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Moss Empires' Theatres in the Fifties

By

Donald Auty

  Also see Moss Empires Jubilee 1899 - 1949 - The Moss family at the Lorne Music Hall, Greenock

 

The decline did not really begin to bite until the late fifties and for most of the decade they were still a thriving concern. However they were all on valuable commercial sites in city centres and the then managing director Val Parnell became associated with a property development company run by the late Jack Cotton and unknown to his fellow directors plotted to sell the theatres for their site value. He succeeded with a lot of them that were still running at a profit until it came to light that the same fate awaited the London Palladium, The Victoria Palace and even the Theatre Royal Drury Lane was to be sold for its site value. A quick take over of the company was organised by Prince Littler in order to save the theatres and Val Parnell quickly resigned. He spent the rest of his days in exile in the South of France and Leslie McDonald took over as managing director and tried to salvage the situation but by this time the decline in variety was unstoppable. He soldiered on for a few years presenting top class musicals but by this time it was too late and the rest of theatres closed and were replaced by supermarkets, offices, department stores or became Bingo Halls. One or two were taken over by local authorities. Some dates that became Bingo Halls were preserved and became theatres again during the past few years.

The theatres that existed in the fifties are listed below in Geographical. order from the South to the North of the Country.

SWANSEA EMPIRE

I only worked here once, it was an intimate house with a wonderful weekend audience. It was the first to close and a joke went around the business about a meeting of the Moss Empires Board of Directors where Val Parnell stood up and said gentlemen as an experiment we are going to close the Swansea Empire and if that is a success we will close the bloody lot.


BRIGHTON HIPPODROME

The Brighton Hippodrome - Click for details of this Theatre.This was a wonderful date with an amphitheatre type of auditorium. There was a very rakish atmosphere about the place and you could still buy a promenade ticket until the very end. Angus Franklin was the manager for many years and lived in a flat above the theatre that had originally been built for Tom Barrasford the first owner.

Left - The Brighton Hippodrome - Click for details of this Theatre.

George Rainburn was the stage manager and ran a constant war with Stan the chief electrician. There were two electrical day men and only one stage dayman and George resented this. George Black who was managing director in the thirties and early forties came down to Brighton one morning and found the then four stage daymen drinking in the Seven Stars pub at ll.30 a.m. so he sacked them and decreed that from then on there would only be one stage dayman at Brighton and this situation still existed to the end.
There was a circus at the theatre one week and the dock doors that led straight out into the car park were left open one morning to let in some air. The auditorium of the Brighton Hippodrome - Click for details of this Theatre.The elephant got loose from its tethering rope and decided to have a look around Brighton. It walked out of the dock doors past the stage door and a large window in the stage doorkeeper's cubby hole. George panicked when he found the elephant gone and asked the stage door keeper if he had seen it pass by. The stage door keeper said he had not noticed it. George screamed at him that he must have noticed it because the animal must have blocked out the f****** day light as it passed his window. The Elephant was eventually found taking a stroll around the lanes and accepting buns from passers by.

Right - The auditorium of the Brighton Hippodrome - Click for details of this Theatre.

The pit orchestra was excellent fourteen in number and was under the direction of Sid Sharpe. He had a baton with u.v. paint on the end of it that he used to conduct with when the stage was in a blackout.
It is still there as a bingo hall and could come back one day, let's hope that it Does.

FINSBURY PARK EMPIRE

See also The Finsbury Park Empire by Brian Kendal on this site here...

This was the tryout date for all the variety bills before they were sent out on tour and Cissie Williams reigned supreme over the artistes that she booked with a rod of iron. It was a wonderful Matcham house with a fantastic atmosphere.

David Wilmot was the manager and he went on to the Palladium when it closed. He was a great one for maximising the revenue and because it was in the inner suburbs all the pros used to go there to pass in on the card on a Monday and Tuesday first house. If you were on your own he passed you in free if there were two of you he gave you one free and made you pay for one. Needless to say very few turned up in pairs.

Sid Kaplin was musical director with a very good 12-piece orchestra. He came there from the Holborn Empire when it was bombed and remained to the end. He had an awesome reputation with the artistes. He would pretend that their band parts were unreadable and then charge them for rewriting the dots. He also had a friend who was a photographer and used to bully the turns into having photographs taken of the act. You can still find some of them with the logo at the bottom taken at the Finsbury Park Empire. He was on commission of course. I got on very well with him but he became very embittered towards the end. I understand that he departed for Canada a couple of days after the place closed and was never seen or heard of again.

