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By Derek Mathieson

In the early hours of the 29th November 1970 Variety came to an end in the Highland Capital of Inverness. It should have finished on the 28th but the second house was late in starting due to the crowds attending, and it was after midnight before everything came to an end. This is the story of the rise and fall of the ‘Empire Theatre’ the most northernly variety theatre in Britain. Having worked there I was invited back for the final night, and took a very basic camera with me, and I believe the photographs which are shown here, were the only ones taken on the final night, apart from one press photograph.


The building started life as the Central Hall Picture House in 1912 and live theatre was staged at the old Theatre Royal in Bank Street. However, after the Theatre Royal was destroyed by fire on the 17th March 1931, Will Fyffe's revue, which had been on at the Royal that night, was transferred to the Central Hall Picture House. The cinema continued to present shows on and off and in 1934 the owners Caledonian Associated Cinemas Ltd (CAC) enlarged the stage adding a fly tower and additional dressing rooms, and the building became The Empire Theatre, with the opening show starring Sir Harry Lauder.


The Empire was never going to compete with the elegance of the Alhambra Glasgow, or the Kings Edinburgh, and had very little in the way of ornate plaster work, apart from the plasterwork on the front of the balcony, the building was very plain, seating 1,100 patrons. There were no crystal chandeliers, no grand staircases, and no boxes, and the foyer was tiny. Essentially it was designed as a cinema with a 28-foot proscenium stage. 


The lease of the theatre was held for many years by G B Bowie of Glasgow, and in 1951 John Worth arrived to produce a show and ended up as manager for G B Bowie only supposedly for a short term, but he loved the town so much that he never left! These were the days pre television when packed houses were not uncommon and long summer shows were staged to cater for the ever-increasing tourists visiting the town. But there were never any shows on a Sunday, due to the influence and opposition of the local churches. In fact, there was actually no entertainment for any tourists on a Sunday in the town apart from bars! One particular show that pulled in the crowds was Robert Wilson and his White.


Heather Group and favourite Will Star, who did many seasons at The Empire, and it was Robert who first gave the local singer Leslie Robertson his big break. Other seasons included a young Andy Stewart, in the Andy Stewart Show, The Patrick O’Hagan Show, ‘Come to the Show’ starring Donald Peers, ‘Song of Scotland’ with Teresa Duffy and a young Alasdair Gillies, Singer Kenneth McKellar did his first summer show at the Empire, and his wife Hedy used to sit nervously in the wings knitting, while he was on stage. and many more including the legendry Bridie Gallagher, who could also fill the theatre any night. John Worth also co-wrote and presented ‘This is Scotland’ with David Webster of Oban, which ran weekly one summer. In later years these would be replaced by the Gaelic stars more of which we will read about later.


John Worth, was born in Nottingham and his brother Claude was at one time manager of the Tivoli Theatre, in Aberdeen. He also had another brother who was in the theatre business called Jack Worth, but I have been unable to find out anything about him. Latterly, when the theatre was temporarily closed in winter, John would motor south to England and take up the position of musical director of a pantomime, before returning to Inverness for the start of the new season. He also acted as a Theatrical Agent to many stars including the Corrie Folk Trio with Paddy Bell, later to become The Corries. Isla St Clair was also often seen at the Empire on folk evenings, long before she appeared on the Generation Game.


