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Letter From America: Herr Göbbels Flunks The Ballet Egyptien Test

...The triad presented pallid mask-like unblinking and expressionless expressions that gave the impression that they couldn’t care where they were or who was there, and gave off an aura of pathological boredom marinated in indifference such as is common to month old corpses..

Ronnie Bray recalls the deliciously funny Wilson, Keppel, and Betty, an English stage act denounced by Nazi minister Joseph Göbbels.

Read more of Ronnie's sparkling columns by clicking on Letter From America in the menu on this page.

Socrates was charged with undermining the morals of Athenian youth. His reward was the hemlock cup. Joseph Göbbels charged that an English trio was doing the same to German youth. "Sie sind untergruben die Moral von Nazi Jugend!" he snapped, while forgetting to smile as he watched their unique performance of Ballet Egyptien when they visited Berlin shortly before the onset of World War II.

It is difficult to imagine any single person more devoted to pernicious corruption of the young than Göbbels, unless it was his master Adolph Schicklgruber. Yet he was adamant that a group of three English dancers posed such a threat. To say that they were the most unlikely set of corrupters of masses of Hitler Youth is to engage in an understatement of such vast proportions that I instinctively shrink from it.

The trio came to my attention when I appeared in the shilling seats of the Palace Theatre in Huddersfield in the late forties, and they appeared on the stage. Their appearance alone was worth more than a shilling to me, and if they had done nothing more than stand there in their costumes with those looks on their faces, I would have laughed until I died, but they moved with all manner of antique and exotic mannerisms, presenting to my startled eyes my first vision of what some have simplistically called ‘legmania.’

The triad presented pallid mask-like unblinking and expressionless expressions that gave the impression that they couldn’t care where they were or who was there, and gave off an aura of pathological boredom marinated in indifference such as is common to month old corpses.

Among the honoured list of eccentric dancers, in whose royal company were Professor Max Wall, Billy Burden, Nat Jackley, and all whose legs defied gravity, the pain barrier, and the laws of physics this trio reigned supreme. They were known professionally as Wilson, Keppel, and Betty, or simply, The Sand Dancers.

Wilson and Keppel were two almost decayed men who despite their energy and obvious physical fitness seemed painfully emaciated. Their Sand Dance was a parody in which the participants assumed postures derived from the pyramid tomb engravings, and their costumes mimicked, vaguely, what was held to be the style of the Egyptians, although it must be doubted that any Egyptian danced in their unique phrenetic fashion.

The male dancers’ stage attire was a long, sometimes a short, cotton nightshirt the colour of a well-used shroud, and a red fez perched on their heads. When they performed in Berlin in the 1930s, their Egyptian chemises had very short skirts, which prompted Göbbels’ expostulation that their exposed legs were weakening the morals of the Hitler Youth despite the Deutsche Jungvolk’s uniform having little black shorts and
lederhosen. Perhaps it was the case that while brevity was the soul of wit for the British Troupe, it was the soul of witlessness for the Minister of Propaganda.

Wilson and Keppel sported moustaches reminiscent of continental mashers, but Betty always appeared clean-shaven. Their doleful performance, emphasised by their skinny limbs and vacant faces, rocked theatregoers in the aisles, and they were warmly received wherever they went, except in Berlin!

Most are surprised to learn that their signature dance was set to Luigini's Ballet Egyptien.’The music fitted their 'ballet' perfectly. It was a series of moves and stylised paroxysms based on poses from the wall carvings of Egyptian Osiritic texts.

Betty added glamour, and Wilson and Keppel added absolute seriousness, which added to the hilarity. As the years went by, their entertainment became even more amusing as the gentlemen grew older and became more gaunt. Betty, by contrast, remained ever a young pulchritudinous beauty, because every few years she was changed for a younger model. In all there were three Bettys who were grandmother, mother, and daughter.

Wilson Keppel and Betty are among the stars of my younger life, because theirs was one of the greatest gifts that one human being can bestow on another – the Gift of Laughter. In the post-war years when the hard bite of austerity had not loosed its iron grip on the throats of the British people, a
shilling’s worth of side-splitting hilarity was better than a tonic, cheaper than a week at Blackpool, and less daunting than a visit from the doctor.

It is sad that the frantic trio is not better remembered. There is very little information available about these music hall greats. I keep their picture on my wall to remind me that genius has been among us, and I have seen it, and wonder what might have been different if Frau Göbbels had not put so much starch in her husband’s shirt the night he was privileged to witness
our secret weapon, the laughter makers supreme, Wilson, Keppel, and Betty!

© 2007 – Ronnie Bray


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