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John and Tony Ventro

Not everyone who earned their living as a performer in Douglas during those distant, vibrant summer seasons between the 1920s and 50s - during what we now recognise as the golden age of the tourist industry on the Isle of Man - was a well-known variety or concert artiste, a comedian, ventriloquist, juggler, dancer, impressionist or a member of one of the famous ballroom orchestras. Many local musicians and entertainers were essentially cogs in the well-oiled machine that powered that industry, largely unknown and invisible to the thousands - perhaps tens of thousands - of visitors going about the serious daily business of enjoying a well-earned, fun-filled holiday. At the end of every summer season they quietly disappeared back into the Island’s uncertain winter economy.

This is a brief account of the careers of two brothers, one born during the last decade of the Victorian age, the other during the last year of the succeeding Edwardian age. The elder brother enjoyed a modest career as a musician on the fringes of the entertainment business; the younger brother enjoyed a short but illustrious career as a charismatic singer with one of the finest dance bands to have performed here during the decade after the end of World War II.

‘Hokey-Pokey’ and organ grinders.

John Ventre, known henceforth as John Ventro, was born on 25th August 1892 at number 82 Gerard Street in the heart of the Liverpool district known as ‘Little Italy’.1 The area was impoverished and characterised by poor housing, yet vibrant and colourful, and, from the 1870s and 80s, populated by mainly Italian families. Some commentators estimate that up to one third of Italian immigrants were musicians whilst others were ‘Hokey-Pokey’ men, street vendors selling ice cream from small hand carts (from the Italian ‘O che poco’ or ‘O how little’).

John Ventro’s father, Anselmo (or Anzelmo) Ventre had come from Picinisco in the Province of Frosinone, Lazio, a small mountain village surrounded by wooded hills, deep valleys and vineyards some 120 kilometres south-east of Rome. In 1891 Anselmo was lodging at number 2, Whale Street in the district, the home of Gaetano Volante, an ‘organ grinder’, with his father Lorenzo Ventre. Both Anselmo and Lorenzo were also described as ‘organ grinders’, as were eight of the eleven residents of the house.2 In November 1891 he married Maud Grannell3 and moved to number 82, Gerard Street. By 1901, the family had adopted the surname Ventro, and were living at number 7, Lionel Street. Young John, the eldest child, was eight years old and the family consisted of three further brothers, a sister and a widowed domestic servant.4 Anselmo was described as a ‘musician, street, harp (indistinct in the records) and violin’.

Ten years later the family had increased to ten children – an eleventh child, a girl, Philomena, had been born in 1905 but lived just one year – and were still living in Lionel street, with Anselmo’s occupation described as a ‘musician, street’ as was John’s. Two other brothers old enough to work were respectively identified as an apprentice paper hanger and a municipal street sweeper. The youngest son, Anthony Thomas, was just one year old.5

‘The conveyance of the multitudes to Douglas Head’

John Ventro married his first wife Monica, a Douglas girl, in 1917. Little is known about her except that she worked in some capacity for Lady Raglan, the wife of the then Lieutenant Governor, Lord Raglan, and ‘for the steam ferries’. Scant information has survived about John Ventro’s war service save that he survived the conflict as a Private in the South Lancashire Regiment, was garrisoned in Yorkshire in 1918 and discharged on 11th July 1919. Around the time of his discharge, or the following year, he moved to the Isle of Man and was initially supported - probably with temporary accommodation - by the British Legion, an organisation of which he was a life-long supporter.

We hear of John Ventro twice in 1920 in the local newspapers, the first time when he was awarded damages after being falsely accused of stealing eggs from a butcher in Strand Street,6 and later that year when he was named as ‘a talented violinist’ among the performers at an Oddfellows re-union concert at the Ramsey Palace.

