The Music Hall and Theatre History Site
Dedicated to Arthur Lloyd, 1839 - 1904.

Memories of Show Business by Percy G Court, 1953


Index and Preface

Percy G Court I was given a small retaining fee, during the rebuilding of the first fire (1914) and again it is in its former glory but the war had broke out and I was made a soldier in the R.A. S. C. I passed my test as a wheelwright at Woolwich, although I was first destined to be a gunman in the Artillery. Here is my story. I received military papers, to join the East Surrey Regiment, but as I was apprenticed to a wheelwright, and every street corner had posters, asking those who had ability to join in that trade group to apply at Woolwich or London. I preferred Woolwich. On entering the barracks there was some bother (a melee) between a sergeant and some gypsies and I got mixed up in it and after rescuing the sergeant he asked about myself and he gave me directions as to where to apply for enlistment. The sun was pouring down as I entered a dark passage - where a lot of men, in civilian dress - were lined up. After explaining that I wanted to pass a test as a wheelwright they told me to fall in at the end of the queue. From there I marched with them to the Rotunda at Woolwich Common. At midday we marched to the Artillery barracks for lunch: an interval - then marched back again to the Rotunda, as a test.

I was given two pieces of ash, to be housed together by a double haunchon tenon and a mortice, this to be at a splay of forty five degrees. Two officers examined my work then about 5 p.m. they marched us back to the R.A. Barracks, where I was allotted a bunk, but I protested that I was not yet in the army - my explanation would not suffice, as my intention were to join the Royal Engineers. I was put under arrest. I demanded to the see the Commanding Officer, and after another verbal battle - telling them I had not had any papers - also the gypsy episode - and its sequence - following behind a line of men - that were about to be tested, and to be marched to the Rotunda. After further questions, I was allowed to go home. The next day I went to Scotland Yard, where they were enlisting recruits for the Royal Engineers and the A. S. C. Well I enlisted straight away in the A. S. C. I passed another test at Grove Park and inside six weeks I was sent to France. I have some wonderful recollections of my life in the army but as this would distract from this book I will be brief. Not only did I execute everything that I was appointed to but I also formed a concert party and this was a terrific success for I had a great advantage of duplicating and mimic of many artists, using the gags and songs with their permission.

Postcard of the Royal Artillery Barracks, Woolwich. The Royal Artillery Theatre can be seen to the right of the picture, with ventilators visible on the roof above the auditorium. - Courtesy the Val Earl Collection.

Above - Postcard of the Royal Artillery Barracks, Woolwich. The Royal Artillery Theatre can be seen to the right of the picture, with ventilators visible on the roof above the auditorium. - Courtesy the Val Earl Collection.

One episode was at Doulens on the Somme at a Hospital ("casualty station"). Our concert party who had a few officer as artists were to perform in a long ward - holding about four hundred spectators. The dressing room accommodation was nil - so I explored a tent adjacent to the stage but when I lit a candle I found it to be the mortuary with four occupants. I hurriedly returned to a corner at the back part of the so called stage, along with the rest of the troupe. I sang songs, which my brother in law made a big success of - some years previous I.E. Frank Seeley. "Slap Dab, slap dab up and down the brick work. Slap dab all day long" and a very eccentric number "Father's got em". I had a very popular number "Lloyd George Beer" and 'My Meatless Day" lent to me by Ernie Mayne.

We disembarked at Le Havre and these are some of the towns I remember most.. Rouen, Helloy, Pau, Haut Vizee, Doulons, Oueffs, Lanceaux, Chaulnes, Proyant, Armantieres, Arras, Amiens, Watten, Cambrai, Valenciennes, Hazebruck, Abbeville, Lille, Binch, Huy, Namur, Oisseaux, Fongue Villiers, Villiers Falcon. We were at Huy in Belgium Xmas of 1919. We were billeted in a motor factory. We had previously come from Monceau - sur - Sambre near Charleroi, the large town in the coal fields of Belgium. At Huy my commanding officer of the workshops J.W.V. Bowater offered me a twelve days leave overseas to "Blighty". This was after a concert on New Year's night 1920. In due course I arrived back to find a large group who demanded to be demobbed at once at Folkestone. These soldiers should return to their headquarters "overseas,' after their home leave. I continued my journey to Kingston via London. Home at last, and I too became anxious for a discharge from the Army and fortunately I was discharged at Wimbledon depot. On the 18th of Jan I was back again in the Prompt Corner at the Empire Theatre, Kingston-on -Thames and the show was "The Better Hole" by Bairns father.

The Kingston Empire in 1939 - From a programme - Courtesy Alan ChudleyYes, Kingston is a much better hole than the hole I had been in lately. I remember quite well that on the Somme - during the retreat of March 1919 we were shelled and bombed at Boves. An ammunition train blew up whilst we were having a snack of "Bully" and "Biscuits" sometimes "Spratts Biscuits". Shells and bullets were showering down and a large hole appeared suddenly when I with a few more took cover and sheltered there all that anxious afternoon. The next day we went through Proyant and there in a wood - or copse - was the Big Bertha - that fired a shell, seventy five miles on Paris and around this gun were at least eighty dead German soldiers and we were detailed to dig a hole and with grappling chains they were dragged to that hole. So now I am at "The Better Hole", Ah yes, it is a much better hole at the Empire, Kingston which played to capacity business.

Right - The Kingston Empire in 1939 - From a Kingston Empire programme - Courtesy Alan Chudley

Another show from the same stable was "The Lads from the Village" - our general manager was the proprietor - Jack Gladwin, who afterwards ruined many theatres in the provinces: more anon.

