World War I brought a demand for escapist entertainment. The big hits on the London stage were Chu Chin Chow, The Maid of the Mountains and The Bing Boys are Here starring George Robey and Violet Loraine who sang the smash hit ‘If You Were the Only Girl in the World’. The spectacular musical Chu Chin Chow became the stage’s longest running show with 2,235 performances at His Majesty’s Theatre in London opening on 31 August 1916.
Chu Chin Chow costumes, Tatler magazine, September 1917
These are some of the costumes for the hugely successful musical Chu Chin Chow which opened in 1916 and ran for nearly five years. Chu Chin Chow was based on the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and was full of melodrama and murder. It cashed in on the craze for Orientalism popularised by the Diaghilev Ballet in Scheherazade and Le Dieu Bleu and the fantastic costumes were unashamedly in the style of their designer, Leon Bakst.
Lily Brayton as Zahrat Al-Kulub in Chu Chin Chow, autographed postcard, early 20th century
Lily Brayton in her role as Zahrat Al-Kulub, in the box office smash hit based on Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. It was widely thought that Lily helped her husband Oscar Asche to write the script for Chu Chin Chow. She certainly played a major role in the action. The Robber Chieftain Abu Hasan forces his captive, the beautiful Zahrat Al-Kulub, to spy for him by holding her lover hostage. She is nearly found out several times. Finally, on the eve of an attack on Ali Baba’s family, planned by Abu Hasan, she disposes of the forty thieves using the traditional boiling oil, stabs Abu Hasan and generally saves the day. Lily was already a well known actress and one of the great postcard beauties of the Edwardian era. She and Asche had played Shakespeare and had many other successes together. The role of Zahrat Al-Kulub was a non-singing role, so must have been written around Lily’s strengths, which lay in her acting, not her singing.
Oscar Asche as Abu Hasan in the musical Chu Chin Chow, sepia tone photograph postcard, early 20th century
Oscar Asche based his musical Chu Chin Chow on Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. However, Ali Baba got left in the background. Oscar himself played the strongly dramatic role of Abu Hasan, the robber chieftain. His wife Lily Brayton played his equally forceful captive, Zahrat Al-Kulub. Asche’s deal with Henry Dana, manager of His Majesty’s Theatre, was that he would take a small percentage fee, which would go up if the show took £50,000 (nearly £1million today) in the first 20 weeks. Because of the war, Dana was confident it wouldn’t even run that long. Sadly for him, Chu Chin Chow opened on 31 August 1916, and ran for nearly five years, smashing all box office records. Everyone involved made a fortune, especially Oscar Asche. The £50,000 was reached in just 17 weeks so, for the rest of the run, he got a 20% cut of all profits. By 1924 the show had earned him £120,000 (over £2 million today). He also had a second hit on his hands with his production The Maid of the Mountains. But Asche was an inveterate gambler and by 1926 he was bankrupt.
Artist unknown, Chu Chin Chow pot, signed by its stars Oscar Asche and his wife Lily Brayton, His Majesty's Theatre, London, around 1919. Museum no. S.56-2003
This pot is one of hundreds made during the run of Chu Chin Chow. Every night, a potter from the famous firm of Wedgwood made a pot as part of the ‘atmosphere’ in the market scene. The show opened in 1916, and smashed all box office records of the time by running for five years. The pot is signed by the show’s creators, husband and wife Oscar Asche and Lily Brayton. This husband and wife team had had a big success with Kismet in earlier years. Asche wrote Chu Chin Chow along similar lines, basing it on Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. It was a tale of melodrama and murder, comedy and colour in 15 extravagant scenes. Full stage oriental sets and extravagant, sculptural costumes combined in a fabulous visual pageant.