Hackney Empire Memories by Danny Varney
MEMORIES OF THE 'ACKNEY EMPIRE
In 1990 I made a return pilgrimage to the "'ackney Empire" after an absence of over 40 years. I had been going there from a date way back in the 1920's (when there are no baby memories) to the late 1940's, where there are clear memories. The old Hackney Empire gave me great entertainment, and also education in theatrical performing arts that for the first few years I did not realise I was getting. I must have seen at least 2, 000 acts from Harry Champion, legendary star of 100 years ago, to the slick, finely-produced, acts of film stars of the 30's and 40's. I received not only hundreds of hours of entertainment, but lessons in the performing arts now impossible to obtain. In other ways too the old Empire was part of my life when an 'ackneyite.
Right - A period postcard of the Hackney Empire.
So while wandering down memory lane, let the "Empire's" catalyst touch on little snippets of Hackney, London, and the British way of life from the early 1930's, through to the late 40's. Then transposed to Australia and New Zealand as the century ends and we start thinking about entering the third millennium.
This will also be a way of saying "Thanks" to the young lady who gave me and my younger sister, Barbara Ward, an escorted tour of the "Empire" one Saturday afternoon in June 1990. Some random thoughts generated from an habituee of the Empire from pre-World War 2, during WW2, and the immediate post-war years. She has probably forgotten that elderly Australian and his Pommy sister being but one of a number of visitors she has similarly helped. However for the pair of us it was a nostalgic return to our childhood of the 1930's. She took us to places we both recalled, and also places the normal patron never went and gave us both a new understanding of the Empire.
A BAWLING BABE - AND JUVENILE
My mother was probably taking me up to the 'gods' as a babe in arms in the 1920's, but can't recall any of the acts from that decade, nor can I give a date of the first show I can recall seeing, but certainly can remember it. Mother was born in 1896 so would have been going to the "Empire" too when she was a girl in service before World War 1. With real "Upstairs-Downstairs" tales to tell us kids. Plus what we thought was an unreal 'horror' of the "work-'ouss".
Left - Danny Varney - Author of this article.
My younger sister, Barbara, would have come with us too, both as the 'babe in arms' and also as a toddler and juvenile. She too could remember the balcony and its 'gods'. I would assume my elder sister Ruby would probably have earlier memories than mine. (She died in September 2009, after 67 years of marriage to Arthur Crockford. ) My first vivid memory is of a Hill-Billy show, perhaps then called a Wild West Show, but nowadays it's Country and Western. I prefer Hill-Billy being proud to call it that having taken part in the Australian hill-billy shows in the late 1940's and early 50's too. Looking down from the gods I remember a camp fire with people around it, then all of them jumping up and the spotlight going out to the beat of tom-tom drums.
The next major recall is of a farce. I have no idea of its name, plot, characters or anything other than either its protagonist or antagonist. At a tender pre-primary school age the dialogue and business were going over my head, however, there suddenly came a great roar from the audience when the character entered stage right. He wore a pork-pie hat, jacket, collar and tie, and also an enormous pair of women's red bloomers. His entry line made me break up too. He claimed they were his underpants but that his nose had been bleeding! It was such a blatant lie it has stuck in my memory. I wonder what farce it was, or the innocent, but misunderstood, situation leading to the the loss of his trousers?
Entry to the 'gods' was at the back of the Empire, in line with the Town Hall building and backing on to a laneway that led to a public house, with toilets across the road from the 'gods" entrance.
Left - The rear of the Hackney Empire and the 'Entrance to the Gods' in 2009.
There were lots of solid brick stairs to climb. Then came the pay box. Set into the rough brick walls, its tiny slit where someone sat collecting the few coppers, looked more like a military pill-box. It had remained unchanged after all those years from pre World War 2 when I saw it again in 1990. Then into the gallery itself. The hard benches were still there, and even the tattered red backing cloth looked the same. No tip-seats that far up, and the height. . . . ! Having been flying and gliding in the ATC and a paratrooper as WW2 closed, starting sporting parachuting in my home Australian State, a lot of small plane flying... I know heights... "ackney Empire's" gods were - and are - high, and the stage looked so small from that height. (Lost in my memories up there I forgot to look up to see if there were any plaster Cherubs in the ceiling decorations. Legend has it that the term Gods comes from Cherubs and other angelic figures finishing off the decorations.)
I can never recall seeing any buskers back of the Empire's Gods queue, perhaps they never came round the back knowing its patrons were hard-pushed for the pennies it cost to go up there. Yet I am told by other former 'Ackneyites when meeting at regimental reunions I lived in the 'posh' part of Hackney (top end of Durrington Rd facing the Hackney Hospital.) This was news to me! The buskers were always there amusing the queue for the Upper Circle.
They came, performed, passed the hat, and went, to be replaced by another busker, all working to pre-set timetables from some mysterious organiser. Their acts varied. We also got to know them after a while, and were sometimes able to work out what they were trying to do. It took a long while to understand what the 'mime' act was doing. We thought it was Frankenstein's monster. The man with the singing saw was satisfying. Never saw the likes of "Wilson, Keppel and Betty" busking though. They were supposed to have come up through the ranks of the buskers to star status. The pair of Ancient Egyptians with their Cleopatra could always be relied on to bring the "ouse down" when making a welcome return to the Empire.
Then there were the Empire's posters, slapped all over the place in their well-sited spots. One poster that I always looked out for was that for "The Great Lyle" ( I can't recall when he first slapped the honorific on himself). Perhaps it was Lyle's show that made me take up magic too. At first his show had me as spellbound as the rest of the audience, then as I got little older and learned a little magic too, they were less mysterious. Then came the realisation The Great Lyle, was a not a great performer, but had had the money to buy up great illusions when a real "great" died. Still, he had a big show that went well. A magician in my State says he has some of Lyle's illusions, but it needs a full stage and several assistants to present them in the grand performer style.
Above - A postcard showing a horse drawn omnibus on a route from the West India Docks to South Hackney, and passing a boarded up shop with fly-posters on its wall, one of which is a poster for the Hackney Empire.
Another Empire poster fits into a childhood image. The "White Horse Inn". There it sat next to a newspaper poster proclaiming the Loch Ness Monster was abroad. . . There was an horrific sketch of the threatening Loch Ness Monster about to devour a car. (circa 1933.)