Ventriloquism has always been a "vehicle" on the programmes of variety theatres and here are many that I have had the pleasure of presenting during my life on the "Stage". That wonderful of gentleman Fred Russell, father of Val Parnell must hold precedence. At Kingston about 1935 or later he brought and performed in a wonderful Police Court scene: with Judge, Jury, Prisoners and Officials with interested spectators; I cannot compute exactly how many dummy's that were used - but I would not be far wrong to say - quite sixty. His cross talk was superb - finishing with tumultuous applause - and afterwards the talk of Kingston.

Arthur Prince will never be forgotten with his nautical sketch - with Jim. This act must be in the first rank - a classic closely followed by dear Coram, that sprightly figure - "himself' as a Guards Officer and his batman. This scene was always toured with him - outside Whitehall his quick army couplets and gags never failed. Coram was the protege of a "Vent" named Gillin a Yorkshireman and he too could make any audience laugh. He always finished his act with a crawling figure - which crawled and talked as it left the stage. Arthur Astill, in his early days was known as the "Whistling Ploughboy". This act was very successful but he formed a double act with Gwen Fontaine and then he became a vent act without any dummy. Harry Lauder, A versatile Entertainer from the London Music-Halls who has recently made a hit in America. From a photograph by The Rotay Photograph Company, London.His imaginary man down a well or up in the flies will always be regarded as a classic. He bottomed the Bill to Sir Harry Lauder in an American tour which afterwards, he became a favourite in U, S. A. A very unusual vent act was performed by Rex Fox. He carried a scene representing a wild gorge or chasm. He performed on a high wire, with a dummy. First he would have "patter" with the dummy saying it was necessary to cross the viaduct with the dummy strapped on his back. The dummy's head looking over Rex Fox's shoulder, as he starts to walk the wire, the dummy would say no, no, not over there. I'm not going - isn't there no other way round then the dummy would slip and shout I don't want to go to the other side. Rex would say "You're on my back, you are safe enough, be quiet, it's me that should do the shouting" and then the walk across with the usual interruptions.

Left - Caption Reads: Harry Lauder, A versatile Entertainer from the London Music-Halls who has recently made a hit in America. From a photograph by The Rotary Photograph Company, London.

Archie Elray and Dorothy, will be known with their evergreen offering - at the "Cricket Match". Of course, many others have been within my orbit. Very clever artists. And here I would like to say a word about "The Girls". My first troupe of girls were The Jordison Troupe from their studio at St. James's Hall, Manchester. They were in my first pantomime at Ramsgate. A well known troupe of girls were The Excelsiors, The Hartley Milburn Girls were known equally in Paris - as in London. His troupes were always in demand. The eight English Rosebuds, was the best troupe. The Tiller Girls have lasted through the decades. The John Tiller Girls were the first - with schools in London, Manchester and Newcastle.

I expect that I have staged over a thousand girls in my time. The Sherman Fisher Girls - they too had many engagements at Paris and London. At Kingston we had one troupe over six months. Joe Collins, an agent, who had many ties with our management had many troupes of girls but the outstanding team were the eight "Stella Girls" in which a swing number was introduced - similar to the scene in "Veronique". The mounting for this scene was a garden scene. The swings were attached to a scaffold pole - twenty-four feet in length. This was suspended from the grid bylines, six feet from the footlights and this allowed the girls to swing into the auditorium over the heads of young and old bloods; sitting in the stalls, during their engagement - never an empty stall seat. Here I would call attention to Lily Long - one of the original eight Stellas. Her sly asides would provoke a titter which would grow into a laugh. Then she would lose her hat - as the swings went backwards and lastly she would lose a shoe over the heads of patrons in the stalls, with shrieks of laughter. Years afterwards, she became a "Top of the Bill" as a comedienne.

Yet another continental troupe from Germany was the Gertrude Hoffman Girls. They were a fearless troupe. Their routine included a dance - finishing by climbing sets of webbing with loops attached. Their evolutions, posture and grace always earned and created thunderous applause. This year I notice a revival of the "Mirror Dance". I first showed the mirror dance in 1905. It is now 1953. It was in a production of Henry Swinhard's "Squatter's Daughter" where two girls are seen making up before a huge mirror - which the "reflection" is that two other girls synchronise their slightest movement or actions in perfect timing. The finale is by flying aloft the "gauze" which is hung about six feet in front of a dead black velvet drapery which forms the climax - to discover four girls.

The Imperial Theatre, Brighton  from a wartime programme When in 1940 I was stage director of the Imperial Theatre, Brighton, Bertram Montague, Impresario, presented a pantomime "Babes in the Wood" and for the first time on any stage was produced Florence Whiteley's "Phantom Guard" - a troupe of twenty-four girls in perfect rhythm. The scene opened in a dead blackout with music muted down, which gradually grew to a "crescendo" - then "forte". In the mist, figures gradually appear, as a silhouette of Cromwellian soldiers at the back of the stage. Then as the music swells, the figures are more discernable - they march with poise and dignity towards the footlights. A series of passing and counterpassing to be followed by team work "foil" exercises and then a gong is sounded - when the music is again gradually muted even to a whisper - and they vanish from sight.

Right - The Imperial Theatre, Brighton from a wartime Programme.

