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She was born Gertrude Mary Astbury in Shirley Street, Longport, Stoke-on-Trent. Her father was a pottery works foreman and her mother Lavinia taught at St Peter's RC school in Cobridge. When she was three, the family moved to Frederic Street in nearby Hanley.
Gitana is Spanish for (female) "Gipsy" and she was a member of Tomkinson's "Royal Gipsy Children" at the age of four. On account of her petite form and supposed Gipsy origins, she was sometimes billed as "The Staffordshire Cinderella".
She made her professional debut in 1896 at the age of eight on the stage of The Tivoli in Barrow-in-Furness. Two years later at the age of ten she had a significant billing at The Argyle in Birkenhead and her first London appearance was in 1900. At the age of 17, she topped the bill for the first time at The Ardwick Empire at Manchester and Gertie Gitana had arrived. In her prime she was reputed to have earned in excess of £100 per week and her name was always sufficient to ensure a full house.
Her music hall repertoire included "A Schoolgirl's Holiday", "We've been chums for fifty years", "When the Harvest Moon is Shining", "Silver Bell", "You do Look Well in Your Old Dutch Bonnet", "Queen of the Cannibal Isles", "Never Mind", "When I see the Lovelight Gleaming", and especially "Nellie Dean" - written by Henry W. Armstrong - which an audience first heard her sing in 1907. "Nellie Dean" was an instant success and became her 'signature tune'. Her first gramophone recordings, dating from 1911–1913, were made in London on the Jumbo label. During the 1914–18 war she was the Forces' sweetheart and often entertained the war wounded in hospitals.
After the war, she appeared in pantomime, notably as Little Red Riding Hood, and Cinderella. Gertie also appeared in a Royal Command Performance. Two musical shows were specially written for her: Nellie Dean and Dear Louise, and in 1928 she married her leading man in the latter — Don Ross. She retired in 1938 but made a very successful come-back ten years later with other "old timers" in the show Thanks for the memory produced by her husband. Her final appearance was on 2 December 1950 at The Empress Theatre, Brixton.
She died of cancer on 5 January 1957 in Hampstead, London and is buried in Wigston Cemetery on Welford Rd, Wigston Magna, Leicestershire. Some lines of the song "Nellie Dean" are engraved on the grave stone.
In the early 1950s, Frederic Street in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, was renamed Gitana Street in her honour; the street leads to the rear of the Theatre Royal in Hanley and the public house now called The Stage Door (at the corner of Gitana Street) was at one time called The Gertie Gitana and it still has her portrait over the door. Her name continues at Gitana's, a public house in Hartshill Road, Stoke-on-Trent.
Her London memorial — "The Nellie Dean" at the corner of Dean Street in Soho (renamed thus in her honour) — at one time had a shrine of her stage memorabilia. In Cockney rhyming slang, Gertie Gitana means a banana.
- (Wills and Probate GOV.UK 1957 Page 1127; Col.2., item 5.)
- Did you know? - Gertie Gitana was born in Stoke-on-Trent? thepotteries.org
- "Singing star's greatest thrill was street name honour". The Sentinel. 11 October 2008. Retrieved 31 July 2009.
A bench on Edinburgh's Prince Street Gardens has been named in her honour. The inscription reads "A Loving Remembrance of Gertie Gitana Music Hall Artiste" followed by the lyrics "There's An Old Mill By The Stream Nelly Dean" (Note the incorrect spelling of "Nellie")