Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, November 21, 2014


Little Tich:  A Book of Travels (and Wanderings) by Little Tich (Harry Relph) (1911)

Before Fu Manchu, before the Dream Detective, before the Golden Scorpion, Sax Rohmer wrote songs, sketches and jokes for the English music hall.  Many of those songs and jokes (and perhaps sketches) were written for Rohmer's good friend Harry Relph, who was world-famous as the performer Little Tich.  Many sources indicate that Rohmer ghost-wrote this book for his friend.  That he was involved in the book is clear; many parts of this "autobiography" reference Rohmer and indicate that he was (at the very least) consulted on the book.  How much of the book was edited or ghost-written by him is open to question, but Little Tich until recently had been a very hard-to-get volume for the Rohmer collector.

It was published in 1911 by Greening & Co., a London publisher with whom Rohmer had worked before.  The slim paperbound book looked to be a very popular one but, as if sometimes the case with the chancy enterprise of publishing, Greening & Co. went out of business shortly after publishing Little Tich.  Cheap paperbound books circa 1911 have a short shelf life -- few copies survived and those that did commanded steep prices, sometimes over a thousand dollars.  Seven years ago, A & B Treebooks of Baileyton, Georgia, reissued the book in an affordable print-on-demand edition; an edition that included the book's original illustrations and advertisements.

The question rises:  Was this effort worthwhile?

Yes and no.

Times and tastes change.  The humor that made a late nineteenth/early twentieth century comic famous can wear a little thin in the twenty-first century.  A thin (112 pages), heavily illustrated book with 21 chapters makes for fast reading.  There is little structure to the book; it is basically a compendium of anecdotes -- many supposedly true -- from Little Tich's career as he travels and performs throughout Europe, America, and Australia.  As he tells these stories of his travels, he also wanders off the point.  Much of the humor comes from bringing up a subject then going off on a tangent, often never returning to the original subject.  There's humor that's based on his then-and-now -- what may have been funny in 1911 leaves the contemporary reader puzzled because the frame of reference is gone.  There's evasive humor also.  For example, in giving his background, we learn that Little Tich was definitely born (to the best of his recollection).  There is little jingoism here, thankfully -- a few lines about Blacks and American Indians that fit the stereotypes of the time.

The basic problem, I think, with the book is that it is a book.  The stories, jokes, and anecdotes here are best if told, not read.  I can picture Little Tich telling these tales from the stage to great laughter.  The words on a page are a poor substitute for that.  There is humor and clever wordplay but the essence of Little Tich is missing because the physical presence of Little Tich is missing.

I'm glad I finally had a chance to read this book, something I've been wanting to do for over a quarter century, and, taken for what it is, I enjoyed it.  It just isn't everyone's cup of tea, I fear.

For those interested, here's a couple of clips of Little Tich.  The first shows the comic with his trademark size 28 shoes.

And a recording of one of his sketches, "The Gas Inspector."

And a song (with accompanying story), "King Ki Ki."

And, finally, his interpretation of a famed "serpentine" dancer of the time, Loie Fuller.  (I guess it knocked the socks off the audience back in the day.)

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