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THE STORY OF A “SHOWBUSINESS”

By Derek Mathieson.

Winter 2021

In 1883 a partnership was formed between Irish born John B Howard and Edinburgh born Frederick W P Wyndham. Two years later in 1885 Michael Simons of Glasgow founded the Company ‘Howard & Wyndham Ltd’

 

The partnership was originally set up to run the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, and the new company now owned The Theatre Royal Glasgow, and with money from Michael Simons went on to purchase the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh and took a lease out on the Royalty Theatre, Glasgow., which was at the corner of Sauchiehall Street and Renfield Street, and later became ‘The Lyric Theatre’. However sadly, only weeks after the company was formed Howard died of a stroke. Another milestone in the company’s history was the building of the Kings Theatre in Bath Street, Glasgow at a cost of £50000, in 1904.

 

 

                                             J B Howard & F W Wyndham                                Michael Simons 

The following year a very significant thing happened at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow.  Harry Lauder was starring in the magical pantomime ‘Aladdin’ and walked on to the stage in full highland dress as Roderick McSwankey!  He sang a song but it was not just the singing of the song that mattered, the audience did not know the words, it was a song that has since echoed and re-echoed around the world, and is still sung today. ’I Love a Lassie’.  Harry Lauder became the toast of Glasgow and very soon was wowing them in the theatres of London. 

 

On 18th August 1906 Andrew Carnegie laid the foundation stone to another important building in the history of H &W.  The Kings Theatre, Edinburgh.  Built by Edinburgh Building Company Limited, the contractor was William Stewart Cruickshank, who had previously built the Kings Theatre in Kirkcaldy.  During construction of the building, the owners ran into financial difficulties and were unable to pay the final costs to the contractor, and other professionals.  The operating rights were transferred to a new Kings Theatre Company, of which Cruickshank was a major shareholder. The manager appointed (and it turned out to be an excellent choice) was Alexander Stewart Cruickshank the son of the contractor, who in the years ahead, was to become a significant person in the world of theatre. The new company tried to sell the theatre to Howard & Wyndham Ltd, but this failed, and the Cruickshank family decided to run the theatre themselves, with A Stewart Cruickshank being appointed managing director in June 1908.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                     

 

                         Kings Theatre Edinburgh                                                Kings Theatre office

 

Opened on 8th December 1906 with the pantomime Cinderella, the theatre became a successful touring theatre and continues to be so to this day.  Under A Stewart Cruickshank, the theatre presented a mixed programme, of drama, musicals, large scale pantomime, revues and opera. Not being part of a larger circuit, the theatre was disadvantaged, and so in 1928 the theatre was sold to Howard & Wyndham Ltd, with A Stewart Cruickshank becoming managing director under the chairman of Ernest Simons. He was later to take over as chairman upon the death of Simons in 1944.  At this time C B Cochran was made a director of the company.  A major expansion of the company was to take place in 1912.  The Robert Arthur Group of provincial Theatres, - Her Majesty’s Dundee, Her Majesty’s Aberdeen (later renamed His Majesty’s), The Theatre Royal, Newcastle, The Royal Court, Liverpool, The Royal Court Nottingham ran into financial difficulties, and under Michael Simons, Howard & Wyndham took over the ownership and leases and running of these theatres.  F W Wyndham continued to run the company productions until his retiral in 1928 upon which he retained his seat on the board of the company for two more years.  The Robert Arthur Group also had two theatres in London but there is no mention of H&W ever taking these over.

 

Howard & Wyndham Ltd, became based at the Kings Theatre, Edinburgh and right is a photograph of their offices.  They were to go on to present some of the best productions available, from drama to   opera, ballet and musicals, and became famous for their Pantomimes for nearly 90 years.  The company also held shares in Moss Empires, London west end theatres, and were the major shareholders in H M Tennent & Company, who specialised in touring shows, at least, one of which even ventured as far north to the Empire Theatre, Inverness!  Over the next few years, the company continued to flourish and became one of the largest independent theatre groups in Britain next to Moss Empires.  In addition, they booked shows, managed theatres and organised tours of productions as well, providing artists with work for a good part of a year.

