By Sam Gates. MLitt Theatre History
The Houston Sisters burst on to the London stage in the 1920s like a pair of naughty children who had no right to be there – and created a sensation. Dressed as cute children, their act was cheeky and inventive; soon, this pair of precocious kids became the enfants terribles of the West End.
It took Renee and Billie ten years to become an overnight sensation. It was a long road from Glasgow Shettleston to London’s West End, and their story follows the growth of Variety Theatre from its roots in Music Hall to the Jazz Age and the birth of radio and film – but it’s also the story of how two young, independent women became arguably Scottish Variety’s most successful export of the 1920s.
Renee and Billie began their careers a hundred years ago, and today they are unfairly relegated to a couple of lines in books on Scottish Variety. But the girls are still here – hiding in the bundles, boxes and books of the Scottish Theatre Archive. My family was related to the girls and I want to rescue them from the past, dust them off and return them to their rightful place, centre stage.
I begin my search with a disappointment: there are very few direct references to the Houston Sisters in the archive. I have to delve deep, like a detective looking for clues in a period drama. To make matters worse, few of the books I choose are indexed, so I actually have to read them! But I discover so much in the process …
Scottish Variety is a huge subject, and no single volume can do it justice. Paul Maloney – in Scotland and the Music Hall 1850-1914 – takes the right approach: concentrate on one era and fill your book with fascinating detail. Paul’s book told me everything I wanted to know about the social and cultural background of Glasgow as Renee and Billie grew up there. Adrienne Scullion’s thesis, Media Culture for a Modern Nation?, dovetails neatly with Maloney’s book, telling us how popular entertainment pulled itself out of the often disreputable corners of the city and into new architect-designed Palaces of Variety which appeared after the turn of the century. The Palace Theatre, sometimes known as the Palace Theatre of Varieties, owned by Rich Waldon was opened in 1903; notice the pricing structure which reflects the social mix of the audience.
Renee started her career – aged fourteen – on an open-air pitch in Rothesay. Her autobiography, Don’t Fence Me In tells us how she joined The Rothesay Entertainers in 1916 and began what she called her apprenticeship: singing, dancing and taking part in sketches. Renee writes very frankly of her younger self as a naïve soubrette rising to the challenge of performing three shows a day with a full change of programme twice a week. She was soon joined by younger sister Billie and the girls could not have had a better mentor than Charlie Kemble; working with this fine comedian gave the girls the confidence to ad lib, the ability to work an audience and the versatility to take on any role in a small company. The sisters stayed with the Rothesay Entertainers for three years. Their parents were performers too, but more conventional, in the Music Hall tradition. The family toured together as a troupe for a while, but Renee and Billie were strong personalities who wanted to respond to the changing trends in music, dance and fashion. They dressed up as brother and sister, Billie grabbed a ukulele, they sang, danced, developed a wise-cracking routine and set out on their own.
With the skills they had acquired in summer season and pantomime Renee and Billie could fit into any concert party or revue. The term revue implied a more contemporary, professional form of entertainment than straight variety, but in practice it simply allowed the performers to have a solo slot and take part in ensemble musical numbers and sketches. Renee and Billie – now appearing as the Houston Sisters – could easily command a solo spot. I found them on the cover of Frank Bruce’s book Scottish Showbusiness; a lovely photo shows the cast of a revue called Scotch Broth dressed as Pierrots – the colour tinting is beautiful, showing the purple and fawn- coloured costumes to great effect. This would be a good investment – used as promotional material to send out to theatres all over Scotland.
Front of House
By 1920 a very substantial circuit of theatres had grown throughout the country; every town and resort of any size had built its own theatre to cope with the demand for good entertainment. Bruce Peter’s book Scotland’s Splendid Theatres features many of the local Alhambras, Coliseums and Hippodromes which sprang up, many doubling as cinemas. This is a particularly valuable book, full of architectural detail and atmospheric period photographs.
In the Wings
There was a strong bond of loyalty among variety performers – sharing digs, making costumes, cadging lifts to remote venues; this sense of camaraderie is best evoked by oral history and personal reminiscences, but recording these is a delicate skill. In Kings, Queens and People’s Palaces Vivienne Devlin gives us access to the personal testimonies of the managers, musicians, dancers and stagehands who created and sustained Scottish Variety for half a century and more. The speeches are recorded verbatim, and the sincerity, humour and spontaneity of the contributors come across beautifully in the text. Every book I pick up in the archive is telling me more about the Houston Sisters.
For many years Pantomime was so popular in Scotland a good show could run for twenty weeks. In 1924 Tommy Lorne asked the Houston Sisters to appear with him in Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son. This was their big break; hilariously eccentric, Lorne was the man of the moment. In The Good Auld Days Gordon Irving writes of how the show was so popular some theatregoers saw it fifteen times – and the Houston Sisters caused such a good impression they were booked for Lorne’s equally successful revue Froth. But the association was not to last; within a year, the Houston Sisters were the hot ticket in London and heading for a season at the Coliseum and a Royal Variety Command performance.
Artefacts are just as important as books and documents in the Scottish Theatre Archive, and can sometimes have a very striking impact. A Pit Token from the Theatre Royal, Glasgow led me on a trail of discovery! Given the fairly common use of theatre tokens during the 17th and 18th centuries, it could well have originated in Glasgow’s first Theatre Royal in Dunlop Street (1782-1802). It is nice to imagine that this object might have been in the theatre when Sarah Siddons performed there in 1785. Opening a
bland, vanilla-coloured folder to see a vivid Art Deco programme is like witnessing a rare shaft of Clyde Coast sunshine. The bright colours and flowing lines of the programme for Sunny Days at Barrfields Pavilion Largs are in striking contrast to the formal lettering and rigid monochrome lines of the Music Hall handbills of just a few years earlier. Like many theatre programmes, this is a social document, with its adverts for local businesses and full list of performers, but in its design this particular programme is also symbolic of the Jazz Age and the New Wave of Scottish popular entertainment. A full-page photograph of the Houston Sisters places them right at the top of the bill and very firmly in the vanguard of Scottish Variety. We will leave them there, although the sisters went on to become radio stars and had a brief film career together before Billie retired through ill health in 1936.
When I started my research I despaired, but the information I was looking for was there – I just had to dig for it. In the process I have found out more about Scottish Variety than I ever thought existed. My research has rewarded me with a much fuller picture of the Houston Sisters, and I also have a frame – a context – to put it in.
For additional Information see : Back In The Spotlight. A Brief Tribute and Research Guide