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Alec Marlow, Stage and Master Carpenter, 6/1/1907 - 5/2/2009

By Phil Davis

Backstage Articles Index

A Cartoon depicting Alec Marlow at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, drawn by Jimmy Needle - From the personal collection of Alec Marlow - Courtesy Phil Davis.

Above - A Cartoon depicting Alec Marlow at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, drawn by Jimmy Needle - From the personal collection of Alec Marlow - Courtesy Phil Davis.

 

Alec Marlow working on a set - From the personal collection of Alec Marlow - Courtesy Phil Davis.Born in Kilburn London on 6th January 1907, Alfred Alexander Marlow was the son of a gardener. By 1911, his family had migrated to Bournemouth and Alfred Alexander was already known by his nickname 'Alec'. Upon leaving school at fourteen, Alec Marlow trained as a carpenter, working mostly on construction sites. The prospect of unemployment stimulated by The Great Depression of 1929-1930 caused both Alec and his father, Alfred Thomas Marlow to take up temporary employment as door attendants at the newly opened Pavilion, Bournemouth.

Right - Alec Marlow working on a set - From the personal collection of Alec Marlow - Courtesy Phil Davis.

The 'temporary' job taken at the Pavilion in 1929 set Alec Marlow upon a career path that would last 45 years and end in celebrated retirement as the Master Carpenter, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London's West End.

 

Everyone involved with the opening of the Bournemouth Pavilion poses for a photograph in front of the new Theatre in 1929, including Alec Marlow and his father who were both employed as doormen - From the personal collection of Alec Marlow - Courtesy Phil Davis - Click to Enlarge.

Above - Everyone involved with the opening of the Bournemouth Pavilion poses for a photograph in front of the new Theatre in 1929, including Alec Marlow and his father who were both employed as doormen - From the personal collection of Alec Marlow - Courtesy Phil Davis - Click to Enlarge.

 

Alec Marlow in his office at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in the 1970s - From the personal collection of Alec Marlow - Courtesy Phil Davis. By 1934, Marlow had progressed from door attendant at the Pavilion through building maintenance to working as a stagehand for two shillings (10p) a show. The importance of the Bournemouth Pavilion in the history of British entertainment should not be underestimated; when it first opened its doors, it was described as "the biggest 'municipal enterprise' ever created for the entertainment of the public" . For the young Alec Marlow, it provided backstage experience across the full spectrum of entertainment, from ballet, concerts and recitals to musicals, drama, pantomimes and comedy.

Left - Alec Marlow in his office at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in the 1970s - From the personal collection of Alec Marlow - Courtesy Phil Davis.

The list of musicians and performers he supported reads like a 'who's-who' of mid 20th century entertainment. Gertrude Lawrence, Douglas Fairbanks Junior, Gracie Fields, Sybil Thorndike, John Mills, Paul Robeson, Harry Lauder, Richard Tauber, Max Miller, Raymond Massey, Gladys Cooper, Wee Georgie Wood, Elsie & Doris Waters, Stanley Holloway, Ivor Novello, Rachmaninoff, George Roby, Arthur Rubinstein, Gertie Gitana, Henry J Wood, Thomas Beecham, Billy Cotton, Laurel & Hardy, Jack Hylton and the list goes on.

 

Alec Marlow and three other carpenters backstage at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane - From the personal collection of Alec Marlow - Courtesy Phil Davis.

Above - Alec Marlow and three other carpenters backstage at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane - From the personal collection of Alec Marlow - Courtesy Phil Davis.

In August 1936, Alec Marlow left Bournemouth to join Prince Littler in London who along was his brother Emile and sister Blanche were consolidating a theatrical dynasty that would at its prime control over 50% of West End Theatres, touring companies and provincial theatres . Many of the productions Alec worked on at that time were the pantomimes that the Littler family had developed a specialty in. They were shows that demanded much from backstage staff; speedy set changes, creative approaches to fabrication and efficient prop supply; all were well within Alec Marlow's capabilities. Working backstage for Prince Little, inevitably led to a nomadic touring life. Marlow's personal notebook of the time records page after page of weekly bookings at theatres throughout the British Isles. "Penge, Portsmouth, Finsbury Park, Nottingham, Sheffield, Swansea, Glasgow, Dublin etc., etc. " Each assignment with its own set of logistical challenges; "stage too small", "scenery too large for the entry"; "hydraulics not working", "railway timetable incompatible with show dark days." All were challenges that Alec Marlow rose to and the resolution of them would stand him in readiness for the years that would follow WWII.

