Obituary: Serge Ganjou

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GEORGE ROBEY, "The Prime Minister of Mirth", Charles Coburn with his "Two Lovely Black Eyes", Marie Lloyd junior as her mother, the original "Ruin That Cromwell Knocked About a Bit", and the eccentric dance trio Wilson, Keppel and Betty in "Cleopatra's Nightmare". These were just some of the veteran variety stars that shone in the film Variety Jubilee, made by the minor company of Butcher's Empire Productions back in 1943.

Shiniest of all on the star-studded bill, certainly the most unique, was the act of the Ganjou Brothers and Juanita. They are top of the bill in the film, just as they almost always were on the live variety stage, and today simply take one's breath away by their absolute perfection in a beautifully timed and stunningly perfect 10 minutes of - what should one call it? an acrobatic act? a dance act? an adagio act? a mime act? a strong-man act? Serge Ganjou entitled it "A Romance in Porcelain", so perhaps it is best to leave it at that.

The setting was usually something looking like a large and outsize mantelpiece upon which stood a highly decorative clock. The pendulum, played by the beautiful Juanita, petite of form but long of leg, swung to and fro to the music of "The Blue Danube". On came the Ganjou Brothers, a trio clad in powdered wigs, tights, decorated waistcoats and billowing shirts. Juanita swung down and the three men began to swing her around, about and above their heads, eventually flinging her from one to another across the wide stage, and tossing her over their heads from shoulder to shoulder. Finally they threw her high in the air, spun her round and round, caught her in an upright stance and froze in a pose that brought the house down with applause.

Serge was the last remaining member of the troupe. Active until almost the end (he had been treasurer and life president of the Entertainment Artists Benevolent Fund and a popular member of the Grand Order of Water Rats), he had entered the show-business retirement home at Brinsworth House, Twickenham, only two months before he died.

Ganjou was Polish, having been born in Warsaw in 1904, while his brothers Bob and George were born in southern Russia. Children of a poor family, they all worked in a number of jobs whilst travelling from town to town. They were working in Moscow when the Russian Revolution began in 1917.

They swiftly returned to Warsaw and in 1922 Bob and George emigrated to the United States while Serge went to university to pursue his studies. Between times he entered several local talent contests, winning the prize with his gypsy songs sung to his own guitar. This success prompted him to form a musical quartet with three other winners, and the group was soon making a living by touring the village halls of Poland.

Meanwhile Serge's brothers entered American show business by teaming up with another male dancer and a well-known danseuse of the day, Natacha Natova. This was the beginning of adagio quartets, and led to their first cinema appearance in an early talkie, MGM's Hollywood Revue of 1929. When Natova returned to solo performing, the Ganjous found another young lady around whom they built their act.

This was Juanita Richards, petite and graceful, who was born in Detroit, Michigan. She mixed her dancing work as a ballerina with several American companies with considerable fame as a broadcasting vocalist with more than one radio dance-band. When she had time she also worked as an artist's model. She joined the act in 1931.

The third male member of the original team was William Hendricks from Copenhagen, Denmark. He had emigrated to New York at the age of 13, and had won an international Charleston dance championship. Becoming a solo singer and dancer in several South American cabarets, Hendricks had much experience in several different adagio teams before joining the Ganjous.

The original Ganjou Brothers and Juanita act, which became famous in England when they starred in the Royal Variety Show of May 1933 included two singers, Aline Fournier and Vittorio Toso. Fournier, a coloratura soprano, was a French Canadian from Montreal, while the Italian-born Toso had been principal baritone with the San Carlo Opera.

Serge Ganjou was working in London when his brothers' act arrived in 1932. He joined them and in due course married "Juanita" - not the original Juanita, who had left, but the dancer Joy Marlowe who took her place. She had been trained at the Italia Conti School and soon got the hang of holding herself taut as she was slung to and fro, smiling prettily the while. The ceremony was held in Las Vegas during their final tour of 1956.

A hugely successful international act, the Ganjou Brothers and Juanita played to appreciative audiences around the world, touring America, Australia and New Zealand before finally disbanding. Bob and George Ganjou became variety agents, while Serge opened Daquise restaurant in South Kensington, specialising in dishes from his native Poland; a much-loved landmark in the area, it still flourishes in spite of several threats by developers.

One member of the act remains, the tall, svelte, long-haired lady who takes over conducting the Charles Shadwell Orchestra in their only film. Clearly part of the regular stage scene, she waves her long arms with airy elegance. She was Adele, the wife of George Ganjou, who died in 1988; Bob died in 1972, and Joy in 1992. But, as long as film continues to be preserved, their unique act will live.

Serge Ganjou, variety artiste: born Warsaw 6 January 1904; married 1956 Joy Marlowe (died 1992); died Twickenham, Middlesex 17 November 1998.