ROGER REMEMBERS –
It was all of 60 years ago. Sometimes it seems a world away; yet at others it seems like only yesterday. I was in London for a whole year, studying for a diploma and doing research which involved travelling round the city – and getting paid for it. Lots of calls on your time, but I made Saturday nights mine, and sometimes there were other nights too. Now and then I went into the West End with colleagues and friends, but Max Miller was much more to my taste than “Waiting For Godot”. This (1955-6) was the time when Variety Theatres were dropping like flies. Public tastes had changed, and T.V. was taking its toll. So I set myself the goal of visiting every one of these places during my time in the city- Chelsea Palace and the Chiswick Empire, a well set up place, I’d been to on earlier visits to London. The nearest place to where I was living was Collins Music Hall in Islington, and there was usually something of interest there. Old-timers, new acts trying out stuff, artistes wanting a come back, and frequently a lot of absolute rubbish. Good fun. Not far away was Finsbury Park Empire, a very large place, Moss Empire’s flagship theatre in the suburbs. First class bills, and if one went to the first house at Collins it was possible to double it with the second one at Finsbury Park. I once did this and arrived there to find it sold out. The lady in the box office found a ticket which had been returned. Front stalls, second row, in the centre. “Did I want it?” “Yes please” I sat down, glad to be there, and took no notice of anyone else. In the interval the orchestra leader, Sydney Caplan, came out with a large bouquet which he presented to the lady sitting next to me. I had a quick peep – it was Gracie Fields ! I was only a young feller and hardly dare look again, but that’s just about my only claim to fame, sitting next to “Our Gracie”. Top of the bill there were The Deep River Boys, an excellent outfit.
It seemed to me that the friendliest theatre, with the best atmosphere, was the Metropolitan, in Edgware Road, and the Circle Bar had a large glass window which gave a view of he stage. Regrettably the place was pulled down for a road widening scheme which never took place. The Hippodrome in Golders Green, very well kept, wasn’t really a Variety Hall, though it had all sorts of shows. The night I was there it was “The Jazz Train”, a sort of revue with all black artistes, very spectacular. That night it was like a giant family party, a lot of Jewish families greeting each other, and much hand shaking going on before the show began.
Brixton Empress was a large, attractive looking place, modernised in 1931. Saw Syd & Max Harrison there – just as lively and popular there as they were in the North. The business at Hackney Empire was very poor when I visited in late 1955, so it was no surprise that it closed, to become a television studio the following February. I got to the last performance, Old Time Music Hall with G.H. Eliott, Morris & Cowley, Dawn White & the Glamazons, Tod Slaughter & Co, etc, etc. The whole thing was great, but went on so long I missed the last bus and had to walk quite a long way over icy pavements to the nearest tube station. Of course it became a T.V. studio, but has been rescued and is thriving as an active theatre again. One which wasn’t so lucky was Camberwell Palace. I managed to get there on the very last night, but there was no celebration. It had been running a 4 week season of Barry Piddock’s “French Design”, one of those so-called “saucy” revues. Barrry Piddock was quite a good producer, but usually a bit short of money. The theatre itself looked as if it had been a very nice place indeed, but had become shabby and run down.
So, just one to go, the Queens Theatre in Poplar, and I took myself off into the East End one Saturday, only to discover that the place had closed its doors the previous week. It was shuttered up, though the posters were still up outside. Ah well, you can’t win ‘em all.