b. Esmeralda Cicely Courtneidge, 1 April 1893, Sydney, Australia, d. 26 April 1980, London, England. Her father, actor, producer and writer Robert Courtneidge, was appearing in the operetta Esmeralda when she was born, hence the name. Back in Britain she trained for the stage and at the age of 10 appeared as Fairy Peaseblossom in Midsummer Night’s Dream, followed by her father’s production of The Arcadians in 1909. She made her first records in 1911, singing selections from the show in which she was appearing, (The) Mousme. Courtneidge married musical comedy star Jack Hulbert in 1914, and while he was engaged in World War I she toured the music halls as a male impersonator and somewhat risqué comedienne. After appearing in several shows together, Courtneidge and Hulbert made their first big impact as a team in the 1925 revue By The Way, with music by Vivian Ellis. It ran for over 300 performances before transferring to New York. Lido Lady, in 1926, with a Richard Rodgers / Lorenz Hart score, and Clowns In Clover, which opened in 1927 and ran for two years, confirmed their enormous popularity in London’s West End. By now, Hulbert was also writing and producing. The team split up temporarily, and while he was appearing with Sophie Tucker in the musical play Follow A Star, Courtneidge was considered to be at her best in the Vivian Ellis revue Folly To Be Wise. For most of the 30s Courtneidge concentrated on making films such as Ghost Train, Jack’s The Boy, Aunt Sally, Soldiers Of The King, Me And Marlborough and Take My Tip. She returned to the stage in 1937 in Hide And Seek and in the following year the Hulberts reunited for one of their biggest successes, Under Your Hat, yet again with music and lyrics by Vivian Ellis. It ran for over two years and was filmed in 1940. During World War II the team had substantial runs in Full Swing and their last musical show on the London stage together, Something In The Air, as well as undertaking extensive ENSA tours. After the war Courtneidge starred in Her Excellency, and Under The Counter in London and New York, where it attracted extremely hostile reviews. In 1951 she undertook probably the best role of her career, playing Gay Davenport in the satirical backstage musical play Gay’s The Word, by Ivor Novello and Alan Melville. It presented her with several good songs including ‘Guards Are On Parade’, ‘It’s Bound To Be Right On The Night’ and ‘Vitality’, a number that epitomized her stage persona throughout her long career. The show ran at the Saville Theatre for 504 performances, and was Novello’s last - he died three weeks after the opening. Courtneidge’s final West End musical was High Spirits in 1964, a musical version of Noël Coward’s 1941 play Blithe Spirit. Its songs did not suit her as well as others she had introduced over the years, such as ‘The King’s Horses’, ‘Home’, ‘There’s Something About A Soldier’, ‘We’ll All Go Riding On A Rainbow’ and ‘I Was Anything But Sentimental’. During the 60s and 70s she toured in plays and revues including, with Hulbert, the semi-autobiographical Once More With Music. She also appeared in several more films including a critically acclaimed character part in Bryan Forbes’ The L-Shaped Room (1963), and cameos in Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines (1965), The Wrong Box (1966) and Not Now Darling (1972). The latter was released when she was aged 80. In the same year she was created a Dame of the British Empire. In 1986, Courtneidge’s history reached a new generation when her ‘Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty’ was used as the opening for the Smiths’ album The Queen Is Dead. In 1995 a tribute show entitled Vitality, written by and starring Helen Fraser, was presented on the London Fringe.
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