Thursday, August 8, 2013

Johnny Hutch 100th Birthday Salute

Johnny Hutch at 15 and receiving his MBE in 1994.
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Johnny Hutch, one of the unsung heroes of physical comedy, would have been 100 years old today. As things turned out, he not only made it past his 93rd birthday, but remained active as an acrobatic performer until age 69, and as a teacher and choreographer late into life, last working as a stunt coordinator for the Royal Shakespeare Company at the age of 87. He was also married to the same woman, Jane Phillips, for 66 years, passing away — probably not coincidentally — months after she did in 2006.

Hutch had a long and illustrious career as a comedy acrobat with such troupes as the Seven Hindustans, the Seven Volants, the Herculeans, and the Half-Wits, appearing more than any other artist ever at the London Palladium, and sharing the stage with such stars as Grock, Louis Armstrong, and Bob Hope. However, he probably gained greatest recognition as Benny Hill's bald, elderly sidekick in the last two seasons of Hill's BBC comedy show.

More significant to today's performers (youse guys) is that Johnny Hutch deserves huge praise for generously sharing his knowledge with others, in the process becoming a key transitional figure between the circus/variety world of the mid-20th century and the alternative theatre world of the past fifty years. He created the Johnny Hutch School of Professional Acrobatics and Stagecraft —"Producers of High Class Specialty Acts. Knockabout and Fight Sequences. Traditional Trap Routines" and coached Robert Downey, Jr. for the title role in the movie Chaplin. He not only worked for established institutions such as the RSC, but also assisted fringier enterprises such as People Show and The Kosh, and helped establish Zippos Circus. So giving and dedicated was he to transmitting his skills  that he was awarded an MBE (Member of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth for "service to young people of the theatrical profession."

Johnny Hutch as a clown.
As usual, you can learn more about Johnny Hutch on the excellent Circopedia site or by reading his memoir of his early days, Somersaults and Some Aren't, published as a special edition (no. 165) of King Pole, the British circus magazine.

Here are a few video clips, followed by some remembrances by two huge fans, and finally a chronology of Hutch's life taken from his memoir.

Click here to see Johnny and The Seven Volants on the Circopedia site. This is from 1965.

A year later, these are the Herculeans at the Royal Hippodrome. Click here to watch, again at Circopedia.

The Half-Wits
And in 1977, the Half-Wits on the Cliff Richard Seaside Special, filmed at Deauville, France. That's him second from left  in the photo.

This routine, by the way, reminds me of one Victor Gaona taught at Ringling's Clown College back in 1973, and that has been seen in some form in that circus many times.

A skit from the Benny Hill Show. Recognize anyone?

An obituary by acclaimed British actor Anthony Sher, which first appeared in the London Guardian

The acrobat Johnny Hutch, who has died aged 93, passed his skills on to actors as well as circus performers. He also became an actor himself - and was the little old man whose bald head was patted by Benny Hill on his television show.I first met Johnny when he trained me for the rope climbing and other acrobatics required for Terry Hands' 1992 RSC production of Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great. I shall never forget the surprise of walking into the gym for our first session and discovering that my teacher was a diminutive man of 79. In reply to my "Hello, how are you?" he said in a broad Yorkshire accent, "No alright, ta, just a bit of arthritis in me wrists - it stops me walking on me hands, and I always like to start the day with a little walk on me hands."

I was speechless. My own father was roughly the same age, and could barely walk on his feet. Who was this man? Quite a phenomenon, it turned out.

In the months that followed, as Johnny bullied and encouraged me through some punishing training sessions, I grew to love and respect him. He was a little gentleman entertainer who always wore a suit and bow tie to work, and who, with a twinkle in his eye, a story on his lips ("When I was on the bill with Judy Garland ..."), and with his feet constantly sliding into a soft-shoe shuffle, led me to a world I did not know but found enchanting - the world of circus, music hall and variety.

Born John Hutchinson in Middlesbrough, Johnny was apprenticed to a troupe of acrobats when he was aged 14. They became the Seven Royal Hindustans, specialising in a mixture of European and Arab tumbling, with Johnny as their star performer. At the beginning of the second world war, he was performing in variety acts at the famous Windmill theatre in Soho, but he soon signed up and became a staff sergeant in the 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade, training men to drop behind enemy lines. He himself made 66 jumps, and fought in north Africa and Italy.

In the early 1950s, Johnny formed the Seven Volants, a fast-moving acrobatic act, which appeared regularly at the London Palladium. In 1957 they toured South Africa with Boswell's Circus for a year, living on a train with all the other performers: trapeze artists, clowns and animals. Johnny went on to develop two successful comedy acts, the Herculeans and the Half-Wits. They appeared in Las Vegas, and spent two years touring France with Cirque Jean Richard.

