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Pantomime in the 1940s & 1950s By Donald Auty

Pantomime economics of fifty years ago - Sinbad The Sailor at the Royal Opera House Leicester, Christmas 1959/60

 

BRADFORD PANTOMIMES 50 YEARS AGO

Arthur Lloyd is known to have performed in Bradford 1871 1879 1890

The Bradford Alhambra - From a postcard. Click for details of this TheatreThe Alhambra theatre has been the home of pantomime for many years and still is. It Opened in 1914 and was the brain child of Francis Laidler, he later became known as the King of Pantomime and he made the theatre famous throughout the country.

Right - The Bradford Alhambra - From a postcard. Click for details of this Theatre

On his death in 1955 control passed to his widow, Gwladys Stanley;she was a famous principle boy in her time, and produced herself for a couple of years and had an outstanding success with the "Queen of Hearts. She remarried and lost interest in the theatre and it started to go through a bad time. Rowland Hill who had been the company secretary for a number of years and had started to work there when the theatre opened selling chocolates took over. His first job was to find a new pantomime producer.

Emile Littler was approached but was unable to oblige because of his commitment To the Leeds Empire to produce pantomimes there. He introduced Same Newsome The owner of the Coventry Theatre and took two and a half percent of the gross Takings for his trouble all the years that Sam produced at the Theatre.

The Alhambra And New Victoria Theatres Bradford - From a postcardThe quality was good with Ken Dodd topping the bill in "Dick Whittington" and Box office records were broken. Times were getting better at the Alhambra. The following year 1960, I worked in my first pantomime there "Robin Hood".

Left - The Bradford Alhambra And New Victoria Theatres - From a postcard.

The cast was star studded with John Hanson as Robin Hood, Jimmy Wheeler was Mayor of Nottingham, Freddie Frinton Nurse Glucose, and Joe Baker and Jack Douglas were the robbers. The orchestra numbered 13, the ballet 16 plus six singers and a large supporting cast completed the bill. The pantomime was very spectacular with two big transformation scenes; one a toy ballet and the second a woodland dream scene where the stage was transformed from Sherwood Forest to the realms of the universe.

Freddie Frinton was unforgettable when he sang "Nobody Loves a Fairy When She's Forty" and a very drunken forty year old fairy he appeared to be. Jimmy Wheeler Was a cockney comedian and did not go down very well with some of the Northern Audience. One matinee he was dying and got very near the knuckle. George Baines the theatre manager rushed through the pass door with his cigar still in his mouth went into his dressing room to give Jimmy a good telling off. "Don't you come into my dressing room smoking your four penny cigars" retorted the comic. The pantomime however was an overall success.

The following year I returned with "Puss in Boots" starring Tommy Cooper who appeared in one scene as a rather eccentric principle boy. It was an extremely good pantomime but was stricken with bad luck. One of the Kims an acrobatic snapped his Achilles tendon on stage so that was them out of the show and we had numerous cast members off with flue. The director was fired because he could not get on with Tommy and the choreographer was taken ill during rehearsals. The worst was yet to come.

This was the year of the small pox epidemic in Bradford and people would not Come into the city. The performances were two thirds empty and parties cancelled by The dozen, sometimes we played to less than a hundred people. The entire cast Orchestra and theatre staff were vaccinated by a visiting doctor. On top of this one of the front of house staff was run over and killed by a bus as he crossed Morley Street.

The pantomime had to come off after five weeks of the planned ten weeks season It was the shortest run in the long history of pantomime at the Alhambra.

Also see the BBC Legacies' site on the Bradford Alhambra

Also see Pantomime economics of fifty years ago by Donald Auty

For a fascinating look at all things Pantomime see 'The Magic Of Pantomime' here...

LEEDS PANTOMIMES 50 YEARS AGO

Arthur Lloyd is known to have performed in Leeds 1871

Leeds had three first class pantomimes fifty years ago and they were all a wonderful experience for both the children and the grown ups.

The Theatre Royal was in Albion Street where Schofields now is and was owned by Francis Laidler, the King of Pantomime. You were in the land of make belief from the moment you entered the ornate Victorian auditorium. An overture cloth with a stream made from glitter dust on it hung at the front of the stage. "Papa Laidler" as he was called, desired all his long life to have running water on this cloth but never achieved his ambition. He would have been in his element in these days of virtual reality.

