The British music hall, an endless circuit of baroque theaters, the Empires and Lyceums of London and the provinces, are dark or demolished . . . except for one pale, expatriate palace of varieties in Los Angeles.
Here at 9th and Figueroa streets--as part of the show-biz museums, bars and theaters that are the Variety Arts Center--survives the last great lump of British vaudeville.
True, most of the current talent is about as British as the Pantages. The rubber mallet used by the master of ceremonies to punctuate his punch lines ("Take my wife. Please." Thump!) started life bashing out bent fenders. The show could use a gormless magician, a turbanned necromancer and maybe a pair of ballroom dancers. On roller skates.
Yet the jokes are 100 years old because their ancestry is Victorian. The songs are Cockney. The master of ceremonies is a lecher. And that's British music hall as she was.
During a recent performance, one-time vaudeville hoofer Buddy Ebsen joined the finale. Edward ("The Equalizer") Woodward has threatened to show up and sing "Soldiers of the Queen." And there is that double-taking, double-entendre of an emcee: Tony Hawes.
He's quick, stentorian, white-tied and tailed with the gift of the garrulous. The accent flexes from Mayfair to Margate. The jokes are early Benny Hill. Comedy writer Hawes is married to show business as husband of Lois, the daughter of a former song-and-patter man of British halls, Stan Laurel.
And if Hawes looks his role it is because he has lived the part and remains warm to that touch.
"The master of ceremonies, or Mr. Chairman, or compere, never left the stage," he remembers. It's 45 minutes before overture (sousaphonium, piano and drums) at the Variety Arts. Hawes is having a pre-performance brandy and greeting Chris Costello (daughter of Lou) and meeting Everett Fields (grandson of W. C.) and trying to borrow cuff links for his starched cuffs. "In the Victorian era, the hook was still in existence, and it was Mr. Chairman who pulled off the bad acts. So he always had to be on the side of the audience and against the performers."
Hawes' fascination began as a London kid worshiping in the stalls at many of those lost Empires. He saw most close. Others became studios for their ultimate conquerors, television.
"My very first job as a master of ceremonies was at the Nuffield Center, an armed-forces canteen, just off Trafalgar Square in 1946," Hawes continued. "The third show I introduced a young comedian still in uniform. Cpl. Ben Hill."
Hawes played the Camberwell Palace first, the Player's Music Hall last, with a Royal Command Performance in between. For nine years he warmed up audiences at the London Palladium. For Bob Hope. For Jack Benny.
Hawes doesn't need this Variety Arts job. The pay is low: "This is a non-Equity show so we all get exactly the same pittance, $25 a performance." The challenge isn't exactly advancing: "I'm using material that if I did in London I'd be booed off the stage."
Then why do it? Because the British music hall is no more, and who knows how long this small revival will last? And because Hawes, a show-business votary, must eke the past as surely as any man who drives a vintage Rolls.
"Even though I'm a writer, not a performer, I've always been a show-business eclectic, and doing this is an absolute ball."
The spell of music hall is deep inside Hawes. Sometimes, when the building is quiet, he will enter the center's 1,100-seat main theater. It dates to 1924 and the acoustics are perfect. Alone, center stage, Hawes speaks a one-man show for himself:
"Then there was the young man whose family is in the iron and steel business. Mother irons and his father steals . . .
"I'd like to thank Milt Larsen for his support. I'll always wear it . . .
"And now, straight from the Lewisham Empire and brought to you at enoooooormous expense . . ."
Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. Tickets at $1 2 through TickeTron or at theater box office: (213) 488-1456.