Entertainer who took on a lion armed only with a banjo
Global minstrel, radio pioneer and multi-talented musician Eugene Earle became a household name in Lancashire during the first half of the last century. Here John Grimbaldeston relives his extraordinary life
John Eugene Richards Earle was born around 1878, possibly in South Wales, though his exact origins are difficult to trace. He had a good singing voice and from an early age showed a real aptitude for music, especially the banjo, ukulele, guitar, saxophone and lute.By his late teens he was beginning a career as a professional musician. Around the turn of the century he decided to use his talents to travel the world which saw him travel to China and to spend 15 years in South Africa where he even experimented playing his banjo in a lion’s cage to see whether music really did soothe the animal’s savage breast.In the 1920s he returned to Britain and his name starts appearing in the early radio broadcasts. He began with the very early Manchester radio station, 2ZY, which broadcast from a cramped hut in the Trafford Park grounds of the Metropolitan-Vickers electricity company, before radio was taken under the wing of the BBC in 1927 and divided into regions.He gathered a fine banjo band together for these broadcasts and, as with the earlier lion’s cage performance, experimented with various locations. In December 1935 he performed from a cavern underneath the Clow Bridge reservoir between Burnley and Rawtenstall, with the addition of sound effect bells. A Lancashire Daily Post reporter quoted him at length: “The echo is absolutely astonishing. It goes on for about half a minute, amplifying the sound to a tremendous degree. “I shall be playing in the dark. The place is very dark and very, very cold. I’m sure Santa Claus lives there.”In the mid-1930s he opened a shop in Cannon Street, Preston, selling stage make-up and effects, and that was where he based his music school.He also made records and recorded both himself and his students and his skills extended to making stringed instruments: the scroll saw he used is in the Fylde Country Life Museum at Farmer Parr’s, Fleetwood.He seemed to be fascinated by various styles of music and his orchestra underwent frequent changes of identity: they were known variously as his Gypsy Orchestra, his Hawaiian Orchestra, his Piano-Accordion Band and his Harmony Boys.Whatever the band name, he was a stickler for discipline and his instructions involved liberal use of capitals for emphasis. A sample of his rules includes:Always pay strict attention to the INSTRUCTOR and DO NOT PLAY A NOTE until asked for by Mr Earle. STRICT DISCIPLINE MUST BE ADHERED TO. The COMMITTEE reserve the right to REPORT to MR EUGENE EARLE who is OUR INSTRUCTOR any MEMBER not applying to these rules, and will be dismissed without further warning.Same applies on leaving the practice room leave quietly and on entering the street don’t congregate around the DOOR of MR EARLE, or commence playing your instruments, but leave like Gentlemen and a WELL-DISCIPLINED BAND.Despite the rather strict, severe character suggested by these rules, at the time of his death in 1960, Eugene Earle was held in high regard by show business celebrities and the many people he taught to play.
* This article was put together with thanks to Preston Digital Archive and the Museum of the Fylde at Farmers Parr’s, Fleetwood.