Arthur Askey and Richard Murdoch appeared there before the war and for weeks the kids' hit song was "Oh How I Wish to be a little fish . . . . . . "
By the mid-1930's the pictures had taken over as my entertainment. The Castle Cinema (Crab) in Brooksby's Walk was far closer, I could go by myself, and there were rarely long queues to get in if two "G" films were on, if there was an "A" on then a child had to be accompanied by an adult. This meant hanging about outside asking likely-looking patrons to take you in. (You paid your own way of course). Today that custom would be considered dangerous and an invitation to the armies of child molesters waiting to pounce. I was later to work in the bio-box when V1 flying bombs came over.
Perhaps there were age limits for unaccompanied juveniles at the Empire, or was it too far for me to go alone? One of the Saturday afternoon serials at the 'Crab' was the "Three Musketeers. The film reference books say John Wayne was one of the leads. It was not the Dumas version, but about three characters in the French Foreign Legion (made in 1933). One week the serial's episode ended with Wayne and Co being taken out to face a firing squad. . . . big deal. . . "wait for the next thrilling episode". . . Up went an "Empire" poster for their "Three Musketeers". I wondered how they would handle the transition from film to stage of the shooting scene.
Alas I was never to find out. But the serial has been shown on community TV stations. Wayne was not one of the three Ms, merely the juvenile lead, whom they had to protect.
I realised a few years later it would have been something different when the Ritz Bros and Don Ameche appeared in the film version of a semi-musical costume drama.
AN ADOLESCENT'S WAR YEARS
In 1939 the war started and the kids, even the high school kids from Rushmore Rd, were evacuated. A year earlier the first of the Austrian refugees had arrived in Britain. One boy came to the school. A lonely, scared kid in shorts and peculiar-patterned coloured socks, he sat in the schoolyard shed like an exhibit at a zoo. Some kids gave him a hard time in the school yard and the teachers had to protect him from his tormenters. I wonder what he became in later life?
After a month away from London, and the mammoth air-raids hadn't eventuated them, the kids started trickling back to find no schools open. . . War was great ! The "ackney Empire" was closed and had not re-opened as had the cinemas. Instead it was taken over for rehearsals for the Christmas pantomime called "Mother Goose." Passing by in the afternoons, music could be heard and the show got a lot of word-of-mouth publicity. The show opened just before Christmas 1939, and what a crowd for the first matinee. The posters said the gallery (Gods) would not be open because of the war, but the crowd was so thick they shunted people up to the gallery, at the same price too. (The first case of war profiteering ?)
Like all good British pantos it was full of topical allusions, but now it was the war and its characters. The comic getting a big laugh when Mother Goose with the great big beak made her first entrance. . . . "Oohh" said the comic, "Look, it's Dr Goebbles". The panto song was "Everyone pinches my butter" which they taught the audience. I didn't find out until a few weeks ago it was the hit of the day sung by Else and Doris Waters. . . and I still know all the words.
Then came the winter of 1939-40. It was one of the worst in living memory. This time it was the war in Europe that had caused the bad weather. . . . so the old wives said. There were so many kids returning the schools were now operating half time. One week you went for the morning session, next week the afternoon one. With tens of thousands of kids on the loose every day I wonder what the crime statistics were for that period, or was that a different era when there was a little respect for property and people?
I got myself a part-time job as a baker's boy and earned a little money and so could take myself off to the Empire in a style more befitting my new station in life. I actually went downstairs into the fauteuils, and added another word to my vocabulary. I spent six pence for a box of Cadbury's Dairy Milk chocolates, and gobbled up the lot during the show. It was just a variety show, but there was a vocalist who made her entrance through the audience. I thought she was shrieking rather than singing. You had to book to get seats downstairs, but it was thrilling to walk for the first time up those marble steps front of the house and feel posh.
Left - The Glorious Frank Matcham Auditorium of the Hackney Empire in 1988 - Courtesy Ted Bottle who says: 'You see the auditorium here in its Mecca colours. Mecca was very good in maintaining their theatre buildings but they had a most curious colour scheme. The auditorium resembles more of an opera house than a variety theatre.'
The gods had closed of course, but there were still good seats to be had in the Upper Circle, no bookings needed, but there was always a queue there. Sometimes it meant waiting nearly most of the first house from 6. 30 to 8. 30 if it was a good show. . . and word of mouth always ensured there was a good audience. The Upper Circle audience usually tailed the queue going into the Dress Circle, so the buskers did a double header. There would also have been a small queue in Mare St, but there wouldn't have been much room for buskers there. There was even space for Standing Room Only for the groundlings. It was right at the back of the ground floor. A breast-high wooden barricade separated the lucky ones able to book, or grab the last of the ticketed seats. It was most uncomfortable. I only did it once. . . and cannot recall anything about the show either.
But come mid 1940, I was still a baker's boy, and there was a new word in the air "Dunkirk". We were working late one night delivering the loaves of bread house-by-house. It was dark with a full black-out. As I went from door-to-door those with radio sets (sorry wireless) had them tuned to a man speaking, a slow lisping style. I paid no attention to the words. . . my job being to deliver the bread and get paid, most people looked grim as they came to the door. I realise now I was hearing Winston Churchill's "Fight them on the beaches" rallying call, and can't recall hearing one word. . . . just the images of that night.
The next main memory of an Empire show is Ernie Lottinga and his shows. I had always liked Lottinga. I first got to know him as Josser in 1920-30's films and one scene is always with me, when he steals another soldier's goodies from home. The first live show I saw him in was "My Wife's Family," must have been before being evacuated for the second time, it was a riot, with the audience breaking-up time and time and again. I was at the age when I understood a good bawdy joke. Unlike my first farce seen at the Empire I could now understand every double entendre, and possibly was making up a few of my own. Went and saw "My Wife's Family" two or three times, I can still remember the punch lines to some scenes. The naive young school teacher demanding five pounds from a misunderstanding Lottinga before he could show her his pupil.
About two months later the old Castle Cinema put on the British film of the same name. I rushed off to see it, but was bitterly disappointed. It had been so Bowderlised it was unrecognisable. The lead actor was a John Warwick, an Aussie, It was not until the 1950's it was filmed closer to the original with its mistaken identities and cross-purpose dialogue. Robertson Hare was his usual excellent dithering self in a lead film role.
