If there was a Museum of Furry, theatrical “Panto-Animals” would be a major exhibit.
by Patch O'Furr
IN THIS ARTICLE: Don’t miss the story of Charles Lauri, a famed “animal impersonator” who thrilled the stages of Victorian London, but is little known today. The story of his acting skill, uncovered from an 1893 magazine, could be an inspiration for fursuiters everywhere.
Many people are familiar with a unique team costume for Halloween – the Pantomime horse, that takes two people to play it. Like a tandem bike, it makes an interesting buddy situation. This jogs a vague memory from when I was very young, of a 1960’s Flintstones cartoon with Fred and Barney in such a costume. It may have been a dinosaur, or a false memory, but the silly situation must have happened in old comedies to the point of cliche. TVtropes has it under Animal Anthropomorphism tropes.
If you (like me) had no idea what Pantomime meant until just now, let’s start to learn. The old-fashioned costuming seems like a traditional kind of activity, more social than commercial. I had an impression of something belonging to the age of door-to-door Christmas caroling, that may be fading away.
Or is it? In 2013, a Panto Horse race broke a Guinness World Record for most runners (42 teams.) And, since this is a Furry blog, you know I’m connecting this topic to you and your thriving subculture. (Imagine that race happening at a con! It would be an easy record to break.) I’m happy to learn that such fun exists… check out The London Pantomime Horse Race: a “fantastically silly”, “must-see event.”
This isn’t about Halloween, or silly races. There’s much more to it. The spark for this article was randomly running across 100-year-old photos of theatrical animal costumes. They made me do a double-take – did some fursuiter have a time machine!? They were incredibly well crafted, and made me very curious. I wondered why they were made so well, and for what purpose? They were fursuits- many generations before there was such a thing as Furries! I thought the topic had a lot of potential.
My only familiarity was from hazy TV memories of those horse costumes. It was rewarding to research and learn history about the photos. I must confess to bringing an American perspective, that kept me completely in the dark about where it started – the British tradition of Pantomime theater.
Here’s one of the historic photos:
Beautiful, right? Look at the attention to detail, like the stiff wire tail. What would you pay for that on Furbuy? It’s a “Panto-Animal”, with an actor wearing what they called a “Skin”. I think this is a fabulous find – one of those hidden threads that connects Furry fandom to a rich history of art and performing. If there was a “museum of furry”, this would be a major exhibit.
Pantomime theater traces back to the 1700’s, and has even older roots in classical Italian Commedia Dell’arte, where performers relied on masks. The full history is WAY too big for more than a glance now, but it’s very rich. A book about it describes a mash-up of clowning, burlesque, satire, and lower-class popular theater. Some considered it a “mongrel that barely deserves the name of genre”. (I had only known the term as a form of wordless physical acting, not an actual genre!) Plays included Peter Pan, Puss In Boots, and fairy tales. It seemed to have carnival and music hall roots apart from snooty acting – low culture.
From the low culture of Furry, with naive eyes, attention goes to one small ingredient that just happens to look like our thing from a parallel universe. It’s inspiring to know that there was a devoted profession of “furries” hundreds of years ago.
Esteemed Furry fan writer, Phil Geusz (Rabbit), has his own term for such things – Paleo Furries. His article doesn’t seem to be aware of Panto-animals, but it does name some other examples (including, incredibly, Winston Churchill and his love for role playing.) There’s little coverage of this topic, except from one lone Paleo Furries blog inspired by Phil.
My introduction to Panto-animals came through a search to the website of Nigel Ellacott. He’s a Brit who has been called “The Best In The Business” at playing one of Panto’s several categories of stock characters. He specializes in the Dame, a silly woman played by a male actor. If you’re American, you might have seen it done in Monty Python sketches. That must be the kind of absurd experience it is.
Nigel’s site, It’s Behind You, celebrates the Pantomime theater tradition. Stock characters are a foundation for it. Some references say that the stock characters are the major parts, and panto-animals are only minor. But Nigel doesn’t downplay their scene-stealing importance:
London once boasted an entire shop dedicated to the Pantomime animal. “Theatre Zoo” it was called, in New Row Covent Garden. There you could hire any creature you wanted for your production…
I enjoyed my five years in “Skin” roles, and have nothing but full and total admiration for anyone sweating and gasping in a skin- they have the power of magic in their grasp- done properly and with conviction that collection of fur or feather can, in a child’s eyes become real. Done properly when Daisy is sold at market , sitting out there you could get a tear in your eye- the scene stealer can be the craftsman who can make that costume live.
Doesn’t that sound familiar to anyone who’s worn a fursuit!
Above, I wondered about fading traditions. That’s a British news topic: “Panto dames are in decline, and it’s all down to the spirit of the age.”
Old favourites like Puss in Boots or Mother Goose are out of favour as are panto animals, known in the trade as “skin parts”.
