In Renée Houston’s professional network numbered the glitteringly famous and those whose names are now forgotten. Once, their faces appeared in photographs and their voices on radio – but little is preserved of them. Some seem intriguing nonetheless and this is an appeal for information put out by one who is curious, to those with memories that scan centuries.
Ronnie was a talented and charming entertainer. He composed music and crooned on the airwaves.
With Ambrose’s band, Ronnie worked alongside Donald Stewart.
He partnered Billie Houston.
One of their touring shows in the late 30s was called ‘Say It With Melody’.
Ronnie was a popular radio star in Britain and became active in television, providing material for early BBC Television films. He worked alongside the likes of Dame Vera Lynn, Claude Hulbert, Peter Dion Titheradge and Clive Dunn. He was part of the West End theatrical scene in London in 1954 and I believe he was, for a while, associated with the Players Theatre in Villiers Street near the embankment.
What ever happened to Ronnie Hill? Can you help?
The family of one of Renée Houston’s oldest and most loyal friends read my book and finding a reference to a certain ‘International Woman of Mystery,’ got in touch. The daughter and granddaughter of Ella Hempseed proved a joy to meet – throwing light on this fascinating performer and offering unique memories of Renée, Billie, Donald and others.
Ella was ‘Auntie El’ to Renée’s children, nieces and nephews.
In the 1950s and 1960s, her daughter witnessed dressing rooms of old, got the glamour treatment c/o Houston and Stewart, rode around in glossy chauffeur-driven limos, dog sat for Donald’s canine (named after Raoul Walsh), attended glorious parties including Renée’s 50th Birthday Party and lent her bedroom to these cultural icons in cash-strapped times – happily accepting a put-you-up bed in exchange and the opportunity to eaves-drop!
As a youngster in Edinburgh, Ella Hempseed learned the fouetté and the croisé. She loved theatre, her secret ally being her mother Bessie. She won countless gold medals at Highland Games throughout Scotland, sporting Tartan and championing the dannsa Gàidhealach. Her ‘Seann Truibhas’ – one of the liveliest and most difficult dances – was highly regarded.
Ella, Renée and Billie – a ’coalition of cheek’, added to the razzmatazz of pioneering shows like ’See You Later’.
Ella bore witness to the notorious ‘body under the bed’ . . .
Beautifully spoken and bursting with vim and vigour, Ella toured with the Houston family and performed in pantomime in Scotland, Ireland and England.
Her engagement diary is an exceptional discovery to any theatre historian and a wonderful link to the early to the mid 1920s: a vanished world of Scottish comedy and chorus.
Ella’s sense of humour was brilliant. Her furs and hats were worn with style.
She performed her grand jeté and arabesqued at the Farewell Performance of Tamara Karsavina (of the Ballets Russes). No other Scots dancer from this time had quite the same adventures and travels. Ella is unique – definitely deserving of the headline:
“Young lassie toes her way to the Russian Ballet.”
The 30s saw Ella immersed in a continental career, living on the island of Malta, where she met her husband – a handsome serviceman. She returned to Scotland on her marriage, where she lived the rest of her life.
She was ready to dispense a little stardust whenever the situation saw fit. Both her network of theatrical friends and priceless memories were important to her in her last two decades.
She was caring, ebullient, ‘no nonsense’ and funny to the end.
‘Don’t play the Widow of Windsor,’ she advised her temperamental friend – when all seemed irreparable and bleak.
You’ve got to carry on no matter what life throws at you.
A professional to the very end!
Talented and beautiful, Sally McBride came from Ibrox, Glasgow and had a long career in Scottish Variety – initially appearing as the partner of comedian Matt Martell, whom she married. Like Renée, she did summer shows in Rothesay and elsewhere.
Sally’s playing the part of Ella (based on Renée’s friend Ella Hempseed) in the Houston Sisters biopic ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’:
She choreographed Renée’s stage shows in the mid-30s, travelling around Britain.