Another Lottinga's show was the "Jestapo", not funny at all. One or two cheap laughs when he has to get into 'drag' in the chorus line to find that his bust kept on varying in height to other girls in the line up. Earlier in his career he was called Dan Roy and would have been nearly 70 for that show. It had a spy format, very few good laughs. One scene I found most unfunny . The agent was supposed to be a fake cripple and on crutches. Lottinga and cast kept on mistakenly sweeping away the crutch of a 'real' cripple. (The old one- two-three technique Chaplin perfected) so got a few cheap laughs. I thought I saw a vestige or two of "Jestapo" in the World War Two spoof on TV, "Allo Allo", but there was no other real comparison between the two.
Lottinga's brother owned the hotel (sorry pub) on the corner of the Empire's Mare St block, and in those days the black-out was strictly enforced. Lottinga's pub had little shoe boxes with neat cut-out's and a feeble light behind them. I forget the message. They were the only illumination along Mare St, if they can be called that, all they did was to throw a silhouette if a particularly tall person was there. There were always queues for every house, and every part of the house. The first house was at 6. 30. and if you failed to get in and wanted to see the show that night it meant staying in the queue until the next house at 8. 30 pm. So there was always a mix-up when the first house was leaving and had to find its way through the queues. On pitch black nights it was "sorry. . . . sorry . . . . sorry ". Other nights the moon was a great help. The old timers would murmer. . . "Oh dear dear dear, bomber's moon tonight!" ( Memories of First World War air raids when the Zeppelins and bombers flew high and used the Thames for navigation came in handy for the Germans too in the next World War. Always a better navigational fix than instruments.) None of us knew about Logie's (John Logie Baird) radio location (radar)devices then. If there was an alert (air raid warning) on, the trolley buses did not give their usual flash when they went over an electric junction on the corner of Morning Lane. The flash gave a handy glimpse to the crowds, so could find your way through Mare Street queues. The comers, goers and queuers were generally good-humoured when they got got mixed up.
THE HAPPY RETURN
Then came the second evacuation, a dinkum one this time. My group went down to Somerset. Big boys, little boys, big sisters, little sisters all herded to the Memorial Hall at Cranmore. People came, made their pick of kids, took them away, often breaking up a brother and sister, or similar pair with lots of tears from the smaller ones. A cruel separation-in-crisis situation. Finally the billetting officers were left with the bigger boys, the mini-teeners. Few people wanted us. So we were shoved into cars and hawked around the neighbouring hamlets and forced one-by-one on to people with a spare room or bed. Some kids fared well and went into caring homes with kids near their own age. Others like myself, were not so lucky and were thrust onto elderly people with Victorian-age concepts of children, (eventually being transferred to a younger family group.)
At age 14 and two weeks I left school and became a farmer's boy. 60 hours work a week for 13/3d. (with a 2 oz block of chocolate costing two pence.) Just a Cockney kid thrust into a rustic work place whose mores and concepts had not changed in decades, if not centuries. (But I can still kill and skin a rabbit, and maybe milk a cow if ever called upon to do it again after all those years.)
That background was later to come in handy when studying Hardy and his "Mayor of Casterbridge" at university, doubly so, because as that young paratrooper, I had been based near Dorchester-Hardy's Casterbridge. I had actually lived that Wessex life-style and knew the town. My tutorial assignments with a Roman Catholic Monseigneur were a little easier for me than the other younger students. I learned the hard way not to challenge him on theology, but he had one of the bawdiest minds ever encountered in a cleric.
Then it was back to London after about three months as a farm boy. Got a full-time job at Toddlers Footwear doing routine machine work on baby shoes. Picked up the old part-time job, pulling that baker's cart, earning a little money. Yes, you guessed it, back to the Empire, and sitting up there in the Upper Circle looked down at the row of chorus girls in their short skirts and wondered what the old 'biddies' of that Somerset village I had just left would have thought at such a shocking display of legs.
I will always remember the show I saw three times as that callow mini-teener. Called "Twice In A Blue Moon". There was always a very large poster under the railway bridge in Sydney Rd and centre of the poster was GLORIA GLAMOUR (which made her top of the bill) and her "Dance of the Seven Veils". Saw her do it from three different parts of the house. Downstairs when flush with my extra pay as a baker's boy, the Dress Circle and the Upper Circle. Most daring too, her blue veils were very thin so the cost of a close up was worth it to the baker's boy, even though it only allowed peek-thru of the torso. Her face, don't really recall it in detail, but she seemed ugly to me. The act ended with her against a backdrop, framed in an oval on a plinth, she whipped away the last veil and for a second or two was bathed in blue light as a silhouette. In the Upper Circle were some odd types, not the usual characters seen up there. They were obviously the DOMs (dirty old men) and in my adolescent naivety wondered why the DOM next to me was trying to be friendly. I would have been a very small, younger-looking, 13-year old in those days. Today I suppose I too should now be classed as a DOM, or should that be a SSC (Senior Sexy Citizen.)
In late 1941 there was a kid's show called "Casey's Court". (I don't know if it was an original Murray, or something cobbled up.) Its theme was a bunch of kids putting on a show of their own and interwoven with a couple of sub-plots. It came from an era when people did have to make their own entertainment, no television and very few wireless sets. The tear-jerker was the boy singing to save his dog from being taken away by the pound keeper. The era when a street kid was an urchin in London, a gammin in New York and a larrakin in Australia. Would that concept work for a kids variety-musical show today. . ? Might be worth while trying to write such a show for television today, (wonder if I can slap a copyright on that? )
The manager of the "Empire" during all those years had two great virtues. He would put on the great artistes of the past, and they loved going back for a week on the boards. His other virtue was that he gave new acts a go as well. Especially when the war ended.
There were some acts I never saw advertised for the other music halls on the circuits. There were several Empires on the Stoll, or was it the Moss, circuit. The Empire must hold a special place for such acts as Donald Peers, who made his post-war debut there and went on to become a household name.
Just when I saw Harry Champion working there is hard to fix, late 1941 or early 1942, just before he died. His last words were said to be "Any Old Iron." I didn't know he was he was a 19th century music hall star when I saw him there, but recognised many Cockney songs in his act. I will always remember it. Especially its close. . . What else could it have been but "Any Old Iron", and he worked tabs too.
