Celebrity for the week ending
Saturday, 28 March 2009

a cabinet photograph of Lottie Collins (1866-1910),
English music hall singer and dancer,
famous for her rendition of 'Ta-ra-ra-Boom-de-ay,'
interviewed by The Era, London, 1895

Lottie Collins
Lottie Collins as she appeared for the song and dance,

(photo: The London Stereoscopic & Photographic Co Ltd, London, probably 1892)

'(By Our Special Commissioner.)
'At intervals the world is pervaded by a song - and if one collated the songs that have pervaded the world, the result would be a kind of history of the variety stage, in which Miss Lottie Collins, apropos of ''Ta-ra-ra-Boom-de-ay'' would furnish the title and material for an interesting chapter. It will be five years ''come Christmas'' since London lost its head over this delectable ditty - and not only London, but in due course New York. The singer lost her identity in the song - a thing which had its drawbacks. For in the course of time the public hankers after a novelty, and may not fancy your novelty. So the parable of the rocket and the stick very often applies to music hall celebrity. How has Miss Lottie Collins escaped? Well, the truth is ''Ta-ra-ra-Boom-de-ay'' owed as much to Miss Collins as she owned to the song. Maybe her debt was the less. For she happened to have behind her fifteen solid years of experience. Her opportunity came. Perhaps it took her unawares, but she faced it, like a clever woman and an accomplished artist; and she conquered. ''Ta-ra-ra-Boome-de-ay'' spent its force and it gone; but first it carried Miss Collins to an eminence that she has been able to maintain.
'Fifteen years and five years make twenty, do they not? You would not think, looking at the bright, intelligent face and compact figure before you that Miss Collins entered public life so long ago; but 'tis the truth. She was dedicated to the stage in early childhood, her father having been a member of the one the very early Christy minstrel troupes. He was corner man; and an accomplished step-dancer. But he was determined that his daughter should have even better tuition that he could give her himself, so he entrusted her to the care of Charlie Buckingham - the husband of Mdlle. Cerito, a very popular dancer in America, and the father of the late Miss Patti Rosa. By Mr. Buckingham Miss Collins was rigorously ''turned out,'' as the phrase of the dancing world goes. When, eventually, she became a step-dancer she was a step-dancer with suppleness and grace that only the conventions of the Italian school can give - and that few step-dancers possess. Charlie Buckingham was curiously and variously expert. Miss Collins remembers him cutting and fashioning out of the most simple materials a complete jockey suit for his little pupils. With Miss Collins were her two sisters, Miss Marie Collins and Miss Lizzie Collins. They were able to execute splits and strides and shoulder their legs - much as Miss Collins has heard Mdlle. Nini Pattes-en-l'Air and her comrades do. The Sisters Collins used to appear with particular success at the Oxford - where they appeared as skipping-rope dancers with a firework background, in a sketch called Skiptomania - and at Lusby's - where they had a most kind friend in the late Mr Charles Crowder.
'They took part in three pantomimes at the Pavilion Theatre, Mile-end, where, with the Alexanders and Miss Kent, they used to do what is called ''stock'' dancing, forming statuesque groups at the intervals. The loss of both parents put Miss Lottie Collins at the head of the little family. Then suddenly she shot up into a young woman, and it was suggested to her by Mr Fred Gilbert that it would be better if she worked alone, letting the two sisters, still of a size, remained in concert. Then Miss Lottie Collins became a song and dance artist ''on her own,'' being rather distinguished by her dancing than by her singing. She was, indeed, as most of us remember, one of the prettiest skirt dancers and step dancers, and had hosts of imitators. Pantomime engagements, notably at Birmingham and at Nottingham, afforded her very welcome opportunities for histrionic practice; and she had acquired a certain position ere the advent of ''Ta-ra-ra-Boom-de-ay.'' She had visited America, too, in an undistinguished way. In 1886 [26 December] it is interesting to note she appeared at the Gaiety Theatre, in Monte Cristo, Jun . Miss Collins was perfectly elated by this engagement, supposing that her line of business would be that formerly entrusted to Miss Kate Vaughan. When she found that she was engaged merely to dance and to speak a poor three lines she betook her to the halls again, where, about this time, was was notably successful with a little song entitled ''I could not so no'' and a ''Whistling Coon'' song.
'Actually, it was ''I could not say no'' that made Miss Collins the proud possessor of ''Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay,'' which, as most people know, is of American origin. It may have been sung at camp meetings by devout Negroes. It was certainly the popular ditty at a St. Louis night club, whence it got into the streets. It seemed to the director of a well-known minstrel troupe to have potentialities, and he had it rewritten - the original words were impossible - and orchestrated for five performers. It achieved but a moderate success. One day Miss Collins's husband, Mr Cooney, a smart American entrepreneur detected this minstrel troupe in a piracy of her song ''I couldn't say no.'' An argument ensued, but eventually Mr Cooney cried quits in consideration of a copy of ''Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay,'' which he sent home to his wife. She tried it at a morning performance at the Tivoli, and frankly states that she could not understand the enthusiasm that it aroused. It was promptly reproduced in the evening, and made a great success. An English audience is proverbially rather slow in ''catching on'' to a song, and many artists could tell you that they have wrestled for months with a ditty that has eventually ''taken'' the town.
''Tis repeating an oft-told tale to tell how the introduction of ''Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay'' into the 1891-92 pantomime at the Grand Theatre, Islington, crowded the theatre for weeks to come. Then for weeks Miss Collins sang it at the Pavilion, the Tivoli, the Royal and in the Gaiety burlesque Cinder Ellen. Her nerves refused the strain at last. None of her four managers would forego her services while she appeared elsewhere, and so she had to abandon them all, and to seek rest at a pleasant watering-place. It is a fact worth recording that Miss Collins's salary at this time was not large - certainly not commensurate with the sensation she made, for old contracts operated. But eventually she went to America, under the management of Mr Charles Frohman, appearing usually between the acts of dramatic pieces, and receiving a salary that ultimately reached two hundred pounds a-week. Miss Collins went to America for seven weeks, and stayed seven months.
'''Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay'' had already become familiar ere Miss Collins reached America; and the Americans could not understand the sensation it had created. But they soon understood Miss Lottie Collins, who, with her genius, transfigures the song, if such a thing may be said. The American press is characterised with a quaint frankness. the great showy wigs that some serio-comic singers affect were unpopular out there, and Miss Collins was emphatically bidden by a journalistic commentator to abandon the ''arrangement of red ropes that hung down her bank.'' She did so. Apropos of the press, ''Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay'' pervaded it. Political and social cartoons and verses by the score had this song for their model. For her own part Miss Collins has song since abandoned ''Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay,'' and declares she could not sing it if she would. She has no longer the curious feeling for it that enabled her to throw herself into her performance in the frenzied way that made it so successful.
'Again and again she has visited America with her own company, making a tour of the leading theatres, and appearing with notable success in The Circus Rider, known here as The Fair Equestrienne. America has furnished her with some exciting adventures - an outbreak of cholera aboard ship, when she first took out ''Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay,'' necessitating a fortnight in quarantine, a broken ankle that laid her up six months while dancing to ''Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay'' at Chicago, and most recently a fire at the same theatre that caused her great loss. For a twelvemonth, at any rate, Miss Collins desires to remain in England, and she speaks with delight of her reception when she appeared the other night at the Palace, [thanks to the] polite consideration of her old chief at the Alhambra, Mr Charles Morton.'
(The Era, London, Saturday, 10 August 1895, p. 14d)

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© John Culme, 2009