How times have changed: actress branded “near the knuckle” that stood her ground in Norwich
- Credit: Archant Library/Supplied
She was the queen of the music hall, one of the biggest stars in the land.
But when Marie Lloyd came to Norwich in the early 1900s she balked at being asked to adjust her behaviour and performance.
At the time, women faced tremendous challenges carving a space for their careers especially in such a public role as an entertainer. The man inviting her to the city was Frederick William Fitt, who had some unwelcome words of advice for this much-loved entertainer.
The story is told in an interview with Frederick’s daughter, Miss Doris Fitt, had with one of our greatest writers and editors, Robert Walker, fifty years ago.
“With fluency and zest, punctured by gusts of laughter, Miss Fitt unleashed a flood of fascinating memories, many of them centred around her father who ran the Hippodrome with his brother-in-law, Edward Bostock for nearly 30 years,” wrote Robert.
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And it was during that time, from 1903 to 1930, that this fine theatre played a leading role in many lives bringing many household names to the city. It was famous across the land.
“I remember Marie Lloyd very well,” said Doris who said she visited the theatre in 1907, 1908, 1913, 1915 and 1917.
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“She was very charming. A delightful woman. One of her little ways was that she would only come to Norwich if there was racing at Newmarket. She’d bring a car and chauffer and get back from the races in time for the evening show,” said Doris.
“We had a bungalow at Wroxham and she liked to go there with us,” she added and then told Robert about Marie’s first visit to the Fine City.
“My father had seen her show in London, and knew she could be a little bit near the knuckle sometimes. My people always liked to keep the performance a family show.
“After the first band rehearsal on Monday afternoon, Dad went to see her. He said: ‘Miss Lloyd, I’d just like to point out that this is a cathedral city and we like to run a family show, so we don’t really want anything that might cause offence.’
Well! How did she react to that?
“Marie Lloyd drew herself up, and said: ‘Mr Fitt, have you a railway timetable?’ ‘Why?’ asked my father. ‘I wish to look up the next train to London.’”
Having made her point, Mr Fitt backpedalled.
“‘Don’t take it like that,’ said my father. ‘We just want to keep it all on a friendly basis.’ ‘All right,’” said Marie. ‘I understand.’
“Her performance was absolutely splendid with nothing that anyone could take exception to. After that everything was fine. I was only a kid at the time but she used to make a lot of fuss over me whenever she came,” said Doris.
Looking through her notebooks she told Robert that Charlie Chaplin visited the Hippodrome on June 19, 1906, as a clog dancer with the Lancashire Lads. He later returned with Fred Karno’s company’s, playing the part of a drunk in a stage box.
Doris also remembered the antics of Wee Georgie Wood and a Russian wrestler by the name of George Hackenschmidt. He was known as the “Russian Lion” and was a pioneering strongman and weightlifter. A great character people would queue up to see for hours.
“He was a gentle, very nice man who could speak broken English but always had an interpreter with him.
“He would challenge members of the audience to wrestle with him, but was always triumphant,” said Doris.
But there was more to the Hippodrome than variety shows. The building was used by all kinds of groups and organisations. General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army held Sunday services there.
“Prime Minister George Lloyd came to speak in some election campaign,” recalled Doris. “He addressed a packed audience one afternoon. Afterwards he went to my father’s office and said: ‘This is the best building I’ve ever spoken in – the acoustics are splendid.’”
And then she added in withering tones: “And then they go and pull it down.”
The Hippodrome Theatre carried on until the 1950s, attracting the likes of Laurel and Hardy and Morecambe and Wise, before it was left to rot. In 1966 it was demolished to make way for the St Giles multi-storey car park and offices.
There was more to Frederick Fitt than the Norwich Hippodrome.
- Money raised at the theatre on the bumper opening night in 1903 went to help pay for the South African War Memorial facing Prince of Wales Road which was unveiled the following year.
- He was also involved in running The Rinkeries Roller-Skating Rink in Rose lane, Norwich, and the Spring Gardens open air theatre in Mountergate.
- When the electricity supply went down in the terrible 1912s flood he hired a steam engine to generate power so the show could go on.
- Frederick’s family had run a removal business in Ber Street. He went on to serve the city as a magistrate, and councillor for the old Ber Street ward for 21 years before being made an alderman.
- And his daughter Doris said: “I always think of my father as giving Norwich a wonderful opportunity for laughter.”