He worked his way to stage left, then spotted in a green lime, took off his watch chain and danced on it. Harry got his applause that night not because he was a living memory of the old music hall getting sympathy, but as a regular act that had given good entertainment. He must have been in his seventies then. There are people in Australia doing "Ye Olde Tyme Music Halle" who try and do a patter song, Harry Champion style, without knowing his 'business'. To date only one act has listened to me when I congratulated him on his "Any Old Iron" and told him the business. Others have sneered. Talbot O'Farrell often appeared with his song "She was Young. . But She was Innocent." He too was a lesson in voice projection and could fill the Empire with his voice alone. When I joined the Variety Club of New Zealand in Auckland I went to a member's home one night and there was an autographed picture of Talbot, the member's father had worked with him. (Today the TV 'stars' can't project their voice past second row stalls in a live theatre. ) I still know the words from that song, learnt as Talbot took the audience through the words on a screen.
After the war he was still at it and joined a troupe of old timers in a show called "Thanks For The Memory". It started off at the London Palladium as a 'one-off 'production to fill in an otherwise 'dark' house. It did record business, got held over and went on tour. Naturally coming to the Empire, where I saw it several times, and twice at the Palladium. (See Note 1.)
Today I treasure the memories of those old time stars. Billy Danvers, a red nose comic with his ability to milk a single anecdote with a series of gag-lines, all beautifully timed . With the added point it was all World War 1 material. Such is comedy!
Recently I heard an English dialect comic go through a routine on the radio. It had me in stitches the material was so good on reflections of life. Then he dropped two words into the routine, "Fire Watching!" and I realised that it too was World War 2 material yet was undated in its comment on life. In Moliere's "Miser" we hear the patter of comedians in the dialogue and in turn an echo of their patter from ancient Greek theatre, with instant recognition too.
Sir John Betjeman CBE, writing the foreword to "From Tower to Tower" of the Hackney Society says he saw George Robey at the Empire, but does not give a date, only says it was his last time there. I had to go to the old Collins Music Hall in Islington to see George Robey, "The Vicar of Mirth", but what a disappointment. He came out as a red-nose comic and his jokes were dirty, not bawdy or with a double-entrende, just smut. Just after the war he was seen as the dying Falstaff in Olivier's "Henry V" movie. I had been following the making of this film for about five years. Robey was never at the Empire in my memory, so wonder when Sir John saw him there?
"On With The Motley"
It was the war years that really brought the circus to the Empire, but they did appear before the war. Frank Matcham, the Empire's architect, designed his Hackney Empire well. But I can also remember the Liberty Horses on the pre-war posters. Many of the old tobers had been taken over for anti-aircraft gun sites, and the black-out banned bright lights. So too the music halls, those that were big enough to take them, and a strong stage to take the weight of elephants. (Could never have taken them to Collins'). All the regular circus acts were there: Liberty Horses, the bare-back riders and their stunts. Trapeze artistes, tightrope walkers and clowns. One a real 'Joey' One night a lion ignored the trainer, and gazed longingly at the audience, was he really licking his chops? The bio box put a spot on him calming him down enough to go through his routine on command. I wonder how many people knew the lion-tamer either worked his animals as 'wild' or 'tame'. If they were worked 'wild' they were the tamest of the lot, and could be relied upon to place him in danger at the right time. But the hospitals and morgues have had their share of tamers who took the chance once too often. The elephants could be heard trumpeting from outside, as if in a Tarzan film, and demanding their cue.
There is an old, old theatrical saying, "Never follow a dog act with another dog act". The Empire, with its finger so firmly on public taste, never fell into that trap. When it produced a dog act it was generally first-class. Usually they came with a circus. Sometimes as a specialty act. Always good for lots of laughs. . . and enhancing the symbiotic relationship between dogs and humans. Dogs playing football with a balloon for a ball, recalcitrant dogs who instead of jumping hurdles would push them all down. The 'disobedient' dog and one always getting it wrong. . . until the end.
Performing seals were always good for a laugh, especially when 'applauding' themselves, or instead of honking on a horn, would honk themselves. Then fail to play the right "honk" when doing a musical number, only to find it at the end, right on cue.
The best act from one of our cousins came from a chimpanzee called Marquis. It had appeared in a couple of films. In one being mistaken for that terrible, seriously disturbed lad, William Brown. Marquis could light and smoke cigarettes, as well as go through intricate routines. In one tumbling/acrobatic sequence at the Empire Marquis could clearly be seen leading his human partner through the routine.
The Empire was a true variety house, and often there was a play. Prewar there had been the musicial-comedies, but none during the war. One year it was an Oscar Wilde play, I can't recall the title and I only know it was a Wilde play because of the ribald tales, jokes and rhymes about Oscar going around the workplace. It was probably "Lady Windermere's Fan" (I know it wasn't "Earnest" as I have become a specialist on that one). I can recall the long dresses, wide hats, and the peculiar manner they dealt with what I know now as asides. The characters read letters , but the other actors couldn't seem to hear what was being said. . . . most odd. It was about the time of a daylight air-raid. Three FW-190's came in low over the Hackney Marshes, (I was in the ATC at the time so recognised them. )They roared right overhead at a hundred feet above Dunsters factory. They had passed over Luton a few minutes before. One had dropped a bomb, aiming for the factories, but hit a school instead. Providing great media propaganda. If he had waited he could have got got a few of the factories at Hackney Wick and all of us outside.
One play became a hardy perennial. The psuedo-American gangster epic "No Orchids for Miss Blandish". It was presented by different companies, that was most obvious. The first was done well, the other occasion I saw it there was less well done, while the third time. . . !
The first "No Orchids" used a revolving stage and good props. The other times it came it was done on the cheap, with poor flats and hammy props to save on the costs.
Charlie's Aunt was also presented, but can't recall who was in it. It did turn up as the odd film too. Arthur Lucan did it in one film, and also Jack Benny, there was something else too, called "Charlie's American Aunt", but memory is most vague on that one.
Right - An early photograph of Kitty
McShane signed and dedicated to Fred
Midley - Courtesy Roy Stockdill who says: 'The dedication reads
"To Freddie With Best Wishes, Kitty McShane, Mrs Lucan". You
cannot make it out in the photo but when examined with a flashlight
and a magnifying glass an imprint of a Liverpool
photographer appears in the bottom right-hand corner where she has written
over it. There is a date which appears to be 1926 and at that time my
grandfather would still have been playing at the Theatre
Royal, Dublin, though of course the photo could be one that Kitty
had had taken in Liverpool previously for publicity purposes.'