After the first house (once nightly), Florence Whiteley received congratulations on the outstanding success of the pantomime - with offers from Bertram Montague, a three year contract. In the same pantomime was the Damaro Ballet from the Continent. I had the pleasure of staging this troupe at Kingston, some two years previous. Mlle. Damaro was a great artiste and her ensembles were so different that the bookers "agents" were clamouring to place the troupe on their lists.

Another name which made good here, America and the Continent - Jackson Girls - a lovely troupe and an assured success on any programme. Apart from troupes of girls and individual acts, marionettes must have a corner in vaudeville and amongst the best that I have staged and seen elsewhere is Shistills - a family concern from Bavaria, Everyone in the family has a hand in its fitting up at each theatre visited whilst each handle - with deft dexterity - their allotted puppets, devices and properties, which are used in their miniature theatre,

It is of unusual construction - light aluminium tubing is used in the framework, It has a perfect flyfloor whilst the stage is fitted with traps, sunk into the flooring - from which puppets can be extracted or alternatively lowered (though out of sight). The team work of this wonderful family is indescribable and the general public cannot estimate their values.

Whilst traveling on the Continent I visited Salzburg in Austria and there was a permanent theatre devoted solely to marionettes. Their technique was the same as Shistills. I viewed with amazement the Opera "Faust" and I can only say it was marvelous. Many years ago I staged a double act named D'..res Marionettes. This was really a star act. Human marionettes - a brother and sister act who mimicked the popular artists of that period. Another very similar - billed as "The Mayvilles" played with their fit up in every English speaking theatre of the world - including our mandated territories. Yet another was Lauri Wylie - brother of Julian Wylie - famous pantomime producer. He was the nearest approach to the above artists. Others were Barnards and a very well known family called The Holdens.

Perhaps a word or two about certain artists who carried their own scenery - even to the same level as a revue - to impress their audiences - will fall into the picture. Percy Honri, the world renowned concertina virtuoso - he was brought up from childhood in a music hall atmosphere - for he was one of the Thompson Trio - the other two being his father and mother. Henry Thompson, Senior, was the proprietor of the Lyceum Theatre, Stafford, and gave young Percy many lessons in showmanship - that led to stardom. I had the privilege of meeting Percy Honri on his return from his first trip to America - at Lyceum, Stafford, in 1899.

Poster for the Argyle Theatre of Varieties for Monday January the 21st 1907.About the year 1909, Percy Honri produced a musical extravaganza called "Concordia" with 30 other artists. It was indeed a wonderful scenic and musical production, It played at all the top rank music halls in the country including London, The Moss and Thornton tour, the Stoll tour and the McNaughton tour. The scenery was a series of revolves which enabled the changing from full stage to again a full stage set - with lightning like rapidity - from such as a full stage street scene to a full stage palace scene - culminating with a set of an Eastern Royal Chamber. Always the airs he played were classics, introducing concertinas of every shape and size.

Right - A Variety Bill from the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead showing the variety of acts on offer on a typical night in 1892 and 1907.

Quite a different type of production was presented by the Brothers Jewell. Their offering was "The Haunted Castle" where "hokum" comedy exudes in every nook and cranny of each scene of the castle. This show was a series of quick changes - a portion which revolved whilst the flats at the sides of the stage had aprons which dropped over each flat to discover and reveal another scene. Incidentally, one of the Brothers Jewell was the father of our familiar star Jimmy Jewell.

Poster for the Argyle Theatre of Varieties for Monday the 1st of February 1892.A very old music hall family were the Magilton Family in "Round The Clock" where trap doors leaps, dives and star traps are extensively used, My last reference will be to the Leopold Family in "Frivolity" and their counterpart "The House Boat". Both were great successes. Two of the original Leopolds were with me when I managed my last pantomime at Hippodrome, Wolverhampton, 1948, for Bertram Montague. And now I would like to record a few novelty acts. First - a skating act presented by the Four Whirlwinds - who performed on a miniature rink - about ten feet in diameter and thirty feet in circumference. They executed some wonderful skating - either solo, duo or "tout de ensemble". The whole culminated at top speed - like a "tee-to-tum" only one performer - the strong man actually skating with the three others entwined around his body, and arms.

Left A Variety Bill from the Argyle Theatre, Birkenhead showing the variety of acts on offer on a typical night in 1892 and 1907.

We had a cycle act - who looped the loop but here I record a car traveling inside a large wheel - the wheel was twenty feet high and sixty feet in circumference. The car was actually lifted inside the wheel and its driver - strapped to the driver's seat. Then the wheel - driven by a belt which is coupled to the wheel - gradually rotates - with the car traveling in the opposite direction. The momentum increases and it is obvious - something must happen. It does - centrifugal force comes into action and from the audience it appears like a large animal stuck to the inside of the wheel. Then it gradually slows down and ultimately stops. Diavallo, for this was the performer's name - is pulled from his seat by his manager - to receive the applause of the crowd. Incidentally, two brothers made this act and performed with it everywhere. They came from Nelson near Burnley.

Will Evans in costume as the Baroness in a Drury Lane Pantomine in 1920 - Kindly sent in by his Grandson Bill Evans. Will Evans was famous in his day for comedy sketches and pantomime characters, and was the son of Fred Evans, a clown in the Grimaldi tradition.Today - Variety is not the word for the entertainment that is paraded before us. At the Music Halls - the dearth of specialty acts, whilst the comics are all patterers - and should a comedian sing - he will pour out a ballad. A complete restoration to the old type of entertainer would give the halls a chance to restore the glories of the past. Comedians again to be seen with, perhaps, a red nose - or even - a little nose paste a la Will Evans. A little more baggy trousers or to be precise, assume a definite make-up a la George Robey. He never discarded his original make-up for the modem.

