Nelson Keys

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A popular English stage star in the early part of the twentieth century.
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Artist Biography by

b. Nelson Waite Keys, 7 April 1886, London, England, d. 26 April 1939, London, England. Keys attracted early attention in The Arcadians (1909), which ran for 809 performances and featured Phyllis Dare, Florence Smithson and Harry Welchman; music by Lionel Monckton and Howard Talbot, lyrics by Arthur Wimperis. Keys was also in The Mousmé (1911), which featured Smithson, Cicely Courtneidge and Welchman. The following year Keys, Courtneidge and Welchman were in Princess Caprice. He was in The Passing Show (1914), a revue by Wimperis, music and lyrics by Herman Finck, and the revue Vanity Fair (1916), book by Wimperis, music by Finck, Max Darewski, Shelton Brooks and Jerome Kern, lyrics by Wimperis, Percy Greenbank, and others. In 1922, Keys appeared in The Curate’s Egg at the Ambassadors Theatre. In 1934 he was in C.B. Cochrane’s revue, Streamline with Florence Desmond, Esmond Knight and Naunton Wayne. One segment featured Vivian Ellis and A.P. Herbert’s Perseverance, a Gilbert And Sullivan spoof (the authors being billed as Turbot And Vulligan). He appeared in the revue Spread It Abroad (1936) at the Saville Theatre. Starring with Keys were Dorothy Dickson, Ivy St. Helier and Walter Crisham, while a small role went to newcomer Hermione Gingold. Among the sketches in which Keys appeared were ‘Charge Of The Late Brigade’ and ‘News Reel’, the latter written by John Paddy Carstairs (b. 1910, d. 1970) who was one of Keys’ sons. In the USA, Keys made some stage appearances, notably at the Times Square Theatre in Andre Charlot’s Revue Of 1924, alongside other noted players from the British theatre, including Beatrice Lillie, Gertrude Lawrence, Herbert Mundin, Jack Buchanan and Jessie Matthews in her Broadway debut.

Keys appeared in silent films from 1916, including Madame Pompadour (1927), directed by Herbert Wilcox and starring Dorothy Gish in the title role. In the mid-20s, Keys and Wilcox formed the British and Dominion Film Corporation. His 30s films included Wake Up Famous and Knights For A Day (both 1937). Another son was Anthony Nelson Keys (b. 1913, d. 1985) who, like Carstairs, was successful in the British film industry. Of arcane interest, Keys also narrated ‘The Stage’, which was No. 7 in a series of 25 paper records marketed as The ‘Talkie’ Cigarette Card by the Record Cigarette Company. In 2006, a mint copy of No. 7 was offered on the Internet for $150.00.