The sixteen strong orchestra would strike up the overture under the direction of George.W.Jackson, his bald head shining in the limelight. George was a great character with a very loud laugh. He found the jokes funny every performance, even until the last week in the run, which was at the end of April. His laughter was a feature of the show.

The pantomimes were very spectacular and traditional with Kirby's Flying Ballet being one of the high spots of the evening. Two of the girls flew into the auditorium attached to wires and threw roses into the circle and stalls.

There were big names on the bill such as Norman Evans and Albert Modley. One of the supporting artistes was Percy Garside, a Bradford man, who in his younger days had been in great demand as a principle singer in oratorios. He had a large following of his own and always did the song sheet with Norman Evans, who used to say to him when they divided the audience in two to find out who sang best; "Thar not on ar side Garside". Two favorite subjects were Mother Goose and Humpty Dumpty, the diminutive Betty Jumel always played Humpty After Laidlers death in the mid fifties his widow, Gladwys Stanley, who was a famous principle boy sold the theatre for re development. It was old fashioned and would need too much money spent to bring it up to date. That was her excuse any way.

The pantomime at the Grand Theatre was a very sophisticated affair. Presented by Tom Arnold it was very spectacular with big names such as David Whitfield and Sonny Hale. The productions were big and very fine as befitted that wonderful opera house. Even the orchestra under the direction of Stanley Berkley was refined. It numbered twenty and had a lush muted sound.

There were grand ballet scenes,enormous parades with a cast of around seventy people. Hundreds of costume and acres of scenery were shifted twice a day by innumerable stage hands. The audience certainly came out at the end of the performance feeling that they had seen their monies' worth. Favourite productions were Sleeping Beauty and Robinson Crusoe. They also presented a Humpty Dumpty which was very different to that at the Theatre Royal. It started with a parade of all the King's Horses and the King's men which lasted for at least ten minutes.

The panto at the Empire in Briggate was a much more down to earth affair presented by Emile Littler. The stage was quite small so the show was not quite so spectacular as the other two but they managed to pack a great deal of scenery onto the the stage. Some of it was even stored in the arcade at the back of the theatre between the performances. There were also big names here; David Nixon, Charlie Chester and Charlie Carrioli were all bill toppers.

There was a special atmosphere in this lovely Matcham built house with its polished brass rails running down the centre of the stairs that led into the orchestra stalls.

The orchestra was tight, loud, raw and brassy. It numbered fourteen and was under the direction of Ronnie Roberts who was one of the finest variety conductors in the country.

The subjects at the Empire tended to be less well known such as Little Miss Muffet and Jack and Jill, but Emile Littler welded them into compelling stories with some enchanting original songs like Children Grow Out of Their Clothes. The shows ran until the end of February and it was a sad loss to the city when the theatre closed and was demolished in the early sixties.

The City Varieties did not put on pantomimes. It stuck to its standard fare of touring revues with nudes.

Also see Pantomime economics of fifty years ago by Donald Auty

For a fascinating look at all things Pantomime see 'The Magic Of Pantomime' here...

PANTOMIMES IN NEWCASTLE 50 YEARS AGO

Arthur Lloyd is known to have performed at various
Theatres in Newcastle 1862, 1863, 1887, 1892

There were three first class pantomimes in Newcastle and a smaller one across the bridge at the Grand Theatre Byker 50 years ago.

I was doing my National Service at the time so, I had a two year enforced break from my job as a stage manager and spent two Christmas' s in the city. I was at Fenham Barracks during the day, and life began at six o'clock in the evening when I visited the Newcastle theatres.

The Theatre Royal Newcastle - Courtesy Gareth Price. Click for details of this Theatre.The pantomime at the Theatre Royal (Shown Left) was a very grand affair. Presented by Howard and Wyndham, it had big names, some of them Scottish, such as Dave Willis and Jack Radcliffe; the cream of pantomime dames with Stanley Baxter and Tony Heaton and statuesque principle boys like Elizabeth French.

Left - The Theatre Royal Newcastle - Courtesy Gareth Price. Click for details of this Theatre.

Everything was very sophisticated, even the eighteen piece orchestra was refined. Freddie Rumball, the genial theatre manager who was there for more than thirty years, greeted the audience splendidly dressed in white tie and tails every night of the week.