Freddie Frinton and partner had three long sketches, only two of which he did at the Empire. There was another which I saw them work at Finsbury Park Empire. However, every time he came to the Hackney Empire they worked the same sketch. The first time I saw it I laughed as loudly as everybody else when he appeared to ad-lib a line. His female assistant left in a huff over something, and just before making her exit upstage right Frinton would call out: " OH. Look, see how your bun wobbles !" ( But we heard it as "BUM"- a shocking thing to hear. . . even "bloody" was obscene, as Shaw found). She would turn, and break-up at the ad lib, and both would play the business as long as they could.
The next time he came, same sketch, same "ad-lib", same audience reaction, but not from me. The third time, a couple of years later, I sat on my hands, but watched their business-and learned. The fourth time they were billed. . . I stayed away, bet that was the year he changed the act.
There is a famous music hall sketch performed by many a comedian that has become a television classic in Australia. Dinner for One. Clive Dunn, from Dads Army did it for a Royal Command Performance at the London Palladium only a few years ago. I saw Dinner for One at the Empire 1941 or 1942. But have no idea who performed it. It needed a big set for just two players. So became too hard to present. The dowager lady was seated all the time.
Whether this sketch is shown on British television I dont know. But its a hit in Europe too. In Australia the sketch is usually paired over the New Year with an Austrian-made Die Fleidermaus on the ethnic station, SBS. I have seen it with a German and also a Norwegian introduction, with the plot explained. The ancient butler in the sketch is Freddy Frisson, and he keeps his English dialogue. There are sub-titles in the language of the country where being shown. It is classed as one of the worlds greatest comedy sketches but little is known about it." I could tell them a lot about it but.
One act I longed to see never came to the Empire. Todd Slaughter never made it with his "Maria Martin and the Old Red Barn" or "Sweeny Todd". I had seen his film about "Sweeny Todd". I am told that he tried to do them as straight melodrama, and let the audience play the laughs. ( At my local amateur theatre we did a melodrama straight, the elderly producer claiming he had seen them done when a youth. I played the villain, and was on stage the whole time and had a scene with every major character. )
Films - a competitor
Sunday nights there were films at the Empire. Never able to compete with the other cinemas with their old feature films. One night when there was nothing worth seeing elsewhere, I went to the Empire's film. It was about Disraeli, with George Arliss, I still recall parts of it, and nowadays find that I had seen a classic.
Old films, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof, came to the stage. Using a flicker wheel over the spot the troupe did a take-off of a jerky silent film, complete with stunts. It was very well done. Nowadays the same effect could be done with strobe lighting. Modern-day techniques have re-worked the old silent films so that most of the flickering jerkiness has gone. We see them now nearly the same as in the opening years of this century.
The same troupe presented a sketch revolving around a family meal and all the trite sayings and remarks families experience. The punch-line came, with a frenzied explosion of a mouthful of fluid: "They buried Mrs Smith today. . . Why is she dead ?". . . Blackout !
A Disappointing Tauber
It must have been about 1943 when Richard Tauber came to the Empire. Everybody knew his "You are my heart's delight" from his many recordings of light classics. But that terrific voice heard often on the wireless, just wasn't there when singing live, even with the Empire's excellent sound system. Tauber an Austrian, with Austrian recordings, allowed Auntie BBC to play good German music without giving aid to the enemy. Tauber built up a wide following. His personal appearance was remarkably unremarkable. I left that night trying to explain to myself that gramophone recorded sound was different from live sounds. Nowadays most people know records are produced like any other process. Tauber had the benefit of top rate Austrian technicians. However, records claimed to have been made in 1943 in Britain are the old Tauber. . . wonder why and how ? A few years later he died in 1948, after being born in May 1891. He was sick in his last years and most depressed. Was it the near flop at the Hackney Empire that sent him downwards, or sick that week there? It is claimed that for his last operatic appearance in "Magic Flute" I think, he took 30 curtain calls and had sung like the Tauber of old. Listening to his old recordings one hears him sing bel canto, lieder, tenor, musical comedy, operetta. . . and I wonder, just what did I miss out on that night so long ago ?
Another vocal act claimed to be the World's Greatest Singing Impressionist, with a most peculiar name, "Afrique." He could sing like Caruso, Robeson, Dawson and others. Well he did have a good upper and lower register, but all he did was to sing the song the artiste was well-known by, and the audiences' imagination did the rest. . . that good old show-biz standby.
MEET THE MAGICIAN
From a very early age I had been interested in entertaining, and the easy way in I found was through magic, or conjuring. At age 9 I paid nine cigarette cards to learn the secret of the four Jacks card trick. I can still do it the way I was first shown, but with a few twists of my own. Other simple card tricks followed, I can do a few twists to the old ones too. Today I have a reputation as a card man, and also a close-up sleight-of-hand worker. I can also do the Cups and Balls the same way it was done 6, 000 years ago by Dedi before Cheops (Khufu) in Egypt. At age 13 with my Baker's Boy money I bought other classics in Woolworth's for sixpence a time. The Linking Ring routine going with the trick is still the one I use to- day. The Linking Rings are known to be at least six hundred years old, and a master can bring an audience of magicians to their feet. Eventually I could do a few tricks at parties, but never had the courage to front up to a magician after a show and introduce myself. I know now this is the accepted way for a youngster to get involved in magic. . . I always give kids plenty of encouragement when they seek me out after a show.
As the war years drew to a close I was in the Civil Defence as a Messenger Boy, and we had a concert party. As well as doubling in sketches I did what passed for a magic act. In the air-raid shelters I guess we had a truly captive audience. It was either the concert party or air raid! (It was the first aid courses we did that gave me my first proper introduction to medicine. Later in Australia into nursing, then St John Ambulance, and now in junior sports medicine. With a couple of community awards. Just one of those mentioned by Her Majesty in her 1991 television and radio broadcasts)
Because of this interest the magic and ventriloquist acts at the Empire held special appeal to me. I was at the stage when I knew just that little more than the audience. For instance, I knew the vents didn't have a little thing in their mouth, very well advertised as the "Ventrilo".
