Following her marriage in 1908 Marcus’ mother Nellie no longer worked as an actress. In the 1911 Census she is described as having neither profession nor occupation. She, her husband, and young son were living a life of some luxury in a newly built villa just south of the Thames in West London. It appears, however, that Nellie maintained her earlier theatrical and music hall contacts.
As a treat for his fourth birthday, Marcus was to be taken to see a matinee in London. Mother knew the popular illusionist Rameses the Great. Also known as Rameses The Wonder Worker, and The Eastern Mystic. The stage magician Marcus refers to was a Polish émigré from London’s East End, Albert Marchinsky . After beginning his career in England he had toured extensively in the United States and South Africa in the early 1900’s. On his return to Britain he performed to packed houses at the Palladium, the London Coliseum and on the Stoll Moss Empire theatre circuit. His wife, Rosie, was generally known as “Mrs Rameses” and acted as one of his stage assistants.
A chauffeur driven Daimler arrived at the family home in Mortlake to take Marcus and his mother to the West End. The presence of such a vehicle would itself be memorable to a small child, but the appearance of his travelling companions was extraordinary.
The Pharaoh Rameses and his Egyptian queen sat side by side in the back of the limousine already wearing their stage costumes. As a publicity stunt the performers were to arrive at the Box Office entrance already in their costumes rather than slip in through the Stage Door that day.
Edwardian theatre posters show Rameses striding around the stage in an ornate headdress and heavily embellished leather tunic, a cloak billowing behind him. Rameses’ wife, in the guise of Asrah, Queen of the Air, wore something altogether flimsier – a silken robe with diaphanous sleeves – in preparation for her levitation act later that afternoon.
A contemporary photograph shows the illusionist’s stage makeup included heavily kohled eyes, caterpillar-thick brows, and an unlikely looking goatee beard pasted on his chin. Marcus would have had ample opportunity to view this at close quarters whilst jammed inside the vehicle with his mother and the two internationally renowned performers as they sped from the suburbs into London.
Marcus does not describe the journey across the Thames towards Nellie’s beloved theatreland. Perhaps he was overwhelmed by a heady mix of his mother’s perfume, the fragrance of leather upholstery polish, and the scent of well-worn stage costumes. However, he does remark that it was first house and the manager welcomed the king of Egypt as the people … waited to go in (the) theatre. It was my first experience of a grand entry … Oh the showmanship!
Once Marcus and his mother had pushed their way through the crowds and reached their red-plush seats in the auditorium, Marcus was entranced. The stage set was arranged to represent steps leading up to the portico of an Egyptian Temple, a sphinx to one side, a sarcophagus to the other. Posters advertising Rameses’ shows made much of the fact that the “Temple of Mystery” production had cost £2,000 to create and that it promised to be the “Most Bewildering Show in the World”. The infant Marcus was duly impressed. The Egyptian stage setting was truly colourful and the acts all in keeping with Egypt. He describes dancing girls, sword swallowers, knife throwing, acrobats and tumblers, not forgetting the flying pigeon act. This last trick involved the birds being concealed in a “dove pan,” a thick hollow lid that was placed over a cauldron of water. Using a fire of flash paper the water apparently boiled away. In truth the water drained into the legs of the cauldron whilst the dove pan lid was opened in such a way as to suggest that the pigeons had been formed from the rising steam. Such illusions were aided by the use of a blue limelight catching the vapour from censers swung by what are described as “swarthy assistants”. Clouds of incense rolled out into the stalls.
A particular favourite with the crowds was the moment when Asrah Queen of the Air levitated, then danced and skipped through a hoop suspended from the proscenium arch before disappearing into thin air. Meanwhile green shrubs were placed under small pyramids. In a trice, these bloomed and fragrant blossoms were flung out into the audience. There was so much activity on stage, few noticed Asrah’s cunningly devised harness nor the fact that the roses had been hand cut and tied on to carefully folded branches.
Rameses the Great was also well known for his ability to reanimate the “corpse” of Vril, a cloth bound mummy-like representation of a Pierrot. Small battery-operated fairy lights burst into life as the creature moved and made its terrifying, ungainly way across the stage. Throughout these illusions Rameses remained inscrutably silent. He only spoke when, with the assistance of audience members, he hypnotised a performing goose. Regrettably, Marcus does not describe what this creature felt compelled to do once under the illusionist’s influence.
