If any one man can be credited with extending the Golden Age of Magic in Britain, that man is Cecil Lyle. After achieving fame as a music hall performer, he set his sights on the creation of a full-evening show in the tradition of the great magicians of his youth. Even the outbreak of World War II did not deter him from persuing this goal. Through relentless hard work, Lyle eventually realized this dream with the creation of the Cavalcade of Mysteries and later his Mystery Box Revue. Audiences in Britain, Australia, Europe and South Africa were treated to some of the greatest illusions ever created by Horace Goldin, David Devant, Arnold deBiere, Lafayette, Amac and others. Here, for the first time, is the inspiring story of the struggles, triumphs and failures endured by Cecil Lyle during his reign as the last of the great touring illusionists.
A peek inside The Great Lyle
Chapter 11 – Enter Bobbie Dixon, Stage Manager and Director The Lyles habitually arrived early at the theatre for the evening performances and at the close of every evening’s second house each member of the company had to go first to Lyle’s dressing room, and then to Lucille’s, to say “Goodnight.” This gave them the opportunity to have a word with individuals about any aspects of the evening’s shows that needed attention, although for serious matters that concerned the company as a whole they would be asked to remain on stage at the conclusion of the performance. Lyle was always very happy to listen to any suggestions his staff might have for improving the presentation of the show.
Lyle applied his own make-up and he was not strict about the make-up used by his assistants. Bobbie as Stage Manager had always to wear full stage make-up and be ready to step on stage should any problem arise during the performance. Additionally, she went on stage for the finale of every show.Lyle never gave interviews to the Press but local newspapers in the cities where they were appearing received excellent advance publicity and printing blocks to be used for the show. A brochure which gave details of all the different posters and billing, press releases and photographic blocks that were available to theatre managers and newpaper editors was widely distributed.
During her early days with the company the Lyles invited Bobbie to join them for dinner at a very smart West End hotel. The young lady was very nervous in such grand surroundings although she was fully acquainted with table settings as her mother had been in service and had brought up her own family in the best traditions. Lyle asked if she would pour him a glass of water. The jug had no lip and as she poured a large chunk of ice dropped out, knocked the glass over and flooded the table. Although the Lyles told her it was not her fault and the jug should have had a lip, the incident spoiled her evening and her nervousness was increased by it.
As she got to know Lyle, Bobbie realised that although he was undoubtedly eccentric, he had a dry sense of humour that was only revealed outside the theatre, but he could and did see the funny side of some of the contretemps that inevitably occurred on stage from time to time. An incident off stage which probably did not amuse him, though Lucille thought it hilarious, arose through a physical characteristic that amazed all those privileged to observe it. Lyle possessed an enormous quantity of body hair. Indeed, one witness likened him to a gorilla. One day Lucille came into the theatre and delighted in telling everyone about a mishap that had befallen her husband. After his bath or shower Lyle was in the habit of spraying himself with a body lotion. On this occasion, in error, he had picked up Lucille’s new hair spray and liberally doused himself with it, suddenly to discover that he was now as bristly as a hedgehog!
Yet life was not always rosy for Bobbie. During their June engagement at the Palace Theatre, Chelsea, she had the unusual experience of being sacked by Lucille and then reinstated later on the same day! It came about as the result of a flood. After the second house each night the girls in the company would take off their make-up (Leichner’s No. 5 and No. 9) and then wash their towels, leaving them to soak in the sink overnight. On this particular evening one of the girls left a tap running, with disastrous consequences. The next morning the stage was in a terrible state and the orchestra pit flooded to the depth of some twelve inches of water. When Lyle was told about the mess he instructed that Bobbie be dismissed instantly as it was deemed to be her responsibility. However, when the rest of the company learned of Lyle’s action they rallied to Bobbie’s cause and threatened to strike if she were not re-instated. Further, the logistics of the show were such that it could not possibly have run that evening without Bobbie’s presence. As this realisation dawned upon Lyle later in the afternoon, he countermanded his order and Lucille conveyed the decision to Bobbie, adding “Let that be a warning to you!” Subsequently it transpired that the theatre’s night watchman, who should have detected the running tap on his rounds, had fallen asleep and not fulfilled his duties.
Besides being superstitious, Lyle was also a hypochondriac and if anyone sneezed near him he would immediately hasten away to his dressing room. On one occasion in 1948 Bobbie put this habit to good use. She had been working in the theatre all the morning and had a luncheon engagement with Frank Davis, her future husband, at 12 noon. Lyle usually came in to the theatre about 11 o’ clock to see to any matters that needed attention but this morning, as luck would have it, he arrived late at 10 minutes to 12 and reeled off a list of things he wanted Bobbie to do. She realised that if she had to start on these immediately she would be very late for her appointment so, with great presence of mind, she feigned a sneeze and said “I think I’m going down with a cold.” Lyle immediately told her to take herself off out of the theatre, which she very happily did!
Lyle’s reaction to colds and illness is perhaps understandable for the whole show and the company depended for its income upon him being able to perform twice nightly. No doubt the laryngitis that had struck him down in 1940 very soon after he first took the Cavalcade of Mystery out on the road, necessitating a lay-off, still weighed heavily in his thoughts.
Before this 1948 tour was completed Amac sustained an accident and was hospitalised, leaving Bobbie in charge until he was able to return. She was thus thrust immediately into the important role of Stage Director with all its responsibilities. One of these was to meet with Lyle every Friday to discuss the following week’s show. The facilities available at the particular theatre they would be playing determined the precise composition of the programme and some effects might have to be omitted and others included. The show carried three sets of tabs which were used according to the theatre being played.
As Stage Director it became Bobbie’s responsibility to ensure that the “pull down” of the show and the “get out” of the theatre every Saturday night was achieved according to plan and that nothing was left behind. As the second house show on Saturday night progressed, the male assistants not required on stage for the illusion currently being presented would start to dismantle and pack the item which had just been completed, working as quietly as they could. In this way valuable time was saved but, even so, it would frequently be 3 a.m. on Sunday before a weary Bobbie crawled back to her digs.There were amusing incidents too. The show normally opened with a front cloth act and the assistants were behind the front runner with a rolled carpet ready to be unrolled as the curtain opened for the Cavalcade. The girls wore a red tunic top and black briefs, the latter in a pile from which they would grab a pair to put on. On one occasion when Bobbie was standing in on stage, the briefs she grabbed turned out to be extremely tight but there was no time to rectify matters. With backs to the audience they rolled the carpet upstage only to be greeted by hilarious laughter, which included Jack Phillips in the orchestra pit. Bobbie had been conscious of a ripping sound as her briefs split from top to crotch revealing her knickers beneath. She was horrified by what had happened but Lyle and everyone else in the company treated it as a great joke and the reprimand that she feared was not forthcoming.