Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Tribute to Armstrong and Ashton

The "Let Me Entertain You" musical number is a highlight of a Melbourne State Theatre production of "Gypsy."
I always feel great sympathy for the many minor acts that came and went on the vaudeville stage.  They worked hard and made sacrifices in an often thankless effort to entertain the public and an often futile effort to become stars.  I would like to pay tribute to one of those hardworking and unsung acts today.

Armstrong and Ashton, a female singing duo, toured with an act called "The Soubrette and the Boy" from 1907 to 1911.  An alternate title that the singers used for the act in their early days was "The College Boy and the Dainty Miss."  The gimmick of the act, as the titles suggest, was that one of the women dressed up as a man.  It is similar to the Hovick sisters' act, which was recreated in the musical "Gypsy."  Armstrong and Ashton were categorized a "sister act," which was a term that was applied to a female pair whether the two women were sisters or not.  The following review of  the act was printed in Variety on August 21, 1909.
Armstrong and Ashton make up a neat little "girl" number for light place.  Both are on the plump "pony" style of feminine architecture.  One dresses as soubret, the other in male attire.  The absence of a snappy dancing routine takes a good deal away from the act, which is made up for the most part of singing.  A duet at the finish was their best number.  Neither has a good enough voice to carry off a solo.  One of the pair does a fair impersonation of Harry Lauder staging "Daisy."  A change into the Scotch comedian's military rig and back to the same soubret dress as worn at the opening was the only costume change.  Their appearance is the girls' stand-by.
So, sadly, their one big write-up in Variety was less than flattering.  The critic, known only as "Rush," did not like the ladies' singing or their dancing.  But, at least, he did like their appearance and he did like their Harry Lauder impersonation.  I believe that Rush meant it as a compliment when he described the women as "plump."  He seemed to be making the point that they looked like curvy chorus girls.  Would he make mention of a male singing duo being plump?  Probably not.  The women were mentioned more favorably in Variety's out of town reviews.  Boston correspondent Ernest L. Waitt praised them for "good dancing, unusually good mimicry," a Springfield correspondent said they were "well liked," a Johnston correspondent said they were "very good," and an Atlanta correspondent rated them as "good."  I like that one simple word "good."  You can at any time tell me that I am a good writer or a good person and I will be ecstatically pleased.  

I never got to see Armstrong and Ashton's act obviously, but it had to have been entertaining to have played continuously in New York and Philadelphia for four years.  In any case, I thank these young women for their efforts to entertain my scraggly forebearers.

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