Between 1916 and 1940—from John Humphries in the revue Flying Colours to Morland Graham in the film Old Bill & Son—more than thirty professional actors portrayed Old Bill on stage and screen. We are all familiar with the likes of Arthur Bourchier, Charles Coburn, Johnny Danvers, Martin Adeson, Edmund Gwenn et al, but few BB enthusiasts will recognise the name Lee White—that is to say, Miss Lee White—who in April 1917 became the first actress to play Old Bill, in André Charlot’s revue Cheep at London’s Vaudeville Theatre.
Lee White was born in Louisiana in 1886, and started her professional singing career in 1905. She came to England in 1913, and in October that year, following an engagement at the Palladium, Charlot gave her a leading role in Keep Smiling at the Alhambra. Further success followed in a string of revues at the Alhambra, including The Alhambra Revue (1914), Not Likely (1914), 5064 Gerrard (1915) and Now’s the Time (1915/16). On 15th April 1917 she completed an eight and a half month run in Some (More Samples) at the Vaudeville Theatre, and immediately began rehearsals for the new Vaudeville revue, Cheep.
Consisting of two Acts and eleven scenes, Cheep was written by Harry Grattan—the author responsible for many of the great revues of the day—and brought together a cast of Charlot ‘regulars’ including Beatrice Lillie, Guy Le Feuvre and Clay Smith—and of course, Miss Lee White.
Cheep opened at the Vaudeville Theatre on Thursday, 26th April 1917. Act II Scene 1—titled “With the Lads (God Bless ‘em)” - was set in the trenches with actors portraying four characters—a Sergeant, and “Privates Three—Cockney (Real), Cockney (Imitation) and Caledonia The Myth.” Although there was no mention of or acknowledgement to Bruce Bairnsfather or his characters in the programme, it was obvious that the “Privates Three” represented Old Bill, Bert and Alf. Clay Smith (Lee White’s real-life husband) and the popular twenty-three year old revue actress Beatrice Lillie played the Cockney (real) and Cockney (Imitation) but it was Miss Lee White - officially cast as “Caledonia the Myth” but to all intents and purposes playing Old Bill—who stole the scene. Theatre newspaper The Era described how Miss White appeared on stage “attired as a Bairnsfather’s Ole Bill.” and the Daily Graphic (whose review was somewhat biased towards this
SIGNED PHOTOGRAPH OF MISS LEE WHITE
MISS LEE WHITE (CENTRE) HOLDING AN OLD BILL DOLL, WITH CLAY SMITH (LEFT) AND BEATRICE LILLIE (RIGHT) IN CHEEP. FROM THE DAILY GRAPHIC.
FRONT AND BACK OF OLD BILL DOLL THROWN TO AUDIENCES OF CHEEP BY LEE WHITE AND BEATRICE LILLIE
SHEET MUSIC TO “WHERE DID THAT ONE GO?”
SIGNED PHOTO OF BLANCHE TOMLIN, DATED 1917
scene, being a sister publication of The Bystander, in which BB’s cartoons appeared) wrote that “with walrus moustache and full Bairnsfather kit complete Miss White might be Ole Bill himself .” The paper even gave it’s write up the heading “The Bairnsfather Touch—Ole Bill’s song to Bert in the new revue Cheep” and published a photograph showing Miss Lee White and fellow cast members in the scene.
The musical number in the scene was further acknowledgement (again uncredited) of the influence of Bairnsfather’s cartoons. The song, written by Clay Smith, R.P. Weston and Bert Lee, titled “Where did that one go?” - was sung “in fine spirit” by Ole Bill/Caledonia the Myth (Miss Lee White) to “Bert”. The full lyrics to the song are reproduced below.
“Where did that one go?” proved so popular that Lee White made a recording of it, which was released on the His Masters Voice label (record number 03561) in 1917. Sheet music for the song was also published, by Francis, Day & Hunter.
“WHERE DID THAT ONE GO?”
Good old Alf and poor old ‘Er-bert, some-where on the Somme,
Had their ‘cush-y’ dug-out made a mess of by a bomb;
So they found an-oth-er hole, but when they’d crawl’d in-side,
A shell came o-ver from the Bosch, Tum-bled with a might-y splosh
Some-where in a heap of slosh—Alf look’d up and said, “By gosh!
“Where did that one go to, ‘Er-bert? Where did that one go?
Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh! Say, old Chum-mie, that was rum-my!
‘Erb, ‘Erb, ‘Erb, ‘Erb, tell me if you know, who the– what the—
How the—why the—where did that one go? go?
Alf and ‘Er-bert one fine ev-’ning, some-where in Pa-ree,
Walk’d in-to a cab-a-ret as thirst-y as can be.
When the wait-ress serv’d them both, she had such sau-cy ways,
Alf turn’d round to give a wink, ‘Er-bert did-n’t stop to think,
Swal-low’d up poor Alf-ie’s drink, Then Alf shout-ed, “Strike me pink!
Alf and ‘Erb went to a show when they came up on leave,
Saw a great ma-gi-cian bring a rab-bit from his sleeve.
Alf went on the stage to help, but when the show was done,
That ma-gi-cian nev-er knew Where his rab-bit van-ish’d to,
But at sup-per, Alf, it’s true, Whis-per’d “We’ve got rab-bit stew!
Alf got mar-ried to a girl one sun-ny day in June.
‘Er-bert went to chap-e-rone them on their hon-ey-moon.
They got in the train and to a tun-nel soon they got.
In the dark they sat and kiss’d; ‘Er-bert thought that he’d as-sist.
