Found, a letter dated 6th December 1990 from someone called Rudi to the playwright John Osborne, whom he addresses as ‘ Colonel’, presumably a reference to Colonel Redl, the protagonist of Osborne’s controversial play A Patriot For Me (1965).
The letter accompanies a copy of Billy Bennett’s Third Budget of Burlesque Monologues (c1940), which Rudi had sent Osborne as a sixty-first birthday present. The Music Hall star Bennett ( 1887 – 1942), a unique comic presence on the stage and on radio from 1919, was a great favourite of Osborne’s, as indeed he was of Tommy Cooper, Ken Dodd and Eric Morecambe. Bennett’s billing as ‘ almost a gentleman ‘ was used by the playwright as the title of his second volume of memoirs. Here is the letter in full:
‘Thought you should have these. My dad took me to the Kilburn Empire when I was 9 to see him (B.B.) in “ Harry Champion’s 90th Birthday Party” , starring Harry Champion , Billy Bennett, several other old timers I’ve forgotten and a man called Owen- ? , who was a famous quick change artist. There were mysterious figures all in black, their faces masked, who dressed and wigged him as he exited through one door using one voice to appear through another preceded by an off-stage different voice. A scene from ‘Oliver Twist’ with him playing O.T., Bill Sykes, Fagin and Nancy. The finale was the whole company doing it with B.B. as O.T.!!! Owen-?’s son was still doing the act in the U.S. ten years ago. I met him at a ‘Hollywood Party’ (pace Morecombe and Wise ) and he invited me to go and see the act at the Citrus Auditorium, Pasadena. Alas, I didn’t. It seemed too far from the red plush and gilt, the lighted Act No. each side of the proscenium, and that unforgettable sound of the pit orchestra of the old halls ‘
The Owen referred to here was Owen McGiveney (1884 – 1967), a legendary ‘quick-change’ artist of the halls, one of whose specialities was a version of Oliver Twist in which he played several of the characters. On his death his son Michael (aka Owen McGiveney jnr) took over his act. Osborne died in December 1994 at his home in Shropshire aged 65.