There was the first time I saw the vent drink a glass of water while 'throwing his voice'. ( Ah ha, I said to myself, that's probably done with the "Evaporated Milk Jug". It had just been invented and is still in use today. ) Then the time when the vent had not one, but three life-sized dummies on stage, the first time I saw the dummy in the suitcase effect, the "enfante terrible" is shoved protestingly into the trunk or whatever, but still continues his disruptive tactics.
The names of magicians tumble over themselves. Shek Ben Ali doing his Ali Baba effect with a mass-production of bodies from a row of sealed jars. ( Lesson: watch your sight lines. From way up in the Upper Circle we could clearly see him break the paper seal with his hand before plunging the scimitar into it). The Great Masoni, (An Aussie , trapped in England by the War. )
Cingalee with a magnificent close with the Rice Bowls, usually a throw-away item. Lester Sharp. Then the magnificent silent act of Douglas Francis with "On the Way Home", he was a regular at the Empire. Dressed as a very-well lubricated "toff" he stopped under a street lamp, then cards, coins, billiard balls appeared from nowhere, and vanishing just as easily. It bewildered him as much as the audience. He ended the act with a cigarette production that changed to giant cigar and then a pipe. Picking up the street-lamp he staggered off. He was a mime act because he stammered badly.
Another magician, in more sophisticated style, in tails did the Multiplying Billiard Balls (I bought my first set at Woolworths in Mare St for sixpence as that 12/13 year old). However, as he did a big swing his tail coat flared and the balls could be seen in their houlletes, a murmer went through the audience. (Yes another lesson, don't use holdouts, rely on the usual pockets) Was it Lyle who got a boy up to help with the Egg Bag, but when the boy put his hands into his own pockets, his trouser-fly (buttons in those days) flew open. The audience roared ! The boy, about ten years old, simply smiled, shrugged, and nonchalantly let the magician carry on, got a great round of applause as he trotted down the centre steps. Who was the magi who vanished a large radio set ? He wrapped it in newspapers, then with cord still attached staggered with it to the front still playing. In a dramatic gesture he whipped out the plug. The music ceased immediately, then he crumpled up the paper and the set had vanished. It was marvelous acting and timing !
Voltaire was not quite a magic-act, but he did work some magic into the act. Trick electric globes. . . bought in any magic store. . . were one of the effects. He used stooges too, who when sitting in a chair would leap up as if getting an electric shock whenever he touched them. It had to be fake, would never have been permitted, and the subject could have had a legal claim against him. Bobby was his first name and he was accepted by the magical fraternity.
A mystic act came to the Empire, forget his name, but never his material. He worked in a long flowing robe and had a near bald head. His act was presented paranormal style. Today I do the same trick, but in a comedy vein. A chosen card is torn into pieces, one piece retained, stuck on someone's forehead. The pieces vanish, only to be restored, minus one piece. . . yes that piece fits microscopically. This mystic did some simple predictions, then his torn-and-restored card. Throwing his head back, in front of a burning brazier he de- claimed, as the spotlight slowly faded on him "And not for another twenty years will a BLOODY German army set foot on British soil!" It brought the house down- it was so dramatic- as we had just got over the threat of invasion.
But, funnily enough, some 20 years later German tanks did get over to the UK for an exercise in Wales, but that soothsayer said nothing about German Leopard tanks being bought by the Australian Army and speeding through city streets at car speeds shaking the sandy foundations of the two and three-storey buildings in Perth, WA.
That was another lesson to me on the gullibility of the public. 50 years of modern life they still flock to the faith healers, pyschic surgeons, astrologers, channellers and other fakes and frauds.
Was it Doris Stokes or Dorothy Collins who beat me up one night, a few years ago. I called them the heavenly-twins , because I could never tell them apart. At one of their shows I never said a word or did anything to cause a disturbance at the very bad performance. However, because I was known as a magician one of the extra-celestials personally tried to throw me out psychically - that should have been physically . . . her meeting broke up in disorder. Paul Daniels and the Great Randi had a great laugh over that. I have had other minor successes since. My dual background in medicine and magic lets me see many things other investigators miss.
I should mention that I am involved with the international organisation CSICOP, or Australian Skeptics, and we have broken rackets in America that ripped $50 million a year from gullible people. There are many thousands of pounds or dollars waiting for anybody able to be tested and produce paranormal events - the money has been available for years, but nobody yet has been able to convince an independent committee they possess paranormal powers. Scientists, psychologists, and other academics and magicians such as myself are still waiting to observe some event that cannot be duplicated by trickery, repeated under test, explained, or the person caught cheating. The challenge is available anywhere in the world.
THE SHOW MUST GO ON
It was possibly in 1943 I was watching a tightrope act on stage. The Alert had sounded, but I didn't see anybody pay it any attention. Nobody left their seat. Ack Ack (anti- aircraft) guns were heard cracking away in the distance, but nobody bothered, we all took the chance somebody else would cop it. The performer was doing a difficult part of his routine and nearly fallen a couple of times - but always recovered - of course to build up tension. Then literally all hell broke loose!
It seemed as if every gun in London had opened up on the Jerry (German) plane right overhead. It was a deafening barrage, possibly the loudest most of us ever heard judging by the reaction.
Undeterred by the noise of the guns, shell explosions, and the shrapnel pinging and hitting the roof like heavy hail and rain, the tightrope walker carried on with the act as if the audience were still silenced by his skills. (That too was a lesson in "the show must go on"tradition ) whether fire, flood, bombs - hundreds of lives have been saved when an act has carried on) The gunfire and bursting shells slowly, slowly receded from our hearing as Jerry crossed our part of London. The act finished to a double-strength applause: one for skill - the other for carrying on despite the double-danger he was in, one shared together, the other he faced alone with skill and courage.
Came the end of the second house and we trouped out into the night. One woman was saying to her friend, "Yer, no , 'e's dropped one. . I fell-tit !"
I walked home that night, going down Morning Lane as usual. When I came to the hotel (pub) on the corner of the short street going to Homerton High St, where the Plough public house is, there was a barricade. I crossed this in the exuberance of youth, and Civil Defence card. Across from where the Berger paint factory used to be was a block of flats. . . all evacuated this time. Our friend who tried to upset the Empire's show had dropped a bomb but it had not gone off. It was said by those who saw it, it had a green parachute. It stayed there all night, then in the morning the UXB squad came, did their thing and took it away in the back of their truck.
