The main attraction of Edwardes’ musical comedies at the Gaiety and Daly’s Theatres were the Gaiety Girls who formed the chorus. They were fashionable, elegant young ladies and not at all like the corseted actresses from the burlesques. Gaiety Girls were polite, beautifully dressed and well-behaved young women, who were much sought after by the ‘stage door johnnies’ of the 1890s.
Page from The Gaiety Girls' souvenir programme for the production The Shop Girl, Gaiety Theatre, London, November 1895
The 1894 production of The Shop Girl started a catchphrase. There had always been girls in the shows at the Gaiety Theatre, but the plot of this musical needed lots of them. New names such as Constance Collier and Fannie Ward (who would both go on to be famous) joined current favourites Violet Monckton and Topsy Sinden. The grand total came to more than 15 beautiful young actresses in the cast. You can see many of them in the pages of the souvenir programme here. It's no surprise that they caught the eye of fashionable London. There had been a successful musical at the Prince of Wales' Theatre the year before called A Gaiety Girl. As The Shop Girl was at the Gaiety, it was a short step to all of London talking about The Gaiety Girls. The Shop Girl ran for 546 performances into 1895, when this souvenir programme was produced.
Constance Collier postcard bookmark, late 1890s
Constance Collier could truly be said to be one of the original Gaiety Girls. She arrived at the stage door aged 15, in 1894, desperate for work. George Edwardes, the manager of the Gaiety Theatre, refused to take her on until she had permission from her mother, who was also an actress. He then ‘groomed’ her with an intensive course of lessons in elocution, singing, dancing and fencing. She was in both A Gaiety Girl and The Shop Girl, the two shows which made the Gaiety Girls famous. Constance was one of the ‘Big Eight’ amongst the Gaiety Girls. Edwardes chose the most glamorous girls to share a special dressing room. Constance became a popular actress and souvenirs like this postcard in the form of a bookmark were eagerly collected by her fans. After leaving the Gaiety, she became a leading Shakespearean actress and eventually went to Hollywood.
Gaiety Girls in The Geisha, Daly's Theatre, London, 1896
This picture shows some of the famous Gaiety Girls playing English ladies visiting Japan in the hit musical comedy The Geisha in 1896. The show gave ample opportunity for spectacular dresses, whether Japanese in style or up-to-the minute fashion. The fashion correspondent of The Sketch was bowled over by the first scene, set in the sunlit garden of a Japanese tea-house with charming Geisha girls, a 'scene of fairy-like loveliness… broken into by the advent of some lady visitors, who are clothed in accordance with the very latest and most extreme modes of the moment and the result is a piquantly striking contrast, as you may imagine'. Percy Anderson designed the Japanese costumes with advice from Arthur Diòsy of the Japan society. The non-Japanese characters were dressed by leading fashion houses. By the 1890s many of the best-known London couturiers were dressing stage productions. As the illustrated periodicals fell over themselves to publish photographs of all the actresses in the latest stage hits, the theatre became an excellent way of publicising the latest fashions.
Contact sheets showing scenes from The Quaker Girl, photography by Alfred Ellis & Walery, Adelphi Theatre, London, 1910
From these contact sheets the audience members could choose which images they wanted enlarged for their own collections. They give a very good idea of what the production looked like, as they were taken on stage with the full cast, whereas most publicity pictures showed the stars or small groups, taken in the studio. The Quaker Girl was George Edwardes' first production at the Adelphi. His theory was that having the Adelphi as well as Daly's and the Gaiety would help to spread the enormous financial risks involved in the production of musical shows.
He spent £20,000 (about £750,000 today) on modernising and redecorating the Adelphi, so his economising didn't get off to a good start. The Quaker Girl and the theatre were a great success. The music was written by Lionel Monckton and the star was his wife, Gertie Millar. She played Prudence, the Quaker girl of the title, who gets caught up in a whirl of fashion and romance when a French dressmaker decides that her plain Quaker clothes will be the next 'big thing' and whisks her off to Paris.