Right - Will Evans in costume as the Baroness in a Drury Lane Pantomine in 1920 - Kindly sent in by his Grandson Bill Evans. Will Evans was famous in his day for comedy sketches and pantomime characters, and was the son of Fred Evans, a clown in the Grimaldi tradition.

From the above artists, many are labelled speciality artists and I will continue with one of each. Encouragement should be given to the performer who rehearses for years, spends sometimes a small fortune on apparatus, which often ends in dismal failure. Many of these folk risk their lives to gain a living. Their satisfaction is to hear the plaudits of the crowd. A change in the programmes of today would be to eliminate the piano. To a certain extent, programmes that offer the public a succession of piano acts - surely that is not variety. So here are a few more speciality acts: Carolli Bros. and Oporto - freak instrumentalists with hokum comedy - a sure hit on any programme.

Poster for a Variety performance at the Empire Theatre, Croydon, on the 15th of April 1912. Heeley and Marbre - eccentric acrobats, Rastelli - the greatest juggler that the world ever saw. He had no superior. And Lady ? pictures in clay modelling. "Datas" - the memory man who would answer any question which was of national importance. Professor Finney - the old celebrated swimmer - in a tank act. The Lorch Family of spartan acrobats with their scene "Plaza de Toros" - even the comedy act of Claude Dampier with piano and Billie Carlisle can be labelled within this category. Donaldson and Ardell - Fun at the Zoo. Vokes Family. Tex McLeod with his rope spinning - giving a resume of political and topics of the day. The Four Holloways on the tight wire. Their progeny is the clever comics, Nervo and Knox of the celebrated Crazy Gang. Maurice Colleano and family in an acrobatic melange.

Left - A Poster for a typical Variety performance at the Empire Theatre, Croydon, this time on the 15th of April 1912. On the Bill were Vesta Tilley, R. H. Douglass, the 4 Comptons, Talberto & Douglas, the 8 College Girls, Jimmy Sheilds, The Bioscope, Jimmy Godden, Spanish Goldinis, and Ena Dayne - Courtesy Colin Charman whose Grandmother was Little Ena Dayne.

I cannot remember all that has helped in the building up of variety - in which fortunes were made but Toledo - a Spaniard who had a really remarkable balancing act. In a hotel scene, his wife (a waitress) he would place a table quite close to the footlights. Then another on top each time - executing a bending or posture and again until six tables are registered. On top he again swings and sways. He calls for a chair which he balances - sitting on two legs only. Twenty-two feet from the stage, the waitress produces a saw and cuts one leg off the second table. Toledo just grins and then does a cascade drop to the stage.

Sponsored by "Bostock" of circus fame - an animal act - "The Lady, Lion, Horse and a Dog" was presented by Captain Prince. A circular grill of 14 foot high which embraced two thirds of a circle. The remaining third was a thick partition of wood - painted as 'a scene of a garden. The audience view is through the grilled railings. The lady is seen in a riding habit, reading a newspaper - sitting on a large tree stump - and with her left hand she strokes a sheep dog. A door opens in the wooden partition at the back of the stage - to admit a horse of sixteen hands high. The lady mounts the horse and puts it through its paces - executing a "haut ecole" act - after which the dog jumps up with her and does a posing act with the lady.

The horse retires making its exit. The dog now plays with the lady whilst she resumes her seat on the log - then through a shutter at the back - a lion enters - after smelling round the arena, the dog has a playful fight with the lion, when the horse is again admitted. A small platform is to be noticed strapped on its back. Then the lady attaches a raking piece constructed like a ladder - to the platform - the opposite end reaches the stage. Then at a signal, the lion leaps from the log up the raking piece and so on to the horses back. After a couple of circuits, the dog jumps up with the lion.- both sitting up on their hind legs. The dog jumps down, when a four foot pole is thrown to the lion, This pole has a large piece of steak tied at the exact centre of the pole... It holds the pole tightly between its teeth - then a Union Jack appears at each end of the pole - whilst the horse gallops proudly around the ring. The curtain descends to well deserved applause. This is surely a remarkable piece of animal training which has gained the confidence of three animals - which are usually widely different in their pursuits.

Divisional Inspector Olive of the Metropolitan Police was the big noise - that actuated the Metropolitan Police Minstrels and I can say with truthfulness, this troupe of nigger minstrels * were as near to the professional standard as the old Moore and Burgess Minstrels. One old timer turned "Pro" at the end of his police activity - Sergeant Masters. They would open in the proverbial sit round, - over sixty performers with interlocator - then sketches and solos with appropriate scenes.

On one occasion at Kingston Empire - this show was to appear on a Monday matinee. We had already booked Harry Day's mammoth production Rockets from the Palladium (this show of ten loads of scenery). A run out over the stalls with a large electrical equipment had to be housed, cloths hung and rehearsed before this minstrel show. Dressing rooms had to be improvised - owing to the "cork black" used in the minstrel's make-up, it was impossible to risk soiling any dresses of the "Rockets" production - which cost a thousand pounds or more - even the wash basins could not be used - owing to the black clinging to the basin's sides. The show did not finish until 5,30 p.m, - yet the Rockets production rang up the curtain punctually first house 6.30 p.m. The police minstrels cleaned off using water in buckets.