 

It was customary for city theatres to close for up to two months in the summer, but A Stewart Cruickshank in 1934 came up with the idea of putting on a summer season in Edinburgh similar to a seaside summer show.  And so was born the ‘Half Past Eight Show’.  The show had already been running very successfully, at the Kings in Glasgow, where the comic Jack Edge played to full houses for fourteen weeks. Jack Edge was brought over to Edinburgh, but the show was not very popular and flopped after six weeks.   Charles and Ilona Ross were engaged by  H & W to produce  their winter pantomimes and after much persuasion, Cruickshank gave in and let him produce the summer show again for a period of four weeks. They could not find a big star to head the company, but eventually an unknown comic was engaged called Dave Willis.

 

The ‘Half Past Eight Show’ opened on 31 May 1937 and was billed as a light revue of song, dance and laughter, the cast including Cliff Harley, Florence Hunter and the Charles Ross Girls. Business was slow to begin with but by the time it reached week four, it was standing room only. The programme changed every week with big opening and finale numbers and Dave Willis appeared throughout the show working very hard.  By 1941 the season had ran for twenty-eight weeks. Dave Willis moved over to the Kings in Glasgow and Harry Gordon (Aberdeen’s ‘Laird of Inversnecky’) took over, with other Scottish stars, Stanley Baxter, Jimmy Logan and Rikki Fulton to follow in later years.

 

 In 1949 A Stewart Cruickshank died as a result of a road accident, aged 72, and the running of the company was transferred to Stewart Cruickshank Junior his son known by the staff affectionally as ‘Cruikie’. This change also saw the opening of offices in London and the wardrobe department also moved there.  The production facilities under the direction of the very talented Reg Allen remained at Roseburn in Edinburgh.

 

In 1957 Roy Thomson the Canadian Newspaper magnet was starting up the Scottish Television franchise to serve central Scotland and required studios in Glasgow. A deal was done to sell the Theatre Royal to STV, with Howard & Wyndham becoming major shareholders in the franchise. The stage of the Theatre Royal became STV’s Studio A, and fortunately no major structural changes were made to the building that could not be reversed.

 

H & W required a new theatre to replace the Theatre Royal, and so immediately purchased the Alhambra Theatre in Waterloo Street, Glasgow, the best equipped theatre in Britain outside of London. The Half Past Eight Shows from the Theatre Royal transferred to the Waterloo Street House, and in 1961 the stage was doubled in size to accommodate the ‘Starlight Room’ for the new ‘Five Past Eight Show’.  The Starlight Room was modelled on cabaret spots around the world it had a glass floor at the front with staircases rising from the stage up to the boxes.  The orchestra was situated above the stage on a circular gantry, which could be raised and lowered.  H & W engaged a new producer for the Five Past Eight Shows, called Dick Hurran. He was very talented and innovative with wonderful (if expensive) ideas, and vast amounts of money were laid out on production costs, as well as artist’s fees. He would visit Las Vegas and in Britain outside of London. The Half Past Eight Showsfrom the Theatre Royal transferred to the Waterloo Street House, and in 1961 the stage was doubled in size to accommodate the ‘Starlight Room’ for the new ‘Five Past Eight Show’.  The Starlight Room was modelled on cabaret spots around the world it had a glass floor at the front with staircases rising from the stage up to the boxes.  The orchestra was situated above the stage on a circular gantry, which could be raised and lowered.  H & W engaged a new producer for the Five Past Eight Shows, called Dick Hurran. He was very talented and innovative with wonderful (if expensive) ideas, and vast amounts of money were laid out on production costs, as well as artist’s fees. He would visit Las Vegas and Paris scouting for talent for inclusion in the show, and the shows were spectacular and also spectacularly expensive to stage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                     Max Bygraves with the John Tiller Girls in 1966

Moving staircases and a swimming pool were even used on the stage. Eventually he brought in too many headliners from outside Scotland and that along with escalating costs of production, was partly responsible for the downfall of the Five Past Eight Show. Some stars were demanding fees of up to £8000 per week. One of the biggest flops was Bruce Forsyth, playing to an average audience of 300 per night, while the likes of Stanley Baxter, Jimmy Logan, Rikki Fulton and Jack Milroy, could have audiences with standing room only!  Stanley Baxter was quoted however as saying that he did not like the Starlight Room set at all as it was too restricting for a comedian.  Having starred for H & W for many years as a headliner in revues and pantomimes, when he had a meeting with Stewart Cruickshank to inform him of his plans to try his luck in London, Cruickshank’s reply was ‘Well I can’t promise you any work if you return and it does not work out’. As Stanley said ‘Not a very nice gesture!’ But as we all know return, he did, as a bigger star than before!

