British comedian Harry Hemsley had a shtick. He had practiced since the age of eight when his father, a scenic artist, pushed him to act in a series of plays. But he didn’t perfect it until nearly 20 years later, in 1905, after a brief stint in a musical stage show called The Follies.
Hemsley could imitate children’s voices—really well.
In fact, he soon made a career of out of it, performing as a variety of fictional children—who were almost always under the age of eight—for the stage. But this was no ventriloquist production; Hemsley didn’t have puppets. When he spoke in the voice of a child, he simply covered his mouth with a book or a newspaper to signal a transition. On the radio, which soon became his preferred medium, there could be no distinguishing his voice from an actual child’s.
Hemsley developed several kid voices, out of which distinct characters sprung to life. By 1935, when he landed a weekly slot on the famous radio show Ovaltiney’s Concert Party, these characters became collectively known as the Fortune Family. There was six-year-old Johnny, five-year-old Elsie, four-year-old Winnie, and six-month-old Horace. Winnie was the star of the show, the most clever member of the Fortune Family, and it was she who would interpret Horace’s gargling for the rest of the children. The line “What did Horace say, Winnie?” quickly became iconic.
The reach of Ovaltiney’s Concert Party—a children’s show named after the malted drink company that sponsored it—was so great that Hemsley’s weekly serial catapulted him to national fame. He soon published a series of picture books, most of which he illustrated himself, beginning with Harry Hemsley’s Stories For Children in 1938. The Fortune Family were also awarded their own spinoff books, including the successful All About Horace, Not Forgetting Winnie, Elsie and Johnny.
Over the decades, British Pathé asked Hemsley to record a series of exclusive clips for them, others of which can be viewed here. But for a truly bizarre experience, try listening to Hemsley’s show without an attached video, and see how believable his voices are.
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