The Grand Theatre and Town Hall, Woolwich - From a Postcard posted in 1913 Other unusual incidents are as follows. At the Grand Theatre, Woolwich - Mr. and Mrs. Seymour Hicks's production of "The Cherry Girl" was making a suburban tour, It had made a very successful run in town and the first theatre on tour was at the Grand Theatre, Woolwich. For publicity - a full-sized plaster figure of Ellaine Terriss was sent in advance to boost the show. It originally stood in the foyer of the theatre in town.

Right - The Grand Theatre and Town Hall, Woolwich - From a Postcard posted in 1913

It arrived safely by a van and was placed in the scene dock - then to decide where was its best place of vantage (it was very heavy) weighing quite three hundredweight. A very important site was chosen - Birt's Jeweller shop in Woolwich market place. This was agreed and four men including our publicity manager were engaged in placing this figure at the jewellers. The van, the four men with the figure arrived just as the men from Woolwich Arsenal were coming out for dinner - in thousands - hardly an inch of room anywhere. However our publicity man was in a hurry ("his steak pudding was getting cold") and so the four men carried the figure carefully across the wide pavement - but a dog's foot was trod on.

One of the four men dropped the figure and this statue just dismembered itself into a score of pieces of chalk and the men - looking at the "once" beautiful piece of craftsmanship couldn't find words - when a small boy holding up Miss Terriss' head said `Ere - are yer looking for this bit ?' On the Monday - awaiting the presentation of "The Cherry Girl" two full companies arrived, with two consignments of scenery and properties - owing to a mistake in double-booking !

The theatre throughout the ages has given its patrons - plays, dramas, musical comedies whilst the music halls have given the lighter side of entertainment and though the majority of the public give their support, there is a certain few who have a grudge(?) They think it is wrong to have anything to do with the theatre or connections - notwithstanding the many charitable causes. The actor, the comic and even the staff give voluntarily their services whilst most plays show the rights and wrongs, duties and virtues which is expected from the normal citizen.

One night I had my attention drawn to a scribbling in chalk outside the Stage Door at Kingston Empire: "Abandon All Hope - All Ye That Enter Here". The same evening, Tommy Trinder showed me a contract from his Booking Manager, Sidney Bums, for £200 a week. He said it was the first time that he'd signed up for such a figure.

Programme for 'Pygmalion' at the Theatre Royal, Aldershot in 1950 - Courtesy Alan Chudley.At the old Theatre Royal, Aldershot, our Property Master received a "plot requisitions" from the incoming company i.e. "The Princess and the Beggar Maid" for the use of a snow box This could be found in most theatres in those days. The "snow" could be obtained from the printers of local newspapers - free. The Snow Box was a triangular framing of canvas on two sides - the other covered with a wire mesh (chicken house netting). This operates from the flys - it is hung from a line at each end and the centre line controls either to free the snow or to stop.

Left - Programme for 'Pygmalion' at the Theatre Royal, Aldershot in 1950 - Courtesy Alan Chudley.

The scene was the Princess tending to the beggar maid who is dying on the street on a winters night - but the snow box was forgotten and men threw the snow from each side of the fly floor - but it was useless - the snow did not reach the actors in the centre of the stage.

W.H.Hallett, who played the Prince, muttered "Snow - snow - snow you b...... snow!" When the curtain fell - a tirade of words - and explanations.

Tuesday night, again it was nearly forgotten but just in time - the missing box was duly hung in position. "The box is twenty-feet in length". The cue came to expel the snow and the snow gradually and sweetly descended for about a couple of minutes and then about a dozen mice - who had made their nests in the snow box - dropped on the stage and they ran in every direction.

The "dying" maid shrieked the theatre down and ran off the stage - well you my readers can guess the rest.

I cannot give the exact date to the following but I feel it was early in 1940 that J.M. Barrie's production of Peter Pan was to play a series of matinees during the week in which two evening performances of variety "during one week" at Kingston Empire. Mr. Cecil King was the producer. It is well known that Peter Pan is a major production - the platform which is used in the forest scene is not only very heavy - it is thirty-eight feet long, over eight feet in width and nine inches thick. The whole of this platform is hauled up into the flys with the assistance of two winches attached to steel cables. These cables - or wire rope - are threaded through spot blocks - or stationary pulleys - in the grid and determine the position in the setting of the forest scene.

Quite close to this, other blocks or pulleys belonging to artists who "fly" during the performance - which is supervised by "Kirbys" - the flying specialists but to insure the safety of the performers who actually fly, no scenery or cloths can be hung in number two and three bays in the flys. This handicaps the production of variety for it is imperative to stage and hang scenery in these two important bays in the flys.

Twice Daily Variety Programme for the London Palladium during the General Theatre Corporation ownership. in 1928Also in the variety programme was a trapeze acts - an Italian performer - and four times this artist had the unfortunate experience of having his wires - holding his trapeze - snapped by the platform of Peter Pan. Yet we repaired the wires each time. After the matinees of Peter Pan. We had less than sixty minutes to hang sixteen sets of drapery and scenery in the two bays of the flys - which is so vital for the variety performances. I wish to point out that with the exception of the London Palladium, I can claim - I am the only stage manager who has successfully staged anything comparable viz eighteen shows with sixty minute intervals exchange scenery and to clear dressing rooms.

Right - Twice Daily Variety Programme for the London Palladium in 1928.

