Walter Henry Passmore (10 May 1867 – 29 August 1946) was an English singer and actor best known as the first successor to George Grossmith in the comic baritone roles in Gilbert and Sullivan operas with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company.
Passmore began performing professionally at the age of fourteen in the pantomime Cinderella. He apprenticed to a piano maker and then worked as a pianist before returning to acting, making his London debut in 1890. In 1893, Passmore joined the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, soon becoming the company's principal comedian. He created roles in the original productions of the last two Gilbert and Sullivan operas and in many other Savoy Operas. He also played the patter roles in several Gilbert and Sullivan revivals, and he also toured for the company.
In 1903, Passmore left the company and began a career in musical comedies, plays and pantomimes in London's West End and on tour that lasted for thirty years. His West End appearances included roles in such important productions as The Earl and the Girl (1903), The Talk of the Town (1905) and Madame Pompadour (1924). He often appeared on stage with his wife, Agnes Fraser.
Life and career
Passmore was born in London and became a choirboy at All Saints Church in Notting Hill. On Christmas morning 1881 he sang in Messiah, and the following day he made his first professional stage appearance at the age of fourteen at Sunderland as a page in the pantomime Cinderella. He then served as an apprentice to the piano maker Cramers, but at the end of the apprenticeship he took a job as a pianist with travelling concert parties and performed in farcical comedies. In 1890, Passmore made his London debut in a revival of Dion Boucicault's drama The Flying Scud at the Standard Theatre, Bishopgate, and performed in musicals for the next three years.
Passmore joined the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in 1893, where he created the small part of Greg in the unsuccessful Jane Annie at the Savoy Theatre (libretto by J. M. Barrie and Arthur Conan Doyle; music by Ernest Ford). Next, in Gilbert and Sullivan's Utopia, Limited (1893–94), he created the role of Tarara, the public exploder. He then created the role of Bobinet in Mirette (1894). Bobinet was Passmore's first real starring part. In the autumn of 1894, Passmore named his new daughter "Mirette", perhaps in acknowledgement of his success in this break-out role. He also performed in Utopia in the role of King Paramount on tour that year. Passmore next created the role of Peter Adolphus Grigg in Sullivan and Burnand's The Chieftain (1894–1895). After this, he toured as Bobinet and Grigg.
Principal comedian of the D'Oyly Carte
Passmore returned to the Savoy in 1895, where he continued as D'Oyly Carte's principal comedian, playing Ko-Ko in revivals of The Mikado (1895–97). In between these revivals, he created the role of Grand Duke Rudolph in Gilbert and Sullivan's last opera, The Grand Duke (1896). In 1897, in His Majesty, he created the part of Boodel, earning good notices. He next played Jack Point in the first revival of The Yeomen of the Guard (1897). This was followed by the roles of General Boum in The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein (1897–98) and the Grand Inquisitor, Don Alhambra, in revivals of The Gondoliers (1898). In 1898, he created the role of The Devil in the original production of The Beauty Stone.
Passmore continued to play at the Savoy as the Usher in Trial by Jury, John Wellington Wells in The Sorcerer (1898) and King Ouf I in The Lucky Star (1899). After seeing Passmore's performance in The Lucky Star, Sullivan noted in his diary, "The fun of the whole piece lies in Passmore. Take him out and nothing's left. He worked splendidly and carried the opera through. I wish though he could drop his 'cockney' accent and manners at times." Passmore next played Sir Joseph in a revival of H.M.S. Pinafore (1899). While rehearsing the role, Passmore suggested to W. S. Gilbert that he might walk around with his nose in the air "as though raising it above an unpleasant smell." Gilbert quipped, "Unpleasant smell? Well, you're the best judge of that, Passmore."
Passmore then created the role of Hassan in The Rose of Persia (1899–1900) and played the Sergeant of Police in the second revival of The Pirates of Penzance (1900) and in the first revival of Patience (1900–01), he was Bunthorne. He created the role of Professor Bunn in The Emerald Isle (1901), was Ping-Pong in The Willow Pattern (1901), and played the Lord Chancellor in the first revival of Iolanthe (1901–02). He created the role of Walter Wilkins in Merrie England (1902, and on tour) and played Puck in A Princess of Kensington (1903, and on tour).
Passmore stayed in London when the D'Oyly Carte company went on tour in 1903. There he began a career in musical comedies, plays and pantomimes in London's West End and on tour that lasted for thirty years. He first appeared at the Adelphi Theatre, where he played Jim Cheese in the hit musical The Earl and the Girl (1903), then to the Lyric Theatre as Jerry Snipe in The Talk of the Town (1905) and as Private Charlie Taylor in The Blue Moon (1905). His pantomimes at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane included Cinderella (1905), Sinbad (1906), and Babes in the Wood (1907), At the Apollo Theatre, Passmore appeared in The Dairymaids (1906), and at the Queen's Theatre, he played Baptiste Boubillon in The Belle of Brittany (1908). In 1910, Passmore played Frosch, the jailer, in Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus in Thomas Beecham's first opera season at Covent Garden. The production – one of the few works in the season not to lose money – "depended for its popularity in part upon Walter Passmore, the celebrated D'Oyly Carte droll".
Next, Passmore toured in Merrie England again in 1911. He appeared as Alphonse Bouchotte in Oh! Oh! Delphine in 1913 at the Shaftesbury Theatre, and as Jericho Mardyke in Our Nell in 1924 at the Gaiety Theatre. He also appeared in Madame Pompadour (1924). A late Gilbert and Sullivan performance was in Trial by Jury at a benefit matinée for Courtice Pounds in 1927, when Passmore was joined by stars including Leslie Henson and Derek Oldham. After this long career, his last role was Count Theodore Volney in 1933 in The Damask Rose.
In 1900, Passmore married another D'Oyly Carte artist, Agnes Fraser, who frequently appeared with him on stage. They had four children: Henry, a general manager of Hammer films 1935–37; Nancy, who married tenor Joseph Hislop; John; and Isobel.
Passmore died at Golders Green, London at the age of 79.
Between 1900 and 1913, Passmore recorded over a dozen of individual songs from the Gilbert & Sullivan operas for Odeon. Many of these have been re-issued by Pearl on LP and CD ("The Art of the Savoyard," Pearl GEMM CD 9991).
In an historic 1908 recording of The Mikado for Odeon that was reissued by Pearl on LP (GEMM 198), Passmore also sang the role of Ko-Ko. This recording is nearly complete and is a rare opportunity to hear an artist who recorded a role that he played under Gilbert's and Sullivan's personal direction.
- Article about the London musical stage in 1894
- Stone, David. Walter Passmore at Who Was Who in the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, 6 April 2003
- "Walter Passmore", Memories of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company
- Ayre, p. 260
- Listing of casts at London theatres from 1902–1909
- Article on Drury Lane pantomimes
- Reid, p. 107. Sullivan's Ivanhoe was also staged by Beecham during this season, but Passmore was not in the cast.
- Listing of casts at London theatres from 1910–1919
- Listing of casts at London theatres from 1920–1929
- The Times, 13 December 1927, p. 18
- Article about the 1907 Odeon Mikado recording at The G&S Discography
- Ayre, Leslie (1972). The Gilbert & Sullivan Companion. London: W.H. Allen & Co Ltd. Introduction by Martyn Green.
- Reid, Charles (1961). Thomas Beecham – An Independent Biography. London: Victor Gollancz.
- Walters, Michael. "Walter Passmore". The Gaiety (Winter 2005): pp. 22–44.