Pam’s Pictorama Photo Post: So last week’s Deitchian pre-Valentine’s Day post (From My Sweetie which can be found here) touched on Alfred Latell, and today I make good on the promise to add to an earlier Latell post of mine (here), to be featured this week. My interest in Alfred Latell, born of the card I purchased shown below, helped to inspire Kim’s animal impersonator-themed Valentine this year, egged on by the fact that I had just recently acquired this publicity photo of Latell – the best and virtually only one I have seen of him not in costume. So today I endeavor to dig a little deeper into the Alfred Latell story, hoping not repeating myself while offering a fairly fulsome tale for those of you just tuning in.
Alfred Latell was a vaudeville performer with an animal act which evidence shows took off in about 1902 and ran into the early 1940’s – arguably the 1950’s in Australia it seems. Latell went to great lengths to rig up elaborate animal costumes, with moving parts such as a tail, ears or even a ridge of fur on his back. My favorite fact is that he would sit outside at night in his cat suit, watching felines in the backyard, learning how to ape their ways. This is how I see him in my mind when I consider him, outside at night in his cat suit, watching and hearing a kitty chorus on a back fence somewhere, making mental notes about them.
Dogs were a challenge he relished; he felt they were the closest to humans and his Bonzo dog appears to be the one he was best known for later in life. Latell didn’t speak in his act, perhaps the costumes precluded it, although evidently he did bird imitations when clad in an early bird suit. He always had a partner who would do the talking, and that partner was first wife one and then, Sylvan Dell, wife number two. He and Ms. Dell are shown together below in photos I found via Google and on the site referenced below.
Pausing for a moment, I reflect on Bonzo Dog and his copyright. As I think most of you probably know, Bonzo is a British comics invention by George Studdy in 1922. Born at a similar time as the likes of Felix the Cat, Bonzo comics set off a merchandise boom, first in Britain and then, much like Felix, making its way around the world. I happily own several Bonzo toys (yep, and some of those can be found featured in posts here and here), but clearly the copyright wasn’t being guarded so carefully that Alfred Latell couldn’t cheerfully make a name for himself with this act and bearing the Bonzo Dog name.
This photo bears an interesting newspaper article, glued to the back of the photo which talks about his act. It mentions Sylvan Dell and also the other acts on the bill including Pablo South America’s most famous magician and The Three Chocolateers, one of the fastest colored dance teams ever seen in Seattle. Something referred to as human pretzels rounded out the fare. As you can see from the back of the photo, shown below, this comes to us almost exactly 85 years ago to the day, February 27, 1934.
Fellow blogger Travelanche has a post about Latell (which can be found at Alfred Latell Animal Impresssionist) which contains more biographical information and the Travelanche author corresponded with Latell’s family. (The family also contacted me after my prior post, asking if I had information beyond what I had posted.) My favorite image on that post is of an 8×10 publicity photo of Latell as Bonzo, autographed to Duke Ellington, with the inscription, To Duke Ellington, The master of Rythm may you never lead a Dog’s life, Latell 1931. The photo above with Sylvan Dell is signed by both Dell and Latell and also inscribed to Duke Ellington, To Duke Ellington, Wishing you much happiness and continued success Sincerely Sylvan Dell with Al Latell, also dated 1931.
Sadly, ultimately Alfred Latell appears to have died a pauper and was buried in an unmarked grave. The above referenced post says his widow was so distraught…she threw out anything that reminded her of her husband, including his famous dog suit. So much for my secret hope and dream of finding the dog suit some day.
I see that my original post is frequently read, evidence that people are searching the internet for information on him. As far as I can tell, Alfred Latell’s available credits are all for stage work; sadly I can find no evidence of him on film, although his career certainly covers a period when he could have been recorded. Hopefully a movie or other film appearance will turn up eventually so we can see him in action. (Of course, I will add that I am also very anxious to find an image of Latell in his cat suit as well.) For now, I add another, albeit thin, page to the story and lore of Alfred Latell, the great animal impersonator.