Photograph taken during the 'Careless Rapture' tour in 1937 - From the personal collection of Alec Marlow - Courtesy Phil Davis.For Prince Littler, Alec Marlow toured a total of 26 weeks with 'Tulip Time' and 23 weeks with 'Careless Rapture' before moving to work for Tom Arnold on his production of the Robert E Sherwood play, 'Idiots Delight' which starred Sarah Churchill.

Left - Photograph taken during the 'Careless Rapture' tour in 1937 - From the personal collection of Alec Marlow - Courtesy Phil Davis.

In 1939, Marlow returned to the Prince Littler organization and toured with 'Good Bye Mr Chips' (17 weeks) and 'Banana Ridge' (12 weeks). In the four years between 1936 and 1940, Alec Marlow had spent 100 weeks touring , while the interim periods were spent working in stores and workshops making ready the scenery and props that in those days were made with traditional carpentry and decorating crafts rather than the high tech solutions that are available to today's generation. Fate has however a habit of writing its own storyline; an entry in Marlow's notebook for September 3rd 1939 simply reads; "War broke out. Sent scenery back to London.' Hidden behind those words was the emergency redirection of a show that had been expected in Douglas, Isle of Man but would not arrive and the interruption of a career while the world-wide conflict was resolved.

 

Alec Marlow in his workshop, backstage at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane - From the personal collection of Alec Marlow - Courtesy Phil Davis. The harsh realities of the nomadic life of those working in theatre created a social complexity largely hidden from those who sat in the audiences of the shows on tour. In August 1937, while on tour with 'Tulip Time' at the Theatre Royal, Hanley, Alec Marlow was attracted to a dark haired usherette called Agnes McDonald known as 'Mac'. A 'staccato' courtship followed, the rules of which were dictated by the tight configuration of the theatre-booking schedule. In 1938, while on tour at the Coventry Hippodrome with 'Idiot's Delight', the couple found time to dash to Nuneaton to marry, but as Alec himself later explained, 'I had to get back at the theatre for the afternoon matinee'.

Right - Alec Marlow in his workshop, backstage at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane - From the personal collection of Alec Marlow - Courtesy Phil Davis.

Mac Marlow gave birth to the couple's first child in December 1938. Margaret Hazel Marlow was born in Hanley, Staffs while Alec was on tour in Cardiff, but that Welsh booking was immediately followed by five weeks across the Irish Sea with 'Cinderella' in Belfast and in turn a hectic production schedule for the fit up of 'Good-Bye Mr Chips'. It was not until the schedule provided a booking at the Theatre Royal, Brighton that Alec was able to hold the baby for the first time; the child was already two months old. A couple of weeks later Alec was on tour at the Garrick Theatre, Southport when Mac again bought the baby to see him. The proud parents were showing their infant to a member of the chorus, who upon being told the name Margaret, immediately responded…"It's Rita, you must call her Rita"; it was the name that would stick for the rest of their daughter's life.

 

Alec Marlow, wearing a carpenter’s apron, on the set of 'The Boys from Syracuse,' at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane - From the personal collection of Alec Marlow - Courtesy Phil Davis.

Above - Alec Marlow, wearing a carpenter’s apron, on the set of 'The Boys from Syracuse,' at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, the man with the claw hammer is George Hoare, general manager of Drury Lane from 1958 to 1982 - From the personal collection of Alec Marlow - Courtesy Phil Davis.

By 1940, the war had dimmed the lights of most of Britain's Theatres and Alec took up work first in a Staffordshire munitions factory. He subsequently saw Army service where he served in logistical support for the D-Day landings. Earlier in wartime, Mac had given birth to Phillip Anthony, their second child and by the end of the conflict the family were living in Bournemouth, which is where Alec returned upon demobilization in 1946. The end of the war signaled an extraordinary period of prosperity in Britain's Theatre industry as a population sought to compensate itself for the hardships and austerity of the years it had lost. On 30th September 1946, Alec accepted an invitation to become a backstage carpenter at the prestigious Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London's West End and he moved his young family to a new home in West London.

The crew of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on the set of 'The Boys from Syracuse,' Alec Marlow is 5th from right. Lou Walton is 5th from left - From the personal collection of Alec Marlow - Courtesy Phil Davis.

