Celebrity for the week ending
Saturday, 6 July 2002

Frank Lawton (d.1914)
American actor and siffleur

Frank Lawton

(photo: unknown, probably London, 1898)

The American comedian Frank Lawton first came to the attention of London audiences when he played the part of Blinky Bill McGuirk in The Belle of New York, the American musical comedy that opened to instant success at the Shaftesbury, London, on 12 April 1899. With an all-American cast transported from the Casino, New York, where the piece had run without much promise for a future, it eventually scored 693 performances, closing on 30 December 1899. The cast also included Edna May, for the next six years a darling of English playgoers, Harry Davenport, James E. Sullivan, Phyllis Rankin and Ella Snyder.
Lawton reappeared briefly in London in Rutland Barrington’s entertainment for children, Little Black Sambo and Little White Barbara at the Garrick (21 December 1904), which played for 39 matinee performances.

* * * * * * * *

He talks and sings in whistles.

‘One of the most remarkable men in London at the present moment is Mr. Frank Lawton, champion whistler of the world.
‘Mr. Lawton manipulates with the greatest ease notes hitherto unattempted by the most accomplished siffleurs. The most difficult runs and cadenzas are nothing to him, and he is the inventor of the art of conversational whistling.
‘With the assistance of appropriate facial expression he can answer any ordinary question by means of a whistled reply, and the reply is as intelligible to his audience as if it were spoken.
‘A few days ago I had a chat with him on the subject, and he initiated me into some of the mysteries of his art. For some months he has been playing a leading part in The Belle of New York, one of the most successful pieces ever produced on the London stage. It is no exaggeration to say that this success has been largely due to his unique performance.
‘His whistled dialogue is much more expressive then mere pantomime. We reproduce a specimen here, together with photographs illustrative of the facial expression.
‘The scene is a candy store in New York. Mr. Lawton enters in the character of a Bowry boy. He strolls unconcernedly up to one of the girls in charge, and whistles a polite "How do you do?" She hands him a chocolate box by way of acknowledgement. He is delighted, and crosses the stage delightedly, whistling his approval. Then he halts and opens the box.
‘A look of disgusted disappointment crosses his face; he slams the lid of the box down, and whistles the sentence -

There’s nothing in it. Rot!

‘There’s nothing in it. Rot!’

‘"There’s nothing in it. Rot!" ‘The appropriateness of the notes, expression, and action is such as to convey the words as clearly as though they had been spoken, and the same applies to much of the other dialogue.
‘Our readers may test this for themselves by imitating the notes and expression supplied in the accompanying picture [top].
‘Those unfortunate individuals whose musical education has been neglected will be delighted to hear that Mr. Lawton considers the natural whistle may be trained till it is in every way useful as an instrument for the purposes of entertainment.
‘Those who had a whistle of good quality, and possess the patience to work hard and practise assiduously, may attain to the greatest proficiency, negotiating difficult runs and the most elaborate notation with ease and charm.
‘Mr. Lawton advises keeping the upper lip moist while whistling, and specially warns beginners to abstain from drinking for some time before performing.
‘That the art is not more generally understood and utilised is undoubtedly due to the fact ht so few people understand the proper method of whistling. The formation of the mouth produced by the attempt to whistle is technically known as the "pucker." For one correct "pucker" you will see a dozen that are altogether wrong and impossible.
‘Mr. Lawton has been good enough to allow us to prepare photographic illustrations of the right and wrong methods. These are most interesting, and explain themselves. Most of the "wrong methods" are familiar to everybody, particularly that in which the breath is sucked inwardly, a style generally known as the lady’s pucker. No wonder our sisters envy our powers, and so frequently inquire the reason why they are unable to whistle. It is not that they do not possess the necessary organs. The are quite as well equipped in this respect as the stronger sex. By glancing at our two pictures of the "correct pucker," as illustrated by the first living exponent of the art, they may learn how they ought to whistle. It will be a useful lesson if it only enables them to learn how to whistle a dog with certainty of success.
‘Mr. Lawton possesses a whistle of peculiar beauty and extraordinary compass. The high and low notes in the bar of "Ben Bolt" illustrated in this article are phenomenal. Both are produced with the greatest clearness and certainty, and show what may be done by a master of the art.
‘In addition to pucker whistling, Mr. Lawton has made a speciality of what may appropriately be termed "trick whistling." One of our photos shows him in the act of whistling the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana with the thumb of the right hand in his mouth. He also utilises the gallery boy’s style of whistling to perform the most difficult solos. This method is usually associated with the street boy intent on communicating with a comrade at the other end of the street. The result is a shrill, harsh note, and it is not a little surprising to hear Mr. Lawton produce a charming note by the same means.
‘His compass is extraordinary. In the photographs at the foot of this page he is shown whistling the last four notes of "Ben Bolt." The first and last low and high notes are altogether phenomenal.
‘Combined with the gift of a whistle of bell-like tone and beautiful quality, he possesses marvellous power of pantomime.
‘By means of the two he will take part in a conversation without speaking a single world, and make himself perfectly intelligible to his hearers.
‘Mr. Lawton is a typical American. Resourceful, clever, and inventive, he had whistled his way to a pre-eminent position in his art, and by whistling he is likely to maintain it. He is a great admirer of Great Britain and her institutions.’
(The Harmsworth Magazine, London, December 1898, pp.546-548)

Frank Lawton

(photo: unknown, probably London, 1898)

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© John Culme, 2002