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British musical theatre - Little Tich

By the 1870s and 80s, British musical theatre creators like Gilbert and Sullivan could make a good living. And Music Hall became even more popular late in the C19th. The big stars were so success­ful that they would perform in numerous halls each night, crossing London in their carriages. By performing in several venues a night the top stars could earn big money. They worked hard and lived fast, but the stresses of this lifestyle meant that many died young. By the 1890s, there could be as many as 20 acts per show and performances would last up to four hours. Soon music halls were presenting shorter, twice nightly programmes. Performers were now contracted for a period of time, rather than by performance. This meant that popular performers no longer had to dash across London to appear in several halls in one evening.
The star was Harry Relph (1867-1928). He  was the 16th child of an elderly publican, from the Kentish village of Cudham. Harry stood only 4’6” high, with dwarfish legs, had 5 fingers and a thumb on each hand, and 6 toes on each foot. From his earliest professional perform­ance, at Rosh­erville Pleasure Gardens Gravesend in 1880, his deformity and short stature were emphasised for public­ity and comedic reasons. At 12 he made his first stage appearance with a black-face comedy act he had developed himself.

He made his London debut at Foresters Theatre in 1884 & the good folk of Kent flocked to London to be amused.

Harry became Little Tich, the nickname taken from the huge, 25 stone Arthur Orton at the infamous Titchborne Claimant Trial of 1873-74.  The name Little Tich was thus an ironic name. Like other short men, he made up for his physical deficiency with comedy and props. By the time of his London music hall debut in 1884 he’d created a speciality dance in which he appeared to defy gravity, balancing and dancing on the tips of 28” wooden boots. He became famous for his characters including the Spanish Senorita, Tax Collector, Tram Conductor and Gas Inspector.

Little Tich dancing on the tips of 28” wooden boots

Then there was Drury Lane, his second home. Pantomime audiences loved Little Tich, especially in the Humpty Dumpty and Hop on My Thumb pantomimes of 1891-2. Just to see Harry walk on stage made people break up laughing, with his evening dress, top hat, cigar and his angel­ic silly-man smile. In fact between 1891-94, his three Drury Lane pantomimes established him as one of Britain's foremost comedians. And music hall made Little Tich rich. He loved to ride around London and into Kent, in a smart car. But this star never forgot his humble beginnings.

During a 1887-1889 tour of the USA Relph abandoned the black-face act to concentrate on dancing and charact­er sketches, repeating his Big Boots routine and a burlesque of famous Serpentine dances.

Tony Pastor was in the UK in 1886 and signed Little Tich for a tour of the USA. The comedian sailed to the USA in 1887 to earn an amaz­ingly high salary! Originally famous as a blackface artist, promot­ers on the American tour made him drop the act, fearing his British accent would be distracting. So Little Tich performed his Big Boot Dance instead, becoming very successful in the USA.

Harry was born in the Blacksmith's Arms, in Cudham Kent

In 1896 he made his debut in Paris at the Folies-Bergère, where he became a good friend of equally short Toulouse-Lautrec. The young Charlie Chap­l­in (1889–1977), in Paris with a travelling troupe, saw Tich perform and based his walk on him, though later everyone assumed Tich copied Chaplin. Offstage, Tich was a skilled painter, skilful in­strumentalist (cello), composed music, was an accomp­lished linguist and read widely.

His comic rout­ines influenced both stage and early film performers internationally. The surviving film of the Big Boots dance was made for Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre in 1900. Despite his int­ern­ational fame he only appeared in three further films, in 1905, 1907 and 1909.

1905’s biggest star on the Australian Tivoli Circuit was Little Tich! This funny little gentleman received a salary of £250 a week, by far the largest sum actor-manager Harry Rickards had ever paid. Local artistes earned no more than 3-12 pounds. And there was a series of funny sketches of suburban characters: the love-sick tram conductor, incompetent black­smith, sea-sick sailor and a series of ecc­entric elderly ladies.

Back in the UK, he became the hero of the old Tivoli Theatre in the Strand, beginning in Jan 1910. By then he had already begun to replay his peculiar Big Boots Routine for which he became famous. In two large, flat, heavy clogs, he danced, leant horizontally to find his lost hat, and finally rose on tiptoe to full height. As the curtain closed, he took his bow with a quick horizontal stagger which bumped his bald head against the stage. He also appeared in the pantomime Cinderella, as an Ugly Sis­ter.Until 1902 Little Tich performed in his own musical theatre com­pany, and spent much of his time in Paris. In 1909-10 Little Tich was made an officer of the French Acad­emy Française for services to French music-hall, the first music hall performer to be honoured.
Back in Australia in 1926, the audiences were disappointed and they threw pennies to him. He had come on the stage brash and certain, and he left it a heart broken old man. Tich ret­urn­ed to London but his self-esteem never recov­ered. His final performance was at the London Alhambra Theatre in 1927, had on-stage accident, suffered a stroke and died three months later. He was buried in East Finchley Cemetery.

1916 photo

See Little Tich, Giant of the Music Hall by Mary Tich and Richard Findlater, 1979.


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