One other speciality act was Major Phillips - the one-time Liverpool tramway expert - who produced a dirigible balloon, controlled by wireless. A small radio set which governed the balloon's movements was placed on a table near the footlights. The balloon was twenty-two feet in length - cigar shaped and about seven feet in diameter. From its rigging, an under carriage was hung which contained the electric device that attracted the electric waves or rays that Major Phillips would send out from the apparatus by a switch on the table This controlled the various fans that came into use - therby, he claimed (for this was around the year 1920) it to be the first balloon controlled solely by radio - or wireless. The balloon was made of gold beaters skin and was filled with hydrogen from large steel cylinders - supplied by the British Oxygen Co.

It was made to balance and stay in mid-air without any support - then, when he tapped the switch on the table - each fan would come into action and the balloon would travel from the stage, out into the auditorium - then to the Circle and Upper Gallery. He would compress it and it would gradually descend - afterwards returning to the stage - at the command of Major Phillip's switch. But, after many years, I have wondered how the L. C. C. licensing authorities ever allowed it to be presented within closed premises - and what would have happened if a 'smoker' had touched this balloon with a lit cigarette = HYDROGEN.

Kingston Empire Auditorium after the 1930s alteration - From a programme - Courtesy Alan ChudleyA musical cosmopolitan revue visited Empire, Kingston, during the two wars - with a romantic figure as the proprietor - Professor Dorley, who toured the world's best theatres with his productions, that whirlwind success. The Tropical Express and Dorley's Rocket.

Left - The Kingston Empire Auditorium after the 1930s alteration - From a Kingston Empire programme - Courtesy Alan Chudley.

I will give a brief account of the Tropical Express as I staged it at Kingston. It was billed as a super production of one hundred scenes - in a spectacular two-hour show presented twice nightly. The company consisted of eighty performers - these artists came from every country (with few exceptions) in the world including Chinese, Peruvians, Indians, Mexicans and even Finns - were among this heterogeneous collection of artists, and animals, for they too played a very important part in this mammoth production.

The animals included an elephant, two leopards, twenty or more large snakes, some alligators and two llamas. All these animals performed in succession in an act with Ruth Hassie - the star of the show. This lady was a master over many musical instruments too. One full stage scene resembling an amphitheatre or a section of the Coliseum in Rome - built to a great height - to seat and hold the musicians with their instruments - together with the entire company. The performance included Hawaians, with their quaint orchestra executing dances of the South Sea Islanders. Among these musicians were an octette from Brazil who were very sweet - with their muted string instruments. Then a "Tout de Ensemble" with the whole company which concluded this scene with a signature tune - or melody. It seemed very pleasing and refreshing after some of the hackneyed airs that are repeated and continually ladled out at the present time

Fifty of the hundred scenes advertised are by a continuous panorama of canvas on which are depicted and painted to illustrate the various countries of the whole world with a batch of girls, suitably dressed, to represent the country shown with appropriate dances. The girls all come from one side of the stage - leaving by the opposite side - then retire at the back of the scenery - where they change into their next dance - each set of girls have at least eight or more changes during this panorama. They certainly waste no time.

This scenery is operated by a wire (steel) stretched from one side of the stage to the other at twenty-two feet from the stage - two men pull the scenery (which is on rings) in one long succession from one side to the opposite of the stage. The last scene is England and when it is pulled across, it shows the back of the stage - depicting an "Entente Cordiale" of the nations with elephant, muzzled leopards, zebras and llamas - together with the entire company.

Those readers who are acquainted with the dressing room accommodation at the Kingston Empire will wonder, no doubt, perhaps with amazement - where did all these people dress? Well - I will not keep the secret - practically all the coloured folk made use of the cellar under the stage - whilst every cupboard or space was taken up by someone. It was noticed the folk of each country kept together.

Gracie Fields - From 'Music Hall at The Palace' a production at the Brighton Palace Pier Theatre.Archie Pitt, with his company "A & Tower of London", including Gracie Fields, Betty Fields, Edie Fields and Tommy Fields were in the first production that graced the boards of the Kingston Empire. I can assure you that all the company's "belongings" - with the scenery and properties - arrived on one lorry - but on the second visit, the production was much larger, with two lorries - and on its fourth visit, it was comparable with Harry Day's productions such as "Rockets".

Right - Gracie Fields - From 'Music Hall at The Palace' a production at the Brighton Palace Pier Theatre.

The first visit was early in the year 1921. Joey Mitchell -with his rubber face -was the "hokum" laugh of the show - coupled with his acrobatic feat - a back somersault from the top of the bus in the Ludgate Hill scene. Archie Pitt was a very congenial type of man and, personally, I always liked to see his cheery face. He brought many productions to our Kingston Empire including "Boys Will Be Boys" which featured Duggie Wakefield and Billy Nelson. One Saturday - I cannot remember the exact date - a guess is 1922 or 1923, Archie Pitt married Gracie Fields. On their return from the ceremony, a taxi cab arrived at the stage door and all the company were filmed, stepping out of the cab, to pass through the stage door. This novelty was achieved by hanging a black velvet curtain over some "flats" outside the stage door. This neutral background allowed for a sixteen foot plank which rested on the running board at the opposite side of the taxi to which the film was taken. The whole troupe walked at the back of the taxi - through one door and out the other - to the stage door. After the second house, Archie and Gracie departed for their honeymoon in Paris.

A really big production was one of Archie Pitt's last efforts - "Walk This Way". It was mounted and dressed lavishly. Against "Mr. Tower of London" it was prodigal. Gracie Fields was at her best but the Winter Garden Theatre was not wisely chosen for this type of entertainment. At Kingston it played to capacity but elsewhere the press was unkind - so it did not register, and although it had a wonderful cast - with eleven loads of scenery and dresses, it finished on the wrong side of the balance sheet.