Illness made her come out of ‘Certainly Sir’ at the London Hippodrome. She didn’t want to miss the opening night and had to be carried to the performance – by Donald!!
Sally was Renée’s stand-in in ‘Fine Feathers’ and appeared in other British films.
Could 1936’s ‘Storm in a Teacup’ be one? I wondered if the uncredited actress playing the maid – who shares a scene with Vivien Leigh – is Sally?
I’m very grateful to Sally’s grand-daughter in the USA who told me that Sally and Matt Martell were friends from childhood – both from Scottish theatrical families. Sally’s parents were an act called Oliver and Mac. That’s how Sally got her start in the theatre.
Matt died at the tragically young age of 35. Sally and another woman had an act called The Hilliyer Sisters and later she was in ‘Summer Breezes’ at the Empress Theatre, Glasgow with Doris Droy.
During the war Sally met and married an American. They lived for a few years in France. The family moved to California in 1960. After a decade, tragedy struck a second time with the death of her husband. Courageously, Sally raised her family and loved to tell them stories of her days on the stage.
Sally passed away in 2004 much missed by her family.
Miss Houston’s Stage Dress
Imagine Bette Davis in the 1962 film ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.’ Bette was in her mid-fifties when she played Baby Jane Hudson.
What if this character was played NOT so much for its ‘grotesque’ elements but for the purposes of gaiety, satire and slapstick? Renée’s wilful little girl had accompanied Billie’s dour little boy. Even when Billie ceased to be part of the act Renée never abandoned the character. There’d be hell to pay for for Donald, when this alter ego reared itself. It was a signature piece in Variety.
A big thank you to Jean who located this treasure – a piece of Music Hall Memorabilia.
It was before we’d heard of ‘Baby Jane Hudson’.
What inspired author Henry Farrell to write his story? Had he ever heard of Renée Houston or seen her on a stage?
Farrell, who had written for 50s pulp magazine ‘Fantastic Adventures’ died in 2006. He said once:
“It was the gag writing, I think, that most influenced me to try my hand at a novel of suspense. Sweating out that all-important laugh that far too frequently materializes as just another deadly silence can easily turn a writer’s mind to thoughts of violence. Getting right down to it, I suppose I turned to suspense just to put an end to the suspense.”
What if Renée and Billie saw the 1962 picture starring Bette and Joan – might Farrell’s idea of a ‘kiddy act’ come back to haunt!
Balliol and Merton
This goes back a long wee while – back to the heady days of the 1920s.
I seek information about a variety act called Balliol and Merton
namely Carl Balliol and Jessica Merton.
Known for their thrilling feats and scary stunts, they were billed as the world’s foremost sensational dancers around 1930-31.
They were classed as a ‘sensational adagio act’ which refers to their great skill in partner acrobalance movements.
Their performances were incredibly dramatic.
Here’s Carl as the satyr Pan, pursuing the river nymph Syrinx – a story that had inspired Debussy.
Balliol and Merton appear in films.
They are in 1927’s ‘The Arcadians,’ and 1928’s extraordinary ‘Champagne’ directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
‘Viennese Nights’ is an American two-tone Technicolor production from Warner Bros – one of the earliest sound films with a pre-credit sequence and featuring a screen performance by Balliol and Merton. Starring Walter Pidgeon and Louise Fazenda, this film wasn’t a hit in the USA, but had long box office runs in Britain and Australia. When London’s Leicester Square Theatre opened on 19th December 1930, this was part of the opening programme.
Carl Balliol had a successful earlier career in motorcycling.
Jessica was often flying through the air. One sensational stunt they developed was called ‘the one arm catch.’
Renée Houston often shared a bill with this amazing act and she and Jessica were great friends. In fact, many people at the time said that Renée and Jessica were very similar in looks!
The odds are against me, but someone in this mysterious, miraculous, lyrical world might have some information concerning Carl or Jessica.
What happened to them?
Did they perform one stunt too many?
