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Wilson, Keppel and Betty were a popular Britishmarker music hall act in the middle decades of the 20th century who capitalised on the trend for Egyptian imagery following the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Their stage act, called the "sand dance", was a parody of Egyptian postures, combined with references to Arabic costume. The lithe and extremely lanky Wilson and Keppel, who wore long mustaches and made up to emphasize the sharp angularity of the features so as to appear almost identical, would demonstrate their impressive suppleness in adopting wild gestures and dancing in identical "stereo" movements (using gestures vaguely reminiscent of Egyptian wall paintings), while Betty watched their antics. Theirs was a soft-shoe routine performed on a layer of sand spread on the stage to create a rhythmic scratching with their shuffling feet. The act was usually performed to the familiar Egyptian Ballet (1875), by Alexandre Luigini.

The people of South Shieldsmarker are popularly referred to as "Sand-dancers" with reference to this act.

Early life

Jack Wilson (29 January 1894- 24 August 1970), was born in Liverpoolmarker in England, and emigrated to the USAmarker at a young age, making his stage debut in 1909 as a high-kicking dancer. He then travelled to Australia, where he joined Colleano's Circus. During the First World War Wilson served with the Royal Navy. Returning to Australia after the war, he met Joe Keppel (May 10, 1895- 1977), who was born in County Corkmarker in Irelandmarker. Like Wilson, Keppel had emigrated to the USA at a young age, and in 1910 made his stage debut in Albanymarker as a tap dancer. During the First World War he served in the Royal Flying Corps, and after made his way to Australia, also joining Colleano's Circus, where he teamed up with Jack Wilson.

International celebrity

Travelling to the USA together they appeared in New Yorkmarker in 1919 as a comedy acrobatic and tap dancing act. They started their trio act with Kansasmarker-born Betty Knox at Des Moinesmarker in Iowamarker in 1928. Knox had been a stage partner of Jack Benny. The act came to Britain to appear at the London Palladiummarker for a few weeks in 1932 and stayed permanently. Over the years there were between 8 and 12 'Bettys', most of these appearing during the act's later years: Betty Knox retired from the act in 1941 to go into journalism, becoming a war correspondent during World War II, and reporting on the Nuremberg Trialsmarker for three years as the correspondent for the British Beaverbrook press's Evening Standard. For that newspaper she was among the first to report the suicide of Nazi leader Hermann Göring Her daughter, Patsy, (born 1924 in Salina, Kansasmarker), took over as 'Betty' in 1941, staying with the act until 1950. The trio, in its various line-ups, appeared at the Royal Variety Performance in 1934, 1945 and 1947.

Their "Cleopatra's Nightmare" routine was performed in 1936 in Berlin and condemned by Joseph Goebbels as indecent. In the UK they were regarded as one of the best 'speciality acts' - acts designed to balance and support the star of a variety programme. Typically these acts would last about ten minutes, and be repeated twelve times a week (matinee and evening performance, every day except Sunday) in variety theatres all over the country. A fine example of the "Cleopatra's Nightmare" routine can be seen in the Harold Baim film 'Starlight Serenade". In 1950 they appeared at the London Palladium on the same bill with Frank Sinatra. They toured all over the world, performing at shows in London, Europe, Las Vegasmarker, Indiamarker, the Far East and Near East, Australia, Scandinavia and South Africa. They finally retired in 1963.

George Melly, the celebrated jazz vocalist is quoted in his biography as saying "There were several Betty's, they would get rid of one after about 10 years. I knew the last Betty, her son was a brilliant female impersonator...."

Terry Pratchett paid homage to the trio with Gulli, Gulli, and Betti in Jingo.


  5. 'Kindly Leave the Stage - a history of Variety, 1919 - 1960', by Roger Wilmut (ISBN 0-413-48960-4)

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