MUMMING BIRDS
Fred Karno sketch

aka: "A Stage Upon a Stage" and "A Night in an English Music Hall"

A Stage Upon A Stage
Actual photo of the Karno Company performing Mumming Birds.
Note that the boxes left and right are part of the set.

The Metamorphosis of Karno's Greatest Sketch

Mumming Birds is said to have grown from a sketch which was specially
written to entertain the Shah of Persia when he visited London in 1903.
The sketch was titled ....... wait for it! ..... "Entertaining the Shah."
I have never seen a write-up/review of this performance. Maybe, as it was
a private one-off show, there never was one. If you know differently, and
have a copy, I would love to see it.

Proof that the story of the Shah is not a myth, is to be found in the cutting
on the right from the Topical Times newspaper.

25 JULY 1903

TOPICAL TIMES

On his recent visit to England, the Shah of
Persia attended a state performance at the
Empire and Hippodrome, and expressed
his high appreciation of both.

—————

It was almost a year later before the sketch hit the music-hall stage, under the title of Twice Nightly.
A
s this caused some confusion when seen on bills, posters, and newspaper ads., it was soon changed to
A Stage Upon a Stage.
The three reviews immediately below, show the transition.

THE STAGE

THE STAGE

THE STAGE

28 APRIL 1904

23 MAY 1904

16 JUNE 1904

(w/c 25 April 1904)

CHELSEA PALACE

  Twice Nightly is the catchy title of an
original and mirth-provoking sketch,
produced by Mr. Fred Karno and his
company of talented comedians at the
Chelsea Palace on Monday evening.
As the titular designation suggests, the
theme chosen is variety entertainment,
and the curtain rises on the interior of a
music hall, showing a stage bordered by
four miniature boxes, with the
programme in full swing. Some idea of
the hilarious fun extracted from the
situation will be gleaned by all who are
conversant with the comic resources of
Mr. Fred Karno’s troupe. The droll
antics of the occupants of the boxes are
as equally diverting as the burlesque
efforts of the artists, and the sketch is
presented to the accompaniment of the
continuous laughter.

The “turns” comprise a “ballad”
vocalist, a serio and dancer, a
mesmerist, conjurer, and general
charlatan, and the inevitable champion
wrestler, who trades under the
pseudonym “Turkey”. Both
individually and collectively the
performers merit praise for their well-
thought-out embodiments. A character
thoroughly deserving of special mention
is the bibulous gentleman occupying the
prompt stage box; he is a host in
himself, and succeeds in keeping his
audience in an uninterrupted roar of
laughter by his eccentricities and well-
assumed expression of inanity. The
novelty is amusing to a high degree,
reflecting credit on all concerned, and
should prove a distinct draw to popular
audiences.

———————

(w/c 23 May 1904)

LONDON - Paragon

On Monday evening 23 May 1904, Mr.
Fred Karno, assisted, of course, by his
admirable company of comedians,
produced for the first time a semi-
pantomimic sketch, entitled A Stage
upon a Stage
, which scored an
immediate and most emphatic success.
As the curtain rises another stage is
discovered, with a proper proscenium,
curtain, etc., and boxes on either side,
the occupants of which treat the various
artists who appear with a comic lack of
courtesy. There is, for instance, a very
mischievous Eton boy, who devours
buns and shoots peas at the performers;
and much fun is provoked by an
inebriated “masher”, whose persistent
efforts to ‘go behind’ are most forcibly
opposed by a stalwart attendant.
Various performers appear: there is a
serio, a lady vocalist, a conjurer, a
topical vocalist, and a wrestler, all of
whose efforts meet with more or less
opposition. Indeed, the wrestler
receives severe corporal punishment
from the “masher,” for refusing to pay
the sum he has lost in a bout; and the
scene closes in upon a general and very
laughable mêlée.

A Stage upon a Stage may be taken as
a burlesque upon the average music-hall
performance; but it is perfectly
“harmless”, capitally acted, and is
received with veritable roars of laughter.

——————

.

.

(w/c 13 June 1904)

LONDON - Canterbury

The piece de resistance of the evening
is the performance given by Mr. Fred
Karno’s comedians of The Mumming
Bird
s, which is the name of the
uproariously laughable piece produced
by them at the Chelsea Palace as Twice
Nightly
. The novelty creates one
continuous laugh, and is meeting with
the warmest appreciation here.

—————

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

MUMMING BIRDS

The premise of "Mumming Birds" is the representation of a musical hall performance, as viewed by a "stage audience,"
and the humour depends on the frequent interruptions and interferences of the stage audience. The performers who appear
are: the audience members; the artists; and the stage attendants. Amongst "the audience" the principal characters are a boy dressed in an Eton suit, and his guardian, 'Uncle Charlie.' These two sit in the bottom box on the left. The 'swell' in a state
of semi-intoxication, dressed in evening suit, occupies the bottom box on the right.