Individual performers - many of them really top stars - were among my most intimate friends. Here, today September 2, 1953, I have a letter from dear Bransby Williams who seems to thrive on anything connected with entertainment - in fact, he is extraordinary. A star of the music halls for years, also the legitimate stage - recently "Great Expectations". Prominent in films, radio or to give a whole evenings lecture on Dickens Characters - I salute you Bransby Williams.

Ted Ray, one of my dearest friends, a modem comedian who has climbed to the very top of music hall fame - and a worthy successor to Tommy Handley. He has endeared himself to that vast hidden audience - radio. George Robey, the Prime Minister of Mirth, his fame will last for ever. He too has distinguished himself - having no equal in music hall, theatre and radio. Gracie Fields - this lady has conquered London and with it, the capitals of the world. It is impossible for my pen to do justice to her talents but I shall always be grateful - for her appearance at Frascati Restaurant in March 1930 when I was installed to the chair of the Proscenium Lodge.

The Piccadilly Theatre during the run of 'Guys And Dolls' in October 2006.  - Photo M.L.Gene Gerrard - a star of Rose Marie at Drury Lane Theatre. He conquered music halls and was the star at the Piccadilly Theatre in "Sleeping Out" 1943. The run was seven months, I managed this production for Bemard Delfont. Fred Kitchen - that international star - was a big friend and pal of mine. I saw him at the Folies Bergere in Paris during the 1914 war. He was even more popular at this theatre than in London. For many years he made his home at Kingston Hill and in the Green Room at the Kingston Empire. We often talked of olden days.

Left - The Piccadilly Theatre during the run of 'Guys And Dolls' in October 2006.

I must make reference to my old friend, Alfred Lester. I first met him in 1905 at the Grand, Woolwich, with a drama of Hollister and Dew. "The Streets of London". He played a coster's part and was the assistant stage manager. In one scene, a street in Soho - he used a coster's barrow. About twenty extra local supers were required to augment the company for "crowd work." They too were in this street scene. Alfred pushes his barrow among the crowd when one was accidentally knocked by the barrow. A man rushed up to Lester and knocked him out. I intervened and disposed of the offender. From that day, I became a firm friend of Alfred Lester. Twelve months later, he again was stage manager for E.P. Clift's production "The Officers Mess". The show was not quite itself at the opening night - having stage waits due to doubling of parts and quick changes of costumes.

Tuesday morning - a rehearsal was called and on the way to the theatre, Alfred Lester bought a copy of "Answers" and in it was a journalistic gem - "How Answers Would Play Hamlet". He got permission to use and adapt the dialogue. It became the hit of the show and was staged for the first time as - "The Scene Shifter's Lament".

A Letter from Don Ross Ltd to Percy Court offering him work as stage and front of house manager on the tour of 'Thanks For The Memory' in 1947 - From Percy's Diary.Many years later he sent to me songs and sketches for my concert party whilst I was in France - during the 1914 world war.. Many more stars cross my horizon but I will close with my dear friend, G.H. Elliott. His appearances were regular at Kingston and I suppose it must be at least thirty visits. Afterwards I was very pleased to represent "Thanks For The Memory" for Don Ross where GH, Elliott, Gertie Gitana and Billy Danvers were shining in the most successful combination ever attempted.

Right - A Letter from Don Ross Ltd to Percy Court offering him work as stage and front of house manager on the tour of 'Thanks For The Memory' in 1947 - From Percy's Diary.

The 1939 war broke out and the business of the Kingston Empire waned - then we shut down. After some weeks we opened again - with different times of showing - starting the first house - practically in the afternoon and this was more or less for a year. Then at Christmas 1940/41 we staged a pantomime for Bertram Montague. We had hardly played a few performances when my assistant, Harry Stocker, was bombed out of his home. He was away some two months. My electrician had to go on war service and many times I was totally without any staff.

In trying to emulate the impossible - scenery arriving - only the lorry driver and myself. I had an accident - a total collapse. It is my first illness - the doctor prescribed "rest" etc. After ten days in bed and I did not improve - I sent in my resignation which was accepted. After forty years with this group of theatres, the directors sent me £50. After a few weeks my strength recovered and I was made a clerk to the (Food Ministry). This, however, was not my job and I had an enquiry from Richmond Theatre - also from lack De Leon at the Q Theatre at Kew, to take charge of studio and theatre stage staff.

This seemed to offer a new outlook for me and I was very happy there through the summer of 1941. I put on a new production each week - amongst the artists were Nova Pilbeam, Olga Nethersole and James Mason who afterwards became a film star. This was in a show "Jupiter Laughs". One really nice production that I made a "hit" with was a show directed by Browne who was R. Sheriff's producer of "Journeys End". The show was a drama and it called for ingenious and practical mounting of the sets.

One scene was a cottage on a foggy island. The cottage was the exterior - this was mounted On a "boat truck" - it was backed by gauze and black velvet. The scene to follow was a full set - showing an alchemist at work with retorts. a large furnace and a huge safe. Everything was built. This scene was built around the preceding one - as the blackout for change arrived the dock doors were opened - and in a flash - the whole of the cottage was pushed off stage through the dock doors into the studio passage. Then the O.P side flats were adjusted. This change took exactly 100 seconds.

