Dan Leno was the prince of clowns.
Born George Wild Galvin in 1860, he was the youngest of six children in an old London show business family. His father was a comedian and his mother was a singer and George soon showed that he had inherited both talents. He made his debut as "Little George,the Infant Wonder" when he was only four years old and quickly became a regular part of the family act. After their father died, George and his brother, Henry later began touring as The Brothers Leno-Champion Dancers (Leno was their step-father's name) and toured across the United Kingdom before George went solo in his late teens.
He was never a tall man (he barely reached five feet in height) but made up for it with his dancing skills, his comic wit, and his sparkling delivery. He quickly became known as the "Funniest Man on Earth" with an astonishing range of talents. He performed comic skits, danced, sang funny songs and generally had the audience in stitches with his antics. Despite his grueling schedule and daily performances, he still somehow managed to find time to marry and have six children over the years. By the 1880s, he was Great Britain's top-billing music hall star and regularly performed to sold-out audiences at London's Drury Lane. At the height of his popularity, Dan Leno was entertaining Queen Victoria and, later, King Edward VII (which earned him the nickname of the "King's Jester").
In 1902, Dan Leno suffered what was later termed a "nervous breakdown". His behaviour became increasingly erratic and he also became hard of hearing. Leno's family was alarmed by his odd behaviour and strange delusions (he began proclaiming that he was descended from a Scottish marquis). He also became more grandiose and announced that he was giving up comedy for a career as a serious actor.
On one occasion, Constance Collier, a prominent Shakespearean actress, came home at 1:00 AM to find Leno waiting for her outside her home. He told her that he wanted to play Hamlet and urged her to use her influence to get him the part. Like most of London, Collier was one of Leno's fans but she could see that he was acting strangely. She was able to get him to leave by promising to talk to a director friend of hers but Leno was back the next night with an expensive gift of jewelry. She finally refused his request firmly and Leno left brokenhearted (he gave the jewelry to a barmaid on his way home).
In 1903, he was sent to a nursing home in Camberwell where he still showed signs of the awesome comic talent that had made him famous. Despite an attempt at resuming his performances, Dan Leno died on October 31, 1904 at the age of 43. News of his death made international headlines and thousands of fans attended his funeral. He is buried in Lambeth Cemetery near the gardens that still bear his name.
The actual cause of Leno's death continues to be a matter of controversy. His death certificate lists "General Paresis of the Insane" (a common term for neurosyphilis) although there is no actual evidence that he ever had the disease. Another possibility that more recent historians have raised is that Leno died of a brain tumour. Unfortunately, the loss of hearing and behavioural symptoms that he showed during his decline do not provide enough information to make a clear diagnosis.
For all his popularity, most of the comic routines that he performed during his long career have been lost. While there are a few scratchy sound recordings that survive, what little is known of Leno's performances are taken from popular writers of the time such as Max Beerbohm. One of his sons, Sidney Leno, later toured as Dan Leno Junior but he never matched his father's success.
Despite being largely forgotten today, Dan Leno's influence on later comedians was profound. The great Stan Laurel viewed Leno as one of his heroes and based many of his own comedy routines on skits that Leno had first performed. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and many of the other comic greats of the silent era were also influenced by Leno. That people are still laughing at antics inspired by Dan Leno more than a century after his passing may well be the best possible monument to a funny man who died far too soon.