• Liz Publika

How the Big Foot Dance Made Little Tich into a Huge Star


Filmed in 1900 by director Alice Guy-Blache (1873 — 1968), the clip shows the “Big Food Dance” being performed by English actor Harry Relph (1867 — 1928), better known by the stage name Little Tich. “Comic appearance and technique aside, it should be noted that it is the engaging personality of Little Tich that sells this picture to the viewer.” And, “the fact that this French film featured an English vaudeville comedian underscores the international cross-cultural fertilization in popular culture of this time.”

Harry Relph was born in Cudham, Kent, where he spent the first seven years of his life. He was was the sixth child of the relatively affluent Richard Relph (1790 — 1881) — owner of the public house The Blacksmith’s Arms — and his wife Mary, née Moorefield (1835 — 1893). It was immediately clear that the boy was different from his siblings; he “had five fingers and a thumb on each hand and six toes on each foot.” But, even though Relph’s physiology made him self conscious, the child was intelligent, gifted, and able to find ways to thrive.

A childhood sketch by Little Tich, similar to the kind sold in the Blacksmith's Arms in the 1870s

Realizing that his appearance attracted attention, Relph began performing at his father’s establishment by dancing on the saloon bar. Additionally, the boy seemed to have a natural talent for art, with some of his work being sold to patrons by the time he was five. Because the public house was always hosting guests and travelling performers, Relph was able to observe and get interested in the shows put on by the dancers, singers, musicians, and actors that passed through. Soon, his siblings began taking him around to perform for money.

In 1875, however, Richard Relph sold the public house and moved the family to Gravesend, where everyone had to get adjusted to a faster pace of life. Relph resumed his education and begun attending a new school, where he was regarded as a talented student. The young man finished his studies early, and although his father was advised to secure an apprenticeship for his son, he didn’t, and Relph continued living at home. By 1878, the family was no longer able to support him financially, and Relph needed to find ways to support himself.

To provide for himself, he started working odd jobs, while trying to figure out his next move. One evening, he visited a music hall with a friend, whose brother was appearing in a talent contest. Relph’s interest in performing reached a fever pitch and he decided to try his luck. “At the age of 12, he made his debut at a free-and-easy doing a ‘funny dance’ and then graduated to the Rosherville pleasure garden, where he joined a troupe of black-face minstrels on stage and played a penny whistle.”

He “took his stage name from a Victorian cause celebre in which a Wapping butcher’s son, Arthur Orton, claimed to be the long-lost heir to the ancient Hampshire family in Tichborne. The Tichborne claimant was a man of 25 stone and provided an ideal contrast to Relph.” By the time Harry Relph turned ten, he reached his maximum height at 4 feet and 6 inches.

Harry Relph, published by Rotary Photographic Co Ltd matte bromide postcard print, 1890s © National Portrait Gallery, London

“On the music hall stage Relph, in the guise of Little Tich, turned his disadvantages into a very successful comic act.” Between the ages of 12 and 17, the young performer worked anywhere he could get a job. When employment opportunities were scarce, he worked on his craft; he learned to play a variety of instruments, worked on his dancing, and perfected his comedic timing. His hard work paid off and he was soon able to afford agents, who had some ideas about growing Little Tich into an international in-demand performer.

As Richard Anthony Baker put it in his British Music Hall: An Illustrated History (2005):

“Although he was soon appearing at four halls, London audiences did not take to him immediately. He had to go to America before he was fully appreciated at home. He set off early, in 1877 with his boots, piccolo and a cello he had learned to play. The Chicago State Opera Company put him under a two-year contract and advised him to stop blackening up because, as the manager said it, audiences would see that he was not really black.”

Harry Relph by Foulsham & Banfield, published by Rotary Photographic Co Ltd, 1900s-1910s ©National Portrait Gallery, London

So, Little Tich replaced this routine with a new one. According to A Companion to Film Comedy (2012):

“Since slap shoes had been around for centuries, Little Tich literally expanded upon an old idea when he made his comic footwear longer in the 1880s. Through trial and error Tich discovered that when he lengthened his slap shoes to 28 inches he could arch his body, lean forward at a 45-degree angle, balance himself on their tips, and rise to the height of six feet, ten inches.”

But, Little Tich “was not the first to perform a Big Boot dance; other artistes had used elongated 'flap shoes' in dances that derived from the clog dancing popular in the 19th century.” In fact, “like clogs the 'flaps' had wooden soles, allowing the performers to beat out a rhythm by slapping their feet heavily on the floor.” He realized early on that comic dancing was an international art form that appealed to people independent of race, age, class, sex, or political affiliation.

“Returning to England in the 1890s, Little Tich made his West End debut in the Drury Lane pantomimes and toured Europe before setting up his own theatre company in 1895.” He went on to become one of the highest paid entertainers of his time and “continued to star in popular shows until his death from a stroke in 1928 at the age of 60.” And even though he eventually grew to hate the dance that made him a star, the incredible footage of his notorious act as well as his incredible talent for comedy survive to this day.

Harry Relph by Charles & Russell bromide postcard print, 1900s © National Portrait Gallery, London

“More than a valued documentary of a unique novelty act, the 1900 film Little Tich et ses ‘Big Boots’ reveals how this gifted performer projected a playful attitude in his work while exhibiting a self-conscious but convivial rapport with his audience.” And even though he was self conscious and insecure in his body, “as the surviving video makes clear, Little Tich is actually quite graceful in his movements, energetic and dexterous, a fine dancer, and a superb mimic.”

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