A favourite subject was Goldilocks and the Three Bears and the season used to finish at the end of February.

The Empire Theatre Newcastle - Courtesy Gareth Price. Click for details of this Theatre. The pantomime at the Empire (Shown Right) was entirely different and played to packed houses. A very classy production, it was slightly broader in comedy than the Theatre Royal, They did not feature many local names, but relied on people who were known country wide such as Nat Jackley and Norman Evans.

The stage was smaller than that at the Theatre Royal, but a lot of spectacle was packed onto it. Favourite subjects were Aladdin and Humpty Dumpty, the latter starting with an enormous parade of all the King's horses and the King's men.

Right - The Empire Theatre Newcastle - Courtesy Gareth Price. Click for details of this Theatre.

The fifteen piece orchestra, under the direction of Tom Young, whose bald head gleamed in the limelight was loud, bold and brassy. The manager. Stan Mayo greeted the audience in the foyer with a rather morose manner, and at times could be down right rude. He suffered from ill health so could be forgiven for some of his attitudes, which were the same with the artistes and staff as the audiences. He was related to a famous music hall comic, Sam Mayo, but a less comedy like figure than Stan Mayo would be hard to imagine.

Lines of motor coaches lined Newgate Street every night waiting to take audiences home to places as far away as Berwick on Tweed, Carlisle, and York. The theatre was demolished in the early sixties to make way for the Swallow Hotel and is a sad loss to the city

The Palace Theatre, Newcastle - Click for details of this Theatre.The pantomimes at the Palace (Shown Left) were presented by Pete Davis, a Scottish producer. It was a big theatre seating almost 2000, and had an air of faded Victoriana about it. The paint was faded, and the plush velvet worn and shabby. Two boxes abutted the stage over the top of the orchestra pit and were the best seats in the house. There were still tip up wooden seats in the pit and benches in the gallery. The audience was raucous and knew what they wanted. Pete Davis gave it to them from Christmas Eve until early March.

Left - The Palace Theatre, Newcastle - Click for details of this Theatre.

The shows were down to earth and focused on that wonderful working class audience that still existed on Tyneside in those days. There was not the spectacle of the Theatre Royal and the Empire, but the pantomimes were packed with three hours of solid entertainment with a strong local flavour featuring such comics as Albert Burdon and Frankie Franks. There was a very strong supporting bill consisting of such acts as The Prince Sisters, two buxom Scottish singers, and Tattersal, the ventriloquist who had a large family of clockwork wooden dolls that actually walked about on the stage. A well loved subject was Tom Thumb with one of the dolls playing Tom.

The sixteen piece orchestra was decidedly old fashioned, strong on strings and woodwind, they even had an oboe in the pit; and light on saxophones and brass, but it sounded wonderful if it was not playing songs from the hit parade of the day, Most of the members had been there for more than thirty years. Anton Petrov was appointed musical director during the early fifties. He was told to do as he liked, but was not allowed to sack any one. He used to conduct resplendent in tails with a carnation in his button hole every night. Anton a Czech by birth was a brilliant musician and pianist coming from classical theatres in Prague prior to the war, He was well known to many readers as pianist at the Theatre Royal in later years playing as the audience came in and during the intervals of plays. He was brutally mugged outside Newcastle Central station a few years ago. He was on his way home to Sunderland after the show, and this incident resulted in his death.

The Palace stood across the road from the bus station in the Haymarket and closed abruptly in the late fifties, a victim to the changing tastes of television. A motley collection of shack like shops and a car park are on the site. If you stand in the middle of the car park and look at the side wall of the adjoining building, you can still see the outline of the steps to the circle and gallery.

This was my favourite pantomime theatre in the city and I can still almost hear the sound of Anton and the orchestra, as I walk along the Haymarket.

Grand Theatre, BykerThe Grand Theatre, (Shown Left) which was just across the bridge in Byker is long gone. It put on basic touring pantomimes presented by Teddy Hinge, a local producer who also owned a chain of suburban cinemas, and the Hippodrome ( now Civic Theatre ) in Darlington. The theatre was looked down upon by many people as a flea pit. It did however put on strong local fare that was well affordable by the good people of the district.

Left - The Grand Theatre, Byker.

One of the more unusual offerings was "Little Bo Peep and Her Live Sheep" and as the title suggests, the animals were allowed to wander around the stage.

Also see Pantomime economics of fifty years ago by Donald Auty

For a fascinating look at all things Pantomime see 'The Magic Of Pantomime' here...


 

WHEN DEWSBURY WAS A POWER IN PANTOMIME.

Fifty years ago Dewsbury was an important place in the world of Christmas pantomime. The Empire Theatre had one of the best and longest running pantos in the North of England and it was all home grown. The theatre was large, almost 2000 seats and the shows ran from Christmas Eve until the beginning of March, most of performances were sold out, therefore in excess of 150,000 people visited the Christmas attraction each year.

The pantomimes had been pretty run of the mill touring productions until the theatre was taken over in the late forties by Richard Stephenson, who also ran theatres in; Barrow in Furness, New Brighton and Leicester. He decided to run a first class pantomime season at the Empire. He already had scenic and wardrobe workshops in a disused Methodist chapel in West Town so all the costumes and the lavish scenery could be manufactured here on the doorstep of the theatre.

Reg Bolton, a comedian who had been well known at theatre before the war was commissioned to produce, write the book, and to play principle comic. All the original music was written by the pit orchestra pianist, Arthur Dickenson, many of the supporting parts were cast from the artistes who were in Stephenson's repertory companies for seasons during the summer months in all the theatres that he ran and the teams of stage management came from the same source.

The manufacture of make belief was an all year round job at the old chapel in West Town, costumes were designed and made, scenery designed and built, Cinderellas coach painted and fitted out with fairy lights and the magic carpet for Aladdin made to fly. There was a full and part time staff of around a dozen people employed on all this for fifty two weeks of the year.

At the theatre meetings with principle artistes took place; contracts were arranged script conferences attended; and. a party bookings department was set up that contacted all factories, working mens clubs, churches and schools within a seventy miles radius and the bookings started to roll in. Lavish posters were printed and they went out on sights throughout the Heavy Woollen District plus Leeds and Bradford. By the end of November it was impossible to obtain a seat for any Friday night, Saturday matinee or Saturday evening performance through out the run.

Rehearsals commenced at the beginning of the second week in December and all the artistes assembled in the town plus a sixteen strong dancing troupe of Florence Whiteley's Zio Angels, who stole many a young man's heart during the next fourteen weeks. Until the week before Christmas the regular show would be on at the theatre in the evenings and these exotic, glamorous pantomime people, the men dressed in camel haired overcoats, the women, made up to the eyes, dressed in fashionable short skirts with fur coats would assemble in the Scarborough Hotel and The Little Saddle which were also theatrical digs to quoff innumerable pints of guiness and gin and tonics after rehearsals ended. You did not see their like in Dewsbury very often in those days. They added a scintillating extra attraction to the pre Christmas atmosphere of the town.

The week before Christmas the full company plus the augmented orchestra moved into the theatre to rehearse with costumes and scenery and this culminated on the day before Christmas Eve with a full dress rehearsal which always went on until the early hours of the morning. The cast, orchestra, stage staff, and wardrobe department, then dog tired dragged themselves off to sleep fitfully in their homes or digs, only to return to the theatre at ten o'clock on Christmas Eve morning to put finishing touches to the show. There were no such things as unsociable hours at the Dewsbury Empire fifty years ago.

Opening night was a glittering affair with a packed house attended by the Mayor, Council, chief constable, local dignitaries and some times the local member of parliament,..

What a show it was from the moment the fourteen piece orchestra struck up the overture under the direction of Stanley Jackson who conducted magnificently dressed in tails ,with a carnation in his button hole and his blonde hair glittering in the limelight. The curtain would rise to reveal the demon king plotting dastardly deeds and the good fairy promising to thwart them. Next the village scene with all sixteen Zio Angels doing a lively song and dance plus, the dame dressed in outrageous costume, simple simon, simple as ever, the hilarious brokers men, and the principle boy statuesque and looking splendid in fish net tights.

Kitchen scenes with the stage covered in decorators paint and flower, twelve pert juveniles specially picked from the cream of Dewsbury dancing schools and a magnificent ballet with dancers dressed as nymphs, birds, and animals completed the first half.