Alf Padgwick was the stage manager and loved his Scotch. He lived a life in fear of Cissie Williams and moved to the Victoria Palace when the theatre closed. He said he felt twenty years younger there without Cissie breathing down his neck every Monday night.

The end was very sad, they took the seats out when it closed and it became a scenery store and a place to rehearse. I rehearsed a Coventry Spring Show there in the early sixties and it was not a good experience to look out at the decaying seat-less auditorium from the empty stage. Moss Empires let the building go and it was eventually demolished as being dangerous. A block of flats now stands on the site.

BIRMINGHAM HIPPODROME

This was their premier midlands date even in the times when they had a number of other theatres in the area. It is big, 2000 seats on two levels, but in the fifties the stage was only thirty feet deep so sometimes it was a tight squeeze with a big show. The entrance went underneath a ballroom and there was a tower over the top of the building. The stage door was on the opposite side of the theatre to what it is now.

Bertie Adams was the manager one of the real old school. He had been manager at the Alhambra in Leicester Square before moving to the Holborn Empire where he was for many years. He came to Birmingham after Holborn was bombed.

He would sit in the stalls wearing a carnation during the Monday morning band calls and all the acts would have to come down into the stalls to shake his hand and say good morning.

Whiskey was hard to come by during the war and Bertie used to sit in his office at the theatre until the wee small hours of the morning consuming his black market ration. When he wanted to go to the toilet he used to go to the ladies as the theatre was empty and it was nearer to his office than the gents. Around one o'clock one morning he went into the ladies opened a cubicle door and to his astonishment found an elderly lady in there dead with her knickers around her ankles. He panicked and he had also had a few so he went back to his office and phoned Charlie Henry, Moss Empires head of production who lived in Brighton, and told him what he had found. Charlie said what do you expect me to do, come to Birmingham and pull up her knickers?

When Bertie retired he was succeeded by Wilf May and Barry Hopson was the assistant. After the corporation took over Moss retained the booking for a time and Barry became theatre manager. One morning he was having a tussle over the phone with Ron Swift of Moss Empires head office over a contract. He said to Barry you are an impossible bugger, Barry replied you should know you taught me.
Ernie Clapham the stage manager was a fitness freak and muscle builder he converted part of the under stage area into a makeshift gym where he would pump iron all afternoon when the theatre was locked up and no one was around. During the summer he used to walk around the theatre wearing a singlet. He looked like an advert for the old Health and Efficiency magazine. Not many acts argued with Ernie when he pulled them up for running over their time.

The 14-piece orchestra was under the direction of Arthur Roberts who had imaculate grey hair and was a most charming man.

The theatre now owned by a trust is one of the most up to date and successful theatres in the country having had millions of pounds spent on improvements to it including one of the deepest stages in the United Kingdom.

Click here to visit the Birmingham Hippodrome's Website...

THEATRE ROYAL, HANLEY

This theatre had the most chequered history of all the Moss Empires but it held a special place in the hearts of potteries audiences The original architects were Phipps and Matcham. The latter re-jigged the place at the turn of the century and it later became Potteries theatres Ltd., a local company in which Moss Empires had a large share holding. There was a disastrous fire in 1949 but the theatre was rebuilt and reopened in 1951. Quite a few corners were cut in the rebuilding and backstage conditions were somewhat cramped, some of the passages are so narrow that I think I would have difficulty circumnavigating them now the size that I am. The front of both the circle and gallery along with the boxes have a pink quilted plaster on them making them look somewhat like a collection of bed headboards.

The manager for many years was Percy Hughes a local man who was a competent manager but could hardly be called Mr Personality of the year. He stayed on when the theatre became a Moss Empire proper in 1954. Potteries theatres sold out to them and they had booked the place for many years.Hughie Dicks was the stage manager and I spent many a happy hour in the Dew Drop Pub with him.

When Sunderland closed, musical director Fred Glover was transferred to Hanley where he commanded a twelve piece orchestra. The Orchestra pit at Sunderland was very shallow. The band would strike up the overture minus Fred who would appear through the pass door dressed in a white Tuxedo, walk nonchalantly along the front row of the stalls with a white lime on him, and vault over the orchestra pit rail and take up the conducting. He did the same thing at Hanley the first Monday first house he was there but forgot that the orchestra pit was six feet deep. There was a great crashing of music stands and the sound of violins being splintered plus unthinkable language for the late fifties coming from the orchestra pit and Fred that night. Percy Hughes had been to a meeting of all the Moss Empires Managers at Cranbourne Mansions the head office in London one day in early 1959. He got off the train at Stoke station on his return and bought a copy of the Evening Sentinel. The front page story was about the Theatre Royal closing. It was the first he had heard of it.