John recalled that during one of the summer seasons a catastrophe nearly prevented opening night. It was the Friday morning of the opening of the Summer Show and a large waterfall had been built 12 feet high, for a spectacular finale. The orchestra pit had an orchestra of 12 musicians in those days and fortunately it was empty at the time. The water was switched on to try the effect and immediately came gushing out very quickly flooding the stage and the orchestra pit, fusing the footlights, and soaking all of the music some of which had been specially written for the show. As musical director for the show, he had the job of rewriting the music which he only completed minutes before curtain up on opening night.  We all know how Ken Dodd liked to give value for money and overrun with his shows, but did you know that Andy Stewart was equally as bad. One Saturday evening a young Andy was on stage it was 8.35pm and the second house was due to go up at 8.45pm, and Andy was ignoring frantic signals from the stage manager and continued to sing. In the end the tabs were closed, but he stepped forward through them and started signing again. John Worth was conducting the orchestra and at the end of Andy’s song they went straight into the National Anthem. It was the only way to get him off stage! During Pete Martin’s show one scene had a donkey on stage, which was stabled at the Bught Park about a mile from the theatre and was walked to the theatre every evening. Pete started singing ‘’Now is the Hour’ and right on cue the donkey left it’s trademark on the stage floor! The audience were in stitches, not so the stage staff!

Did you know?

Sir Noel Coward played the Empire

H M Tennant Ltd staged Plays at the Empire.

Val Doonican appeared there as a member of the Four Ramblers.


In 1961 on a Saturday evening, three young unknown Irish lads were a supporting act on the bill at the Empire, and were to go on to appear the following night on Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Later they were to top the bill at the Palladium and star in ‘Five Past Eight’ at the Alhambra Theatre, Glasgow, they were ‘The Bachelors’.


The Late Jack Alexander (of the Alexander Brothers) made his debut on the Inverness stage as a member of an Army Band (Cameron Highlanders)

Syncopating Sandy, (Sandy Strickland from Bolton), started a piano marathon at 10am on a Monday and played non-stop right through until 11.15pm on the Saturday of the same week, which was a world record.


John Worth was hauled before the licensing magistrates when he put on a Nude show at the Theatre, eventually after removing publicity shots from the front of the building the show was allowed to go on. On 31st December 1962 Robert Wilson and the Dale sisters toasted the Golden Jubilee of the Empire in Milk! 

The 1960’s saw the rise of the Pop scene and one Saturday evening, singer Graham Nash of the Hollies, had to be pulled back from the front of the stage as the 2-ton steel Safety Curtain had to be lowered because fans were rushing the stage and the orchestra pit had collapsed.  These were the days of the pop shows with Sound Incorporated, Due D’Monde and the Baron Knights, Eden Kane, The Checkmates, The Dave Clark Five, and some less known Jackie Dennis and Terry Dene, many presented in partnership with Albert Bonici the Elgin Night Club proprietor of the Two Red Shoes Ballroom.  Inverness Amenities Association also staged pop concerts for local talent, and I can remember the groups arriving with lots of homemade adaptor plugs and homemade electrics and cables, which blew their fuses regularly while they were on stage with their large and many amplifiers.


Wrestling was also presented monthly on Tuesday Wednesday or Thursday evenings, and always a microphone was put under the ring to amplify the sounds. All the wrestlers used to arrive in one bus from Leeds, despite showing huge aggression in the ring, they were generally a very friendly bunch of guys. It was nearly always sold out. A Ring was erected on the stage with seating for over 180 around it and one woman got so excited she stuck a hat pin in one of the wrestlers she took a dislike to. The footlights took a hammering with so many people on the stage.


One Friday evening a wrestling match was being held, which started at 8pm. The Calum Kennedy Show was doing a midnight matinee at 11.30pm and it was a real scramble to get the stage cleared the audience out and the drapes etc. flown back in for Calum’s show but it all took place and the audience for Calum were none the wiser when he stepped on the stage to ‘Here’s to the Heather’. Talking of the Calum Kennedy Show, one Christmas, Calum decided to bring his show to the Empire for a few nights with guest Lex MacLean and Margo Bentley. Willie Aird, (Stage Manager) his brother Teddy, and I went in to prepare the stage, and found the drapes were hanging six feet above the stage surface. There had been no heating on and the damp had caused the hemp ropes to shrink. Once the heating was going everything returned to normal within a couple of days.


