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Pantomime in the United States.
by W.J. Lawrence, London, 1896
'American Pantomime is dead, its life-blood drained by that vampire, Farce Comedy. Doubtless it was easy prey, for despite (perhaps because of) its distinctiveness it was sadly lacking in the elements of longevity. It might have acquired tenacity had it been given the droit annuel de cité - to borrow the phrase used by our contemptuous French neighbours in dealing with our own yearly outburst of clownery and pantaloonery. But the American playgoer never permitted the native article to assume a Christmassy flavour, and showered condign punishment on the heads of those who attempted to popularise that parochial entertainment of the flashy revue order so beloved of the Britisher. If therefore genuine Transatlantic Pantomime only enjoyed a brief existence of about a quarter of a century, still from first to last it was Pantomime, in the unvitiated sense of the term, and boasts a record of very considerable interest.
'Paramount among the elements contributing to the decline and fall of American Pantomime has been a woeful dearth of really funny clowns. Next in order, perhaps, to Fox came his quondam associate, Tony Denier, a pupil of the Ravels, who had that valuable Grimaldian gift denied to the great "Humpty Dumpty" - the faculty of inventing and manufacturing complicated harlequinade tricks. Descendant in the right line of some of the bluest blood in France (with a family tree bearing among other fruit a not unremote Ambassador to the Court of Spain), Mr. Denier landed at Boxton in 1852 with the proverbial half-crown, and experienced much hardship before arriving at fame and fortune. In his time a man of many parts, his most extraordinary one was undoubtedly that bestowed upon him by Barnum in 1863. Donato, the famous one-legged dancer, had just taken London by storm, and the great showman wished to bring him to America. Donato's agent asked 500 dollars a week; Barnum offered fifty. "Are you aware, sir?" said the middleman, "that it took Donato four years to learn to dance?" "I don't know about that," replied Barnum, "but I've got a man who can do it in four weeks." And in less than that time the public were once more gulled by the Prince of Humbugs, who gravely announced, "Tony Denier, the great American one-legged dancer." For fully a score of years from September, 1868, when he first plunged into management, Mr. Denier kept the torch of Pantomime alight by methodically touring the States as the leading light of his own Humpty Dumpty company. With his retirement into private life, to enjoy prosperous east at Chicago, American Pantomime may be said to have ceased to be.'
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© John Culme, 2005