 

 

 

 

                                               Stanley Baxter                                            Freddie Carpenter

It was for Pantomime that H & W were also remembered, with a reputation next to none for the quality of their productions.  In 1947 a young Australian dancer by the name of Freddie Carpenter, produced his first H & W pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk at the Royal Court in Liverpool, and so began his association with the company over many years, eventually being promoted to head of pantomime production.  I interviewed Freddie in 1985 at his home in London, and he told me all about his association with the company, and in particular the staging of the ‘Jamie’ Pantos which were the saving grace of the company back in 1960’s.  Freddie was fed up doing all the usual pantos and came up with the idea of producing a ‘Scottish Pantomime’ And so was born ‘A Wish for Jamie’ which he co-wrote with John Laws. He also brought in top London designer Berkley Sutcliffe to design the sets and costumes.  The budget for the show was £50,000. There would be no fairy in tulle and sequence, instead there was to be a ‘wee Scottish biddy’ called ’Aggie Goose’ who made her entrance on a bicycle down the aisle of the theatre.  Her catch phrase was ‘I’m a right wee devil’.  She had no wand but instead carried an umbrella with a light on the end of the point. 

 

Betty Cardno played Aggie Goose, along with Marillyn Gray, and others. Betty told me years later while playing in ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ at Darlington Hippodrome, that she was terrified on her first meeting with Freddie – he walked down the main staircase in the H & W London offices to welcome her for her audition, and was a very formidable man she said. He also had a reputation for picking on a member of the cast and bringing them to tears in front of the whole company!

                                                                     Betty Cardno as Aggie

On the evening of the final dress rehearsal Stewart Cruickshank said to Freddie, that he had better pack his bags and get out of town as he would be slated by the audience. However, on the opening night, the audience, got all the jokes, applauded in all the right places, and absolutely loved the show, giving the cast a standing ovation!  Later that evening ‘Yana’ rang Freddie to congratulate him on his big success!  At supper in the Central Hotel after the show, Cruickshank had to eat his words.  Technically the panto was huge with twenty-three scenes in all, and even today I can sometimes recognise parts of the scenery in other shows.  The barn scene was pictured on a cover of a Calum Kennedy Show photographed at the Kings in Glasgow. The show played to packed houses, there were queues around the block for tickets, and it was only because the show ‘On the Bright Side’ had been booked in at the Alhambra, starring Stanley Baxter, that the panto’s run had to come to an end Rikki Fulton was not best pleased!  It was brought back the following year at the Alhambra to great acclaim.

 

Around this time, the company had become involved in film and television production not very successfully, and was being drained of money as a result. However, ‘A Wish for Jamie’ at the Alhambra, starring originally Rikki Fulton as ‘Lizzie’, Fay Lenore as the Principle Boy and Kenneth McKellar as Jamie was to be an absolute money earner for the company helping it stabilise the company’s finances. Two other Scottish Pantomimes were to follow in later years which were just as successful. ‘A Love for Jamie’ and ‘The World of Jamie’  The Jamie Pantos went on to play Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee (not for H & W) and The Theatre Royal Newcastle.  A Revival of A Wish for Jamie took place at the Pavilion Theatre Glasgow several years ago, being staged by Jamie Philips of Trends Management (a great theatrical guy sadly no longer with us) and Dougie Squires.

 

But if we are talking of Pantomime, we have to acknowledge the best dame of them all…Scotland’s own Stanley Baxter!  His first H & W panto was Cinderella in 1953 at the Theatre Royal, in Glasgow where he played Buttons. Later One of his great successes was when he played an ugly sister opposite Ronnie Corbett in Cinderella with Lonnie Donegan playing buttons.  Their costumes were outrageous as you can see from the photo here.

 

 

                                                  Stanley Baxter an Ronnie Corbett in Pantomime

Later he revived the role with Angus Lennie playing the other ugly sister at the Kings in Glasgow and also Kings Edinburgh to great acclaim. 