His main source of income during the years before World War II was as a violinist and organiser of the small bands who played for the holiday makers on the three cross-harbour ferries (the Douglas Head ferries) that ran from Victoria Pier to the Battery Pier. There were three such bands, one stationed on each of the three main ferries, Rose, Shamrock and Thistle.7 The Ferries were sturdy, double-ended, flat-bottomed vessels with the wheel aft of the single funnel, and criss-crossed the harbour every few minutes for the modest charge of 2d (in the 1930s), thus saving the visitor a tiresome detour via the Swing Bridge. Although each vessel could accommodate up to one hundred passengers packed as tight as sardines, demand was such that long queues up to four to six deep were not uncommon during the summer seasons. Once across the harbour visitors could take advantage of the various stalls that lined the way up to Douglas Head, where there was a hotel, the Douglas Head Hotel, a Camera Obscura, Minstrel or Pierrot shows and much else.

With limited space, each band probably comprised just two or three players, a violin (including John Ventro himself), a trumpet (possibly his colleague Bert Ralphs) and even a piano which was housed in a special water-proof ‘box’, although this is not apparent from any surviving photographs of the ferries.8 The well-known local pianist Frieda Standen recalled that the band normally consisted of two players, John Ventro, violin, and a piano accordionist, and Dougie Davidson, confirms that after WWII the bands often consisted of just two players: a saxophone or trumpet and piano accordion. The bands would play the popular songs of the season with the crowds lustily joining in. Although the musicians received no fee for their services, they were permitted to collect money from the passengers and from the sale of sheet music, and were considered to be ‘as indispensable as the captain and the crew’ in ensuring a jolly holiday atmosphere.9

‘He gave generously of his musical talent to good causes in the Island for many years’.10

John Ventro’s first wife died around 1926, and on 5th October 1927 he married his second wife, Louise Gabler, at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Douglas. By the 1930s John Ventro had become a well-known local musician, and not just with the summer visitors. During the long winters he was active as a violinist, amateur actor and singer, and took part in many local concerts. A few examples from the local newspapers will suffice. In 1930 he was among the soloists appearing at a Tea and Concert at St. Stephen’s Hall, Sulby. In November 1935 he appeared with the Khaki Minstrels for an Armistice Night Show organised by the Douglas Branch of the British Legion at the Palace Coliseum, which included a number of solo vocalists, a banjo troupe, a choir of twenty and the British Legion Band. In November 1938 he, Bert Ralphs and other entertainers including the Manx soprano Lilian Pickard, appeared at a Festival of Remembrance concert at the Villa Marina, again organised by the Douglas Branch of the British Legion.

John Ventro was on friendly terms with the music publisher Lawrence Wright - and probably other music publishers as well - the great chorus singer Florrie Forde, Gracie Fields11 and probably other stars of the day who appeared in Douglas during the summer seasons. After World War II John and Louise Ventro (he may have reverted to ‘Ventre’ again) became the owners of the Grosvenor boarding house at number 8, Palace Road, Douglas. Later, after retirement, he was taken on at the Palace Casino as a member of the hospitality staff.  He died around 1971 or 1972.

‘Everything he sang roused the house to tremendous enthusiasm’.

John Ventro’s youngest brother, Anthony Thomas Ventro, known henceforth as Tony Ventro, was born on 26th June 1909 at number 7, Lionel Street, Liverpool. Almost nothing is known about his early life in Liverpool, but on 8th March 1941 he married Ruth Isobel Rawsthorn from Birkenhead.

It was John Ventro who drew Joe Loss’s attention to his talented younger brother and arranged for Tony to travel to Douglas for an audition in 1949. This was the year that Norman Evans, George Formby and the young Frankie Howerd appeared at the Palace Coliseum; Bert Noble and his band were resident in the Derby Castle Ballroom for the summer and Leslie Sarony, Wee Georgie Wood and Jimmy James were the stars at the Derby Castle Opera House. Nat Mills and Bobbie appeared in the revue Too Funny for Words at the Gaiety Theatre whilst the bands of Harold Moorhouse, Joe Kirkham and Vincent Ladbrook provided dance music at the Palais de Danse. The film star Anna Neagle was mobbed when she visited the Island for one day in August, and at the Villa Marina, Joe Loss appeared for the second year with his current resident dance band singers Elizabeth Batey and Howard Jones. That summer season he introduced his new singer, Tony Ventro, to Douglas audiences, whose ‘glorious, golden tenor voice and gracious personality’, together with handsome, dark-haired Italianate looks, immediately began to attract excellent reviews.

