29 March 2017

Ada Reeve

British stage and film actress Ada Reeve (1874-1966) was much loved on three continents. She was one of the most popular British singing comediennes of her time, and considered to be a headliner in variety and vaudeville. She was endowed with a softness of voice and delicacy of performance that quite set her apart from virtually all of her more raucous contemporaries in the music halls and popularised many memorable songs.

Ada Reeve
British postcard by the Philco Publishing Co., London, no. 3050 A. Photo: Bassano.

Ada Reeve
British postcard by Rotary Photo, no. 4167. Photo: Foulsham & Banfield.

The Family Meal Ticket

Ada Reeve was born as Adelaide Mary Isaacs in London, England, in 1874. She was the first of many children of minor actor Charles Reeves and dancer Harriet Saunders.

‘Little Ada Reeves’ made her first stage appearance at just four years old in the pantomime Red Riding Hood at the Pavilion Theatre in London in 1878. A series of pantomime and dramatic roles followed. Her talent, even at so early an age was obvious and Ada soon became the family meal ticket.

As a teenager, it became apparent that musical comedy was Ada's particular talent and she began working as a music hall performer under the name Ada Reeve. She soon became firmly established as one of the principal light comedy artistes and sang many songs which attained great popularity.

Her She Was a Clergyman’s Daughter was a seemingly innocent, but actually risqué music hall song about a clergyman's daughter who was not as naive or charitable as she would have you imagine.

Reeve performed the song in a demure costume of a flounced dress and bonnet, letting the audience in on the racy innuendos of the song through knowing winks and gestures.

Ada Reeve
British postcard in the Smart Novels Series by Dover Street Studios.

Ada Reeve
British postcard. Sent by mail in 1905.

Gaiety Girl

In 1894, Ada Reeve married actor Bert Gilbert and returned to mainstream theatre, first touring as Haidee in Don Juan.

Later that year she became one of George Edwardes famous Gaiety girls and made her West End Debut as Bessie Brent in The Shop Girl. She neglected to tell Edwardes that she was pregnant when offered the part, and had to leave midway through the run of 546 performances as her condition became more delicate.

She returned in All Abroad at the Criterion Theatre (1895), and as the title character in the hit The Girl from Paris (1896) at the Duke of York's Theatre.

She and her husband then toured Australia. However, the marriage with Gilbert had turned sour, with Reeve claiming extreme cruelty and petitioning for divorce while still in Australia. On the return sea journey to England, Reeve was forced to appeal to the captain of the ship for protection from him.

Once in England, the couple separated, and the divorce was finalised in 1900. Ada Reeve settled in London with her two daughters, Bessie Adelaide Hazlewood (1895) and Lillian Mary "Goody" Hazlewood (1897).

Ada Reeve
British postcard by Davidson Bros. in the Glossyphoto Series, no. 1285.

Ada Reeve
British postcard in The Star Series by G.D.&D., London.

Variety and Vaudeville

In 1898, Reeve played the role of Madame Celeste in Milord, Sir Smith, followed by the role of Cleopatra in The Great Caesar in 1899.

Later that year, she created the role of Lady Holyrood in the hit musical comedy Florodora at the Lyric Theatre. In 1900-1901, she again toured Australia, in Florodora.

Reeve joined the cast of the hit musical San Toy in 1901, and later took over the title role from Marie Tempest.

Reeve remarried in 1902 to manager and actor Wilfred Cotton. Under his management, she played Miss Ventnor in The Medal and the Maid (1903) and the title role in Winnie Brooke, Widow (1904). In 1906 and 1909, she toured South Africa with her husband, becoming very popular.

Over the following years, Reeve played in variety shows in England and enjoyed extensive foreign tours, including South Africa and the US in 1911, South Africa in 1913, Australia in 1914, Australia and South Africa in 1918, South Africa in 1920, Australia from 1922 to 1924, and in 1926 and 1929, the last time playing in vaudeville.

Ada Reeve
British postcard in the Valentine Series. Photo: Lallie Charles (née Charlotte Elizabeth Martin). Possibly this was a publicity still for the stage musical San Toy. Reeve joined the cast of this hit musical in 1901, playing Dudley and later taking over the title role from Marie Tempest.

Ada Reeve
British postcard in the Milton Photolette Series, no. 42 by Woolstone Bros., London. Sent by mail in 1908.

Take It For A Fact

Ada Reeve was absent from England from 1929 to 1935. Both of her daughters, Bessie and Goody, had in the meantime settled in Australia, where both married and had children. Goody became a well known radio personality, while Bessie died of an illness in 1954.

Upon Ada's return to England, she appeared in cabarets, revues and variety. Her next dramatic role was in 1940 in the musical Black Velvet.

During the 1940s and 1950s she would appear between stage performances in nine films. The first was the fantasy They Came to a City (Basil Dearden, 1945) starring Googie Withers. In this film she repeated her stage performance as charwoman Mrs. Batley in J.B. Priestley's play They Came To A City.

However, some sources mention that her first film appearance had been some 25 years earlier, in the silent film Comradeship (Maurice Elvey, 1919), a war drama starring Lily Elsie. Stage Beauty and Wikipedia suggest she played the role of Betty
Mortimore. However, Marlene Pilaete informed me that according to the book British film catalogue and the websites British Film Institute and IMDb, the role of Betty Mortimore was played by Lily Elsie. And there is no mention of Ada Reeve in the cast in those sources.

Her (other) film roles included supporting parts in the romantic comedy Dear Mr. Prohack (Thornton Freeland, 1949) with Cecil Parker, the Film Noir Night and the City (Jules Dassin, 1950) starring Richard Widmark, and I Believe in You (Basil Dearden, Michael Relph, 1952) with Celia Johnson.

At the age of 80, she retired from the stage but made two more films, the last of which was at the age of 83, in the comedy A Passionate Stranger (Muriel Box, 1957) with Ralph Richardson. She also appeared on TV in episodes of Lilli Palmer Theatre (1956) and Nicholas Nickleby (1957).

Ada Reeve died in London, in 1966, at the age of 92. She could look back on a career that had spanned almost eighty years from her first childhood performance on stage to her last veteran appearance on film. Her autobiography was published as Take It For A Fact.

Ada Reeve and C. Hayden Coffin in Butterflies (1908)
British postcard by Rotary Photo, no. 7428 D. Photo: Foulsham & Banfield. Publicity still for the stage play Butterflies with Iris Hoey, Stella St. Audrie, C. Hayden Coffin, John Bardsley, Ada Reeve and Louis Bradfield. Butterflies is a musical play in three acts by William J. Locke, lyrics by T.H. Read and music by J.A. Robertson. Produced at the Apollo Theatre, London in 1908.

Ada Reeve
British postcard, 1954. Caption: Me on my 80th Birthday. With best wishes, Ada Reeve.

Sources: Don Gillan (Stage Beauty), Martina Lipton (It’s Behind You), British Film Institute, Wikipedia and IMDb.

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