|Performing Arts Archive|
Manuscript Drawings and Paintings of
Theatrical Pirate Costume Designs
By Ernst Stern
A scarce Costumier’s Working Portfolio
B.J. Simmons & Co. Ltd.
Several Actors Drawn and Named
London West End Theatre
London, 1938. Archive of 64 manuscript pencil drawings and gouache paintings of pirate costumes designed for specific London actors by Ernst Stern, celebrated designer of theatre costume and scenography, pertaining specifically to the musical play with a comedic nautical theme created by playwright Vivien Ellis titled, “The Fleet’s Lit Up.” These are the finely executed works by an artist of B.J. Simmons & Co. Ltd. after the drawings of Ernst Stern, being the working portfolio of Stern’s costumier. Includes 31 pencil drawings with varying amounts of colouring and annotations, made on single leafs measuring approximately 20 x 25 cm, this group contained in the archival portfolio of B.J. Simmons & Co. Ltd., theatrical costumiers who produced the pirate wardrobes for this play; and 33 extra-large watercolour paintings made on leafs measuring approximately 41 x 25 cm and mounted onto green art paper. Annotations include actors’ and singers’ true names, physical measurements for tailoring costumes, and shoe sizes. Some creasing and occasional age-toning, otherwise in very good condition, beautifully preserved original theatrical art works. Stern’s originals are exceedingly scarce.Together with the original programme, with some pencil annotations to the list of actors, by a member of the production team, possibly Stern. 8vo. printed by Stilwell, Derby & Co. Ltd., for the London Hippodrome, where the performance was made, 16 pages including all the ads, original illustrated colour wrappers.
The large gouache paintings illustrate Stern’s full and final costume design. Appended to some of the larger paintings, and annotated directly on the pencil drawings, are the particulars of a specific actor who is named on the leaf, including body measurements and feet size.The pencil drawings kept in the B.J. Simmons & Co. Ltd. is a working portfolio which served to record the tailor’s progress, noting which costume elements, shirts, trousers, accessories, and so forth had been fabricated.
Ernst Stern (1876-1954) was a Romanian-German scenic designer who, through his collaborations with the prominent German directors, Max Reinhardt, is credited with an important role in defining the aesthetic of expressionism for both theatre and cinema. Prolific in his artistic field, he designed some ninety shows for the Deutsches Theater in Berlin from 1906 to 1921, continuing at such a pace for the next two decades. Evidently, he was in Hollywood for a brief time in 1922. By 1924, Stern had returned to Germany, working at the Großes Schauspielhaus, where he designed for a number of musical revues and a popular musical. In the late 1920s, Stern also began spending considerable time in London. Stern was in Paris in 1933 and remained in the city for a short time before settling permanently in London in 1934. For the rest of his career he primarily collaborated with British writers at the Savoy Theatre, Aldwych Theatre, and Adelphi Theatre. He also designed the displays for Selfridges for the coronation of King George VI and collaborated with Donald Wolfit on several Shakespeare productions during World War II. Stern was awarded a pension by George VI and died in London.The firm B.J. Simmons & Co. was a British theatrical costumier, founded in 1857, operating in Covent Garden until 1964. They created stage costumes for hundreds of theatre productions in London, as well as the provinces, and even overseas. Simmons also provided costumes for over one hundred films. During their century-long behind the scenes participation in the performing arts, they produced thousands upon thousands of costumes. Their success was surely due to their strong reputation for historical accuracy and immaculately constructed stage apparel.So stated in the official programme, “The pirate costumes designed by Professor Ernst Stern and executed by B.J. Simmons & Co. Ltd.” Stern played a major role in this production, designing costumes and stage settings. His name appears multiple times on the “Synopsis of Scenes” where eight of the fourteen design sets are attributed to him.
This two-act play involved a motley crew of pirates – with one especially provocative female lead role, a fleet review, a vessel called the Seahorse, and a voyage to the Near East, all in all a perfect recipe for British entertainment encompassing naval history and tradition.
For Mary Read, the scandalously provocative female pirate “Mary Read”, we find four actors or singers named and illustrated, suggesting that these paintings may have made at the time of audition, and variant costumes being designed for each individual.Some of the performers we find in the programme, are also named on the costume drawings, providing us with an artistic visual account of the cast. These include:
• Beatrice Hannah Boarer (1888-1954) as “Polly’s Mistress”
• Ralph Reader (William Henry Ralph Reader CBE 1903-1982), British actor who later became a very successful theatrical producer and songwriter, who in this play was Lieutenant Jack Prentice
• Arthur Gomez (1902-1976), the Chancellor in this production
• Billy Buckland who plays a midshipman, and performed in several plays of the period
• Goerge Korel who also played a midshipman
• Robert Hine who played the Department Chief (best remembered for his role in The New Waiter, 1930, performed in at least two other productions).The artworks further identify these two British actors, not on the principal cast list, therefore probably playing minor roles, or as extras: William “Billy” Tasker (1901-1992) of Cheschire, and Mr. Maresch, possibly being Harald Maresch (1916-1986) whose acting career ended due to the suicide of Lupe Velez who blamed him for her death.Other actors in this production, whose we find in the programme, include Frances Day (née Frances Victoria Schenk) who was extremely popular for her outrageously sexy and infinitely suggestive acting and who made a show stopping performance of Cole Porter’s song “It’s De-Lovely” in “The Fleet’s Lit Up” and Adele Dixon as ‘The Ranee of Zabalon’ (ranee being the wife of a rajah).
“The Fleet’s Lit Up” was a theatrical performance, advertised as a “musical frolic” and a “Naughtical Musical Play,” first performed in 1938 at the original London Hippodrome, produced and directed by George Black. Such an enormous success, it ran for 199 performances.Its title was a variant of the then famous words spoken the year before by Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander Tommy Woodrooffe and BBC’s Deputy Director of Outside Broadcasting, who, from the deck of HMS Nelson, had exclaimed several times consecutively, “The Fleet is all lit up!” in celebration of the illuminated vessels present for the Coronation Fleet Review by King George VI, 20 May 1937.The story line: Horatio Roper is an Admiralty clerk, Polly Brown is a saucy nursemaid, Jack Prentice is a Lieutenant in the Navy, and all three start out at the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens, from where they visit the Seahorses Night Club. At the club they are involved in a dream-sequence flashback to 1738, where their good ship “Seahorse” is in battle with a pirate ship headed by the pirate queen, Mary Read. After this they are cruising in the “Seahorse” only to be kidnapped by the Ranee of Zabalon and carried off to her palace. Other scenes involve a ballet in a newspaper office, a cabaret sequence, and a finale depicting the Spithead review.The playwright was Vivian John Herman Ellis, CBE (1903-1996), a popular English musical comedy composer. He became well known in the London West End theatre community for providing the music and collaborating in the production of a large number of musical shows, from 1925 to 1958. Ellis dominated the musical theatre of the 1930s with up to three shows running most years of the decade.The producer was George Black (1890-1945), a British theatrical impresario who controlled many entertainment venues during the 1930s-1940s and who was a pioneer of the motion-picture business. In 1928, Black moved to London and took over the management of GTC (General Theatre Corporation), which ran a chain of theatres, cinemas and dance halls. He also took over the management of the London Palladium, which was the flagship of the corporation. The Hippodrome, London in Leicester Square, Brighton Hippodrome and Blackpool Opera House were also under his control. The Fleet’s Lit Up (1938) was the first show he produced in London.