In 1976, aged 64, Johnny achieved a remarkable feat: winning the world circus championships by performing a full-twisting backward somersault. But as he finally grew too old for these physical rigours, he simply reinvented himself again and again.

He became a comedy actor - appearing in the Benny Hill Show for eight years until the star's death in 1993 - and was the stunt-choreographer for the theatre and dance groups, the People's Show and the Kosh. In 1994 he was awarded an MBE for services to fringe theatre. He helped Martin Burton establish Zippo's Circus, Britain's prime touring circus, and was a consultant on Richard Attenborough's 1992 film Chaplin, coaching Robert Downey Jr in the silent movie star's slapstick routines. He also worked on the design of the Teletubbies, creating their particular walk.

But I always think that one of Johnny's most daunting challenges in his later life was to try and turn an out-of-condition actor like me into a superman. As well as making me look good in Tamburlaine, he created some thrilling moments in our 1997 RSC production of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Johnny's name was invariably linked to that of his wife, Jean, the dancer Jean Phillips, whom he married in 1940; they were a perfect double act, one of those matches made in heaven, inseparable. He was heartbroken when she died last March. He is survived by their son Brian, daughter-in-law Deborah, grandchildren Sophie, George and Eleanor, and great-grandchildren Molly and Clara.

Don Stacey writes: Looking back on his 80-year career in show business, Hutch said, "You had to be versatile to survive in music hall. I became Britain's finest tumbler. It sounds big-headed but there was nobody to beat me." He had started work with the Seven Royal Hindustans aged 13 as top mounter in their pyramid - at only 5ft, he was too small to get a job in the local mills. In 1928 he made his first appearance at the London Palladium on a bill topped by Gracie Fields, making her London debut.

Later, as well as the Seven Volants, he trained groups, such as the Herculeans, who wore old fashioned bloomers, tights and false moustaches. These acts were always in top demand for pantomines - at the Palladium, for instance, they Volants appeared in, among others, Robinson Crusoe, with Englebert Humperdinck, and Aladdin with Cliff Richard, while the Herculeans appeared in Babes in the Wood with Frank Ifield and Sid James.

Hutch continued to arrange knockabout comedy and trapdoor routines in Palladium pantomimes, although he retired from performing them in his 70s.

The Herculeans

And a fond remembrance by our own guest blogger, eccentric dancer and eccentric dance historian Betsy Baytos:

I had the immense pleasure of not only spending time, but filming an extraordinary interview with the great Johnny Hutch back in 1994, for my ‘Funny Feet’ Documentary. Minute and adorable, enthusiastic and funny, energetic, passionate and knowledgeable, it was Johnny, as one of my early interviews and my first in England, who cracked open the door of the Eccentric Dancer’s reach throughout Europe and its strong visual comedic roots. 

The two hours on camera were pure delight and he clearly was one of my favorite interviews and greatest inspirations, and we remained in touch for years after. His demonstrations of ‘moonwalking’ and his spontaneous eccentric dance moves to deliver a point he was making, were nothing short of amazing. 

He was generous of time and spirit, driving home the importance of having a certain ‘kind of body’ as a necessity in becoming an eccentric dancer. He was also the first to make me aware of how eccentric dance evolved from early pantomine and commedia, and how the French Music Hall had incorporated dance, which led to eccentric. We talked of so many great physical comics and dancers, but a favorite to us both was Grock, which he felt as one of the supreme visual comedians, led to the Eccentric’s character. 

He spoke of working with Robert Downey Jr. and how much he enjoyed the experience of passing along Chaplin’s routines. He spoke of when Richard Attenborough called him to first request his assistance and how deflated Attenborough sounded when saying it was a shame no one remembered Chaplin’s routines. But Johnny piped in, “ I know ALL his routines! I used to watch him as a kid!” And he shared with me the incredible outtakes of his working with Downey on the set.  I recall asking who might have inspired Chaplin, when he mentioned  ‘Fred Kitchen’, whom I must research when back in the UK. 

There is so much more, and I cannot wait to transfer his interview when archived, so it will be accessible to all of you! Happy Birthday Johnny! Love, Betsy



Thank you all! It is never too late to celebrate a life well lived.

1 comment:

Eleanor Hutchinson said...

How lovely to see this, thanks so much. I'll pass it on to all of our family. We of course celebrated his birthday in style sadly without him and this afternoon I am taking two of his great-grandsons to Cirque Knie, which I think was home to his acrobatics for a while.
Ellie Hutch