Fred Karno (26.3.1866-17.9.1941)
Fred Karno was born Frederick John Westcott, in Exeter but soon afterwards the family
moved to Nottingham where he grew up. He began his stage career as an acrobat initially
as an apprentice to ‘Olvene’, together they performed as ‘Olvene and Leonaro’. Karno
then joined a touring circus where he was required to work with other acts, including
the clowns. From them he learned the skills of physical comedy and slapstick which
were to become his trademark. Leaving the circus he joined an acrobatic troupe called
‘The Four Aubreys’ with whom he toured Europe. Following this he found himself looking
for work in London. On ‘Poverty Corner’ he fell in with two other acrobats Ted Tysall
and Bob Sewall. Standing in for ‘The Three Carnoes’ one night, they were a great
success and, changing the C to a K, they called themselves The Three Karnos. Fred
Karno was born.
They had some success in the halls with their acrobatic act until one night a performer
failed to appear and Karno suggested to the manager that they cover with a sketch.
They performed an old circus routine ‘Love In a Tub’ which was a great success. At
this time rough circus slapstick comedy was unknown in the music halls and the audience
took to it immediately. Karno then went on to develop a repertoire of sketches; ‘Hilarity’,
‘Early Birds’, ‘Jail Birds’, etc. The licensing restrictions at the time meant that
dialogue was prohibited and therefore these early sketches were almost entirely mime.
As a result his team of comics became extremely highly skilled in purely visual and
physical comedy with a basis in acrobatics.
From these early beginnings he went on to become one of the greatest impresarios
of the music hall age, with troupes touring all over the world. He is credited with
inventing the custard pie in the face gag, which is of course not true, none the
less it does indicate how he was perceived as the Father of slapstick by his audiences.
He is often accused of being a businessman but not a creative person. This is not
the case, he performed in all the early sketches and later was instrumental in writing,
directing and producing his shows but as his career blossomed he had an entire empire
to manage and inevitably he quickly moved on from performing. Right up until his
death in 1941 those performing his shows were sent polite little notes advising how
to improve their performance or suggesting some additional gags – there is no doubt
that Karno was a creative force.
He turned a row of houses in Camberwell into his ‘Fun Factory’ from where an army
of writers, scenery builders, props makers, etc. operated. He branched out into theatre
management and produced pantomimes and reviews as well as his sketches. He had over
eighty sketches in his repertoire and worked on countless other pantomimes and productions.
His name became synonymous with anything ‘chaotic’ and during World War One the British
Troupes frustrated with the disorganised nature of the war called themselves ‘Fred
Karno’s Army’ and sang ‘We Are Fred Karno’s Army’ to the tune of the hymn ‘The Church’s
One Foundation’ . The phrase became part of the language to describe any chaotic
situation – there was in fact never a troupe called ‘Fred Karno’s Army’ or indeed
‘Fred Karno’s Circus’.
Karno revelled in his fame and was a master of self promotion, he was a pioneer of
the publicity stunt and his name became so well known that a show with his name attached
was sufficient to attract the audience regardless of who was starring. This enabled
him to cast young unknown comics and in so doing he was responsible for giving many
future stars their first big break. To them he was always ‘The Guv’nor’.
He was exceptionally good at spotting young talent and bringing them on, the most
notable alumni of the Karno school being Charlie Chaplin, Syd Chaplin, Stan Laurel,
Will Hay, Sandy Powell, Fred Emney, Albert Austin, Eric Campbell, Jimmy Nervo, Billy
Ritchie and Billy Reeves. It was whilst on tour with Karno companies in America that
some of these expert visual comics were poached by the embryonic silent film studios.
As a result the early silent comedies of Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy et al are full
of Karno trained British comics.
Chaplin and Laurel both held Karno in high regard, Stan Laurel said:
“Fred Karno didn’t teach Charlie and me all we know about comedy, he just taught
us most of it. Above all he taught us to be supple and precise. Out of all that endless
rehearsal and performance came Charlie Chaplin, the most supple and precise comedian
of our time.”
There were others doing sketch material of course but Karno’s was arguably the most
influential and certainly his legacy is the greatest. He pushed the boundaries of
comedy in the music hall and as time moved on his sketches introduced dialogue and
became verbal as well as physical comedies. These were the first ‘comedy sketches’
as we would think of them today. These later sketches included ‘The Football Match’,
‘The Wontdetania’, ‘The Hydro’, and many more.
His most successful sketch was ‘Mumming Birds’ in America re-titled ‘A Night In An
English Music Hall’. This sketch ran for forty years with revivals by Karno’s sons
as late as the mid 1940s. The show was a show within show with a series of terrible
music hall acts being heckled by a drunken Toff and a naughty schoolboy, sitting
in theatre boxes. It was his performance as the drunken Toff which made Chaplin’s
name and bought him to the attention of Mack Sennett at Keystone studios in America
in 1912. Stan Laurel also appeared in Mumming Birds alongside Chaplin, they shared
digs on the Karno tours of America in 1910 and 1912, and Laurel is often described
as being Chaplin’s understudy. Although Laurel said this about himself, in truth
Chaplin had no understudy, all the actors in a Karno troupe had to be able to cover
for each other Chaplin included, he was no different to his fellow players. Laurel
always recognised Chaplin’s brilliance and was quick to credit him – his description
of himself as Chaplin’s understudy being a typical Laurel self effacing comment,
Chaplin in contrast never acknowledged Laurel’s role in his early career.
In 1911 at the height of his fame Karno built a palatial houseboat on the Thames
at Hampton called Astoria, which cost around £7000 (approximately £400,000 in today’s
money), this he followed with a massive investment in a new hotel on Tagg’s Island
he called ‘Karsino’. It was the playground of Edwardian High Society but with the
onset of World War One and the gradual decline of the Music Hall which followed,
the hotel ultimately broke him. He was declared bankrupt in 1927.
He headed to Hollywood in 1929 where he caught up with Chaplin and Laurel. Hal Roach
gave Karno a job as an assistant director and he spent six months working with Laurel
and Hardy. However having spent forty years as ‘The Guv’nor’ Karno could not work
within a studio system under directors and producers he felt lacked his abilities
and experience. He returned to England in 1930 having made no impression on Hollywood.
He then set about reinventing himself and created a new comedy troupe he called ‘Karno’s
Krazy Komics’. A UK tour with their first production ‘Laffs’ was a huge success and
was the inspiration for George Black’s Crazy Shows at the London Palladium. Karno
was influential in casting Nervo and Knox, Flanagan and Allen and Naughton and Gold
as the core of the show and ‘The Crazy Gang’ was born. Although this wasn’t a Karno
show, his influence was all over it. They went on to become the most successful comics
of the 30s and 40s and every theatre in the country ran ‘Crazy Weeks’.
In 1935 he embarked on a new career as a film producer and invested in a British
feature film starring Rob Wilton, called Don’t Rush Me, a film version of his sketch
‘Hot and Cold’. It was a total flop and he was once again bankrupt. He retired to
Dorset and died penniless and forgotten in 1941.
As a man he had a reputation as a hard task master and a womaniser. He was married
twice and had two sons. Much of the information readily available on Karno comes
from a biography written in the early 1970s by a tabloid journalist who’s sources
were largely Karno’s ex-wife’s friends. It paints a very dark picture of the man
but has been demonstrated to be full of inaccuracies. This biography has however
left his reputation undeservedly tainted. Whatever the realities of his personal
life, Karno was a huge influence on early comedy, slapstick and the most important
comedians of the early twentieth century and as such he deserves to be remembered
as ‘The Father of Slapstick’. David Crump is currently working on a new biography