Beneath the Greasepaint


Back in the London of the 1960s when I was a pupil at the Italia Conti Stage School, I used to haunt the shop called Theatre Zoo in the West End. I was drawn to the papier mâché ‘Big-Heads’ ranged on high shelves around the showroom, and fascinated by the theatrical animal suits for hire, the front-and-back pantomime horses and cows that required two actors to fill them.

I remember the shop’s displays of Leichner stage-greasepaint, the hard, obliterating sticks of colour that were fast becoming obsolete as theatre modernised and actors presented themselves more naturally. Greasepaint had been formulated for an age when theatrical lighting required that the actors’ faces be much emphasised with heavy make-up. (Just look at Moira Shearer in her ‘ballet make-up’ for The Red Shoes. Densely whitened skin, eyes startlingly lined in black punctuated with red dots in the inner corners, her face a mask applied for the stage.) Because I’d belonged to a young people’s drama group in Wales, by the time I arrived in London I already had a well-stocked enamel make-up box, and though contemporary electric lighting in theatres no longer required the grease-based make-ups of the past, my Leichner kit stayed with me through my teens and early twenties, not least because I gravitated to the transformative roles that required a lot of disguising. (I LOVED being cast as assorted villains and Demon Kings in pantomime. And then there were the animals. I played, many, many animals! The old stage-arts have always beguiled me! I was born out of my time, really.) I learned my make-up skills from the Leichner charts, old even by the time I acquired them, and by watching black and white Lon Chaney films!

Not my make-up box, though it looked a lot like this, only with more stuff!


The Leichner charts in the photo at the top of this page are not mine either – those have long vanished – but are from an old e-bay auction. However they, and many more from the series, were the ones that initially guided me into the world of greasepaint and flim-flam!


I remember too, Harlequinade, the long-since-departed London puppet shop that specialised in vintage Pelham marionettes, and of course the old Pollock’s Toy Theatre Shop in Scala Street, with the sales counter on the ground-floor and the museum above accessed up narrow flights of rickety-stairs.  There, when I was a schoolboy, I purchased stacks of penny-plain toy theatre sheets and plays that were old-stock even then.

They were such eccentricities, these creaky survivals whose owners made losses to keep the doors open. But for me, a boy entranced by the archaic worlds of old-time theatrical magic, they were repositories of wonders.

11 thoughts on “Beneath the Greasepaint

  1. Used to spend ages in Peter Regans in Bromley, and further to first post so evocative ,the smell of greasepaints and powders,(and crowd) and the smell of the size on the backdrops

  2. Lovely post, thanks for taking me for a walk down Memory Lane, do you remember Brodie and Middleton’s in Longacre? I used to order sack-loads of rabbit skin size and powder colours, aniline dyes etc. Plus canvas and calico …. I think they are still there as well. xxl

  3. I can smell them, carmine and the sticks 5 and 9. My skin actually loved the stuff and my basic was a sort of tawny, beige-ish Max Factor. Oh for 7 Dials and the amazing badge shop, I wonder if it’s still there? In a moment you’ll get me sniffing the remembered leather of my first ever tap shoes, never mind the ballet shoes, round the corner into Freeds, less scary than Anello & Davide and I NEVER went to Gamba’s, that’s where the dancers (with capital D’s) went, and and French’s for our script. (“I am Hi-Tee a poor but honest fisherman…”) It’s your fault, my mental ‘Tardis’ has whooshed me back, you ‘gungy fiend!’
    Love then, now and always
    B xxx

    • I’m not at all sure what a ‘gungy fiend’ is, except that ‘spellcheck’ doesn’t approve of it!

      Mrs Freed scared me a LOT! She eyed me up and down when I first went to the shop, agonisingly embarrassed to purchase my dance ‘supports’, and boomed to everyone present, ‘Small!!!!!’

      Oh yes, the smells of leather tap-shoes, and the ballet-room resin-box and the Italia Conti ‘boys’ dressing-room and the inside of my ‘dance-bag’ at the end of a long day. (RANK!!!) And costume-skips and old scenery and musty drapes and the chalk and dust in hot classrooms. Oh my!

      • A ‘gungy fiend’ is, or was invented by, I think, Myffy and they were a polite way of saying that someone, or something was a bit ‘off’ or unpleasant. You see, being ‘nice girls’ we TRULY at this time in our lives knew little, or no Anglo Saxon! I’ve made up for this over recent months and possibly years!
        Yours (sans expletives!)
        B xxx

  4. Here’s a wonderful illustration of The Theatre Zoo by John Griffiths from the visual essay ‘A Front of Shops’, which featured in the September 1959 issue of Motif magazine:

    • Oh, WONDERFUL! Yes, that is how it’s remained in my memory. I do recall that more often than not in the last years, it was closed whenever I passed, though of course even darkened and with a sense of abandonment, the window-displays and the treasures in the shadows beyond exerted a potent magic.

    • There were so many tiny shops back then that had grown up around the theatres. Scenic carpentery and painting suppliers. Costume-makers, suppliers of ribbons, lace, artificial flowers and feathers. Wig workshops, milliners, shoe-makers, prop-makers, mask-makers, beaders and embroiderers… the list was endless. A thriving community and the commerce that supported it. In those days people lived in the West End. Everywhere tiny flats over commercial premises. A feather-supplier and ‘dresser’ I knew (and yes, feathers require a lot of dressing… dying, curling etc) was in a garret at the top of a rickety old building, looking out over the rooftops and theatre fly-towers of Soho. Her workshop was steamy with the spirit-kettles she used to ‘set’ the curls, and her window was ever open to the pigeons she fed from her sill. Magical. All that has gone forever.

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