Tag Archives: Lottie Collins

The Aussie ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’

14 Mar

The first Australian performance of the song-and-dance act, ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’, was in a burlesque at the Melbourne Opera House  (a venue in Bourke Street which later became the Tivoli) in mid-May 1892.

The artiste who performed it was the London ingénue, Alice Leamar, later to become famous for her racy music-hall number, ‘And Her Golden Hair Was Hanging Down Her Back’. Since Lottie Collins was planning to set off to America, Leamar had come to Oz in her stead with a company from George Edwardes’ London Gaiety Theatre.

The lyrics given for Leamar’s Australian performances of ‘Ta ra ra’ include a sixth verse which I have not come across elsewhere. They were published in the Australian Melodist, a songbook series containing the words of the latest theatrical songs. I include these lyrics in full below for the ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ fans out there.

The lyrics for ‘Ta-ra-ra’ give a vivid sense of how the verses set up the exultant gibberish of the chorus, allowing the song to jump happily between a knowing parody of demureness and a dervish of petticoats and limbs. In its characteristically cheeky prose, the Sydney Bulletin described Leamar’s performance of the chorus thus: ‘partly that of a spider getting enthusiastically off a hot stove and partly that of the native kangaroo… trying to break a record over a series of fences, and singing as she goes’.

A smart and stylish girl you see,
Belle of good society;
Not too strict, but rather free,
Yet as right as right can be!
Never forward, never bold,
Not too hot and not too cold,
But the very thing, I’m told,
That in your arms you’d like to hold!

Chorus
Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay,
Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay,
Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay,
Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay,
Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay,
Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay,
Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay,
Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay.

I’m not extravagantly shy,
And when a nice young man is nigh
For his heart I have a try,
And faint away with tearful cry!
When the good young man, in haste,
Will support me round the waist;
I don’t come to, while thus embraced,
Till of my lips he steals a taste!

I’m a timid flower of innocence,
Pa says that I have no sense,
I’m one eternal big expense,
But men say that I’m just immense!
Ere my verses I conclude,
I’d like it known and understood,
Though free as air, I’m never rude –
I’m not bad, and not too good!

You should see me out with pa,
Prim, and most particular;
The young men say, ‘Ah, there you are!’
And pa says ‘That’s peculiar!’
‘It’s like their cheek!’, I say, and
Off again with pa I go-
He’s quite satisfied – although,
When his back’s turned – well, you know –

I’m a quiet girl, although
To skating rinks I sometimes go –
There is no harm in that, you know,
It gives a modest girl a show;
For when with giddiness you reel,
You hardly have the time to squeal,
When round your waist an arm will steal –
I say, girls, don’t it make you feel –

When in a train I chance to be,
It’s odd how men will sit next to me;
It cannot be my fault, you see,
If they presume to make too free.
I cannot tell the reason why,
I never make the least reply
But, ‘Oh, you should not!’, and ‘Oh, fie!’
Yet when the tunnels come – oh, my!

I feel I am so prim and staid
That on the shelf I may be laid;
It’s very hard, for I’m afraid
I’m not cut out for an old maid.
Still mother tells me not to fret,
I’ve heaps of time to marry yet,
And when I’m someone’s little pet
I won’t be bashful then – you bet!

Sources

Argus (Melbourne), 16 May 1892, 6.

Australian Melodist, no. 20 (Melbourne: n.d.), 6-8.

Bulletin (Sydney), 17 September 1892, 8

On Alice Leamar: Roy Busby, British Music Hall: An Illustrated Who’s Who From 1850 To The Present Day (London, 1976), 100.

‘London is the place for Miss Collins’: More on ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’

11 Mar

Lottie Collins’ song and dance act ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ is often remembered in Britain today as the act which ushered in the Naughty Nineties. There are many accounts which speak of it as a Bacchanalian frenzy in which apparently nude legs and Liberty silk knickers were revealed.

Back when it appeared in 1891-2, however, opinions differed about its raunchiness. True, some of the men who saw Collins perform it at the music halls or the Gaiety Theatre on the West End were mesmerised by her high kicks on the boom in the chorus’ ‘boom-de-ay’.

There were others, however, who denied that there was anything sexually edgy about it. ‘Lottie Collins had the invaluable instinct of knowing how far to go without ever once over-stepping the border-line of propriety’, J. E. Crawford Flitch later claimed. George Bernard Shaw similarly emphasised her self-discipline in the act,  making her version less outre than others he’d seen.

Flitch and Shaw were right. There was nothing in fact very risque about Collins’ ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’. It was not even as if she spent most of the famous chorus kicking up her legs Can-Can style. For much of it, she twirled or ran or even jumped about the stage in deliberate disregard of the beat. It was her frenetic repudiation of feminine demureness in this chorus, her energetic abandon of any attempt to appear composed, that made audiences so exult in ‘Ta-ra-ra’.

