1920 he appeared as one of the ugly sisters in the Wylie-Tate pantomime Cinderella at the Sheffield Empire. This was followed by another tour in 1921 with a new show called Modes and Melodies that had an Oriental atmosphere. He cleverly impersonated lady characters and introduced a little burlesque which was viewed as ‘tasteful and artistic.’
Interestingly, in the Summer of 1921 Bert Errol was on the same bill at the Hackney Empire with Karyl Norman, an American female impersonator who had been appearing in Julian Wylie’s show The Peepshow at the London Hippodrome. According to press reports the two men had known each other for sometime which indicates they had met in America. There had been some unkind press reports suggesting rivalry and even accusations of piracy. They both denied all these rumours and, the gossip was quelled, when Karyl Norman arranged a party for Errol at the Waldorf shortly before Errol left for a fourth tour of America on 13thAugust 1921.
Errol’s new American tour on the Keith Circuit was called Modes and Melodies and started at Brighton Beach Theatre, Coney Island on 29thAugust with gowns by Reville (Paris) and Mahier (New York). He ended up at Keith’s Palace theatre in New York in January 1922 and returned to London on 7thFebruary 1922. Thereafter, he opened on the Moss and Stoll variety Circuits presenting the same show Modes and Melodies. At the end of the year, he was once again in Julian Wylie’s Christmas pantomime Cinderella as an ugly sister, this time at the London Hippodrome.
Through 1923 he toured with his Modes and Melodies of 1923 and again appeared as an ugly sister in the pantomime Cinderella at the Palace Theatre, Manchester and continued touring in 1924. Then on 19thJuly 1924, the Errol’s sailed for Australia, where Bert commenced a tour via JC Williamson visiting Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide and ended up being abroad for a year. He met with huge success and was described as coming onto the stage as a tall handsome woman and sang with a pleasing soprano voice then gave the game away by singing baritone with a remarkable range. ‘Australia had not seen or heard anything quite so remarkable on the vaudeville stage as Bert Errol.’
Due to his success in Australia, Bert then travelled to New Zealand where he created‘created a riot’ and ‘made a vivid impression’ in Auckland. On route back to the UK he arrived in South Africa, in about April 1925 and stayed until June headlining at the Tivoli in Cape Town before arriving back in England. For the summer season he was in Douglas on the Isle of Man and then the Palace Theatre Blackpool, before playing the London Coliseum at the end of August.
On the 9th September 1925 Bert and his wife arrived in New York and embarked on a fifth American tour of the Keith Circuit for six months. At the Palace Theatre in November it was thought his harsh vocal sounds of masculine remarks in the midst of his falsetto were pleasing, his gowns expensive, his bridal dress extravagant and he did not overdo things.
Arriving back in England at the end of June 1926, Bert opened at the London Coliseum and Alhambra before touring until the end of October. Once again Bert crossed the Atlantic arriving in New York on 29thOctober 1926 for his sixth American tour, again on the Keith circuit that last for well over 9 months. He finally arrived back in England on 9thAugust 1927 from Boston.
Bert opened at the London Palladium at the end of August 1927 and it was thought that he had deepened the comedy note in his new material. His Blushing Bride was exquisitely costumed but designed for the purposes of laughter and further amusement was caused by his Queen Elizabeth in appropriate tudor garb.
At the Hippodrome in Manchester in October 1927, Bert introduced his daughter Betty into the show for the first time and then opened in London at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire with his Types and Tunes show. Bert then travelled to Berlin to perform at the Scala Theatre for about two months from December 1927 to January 1928 but was back in the UK resuming a tour by February 1928. However, on 9th March he sailed once more for a second visit to Australia for another season under the JC Williamson management. He opened at the Tivoli theatre in Sydney for a 10 week tour and was described ‘as slick and clever as ever.’
Following the Australian trip, Bert opened at the Empire Stratford with new material at the beginning of September 1928 and continued to tour through 1929 and 1930. By 1930 his act was described as ‘bright, tuneful and swift-moving’ and his characterisations were convincing and ‘really funny.’ It was thought that he had carved a niche for himself with his female impersonations (that now included Good Queen Bess and Cleopatra) and that he was ‘masterful’ and sang ‘in a demure and coquettish manner.’
However, it must have been in late 1930 that he decided to retire, but after ten weeks of absence from the stage he became so restless that he felt he had to return or else he would have gone mad, so he duly went back to the stage.
Throughout the 1930s Bert continued to perform in variety but perhaps his schedule was not as frantic as before. He also continued in pantomime, and, for example, in December 1931 he made his first appearance as a pantomime dame in Babes in the Wood at the Theatre Royal, Norwich and then transferred to the Kingston Empire in early 1932. In late 1933 he was the dame in Dick Whittington at Hackney Empire, in late 1934 he was Dame Hubbard in Red Riding Hood at West Pier, Brighton, in late 1935 he was an ugly sister in Cinderella at the Coventry Hippodrome and in late 1936 he was Widow Twankey in Aladdin at the Theatre Royal, Brighton.
One fascinating appearance was in the comedy film Splinters in the Navy released in November 1931. A Julius Hagen Production, it was filmed at Twickenham Studios and was a sequel to Splinters (1929) about an army concert party directed by Walter Forde. The Les Rouges et Noirs concert group had been a successful combine formed in 1918 comprised entirely of soldiers many of whom dressed in drag and whose first performance was called Splinters. The group turned into a touring revue and continued well into the 1930s. Splinters in the Navy starred Sydney Howard, Alf Goddard, and Helena Pickard and featured the Splinters troupe along with clever female impersonations by Bert who gave a rendition of sea songs.
In late 1936 it was announced that Bert was due to sail early in 1937 to make a visit to Hollywood but it was re-scheduled for early 1937. Why he was planning a trip to Hollywood is not known but since his destination was Hollywood perhaps he had been made an offer to appear in a movie. Sadly the trip never materialized.
Throughout the war Bert continued to perform and in 1939 stated that he was living in Hampstead but may well have had a second home in Brighton. In April 1940 he was featured in a cabaret show at El Morocco nightclub where Bert entertained with his comedy and sang three songs one introducing himself, one about Gertie, the gardeners daughter and one about Liz the Charwoman.
Bert re-appeared in pantomime as Widow Twankey in Aladdin at the Blackpool Winter Gardens in late 1943 and in May 1944 headlined in an army flavor show called We Were in the Army with an all male cast that toured throughout 1944. One of his last performances was in variety at the Queens Park Hippodrome in Manchester in late 1945. Bert died in the Royal Sussex Country Hospital, Brighton on 29th November 1949 aged 66 from Asthma.
Some images of Bert Errol taken from the internet
All images (unless specified in the caption) and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
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