The theatre became a Bingo Hall in 1960 and remained so for twenty years. It reverted to being a theatre in 1982 and lurched from crisis to crisis, the worst one being when the managing director a local solicitor was sentenced to a long prison term for fraud and embezzlement from the theatre company and the pension fund of Belling Cookers.

The next owner went bankrupt and the theatre was put up for sale. By this time Stoke on Trent Council were investing heavily on converting the Regent Cinema into a theatre and refurbishing the Kings Hall. No one wanted to buy the theatre as a going concern so it became a night club and is now in the process of being developed into a number of theme bars. There is a big scandal about over spending by the Council on the Regent and the Kings Hall. Stoke on Trent does not seem to have a lot of luck with its theatres..


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NOTTINGHAM EMPIRE AND THEATRE ROYAL

These two theatres adjoined each other, The Empire was a Matcham house and the Theatre Royal was originally Phipps but rebuilt by Matcham at a later date. The Empire housed variety and the Theatre Royal musicals and plays.

Theatre Royal, Nottingham and Parliament Street.

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

Tim Tillson was the manager of both houses and a martinet of the first order. He moved to the Palace Manchester shortly after the Empire closed. I had many a row with him because the man was entirely inflexible and also used to try and levy absurd contra charges at the end of the week A friend of mine once put on the settlement sheet on a Saturday night 'signed under duress' and there was a great rumpus back at the head office in Cranbourne Mansions on the following Monday morning.

Harry Hackworth was musical director at both houses and furnished pit orchestras of any size as required from a pool of local musicians.

The dock doors of both theatres were side by side and there is a story of how the show loads went into the wrong theatres one morning and it was not discovered until a cloth for a Shakespeare production was hung at the Variety Empire. I bet the stage staff loved transferring the loads and made sure that it never happened again..

Uncle Bob was stage manager at the Theatre Royal at the back end and spent most of his time in the Turf Tavern across the Road. We used to load him onto a bus with instructions to the driver to put him off outside his house on most nights.

When Tim Tillson moved to Manchester Frank Mathie took over. He came down from the Glasgow Empire when it closed. He used to enter the theatre through the stage door in the morning as all old time managers did in order to make sure that all the backstage staff were there and working and insisted on the safety curtain being raised during the morning so that he could see what was happening on stage. They don't make them like Frank any more. When Frank retired Lenard Claxton the assistant took over and fought valiantly for the theatre and was in a lot of ways responsible for its survival. He stayed on when the corporation took over and retired a few years ago.The Empire was demolished in the sixties and the concert hall now stands on the site. The Theatre Royal was refurbished with a magnificent new backstage and part of the frontage when the corporation took over in the seventies. It is still an extremely vibrant theatre. With the auditorium as it was in the Phipps days. The plaster work is specially listed and protected and you cannot drill into it in order to put up lamps or Kirby wires.

SHEFFIELD EMPIRE

This theatre was a big one, a Matcham house with over two thousand seats and on a prime city centre site. The stage area was bombed during the war whilst a performance was taking place and some of Henry Hall's band who were topping the bill that week were killed and injured.

The manager during the fifties was Johnny Spitzer an enormous man. He lived at the Grand Hotel where he had a special deal. He used to have numerous large meals sent over from the hotel during the day and would sit in his office in front of the television set on his desk that was switched on all the time and eat them. The staff wondered what would happen if ever Val Parnell the managing director walked in. He did one day and the assistant manager went into the office to find both Val and Johnny sitting in front of the television and both eating enormous meals.

Maurice Dixon (See note) was musical director and presided over an excellent thirteen piece orchestra. The stage manager was Ernie Fenton and his son the first dayman, they were both smashing people and I had many a lovely week there.

One week I was getting the show out on Saturday night. The bill toppers were Donald Peers and Jimmy James. Jimmy came down onto the stage and called me over to the prompt corner. He asked me to lend him a tenner for his train fare to the next town. What did you do with the £250 I paid you yesterday I asked him, this was a lot of money in the mid fifties. I owed it all at the bookies Jimmy replied. He was a great gambler and went bankrupt through it. He suffered a stroke whilst on a summer season in Skegness and could not work any more. He had no money so a benefit performance was organised for him at the Prince of Wales theatre in London but the proceeds had to be put into a trust that Jimmy did not have personal access to because he would have gambled it away. He was however one of the nicest comics I ever worked with.