  

Money was again strained in the 1960’s and so a bombshell announcement was made. Peter Donald who was now chairman of the company, following the death of Stewart Cruickshank released the news to the press, that the Alhambra was to be sold.  It was offered to Glasgow Corporation but they were not interested and it was placed on the open market.  The best equipped theatre in Britain outside of London was sold for £400,000 to a developer and eventually replaced by a hideous office block called Alhambra House, which has since been replaced again. 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                              The Alhambra Theatre, Glasgow

On 22 June 1966 the Annual General Meeting of Howard & Wyndham Limited took place in Edinburgh attended by twenty shareholders.  Peter Donald the current chairman of the Company, and certainly not with the foresight of Stewart Cruickshank, announced that the Company was to offer its theatres in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Manchester and Liverpool to the respective City Councils for about £300,000 each. He told the shareholders that the Company would be prepared to run the theatres for the various city corporations, for a period of six or seven months per year for the next three years.  The buy and hire plan was being offered as an alternative to the proposal already made to the corporations that they provide a subsidy of £50,000 per year for three years for the presentation of classical and experimental plays, music and personal appearances of ‘star’ artists. 

                                                                    The Demolition High Kick 

The owners of  H M Theatre Aberdeen (the Donald Family Dynasty of which Peter Donald was a member) were extremely worried as they could see Edinburgh and Glasgow without a large touring theatre, and this would affect the viability of H M Theatre, because nobody would want to tour that far north. If the corporations of  Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Newcastle, refuse to bear any of Howard and Wyndham’s financial burden of keeping their theatres open and if the Arts Council a national body, cannot see their way to come to the rescue of a commercial problem, then it would almost certainly mean that the Aberdeen theatre which is privately owned would have to close. 

Under the terms of the three- year agreement proposed by Howard & Wyndham the corporations would be given a guarantee of a profit of between £60 and £80 per week (yes, these figures are correct!) during the seven months from September to March that Howard and Wyndham had the tenancy of the theatres. For the remaining five months of the year the theatres would be available for amateur productions and so on.  Mr Donald’s announcement follows a statement sent out some time ago to shareholders telling them that the company intended asking for planning permission to redevelop their six provincial theatres. The civic heads of all the cities concerned were sent out a memorandum on the subsidy proposals and would now be sent details of the buy-and-hire plan which was agreed upon at a meeting of Directors of the Company in Edinburgh.

 

Mr Donald stated that he hoped to arrange meetings with Edinburgh’s Lord Provost Herbert Brechin who was also chairman of Edinburgh Festival Society to discuss the new proposal. He had also arranged a meeting with the Lord Provost of Glasgow for later in the day, and hopes to arrange meetings with other civic heads probably within the next month.  Mr Donald conceded that the local authorities were bound to lose on the deal.  But they had to set beside this the need to maintain theatres in their community.  In presenting the Company’s annual report, Mr Donald said they had lost £10000 in the year to 31 December 1965.  For the current year the figures were much better due to the success of the ‘Five Past Eight’ Shows, and it looked as if there would be continued improvement. Referring to his meeting in London recently with the chairman of the Arts Council, he had arranged a further meeting to discuss his proposals.

 

Later it was announced that the Company’s King’s Theatres, in Edinburgh and Glasgow were sold to their respective City Corporations, along with the Theatre Royal in Newcastle.  The Theatre Royal, which had very poor space in the wings, has since been extended and had two multi-million-pound upgrades.  The Opera House in Manchester closed in 1979 and was a bingo hall for five years.  It was acquired by the Palace Theatre Trust in 1984 and returned to theatrical use.  In 1990 it was acquired by Apollo Leisure and today is part of the Ambassadors Theatre Group. The Royal Court in Liverpool has had a very chequered history, and Peter Donald at one time threatened to strip out the seating and make it a warehouse for the storeage of scenery, having been turned down by the City Corporation after offering them the lease.  

 

The Royal Court became a National Portfolio Organisation and has been receiving Arts Council funding since 2018. It is unusual in that the stalls are now set out as a ‘cabaret setting’ with tables and chairs at which the audience can dine, and there is a bar at the rear of the stalls. The circle and Upper Circle remain seated, and the capacity has now reduced to 1186.  It is also now a Grade II listed building and an active theatre, and producing a lot of local type comedies.  It has also been a venue for rock concerts in the past.  But that is not the end of the story it transpires that in 1982 the company was still in existence  providing shows such as the one referred to in this letter from Ralph A Fields referring to a show at the New Theatre Oxford in 1972.  I cannot find any records of when the Company purchased this venue or why having disposed of its previous theatres! R A Fields signs himself as the managing director.  In 1985 the Company had offices at Beauchamp Place in Knightsbridge in London, and I had a meeting with Elliot Beaumont and his secretary and was given access to the company’s individual press books for their theatres, which I have to say was fascinating.  At the time they were in storeage at a depository near Victoria Station and covered with dust.  However, I did manage to retrieve the negatives of the Jamie stills you see in this article and have them printed.

