Obituary: Vesta and Ashton

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The Independent Culture
ON THEIR last appearance in a British circus, at Chessington Zoo, Surrey, in 1954, the musical comedy act of Vesta and Ashton was billed as "The Immortal Musical Clowns". Consummate performers, they commanded newspaper headlines all their lives and reached their own immortality with the headline "Grimaldis die together in crash". They were on their way to an Airstream Club gathering in Florida, and had been together professionally as circus and variety performers, and as a married couple, for 60 years.

John Kenneth Austin (Ashton) was born in Leeds in 1911. He tumbled on to the stage at the age of four as a replacement for Dick Whittington's cat, since his older sister managed a troupe of dancing girls. His professional career began in 1925, again in the role of the cat. After working with his sister Dorrie Ashton in revues and variety shows in a comedy eccentric dance and banjo set, Ken Ashton, as he often styled himself, worked in concert party, and in 1930-31 toured his own group of concert-party artistes, the Music Makers.

Then, in 1932, he produced his own musical act, Ken Austin and his Accordion Queens, with two partners, Ella and Millie, which played in variety and on radio, and in 1936 he found himself in Ireland with John Duffy Jnr in his cine-variety tenting show, as one of the five variety sets which appeared along with the latest hit film, The Invisible Man (1933). The attraction proved a huge flop, and after four weeks the acts were eliminated and the film changed.

Out of work, Austin was offered a six-month touring season with the circus of John Duffy Snr. The accommodation for himself and his Accordion Queens was a primitive wooden caravan, 10ft by 6ft, pulled by a horse. They endured six months of one-day stands, with an average daily journey of 12 miles, the horse walking at about four miles an hour. He later recalled, "We played every town, village and crossroads all over Ireland"; a 30-mile trip into Northern Ireland took a whole day, the only day off they had the whole season.

Austin recalled that Duffy was "large and heavy, with a bad limp and always used a walking stick. He had a large, scowling grey face and penetrating eyes and nobody approached him unless in dire need." It was that season in Ireland that his partner Millie ran off with a Scottish trumpet player who had been beaten up and thrown off the show for his drunkenness. Austin returned to England, vowing never to work in a circus again. Fate decreed otherwise.

Audrey Grimaldi, born in Nottingham in 1917, was known as Vesta from an early age. She was a descendant of the 18th-century pantomime clown Joseph Grimaldi, and claimed a distant relationship to the Grimaldi family of Monaco. She was brought up in Brighton and developed a talent for dance and music, leaving school at 12 to join the semi- professional show run by Harry Drury at the West Pier, Brighton.

She left home at 16, and toured in variety with her own solo act in which she tap-danced and played the xylophone, as well as appearing in an act as one of the Rhythm Sisters. Travelling all over Britain and Ireland, she graduated to the astonishing show of Professor Doorley, Tropical Express - a world-travelled revue before the Second World War. In 1939, she met and teamed up with Austin.

They were married the same year in Glasgow, where they were working, on the last day of a resident season at the Princess Theatre. It was a theatrical wedding with the church full of fellow performers; they were featured the next day in the Sunday Express, in a picture they kept beside their bed for the rest of their lives. Their honeymoon was spent in Aberdeen, where they had a booking at the Palace Theatre in variety. Vesta went on ahead to get two seats on the Aberdeen train. Austin handled the baggage, only to find he had been put on the express train to London, leaving Vesta believing that he had either missed the train or chickened out of the marriage, absconding with her marimba xylophone and all her belongings.

The Grimaldis, as Vesta and Ashton also billed themselves, became well- known on the British variety circuit as a standard speciality act, combining music, dance and clowning, eventually adding plate spinning and animal training to their talents. Ashton was a banjo expert who had at one time worked with the world-famous banjo king Eddie Peabody. Between them Audrey and Ken were able to play some 15 instruments.

They worked in a number of stage circuses in Britain, among them those of Harry Benet and Captain A. Prince-Cox. They played an eight-week season at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow with Harry Benet's show, becoming good friends of Dick Chipperfield, who later formed England's biggest tenting circus with his brothers and sister.

During the war the pair performed shows in theatres, hospitals and for the armed forces. When they were working together with Prince-Cox's Circus, at a time when the Ministry of Food had humans rationed to one egg, two ounces of butter and four ounces of meat per week, Vesta took pity on Carl Olsen's sea-lion. She went from shop to shop searching for fish, returning with 12lb. Olsen's response: "My seal does not eat that kind of fish."

In 1955 Vesta and Ashton went to South America and then to North America, where they remained for the rest of their lives. Apart from appearances in theatres and cabaret, Canadian rodeos and carnivals, they became attractions in leading circuses in the United States - including those of Jim Hetzer, George Hanneford, Rudy Brothers and Polack Brothers. As the big state fairs began to book rock'n'roll stars and Country and Western singers instead of vaudeville acts, Vesta and Ashton worked more in circuses, and graduated naturally to live in the circus community at Sarasota, Florida, where they had many friends.

They became well-known from television appearances in a multitude of shows in the late Fifties and Sixties, including Dick Martin's Wide World of Entertainment, The Ed Sullivan Show and What's My Line.

Even though they had officially retired some years ago, the Grimaldis continued to appear at shows whenever they were asked. Very late in life they decided to apply for American citizenship, and were awaiting confirmation at the time of their deaths.

Audrey Grimaldi (Vesta), variety and circus performer: born Nottingham 3 November 1917; married 1939 Ken Austin (died 1999); died Orlando, Florida 7 June 1999.

John Kenneth Austin (Ashton), variety and circus performer: born Leeds 1911; married 1939 Audrey Grimaldi (died 1999); died Orlando, Florida 7 June 1999.

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