Tom and the music hall

Tom had a lifelong interest the theatre, indeed one of the joys of his job as a reporter in Whitby was the task of reviewing the various professional and amateur productions that were staged in the town. Some of those reviews appear in the cuttings he kept and are re-published on this website. I spent many an evening with Tom at the Spa Theatre where, during my apprenticeship, the Charles Vance Players provided a season of plays in the summer months. I was very envious when during particularly dull performances Tom was able to sneak out before the finish claiming he had a deadline to meet but in reality was heading for the bar. It was only when I began reading through his papers that I realised why he was so passionate about “the stage” and had written about this in his retirement.

“My first connection with the musical hall began at the earliest possible opportunity –  in the week that I was born in January 1917. My father after a short lived career as a variety agent, had joined the fledgling film industry and opened a film renting business, the Ashworth Film Service, in Cardiff.  During his connection with the musical halls he had become friendly with many of the performers.  Among these was Marie Lloyd so it was only natural that when she came to the Empire Theatre, at Cardiff, then at the top of her profession, he should go to see her show.

Afterwards he went to see her in her dressing room and during their conversation mentioned that his wife had given birth to their first son – me!  When she heard this, Marie, the soul of generosity at all times, ordered champagne all round.  When I was five years old, my grandmother died and my father was forced to give up his business and move with my mother and their by now three children, to Devon to look after grandad.

My dad got a new job as a commercial travellor for a film company but still retained links with his old musical hall friends.  One of these was the manager of the Hippodrome at Exeter.  The Hippodrome was typical of the variety theatres of the period, in the twenties.  The shows were twice nightly, illuminated signs at the sides of the proscenium showed the numbers of the act, and the managers always wore evening dress even though the audience was almost always predominantly working class.

As I grew older my dad would occasionally take me to see a show at the Hippodrome and I became fascinated by the whole business.  I can still remember the names of some of the artistes who appeared.  Lily Morris, who I think was the daughter of Marie Lloyd, and had a very similar act, Murray and Mooney, comedians, Herschel Henlere, billed as the mad musician, and a forerunner of Ken Dodd, with long hair and staring eyes, only he played a variety of musical instruments.  Teddy Brown, the overweight xylophonist, a sort of American Robbie Coltrane, who displayed amazing agility for one of his bulk as he trotted up and down alongside his instrument.  

Outstanding among the turns I remember from this period were the sand dancers, Wilson Keppel and Betty, who never failed to bring the house down as they say.  More Egyptian-looking that the Egyptians, this Lancastrian duo, and their later to become Birmingham barmaid, stand out in my memory.

Always top of the bill when they appeared were Panzers Midgets and Borrah Minnevitch and his Harmonica Rascals, two crazy outfits for whom increased admission charges were demanded because of their numbers, and paid quite cheerfully because they were worth it.  I also remember the great Harry Tate with his motoring sketch, Billy Bennett, almost a gentleman, and the star of the film Hear My Song, I can’t remember his name, now I’ve got it, Joseph Locke!  When I was a bit younger I remember hearing Will Fyffe, the Scottish comedian with his song, the Old Scotch Engineer, on my Dad’s wind-up gramophone.

When I was a teenager and started work at Torquay, my Dad occasionally took me to the Palace Theatre in Plymouth, which was a first-run house, in other words one of the theatres where the top acts appeared.  This had been owned by Tom Hyle, a Lancashire cotton magnate, who retired to Devon.  When he died his window decided to continue running the theatre.  Mrs Hoyle lived in a large house on the seafront between Torquay and Paignton and my Dad, now manager of the Empire Cinema at Torquay, was one of a number of old friends who helped her run the theatre.

The Palace Theatre, Plymouth

I can remember the great Scottish comedian, Sir Harry Lauder topping the bill at the Palace.  Always greatly alive to the value of publicity, Sir Harry rode through the streets of Plymouth in an open carriage, almost a Royal procession.  I have vivid memories of attending a band call at the Palace and being allowed to sit in the stalls while my dad was in conference with the bosses. 

A Palace Theatre Programme

Band calls were held at 10 a.m. every Monday morning and were really the only rehearsal the shows got.  They were often the subject of bitter recriminations between the harassed band leader and a miscellaneous bunch of speciality acts ranging from jugglers, acrobats, trapeze artistes, and comedians , many of whom were suffering from hangovers, and often produced a sheaf of dog-eared manuscripts which they described as band parts for musical accompaniment.  All this had to be knocked into shape before the two evening performances.  I was absolutely fascinated by the whole scene.

I remember going to a more down-market theatre, I think it was called the Alhambra, in the neighbouring town of Devonport, home of the huge naval dockyard.  Needless to say most of the audience were sailors in various stages of inebriation.  They were a very difficult audience and not slow to show their displeasure if, for instance, a male singer came on.  What they wanted was scantily clad female acts and blue jokes, and if they didn’t get them their reaction in boos and catcalls was deafening.  It was not unknown for the stage manager to give orders for the Hook, an outsize implement, to be produced from the wings and whisk the unfortunate singer off the stage!

When I was 12 my Dad took me too London for a weekend and the highlight of my visit was the Coliseum, now the home of English National Opera, but then a variety house.  This was in 1929 and the theatre had only recently been built by the impresario, Sir Oswald Stoll.   It had a revolving stage, the first in London, and an illuminated globe on the top of the building.  I think the top of the bill was Will Hay, the eccentric comedian.”