In April 2022 I was in the University of Bristol Theatre Collection researching the London cabaret scene of the early to mid twentieth century when I saw this face peeking out at me from an open folder of programmes and cuttings. I was immediately intrigued! The full picture was, I assumed, a publicity shot for a cabaret act, a play, or perhaps even a film.
Handwritten on the back were the words "Hank the Mule. The Piccadilly: One of few really novel Acts seen in London cabaret" and there was the stamp of the "General Photographic Agency, 173-5, Fleet Street, London" but no date. There was also no record of the image in the list of records I was consulting, so with no more information immediately available, I took a photo of it for my own memory, and carried on with my research.
Cut to nearly a year later and I'm in the Manuscripts Reading Room of the British Library in London looking for a play from April 1913 in the Lord Chamberlain's Plays Collection, when I come across the script for The Tik-Tok Man of Oz, described as "A Musical Comedy in a Prelude and Six". The Reader's Report is from the 12th March 1913, and by by the Examiner of Plays Charles Brookfield, who had been a successful actor and was a writer himself of plays and musical comedy. In his Report he tries to describe the "vague and meandering" story of The Tik-Tok Man of Oz in some detail, ending with "If this synopsis appears somewhat incoherent, it is the author who should be blamed not the patient reader". Pronouncing the piece "Quite harmless" he recommends it for License. There is a handwritten addendum by Brookfield to the report dated 14th April to say that the songs for the piece have been submitted and they "appear perfectly in order". The scores for the songs are attached to the end of the script in the LCP Collection, and are in their published form just as the picture below:
Much has been written about the show by Oz fans - here's an example if you want to find out more about its production history and here's the Wikipedia page about it. Here's a presentation on youtube from Eric Shanower who has a book coming out about the making of The Tik-Tok Man of Oz next month. You can find out more about it here.
Amongst the various online listings for the 1913 productions of the musical - including Shanower's extensive and detailed listing of the USA productions in 1913 - I can't find a London production mentioned, but according to Allardyce Nicoll's Hand-List of Plays it was performed or at least licensed to be performed at the Lyric Theatre in London on 30th April 1913, just a month after the production first opened in Los Angeles. (Allardyce Nicoll, English Drama 1900-1930 The Beginnings of the Modern Period, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973, p. 500)
Seeing the long eared beast on the front of the songsheets and reading in Brookfield's report about the character of “Betsy Baker a mortal who has been shipwrecked on the shore of the Rose Kingdom, with her favourite mule Hank”, I immediately remembered that photo from Bristol Theatre Collection! Surely there had to be some relation between the two?
A bit of online research later revealed that the recalcitrant looking mule from the photo was indeed the same one from The Tik-Tok Man of Oz.
This is who was inside the mule costume - actor Frank Woodward! He specialised in animal impersonations and played the role of Hank in the original productions in the USA. I haven't yet been able to find out who was cast as Hank in the London production, if it did go ahead. Eric Shanower in his presentation mentions that many performers joined and left the original cast during the development process and the early performances, but Frank Woodward was such a hit as Hank that his job was secure from the beginning.
Frank Woodward later developed the character as a vaudeville and cabaret act, which he brought to London in early 1926 with his wife performing alongside Hank as his trainer. The Daily Mirror announced his arrival on the London stage on 1st February 1926: "Hank the Mule, a new and strange stage animal...will make his first appearance on the variety stage on this side of the Atlantic at the Coliseum to-day. With him is his trainer, Miss Nina Woodward".
The Hank act was positively reviewed as part of "Playtime" at the Piccadilly as few days later in the theatrical newspaper The Stage.
"Hank is one of the weirdest, drollest creatures ever conceived by an artist in fantasy. His chief business in life seems to be flirting with the lady members of his audiences, although he finds time to show a keen interest in the “eats” and drinks. At the request of his trainer he is liable to break into a dance, and as a vocalist he is not far behind the average chorus. How Hank will go when he arrives at the greater and less intimate surroundings of vaudeville, it is difficult to say, but there can be no doubt of his success at the Piccadilly; and the Woodwards are to be congratulated.” (4th February 1926, p. 14)
A reviewer from Gentlewoman & Modern Life was similarly impressed:
“… a turn called “Hank the Mule” stood out vividly. A more preposterous mule, with stubborn and intensely cynical expression, I never did see, and the way it (or he) meandered round the tables and shoved his nose into parties, especially where the ladies were the prettiest, was most amusing. Mr Woodward and his keeper Miss Morrisey have devised something new." (6 February 1926, p. 212)
For more about Hank the Mule as a cabaret act, see this blog and this astonishing video from 1926!
It's easy to see why the anonymous writer wrote on the back of the photo "One of the few really novel acts seen in London cabaret". As someone who performs on the London cabaret scene as Ada Campe, I know this act would definitely steal every show if it was revived!
Fred continued to perform as Hank regularly in the UK and Europe as well as in the USA - there was an incident that got some press attention involving a letter sent by air mail from London to him at a cabaret venue in Oslo in 1930 that was redirected to Berlin, Paris, the South of France, then Oslo, then Paris again, before finally being returned to sender in London two years later covered in postage marks and stamps. (The Daily Mirror, 15th November 1932, p. 5)
Reviews and articles reveal he was in London in the 194os performing well into his 60s in variety shows and cabarets, and in the pantomime Mother Goose in Glasgow in 1946 and Newcastle in 1947. You can find out more about his later career here.
I think it's fascinating that such a long standing, unique, and internationally successful cabaret act came out of a fairly unsuccessful musical comedy - albeit one that was part of a larger portfolio of stories about Oz on stage and on film. Good for Fred and his partners!
It's also fun to find unexpected treats during periods of archival research - even if you can't quite make sense of them when you first find them.
Thoughts, reflections, bits of research