Royal Variety Performances with Sammy Davis, Jr. for
The Royal Variety Charity Hosted by Queen Elizabeth II, 1960-61
Sammy Davis, Jr. is a Hit & Gets Eight Curtain Calls
May 16, 1960
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
His Royal Highness The Duke Of Edinburgh K.G., K.T.
The 1960 Royal Variety Performance at the Victoria Palace was the first to be televised and will probably always be remembered as the Sammy Davis Junior show. “In eight electrifying minutes”, wrote the Daily Sketch, “this entertainer made the word ‘star’ seem inadequate”.
Certainly the Queen had a breathtaking evening’s entertainment. There was wonderful comedy from the Crazy Gang, who greeted Her Majesty in the foyer dressed as Yeoman of the Guards, Harry Worth, Charlie Drake, Jimmy Edwards, Frankie Howerd and Bob Monkhouse.
There was stunning music from Ivor Emmanuel and the Pontcanna Children’s Choir with songs from Wales. While, for the young at heart, the organisers had arranged a ‘focus on youth’ with Lonnie Donegan,Adam Faith and Cliff Richard (who had appeared in Manchester the previous year) and The Shadows.
With that galaxy of talent on display, it was a fitting first year for the Royal Variety Performance to be broadcast on television.
But it was Sammy Davis’ night. “To say he stopped the show”, said The Stage, “is an understatement.”
In fact, it was such an understatement that for once protocol went unheeded and he had eight curtain calls! Those ‘in the know’ were no doubt aware that curtain calls are not usually part of the Royal Variety Performance.
The Royal Variety Shows must always go on – even if there is a bomb scare! Tow hours before the performance there were reports of an unexploded bomb in the locality. This immediately brought fears of a last-minute cancellation. But, with just a short time to go before curtain up, a bomb disposal unit declared the area safe….and the hugely successful show went on.
November 12, 1961
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
The Queen Mother
The following year Sammy performs with Lionel Blair doing a song and dance number at Royal Variety Performance at the Prince of Wales of Theatre in London, 1961.
King George V and Queen Mary attended the first ‘royal shows’ in 1912 and 1919, becoming Patrons of the Royal Variety Charity from 1921. Life-Patronage from the reigning monarch continues to the present day, demonstrating the Royal Family’s long support & affection for the entertainment industry
Origins of The Royal Variety Performance, 1912
The origins of the Royal Variety Performance date back to 1912, when His Majesty King George V and Her Majesty Queen Mary agreed to attend a ‘Royal Command Performance’ at the Palace Theatre in London’s Cambridge Circus in aid of the VABF – Variety Artistes’ Benevolent Fund (the previous name of the Royal Variety Charity) and its proposed plans to build an extension to its Care Home for elderly entertainers, Brinsworth House. This first staging was a lavish occasion with over 3 million roses draped around the auditorium.
On conception the show was dubbed with the working-title ‘the Music Hall Command Performance’ but was soon altered before the day of the show to become the very first Royal Command Performance and must still rank as one of the most successful.
All the great names of British variety and music hall gathered at the Palace Theatre before King George V, Queen Mary and the Prince of Wales. All that is, apart from Marie Lloyd, perhaps the biggest name in popular music hall at the time. Her ommission – apparently on the grounds that she was too risque for such a Royal performance at a time when music hall was just becoming ‘respectable’ – is one of the most controversial in the history of the Royal Variety Performance.
Her absence, however, failed to dampen excitement of a memorable night of British entertainment, with stars such as comic Harry Lauder, Harry Tate, the ‘Prime Minister of Mirth’ George Robey, dancer Anna Pavolva and the ‘White-Eyed Kaffir’ G.H.Chirgwin, ensuring triumph.
There was one moment of unease, when Vesta Tilley, the talented male impersonator, began her act. Queen Mary, seemingly unhappy with the idea of a woman wearing trousers and dressing like a man, covered her face with her programme, which encouraged the audience to be less enthusiastic in their reception to Miss Tilley. Fortunately, following her act was the great comic, Harry Tate, and his ability to get George V laughing soon restored the lively atmosphere.
Even a seasoned performer such as Little Tich could be overawed by a grand occasion. Things started well for him as he sang ‘Popularity,’ a well-known 1910 number, and then went on to do his famous ‘Big Boots’ dance. It was towards the end of the night that Little Tich was overcome with nerves and, very sadly, found himself unable to join in the grand finale.
Eager to have a special reminder of the evening, Harry Tate told his son Ronnie to go up to the Royal Box after the show to see if a programme had been left there by the Royal party. He was in luck – Ronnie found the one given to Queen Mary, with its specially hand-embroidered jacket – a real collector’s item.
Alfred Lester was litterally caught with his pants down by the Prince of Wales. After the show, the Prince came back-stage, eager to say how much he had enjoyed the performance. Unfortunately, Lester was in the middle of changing – with very little to cover his blushes! The distraught entertainer is quoted as crying out, “It’s awful – I can’t shake hands with my future sovereign in my pants and vest!”
The Performer was certain about the success of the show. ‘We must frankly confess that we are not in the Royal confidence,” it wrote, “but nothing, so far as outward manifestation could prove, could have been more obvious than the pleasure the King and Queen and the rest of the Royal party….took in the long variety programme presented to them.” It continued: “Perhaps the highest compliment His Majesty could have conveyed was his confession to Mr Alfred Butt, who with Mr George Ashton, had the honour of receiving and bidding farewell to the Royal party, that he had apprehended too long a performance, but that, on the contrary, he had thoroughly enjoyed every detail.”
The Stage too, said that while the show would enjoy financial success, “this was as little compared with the fact that Royalty, in the persons of the King and his Consort, have officially set their seal of approval upon the work of that large body of people who are to be found in what is comprehensively termed the variety profession.”
And Mr Wal Pink, a member of the organising committee, said simply, “the music hall has come into its kingdom.”
Sadly, with war clouds gathering, the second Royal Variety Performance had to wait another seven years.