George Wild Galvin, better known by the stage name Dan Leno, was a leading English music hall comedian and musical theatre actor during the late Victorian era. He was best known, aside from his music hall act, for his dame roles in the annual pantomimes that were popular at London’s Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, from 1888 to 1904.
Leno was born in St Pancras, London, and began to entertain as a child. In 1864, he joined his parents on stage in their music hall act, and he made his first solo appearance, aged nine, at the Britannia Music Hall in Coventry.
In 1878, Leno and his family moved to Manchester. The teenage Leno’s growing popularity led to bookings at, among others, the Varieties Theatre in Sheffield and the Star Music Hall in Manchester. At the same time, Leno’s clog dancing continued to be so good that in 1880 he won the world championship at the Princess’s Music Hall in Leeds.
Leno met Lydia Reynolds, a young dancer and comedy singer from Birmingham, while both were appearing at King Ohmy’s Circus of Varieties, Rochdale. In 1883, Lydia joined the Leno family theatre company, which already consisted of his parents, Johnny Danvers and Leno. The following year, Leno and Reynolds married; around this time, he adopted the stage name “Dan Leno”.
In 1885, Leno and his wife moved to Clapham Park, London. Leno owned “an acre or so” of land at the back of his house in Clapham Park, producing cabbages, potatoes, poultry, butter and eggs. In 1898, Leno and his family moved to 56 Akerman Road, Lambeth, where they lived for several years.
NB The website of Balham Cycling Club, in its article “The King’s Jester and the Balham Motor and Cycle Works”, says: “At the height of his fame he resided in South London, living at 27 Cavendish Road in 1891 and 345 Clapham Road from 1894 to 1897. In 1898 he moved to 46 Akerman Road, Brixton before moving eighteen months later to Springfield House in Atkins Road, Balham (then Clapham Park), where he lived until his death in 1904.”
Leno was hired in 1888 by Augustus Harris, manager at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, to appear in that year’s Christmas pantomime, Babes in the Wood. Harris’s pantomime productions at the huge theatre were known for their extravagance and splendour.
In their pantomimes, the diminutive Leno and the massive Herbert Campbell were a visually comic duo. They would often deviate from the script, improvising freely…the English essayist and caricaturist Max Beerbohm stated that “Leno does not do himself justice collaborating with the public”. He noted, however, that Leno “was exceptional in giving each of his dames a personality of her own, from extravagant queen to artless gossip”. In Sleeping Beauty, Leno and Campbell caused the audience to laugh even when they could not see them: they would arrive on stage in closed palanquins and exchange the lines, “Have you anything to do this afternoon, my dear?” – “No, I have nothing on”, before being carried off again.
Frustrated at not being accepted as a serious actor, Leno became obsessed with the idea of playing Richard III and other great Shakespearean roles, inundating the actor–manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree with his proposals. After his final run of Mother Goose at the Drury Lane Theatre in early 1903, Leno’s delusions overwhelmed him. On the closing evening, and again soon afterwards, he travelled to the home of Constance Collier, who was Beerbohm Tree’s leading lady at His Majesty’s Theatre, and also followed her to rehearsal there. He attempted to persuade her to act alongside him in a Shakespearean season that Leno was willing to fund. On the second visit to her home, Leno brought Collier a diamond brooch. Recognising that Leno was having a mental breakdown, she gently refused his offer, and Leno left distraught.
Two days later, he was admitted into an asylum for the insane. Leno spent several months in Camberwell House Asylum, London, under the care of Dr. Savage, who treated Leno with “peace and quiet and a little water colouring”. On his second day, Leno told a nurse that the clock was wrong. When she stated that it was right, Leno remarked, “Well if it’s right, then what’s it doing here?”
Leno died at his home in London on 31 October 1904, aged 43, and was buried at Lambeth Cemetery, Tooting. The cause of death is not known. His death and funeral were national news. Max Beerbohm later said of Leno’s death: “So little and frail a lantern could not long harbour so big a flame”.