The Empire was sold for its prime site value and closed in the late fifties and demolished. Johnny Sptizer was promoted to head of publicity for Moss Empires but still continued to live at the Grand Hotel and eat enormous meals.

Note: The Last Musical Director at the Sheffield Empire was Maurice Newton ( Not Dixon) He was loved by visiting artistes and was always willing to rewrite their band parts which were often almost unplayable. - Alan Chudley.

LEEDS EMPIRE

This was my favourite Moss Empire. It was one of the earlier ones and built on four levels. It opened in 1899 and was owned by a subsidiary company Hull and Leeds Palaces of variety Ltd. Matcham was the architect and he was responsible for the adjoining arcade that still exists and is a fine example of Victorian building splendour and listed. The theatre was one of the smallest houses seating only 1500 but was full of atmosphere with acres of brass rails that were polished each day. The stage was quite small and during pantomime some of the scenery had to be kept out in the arcade. Leo A Lion a nephew of Walter De Freece was the manager and he used to stand in the foyer prior to every performance dressed in immaculate evening dress and smoking a cigar as he welcomed the audience with his faithful commissionaire Jack Allen beside him in a uniform covered in gold braid. He did the same thing after the performance bidding everyone good night and asking them if they had enjoyed the show.

The Empire Palace Theatre, Leeds - From a postcard - Click to visit the Leeds page on this site.

Above - The Empire Palace Theatre, Leeds - From a postcard
Click image to visit the Leeds page on this site.

Neil Brookes who later became Manager at the Liverpool Empire and the London Palladium was assistant there at one time. It was a January matinee day during pantomime and they had a terrible morning. The previous night's bar takings would not balance, there was a burst in the gents toilet that flooded the back of the pit stalls and there was no ice cream delivery. When the curtain went up on the matinee the first eight rows of the stalls were empty because a party was late. They arrived half way through the first scene. Leo was standing at the back of the stalls with Neil as the late comers disrupted the performance and he turned to Neil and said do you know today we have been f****** by the finger of fate.

Ronnie Roberts was the musical director and to my mind the finest variety musical director in the country. The orchestra was the smallest on the circuit only 11 but what a sound. It was an education to sit behind Ronnie at the first house on a Monday night and watch him nurse the variety bill through his frequent remark to the pit pianist, seated at his side was knock it out Bob.

He was a great personality though he could be bit hot headed at times. When Owen Walters became music supervisor for the circuit in the late fifties he decided he would cut out all the violins in all the pit orchestras. Ronnie disagreed with this and promptly gave his notice and took a pub in Halton. He never conducted again, a sad loss to the business.

The Chief electrician was Billy Kaye. He always wore a suit with a rose in his button hole. This sartorial elegance was somewhat spoiled by his habit of taking vast quantities of snuff that was liberally deposited on his suit lapels and waistcoat. Billy moved to the Grand Theatre after the Empire closed and after a gap of a few years in the middle east I went in with a tour. I asked Billy what had happened to Ronnie Roberts and discovered that sadly he had died.

The only fly in the ointment was the resident stage manager who was a foul mouthed objectionable Scotchman. He caused continual discontent amongst both artistes and staff and I used to wonder how he kept his job. Leo the manager was a kind man and the stage manager took advantage of this. Leo should have sacked him but did not. He was moved to the Winter Gardens Morecambe when the Empire closed in 1961, that was a bit of a backwater by then.

The Empire was well loved by the citizens of Leeds but it was sold for its site value that was prime in the middle of Briggate. There was a token sit-in by the audience on the night that it closed. A block of offices called Empire House now stands in its place.

PALACE THEATRE MANCHESTER

This is a magnificent 2000 seater theatre again a Matcham house. When it opened in the early years of the twentieth century there was a problem getting a liquor licence for the bars for a number of years and it was a dry variety theatre. This affected the business quite a bit until a licence was eventually obtained.

The Palace Theatre, Manchester - From a postcard

Above - The Palace Theatre, Manchester - From a postcard

The Coventry HippodromeIt was independently owned until Moss Empires took it over in the early fifties although they had booked it for many years. It was the second important theatre after the London Palladium and in addition to variety bills and musicals it staged spectacular Spring and Autumn revues presented by Sam Newsome who owned the Coventry Hippodrome (Shown Right) and was also a director of Moss Empires. I had the privilege of managing a number of these.

