Long before Beyoncé made headlines as the highest-paid woman in pop, Italian opera singer Adelina Patti was breaking through the glass ceiling of Nineteenth Century Europe. Tickets to a concert she gave at Brighton Dome in 1901 – recently discovered beneath the floorboards of a local home – were sold for 15 shillings each, which was around two days wages for a tradesman. What’s more, says the Dome’s Senior Programming Coordinator Alex Epps, Patti demanded that venues paid her takings in gold. “She was quite a badass!” laughs Epps, who bought the tickets at auction for the Dome’s archives. “She travelled on her own private train, wore the most expensive costume ever made for an opera and apparently she had a pet parrot that she had trained to shout ‘Cash! Cash!’ at male promoters.”
Patti is one of a host of formidable women from Brighton’s past who feature in a talk being given this month by historian Louise Peskett, known for the Notorious Women of Brighton and Notorious Women of Kemp Town walking tours. While Patti ruled the stage, figures such as Ellen Nye Chart, manager of the Theatre Royal from 1876, were breaking with convention behind the scenes. Nye Chart surprised everyone by taking over the management of the theatre when her husband Henry died – “A female manageress would have been incredibly unusual at the time,” says Epps. She introduced an annual pantomime – inviting residents of the town’s workhouse to see it for free – and brought popular performers including Sarah Bernhardt and Henry Irving to the city. By the 1880s Nye Chart had paid off the mortgage on the theatre and their house next door and turned the business into a profitable and respected regional theatre.
Louise will also talk about Victorian male impersonator and music hall star Vesta Tilley – whose time in the city is remembered with a blue plaque at her former home in St Aubyns Mansions, Hove; conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, who were born in Riley Road, Brighton in 1908 and went on to tour England and the United States and appear in the film Freaks; and sisters Elsie and Doris Waters who were considered the most successful female comedians of the late 1940s.
“Brighton seems to have long held an attraction for performers,” says Epps, who is working with a team of volunteers to create an archive documenting the Dome’s part in Brighton’s entertainment history. “But Louise is particularly interested in the stories of the women who performed and even made their names here, from figures like Patti up to the gospel and blues musician Rosetta Tharpe, who was dubbed ‘the woman who gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll’ and performed at the Dome with Muddy Waters in 1964. It’s an extraordinary history for a fairly small city.”
Women In Entertainment talk at Brighton Dome (Founders Room), 7th Feb, 1pm