Dan Leno was among the funniest and the most loved of comedians of the Victorian Music Hall, one whose career formed a bridge between the pantomime clowning of Joe Grimaldi in the early 19th century and the era of motion pictures.
Dan Leno, as was confessed on his behalf, “came into the world a mere child” but became a farthing millionaire with “an acre and two pints of some of the best wasp-stalking in the kingdom.” This way of introducing Leno in Hys Booke was typical of his act and himself. Although he performed in London for less than 20 years, Leno became a legend.
His real name was George Wild Galvin. Born 20 December 1860, the child of entertainers, he was raised in poverty in London and first trod the boards aged just four.
Dan and his brother Henry appeared as The Brothers Leno – Champion Dancers, and the family toured the halls throughout the north of England, Scotland and Ireland.
In his late teens he developed a solo act. Leno remained small in his adult life reaching only 5 ft 3ins. He was a very good clog dancer and entered a competition in 1880, at the Princess’s Music Hall in Leeds. The competition was supposed to be rigged, but he overcame the obstacles to become World Champion Clog Dancer and win a gold and silver belt weighing 44.5 oz (1.26 kg).
His biographer, J. Hickory Wood (1859–1925) described his act thus: “He danced on the stage; he danced on a pedestal; he danced on a slab of slate; he was encored over and over again; but throughout his performance, he never uttered a word. He performed his clog dancing routine throughout the British Isles with success, but found less interest in clog dancing among the London audiences, who preferred his comic songs.”
In 1883 Leno met Sarah Lydia Reynolds, a comedy singer; they married at St. George’s Church, Hulme, in Manchester the following year and not long after Georgina, the first of their six children, was born. The family moved back to London and Leno gained success with a new act, featuring comedy patter, dancing and song.
He made it to the main London stages by 1885, immediately acclaimed as a comic master, and soon established as a national favourite, particularly on account of his performances as a pantomime dame in Drury Lane pantomimes.
From 1886 to his death in 1904 he was immensely popular, pioneering the style of comedy which held sway until the gag-men of the 1930s took over.
His artistry was built around an uncanny ability to mimic the trials and absurdities of everyday living. Leno excelled in making his comic characters as realistic as they were comic, products of an acute sense of human characteristics. As a railway guard, waiter, shop-walker, lodger, recruiting sergeant, swimming instructor or Widow Twankey (he was the archetypal pantomime dame), Leno’s befuddled demeanour reflected life’s puzzlements in a form that all could recognise and delight in.
He appeared at three music halls in one night, the Middlesex (Drury Lane), the Forester’s (Mile End) and Gatti’s-in-the-Road. He set about creating various comedic characters using observations about life in London, including dames, a police officer, a Spanish bandit, a fireman, and a hairdresser. He would begin with one verse of a song, then enter into his monologue with the audience, particularly the You Know Mrs. Kelly? routine. In the 1880s, he became probably the most popular music hall act in England.
In 1886 he played a pantomime dame in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Surrey Theatre with much success. On the strength of this, he was hired in 1888 by Augustus Harris, manager at Drury Lane to appear in that theatre’s pantomime productions including Jack and the Beanstalk, Babes in the Wood and Mother Goose. For the next fifteen years, in the Drury Lane pantomimes, he played the dame to Marie Lloyd’s principal girl. At this time, the pantomime would play continuously from the Christmas season to Easter.
In 1902, under the strain of continuous performance, Leno suffered a mental breakdown and died on the 31 October 1904 at the age of 43, probably suffering from a brain tumour which had caused his behaviour to become increasingly erratic. His funeral was a public occasion, the biggest funeral for an actor or comedian since the death of David Garrick.
The Times wrote: “To find anything like a close parallel to his style we should probably have to go back to the Italian commedia dell’arte”.
Max Beerbohm wrote: “Dan Leno’s was not one of those personalities which dominate us by awe, subjugating us against our will. His was of that other, finer kind — the lovable kind. He had, in a higher degree than any other actor I have ever seen, the indefinable quality of being sympathetic. I defy anyone not to have loved Dan Leno at first sight. The moment he capered on, with that air of wild determination, squirming in every limb with some deep grievance that must be outpoured, all hearts were his.”
Leno is buried in Lambeth Cemetery near other members of his family. His memorial is maintained by the entertainment charity, the Grand Order of Water Rats, of which he was a King Rat. The inscription reads ‘Here sleeps the King of Laughter-Makers. Sleep well, dear heart, until the King of Glory awakens thee.’