As ‘the brother of a well-known Douglas man who was no mean artiste himself’, he was given an especially warm welcome and sang Handel’s Largo (Ombra mai fu, from the opera Serse), O sole mio, La Donna e Mobile from Verdi’s Rigoletto, On with the Motley from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and several ballads. His first appearance in Douglas was ‘. . . a terrific success’ and the critics were impressed with his ‘remarkable vocal power’. As one perceptively wrote: ‘the microphone could surely be disposed with . . . everything he sang roused the house to tremendous enthusiasm’.

Among the dance band singers, it was he who sang the operatic numbers along with popular Italian songs such as Come Back to Sorrento and old favourites such as Hear My Song, Violetta and The Loveliest Night of the Year, and an occasional comedy duet with Howard Jones such as The Laughing Policeman. After the summer seasons were over, he toured the provincial towns and cities, made recordings for the BBC and even appeared at the Royal Albert Hall.

Like many singers before and since Tony Ventro was from time to time afflicted with the curse of unspecified throat problems - particularly in 1952 - and was doubtless constantly vigilant for the first symptoms of a cough or cold which could easily have resulted in cancelled engagements or even signal the end of a career. Nevertheless, he came to Douglas with the Joe Loss orchestra every summer season until 1955, when he and Howard Jones were absent from the team, replaced by Rose Brennan and another new singer, Ross MacManus, ‘the little man with the big voice’. That was also the year that Ivy Benson and her all-girls band appeared for the first time at the Villa Marina. Although he disappears from our story, Tony Ventro probably continued to perform, possibly under Joe Loss’s management, for a few years until he retired from the stage to run a fish and chip shop in Huyton. He died on 25th July, 1982.12

Maurice Powell, January 2019.

Notes

1.       This close-knit community occupied an area off Scotland Road – now the A59 - encompassing Christian Street, Circus Street, Gerard Street, Grosvenor Street, Hunter Street, Lionel Street and Whale Street.  Much of the area was systematically demolished over a period of time and many residents re-housed in Croxteth, Kirby and Huyton, where members of the Ventro family were re-located.

2.       1891 England Census.

3.       Sometimes written as Maud (e) Madelina Grannelle, Grennelle, Grannal or Grinell, of 6 Lionel Street, Liverpool, born 23rd December 1863, Lancashire; died 1955, Douglas.

4.       1901 England Census.

5.       1911 England Census.

6.       He gave his address as 60, Hunter Street, Liverpool, and so perhaps was not permanently resident in Douglas at this time.

7.       There were also a number of smaller vessels: Sambo, Jingo and Lancashire Lass, and some rowing boats.

8.       According to the recollections of Peter Ventre. See also Frieda Standen, Trivial Tales of Music and Man, Peel, the Trafalgar Press, 1990. Dougie Davidson is a member of the Manx Swing Band (formerly the Manx Dance Orchestra) founded 1972.

9.       See Ward Lock & Co’s Isle of Man illustrated guide book of 1934-5.

10.   Mona’s Herald, 26th July 1949.

11.   It is doubtful that Gracie Fields ever appeared in Douglas other than on the silver screen. There were rumours in 1931 that she might appear at Onchan Head Pavilion with her then husband Archie Pitt in his summer show, and the Isle of Man Examiner of 23rd August 1935 contains an ambiguous reference to ‘Mrs Monty Banks’ leaving the Island during the making of No Limit with George Formby. However, it seems unlikely that at the height of her fame in the mid-1930s she could have been on the Isle of Man, or indeed anywhere in Britain, incognito.

12.   His address was given as number 106, Bakers Green Road, Huyton, Knowsley, Merseyside. His estate was valued at ‘not exceeding £25,000’.

Acknowledgements:

Sincere thanks are due to Peter Ventre for his personal recollections of his family.

Online sites of interest:

See Liverpool’s Italian Families, with links to ‘Little Italy’; the streets of ‘Little Italy’ including a photograph of Lionel Street; location of the Ventre family on a street map; photographs of three Ventres (two men and one women) with piano accordions; an un-named Ventre; photographs of street musicians including harp player, organ grinders and ‘hokey-pokey’ ice cream vendors. 

 

 

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