New York audiences appear to have been expecting something less amusingly frenetic and rather more Moulin Rouge when Collins arrived there in September 1892. ‘Ta-ra-ra’ had been frequently performed in the Big Apple by then – most notably, in a revival of the titillating burlesque, The Black Crook, at the Academy Theatre. Perhaps the dancers in this theatre had performed it in a more come-hither style. They had certainly led the reviewer for the New York Times, at any rate, to anticipate something different to what he encountered from Collins at the Standard Theatre on 17 September.

This so-called ‘ornament of the London music halls’, the Times reviewer sneered, was ‘a mature woman, who is not beautiful or graceful, [and] whose singing voice is not pleasing. … Her dancing is simply jumping, and very poor jumping at that’. The Black Crook version was infinitely to be preferred. In the absence of anything especially naughty or cutting-edge it appeared that New York was beyond this performer, he concluded tartly: ‘London is the place for Miss Collins’.

Sources

On Collins in New York: ‘More London Gayety’, New York Times, 20 September 1892, 4.

Flitch, J. E. Crawford, Modern Dancing and Dancers (London: 1911), 96-7.

For examples of accounts emphasising the risque character of Collins’ act, see: Holbrook Jackson, The Eighteen Nineties (London, 1913), 31; W. Macqueen-Pope, The Melodies Linger On: The Story of Music Hall (London, n.d.), pp. 337–8.

On Shaw: see Amy Koritz, ‘Moving Violations: Dance in the London Music Hall, 1890–1910’, Theatre Journal, 42.4 (1990), pp. 421–23.

Bailey, Peter, ‘Musical Comedy and the Rhetoric of the Girl’, in his Popular Culture and Performance in the Victorian City (Cambridge, 1998), 187.

Above image taken from this resource on music hall.

The black origins of ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’

17 Feb

In 1897, a local band in Athens offered to play the British national anthem to a party of English volunteers in the Greco-Turkish war. Standing to attention with their caps doffed, ready to sing ‘God Save the Queen’, the volunteers were surprised when the band played ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’.

Whether this story is true or not, it underlines the extent to which ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ became synonymous with British culture after it was first performed in London in late 1891.

Lottie Collins (from Wikipedia Commons)

The performer who made ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ famous was the music-hall and burlesque artiste, Lottie Collins. With an East End accent and a childhood performing in the ‘alls (she first made her name at eleven in a skipping-rope act with her sisters), she too was as British as they come. It is almost hard to believe, given this, that ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ began its days across the Atlantic as an African-American song. It was one of the innumerable numbers created by black Americans which were poached by whites and then made into a commercial success.

At the start of the 1890s, Henry Sayers, the white manager of a blackface minstrel company, was drinking at a nightclub-cum-brothel run by Babe Connors in St Louis, Missouri. According to one commentator, Babe Connors’ “resort” ‘anticipated by three decades the elegant Harlem clubs of the Jazz Age’. It offered the sight of ‘Creole’ showgirls sans their knickers, and extraordinary music to boot. Its real star was Mama Lou, a big dark-skinned singer who dressed in a comic maid’s costume (calico dress, gingham apron, red bandana) and belted out memorable songs. Among her repertoire were ‘Frankie & Johnny’, the ‘Bully Song’, ‘There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight’, and (you guessed it):  ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’.

Henry Sayers was just one of many white composers and showmen who hung about Babe Connors’ at the start of the 1890s to watch the girls and rip off the songs. Soon after he attended that night, a female performer in his George Thatcher Minstrels company gave a version of ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ in a blackface farce called Tuxedo. This farce played first in Boston and then in New York at the Park Theatre, opening on 5 October 1891. While showing in New York, the song was heard by Stephen Cooney, Lottie Collins’ American husband. He quickly acquired her the English rights to the song – paying Sayers rather than Mama Lou, of course. Collins then worked up the can can-like dance which made her name on the international stage, asking a London lyricist to tailor the words to her needs. Once any whiff of blackface performance was removed, she debuted the act at the Tivoli in the Strand.

Before long,  Collins was dancing ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay’ in a pantomime at the Grand Theatre in Islington and also on the stages of other London music halls. Each time, audiences cheered and whistled to the song, earning her a rapturous applause. She went on to tour America with the act and at the turn of the century came to Australasia, by which time ‘Ta-ra-&c’ was only remembered as a British music-hall song.

Sources

On the Greek performance of the British ‘national anthem’:

Ernest Short & Arthur Compton-Rickett, Ring Up the Curtain, Being A Pageant of English Entertainment… (London: 1938), 201.

On Lottie Collins & Stephen Cooney:

‘A chat with Lottie Collins’, The Era, 10 August 1895, 14

Roy Busby, British Music Hall: An Illustrated Who’s Who From 1850 To The Present Day (London: 1976), 39.

On Babe Connors & Mama Lou:

David A. Jasen & Gordon Gene Jones, Black Bottom Stomp: Eight Masters of Ragtime & Early Jazz (New York: 2002), 2-3.

David E. Chinitz, T. S. Eliot & the Cultural Divide (Chicago: 2003), 39-40.

On the George Thatcher Minstrels’ Tuxedo:

New York Times, 5 October 1891, 4.

Eugene Tompkins & Quincy Kilby, The History of the Boston Theatre, 1854-1901 (Boston: 1908), 387.