Right - The Coventry Hippodrome.

It was the only theatre on the circuit that had a stage director Bert Traylor who came down from the Edinburgh Empire after it closed and a stage manager Geoff Milne. The electrician in the early sixties was Gill Binks who only died a short time ago. He operated one of the first strand consul switch boards to be manufactured and it was situated on a perch above the prompt corner. It was well past its prime in the early sixties and spare parts were difficult to obtain. Gill used to make it work when it was playing up by giving it hefty kicks.

Tim Tillson was transferred from Nottingham when Moss took over as manager. The years at Manchester mellowed him and he became quite pleasant before he retired.

The Palace Theatre, Manchester - From a postcardBert Trayler the stage director and myself did not have the happiest of relationships with the equine species at this theatre. Any Cinderella pantomime that I was connected with at this theatre had ponies in it that crapped all over this stage, more than any other in the country.

Left - The Palace Theatre, Manchester - From a postcard

I went in with a tour of Chu Chin Chow in 1958 and decided that a donkey on stage would give extra panache to the market scene. Teddy Tingling who was on the stage staff also provided ponies for the Tom Arnold pantomimes so I hired a donkey from him for the week. There used to be double doors on the side of the stage where the dressing rooms now are that led into a passage. Teddy brought the Donkey down to the theatre on the Monday night and we put a ramp by the double doors to bring him down on stage. He got half way down splayed his feet and refused to move, he-hawing at the top of his voice. One of the quiet musical numbers from the show was being performed at the time. It is needless to say that I was not at the top of the popularity league with the cast that night.

In one of the Spring Shows starring Beryl Read and Jimmy Edwards they both did a sketch that featured Tunis the horse. Tunis used to get sexually excited when he was standing next to Beryl and showed it. Whilst Wally his trainer and myself bellowed put it away Tunis from the wings. Beryl would then come off stage at the end of the sketch and say to me I am not going on again if that f****** horse does that . The horse sketch was in the early second half of the show and Curries Waltzing Water Fountains closed the first half of the show. These were struck during the interval and Tunis was brought in on the opposite side of the stage through the double doors and led over to the other side of the of the stage to the prompt corner whilst this was happening. I kept a box of lump sugar for him in the prompt corner. One night he decided he could not wait for his sugar and galloped across the stage to me, sending stage hands scenery and water pipes flying. We had to lengthen the interval by ten minutes in order to mop up the ensuing flood. I was again not top of the popularity stakes.

There were a number of musical directors at the Palace during the fifties who presided over an excellent 16-piece orchestra. One of them had a peculiar time beat with his baton and we used to say he looked as though he was knitting fog. If an act came along with difficult music he would always retire to his sick bed with what we all called diplomatic influenza.

The Palace is one of the most successful theatres in the country and now owned by Clear Channel Television. It went through a period in the seventies when it looked as though it was going to go but it survived. Long may it do so.

Click here to visit the Palace Theatre Manchester page on this site...

EMPIRE THEATRE LIVERPOOL

Empire Theatre, LiverpoolThis theatre is a big one 2348 seats all on two levels. It was rebuilt by the Milburn brothers in 1925 on two levels and designed so that it could quickly switch to being a cinema should the necessity arise. There are two boxes that give you a wonderful view of the back of the circle. With a sparse audience it can be an empty barn of a place but it heaves with vigour when the house is full.

Above Right - The Empire Theatre, Liverpool - From a postcard - Click to visit the Empire Liverpool page on this site.

Neil Brookes who went on to the London Palladium was manager there. He arrived at the theatre one morning to find himself locked out of his office by the auditors. There was a £100,000 missing from one of the theatres and they were not sure which one it was. It's no good looking here said Neil we have not taken £100,000 in the last year. The missing money was eventually traced to the London Palladium and Harry Claff the box office manager did a prison sentence for theft.The stage was below street level and a hydraulic lift used to take the scenery up and down during get in and get outs. It had an overflow that poured out gallons of water each time it was used. You had to do some nifty footwork in order not to get your feet soaked. There was also a lift to the upper floor dressing rooms that was always breaking down and causing the artistes to miss their entrances. The first thing I always did on arrival was to remove the fuses for it so that it could not be used. The lighting switchboard was in the scene dock on the O.P and was an old strand pattern preceding the grand master. It seemed to stretch for miles and required up to four men to work it.

