Midnight Follies, Hotel Metropole, London 1927
This menu, dating from April 1927, is one of our most popular pieces, and understandably so – the illustration of a flirty moon-kissing flapper in the most ridiculous and yet stylish gown, with enough fur to reskin an extinct species, epitomises the Roaring Twenties.
The Midnight Follies was a long-running cabaret at London’s Metropole Hotel, opening in 1921. By 1925 the hotel had retained Jay Whidden, a hot American import, as band leader, and in December that year the show was being broadcast on BBC radio, with songs from the revue sold by Columbia – making Midnight Follies one of the hit-makers of the day.
Whidden was a character: he told stories of his youth as a cowboy from Montana, who lost the fingertips of his left hand to frostbite. (In fact he was born in New Jersey, and lost his fingers working at the docks in New York.)
He taught himself to play the violin, and teamed up with Con Conrad – who would later win an Academy Award for song writing – in a ragtime act which took them all across the States. Whidden and Conrad also kept busy writing songs, which grew increasingly popular.
In 1912 their number ‘Everybody’s Doing It’ hit the big time in the UK, and late that year Whidden and Conrad spent their savings on tickets to London, hoping to make it in the West End. With a growing fascination for Americana, and Whidden happy to play up his faux-cowboy roots (possibly also an attempt to hide his marriage in the US; Whidden later became a bigamist), this paid off handsomely, with the pair pocketing a reported £200-a-week salary at the Empire.
After Conrad headed back to the US, Whidden stayed busy with new collaborations, trips to the US and Australia, and, eventually, a spell at the Metropole. But just a few months after this playbill, the Conrad Hotel lured Whidden away.
(Ever restless, Whidden moved back to the US in 1931 to a string of Hollywood hits and successful tours, then to Australia later in the decade, returning to the States in the early 40s. But the second world war put paid to any future plans, and Whidden more or less retired to his ranch, became involved in the Christian Science movement, finally dying aged probably 77 in 1968.)
But during his time at the Metropole, Whidden cranked out the hits, and created a lavish evening of entertainment, with prices to match: the set menu at Midnight Follies cost about as much as the average weekly wage of the time.
A Pathé newsreel from 1926 gives a flavour of the show, even without any sound:
Sadly, just like Jay Whidden, the Metropole Hotel had its career cut short by the military, although not by war: in 1936 the British government took over the hotel, at a cost of £300,000 per year, to provide additional space for the Ministry of Defence, in whose hands it stayed until 2007, albeit unoccupied since 2004.
Finally, in 2011, a private consortium which had acquired the former Metropole building for £130m, reopened it as the Corinthia Hotel London. Once again the building’s bars echo with live music (without the cabaret) five nights a week, and the hotel has even featured a resident opera in recent years.
Information on Jay Whidden comes from this very detailed and informative biography.