Tom E. Finglass (1880?–1957)

 


(Star Music sheet)

In his early years Dublin-born tenor Tom E. Finglass often performed in blackface, and was sometimes billed as “The Ideal Coon” in the less-enlightened days when minstrels and nostalgic songs about an imaginary American South were all the rage. Music Hall historian S. Theodore Felstead even goes so far as to suggest that he was as good as the immortal American blackface Music Hall star Eugene Stratton1 — indeed, Finglass played Stratton in two films, You Will Remember, the 1941 film of the life of Leslie Stuart; and Variety Jubilee (1943).

During his career, Tom Finglass performed a number of Fred Godfrey songs on stage; those known are Dad And Mammy’s Golden Wedding Jubilee (1918); My Tennessee, Is That You Calling Me? (1918); Down In Virginia (1920), I’d Like To Be On The Farm (If The Darn Thing Were Only Somewhere In Town) (1920), Mammy’s Mississippi Home (1920), and The Rose Of Alabam (1920). About his performance of My Tennessee, one newspaper reported:

Mr. Finglass has a wide reputation...that is eminently deserved. The audiences are entertained during every moment of his appearance, and a point of note is his versatility. To an easy stage presence he weds taking little mannerisms which accentuate his witticisms, and as a dancer he is remarkably light on his feet and clever and original in his movements. Yesterday he gave three specialities in addition to his ordinary work. His song “My Tennesseee, is that you calling me?” was most sympathetically and appropriately treated, the pretty lilting refrain lingering in the memory. As a coon farm hand he was uproariously funny, his exaggerated shyness being a positive scream. Later he gave a more than usually clever dance in cowboy costume, which gave an impression of twinkling feet.2

Finglass plays an important role in the Fred Godfrey story, as the two of them teamed up in 1929–30 to create a Variety act featuring Godfrey’s hit songs. When the act debuted in late 1929, Godfrey was billed as “The British song writer who is booked for Hollywood,” having just signed a contract to join the rush of song writers heading to California to work on then-popular movie musicals. Bad timing, as it turned out. The Wall Street Crash and the US public’s sudden loss of appetite for the genre, not to be renewed until the release of 42nd Street in 1933, killed Godfrey’s chance to grasp the brass ring.

The act, meanwhile, was a big hit, with Finglass handling the singing while Godfrey played the piano. Reportedly, the audience singalongs would bring the house down, and they would end with Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty, light a “fag,” and walk offstage. The act “topped the bill” in many provincial halls — Godfrey’s daughter Peggie recalled catching it in Bolton, where Godfrey and Finglass shared the top of the bill with Shaun Glenville. An early stop was the Hippodrome, Exeter (November 1929), then Christmas 1929 at the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead. An Irish tour saw them at the Hippodrome, Belfast, and the Theatre Royal, Dublin (January 1930); in both cities, Ella Shields topped the bill. On 23 January 1930, the Dublin correspondent for The Stage reported: “Ella Shields heads a variety bill, and carries all before her. She is an old favourite in Dublin. Another treat is afforded by Fred Godfrey at the piano with the ever-welcome Tom E. Finglass in the composer’s songs.”

In February 1930, Godfrey and Finglass found themsleves on home ground at the South London Palace, where The Era reported: “A lot of interest was evinced in the appearance of Fred Godfrey, the well-known author-composer, and Tom E. Finglass in a combined act, and they were completely successful....Best of all was the lowering of a white screen on which was flashed the words of some of Fred Godfrey’s biggest successes, finishing up with ‘Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty’” (The Era, 5 February 1930, p. 11). The act moved on to the Tivoli, Aberdeen (March 1930), where the local newspaper reported: “the well-known author, composer, and pianist, Fred Godfrey, writer of innumerable popular songs, accompanied by Tom E. Finglass, who sang Mr. Godfrey’s songs, made pleasing entertainment. Songs now almost forgotten were revived in all their pristine spirit by this talented duo” (Aberdeen Press and Journal, 18 March 1930, p. 9). At the Royal, Edinburgh (April 1930), the act was described as “a most enjoyable turn, comprising songs, choruses, and dancing, the audience joining heartily in many familiar choruses” (The Stage, 3 April 1930). Also in April 1930, they played the Metropole, Glasgow, and the Shakespeare, Liverpool; in both places, comedian Billy Bennett topped the bill. Other known stops for the act were the Hippodrome, Sheffield (28 May 1930), with Randolph Sutton heading the bill; the Alexandria, Pontefract, Yorkshire (May 1930); and the Hippodrome, Rotherham (June 1930), where again Shaun Glenville topped the bill.

(Norris Collection)

Star turns: Tom Finglass, Shaun Glenville, Wee Georgie Wood, Florence Oldham, Fred Godfrey, and theatre manager Alf Booth,
at the Grand Theatre, Bolton, Lancashire, 1930 (unidentified newspaper clipping). Alf Booth was the manager of the Grand for more than 50 years. Wee Georgie Wood was later immortalized, at least for those of a certain generation, by John Lennon’s invoking his name in nonsense remarks at the end of the song “Dig It,” on the 1970 Beatles album Let It Be.

Advertisement for the Godfrey-Finglass act in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 8 November 1929.

In Exeter, a local newspaper noted,

The presence on stage of Fred Godfrey, the author of “Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty,” gave rise to scenes of remarkable enthusiasm at Exeter Hippodrome last night, and the audiences at both houses revelled in the popular war-time chorus, the singing of which, however, was tinged with a feeling of sadness. Rarely, if ever, has there been a more unique occasion at the Hippodrome. Apart from the atmosphere engendered by the appearance on the stage on Armistice Night of the man who wrote a ditty that will always be associated with memories of the war, the popularity of many other songs composed by Fred Godfrey was made manifest, these including “Who Were You With Last Night?” and “Down Texas Way.”....Tom E. Finglass, who has been associated with most of these hits, sang many old favourites in characteristic style, and introduced a topical number based on a ditty that has recently been in great favour. Fred Godfrey was at the piano. The show is brimful of originality and mirth.

Finglass retired from regular performing in the late 1930s and subsequently made his living in London as a hairdresser. He came out of retirement briefly in 1950 to portray Eugene Stratton once more in a BBC tribute to that singer.,

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Notes

1  S. Theodore Felstead, Stars Who Made the Halls: A Hundred Years of English Humour, Harmony and Hilarity (London: T. Werner
    Laurie, 1946), p. 58.
2  “Xmas pantomime,” Western Morning News (Bristol), 27 December 1918, p. 6.