Soon Alf heard a kiss he’d miss’d, And shout-ed as he shook his fist,
For a few lucky members of every audience, there was the chance to take home a free souvenir of Cheep: In their review of the show following its opening night, The Weekly Dispatch noted that Lee White’s rendition of “Where did that one go?” went down very well, “particularly at the end, when she threw rag dolls to the audience.” But these were no ordinary rag dolls—they were souvenir Old Bill dolls, made of khaki material, with a bushy walrus moustache made from wool. The 7” dolls had no arms but there were buttons down the front and the cloth was made to make it look as if he was wearing Army uniform. A large label was sewn on to the back, which read “Vaudeville Theatre—Cheep! - With Lee White’s Compliments.” Some dolls had labels with Beatrice Lillie’s name in place of Lee White’s (these possibly date from after Lee White left the show in December 1917).
In the Summer of 1917 an Old Bill doll made the newspapers, when it made an unusual wedding gift. On Tuesday, 10th July 1917 a Garden
Party to raise funds for the Actors Orphanage was held at the Royal Hospital gardens in Chelsea. The Actors Orphanage had been established at Langley Hall in Buckinghamshire in 1912, and the Garden Party to raise funds for it had been an annual event since then. As always it was a well attended event, and as the Times reported, “hardly a well-known figure on the stage was missing from the gay and cheerful crowd with its strong contingent of khaki and blue, of wounded and Red Cross.”
The Times noted that “one of the most amusing corners in the garden” was the ‘Fair in the Fair’ - where “performers gave free samples of their skills on a platform arranged outside,” adding that it was from this platform that “Miss Lee White sold by auction ‘Ole Bill’ dolls in great numbers. A specially large one went for £20, amid great cheers, and was promptly presented to Miss Blanche Tomlin, who had been married earlier in the day, as a wedding gift.”
Blanche Tomlin was a well known actress and singer, who had appeared in a number of London revues. She was born Blanche Tomlinson in Leeds in December 1890 and had been on stage since her late teens. In 1916 she had been briefly engaged to the popular star Lupino Lane, when they were both appearing in Watch Your Step at the Empire Theatre, but the engagement was broken off my mutual consent. Latterly she had been appearing in Three Cheers at the Shaftesbury Theatre (with Harry Lauder) until that show finished its run on 2nd June 1917. On 10th July 1917, she married 27-year old divorcee Ronald Ford Wakley in Kensington, later attending the Garden Party where she was presented with the large ‘Ole Bill’ doll.
Sadly, Blanche’s marriage was short-lived. Her husband died on 9th April 1918 aged just 28—only ten months after they were married. After his death, Blanche continued with her stage career, and in 1919 appeared at the Biltmore Theatre in New York. Little is known of her after this, although In the 1920’s she appeared in variety and on the radio.
It would be interesting to know if Blanche kept the Old Bill doll she had received as a wedding present, and took him to America with her in 1919 when she played at the Biltmore Theatre—by coincidence the same theatre at which Charles Coburn produced Old Bill M.P. in November 1926.
It wasn’t just the “With the Lads (God Bless ‘em)” sketch in the show which caught the attention of the public—and the Press. In another popular scene in Cheep, Lee White sang a song titled “Good-Bye Madame Fashion, Come Again Some Day!” while wearing only a dress made entirely from threepennyworth of newspapers!
On 3rd December 1917, after almost eight months’ run, Lee White and Clay Smith left the cast of Cheep. Their departure caused much gossip in the theatre world and there were rumours that Lee White was going into a new production under rival management to André Charlot, but she told the Weekly Dispatch “We have no definite plans yet—just taking a rest for a while.”
White‘s part in Cheep was taken by Teddie Gerard, an Argentine-born American actress who had been on stage since 1909. She had appeared in many London revues, and gained a reputation for having the best looking back of any actress on the stage! Clay Smith was replaced by actor Walter Williams.
Cheep continued its run at the Vaudeville Theatre for another six months, finally closing in May 1918, after 483 performances.
Lee White subsequently went into management on her own account, producing several successful revues at the Ambassadors Theatre, including U.S. and Back Again. But she always looked back with great fondness on her time at the Vaudeville Theatre. In July 1919 she was interviewed for the second issue of the weekly Fragments magazine edited by Bruce Bairnsfather, and recalled how she had been the first woman to impersonate Old Bill. Asked what made her play the part so well, she replied ”Why, he is so full of sympathy. What woman can resist sympathy? That’s why Bill is the most beloved of English soldiers! That’s the Bairnsfather touch—sympathy. His world isn’t Shoreditch or Mayfair—it’s the heart.” Then, proudly showing off her own Old Bill doll, she told her interviewer, “That’s my mascot. Black cats? I hate black cats—wouldn’t have one in my theatre. Bill brought me all my luck—no black cats for me!”
In 1925 White and her husband left London for a tour of the Dominions and America, and appeared with some success in South Africa and Australia before reaching the United States. In America their tour was interrupted several times by her illness. She underwent three operations but sadly died in Washington on 3rd December 1927. She was just 41 years old.
The Old Bill dolls thrown to audiences by Lee White and Beatrice Lillie weren’t particularly attractive as can be seen from the one illustrated on the opposite page. Over the course of the 13 month run of Cheep hundreds of them must have been given away, but today they seem to be particularly scarce and hard to find. Certainly there are very few known to be in the possession of BB collectors. Who knows—perhaps Miss Lee White’s own cherished Old Bill, and the one given to Blanche Tomlin as a wedding gift are still out there somewhere!
& Old Bill