Thank you so very much for your information about Carl Balliol who was appearing on the bill in Oldham (the Theatre Royal) alongside your father, the comedian Bud Bennett. This was in the early 1950’s and by then Carl and his partner had an act called ‘Carl Balliol and Pat.’ Witnessing a tragedy as a small child is never easy and, as you say, not something anyone forgets. The calibre and dedication of performers like Balliol is truly remarkable. I am so grateful for your account which I faithfully relate below:
“The climax of their act called for Pat to dive from a high pedestal and be caught by Carl. During Monday morning bandcall Carl set up this high pedestal and whilst on top of it either blacked out or missed his footing. He fell down to the stage. Taken to hospital unconscious he sadly died some days later. “
I don’t mean:
Does anyone have any information about another Blondie – an acrobat, with a head for heights?
I can see why this early Blondie – a wonder from the 20s and early 30s – was a knockout sensation. This Danish beauty did risky tricks on a flying trapeze and amazed all in the big halls in London.
So what happened to Miss Blondie Hartley?
If you know anything, ‘Call Me’.
Thank you so very much for sending me this picture of Blondie.
Seeking ‘eccentric dancer’ Jack Stanford
I know he travelled to the USA and had success there in the late 20s or early 30s. He returned to Britain, working steadily and later appearing in an act called ‘The Three Stars’. His talent is obvious, judging by several Pathé films that survive. In 1956 Derek Salberg put Jack Stanford into his production of “Babes In The Wood” at the Alexandra Theatre Birmingham.
These interesting personalities are not performers:
West End Agent: Pamela Simons
It would be divine to hear your memories of Pam Simons.
Someone who worked in the theatrical world might recall this lady. Adding Renée Houston to her client list in the early 1960s, Pam proved a true asset, steering Renée’s later career through troubled waters and into modern times. London, too, was a changing place. Pam’s theatre agency was located in the prestigious areas of Cork Street in 1961, Regent St in 1972 and Piazza Chambers in Covent Garden in 1977.
Covent Garden had narrowly escaped demolition by the GLC although the fruit and vegetable market had actually moved to Nine Elms in Battersea by the time Pam’s agency moved here. Sometime after 1977, Pam’s business underwent a relocation but finding out what happened to her has proved a mystery.
I wish someone would tell me.
Jim, elder brother of Renée Houston, was a fascinating and elusive man. As an author, he was always known as James Alan Rennie.
He apparently lectured at a Scottish University between 1946-1969 but I’ve not yet been able to find evidence for this.
Would anyone north of the border recall James Alan Rennie possibly appearing as a guest speaker at a Student Union gathering, or even working as a university lecturer?
SO MUCH !!!
To the kind people who have contacted me.
And I am very lucky to have gleaned a little more precious knowledge . . . .
Friends from the Aston Hipp
My sincerest thanks to Mrs Davies who describes Renée and Donald:
“They were such characters in my wartime childhood and such a lot of humour despite the war and all the bombing in Birmingham. However bad it was, we all laughed a lot and everyone took the opportunity to dance whenever possible.”
On Petticoat Line, Renée was “really sharp and outspoken, though never unkind.”
She recalls the friendship between her aunt and uncle, the Flowers – keen theatregoers in Aston and Renée Houston.
“Aunt Lou was a dear friend and fan.”
Their friendship started back in the days when Renée and Billie performed at the Aston ‘Hipp’ and later whenever Houston and Stewart played here and held forth at the bar or at the Barton Arms. Never did Renée forget to catch up with Lou, who always enjoyed the company of this king pin with her jolly quips and quaint Scottish accent.
Below: the Aston Hippodrome and the Barton Arms, Aston, near Birmingham.
Bless you Mrs Davies! I send my good wishes to you in Jersey.
Above is Cleves School, Weybridge.
Thanks so much to Matt who got in touch with his memory of meeting Renée Houston at the school gates. He attended Cleves School in the 70’s. She was, of course, in her element, chatting to children and parents.
She was fascinating and charming. She wasn’t the invisible kind of local celebrity – not by a long stretch.