Vancouver Was Awesome: Marie Lloyd, 1914

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2015

A Vancouver time travelogue brought to you by Past Tense.

Marie Lloyd was a top headliner on the English Music Hall scene for nearly four decades. The “Cockney comedienne” wore elaborate gowns and expensive jewels, but was thoroughly working class in her sympathies and outlook. Her stage career began the year Vancouver incorporated, and she shot to fame almost overnight, largely because her larger-than-life persona and the material she performed resonated with the working class, especially women. Off the stage, she supported a successful 1907 strike of lesser-known performers and theatre workers by manning picket lines, performing at fundraisers, and helping to bankroll the strike fund, even though her stardom meant the strikers’ grievances didn’t affect her personally.

The tour of the Sullivan and Considine vaudeville circuit that brought Marie Lloyd to Vancouver got off to a rough start. She found herself detained at Ellis Island in New York for twenty-four hours on a charge of “moral turpitude” because she had not yet married her travelling companion as she had claimed when coming into the US. Eventually she was released and allowed entry for the duration of the tour on a large bond and a promise that she and her fiancé (who had been charged under the “White Slave Traffic Act”) would stay in separate accommodation while on US soil. When a journalist asked what she thought of America so far, Lloyd pointed to the Statue of Liberty and said “I love your sense of humour!”

Marie Lloyd opened her Vancouver engagement on February 2, 1914 at the Orpheum Theatre. The mayor and other city officials and their wives were invited to opening night, which in hindsight wasn’t the best idea. The papers are light on the offending details, but Lloyd’s stage act was notorious for its risqué themes, suggestive language, and Lloyd’s masterful ability to imbue material with a naughty meaning using a well-placed wink or gesture. She always insisted that “blue” interpretations of her songs originated in the mind of the listener, but with lyrics such as “she’d never had her ticket punched before” in a song about a farmer’s daughter taking the train into town for the first time, her denials seem disingenuous. Indeed, Lloyd’s talent for subverting the lingering and stifling Victorian morality of the era largely explains her popularity.

Mayor Baxter and other officials in the audience were aghast at Lloyd’s opening night performance, which included “The Ankle Watch,” a song described as “the way a watch, plus a slashed skirt, would awaken a general masculine interest in the passing of time.” One official explained to the World newspaper that he was ashamed that he brought his wife to the show and was only consoled by the presence of other respectable officials. Charley Jones, the City License Inspector, was directed by the mayor to order Lloyd to drop two songs and to give a “less vivid rendering of others” to avoid having her show cancelled altogether.

Former and future Vancouver mayor and publisher of the World, LD Taylor, was also in attendance on opening night. In an editorial the next day, Taylor wrote a scathing denouncement of Marie Lloyd and commended Mayor Baxter for taking decisive action. In response, Lloyd paid a visit to the World Tower and physically attacked Taylor. Police were called and forcibly removed her in front of a huge crowd that had gathered outside. The fact that the Orpheum didn’t advertise in the World may help explain Taylor’s heightened indignation over the performance.

Lloyd begrudgingly complied with the City’s specific demands, but she didn’t do so quietly. From her platform on the Orpheum stage all that week, she let the full houses know just what she thought of the mayor and, he claimed, she had found new ways “be offensive to good taste.” In a pre-emptive move, Mayor Baxter had her final performance cancelled, alleging that she was planning to “give some repertoire that would make Vancouver ‘sit up and take notice.’” News of the cancellation didn’t reach the Orpheum until after the show had sold out and the seats were full. Lloyd unsuccessfully fought to go on anyway and bit one of the men restraining her.

To make matters worse, Lloyd and her paramour found that escaping Vancouver wouldn’t be so easy. Immigration officers at the border claimed that by leaving the US for the Canadian leg of her tour, she had violated the terms of the bond agreement she had made at Ellis Island. Lloyd’s protest at not being allowed into the US again reached all the way to Washington, DC, and she was eventually allowed to finish the tour, although she had to leave her fiancé behind.

Source: Marie Lloyd postcard ca. 1900, National Portrait Gallery #NPG Ax160001

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