 

The company shareholding came under American control, and eventually was no longer a trading company.  Ironically the Name of Howard & Wyndham Limited’ is listed again, although it is a non-trading company.

 

For over 90 years Howard & Wyndham were one of the most respected theatre owners in Britain, with a reputation for quality and spectacular productions.  The press books I referred to earlier are now part of the H & W Theatre Collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London……WHY NOT in SCOTLAND???

 

As a final footnote, I was given a copy of a manuscript to read in 1985 called ‘A Showbusiness’ which had been researched and written by Gordon Irving who was a great friend of our Society.  The manuscript was never published, and I presume that it now resides along with the press books in the V&A in London.  What a great pity it never made it into print it was fascinating to read.

Howard and Wyndham
Howard and Wyndham
Kings Theatre Edinburgh
Kings Theatre Edinburgh
Glasgow Alhambra Theatre
Stanley Baxter
Freddie Carpenter
A Wish For Jamie
Stanley Baxter
Alhambra Theatre Glasgow Variety Collection
Alhambra Theatre Glasgow Variety Collection
Scottish Music Hall Society
Scottish Music Hall Society
Scottish Music Hall Society

Issue 133, Summer 2021 

Scottish Music Hall Society

THE PALACE THEATRE, DUNDEE By Derek Mathieson

Scottish Music Hall Society

The Palace Theatre opened in January 1893 the proprietors of the building describing themselves as ‘pioneers of refinement’. The cheapest seats were 3d in old money and doors were opened at 7pm but you could enter from 6pm onwards by paying an additional 3d to get the pick of the seats.  The Theatre was built on the site of an old circus behind the Queen’s Hotel. It was described as ‘The Theatre for Comfort, Refinement and Respectability’.

Scottish Music Hall Society
Palace Theatre Dundee

The opening top of the bill went to Bessie Arthur a singer, and she was followed by The Dillions described as ‘The Greatest Flying Wonders of the present day’ In October 1938 after a spell of ‘Talkies’ it was announced that the Palace would return to be a house of variety. For the reopening a tiny box office was replaced by a spacious wood panelled vestibule. There were new more spacious dressing rooms, together with new electrical and heating systems, and it was decorated in a shade of orange.

The comedian for the opening show was Joe Termini. The illusionist Navarre was also on the bill. The Glasgow impresario Horace Collins, became the theatre’s managing director and the choice of manager went to Leo Lion who was a nephew of Vesta Tilley the music hall artist. A rift was to develop between Mr Lion and the stage manager Matt Brown, was banned from the theatre’s bar and also from using the pass door into the auditorium. The rift was soon healed and they both learned to respect each other.

 

However, Dundee’s theatre enthusiasm was fickle and before the wonderful summer of 1939 the Palace was forced to close. It needed a war to restore it to health! By September, the theatre was back in business, and Florrie Forde came to Dundee to help with morale. When she appeared for her first rehearsal, she realised that she had met Matt Brown before at a venue on the Isle of Man. She was a brilliant professional. Such was her attention to detail, that a clean new hankie had to be on hand each time she went on stage – including for encores. On the Saturday morning the last day of her visit, she assembled all the stage crew on stage and gave them all a tip, half a crown to the prop’s boy and £1 for Matt the stage manager. When she discovered that her dressing room had no mirror there were no hysterics, she just sent someone out to buy one with her own money. On hearing that two of the dancers found themselves without any money to pay their digs, it was Florrie who paid for them. Before leaving for her next appearance in Aberdeen she gave the mirror to Matt as a keepsake. The parting gift was to assume a tragic significance, as two weeks later she died in her dressing room at the Tivoli Theatre in Aberdeen.

 

The continued wartime enthusiasm prolonged the Palace boom, and with income regularly exceeding expenditure Horace Collins had plans that might have extended the life of the theatre well beyond the television and bingo era. He wanted to enlarge the backstage space, and have new dressing rooms and his dream was that the theatre could be equal to the best in the land and accept London musicals and operatic tours. Ironically when the finances permitted such renovations, all building materials were strictly on ration, and Music Halls weren’t classed as wartime essentials.  

Photographs are Top L to R Jerry Desmond, Alec Finlay, Dave Willis and Dennis Clancy.  Bottom LtoR Jack Radcliffe, Margo Henderson and          Sam Kemp, Palace programme and after the fire.