The various 'turns' are announced by a numbered card being placed in a frame immediately prior to the start of the act.

A representative bill, of many, is:

1 The Topical Vocalist [male]

2 The Swiss Nightingale [lady vocalist]

3 The Prestidigitateur [magician]

4 The Rustic Glee Party [quartet of singers]

5 The Saucy Serio [soubrette]

6 The Terrible Turkey [wrestler]

As the curtain rises another stage is discovered, with a proscenium, curtain, etc., and boxes on either side, the occupants
of which treat the various artists who appear with a comic lack of courtesy. The mischievous Eton boy devours buns and
shoots peas at the performers; and much fun is provoked by an inebriated "masher," whose persistent efforts to 'go
behind' are most forcibly opposed by a stalwart attendant. Various performers appear: there is a serio, a lady vocalist, a
conjurer, a topical vocalist, and a wrestler, all of whose efforts meet with more or less opposition. Indeed, the wrestler
receives severe corporal punishment from the 'masher' for refusing to pay the sum he has lost in a bout; and the scene
closes in upon a general and very laughable mêlée.

The piece is acted mainly in pantomime, and the 'fun' consists in the incompetence of the performers; the disgust of the
[stage] audience; the pranks of the boy who shoots peas or throws buns at the artistes and members of the audience; and especially the swell, who spoils the conjuring tricks, etc.; the general free fights on the stage in which most of the
company take part; and the bye-play between the soubrette, the swell, a female programme attendant, and others.

The finalé of the sketch is the spoof wrestling bout with a 'Champion' wrestler who would challenge all-comers to a
bout of wrestling.

The Karno Comedians in the debut performance of "Twice Nightly" at the Star Music Hall, Bermondsey, were Charlie Bell, as the 'Eton boy in the box'; Arthur Gallimore, as the wrestler Marconi Ali; Amy Minister as the soubrette; and Billy Ritchie as the conjurer, plus the announcer for the wrestling match. Billie Reeves was 'the drunken swell.'

A much expanded version of the acts, their songs, and "the business" can be found in "CHAPLIN - Stage by Stage."

To purchase a copy, go to this link:

CHAPLIN - Stage by Stage

Extremely rare newspaper photo of the Karno Company on stage in America.
The character of 'the drunk' can be seen  in the box on the right,
while in the box on the left are the 'Eton Boy' and 'his Uncle.'

[Note: Just above the drunk's head is a card with the number 5 on it, which would indicate, from
the list above, that the act on stage is Muriel Palmer as "The Saucy Serio" - which indeed she is.]

It has been noted that Karno was never quick to volunteer the names of his principal comics. In fact, it could be said he deliberately excluded them. However, there was the odd exception. Note that they are years and thousand of miles apart.

OLDHAM STANDARD

VARIETY

BILLBOARD

13 AUGUST 1907

SEPTEMBER 5, 1908

NOVEMBER 2, 1912

THE EMPIRE

   The Mumming Birds were a great
success, and kept the audience in roars
of laughter throughout the entire time
they occupied the stage. Syd Chaplin
appeared as the Drunken Loft to
perfection, and for the honours of the
piece he had a keen competitor in that
clever young artiste, Johnny Doyle,
whose uncontrollable and boyish mirth,
and asides, were capital. Mrs. Arthur
Forrest capably imitated an amateurish
attempt to sing ‘Birdie, Come to Me,’
while Ada Whittaker was really clever
in the rendering of ‘Naughty, Naughty
Men.’

—————

.
.

NEW YORK

HAMMERSTEIN’S ROOF

“A Night in an English Music Hall”
returns after a short absence with a
changed cast. Albert Weston is in the
part of the “drunk,” formerly played by
Billie Reeves. Weston is a capital
pantomimic comedian, following
Reeves in the main but departing in one
or two details from the tradition of the
“drunk” as played by his predecessors.
He seems inclined to introduce
unnecessary talk. Otherwise he held up
the comedy of the act in capital style,
doing particularly well at the finish
during the wrestling bout. Bobby Lewis
as the mischievous boy and Victoria
Wright as the prima donna are also new
members.

—————

SAN FRANCISCO, Empress

A Night in an English Music Hall,
presented by Fred Karno’s London
Comedians, closed the show and
carried off the honors This company
carries 12 people and a special stage
setting. Charles Chaplin is the hit of
the act, in the role of the souse. The
cast also includes: Mike Asher,
Charles Griffiths, Emily Seaman,
Frank Melroyd, Muriel Palmer,
Albert Austin, Fred Westcott,
George Seaman, Ted Banks, Amy
Minster, and Albert Williams.

—————

.

.
.
.

This page will be added to when time permits.

To find out which Fred Karno Companies performed Mumming Birds in America, use the link:

ATLANTIC CROSSINGS

BACK TO HOME