England

World War One: Music hall entertainers with the 'X factor'

Vesta Tilley Image copyright SANDRA TAYLOR
Image caption Vesta Tilley worked as a male impersonator from the age of five

Music hall was one of the dominant forms of entertainment in World War One. But it was also used for propaganda and recruitment and two entertainers from the Midlands played key roles in the war effort - often dressed as soldiers themselves.

Born in Stoke-on-Trent in 1887, Gertie Gitana was described by some as the Dame Vera Lynn of World War One.

She was making gramophone recordings by the outbreak of the war and then entertained people on the home front, as well as performing for injured soldiers in hospital.

Further south, Vesta Tilley was born in the Worcester slums, some 23 years before Gitana, escaping her impoverished life by taking to the stage.

Tilley worked as a male impersonator from the age of five and during the war she performed dressed as a soldier.

One woman, Kitty Morter, later described how a night out to Manchester's Palace Theatre in 1914 changed her life, as Tilley recruited her husband to the war effort.

He died, leaving Kitty and the baby son he never met.

Mrs Morter said: "We had a friend over in Canada that had enlisted over there and he came over here and he came one night and asked us 'would we go to the Palace?'

"Vesta Tilley was recruiting, which we never knew until we got there.

"She introduced that song 'We don't want to lose you but we think you ought to go'..... She came out of the stage and walked all around in the audience.

"She put her hand on [my husband's] shoulder and as the men were all following her down, he got up and followed her down too and they all went on the stage.

"I was so very proud that he... was going to be soldier."

Image copyright JOHN BOOTH
Image caption Gertie Gitana had songs altered by soldiers

Tilley, who died in 1952, was well known for her pro-British songs and performed in the guise of characters like Tommy in the Trench.

She raised money for the troops, wrote to the men in the trenches and helped to boost morale by sending gifts such as a gramophone to those fighting in the Somme.

David Nash, from the Vesta Tilley Society, a non-profit-making group dedicated to furthering her memory, said she had "the X factor" and recruited potentially 300 people in one day, it was claimed.

Mr Nash said: "Once she was presented with a cigarette card that had been liberated from a German trench with her picture on it, a blood spattered image.

"Clearly, [she] was popular with the German troops as well."

'The Tommies' favourite'

He said there were stories of soldiers apparently not being impressed with her fake gun on stage, so turned up at the stage door with a real one, and they also apparently gave her lessons on how to march, but she also did "such incredible charity work".

The Potteries star Gitana, the daughter of a potter and a teacher, also started at the age of five, when she had performed in a Gypsy children's group.

Staffordshire Film Archive said after being born in Middleport, she moved to Hanley when she was three - to a street which was later named Gitana Street.

She would become the Dame Vera Lynn of World War One and "even had a song written for her by the great Irving Berlin", according to the archive's director, Ray Johnson.

Image caption The Stage Door pub in Hanley has a picture of Gertie Gitana on the side
Image copyright JOHN BOOTH
Image caption Gertie Gitana sold photos to raise money for the war funds

Mr Johnson said: "She was recording from 1910 and had lots of records, so she was known by the outbreak of the war.

"She entertained the wounded in the war hospitals here and she became the darling, the Tommies' favourite."

Gitana, who died in 1957, also saw a number of songs appropriated and altered by soldiers, while the performer herself did "a lot of fundraising" for the war, Mr Johnson said.

"She had studio photos done, cards like postcards which she sold to raise money for the war funds and for the soldiers, and she would have signings," he explained.

Maggie Andrews, professor of cultural history at the University of Worcester, said music halls formed "the traditional and popular entertainment for the working class".

"You've got people standing outside trying to recruit or you've got somebody standing up and giving a sort of recruitment talk," she said.

"It's seen as a place of very patriotic songs and when you look at some of the words, they are.

"But actually the way they were often performed was much more sceptical, much more allowing for the audience to sort of jeer... or [be] a bit critical about the way that sort of patriotism was presented.

"Certainly in terms of recruitment, morale, they were important but also they were important just so people could think about something else..... people often wanted escapism."

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