From the air base at Leuchars, came a young man by the name of Jerry Desmonde. His normal business was dancing and he’s never spoken a line on stage. Manager Leo Lion liked his appearance and offered him ten pounds a week as compere. The first show at the Palace was a nightmare for him, and he ended up using Matt Brown’s gag book. They were all Matt’s jokes he cracked for his debut. And one man who laughed was the show’s comedian the legendary Sid Field. Sid was paid £300 a week but with Dundonians his act was a flop!

 

Before the war was over Sid Field was packing crowds in at London’s Prince of Wales Theatre. The song of the show got itself built into the history of the war…..’We’re going to get lit up when the lights go on again in London’ By now his success was something to share and he now had a straight man whom he first met at the Palace Theatre in Dundee, the airman dancer called Jerry Desmonde. In 1958 a new face appeared at the Palace; he was Gordon Reid who was theatre mad. He must have been as audience numbers were dwindling and TV sets were taking over living rooms throughout the country. He organised the theatre’s complete redecoration and assembled a staff with dedication similar to his own. He became the theatre’s mine host, a courteous kilted front- of -house figure who restored to the hall a feeling of friendliness.  His first show was headed by Alec Finlay (Photo right) running for two weeks and as he said ‘At least the Palace was going to be clean!’ In November of the same year a young comedian turned up by the name of Jack Milroy! Nobody paid a great deal of attention, and Francie and Josie had yet to be born. In the company was a singing group called ‘The Four Ramblers’ They wore immaculate grey suits and dark bow ties, and no polo neck jerseys. But one of the four was later to go on to greater things and be a big star both on TV and at the London Palladium - Val Doonican!

 

Thirty years before he became a minor national idol, Donald Peers was singing about his ‘babbling brook’ at the Broadway Theatre Arthurstone Terrace in Dundee, and he wasn’t even top of the bill! Dorothy Squires came to the Palace with her own accompanist. He was probably the most dedicated artiste the stage had known, practising every morning and afternoon before the show. When the shows went on in the evening the pianist was hardly scarcely noticed, his name was Russ Conway! Ted and Barbara Andrews came to the Palace with their small daughter who danced in their act. Years later she was to become the international star Julie Andrews. A young Johnny Beattie played the first summer season at the Palace, his comic stooge being Alice Dale who just happened to be the sister of Stanley Baxter. In 1959 Johnny Victory brought his show in the following June and he was still there eighteen weeks later which turned out to be a spectacular summer for Gordon Reid. In one week the show was seen by 12,000 people a thousand more than the record breaking season with Robert Wilson at the Palace.

 

It could be tough at the Palace, and in came another comedian Dave Willis, a long time past his days of the ‘Wee Gas Mask’ song. The going was getting tough and the Palace was closed for six weeks, but the bill that brought down the curtain was an interesting one. The ill-fated show contained a duo-singing act which a writer described as follows: ‘One of them plays the accordion while the other sings at the piano in a very pleasant but unusual voice. So much for the Alexander Brothers on their first visit to Dundee! By now it was 1960 and the theatre that seemed to be dying became a setting for historic events. A young ‘loon’ from Angus made a lot of people laugh, with straw in his hair and wearing big boots and a bothy waistcoat, Andy Stewart had arrived at the Palace. Matt Brown the stage manager was quoted as saying ‘You really felt that you were in at the birth of a STAR!. Andy was quoted later ‘I was still more or less unknown, The Palace was a tough theatre to fill – I look on it as the turning point in my career’

 

Another notable day was a Sunday in 1951 when Cyril Levis arrived on one of his talent hunts. Among the names on his list of hopefuls was a 27-year-old man. He’d never had a singing lesson in his life - he sang ‘Take me to your heart again’ and heard Levis say I want you back here on Thursday evening. Dennis had made it to the final ten acts. When the spotlight went along the acts lined up on stage, and shone on Dennis the theatre thunderous applause was heard in the auditorium and Dennis Clancy had arrived and won the contest.

 

It was Billy Dunlop, Lex McLean’s producer who gave Dennis Clancy his first pro audition. In an alleyway that leads to the theatre, Billy asked Dennis if he had a pianist. Lex came out of the stage door and Dennis was booked, his first song being ‘Because’ with Lex McLean playing the piano. He went on to work many times at the Palace and most often with Johnny Victory. While on stage one night at the Palace, Dennis blacked out and forgot the words to ‘I’ll take you home again Kathleen’. He filled in with whatever came into his head, nobody knew the difference and the applause was terrific.