Above - The crew of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane on the set of 'The Boys from Syracuse,' Alec Marlow is 5th from right. Lou Walton is 5th from left - From the personal collection of Alec Marlow - Courtesy Phil Davis.

Backstage at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane by Jimmy Needle - From the personal collection of Alec Marlow - Courtesy Phil Davis. The list of shows that Alec Marlow worked on amplifies the excitement of this period in Britain's theatre history, 'Pacific 1860', 'Oklahoma', 'Carousel', 'South Pacific', 'The King and I', 'Plain and Fancy', 'Fanny', 'My Fair Lady', 'The Boys from Syracuse', 'Camelot', 'Hello Dolly!', 'The Four Musketeers', 'Mame', 'The Great Waltz', 'Gone with the Wind', 'No No Nanette' and 'Billy'. Adding these to the short season productions and special shows that took place between 1946 and 1974 and we arrive at nearly 12,000 performances that Alec Marlow contributed to. Wrapped up in that simple statistic lies decades of commitment to the theatre, that are symbolised by both the major challenges and the trivia. Production for the first show after the war was constrained by timber rationing, while the audience found a blanket necessary for a theatre with only minimal heating.

The 'Long Dock,' backstage at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane by Jimmy Needle - From the personal collection of Alec Marlow - Courtesy Phil Davis. Left - Backstage at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane by Jimmy Needle - From the personal collection of Alec Marlow - Courtesy Phil Davis.

The production of 'Carousel' required Alec Marlow to use his considerable carpentry skill to make stage sized fairground horses to orbit on the theatres revolving stage. On the initial fit up, Alec had found the stage gearing locked in such a way that it would only rotate in one direction. The problem he faced was that the Carousel horses shipped in from New York were designed for the opposite direction. The subsequent 48 hours were spent in almost non-stop fabrication of new horses that were suited to the Drury Lane configuration .

Right - The 'Long Dock,' backstage at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane by Jimmy Needle - From the personal collection of Alec Marlow - Courtesy Phil Davis.

On another occasion, a major star refused to enter her allocated dressing room until Alec had been summoned to mount her 'good-luck' toilet seat to the outside face of the door.

Alec Marlow's role at the Theatre Royal meant he rubbed shoulders with more famous names than he was ever able to remember. Princess Elizabeth who was to become Queen Elizabeth II asked to sit on one of his Carousel horses when she visited with her Mother, Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. Sir Cameron Mackintosh recounted, "…..he was the first person ever to employ me in the theatre. I remember being turned away from the stage door and being told that there were no vacancies, and Alec pursued me past the colonnades, saying that there was a two-week opening." Ginger Rogers exchanged New Year Greetings with him and Dame Anna Neagle thanked him for helping her with some pictures .

A Staff outing for the crew of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane taken whilst Hello Dolly was running at the Theatre - From the personal collection of Alec Marlow - Courtesy Phil Davis.

Above - A Staff outing for the crew of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane taken whilst Hello Dolly was running at the Theatre - From the personal collection of Alec Marlow - Courtesy Phil Davis.

Lou Walton - From the personal collection of Alec Marlow - Courtesy Phil Davis.In 1970, Alec Marlow's close friend and long term contemporary Lou Walton (Shown Right) became Stage Manager at the Theatre Royal and Alec succeeded him as Master Carpenter.

Right - Lou Walton - From the personal collection of Alec Marlow - Courtesy Phil Davis.

On June 6th 1974, fittingly Lou and Alec retired together. As a pair, they had served the world of theatre for almost 90 years, almost all of it for Prince Littler. Lou Walton died a few years after his retirement, but Alec Marlow survived for a further 35 years; he died aged 102 years in Epsom, Surrey on February 5th 2009. Alec Marlow is survived by Rita (b.1938), Phillip (b.1940), Maxene (b.1948), five grandchildren and thirteen great-grandchildren.

This article and its accompanying images was written and kindly sent in for inclusion on this site by Phil Davis, son-in-law of Alec Marlow, in March 2009.

 

Alec Marlow pours a beer in the staff bar backstage at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane -  From the personal collection of Alec Marlow - Courtesy Phil Davis.

Above - Alec Marlow pours a drink in the staff bar backstage at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane - Drinking and smoking are now banned in the Theatre and the old bar is now the crew room and workshop of the Lighting Department - From the personal collection of Alec Marlow - Courtesy Phil Davis.

 

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