Written by: Michael Darvell
Who now remembers Tessie O’Shea, the ebullient, oversized entertainer and broadcaster whose long career lasted from the 1920s to the 1990s? 13 March 2013 brings her centenary (she died in 1995 age 82). The Pheasantry in Chelsea is marking the event on the day (repeated on 17 March) with a tribute in story and song to Britain’s answer to Ethel Merman. The performer is Dominic Mattos who has previously given us the life of Merman, looking and sounding uncannily like her. For O’Shea Mattos is not attempting an impersonation but offering an impression of the artiste, her life, work, talent and genius, and singing songs associated with her.
Tessie O’Shea was born in Cardiff to an Irish father and a mother who was part-Italian, part-Jewish and part-English. Tessie described herself as being a “little bit of everything” and that’s exactly how her career went too. She performed in a seaside show from the age of three, winning a stick of rock, after which her parents decided she should have professional tuition in song and dance. By the age of seven she was a seasoned performer. At 15 she was working for Jack Hylton at his many theatres around the UK. Later on Tessie appeared in the Blackpool summer shows where she introduced her signature tune ‘Two Ton Tessie from Tennessee’ accompanying herself on the banjolele. During World War Two she played the London Palladium for over a year, entertained the troops and did morale-boosting stints in bomb shelters and hospitals. She worked with Max Miller and Billy Cotton and appeared at the Royal Variety Show. Radio and television shows followed in the 1950s and Tessie became very big, as it were, in America. She was on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1963, the same night that The Beatles appeared. She mainly worked in the US after that, appearing on TV in The Entertainers and the sitcom As Good Cooks Go, and touring her show to New York, Washington and Las Vegas as well as appearing in Canada, Rhodesia and South Africa.
Everything she did was good fun and she never seemed to stop laughing, that is when she wasn’t performing her repertoire of upbeat songs. She sang ‘I left my heart in San Francisco’ long before Tony Bennett had a hit with it. Among her other ditties were ‘I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts’, ‘Red roses for a blue lady’, ‘I’d like to get you on a slow boat to China’, ‘Give me five minutes more’, ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing’ and ‘Tie a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree’. In 1963 Noël Coward wrote the part of Ada Cockle for Tessie in his show The Girl Who Came to Supper, a musical version of Terence Rattigan’s play The Sleeping Prince (filmed as The Prince and the Showgirl, with Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe). Tessie won a Tony Award. She even attempted Shakespeare, playing the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet at the New Orleans Civic Center. She appeared in films such as The Blue Lamp, London Town, The Shiralee, The Best House in London and The Russians Are Coming … but she is perhaps best regarded for Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the Disney film she made with Angela Lansbury.
Tessie O’Shea counted Sophie Tucker as her biggest influence. She was one of the most popular performers in variety and on radio and she made successful recordings too. Nothing could dim her effervescent personality but sadly not very much footage remains. Dominic Mattos’s tribute will be a timely reminder of one of Britain’s great ambassadors of entertainment.