Theatrical Panto-animals, Part 3: History book reviews by Fred Patten.

by Patch O'Furr

These “Panto-animal” history articles share a discovery of amazing proto-Furry happenings, in an overlooked era of Pantomime theater in Victorian Britain.  Stunning photos show why the topic is worth uncovering.  From those scarce records, a handful of actor names stood out with wide publication in their time for “animal impersonation”.  They were not necessarily playing specific “fursonas”, a difference from Furries today – but they earn fan author Phil Geusz’s general label, “paleo-furry.” Charles Lauri was mentioned in Part 1 – and Fred Conquest in Part 2.

51R-RcAYq6LFred Patten reviews the Conquest biography, loaned by the LA public library.

The best Pantomime theater actors seemed highly diverse in their talents.  That only included a small amount of animal costuming, although a few like Fred Conquest specialized in that.   This biography was reviewed in hopes of picking out scarce Panto-animal details, which have been forgotten by time, because very little was ever printed about them.

This review of the book earned a quote in Part 2:

Now that it has become respectable to admit enjoying popular entertainment, the story of the Conquest family deserves to be better known. They were one of those colourful theatrical dynasties who flourished from Victorian times until well into the twentieth century. Many of them were actors who, between them, took on everything from Shakespeare to pantomime; my favourite was the one who played the animals or “skin” roles.

Fred did find amazing costuming stories, even if most of it wasn’t of the animal kind.  These shows must have been incredible spectacles, the “big budget movie” productions of their time.  I’m very sad I couldn’t find any illustration for the giant floating demon head! Let Fred explain more. ( -Patch)

Conquest: The Story of a Theatre Family, by Frances Fleetwood; W. H. Allen, 1953; 282 pages.

(Fred:) The book includes many illustrations, both photographs of actors, and reproductions of 19th century engravings of fantastic stage plays of acrobatic actors in grotesque costumes cavorting about.  The plays included many scenes of fairies and demons flying above the stage on wires, and there are many accounts of wires and ropes breaking and actors being seriously injured.

The dynasty began with Benjamin Oliver, 1804 or ’05 to 1872, and his wife, Marianne Grimaldi.  She was an actress almost from birth, from the Lupino family of actors going back for generations.  Oliver bought the Garrick Theatre in London in 1830.  The theater up to that time had ranged from Shakespearean plays to burlesque comedies, but mostly straightforward acting; at the most bizarre costumes.  Oliver, with Marianne Grimaldi’s partnership, began to specialize in wild acrobatic pantomime extravaganzas.  They raised their children to play in these from childhood on, plus other acrobatic actors whom they trained to join “the Conquest family”.  Benjamin Oliver took Conquest as a stage name.  His son George, born in 1837, later changed his name legally.  These pantomimes were popular throughout the last half of the 19th century and early 20th century, gradually going out of style and the later grandchildren evolving into 20th century “serious” stage and movie actors.

The text and illustrations are full of titles and costumes, ranging from “Big-Head” huge masks worn above regular costuming or appearing as Heads without bodies like Nix the Demon Dwarf, to full animal costumes like Puss in Boots, a cat wearing only a cavalier’s plumed hat and boots. George Conquest took over from his father and kept developing more ambitious pantomimes.  Nix was originated in 1872 in Nix, the Demon Dwarf, or Harlequin the Seven Charmed Bullets, the Fairy, the Fiend, and the Will-o’-the-Wisp.  This pantomime was loosely based on Carl Maria von Weber’s 1821 fantasy-horror opera Der Freischütz, about a young hunter who sells his soul to the Devil for seven magic bullets that never miss.  The character of Nix, a gigantic Big-Head mask with articulated eyes and facial features, was so popular that it was written into other pantomimes.

“It described the adventures of a young marksman lured into the clutches of the Demon Hunter, and in its mechanical and scenic effects George Conquest surpassed himself.  For years afterward his helpers talked proudly of ‘Old Nix’s Head’ — which appeared to float across the stage on his whiskers.  This was a property made by George himself.  It had cost him nine months work […] The sequel is amusingly related in an ‘interview’ with the Head itself, published many years later in the Black and White Budget, when Old Nix was brought out again for the Miss Muffet pantomime at the Surrey theatre […] From this article we learn that Barnum subsequently offered £200 for the Head, but Conquest refused to part with it.  […]  Accompanying photographs suggest that its features were made in some kind of rubber or plastic compound, and that its highly mobile expressions were worked by the actor from within.” (pgs. 86-87)

(I would LOVE to see the referenced photos! I found one 1902 article in Black and White Budget that references George Conquest, but it’s not the one. – Patch)

Search sadly turns up no result for images of these amazing costume descriptions. Instead, enjoy the Victoria and Albert Museum's theater poster art from their excellent article on it's history.