The resident stage manager was Jack.Roach who came from a long family line of stage carpenters. He was a lazy bugger and used to make the excuse for not doing work that he suffered from the same prostrate trouble that the then Prime Minister Harold McMillan had. This gave a kind of cachet to his idleness. I was sat in the crew room drinking tea with the stage crew and Phil Hindin the agent one Monday morning during the fit up break. Jack Roach pointed to the tea pot and said George Black the late managing director of Moss Empires used to drink out of that. Yes I can see his teeth marks on the spout replied Phil.

Tommy Trinder's brother Fred Dexter was the chief electrician. One week end during the last days of variety we were having trouble with the limes picking up people. At this time the theatre was closed three weeks out of four and stage staff was badly paid and hard to come by. Jimmy Edwards bollocked Fred about it one night. Fred said I breathe a sigh of relief every time the bloody lime comes on let alone picks up artistes.

Maurice Mclean was musical director with a fourteen piece orchestra and lived in Stockport. We used to go over to the press club after the show that was open late. There was a train at one in the morning that went to Stockport and Maurice used to catch this with quite a few drinks under his belt. After the train arrived in Stockport it used to return empty to Liverpool so it was in place in the morning. Maurice used to fall asleep on the journey to Stockport and quite few times awoke to find himself back in Liverpool and had to go and knock up the night watchman and sleep in a dressing room for the rest of the night.
The theatre is now very successful and is owned by Clear Channel Television like a few Moss dates it was threatened in the seventies but survived.

For more on the Empire on this site Click Here...

WINTER GARDENS THEATRE MORECAMBE

This theatre was part of a complex that contained a ballroom, bars and restaurants and there was also a fairground at the rear. It is one of the largest in Britain, almost 3000 seats and was opened in 1898. Matcham was the architect. Moss Empires acquired it in 1954 along with the fairground so the theatre and complex manager was also the fairground manager.

This theatre never really paid its way during the Moss years and would be closed for long periods in the Winter. It was very successful however in the summer for a long period of time when it was the home of the Black and White Minstrels.

Louis Benjiman who later became the last managing director of Moss Empires was the first Manager for the company from 1954 when it took over. He was succeeded by Wililiam Bevan who stayed there until the complex closed in the early sixties.

The objectionable Scottish stage manager from the Leeds Empire was transferred here after it closed he was supposed to be well out of the way here. He soon created the same bad atmosphere backstage as he had done at Leeds. The manager was taxing him about his behaviour outside on the fairground one morning and the objectionable stage manager punched him on the jaw and laid him out. That was the end of the objectionable Scottish man as far as Moss Empire was concerned and it was not before time.

When the populations of the Lancashire and Yorkshire industrial towns and cities started to go to Spain for their holidays Morecambe quickly became a cemetery with lights as Eric Morecambe called it. The Winter Gardens closed in the mid sixties and the complex fell into dereliction. The fair ground was closed and cleared and all buildings within the complex except the theatre were demolished. The poor old place now stands forlornly in the middle of waste ground but it is intact. There are plans to reopen it as a tribute to the late Thora Hird who was born in the town but there is a desperate shortage of money for the project so it is doubtful if it will happen. There is also the question of viability because Morecambe is now almost a ghost town. The theatre is a listed building and it would be nice to see the dear old place open again.

EMPIRE THEATRE SUNDERLAND

The Sunderland EmpireThis theatre along with the Bristol Hippodrome is one of my two favourite theatres in the country.It was built by Milburn Brothers who were also the architects as the flag ship Theatre of the Moss and Thornton circuit and is Magnificent. It was opened in 1909 by Vesta Tilley and has until now changed very little. Richard Thornton wanted the place to be superior to the other nearby Moss date Newcastle Empire so money was lavished on it. There is a magnificent auditorium with slipper boxes sloping down to a large stage. The auditorium is opulent on four levels and boasts the steepest gallery in the country and it seats 2250.

Right - The Sunderland Empire - From a postcard.

It was owned by a subsidiary of Moss Empires that had its own managing director Dickie Reed. He was also Northern circuit supervisor for Moss but there were touches at Sunderland that always made the nearby Newcastle Empire seem like the poorer sister even though that was the more profitable theatre. The band was larger and the usherettes looked very sexy dressed in short military jackets and skirts with forage caps. I had many a memorable night with them.

The manager was a formidable character Jessie Challons who came to Sunderland from the Palace Hull when it was sold and it was intended that he would only remain there for a month before going to the London Palladium. He stayed at the Empire for the rest of his days.