Read more about the stock character types from Carshalton Pantomime Company:
ANIMALS. Every memorable pantomime contains them – and not always the type we have come to expect. The animals in pantomime are usually depicted by speciality turns in “skins”. It is true to say that some of the great started their careers by literally playing the back legs of the pantomime horse. Many years ago at the Hippodrome Theatre, Stockport, the front end of the horse was a young man named Charlie Chaplin. Animals have always enlisted the audience’s sympathy and support.
That little fact about Chaplin is very meaningful. He was a great artist and the first international movie star. His silent performing was considered a major influence on Walt Disney and the development of anthropomorphic animation.
I have a feeling that this kind of theater has very little documentary on film or video, until a few recent TV shows and this 2014 indie movie. Youtube search didn’t find much for the animals – but here’s a performance of a Dame that delivers humor:
It must be emphasized that this theater is meant to be very participatory, including audience sing-along and other live energy that’s hard to document. We can’t experience what it was 100 years ago. But, the stunning classic photos we’re seeing even make this a worthy piece of photographic history. Until just a few decades ago, photography had little respect as an art form. It took passion-driven researchers like world-renowned archivist Dr. Stanley Burns to uncover neglected and lost topics like the Victorian tradition of post-mortem photography. (It was often the only memento of a loved one that a family could ever have.) Maybe we’re uncovering another topic that needs a Furry historian!
Fading or not, Pantomime theater has a history that will live on. Britain’s Victoria and Albert Museum has the best article I’ve found that mentions panto-animals. It talks about the methods of a famous Victorian age animal actor, Charles Lauri. He was widely publicized in his time, but doesn’t even have a wikipedia (or wikifur) article. He could inspire the making and performing of fursonas today:
Charles Lauri’s imitations were exceptional for the accuracy with which they reproduced the movements of different animals. When rehearsing for a part, he spent hours watching the animal he would be impersonating: he borrowed a poodle in the weeks before Babes in the Wood opened so that he could observe it. The performances were physically extremely demanding and Lauri had to be an acrobat as well as an actor. In Babes the poodle performed tricks, such as jumping through a hoop, and he was described in a review as ‘the most agile performing poodle ever seen’.
An 1893 interview with him could have been written by a modern fursuit-maker:
It was no easy matter to get a proper skin or costume made; you see what is wanted when impersonating an animal is really a wig for the body and it was difficult to make anyone understand that, so I not only designed but practically made my first skins.
I’m grateful to find, via Google Books, an obscure 1902 publication that features more investigation of Lauri’s animal acting. The Playgoer, Volume 2 offers eight pages including photos not found elsewhere. It calls him “the greatest impersonator of animals in the world”:
Mr. Lauri’s happiest time is when he is on four legs, and, in one of his many animal roles, creating boundless delight and astonishment to human beings of all ages and sizes.
From 1895, The Literary Digest, Volume 10, offers even more. 1892’s The Era Almanack has a vintage playbill of “The World’s Favorite Animal Impersonator”. Ebay has an original 1899 magazine article about his animal acting for under $20. You can buy the original 1893 magazine article referenced by the Victoria and Albert Museum at a similar bargain.
(You may notice this stuff is very “of it’s time”. Lauri’s monkey impersonation even brought up controversy about Darwinism! The magazine links contain other articles with racism that was taken for granted. For 21st-century non-racist readers, it shows why it’s good that times change for the better. However, forgetting history can lose things of value and creativity.)
As anthropomorphic characters, a crucial ingredient that Panto-animals lacked was original fursonas. The old articles give a thrilling sense of emotional story acting in the performances – but they were just animals, not unique fantasy beings. Furries bring that personality to create their own world and a fandom for it.
Whether furry fans have studied theater or not, I think we can find “furriness” connecting them to history. It’s exciting to uncover lost connections that may be overlooked by nearly everyone in Furry fandom. Please, someone consider running a “Panto-animals and Paleofurs” convention panel. Knowing this could put a lot of depth and substance into what we love. It could help earn respect as the subculture grows, with potential to carry on the creativity of older traditions.
- Reddit: ‘Animal actor’ Fred Conquest in fursuit, 1909/1910
- It’s Behind You: Panto-Animals photo gallery – from Shakespeare to Mother Goose plays, 1909-1980’s.
- It’s Behind You: Fact Sheets on classic Panto plays – including stories and photos.
- The Weird and Wonderful World of Pantomime Animals – click through for a great photo gallery, from 1875 to today.
- Nigel Ellacott’s blog: Cat and Rat costumes – from the Dick Whittington play.
- Google books – A History of Pantomime, by Maureen Hughes, page 37:
Nigel Ellacott’s site is supported by Qdos Entertainment.
- “The largest producer of pantomimes in the world.”
- “Staged 24 productions in 2013-2014 season.”
- “A total cast of 700 actors, dancers, musicians, stage staff & creative personnel work on Qdos pantomimes every year.”
A photo from an unknown source: