Those Variety Days
By Donald Auty
Every town had a variety theatre fifty years ago and people flocked to them many on a weekly basis. Now they are but fading memories, a few survive as regional theatres but little or no variety is presented there. Many are bingo halls night clubs supermarkets and office blocks. One or two are commemorated by a plaque on a wall. Between 1952 and 1959 over four hundred of them ceased to exist, but an older generation has wonderful memories of magical nights spent in them.
Above - The New
Cross Empire Theatre London - Courtesy Peter Charlton
Many of these Empires Hippodromes and Palaces were shabby in the late forties and fifties. Their ornate gilded interiors badly needed a lick of paint the plush velvet seats were worn and the giant house curtain faded but once the tinny tinselly sounding orchestra struck up the overture we were transported out of our mundane lives for two hours.
The bills usually commenced with two dancing girls whose shapely legs twinkled to melodies of the thirties. Next came the second spot comic. Many a future big name started off their careers here. Others never progressed from this position in the programme but over a period of thirty years honed their acts to perfection and received little appreciation from a Monday night first house audience composed of theatrical landladies and the owners of corner shops who displayed bills advertising the show and got in free for this performance.The comic was usually followed by a speciality act often a family coming from the circus. They juggled performed feats of daring on roller skates or exciting acrobatic routines. Next came the second top of the bill who closed the first half of the show. This could be a well known singer such as Betty Driver now a well loved character in Coronation Street or Eddie Calvert the famous trumpeter.
The interval was the time to grab a quick drink in the bar or to sit back and listen to the theatre orchestra play a selection from a musical comedy. This was for me one of the most enjoyable events of the evening. I can still even after a period of fifty years close my eyes and hear in my imagination the Leeds Empire orchestra under the direction of Ronnie Roberts playing a selection from Bitter Sweet.
The second half started with the dancing girls again and gave some members of the audience time to drift back from the bar. Next would come a well established comic such as Dick Henderson the father of Dickie who finished his act with a sentimental song that left us dabbing our eyes with an handkerchief. The type of act that occupied this spot depended on if the top of the bill was a comedian or a singer and could be Wilson, Keppel and Betty the hilarious sand dancing act, or Billy Thorburn the popular blind pianist. Finally the top of the Bill appeared. They could be American attractions such as the Deep River boys or the black singer Billy Daniels; a famous singing duo such as Anne Zeigler and Webster Booth or legendary comedians of the ilk of Arthur Askey and Max Miller. The curtain would finally fall at the end of the performance the houselights go on and the orchestra would play the short version of God save the Queen followed by a lively piece of music to see us out of the doors whistling.
The life of a variety artiste could be very solitary. Although they appeared in front of hundreds of people every night they usually had few friends in the towns that they visited and even in the forties and fifties it was not considered to be respectable life by most people. There usually was a pub across the road from the theatre where they retired to each evening after the show.They got to know the landlord over the years of visiting the town and it became a second home with lock ins every night after closing time. Pubs such as Ma Edgertons across the road from the stage door of the Liverpool Empire (Above Right) became famous for the hospitality to variety artistes.There was one room in this pub that you were not allowed to enter unless you were a pro. Many of them especially comics took the bottle and ended their lives in alcoholic misery.
Unless you were top of the bill it was not possible to afford to live in Hotels and every town had its theatrical digs where the artistes stayed. Some such as Mrs Mack's in Manchester were legendary and an artiste had to have been around for a long time before they could stop here for the week. Most of the digs were good but there were the odd bad apples. Every landlady had a book where artistes were supposed to enter their compliments on the service given during the week. There was a code. If the words quoth the raven appeared in the book it was a warning that the digs were bad. Another trick that was played when the week had been less than enjoyable was to tack a kipper under the dining room table on the Saturday night. This would soon begin to smell and the last place that the landlady would look for the source was under the dining room table. If you were unfortunate to be working the week on shares of the box office takings instead of a salary and business was bad there would sometimes not be the money to pay for the digs and mid night flits took place. In code this was known as scarpering the letti.
The journeys between towns took place on a Sunday the only day when the artiste did not work. Then as now these train journeys were often long and arduous between places as far apart as Middlesbrough and Plymouth, Newcastle upon Tyne and Bath and Dundee and Pontypridd. During the heydays approximately 3000 people were employed as artistes so many of them were on Sunday trains. Ted Ray used to have a gag where he asked what did you see on Crewe Railway station on a Sunday afternoon and the answer was actors and fish. Many acts made their homes in Brixton so that they could spend a little time with their families when they were appearing at theatres in the greater London area.
Every theatre had its own distinctive character and atmosphere.The Palace Theatre Halifax was built during an extremely severe winter and sugar was used to make the mortar between the bricks set, henceforth it was always known as the sweetest theatre in England. The Royalty Theatre Chester had a mock Tudor exterior. The stage boxes at the Palace Plymouth looked like Spanish Galleons. You could still buy a promenade ticket at the Brighton Hippodrome until the day it closed in the early sixties. The stage boxes at the Palace Newcastle abutted onto the stage and you could shake hands with the artistes from them.
Each theatre had a special smell that was a mixture of scenic paint Jeyes fluid that was used for cleaning the auditorium and tobacco. Whirls of smoke filtered upwards through the beams of coloured lights suspended from the front of the circle. Some theatres such as the Bristol Hippodrome had a sliding roof that could be opened between the first and second houses and allowed the smoke to rise upwards out of the auditorium. This theatre also had tiny Juliet Boxes let into the side of the proscenium arch that adjoined quick change rooms. Artistes could take a call from these before and after a quick change. It also had an immense water tank under the stage that could rise and enable water spectacles to be presented. It was taken out after a disastrous fire destroyed the backstage area during the forties. The London Coliseum had its own Royal Train. This was an electric carriage on rails which was to transport the King or Queen from the theatre entrance to the auditorium doors. It proved to be a bit of a disaster when it broke down the first time that it was used to carry Edward V11. It was never required to provide its services again.
The theatre managers were great characters and well known in their town or city. Many such as Doyle Crossley the manager at the Empress Brixton would greet their patrons resplendent in tails and smoking a cigar. Moss Empires the premier circuit in the country even allowed their managers to charge up to expenses the cigars that they smoked whilst greeting the audiences in the foyer.
Resident musical directors such as Bill Pethers at the Coventry Hippodrome (Shown Right) and Anton Petrov at the Palace Newcastle were greeted with a round of applause when they took up their positions at the conductor's desk to start the overture.
Each act was given a number of minutes for their spot ranging from eight to twenty depending on their importance on the bill. Time was of an essence in twice nightly variety. There was only fifteen minutes between the end of the first house and the second house starting and during this time one audience had to be got out, rubbish picked up and another audience got in. If the first house overran it had a knock on effect on the rest of the evening and the second house came out after the last public transport had departed and then there was big trouble.
Any act that ran over its time was at best in for a long lecture or at worst on the Moss Empires tour the rest of his dates being cancelled. Comedians were the worst offenders the second spot in the first half was supposed to last eight minutes. Some comedians smoked a cigarette during their act and when it was finished they new it was time to go into the final song. A red light was also placed in the footlights which the stage manager switched on when time was up. At the Coventry Hippodrome there was a three foot square notice mounted on the back of the conductor's desk that when lit up warned the unfortunate artiste in no uncertain terms to watch his time.Stage Managers on Moss Empires had to call the telephone exchange at five thirty in the evening and check the time. They then made sure that the clock in the prompt corner of the stage was correct and synchronised their watch with the theatre manager.
The advent of commercial television in the early fifties saw a quick decline in audiences and the theatres began to close. At first it was a trickle by late 1956 there was a list of at least a dozen theatres that had come to grief during the previous week in The Stage theatrical newspaper. It was all over in the short period of four years. Times must change but the loss of variety was the end of something that really was the Best of British.
Donald Auty 2003
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