Worthing’s pantomime dame this Christmas comes with considerable panto dame heritage.
A third-generation dame, Simon Howe follows in the footsteps of his grandfather, Sylvester Stuart, and father, Len Howe, who also played pantomime dame.
It was pretty much exactly a century ago that Sylvester first stepped into the role, in the least likely of circumstances.
“My granddad started playing dame during World War One as a prisoner of war. He did shows as a POW in a camp in Dusseldorf. He was a prisoner for about eight months towards the end of the war, from 1917 to 1918.
“He passed away in 1972, but he lived with us. He passed on a lot of wisdom. Grandad was a director and a producer and an actor.”
And his daughter – Simon’s mum – went into the business too, which is how she and Simon’s dad first met: “Mum was a dancing daffodil in a show, and my father saw her and thought ‘I am going to pluck that daffodil!’ They got married in 1949 and had three gorgeous sons, one of whom was me!”
Simon doesn’t believe his grandfather was affected by his months as a prisoner of war, but it did lead to a remarkable coincidence many years later in 1952 when his mother was appearing in a variety show which starred Maurice Chevalier. Chevalier asked her to accompany him on stage to take his hat and cane from him.
She said to him: “I don’t know you, but you knew my father.” Maurice Chevalier was captured by the Germans at the same time.
“It must have been fate. Maurice Chevalier apparently just went totally grey! Performing helped them through their time as prisoners.”
Simon’s dad passed on tales of how his grandad used to perform: “He was very flat-footed and very funny. He kept on one set of costumes and didn’t change. Dad started as a dame in the late 50s through the 60s and 70s.
“And then you started to have to change more often, and now in the present day theatre producers expect the dame to change her costume for every time she comes on.
“I saw my dad in many shows when he was playing the dame, and he was very funny. He was an eccentric dancer with a lot of funny looks. I would go with dad to see a lot of wonderful dames, people like Jack Tripp, John Inman, Billy Dainty and Les Dawson – the greats.
“When I first started playing dame 18 years ago, dad came to see me and gave me few ideas.
“I said I was finding the hardest part was the stillness when you step out of the show and talk to the audience. He told me that that would come naturally. He told me he liked what I did, and I felt that if it made him laugh, I knew it would work.”
Snow White is at the Pavilion Theatre, Worthing until Monday, January 1. Tickets on 01903 206206.