Playing the English Music Halls by Will M. Cressy

[NOTE: This is an excerpt from Continuous Vaudeville by Will M. Cressy, first published in 1914. It’s a bit of an oddball book, consisting of almost random snatches of memoir mixed with a large volume of anecdotes about Vaudeville life from the perspective of a long-active performer. Some are true, some might be true, and some are clearly the kind of story that gets invented by starting out as true, and then being retold by multiple tellers before reaching the listener’s ear. This being a first-hand account, I thought it an interesting view of the gulf between Britain and America in the early 20th Century. -DJF]

An American talking act going over to England to play has got a big job on hand. The trouble is going to come from a totally unexpected source too. It is because we do not speak the language. We say that we speak English; but we don’t; that is, mighty little of it. We speak mostly plain, unadulterated, United States language, which is very different from English. So when we go over there, in addition to talking about things that they do not understand, we are also using a language that they don’t know.

For instance: We opened up in Manchester with a play called The Wyoming Whoop. Now out of that title they understood just one word—”The.” They did not know whether “Wyoming” was a battleship or some patent skin food. And “Whoop” was still worse.

During the progress of the play one of the characters speaks of having left the day’s ice on the steps all the forenoon; I say—

“Has that piece of ice been out in that Wyoming sun all the forenoon?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, you take a sponge and go out and get it.”

After two or three shows the manager came to me and asked me what that line about the ice meant; was it supposed to be funny? I told him it was in America. He wanted to know why.

“Well,” I said, “you know Wyoming is the hottest place in America, don’t you?”

“No; is it?”

“Well then, you know that if you left a piece of ice out in the sun all the forenoon it would melt, don’t you?”

“No; would it?”

Upon investigation I found that there was probably not one person in ten thousand in those manufacturing towns of England who ever saw a piece of ice. They didn’t know but that you could bake it.

It took me only three days to discover that I was in wrong with The Wyoming Whoop. So the next week in Liverpool I switched to Bill Biffin’s Baby. Now we were on the right track. We had a subject, Babies, that they understood and liked. But on the second show I began writing it over—into the English language. I found that in twenty-four minutes I was using thirty-two words that they either knew nothing of, or else meant something entirely different from what I intended they should.

For instance: Take the words Trolley Car. An American player spoke of having seen a lady riding on a trolley, and the audience went into fits. The player was astounded; he hadn’t told his “gag” at all yet—(and, by the way, it isn’t a “gag” there; it is a “wheeze”)—and the audience was laughing. And then when he finally told his “gag” not a soul laughed. Upon investigation he found that over there what he meant by a trolley car was “a tram.” And what they called a “trolley” was the baggage truck down at the railway station that they hauled trunks around on.

Another of their “gags” was—

“I saw you coming out of a saloon this morning.”

“Well, I couldn’t stay in there all day, could I?”

Received with more chunks of silence.

He meant a place where they sold liquor. He should have said “a Pub.

A “saloon” there is a barber shop.

The ticket office is the booking office.

The ticket agent is the booking clerk (pronounced “clark”).

A depot is the railway station.

You don’t buy your ticket; you “book your ticket.”

A policeman is a “Bobbie.”

You drive to the left and walk to the right.

An automobile is a motor car.

The carburetor is the mixer.

The storage battery is the accumulator.

Gasolene is petrol.

Ask your way and instead of saying “second street to the left” they will say “second opening to the left.”

If they bump into you instead of saying “excuse me” or “pardon me” they say “sorry.”

Your trunks are “boxes,” and your baggage checks are “brasses.”

Your hand baggage is “luggage.”

I found English audiences just as quick, just as appreciative and even more enthusiastic than our American audiences—if you talked about things they understood and in words they understood.

But the average American talking act is talking what might just as well be Greek to them. I never realized until I played in England what an enormous lot of slang and coined words we Americans use.

Another thing that we Americans are shy on, both in speaking and singing, is articulation. I always had an idea that I enunciated uncommonly clearly—until I went over there, when I learned more about speaking plainly in three days than I had in a lifetime here.

You will notice you can always understand every word and syllable uttered by an English singer.