When going on to the roof of the Empire in 1990 I would have liked to have gone scrambling among the gutters, cupolas, bends looking for the pieces of shrapnel I knew must be there, perhaps next time when someone is on the roof . . pick up those rusty pieces of iron and steel. . . . that's World War 2. . . if not World War 1 . . . . history you are holding.
Another war-time memory is hard to pin down for a date. The first V2's [ rockets] fell in September 1944, and it seemed as if we had been on the receiving end for ages. However, it was a Saturday afternoon matinee. It was just a routine show, I can't recall any other act that day.
There was a tenor doing a fill-in number, or was he a baritone, anyway male vocal solo will do. He stood at the floats, in full evening dress, tabs closed behind him, and was warbling away. . . "Bless this House ". . . complete with gestures. He made a dramatic pause, the music swelled, he took a breath. . . then "CCRrrr. . . umPP". The all-too familiar event of a V2 rocket landing in the distance . The singer made a sotto-voice remark with a smile to those in the front stalls, they giggled. It was taken up by those behind them, and then through the whole theatre as we took up the unheard false joke. What he said I have no idea. Perhaps it was "Crickey . . . it worked!". or "missed us", but it certainly gave a little relief. We were too callous by that stage of the war to wonder at the fate of those at the end of that V2's trajectory, and settled back to enjoy the show, happy that it had "missed us". Later I found out in had hit a suburban street market, killing and wounding a large number of people. There were no supermarkets in those days, and the weeks shopping was usually done on the Saturday.
A few weeks later I was at the first house of an Empire show. That familiar "CRrr. . . umPP" came again, but a little closer than the one felt at the Empire. The first half was just finishing. I made my way home. Looking down Marsh Hill from Hackney Hospital the bottom near Daubeny Rd looked like a scene from Dante's Inferno. A gas main was belching a huge bluish flame in the air, and by its light the rescue squads were digging away in the rubble and crater. An Army searchlight on off-focus gave better illumination. There was some damage to the walls of my home, but just plaster lathes showing through the walls of the rooms.
On with my Civil Defence uniform and down to the incident and got the odd job to do. A Mrs Binnet was in the Incident Office, setup in a shop. She was very distraught. Seeing me she recognised me said. "I can't find David or Alfie " ( Two of her three sons, a very common complaint after an incident) which I treated too lightly, and murmered, "they'll soon be here", then I got another job to do. Then slowly information came in and the Intelligence Section built up its records.
There had been several boys on the corner with their 'bikes when the V2 hit. None survived. What the boys were doing on the corner at that particular time haunted the father of two of them - and their mother, the rest of their lives. He sent them away because they were making too much noise outside their house. There's one obsession I've not been able to break - never turn anybody away from from the door in anger.
My last memory of V2 rockets is the one that hit the gasometers at Haggerston, today I am told the area is parkland. That fell one morning before 8 am. I was walking to work along Morning Lane when that familiar "CRruummmMP" came. I looked down the street behind the Polikoff factory and there was a huge dull, orange and red Sun rolling along behind the factory and roof-tops. Many people were incinerated in their homes that morning.
Last year Herr Oberth died. The father of German rocketry, under him, men such as Ley and von Braun studied and the V2 was developed. An astronautical organisation I belong to proposed an Obit for him. My suggestion was that the names of all those who died in the V2 attacks on Britain be carried on the space craft that one day will take humankind to the stars. Without their deaths rocketry would not have reached the stage we are at today. In time it will give humanity the planets, stars, galaxy and universe, The deaths will not have been for nothing after all. But what is to follow rocketry ?
In those war years we were encouraged to remember things by cartoons and rhymes. The 'buses had a sticky webbing on the bottom half of the top deck windows. One cartoon had a man peeling it off, another man was correcting him: "I trust you'll pardon my correction - that stuff is there for your protection". Or to hail the bus "Face the driver. . . raise your hand. . . . you'll find he will understand". Then the laconic message "Careless Talk Costs Lives".
Which leads into the time when "Henry Hall's Guest Night" came to the Empire for a week. It had a top spot on the radio. Hall was the band leader with a wide following. His show one night at the the Empire show was recorded. It was absolutely packed that night. The message an enemy was always listening was brought to us. At the 'warm-up' we were told every word said had to be read from a script in case there was a code in use. Similarly no live broadcasting was permitted, it was claimed the enemy could work out weather patterns from the quality of the sound. Films of that period often show live broadcasting, were we really fooling the enemy with recorded shows and scripting to stop a code being used ? (See Note 2.)
In those mid-war years the 'Russians'(Soviets) were our friends, why even the best people were a mild Pink those days. Around 1942 our "Red" allies were very hard-pressed with the Germans near Moscow. The Communist Party had its "Second Front" campaign. They wanted an invasion of Europe to help take the pressure off the Eastern Front. By 1944 we all realised the mammoth effort needed to invade Europe Even the Germans had hesitated at crossing the Channel.
The Second Front rolled past the Empire too.
It was just after D-Day and a huge convoy of military vehicles came along Lower Clapton Road, then turned into Mare St ( the old Narrow Way) and carried on to the Empire. There was no cheering or applause. We all knew it was not a patriotic parade this time, but the real thing. Soldiers off to war. Their Bren Gun Carriers, smoke-makers, trucks and other vehicles taking a good hour to pass while traffic was halted. They evidently would have carried on to the wide Kingsland Road and gone all the way to the docks to embark for France. How many other armies from the Romans onwards used that route, where had this World War 2 contingent assembled to start its journey to war. Were there Hackney soldiers in that convoy and for some, was it their last look at the old Hackney Empire?
The Empire would have seen many patriotic parades going along Mare St. Probably some while it was being built during the Boer War, many others in World War 1, and who knows how many in World War 2 when there was a 'new' Council House and Square alongside to offer marchers, VIP's and populace. Myself as part of the ATC contingent, (never thinking I'd wear captain's pips in the Australian Army. . . and once heading a civilian mission with the Special Air Services Regiment.) Did Lord Haw Haw actually mention the Council Square and Empire in his infamous "Gair-manny Cawwling" radio broadcasts. He is alleged to have commented on a downed German plane on exhibit there, telling Hackney to move it, or the Germans would. A nearby near-miss added to the legend. Or was it something started by one of the alleged 'fifth column' ?
