Tackling my folder of problem programmes last week, I came across two items undated, with no venue, featuring the Victorian entertainer John Orlando Parry (1810 – 1879). Undaunted by the paucity of useful information, and wanting to find out more, a little methodical searching of The Times Digital Archive and the Illustrated London News soon revealed chapter and verse – and indeed a whole lot more.
So who was John Orlando Parry? Hugely popular in his time, the Dictionary of National Biography describes him, somewhat sedately, as “an actor and singer”, but perhaps a more accurate portrayal is of a nineteenth-century equivalent of Noel Coward, or Hinge and Bracket. Not only was he an accomplished pianist and a fine baritone, but he was also an artist and a composer, writing much of the material for his entertainments himself, with Albert Smith who provided the words, and sometimes displaying his art work during them.
He began his career on the stage in the 1830s appearing in burletta including his own “Buffo Trio Italiano”. However, in 1842 he began giving his celebrated “entertainments” in a variety of concert rooms, setting the pattern for his career through until the 1870s. They consisted of highly inventive vocal impersonations (he could sing bass, tenor and alto!) monologues, humourous songs and characterisations depicting a range of different scenarios. He also appeared alongside other musicians including Liszt on his tours of the country as this programme in the Royal College of Music’s collections shows. As the Illustrated London News for Saturday June 15 1844 so succinctly puts it: “…he gives comic musical illustrations and recitations at the pianoforte in a style that is quite sui generis…”.
The UL has a few of his pieces in its extensive collections of nineteenth-century popular songs and ballads. The Musical Wife (A.1876.24) and Wanted a Governess (MR290.a.80.120) are two good examples. The Library also has a copy of extracts from his travel diaries of 1833 – 34.
The two programmes in the UL’s concert programme archives are typical examples of his performances. The first, for his new entertainment “Notes , Vocal & Instrumental”, was first given on 24th June 1850 at the Store Street Music Hall (which had been established by the piano manufacturer Robert Warnum at his piano warehouse) and received with great enthusiasm. “The entertainment was honoured with shouts of the heartiest laughter from first to last, and could not possibly have been more successful” (The Times, 25 June 1850). Impossible to encapsulate the contents in a few sentences, but the programme itself does that well enough. Note especially The Piano Taught in Six Lessons and Signor Pasticcio’s “singing lesson”.
The second programme is for a benefit concert for Mr. and Mrs. German Reed marking Parry’s return to the concert hall following an absence of several years recovering, sadly, from a nervous breakdown. It took place in the Gallery of Illustration, Regent Street on 4 June 1860. A short note in The Times of 6th June 1860 remarks that “…[Parry] was so warmly received on his return to the vocation which made him celebrated years ago…” His association with the German Reeds continued for some nine years until ill-health intervened once more. His final appearance was for a benefit concert in February 1877 at the Gaiety Theatre for which £1,300 was raised for him (about £63,000 today) – an astonishing sum reflecting his popularity. Sad to relate that he died in February 1879 in reduced circumstances having lost his money through its misappropriation by his solicitor.
The affectionate obituary in The Orchestra for March 1879 remembers him thus: “John Parry was in his way a genuine artist of a highly finished and imaginative kind. He had an innate refinement and judgement…in whatever he delineated, whether with the voice, or the keys of the pianoforte, or with his pencil…”