The Imperial Theatre, Brighton  from a wartime programme The early days of October were so very cold - with searching winds (the studio was built of corrugated iron) and it seemed to find its way through. I developed a cold and I sent in my resignation. Three days before I actually departed I received a wire from Bertram Montague - impressario - would I be interested to stage manage an up-to-date new theatre, terms etc. Within a few hours, I settled the engagement - it was for the Imperial Theatre, Brighton, which had been closed about twelve months - the previous management being Jack Buchanan. I arrived during the last week of October - by bus from Kingston - and I fixed at the Cecil Hotel, opposite the West Pier.

Right - The Imperial Theatre, Brighton from a wartime Programme.

I reported to George Parry, the General Manager. My job was to get the stage staff and put the stage in working order. I had exactly fourteen days and this included making ten rostrums to accommodate Herman Darewiski's orchestra. When assembled and set, this covered the stage from the Pros Wings up stage fourteen feet and forty foot frontage. The safety curtain (act drop) "tab curtains" were operated by electric - when it worked. The contacts were copper bands, clamped to the wall, a dynamo with its brush giving it the energy.

All this equipment wanted a thorough overhaul - as the time lag - left all this apparatus green with verdigris, The result was the curtains would not function. The electrician they engaged was not capable of putting the plant in order - but it was weeks before they made a change.

We opened, and our bill was Evelyn Laye - that charming lady who took London by storm in 1927 - the show "Princess Charming" at the Palace Theatre, She has shone as a star ever since. Herman Darewiski and his Orchestra, Caryll and Munday in their domestic arguments etc. The house was packed from floor to ceiling but Tuesday's performance noticed a marked falling. It was attributed to the ban - a military decree - Brighton out of bounds. Nobody but actual residents, or those who had a military pass or police pass, for registered business people.

This war time measure sealed the hopes of the promoters and although some weeks we played to good business, the overheads were costly and the balance sheet splashed in red ink. A musical followed "1066 And All That" followed by a revue, then again a variety show with Joe Davis and his billiard table, coupled with Dave Morris - but the business was sad. We closed for pantomime rehearsals - "Babes In The Wood" - this was a magnificent show by Bernard Montague with a powerful cast.

Lupino LaneJill Manners was Principal Boy - her rendering of "Falling Leaves" was how a song should be "put over". Principal Girl - dainty Polly Ward. The two robbers - Syd Walker as a bad robber, Angus Watson - the bad. Dame, Dick Montague, Baron - George Belton. They were supported by a cast of sixty - the show ran six weeks. "Blithe Spirit" was the next show with Ronald Squire starring. And then dear Lupino Lane in "Twenty-To-One". This show was an unprecedented success - notwithstanding the ban on all visitors - they came as if to defy the authorities - from out of the sea.

Left - Lupino Lane - From a Programme for 'Silver Wings' at the newly opened Dominion Theatre in 1930.

George Rhodes Parry at the age of 26 - From the Music Hall and Theatre Review of the 7th of August 1903.Several variety shows followed. It was now the second week in March and business did not improve - then talk of pruning salaries. I placed my views before George Rhodes Parry (shown right), the General Manager, that I had run the stage - without any passengers - and I felt it impossible to "cut." However, there was a little noise and I left to join Bernard Delfont to tour with a drama - "They Walk Alone" starring Mary Morris who played "Emmy".

Right - George Rhodes Parry at the age of 26 - From the Music Hall and Theatre Review of the 7th of August 1903.

This young star recently made a big success in "The Young Elizabeth" at the Criterion - with a record run - and now Miss Morris is playing on Broadway. Rene Ray too was co-star with a good cast. I managed this production. We opened at the Pavilion, Bournemouth, followed by these towns - Lyceurn, Edinburgh, Grand, Leeds, Alhambra, Glasgow, New Theatre, Hull etc. etc. Mr. Delfont came to the Opera House, Manchester, and was very pleased with everybody. It was a financial success and he raised my salary. The tour finished at Theatre Royal, Nottingham and I was transferred as business manager to a farcical comedy by Walter Ellis "Sleeping Out".

Theatre Royal, Nottingham and Parliament Street.We again opened at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham, with Gene Gerrard as the star supported by Gus McNaughton, Buena Bent, Winifred Shotter etc. This was again a winner.

Left - The Theatre Royal, Nottingham on Parliament Street - From a postcard.

We toured all the number one theatres until Christmas when it was redressed and with new scenery we opened at the Piccadilly Theatre, London. At this house, "Sleeping Out" had a record run of over six months - a very comfortable and happy time for all concerned.

Whilst we were at this theatre, the stage was used during such times - exceptions being when matinees were played by "Sleeping Out." Among the productions which were tried out was "The Duchess of Dantzig" which had a really wonderful cast - but there was discord - a prominent star tenor gave up - rehearsals were prolonged. During one of the rehearsals, on a Friday, I had a treasury call. I inadvertently walked into my office (very close to the stage) "unknown to me" three ladies were - - changing. Explanations were of no avail. However, as the show "Sleeping Out" was due to finish, Mr. Delfont offered me the management of "Jungle Blackout."

We opened at Princes Theatre, Bradford, and Mr. Delfont asked my opinion as to its prospects. I flatly said "No" because the war was at its height and this drama opens with a bomb crash and finishes with an explosion in which a planter's house collapses. However, we played to capacity on Monday - afterwards we played to coppers. The show played exactly one month.

I would like to say - Mr. Delfont gave me my first opportunity as a manager - when I look back - proprietors told me flat that I was worth more to them as a stage manager. The public came to see the show - if the stage is a success - the box office receipts are reflected by whether the "customer" is satisfied.

Continue to Chapter Four...

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