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CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Chris Simmons, above, founder of CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Chris Simmons, above, founder of "An Evening At A British Music Hall," says the 8 p.m. Feb. 28 and March 1 Godfrey Daniels 7 E. Fourth St., Bethlehem, performances will be the last.

Spotlight On: 'Music Hall' closing its doors

Wednesday, February 19, 2014 by PAUL WILLISTEIN Focus Editor in Focus

After 40 years, British tribute show saying its farewells

After 40 years, the Lehigh Valley's "British Music Hall" is closing its doors.

Chris Simmons, founder of "An Evening At A British Music Hall," says performances at 8 p.m. Feb. 28 and March 1, Godfrey Daniels 7 E. Fourth St., Bethlehem, will be the last.

"The 40-year mark seemed to be a good place to do that," Simmons says of the Godfrey's finale. "Some people were leaving the show to do other things or basically retiring.

"Given both those circumstances, it seemed logical to end it now," says Simmons in a recent interview.

"An Evening At A British Music Hall" recreates songs, sketches and monologues from the era of British vaudeville (1860-1930).

For four decades, Simmons has been presenting the show in Bethlehem, usually at Godfrey's but also at Touchstone Theatre, and at venues in Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey.

As of the date of this interview, Simmons has no other "Music Hall" performances scheduled.

A cast of eleven performers and musicians perform the two-act, approximate 1 1/2- hour show.

In addition to Simmons, who directs and produces the show, the cast includes Bob Fahringer, chairman (emcee), Joe Birchak, Murray Callahan, Neil Hever, Bob Cohen and Alexis Leon.

The band is: Valerie Schoenk, piano; Rick Weisman, trumpet, flugelhorn; Bob Peruzzi, trombone, and Jason Shiptoski, drums.

"Some of the people who are in the show have been in it close to 40 years. Birchak has been in the show more than 30 years. Murray Callahan has done the show since 1984," says Simmons.

For the farewell, Birchak and Hever revive a comic skit, "The Constable," originally done by Harry Wheldon around 1910 and presented about 15 years ago at "Music Hall."

Simmons will revive "I'm 94 today," a song-monologue by Will Fyffe, a Scottish comedian popular during the 1920s and '30s, and the song, "What A Kid He Is," by Alec Hurley, a turn-of-the 20th century Cockney comic singer.

Another song for the "Music Hall" finale is "I'm Henry the Eighth, I Am," a No. 1 hit in 1965 for Herman's Hermits.

Peter Noone, lead singer for the Hermits, still performs the song. "I'm Henery the Eighth, I Am," written in 1910 by Fred Murray and R.P. Weston, was first popularized in England by Harry Champion. "Henery" is sung "Enery," by the way.

The Beatles' "When I'm Sixty-Four" (1967, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album),"Martha My Dear" and "Honey Pie" (both 1968, "The Beatles," aka "The White Album") were mostly written by Paul McCartney, inspired by his love of British Music Hall and vaudeville. McCartney's father, James, played trumpet, piano and led led Jim Mac's Jazz Band during the 1920s.

Of Herman's Hermits' "I'm Henry the Eighth, I Am," Simmons observes, "That's an example of a pop group recording a vaudeville song, rather than The Beatles writing one that references it."

Of the music hall genre, Simmons says, "It was basically a working class form of entertainment. During the 1840s, tavern owners arranged sing-songs on their premises. Over a period of time, entertaining in taverns became a way of making a living."

Canterbury Hall, one of the first British music halls, opened in Lambeth in 1852.

In London, one of the last surviving music hall companies is Players' Theatre, founded in 1936. The troupe lost its theater in 2002, but continues to present shows.

Last year, the British Music Hall Society (BMHC) celebrated its 50th anniversary. States BMHC President Roy Hudd on the organization's web site: "We are a bunch of mad keen fans of music hall and variety. Some of us are just fans who love the wit, music and nostalgia of our two greatest periods of light entertainment while others are serious students of the two art forms."

Simmons' interest in British vaudeville dates to his youth.

"When I appreciated music, it seemed to be 78 rpm records and the old windup gramophones. Since I was exposed to that type of music early on, I developed a real interest in it."

Simmons originated "An Evening At A British Music Hall" in 1974 at the former Catacaombs, a coffeehouse in the basement of Packer Church, Lehigh University.

What brought the Queens, N.Y., native to Bethlehem?

"I followed a girl. Although that fell through, I ended up staying.

"And if it hadn't happened, the show ['An Evening At A British Music Hall'] may never have existed. There's a whole chain of cause and effect here."

Tickets: godfreydaniels. org, 610-867-2390