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WILSON, KEPPEL AND BETTY

from Grahame L. Newnham B.Sc.



A rather weird, even surreal act consisting of two tall thin fellows and a girl dressed in, what I suppose is imitation Egyptian clothing, prancing about on sand; a variety / vaudeville act which survived, almost without change from 1928 through to 1963 - yes that was Wilson, Keppel and Betty ..... and yes, they appear a couple of times on our 9.5mm movie gauge.

In Roy Hudd's excellent book "Cavalcade of Variety Acts", they are described as '"Eccentric Dancers", although I imagine in the USA the description would be "Burlesque Dancers". The two rather tall thin men, Jack Wilson and Joe Keppel usually dressed in long white night shirts and wearing fezzes. The girl, skimpily dressed as a sort of Cleopatra was Betty Knox. With dead pan expressions, the stage decorated with suitable pillars and urns and spread with sand, they performed a sort of Egyptian sand dance. The act was often referred to as "Cleopatra's Nightmare" and generally performed to a musical backing of a version of Luigini's "Ballet Egyptienne" (originally arranged for them by - at the time - an unknown bar-room pianist by the name of Hoagy Carmichael).

Jack Wilson (1894 - 1970) came from Liverpool, UK, emigrated to the USA , then to Australia before serving in the Royal Navy during the first war. Joe Keppel (1895 - 1977) from County Cork, Ireland, also emigrated to the USA, then served in the RAF during the first war. Presumably they first met in Colleano's Circus in Australia after being demobbed. They travelled via Japan to the USA where they teamed up in New York in 1919, as a comedy acrobatic and tap dancing act, playing small vaudeville theatres and as a act preceeding popular Jewish melodramas. In 1928 they added Betty Knox who had been Jack Benny's vaudeville partner, and formed the act that made them famous, first appearing as a trio in Des Moines, Iowa, USA. The act's popularity may partly have been due to the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922 which created a great interest in things Egyptian. Returning to the UK, booked for a four week spot at the London Palladium in 1932, they soon became popular all over Europe, playing top vaudeville theatres, including London's West End and three Royal Variety performances - 1934, 1945 and 1947. The act appeared at the Berlin Wintergarden in 1936, where Goebbels was reported to have complained about their display of bare legs being bad for the morals of the Nazi youth. (However Mussolini loved the act!).

We read that Jack Wilson took care of the bookings, Betty the costumes and Joe Keppel the sand - coarse grained Bedfordshire sand was best, carried round in sacks. There is a story (maybe fabricated to generate extra publicity) that when they travelled to appear in Las Vegas, they took their own bags of sand, causing problems with the customs officers! Joe Keppel was rumoured to be quite quiet and careful with his money, whilst Jack Wilson often spent his evenings after a London show entertaining friends in a local club with bawdy songs and paradies of his own composition.


Looks like a still from "Soft Lights & Sweet Music" Many thanks to Maurice Trace for this photo!

Here in the UK they even appeared in a number of films, performing very similar Egyptian sand dance routines of course. On our 9.5mm film gauge we find them first in the 1936 British Lion 86 minute musical variety feature "Soft Lights and Sweet Music" (issued by Pathéscope on 9.5mm sound in March 1941 cut to 6 reels T.9347 ) where most of the introduction with the alluring and scantily clad Betty has been cut by the prudish Pathéscope editor; later they also appear in Butcher's 1943 "Variety Jubilee" 92 mins (issued by Pathéscope on 9.5mm sound in June 1953 cut to 9 reels T.9731 ). By this time the original Betty Knox had left the act to take up a career in journalism, and was replaced by her daughter, Patsy. However as there is no Betty visible in "Variety Jubilee" (well not in my 9.5mm or full-length video copy), I guess the film was made whilst the Bettys were changing over.

Wilson, Keppel and Betty first appeared on film in a 1933 Pathetone short - number 164 billed as "Ballet Egyptienne"; then in two other British Lion musical features "On the Air" 78 mins 1934 and "In Town Tonight" 81 mins 1935. Later they also appeared in the features "Starlight Serenade" 45 mins (Federated) GB 1944 and "A Ray of Sunshine" 55 mins (Adelphi) GB 1950. Reissues of these performances also appeared in the shorts "Highlights of Variety" GB 1944 and "For Old Times Sake" GB 1948 (from "Variety Jubilee") and "Variety Makers" GB 1950 (from "Starlight Serenade"). There were also a few TV appearances in the 1950s.

For those with decent internet access, a number of these items can be found as low definition video clips on the YouTube site. Searching for "Cleopatra's Nightmare" or "Wilson, Keppel and Betty" should find the relevant pages. The Pathetone item can be viewed at www.britishpathe.com

Various sources suggest that Betty changed up to six times, it is certain that the main "Betty" - was Kansas born Betty Knox who retired from the act in 1941 to take up journalism. In fact she was a war correspondant during WW2 and reported on the Nurenburg trials. Her daughter Patsy, born in Kansas in 1924, took over as "Betty" around 1941. In turn Patsy left the act around 1950. An American relative suggests that the Betty Knox who was the founder member of the trio in 1928 was replaced by her daughter, another Betty Knox when they came to the UK in 1932. Other claimed "Bettys" include Irene Edwin-Scott, a classically trained dancer from Glascow, Edna Mae (who claimed to have been the 1945-1947 "Betty") and acrobatic dancer Jean 'Bunnie' Bamberger. The last "Betty" was ballet dancer and Windmill girl Jeanne Mackinnon.

Even today when few can still remember the original Wilson, Keppel and Betty sand dance act, it is regularly used by local amateur dramatic groups and others as material for pantomimes, Christmas and variety shows - because of my web-site I am often asked for clips of their act. Even the great Morcambe and Wise used the act in their TV show - with Glenda Jackson as their Cleopatra (or "Betty")! The British Film Institute have had a couple of Wilson, Kepple and Betty shows, both rapidly sold out! For a dose of nostalgia, dig out that 9.5mm sound projector, lace up "Soft Lights and Sweet Music" and journey back down memory lane.

16 March 2008 G95MagWilsonKeppelBetty ©MM8 Grahame L. Newnham


Long after my article above was published, a detailed and well researched book about Wilson, Kepple and Betty has been written by Alan Stafford. It is well illustrated with photographs, posters and dtrawings. Published in the UK in 2015 by Fantom Films, copies should be available on Amazon etc. at around £20. The title which is intended to sell the thing I guess, relates to Geobbels dislike for the men's naked legs! In fact coming across my 'freebie' copy recently, promted me to pop this artickle up on my web-site (I guess that's how it started but a lot has happened to me since then!)


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Created 23Mar2018 .................... Updated 23 Mar 2018 ................ 95flmartwilsonkepplebetty.htm .................... ©Grahame L. Newnham MMXV111