Search sadly turns up few images for the amazing costume descriptions. Instead, enjoy theater poster art from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s excellent history article about it. This play’s full title was: A Frog He Would a-Wooing Go, or, Harlequin Sleeping Beauty and the Wicked Demons of the Mystic Pool. – “Victorians loved long and complicated names for pantomimes – the longer the title, the more fun it seemed to promise. “

In Nix, the Demon Dwarf, Nix was operated by George Conquest himself, who bounded acrobatically about the stage as a huge Head.  The pantomime also included a living Skeleton, fairies, and other actors, apparently in makeup rather than a complete costume. Conquest played similar roles in other pantomimes until an acrobatic fall ended his vigorous acrobatics; then he trained younger actors to replace him.

“In 1873 George Conquest performed the amazing feat of producing and acting in two pantomimes at once — Blanchard’s Puss in Boots at the Crystal Palace, and his own Wood Demon at the Grecian.  In the former his son played the title role, while he himself — according to Blanchard — became in turn: ‘Demon Dolorous, an Ogre, old Gobble-’em-up, the Imp of Mischief, and finally a Giant, from which he sank into a Dwarf, insignificant in size.'” (p. 89)

“He was now well launched into the animal kingdom, and in 1874 his fantasy produced Snip, Snap, Snorum — the first being a bird, the second a monkey, and the third an oyster — all, of course, played by George himself.  Brighton Aquarium must have held a special attraction for him, for next year he followed up his Oyster with Spitz-Spitze the Spider Crab, or the Sprite of Spitzbergen.  The stage represented an aquarium, and George was a crab so large that his claws extended from one side of it to the other, with dark spots on the carapace that gradually transformed themselves into flaming eyes.  […]  George turned successively into a hermit, an executioner, a conjurer, a dwarf, and ‘a tiny little mannekin, more resembling a marionette than anything human.'” (p. 90)

The mannekin was a lifelike mask of Conquest on a five-year-old child on strings, operated by Conquest like a live marionette.  The female lead, a beautiful girl to be rescued, was played by Conquest’s daughter.

“Grim Goblin (1876) was perhaps his apogee.  The advertisements invite us to:  ‘See George Conquest shot at an angle of forty-five degrees from the mouth of a Dragon onto a trapeze — the most wonderful gymnastic feat ever witnessed … see George Conquest as the Octopus […]'” (p. 91)

There’s lots more, including a whole chapter on Grim Goblin about how Conquest’s trapeze was sabotaged, and he was almost killed.  He recovered, but was never able to perform acrobatics again. I could go on; There are five pages of titles of plays, pantomimes, and 20th-century movies that the Conquest family appeared in… but only a small percent included pantomime animals. George Conquest’s life almost exactly paralleled Queen Victoria’s reign; 1837-1901.

Fred reviews “Fred Rome’s Potted Pantos”, loaned by the LA public library – it doesn’t add much.

Dear Patch;

I’ve got another book from the L.A. Public Library that may be of interest to you.  It shows a drawing of a pantomime horse on the cover.

“A Wolfe Old Time Stars’ Book”.  “Fred Rome’s Potted Pantos”.  Cinderella – Aladdin – Robinson Crusoe – Dick Whittington – Sindbad the Sailor – Bluebeard – Babes in the Wood – Little Bo Peep – Sleeping Beauty – Queen of Hearts – Little Red Riding Hood – Goody Two Shoes. Wolfe Publishing Limited, 10 Earlham Street London WC 2, 1971, 255 pages.

romeA two page introduction explains that Fred Rome wrote these nine pantos between 1925 and 1953; he died in 1957.  They were family slapstick British stage comedy, meant to be added to with ad lib jokes, and topical references and songs by the cast.  They were not strict pantomime, then, although humorous overacting was encouraged.  The pantomime horse on the cover is not mentioned in any of the plays, but all say that extra characters can be added as appropriate, so a pantomime horse would fit into Babes in the Woods, Little Bo Peep, Little Red Riding Hood (which does include a Wolf), and Goody Two Shoes. One is not specifically included anywhere.

On thorough reading, Fred Rome’s Potted Pantos is pretty useless.  The only specific fursuiter in it is the Wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood”.  That panto also includes a Witch, a Fairy Queen, Old Mother Hubbard, Simple Simon, and other nursery rhyme characters.

The Wolf is described as, “Enter Wolf from behind tree.  He should be wearing a tight-fitting costume.  Long-fingered gloves to look like claws.  Wearing wolf mask.  He gives a loud howl as he enters.”  Obviously not a fursuit.  Some of the Wolf’s dialogue is, “I’ve locked the old girl [Red’s grandmother] out of sight, in there she’s safe enough. She doesn’t suit my appetite, she’s much too old and tough.”

– Fred Patten

Drop a comment if you have any cool tips – or if you would assist research!