Express & Star

Unique archive of sand dance legends goes to auction in Lichfield

A unique archive of costumes, photographs and memories celebrating one of music hall’s most legendary variety acts is going to auction in Lichfield.

Senior valuer for Richard Winterton Auctioneers Sarah Williams with the Joe Keppel mask

Adored by international audiences for three decades, Wilson, Keppel and Betty’s deadpan sand dance routines were equally renowned by their peers as a perfect 14-and-a-half minutes’ performance.

The character of Betty was intrinsic to a trio who became a vaudeville sensation which never seemed to go out of fashion – probably because they never aspired to be fashionable, albeit originating to conveniently capitalise on the 1920s’ trend for Ancient Egypt following the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb.

With a stage life running from 1928 to 1962, the Betty role was to be taken on by as many as 14 dancers over 34 years as the changing trio travelled the world with the most famous slapstick pseudo-Egyptian dance act of all time.

Now the personal archive of the final ‘Betty’ – Birmingham-born Jean ‘Jeanne’ MacKinnon, née Curley – is going under the hammer with Richard Winterton Auctioneers at The Lichfield Auction Centre, Wood End Lane, Fradley Park, on Monday, May 20, starting at 9.30am.

Sold as a single lot, the collection is thought to be the nearest anyone has to a Wilson, Keppel and Betty archive.

It includes two of Jeanne’s costumes sewn by Joe Keppel himself – a three-piece blue rhinestone bejewelled and sequinned costume with headdress, bralette and skirt; and a two-piece white rhinestone costume, also bejewelled and sequinned, comprising headdress and bralette.

The Wilson, Keppel and Betty archive goes to auction on May 20.

The blue costume appeared with Jeanne on a television interview with Roy Hudd in 1989.

There is also a painted papier mâché and leather mask with trademark drooping moustache, based on Joe Keppel’s stage appearance and worn by Betty on the back of her head during the Dance Of The Seven Veils.

A treasure trove of photographs show Jeanne in a variety of acts and costumes throughout her career as a professional dancer as well as some unseen photos with Wilson, Keppel and Betty and negatives of two rare studio shots of the act’s final line-up.

The archive features newspaper cuttings relating to her career before, during and after her time as Betty, plus various music hall programmes, including one from Wilson, Keppel and Betty’s last show at Wellington Pier, Great Yarmouth in 1962 and a programme for the Royal Festival Hall ‘London Reunion’ on October 3 1959 with the trio taking top billing.

Further personal effects include postcards home to her mother sent by Jeanne while she was touring in Europe.

Robert French, valuer at Richard Winterton Auctioneers, said: “Heroic figures in British variety and comedy, over the years Wilson, Keppel and Betty played every major theatre in Europe.

Birmingham-born Jean ‘Jeanne’ MacKinnon, née Curley.

“Their name has been in three-foot high lights outside the Alhambra Theatre in London; they played three Royal Variety Performances in 1933, 1945 and 1947; the London Palladium in 1950 on the same bill as Frank Sinatra; and Sunday Night Palladium to television audiences.

“Because Wilson, Keppel and Betty’s iconic deadpan sand shuffle never changed that much, it could be honed to absolute perfection by the stars and, for many, became the pinnacle of the golden age of vaudeville and variety.”

Sarah Williams, senior valuer for Richard Winterton Auctioneers, said: “Viewed by modern audiences, the act might well be regarded as one of its time yet Wilson, Keppel and Betty are still revered for their sense of timing, humour and absolute professionalism."

The archive includes photographs of the final line-up of Wilson, Keppel and Betty which are thought to be previously unseen

“Because they never said a word onstage, their finely-honed act could be understood by audiences worldwide and it also worked well when it came to cinema.

“As existing film footage shows, their soft-shoe sand shuffle is an enduring highlight of variety’s golden age.”

The archive goes under the hammer in Richard Winterton Auctioneers’ Antiques & Home Sale on Monday, May 20, at The Lichfield Auction Centre with an estimate of £2,000 to £2,500. The auction catalogue can be viewed online via a week before the sale.

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