Fred Karno

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Fred Karno
Frederick John Westcott

(1866-03-26)26 March 1866
Exeter, Devon, England
Died18 September 1941(1941-09-18) (aged 75)
OccupationTheatre impresario of music hall
Known for Slapstick, notable comedians who worked for his company include Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel

Frederick John Westcott (26 March 1866 – 18 September 1941), best known by his stage name Fred Karno, was an English theatre impresario of the British music hall. [1] As a comedian of slapstick he is credited with popularizing the custard-pie-in-the-face gag. [2] During the 1890s, in order to circumvent stage censorship, Karno developed a form of sketch comedy without dialogue.


Cheeky authority-defying playlets such as Jail Mum (1896) in which prisoners play tricks on warders and Early Birds (1903), where a small man defeats a large ruffian in London's East End, can be seen as precursors of movie silent comedy. Film producer Hal Roach stated: "Fred Karno is not only a genius, he is the man who originated slapstick comedy. We in Hollywood owe much to him." [3]

Among the music hall comedians who worked for him were Charlie Chaplin and his understudy, Arthur Jefferson, who later adopted the name of Stan Laurel. These were part of what was known as "Fred Karno's Army", a phrase still occasionally used in the UK to refer to a chaotic group or organisation. The phrase was also adapted by British soldiers into a trench song in the First World War, as a parody of, or rather to the tune of, the hymn "The Church's One Foundation". [4] In the Second World War it was adapted as the Anthem of the Guinea Pig Club, the first line becoming "We are McIndoe's Army ...".


Karno was born in Exeter, Devon, England, in 1866. He worked as a cabinet maker with a workshop in Waterbeer Street. He married Edith and in 1896 his son, Fred Karno Jr. was born. [5] In 1904 he visited Tagg's Island on London's River Thames and in 1912 he bought the island and the existing hotel. He demolished the original hotel and hired architect Frank Matcham to build The Karsino. [6] With the advent of cinema, the music hall's popularity declined and as a result of this decline, Karno went bankrupt in 1925. [6]

On 24 May 1927 his wife Edith, from whom he had been separated since 1904, died in her sleep of diabetes. Three weeks later, Karno married his second wife, his long-time partner, Marie Moore. Karno went to the US in 1929, and was hired by the Hal Roach Studios as a writer-director, and was reunited with one of his former protégés, Stan Laurel. However, his stay at the studio was brief and unsuccessful as Hal Roach found out Karno's main abilities were as a producer, and he departed in February 1930. On his return to Britain, Karno helped to write and produce several short films and in 1936 returned to the theatre with a show called Real Life. [7]

Karno spent his last years in southwest England in the village of Lilliput, Dorset, as a part-owner of an off-licence bought with financial help from Charlie Chaplin, [8] and died there in 1941 from diabetes, aged 75. [1] [6]


Karno's Astoria houseboat from the river Astoria (Peniche).jpg
Karno's Astoria houseboat from the river

His houseboat, the Astoria , on the River Thames at Hampton, Middlesex, is now used as a recording studio by Pink Floyd's David Gilmour. [9]

On 30 September 2012, the Music Hall Guild of Great Britain and America unveiled a commemorative blue plaque to Karno at his former studios at 38 Southwell Road, Camberwell, in south London. [10]

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  1. 1 2 "Fred Karno". United Press in the New York Times . 19 September 1941. p. 23. Retrieved 5 December 2009. Westcott, an old-time comedian and veteran of the English vaudeville circuit known to show business as Fred Karno, died yesterday
  2. Leslie Halliwell, John Walker (2001). "Halliwell's Who's who in the Movies". p. 240. HarperCollinsEntertainment, 2001
  3. J. P. Gallagher (1971). "Fred Karno: master of mirth and tears". p. 165. Hale.
  4. "'Trench Songs', The First World War Poetry Digital Archive". University of Oxford . Retrieved 16 October 2010. We are Fred Karno's army, we are the ragtime infantry. We cannot fight, we cannot shoot, what bleeding use are we? And when we get to Berlin we'll hear the Kaiser say, "Hoch, hoch! Mein Gott, what a bloody rotten lot, are the ragtime infantry"
  5. "Fred Karno, Jr". New York Times . 4 February 1961. Retrieved 16 October 2010. Fred Karno, Jr., British comedian, died at his home today in Marg'ate, Kent. He was 69 years old. Mr. Karno, as a young man, appeared in "Humming Birds," one;...
  6. 1 2 3 "Fred Karno and the Karsino". Richmond upon Thames. Archived from the original on 17 April 2011. Retrieved 16 October 2010.
  7. Book-Stan and Ollie: The Roots of Comedy (Faber and Faber Ltd.) Author-Simon Louvish. Publishing Date-2001.
  8. David Robinson (2004). "Filming City Lights". Archived from the original on 22 November 2010. Retrieved 12 May 2011.
  9. Winn, p. 141
  10. "Fred Karno Commemorated", The Music Hall Guild of Great Britain and America, accessed 30 September 2012

Further reading