Gloria Brame, Ph.D.

Pantomime Dame Nelson Keys: vintage article

Filed By Gloria Brame, Ph.D. | August 20, 2010 10:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Entertainment, Politics
Tags: British stage performer, female impersonator, theatrical curiosities, theatrical drag

Adorable 1930's photojournalistic piece on British stage actor Nelson Keys' nightly backstage transformation from "debonair" man to Red Riding Hood. My ain't she coy!

She's after the jump.

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Are you suggesting that a tradition in England from the time of Shakespeare is somehow gay??

Actually, Mr. Keys wouldn't have been playing the part of Little Red Riding Hood (the Principal Girl) in a British panto, but rather that of "The Dame" — in this case, probably the grandmother.

Panto has several traditional parts... The Principal Boy and Principal Girl are always both played by young and pretty actresses, the Dame by an older actor en travestie, and, of course, there's the Villain. You can learn lots more from sites like this: http://goo.gl/hHT5

Then there's the case of Sir Ian McKellen who, a few years ago, essayed the part of the Dame, Widow Twankey, in a London production of "Aladdin" to rave reviews, leading the reviewer in the Guardian to report, "We can tell our grandchildren that we saw McKellen's Twankey and it was huge."

A "pantomime dame" can't be a woman?

Theatrical traditions change with time, of course. Nowadays, for example, the rôle of the Principal Boy in a British-style "panto" may be played be a male actor (recently, John Barrowman, for example) and there's no Actors' Union rule about who gets to play the Dame.

Having said all that, I still subscribe to the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!" rule. I have fond childhood memories of being taken to the annual Christmas panto at such venues as the Empire Theatre in Glasgow (Scotland), and I still want my pantos to be cast the way I remember them. And I want my pantomime horse to show up on cue. And Heaven help the producer who fails to include, somewhere in the production, that deathless interchange between the audience and the Villain, usually as to where the Hero was hiding, or some such, that would always go...

Villain: "Oh no he isn't!"
Audience (en masse): "Oh, yes he is!"
Villain: "Oh no he isn't!"
Audience (en masse): "Oh, yes he is!"
Villain: "Oh no he isn't!"
Audience (en masse): "Oh, yes he is!"

... and would continue ad infinitum. (More info on British-style pantomime can be found here: http://goo.gl/jJ2D ) Ah, yes... "The Good Old Days!"