At the conclusion of the performance the queen got in the Egyptian coffin which the great Rameses showed empty then with the great queen inside. There was of course no possible way for her to escape. The lid was securely closed there was a string of mourners chanting then there was a large (flash) of lightning. It is easy to imagine shocked silence and the suspense building as Rameses opened the coffin but there was no queen. She had vanished. Then the great Rameses wept and wailed “Oh my darling queen, what have I done.” To everybody’s complete surprise (unless of course they had seen the show before) there was the queen’s voice at the back of the theatre stalls “I am here, I am here.” The queen rushed on to the stage to be greeted by the great Rameses as the curtains slowly closed to thunderous applause.
Oddly after such a thrilling experience, Marcus was not inspired to become an illusionist. In later life he learnt a little sleight of hand magic but, of his four-year-old self he writes Oh! how I wished I could disappear like that.
Not included in the autobiography, but found in handwritten fragments, Marcus also mentions a childhood visit to another of his mother’s friends, the famous Clown Groak (sic). A Swiss national domiciled in Britain between 1911 and 1924, Grock performed on the variety stage rather than in the circus ring. He became one of the highest paid performers in Europe juggling and playing numerous musical instrumentsintentionally badly. To the audience’s delight it mystified Grock to find that his tiny violin became unplayable when flipped upside down. Marcus claims to have sat on the entertainer’s knee, watching as Grock applied his bald cap and stage makeup. However, Marcus did not attribute his love of clowning to meeting Grock but to a later mentor, Clown Roma.
Around the time of these visits to the West End, Marcus’ family were beginning to suffer financial difficulties. John Aston’s business failed. As a respectable middle-class married woman Nellie took an unusual, possibly scandalous step. She sought office work.
By this stage there were no servants left at the house in Mortlake, no one to care for a small boy at home. Undaunted, Nellie took her four-year-old son with her into London on the train. It is called …. the scenario office of Wardour Street – the centre of film business and my mother does a lot of typewriting with carbon copies so that there are two or three copies of the film story to be made.
Marcus recalled that he did not really like going with his mother because he was always in somebody’s way. Occasionally a horrid dirty old man climbed several flights of stairs to visit Nellie. Mother always stops her work and makes a cup of tea with as many sandwiches and biscuits as he can eat, oh! He is greedy he even picked the crumbs that had fallen on to his worn-out clothes. Sometimes you could see his toes through his boots. When I first met him I went to sit on his knee as lots of people liked me to do but this nasty old man shooed me away saying “Get away, I don’t like kids, get away from me.” However the child was determined to charm the man. I made up my mind I would sit on his knee whenever I wanted. On his fourth visit he said In old crochety voice “Boy, sit on my knee” and he gave me one of my mother’s biscuits. Marcus had made his first friend in the film industry – William Friese-Greene.
I now know that old man was the first man in England to know about the possibilities of the moving picture camera Freeze-Greene I may have spelt his name incorrectly but I do know he was one of the greatest film men to walk in Wardour Street W1 the British centre of the film world even before Hollywood USA was The first British film maker and he died a pauper’s death.
By being at the centre of the nascent British cinema industry, Nellie might have hoped to revive her acting career and secure a role in the movies. However, in later life Marcus explained it was he who had been talent spotted instead. “I played the gamekeeper’s son in Ben Webster’s The House of Temperley.” As with everything in Marcus’ life this was far from run of the mill. The film was a ground-breaking piece of cinema history.
In Edwardian cinema most films were “two reelers.” Silent, black and white and often comedies, these entertainments lasted approximately twenty minutes. Shot at Twickenham by London Film Productions, the Regency drama is one of the first “six reelers.” The screenplay was adapted from his novel Rodney Stone by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For almost an hour the film enthrals the audience with a tale of card sharping, pugilism and romance. The cast list does not include the role of gamekeeper’s son. Perhaps it was an idle boast, or perhaps the child’s performance was deemed inadequate and the celluloid was condemned to the cutting room floor. As with many things it has so far proved impossible to verify Marcus’s claims.
 Charles Wettach aka The King of Clowns 1880-1959
 Simple Life of a Happy Man, Archant newspapers 15.3.76
 The House of Temperley (1913) – Full Cast & Crew – IMDb consulted 6.6.22
Woodward C., (2011) Rameses the Forgotten Star, Chicago, Squash Publishing