There was no standing on the front to greet the audience for Jessie he would sit in splendour in his office and leave that to Fred the sergeant commissionaire. In the fifties The Stage newspaper was called The Stage and Television Today for a short time and was in two sections. Every Thursday morning when Jessie's copy arrived in the mail he would carefully detach the Television today section and throw it into the waste paper basket.

He refused to see touring managers on a Monday morning, that was ludicrous. One Monday I had terrible problems with a second top of the bill, off I and went to see Jessie. His secretary barred me entrance to his office and said disdainfully Mr Challons does not see touring managers on Monday mornings. I pushed past her kicked his door open and amazingly we straightaway became firm friends and remained so for the rest of his life.

The theatre was closed in the late fifties and reopened a year later as Britain's first civic theatre. In fact it was a civic Moss Empire because Jessie was re engaged as Manager and nothing changed even though Tyne and Wear Corporation owned the theatre. Pete Davis was presenting a pantomime that had a fortnight's option on it and it was playing to capacity business. He fell out with Jessie and they refused to talk to each other even to the extent of not communicating about the option. Needless to say the pantomime came off two weeks sooner than need be and a lot of business was lost.

Jessie died very tragically he went into hospital for a routine operation that required a blood transfusion. He was given blood of the wrong group and died as a result.

He used to keep his cigars in the circle buffet bar and after his death the bar maid knowing that we had been good friends kept them for me when I visited with a tour. There were quite a lot of them and they grew dry, brittle and almost unsmokable but the bar maid thought she was giving me a special treat and as I choked I had to pretend to enjoy them.

The musical director was Fred Glover of the orchestra pit rail vaulting fame and a superb orchestra of fourteen was in the pit.

Even though the theatre was not profitable during most of the fifties it was kept open because of the power Dickie Reed had within the Moss Empires board. He was a director of that company too. It was not long after he died that the theatre was closed.The stage manager was a great drinking man called Johnny Grieve and there were lock ins most nights at the Dunn Cow Pub.

The theatre has its own exclusive ghost, Molly who was stage manager of a touring musical that visited the theatre in 1942. She went out to post a letter and has never been seen or heard of since. The case of the disappearance has never been solved but fingers have been pointed in various directions.ever since because it seems that our Molly had a very varied love life. Her Ghost can be seen in the theatre at postal collection times.

The theatre is solvent and though owned by the corporation is run by Clear Channel Television.who are just embarking on a million and a quarter pound renovation backstage. so if you want to see the fireplaces in the dressing rooms and the backstage as it was built you had better get there quickly.

There are more Theatres in Sunderland listed on this site here.

EMPIRE THEATRE NEWCASTLE

Moss's Empire Palace Newgate Street Newcastle, courtesy Gareth Price - Click to visit the Newcastle pages on this site.This was an extremely successful theatre on a prime site in the city centre. It made money right until the end when most of the dates were loosing it and was sold for its prime site value and demolished in the early sixties and replaced by the Swallow Hotel.On visits to Newcastle I refused to stay there it was too painful..
The auditorium was typically Matcham but the stage was small and the flying hemp. Fred Sanger was the stage manager and got very worried about a tour of Chu Chin Chow that I was taking there in 1959. The Show was very heavy and he let his doubts about how we would get it onto the small stage get on top of him to such an extant that he sleep walked one night and fell out of his bedroom window that was on the first floor of his house. He broke his shoulder and was out of action. Cranbourne Mansions sent the objectionable Scottish Stage Manager up from the Leeds Empire for the two weeks to deputise for Fred. He fell out with everybody and Stan Mayo the manager phoned The managing Director Leslie McDonnell and told him never to send that Scotch ******** near his theatre again.

Above Right - Moss's Empire Palace Newgate Street Newcastle, courtesy Gareth Price - Click to visit the Newcastle pages on this site.

I spent my national service in Newcastle and the Empire and Palace were much more my home than Fenham Barracks ( see this article). There were two opulent settees at the side of the orchestra pit in the auditorium that were grandly sold as Fuetals. This was a great place to watch the show from and peer over the orchestra pit rail at Tom Young the musical director and the band.

Site of Moss's Empire Palace in 2003 - Courtesy Gareth Price.

Above - Site of The Moss Empire Palace Theatre Newgate Street in 2003 - Courtesy Gareth Price

Stan Mayo was the manager he was related to the famed comic Sam Mayo. He was not in the best of health at the back end and could be a bit abrupt at times so there was an excuse for this.