During the interval, the auditorium awash with ice cream and lemonade the manager announced over the back stage microphone the names of all the parties present and Stanley Jackson and the orchestra played a selection of popular songs for the audience to sing.

The second half opened with the Zio Angels doing a kicking routine, thirty two shapely legs moving in absolute precision followed by further spectacular scenes, Alexander's Wonder Dogs presented by Miss Irene, the song sheet with Simple Simon when the audience sang "I do like a nice mince pie " until they were hoarse and a magnificent finale with glittering scenery and all the artistes walking down an enormous stair case dressed in fabulous costumes to take their finale applause. Simple Simon made his final joke, the audience and cast stood whilst the orchestra played "God Save the Queen " ; the plush house curtain fell, the orchestra played a cheerful reprise of a popular song from the show as the audience poured out of the theatre feeling that they had been treated to a "reet good nite owt".

Many big names appeared in the Empire pantomimes before they became famous including Hylda Baker and Morecambe and Wise. There were well established supporting artistes such as Ken Wilson, Harry Sheils, Joe Black; glamorous principle boys like Sheila Hannaway, Kitty Prince and well known specialty acts; The Falcons, The Great Alexandra Troupe, and Tarzan and Mowgli, the latter dressed in an ape skin used to run up and down rope ladders and along the edge of the circle and gallery during the interval.

Every night motor coaches lined Wakefield Road and Long Causeway waiting to take the audience home to places as far apart as Chesterfield, Hull, Middlesbrough and Oldham when they came out of the theatre satiated by their three hours of entertainment.
.
During the rest of the year the Empire never did really good business even though star names appeared there, but it was so big that enough money was taken on a Friday and Saturday night to get everyone out of trouble.

The theatres in Leeds and Bradford belonged to powerful circuits who had houses in all the major cities of the country. The directors of these became frightened and jealous of the kind of business that was happening at the Empire which seated more people than any other theatre in the West Riding. They put a clause in their contracts barring artistes who worked for them from appearing at the Empire. Television was becoming more and more popular and audiences dwindled, coupled with this Reg Bolton, the driving force behind the pantomime died shortly after Christmas 1954.

The Empire closed abruptly one Saturday night in April 1955 and was demolished in the early sixties to make way for Empire house, a block of offices. It is a sad loss for the town.

As for me; the pantomimes gave me the inspiration to go on and work in the production side of the theatre and I am still working in it almost fifty years later. The odd times that I visit Dewsbury and walk past the site of the old theatre I imagine that I can hear the sound of Stanley Jackson and the orchestra striking up the overture.

Also see Pantomime economics of fifty years ago by Donald Auty

For a fascinating look at all things Pantomime see 'The Magic Of Pantomime' here...

COVENTRY HIPPODROME PANTOMIMES 40 YEARS AGO

The Coventry Hippodrome Theatre.It is almost a year ago that they demolished the old Hippodrome. Dam their eyes! Forty years ago it was the premier pantomime date in the Midlands. It was a big theatre almost 2000 seats nearly twice the size of the Belgrade with a fly tower which meant that you could put on much larger and spectacular scenes than you can at the Belgrade, but the Coventry Council eventually achieved an ambition that germinated forty years ago and pulled the poor old place down.

Right - The Coventry Hippodrome Theatre.

Also see this article on Britains Hippodrome Theatres here...

The pantomimes were magical and it was a 52 weeks in the year job manufacturing that make believe land. The scenic workshops in the old Plaza cinema and the wardrobe department at a disused garage in Quinton Road worked on pantomime land all the year. Apart from the Hippodrome pantomimes were also presented at the Alhambra Theatre Bradford, The Hippodrome Theatre Brighton, the Lyceum Theatre Sheffield and the Hippodrome Theatre Dudley by Sam Newsome who was the presiding genius and producer at the Hippodrome. He built the theatre in the thirties and opened it despite the opposition of Cinema. He kept it open despite the German bombs during the war, and made it the show place of the midlands in the fifties and early sixties. When times started to get hard after the advent of television in 1963 he asked the council to give him some relief on his rates. In their wonderful wisdom they refused and set in motion a chain of events that resulted in that hole in the ground on the corner of Hales Street where the theatre used to be.

Donald Auty 2003

Also see Pantomime economics of fifty years ago by Donald Auty

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

For a fascinating look at all things Pantomime see 'The Magic Of Pantomime' here.