Eve Golden’s YouTube Theater: ‘I Will Be Really Impressed If You’ve Heard of Billie Carleton’

 

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Billie Carlton in a Pathe newsreel.


Note: Eve has discontinued her YouTube Theater, but has consented to have me post the entries she has already written.

Well, have you? She was a rising British stage starlet in the 1910s who died in one of the first post-War drug scandals in those Bright Young Things days. Billie was a native Londoner—Bloomsbury, no less!—born in 1896, daughter of a chorus girl. She took to the stage early, and made her first hit in 1915, taking on Irene Castle’s role in the Irving Berlin Broadway musical Watch Your Step! Billie and Irene both had rather iffy alto voices, but were both brilliant, graceful dancers.

Here we can listen to Billie’s only known recording, from Watch Your Step!, of “Show Us How to Do the Fox Trot,” with leading comic star George Graves. There’s a lot of music-hall palaver before the song actually kicks in at about the 2:00 minute mark, if you want to fast-forward:

Billie went from success to success: Charles Cochran—the Ziegfeld of London—starred her in the musical Houp La!, after leading lady Gertie Millar left in 1917. André Charlot—yet another Ziegfeld of London!—put her in his revue Some, which also featured up-and-coming musical-comedy actresses Beatrice Lillie and Gertrude Lawrence. The three had a lot in common: none of them were classic beauties or possessed impressive singing voices. But they all had that engaging star quality which put them over with audiences. And they were all full of pepper, too: Carleton, Lillie and Lawrence were constantly being fined or fired (and promptly rehired) by Charlot for running up and down the metal stairs during the show, laughing loudly backstage (and onstage), and trying to break up their costars, a cardinal sin in the theater (sorry, “theatre”).

Billie Carleton moved on from revues into book shows, starring in The Boy (1917), Fair and Warmer (1918, as Fay Compton’s wisecracking maid), and finally starring in The Freedom of the Seas, a 1918 war drama. She was well on her way to joining British actresses Gladys Cooper, Cathleen Nesbitt, Meggie Albanesi (oh, and don’t get me started on that poor thing!) and Edna Best as one of the lights of the West End.

And then it all went to hell, as things tend to do. “Broadway doesn’t go for booze and dope,” Helen Lawson told Neely O’Hara, but we all know Helen was full of it. Like too many Bright Young Things, Billie took to booze and dope in a big way. On November 27, 1918, she attended the Victory Ball at the Royal Albert Hall, along with Irene Castle, actress Oliver Richardson and actor Lionel Belcher (really, I’m sure Belcher is a good old British name, and my apologies to any Belchers out there—but as a stage name? Really?). The group decamped to Billie’s rooms at the Savoy Court for gossip, snacks and drugs (the prim and proper Irene Castle saying “no, thank you,” as a lady should).

The party broke up around dawn, Billie waving goodbye to her guests from bed, kimono-clad. The next afternoon Billie’s maid found her dead in bed—a cocaine overdose was the verdict, though Marek Kohn, in his book Dope Girls—buy it! read it! enjoy it!—says that an accidental, Marilyn Monroe-style barbiturate overdose was more likely.

And so Billie hit the news one last time, as drug raids, arrests and trials of pushers, smoky Limehouse hop-joints, all dominated the headlines. Thus we have what is probably the only film footage of Billie, courtesy of a British Pathé newsreel. I am guessing the acting footage is from Fair and Warmer; otherwise, we see her hugging a large and no doubt annoyed cat:

 

And so, Billie passed into history and was forgotten. But boy, then poor Meggie Albanesi . . . .

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About lmharnisch

I work at the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in Eve Golden, Film, Stage and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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