David Hinge the son of Teddy Hinge the Tyneside theatre cinema owner and producer tells a sad tale of Stan just after the theatre had closed. He was still at the theatre supervising the stripping out of everything that was moveable. David passed through an auditorium where all the seats had been removed looked at a bare stage and went into Stan's office that was behind one of the boxes. He was sat there an old broken man because they had closed his theatre.He gave David a silk programme for the opening night that he had always wanted and told what ever happened never to sell it. Stan died a couple of weeks later. David still has the programme.

Donald Auty also reminisces here on working Newcastle's Palace Theatre in the 1950s.

EDINBURGH EMPIRE

Empire Palace Programme 1897 - Click to visit the Edinburgh Empire page on this site.This was where Sir Edward Moss started off. The present building was rebuilt after a disasterous fire in 1912. It was going to be where the first Royal Command Performance was staged but the fire put an end to that and the show was presented at the Palace Theatre in Cambridge Circus in London.

Right - Empire Palace Programme 1897 - Click to visit the Edinburgh Empire page on this site.

The Great Laffayette the illusionist had his spectacular magic show at the theatre the week of the fire. In addition to the big magic tricks it featured wild animals including a lion. Laffayette had a little dog that he adored, it died early in the week and he was broken hearted. The fire started in the flys it was started by an overheated lamp. The stage lantern flew open when the lead seals broke in the heat and the flames rushed upwards. Everyone was evacuated safely but Lafayette went back into the theatre to shoot the lion in order to save it from a terrible death by burning. The fly collapsed on him and he died. His grave is in Edinburgh Cemetery his dog was buried with him. with a little statue of the dog at his feet.

The Manager at the Empire was Jimmy Hill a wonderful popular man. He would sit in the stalls every Monday morning and greet all the acts when they arrived for band call no matter how low down on the bill they were. He is still affectionately remembered by those who knew him.

I was with a show there at the back end that was being put on by a dubious producer and the wages cheque did not arrive. I was a very young man and got into quite state. Jimmy gave me a glass of scotch, calmed me down and took me across the road to the bank and introduced me to the bank manager and told him to give me any amount of money that I needed. This happened and Jimmy and myself went back across the road to his office in the Empire where he gave the dubious producer the roasting of his life on the phone.

Bert Trayler who moved to Manchester when Edinburgh closed was the stage manager. Here is his horse story: Jewel and Warris were topping the bill one week and there was a full stage scene where they had a horse on stage. Hay and god knows what were thrown from the flys onto the stage from a canvas drop bag during the sketch and at the end Jewel and Warris moved downstage and supposedly did another five minutes in front of the number one runners. Whilst Bert and the stage crew got the horse off and bundled the hay and other objects into the canvas bag that was sent back up into the flys until the next show.

It was a Monday night first house and Jimmy and Ben were not going down very well with a hard Edinburgh audience composed of landladies and holders of passes who exhibited theatre bills. Bert and the crew just managed to throw everything into the canvas bag and set the stage for the next act with a great rush. Jewel and Warris had done only two minutes in front of tabs instead of the allotted five. Jimmy and Ben could be very unpleasant and when Bert taxed them about doing under their time in front runners and they were very rude to him.

Come second house on go Jewel and Warris In the horse sketch.The canvas bag had been nestling in the flys between two lighting battens and a spot bar since first house and both bag and contents that poor Bert and the stage crew had unceremoniously bundled back into it had become very warm. The cue came and the bag opened and its contents fell on Jewel and Warris as they should. During the first house the horse had done what horses do in the hay and in the hurry to strike the stuff because of Jimmy and Ben cutting what horses do had gone back into the bag. By second house it was liquid hot and went all over Jewel and Warris. There is a God in heaven.


GLASGOW EMPIRE

Programme for the Empire Glasgow - Monday 17th September 1928What can be said that has not already been said about this legendary house except visit its own site run by Bob Bain.

 

Left - Programme for the Empire Glasgow - Monday 17th September 1928.

 

Long live the memories of Moss empires and all who served with her

Moss Empires' Theatres in the Fifties
was written by Donald Auty - 2005

 

Also by Donald Auty on this site:
A Stage Struck Man - A profile of Donald Auty.
Those Variety days
Pantomime in the 1940s 1950s
Pantomime economics of 50 years ago
Summer at the Winter Gardens and Pavilion Bournemouth 1961- 67
Working Newcastle's Palace Theatre in the 1950s
Bridlington Summer 1963
Twighlight of the Touring Review
Blackpool Wonderful Blackpool
Moss Empires' Theatres in the Fifties