Fred Russell, who ‘revolutionised the presentation of ventriloquism’, was commemorated on Sunday 20 September 2009 with an English Heritage blue plaque at 71 Kenilworth Court, Lower Richmond Road, Putney, SW15, where he lived for twelve years between 1914 and 1926. The plaque was unveiled in the presence of various members of The Grand Order of Water Rats, the oldest theatrical charity and brotherhood, of which Fred Russell was ‘King’ in 1903, 1914, 1929 & 1939, and William and Marc Parnell, his great grandsons.
Fred Russell was born Thomas Frederick Parnell, in Poplar, east London, in 1862. He was educated locally and in 1883 he married Elizabeth White, and together they had six children. Russell forged a career in journalism, working as the chief reporter and later the editor of the Hackney and Kingsland Gazette.
As a ventriloquist, Russell started out as an amateur in 1879, making his semi-professional debut in August 1886. Performing under the name Fred Russell, he decided to cut short his journalistic career after Charles Morton, the music hall impresario, offered him a one-week engagement at the Palace Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, in 1896. After an eighty-two week engagement and some 400 hundred performances, Russell was on track for a long career on the variety stage. His stage act - performing with a single figure, the Cockney ‘Coster Joe’, rather than with a large group of figures – was truly pioneering in ventriloquism. A fast-paced verbal interplay between ventriloquist and dummy was key to the performance and Russell thereby formulated what became the established ventriloquial act, in which the ‘vent’ plays the ‘straight man’ and the dummy cracks the jokes.
Roy Hudd and (the original) Coster Joe Russell conceded that a performer with a single, hand-held doll does not ‘throw’ their voice as such, and might more accurately be referred to as a ‘colloquist’, although he was more than capable of impressive performing feats: in an early performance he ventriloquised a soprano solo from a life-size female puppet while playing the cello. However, it was his ‘Coster Joe’ act that best suited the demands of the variety stage, on which short set-up times and brief, punchy performances were the essence of success.
In 1906 Russell helped set up the Variety Artistes Federation (VAF), a trade union body that later incorporated The Actor’s Equity. He was also the founder and managing director of the federation’s weekly newspaper, The Performer, until 1945. He was a major force behind what became known as the ‘Award Contract’ of 1919, which greatly improved terms and conditions for performers. Russell served as Chairman of the VAF from 1915 to 1920 and later – at the age of 90 – was made Honorary President. His leading role in its foundation earned him the epithet of the ‘Father of Variety’, and within the profession he was known affectionately as ‘Uncle Fred’.
Once heard, he couldn't be silenced until he got what was required!
Roy Hudd said: “Fred Russell, apart from changing the whole style of ventriloquism, was that rare thing - a political variety artiste. He worked his entire life to improve the lot of the turns - and he succeeded. Being a top of the bill act meant he was listened to and once heard, he couldn't be silenced until he got what was required! His contribution is indisputable and we are delighted to see him commemorated with an English Heritage Blue Plaque.”
Russell’s prolific career encompassed numerous appearances at leading London and provincial music halls; and tours of the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and South Africa. His performance at the 1932 Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium, and televised performances as late as 1952, helped cement his popular appeal. Awarded the OBE in 1948, Fred Russell died in 1957, aged 95.
Russell’s reputation and influence endures; historians of ventriloquism speak with one voice on his significance and agree that he did more than any other performer to transform the presentation of ventriloquism in Great Britain. Arthur Prince (‘Sailor Jim’), Peter Brough (‘Archie’) and Arthur Worsley (“Charlie Brown”) were among many later practitioners to acknowledge their debt to Fred Russell and ‘Coster Joe’.
For further press information, please contact Helen Bowman.