Years ago… thirty or even forty … when I first developed an interest in theatrical history, I haunted the ephemera shops and fairs which flourished in London in those times, and, for a handful of pre-devalued pounds, picked up armloads of music, libretti, programmes, posters, playbills and … well … stuff.
Most of what I gathered and collated, after fulfilling its first function as source material for my British Musical Theatre and Encyclopaedia of the Musical Theatre, found its way with the rest of the British Musical Theatre Collection, to the great collection of theatricalia at Harvard University; but some of it – for various reasons -- didn’t. And that ‘some’ -- all sorts of bits and pieces -- has just been sitting there … until now.
This morning I came across some ‘stuff’. I remember buying it. I was ‘a lot’. A chorus girl’s scrapbook, with all sorts of bits and pieces bundled in. I grabbed it because it was interleaved with photographs. Real, first-class photos of Daly’s and Gaiety Theatre musicals of the 1930s, some nowhere else reproduced. Well, they have been now, because they have been largely featured in my books, and have since headed with all the other goodies to Harvard. But there are still the bits and pieces…
The chorus girl was a soubrette-dancer known as ‘Eileen Merry’, born, it seems, in 1907, as Phyllis Eileen Wilks. This 1920 pupils’ concert programme includes Phyllis Wilks in a Russian dance.
I guess, therefore, that she wasn’t the ‘Eileen Merry’ at the Hull Tivoli in 1919 playing alongside one comical Charles Chaplin. Maybe the one in Scotland, in concert party and panto in 1922? But the scrapbook starts at Easter 1927 when Eileen is singing ‘I can’t get over a boy like you’ and ‘My cutie’s due’ with ‘Murray Ashford’s Entertainers’ at Sandown Pier, Isle of Wight, and holiday spots beyond, as well as on 2LO radio, between Mrs Cranswick’s talk on fruit bottling and Yid Nesbitt and his brother Harry with comedy and ukelele.
In 1929, she moved into the theatre, joining the chorus of Good News on tour, before advancing to the West End in the new Darling, I Love You at the Gaiety, then the Oscar Asche production of El Dorado at Daly’s, Blue Roses, The Millionaire Kid, revivals of Miss Hook of Holland, The Duchess of Danzig and San Toy, Laddie Cliff's Rhyme and Rhythm at the Winter Garden, and the new musicals Jill Darling, Seeing Stars and Swing Along … sorry, no pictures. For those you have to look in my books or go to Harvard.
In 1937, Eileen quit the West End chorus line and went back to her origins. As a solo act in the seaside concert party. And there she met comedian [Harold] Cedric Miller. Apparently a widower. They were married later that year.
Cedric had been in the business for 25 years. He was the son of a Putney jewellery wholesaler, born in 1892, and had been educated at Westminster School. But Cedric wanted the stage, and my bundle has a contract from Robert Courtneidge hiring him, age 21, to play the bit part of Mr Pringle in the touring production of his Shaftesbury Theatre success, The Pearl Girl.
But her, too, did not or could not stick with the stage, and he went seaside with Muriel George’s Bunch of Keys party, with Ernest Crampton’s Clowns and Curios, with Bert Aza’s revusical Crazy Town, and touring with Archie Pitt’s company of the Fields Family, star Gracie, as a supporting comic in By Request.
He returned to the stage to play Stanley Lupino’s role in So This is Love on tour, but was soon back in touring variety. In 1934 he played for a while in Revuedeville at London’s Windmill Theatre, in 1936 he is on the radio with the Gwen Lewis Entertainers (featuring a magician!?). And 1937 he is married.
Thereafter, Cedric and Eileen worked largely together, and in concert parties – The Seamews, The Hey Presto! Follies, in Flotsam’s Follies with Hilliam, at Ramsgate, Skegness and all the old familiar places – and in pantomime, and as the concert party of old faded away they moved into summer season at Butlin’s in Filey …
During the war, they joined the NAAFI ..
Cedric died 26 October 1963 at their home at 3 Putney Hill. Eileen lived on another fifteen years and died, at the same address, 20 December 1978. And I guess it was not long after that that the young Kurt Gänzl went to a junk fair …