The Annual Gaelic Mod also featured at the Empire, and the building was equipped with land lines to enable radio broadcasts to be done from the building, before the advent of television, these were still in place at the end of the building’s life..., along with the Western Electric Sound System from the Cinema Days. When Television arrived, the Mod moved to the larger capacity Playhouse Cinema (also a CAC house) further up Academy Street. In later years the Playhouse was always the choice of Any Stewart because of it’s larger 45ft Proscenium stage and extra 300 seats.


Gaelic was of course very popular in Inverness, and two stars in particular could fill the building to capacity any night of the week they were of course Calum Kennedy together with his wife Anne Gillies and sometimes his family, and Alasdair Gillies. Latterly their shows were mostly presented at weekends on Friday and Saturday evenings, with a Midnight Matinee at 11.30pm on a Friday evening. I can’t remember their full names but a regular couple of Mother and daughter, the daughter, whom I recall was called Nellie, they were both up in years, would travel the long distance from their home in the countryside by bus to be on the front row of every show in which Calum or Alasdair were appearing on a Saturday night. They used to have some tea at Dorando’s café near the theatre before coming to see the show, I got the impression this was a real treat for these delightful two ladies. Nellie had the most wonderful rosy cheeks I can remember.  And so, to the final days:


It was billed as ‘A Festival of Final Shows’ and what a festival it was, Andy Stewart took his show in on the Thursday evening, The Friday evening saw The Lex McLean Show, and then on the Saturday -The Finale, the cast included The Corries, Bill McCue, Ronnie Coburn (the host), Will Starr, Johnny Bogan the local Muir of Ord comedian, and a host of local amateur singers, drama groups, dancers and musicians and The Calumdon Pipe Band. Will Starr played a special piece of music ‘Snowy Breasted Pearl’ for Mrs. Margaret MacKenzie 65,(‘Mrs Mac’) the landlady whom he stayed with every time he visited Inverness, her husband ‘Slipper Mackenzie’ used to be the doorman at the Theatre. She was also the John Worth’s landlady. Local dance teacher Margaret Firth (a great colleague of John Worth), surprised everyone by coming on towards the end, and doing a dance, John Worth’s face was a picture. The orchestra kept this from John Worth as a surprise.


Some of her dancers, came on with picks doing a dance to symbolize the demolishing of the Empire. As the end of the 2nd house approached, and the cast were starting to assemble on stage, one by one starting with the Cyclorama, everything including drapes, and pelmets was flown out into the fly tower, and the stage was left with only the total company and bare walls and the overhead lighting. Ronnie Coburn invited all the staff on stage to take a bow, from the cleaners, box office staff, usherettes, stage hands nobody was left out.


There were many tears shed everybody including the audience joined hands and sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and then John Worth came on stage, to rousing applause. Inverness’s Mister Showbusiness was given a real generous thank you by all present. He was very highly thought of in Inverness, and was to continue to present shows at the Cummings Hotel called ‘Scottish Showtime’ for visitors for many years after the Empire Closed. He also was musical director for pantomimes at the new Eden Court Theatre for several years prior to his death.  One patron who came on stage as the audience were leaving, summed it up perfectly ‘There were over 2000 people here tonight where were they when the Empire needed them?’


It was nearly 1am by the time the lights were switched off and the doors locked, people were taking away pieces of scenery as souvenirs, but nobody stopped them for there would never be another ‘Empire’ in Inverness. As John Worth said ‘The Theatre will still be there – because it is the people’

Over the years there had been talk of modernising the Empire adding more dressing rooms improving stage facilities but the directors of CAC in their wisdom never carried this out, although they were always pleased to say on publicity that the Empire was a Caledonian Theatre!


Well sadly the building was demolished the following year, and an ugly BT office block appeared in its place. This has since become a budget hotel, and is still as ugly. What were the planners thinking of? As it turned out CAC had a lost opportunity, for in 1972 the Playhouse was devastated by a fire and had to be demolished leaving the only proper building in the town with stage facilities to be the tiny theatre at Faraline Park. It was to be 1976 before the Eden Court Theatre opened.

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