Tuesday, 24 September 2013

On Ernie Lotinga

There's an elaborate sculpted frieze above the entrance to the Odeon Cinema at the quiet eastern end of Shaftesbury Avenue. It's only fully visible from the far side of the street, which is for some reason the least frequented stretch of pavement in all of central London. The next time you're passing make a point of crossing the road and looking at the frieze for a while - it's worth the effort.

It was designed by Gilbert Bayes for the opening of what was then known as the Savile Theatre in 1931 and depicts ‘Theatre Through the Ages’, from Greek tragedy to Punch and Judy. It's described in great detail by Chris Partridge on his fascinating blog Ornamental Passions. Below is the eastern end of the frieze, with figures in modern dress, including a line of chorus girls.

Lotinga (extreme right) on the Odeon frieze

Two other figures represent the Twentieth Century, or at least that third of it which had passed at the time of its making. The first is Sybil Thorndike as Saint Joan, a role she played in the George Bernard Shaw play that was something of a 1930s sensation. Another figure is surprising - T. S. Eliot's favourite comedian, Ernie Lotinga. I briefly mentioned Eliot and Lotinga in my review of the third volume of Eliot's letters for the Literary Review earlier this year. Eliot praised this once hugely popular but now completely forgotten music-hall performer as 'the greatest living British histrionic Artist, in the purest tradition of British Obscenity'. I'd never heard of him, so I looked him up.

Lotinga (1876-1951) was a big star in the 1920s and 30s and married for a time to Hetty King (1883-1972), a celebrated male impersonator. Her real name was Winfred Emms and, while it's an exaggeration to see them as the Brad and Angelina of their day, they were certainly very famous and you can see two short clips of them larking around together in public here, accompanied by a recording of Hetty singing. The first is from 1916 and appears to be shot in the grounds of a military hospital - a morale-boosting concert for wounded soldiers home from the Front? The second is a 1926 trick film showing Hetty in female and male guises, a music-hall Tiresias. Fascinating.

Hetty King en travestie

You can also see a clip of Ernie on stage in a 1931 production of My Wife's Family, a broad farce in which he would appeared on and off much of his career. Click here and wonder at his uncanny resemblance to Eliot.

Eliot wrote 'fragments' of Sweeney Agonistes in the late 1920s and published them in one volume in 1932. I wonder whether he had Lotinga in mind when he created the marvellously sinister lead character - "Every man wants to, has to, needs to, once in a lifetime, do a girl in". When I read this short play I now hear Lotinga's oddly effeminate déclassé voice.

More about these 'Fragments of an Aristophonic Melodrama' tomorrow, perhaps.

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