 

When Johnny Victory walked on stage, and said ‘That was a new arrangement by Dennis he’s getting it published next week – in The Dandy!’ Dennis added ‘When we toured Canada and America with The Breath of Scotland show, we were on a four-hour flight to Vancouver. He mentioned to Johnny that they should have a song with that title. By the time we had touched down he’s written Breath of Scotland a great little number words and music complete’

 

A popular visitor to the Palace Theatre was the legendary Jack Radcliffe. He was in for a season when Matt the stage manager had to have an operation. Every day Jack asked how he was doing. It was Jack the star who volunteered to drive Matt home from hospital. He even helped to carry him upstairs to his flat, and stayed around to see him comfortably tucked up in bed. “That’s three weeks I have been without you” he said to Matt, “Hurry up and make it.” They shook hands and Matt found a Five-pound note in his palm. That was typical Radcliffe. He was one of our greatest character men. His character was one of the greatest An old pal of his Robert Wilson used to sing the song ‘If I can help somebody’ Jack made it a lifetime’s theme song. It was Jack Radcliffe who topped the bill during the war when bombs went off in Rosefield Street, Dundee. He went through the first house performance and wanted to do the second house, but the management decided against it.

 

He once asked Matt Brown to be his guest at the ‘Five Past Eight Show’ at the Alhambra Glasgow. During the show the script had a bedroom scene, with the grand old trouper Helen Norman. When it came to the bit where he had to remove his trousers, he put in a line saying “I got these long johns from Matt Brown in Dundee” Tommy Morgan was the first comedian to have a finale with a full Scottish pipe band and drums. …….Matt Hated it.  Dave Willis, Alec Finlay, Jack Anthony, and Harry Gordon were all at the peak of their career when they were at the Palace. Most of them were from central Scotland, but Harry Gordon (the laird of Inversnecky) was an Aberdonian who played legendary shows at the city’s Beach Pavilion every summer for many years. Harry Gordon wrote all his own material and would have been aghast at the comics of today pinching each other’s material. He had a nightly joke with Matt, “What’s the house like tonight” Matt’s reply of something like “There were six empty seats on the left hand side of the hall”. “I’m not going on until they are filled” replied Harry.

 

The only time Max Bygraves appeared at the Palace he was relatively unknown, that all he got was a front-of-cloth spot while a scene was being changed. When Margo Henderson used to play the Palace, her husband Sam Kemp was in on the act as a player of all kinds of instruments including bagpipes. One Sunday he drove his wife to a concert in Llandudno. It paid off as in the audience that night was several big-time agents and they liked the act. Margo was signed up and became part of the famous Black and White Minstrel Show on Television. Was it the end of the road for the Palace? In 1965 Calum Kennedy headed a company called ‘Grampian Theatres’ who bought the Palace, and also the Tivoli in Aberdeen. He brought some big names to the Theatre, Tony Hancock, Norman Vaughan, Michael Miles, Anne Shelton, Hughie Green, all of whom were a flop at the Palace. The refurbishment and the costs of performers such as Frankie Vaughan and Billy Cotton  exceeded income. The company lasted one year! Even Andy Stewart to whom the theatre meant so much was heartbroken the last time he played there. The public response was so poor that he said he had wished he had gone on a two week’s holiday instead!

 

As an experiment, for one week in 1958, Howard & Wyndham Ltd staged their Edinburgh version of Five Past Eight once it finished its season in Edinburgh and in 1963 Dundee Repertory staged repertory weeks at the Palace when their own base was burned down For the next six years the Theatre was successfully controlled by the singing duo The Alexander Brothers and general manager George Clarkson. The two Brothers had summer and winter seasons each year. By arrangement with Howard & Wyndham Ltd, two winters of the Jamie pantomimes, starting in 1966 with A Wish for Jamie and the following winter A Love for Jamie – with principals different from the original casts.

 

In 1970 Jack Milroy and Rikki Fulton came as Francie & Josie. After 1971 the Theatre went over to bingo and then became disco before being burnt down by fire in October 1977 and eventually demolished. Like so many theatres before it, this was a sad end for a particularly well-loved building. As to the future, I believe there are plans to buy and resurrect the old Kings Theatre, which at least would provide a good venue for live entertainment and touring shows. The city definitely requires a large theatre to accommodate all the large productions now on the road.

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