He ended his days at the end of a rope in the Tower of London.
Left - The Hackney Empire's original Matcham Facade in a photograph taken in August 2009 - Photo M.L.
The Empire played its role in the "Second Front" and other Communist campaigns. Sunday was the best day for political rallies.
The comrades could even sit in the best seats too, and for free" But even in those days the comrades had crowd manipulation to a fine art. I went to one rally at the Empire and saw their crowd technique at work. It is so good that even the well-known hot gospellers, faith healers and others use parts of it today.
First comes the pitch for funds, then the hard sell, and then the 'bite'. "Who will give the first. . . (high denomination note?)"
Long pause. . . then up goes A HAND WITH THE BILL " . . . right. . . over there" Give the Comrade/Brother/Sister (et al) a big thank you ///////"
(i) "The party will be forever grateful. . comrade"
(ii) "Bless you for doing the lord's work "
(iii) (write your own here)
The first time I saw the technique it was a call for a Five Pound Note, about a months wages for a boy on One Pound twelve shillings a week. When all the fivers had been culled from the mob, it was the turn of the One Pound note, then at a much faster rate the ten bob notes, when they had been milked it was the coins in the pail, bucket, hat. It was very hard not to dig deep in the emotive atmosphere whipped up, and I felt ashamed at not having a note to give, they had to make do with my two-bob bit.
But when worked properly it certainly gets people digging into the wallets, then when the sheep have been fleeced, it's down to the next big denomination, and so on down the line, until its the plebians turn to put their coins into the pails, buckets or other containers that have been placed strategically, like a child's training pot, under the end seats of the rows
But pumps need priming.
So placed in the audience are the shills, or gees, armed with the necessary-valued note, and waiting for the cue word , or gesture, to jump up with THE note. . . and so on down the line.
Any conscious quirks are quelled with "You are doing it for the Lord/Party/Movement. . . . brother/sister/comrade. "
Watch for it next time you are at well organised fund-raising rally for a CAUSE.
At a religious rally look at the number of 'witnesses' who come forward. One hesitantly comes forth, then another then another, and more and more and more, the trickle becomes a flood and the arena soon packed with those coming forward for the Lord. "Oh Great is their Salvation. "
Well at the pre-briefing the faithful are told to watch for the witnesses coming forth, and then sized up, and told that when they see a person of their age and sex enter as witnesses, to follow them and act as their guide for the mission. However, there's been a pre-pre-briefing and yet another group are told they are doing the Lord's work. People are shy of coming forward so need a little encouragement. "So. Brothers and sisters. . . we want you, you and you to take that first step forward so that others will follow"
There's a lot of money raised. . . . there are a lot of 'sinners' coming forth. . . . how many are genuine . . . ?
In America a 'good' evangelist can earn $50 million (yes, fifty million) a year by using these and other techniques. The Rev Popov had his rackets busted a year or two ago by the CSICOP organisations, and even today the mind-readers, channellers, pyschics never seem to be able to use their powers when a Skeptic is around.
But let's talk about entertainment at the old 'Empire".
Who can remember the "Daily Mirror's" comic strip "Jane", when Churchill wanted it closed because of some heavy wartime criticism, he was told the morale of the troops would plummet. Jane was the 'grandma' of Modesty Blaise, and Jane would invariable lose all, or strategic parts of her clothing, somehow I can't recall any of the plots in Jane's strips - comic, that is. Jane came to the Empire in 1942 or 1941, didn't do anything, just a pose, and she was ugly. Alas, we found out that the Empire's Jane was but one of the composites used by the artist drawing Jane.
Another stripper was so old her face reminded me of my favourite aunt, Aunt Lena , but alas the stripper was part of a double act, a guy did the lifting. She got laughs when none were meant. In high-heel shoes she tripped daintly - almost a Grecian bend - across the stage to her waiting lift, paused and lost her momentum, and climbed up him to her pose. The other part I can recall was her all-over pink and the way her fat bottom wobbled in the 'run-up'.
The aim of nearly every amateur act was to be 'discovered' by Carrol Levis. His show went for a few decades. Before World War 2 and also after it. Not only was it a stage show that came to the Empire fairly regularly, it was also a radio show with heats and winners and then tours. The Carrol Levis show was good enough to be a full variety show in itself. Alas magicians were never included. I think it was Levis who was credited with saying he would never include a magician - they slowed up a show.
Looking back on it he was right. In the basic four minutes allowed the act had to have that 'something' that made it different. The silent manipulators, Slydini-style, could do it, few of those working the tabs could. A couple stand out though. The first time I saw a 'sucker' trick, where the trick goes 'wrong', and the magician is chagrined. He gets his applause, apologises, repeats it and it works. The audience have been sucked in. Different from the 'cod' magic of Tommy Cooper and Arthur Dowler. The latter bringing the house down at the Empire. I made up a party of young magicians (20 yr olds) of the Institute of Magicians and we clubbed in and booked the left- hand box to go and see him. It was an experience. It seemed as if we were on stage ourselves bathed in the lights and all eyes on us.
Arthur was to repeat his success in America, they had trouble with his north of England accent of course, but then he was to die a relatively young man. Our Tommy kept going. . . and going. . . and going and went out the way he would have appreciated. In the early days Tommy was a regular visitor to the magic societies: Always a riot!
The mini-illusionists like Col Ling Soo, and Sim Sala Bim, who had a 15-min closing act were different, while The 'Great' Lyle did the full two hour show.
The jugglers however could keep a show moving, whether Chinese or not, they were never Japanese of course. Monsewer Eddie Grey would have led them. Later to join the Crazy Gang. I think it was a Cinqavelli who was a Human Billiard Table. Cups on his elbows, ankles, shoulders and other portions of his anatomy. The balls would roll around his body and go into the pockets.
Several of the popular radio shows, and stars, came to the Empire. There was "Hi Gang" with Vic Oliver. Max Wall and Bebe Daniels and Ben Lyon. Max played the xylophone, Vic Oliver was a kind of Victor Borge (in fact the first time I heard Borge I thought it was Austrian-born Oliver, their accents and material were the same ) Bebe Daniels the female comic, they made a good lively trio. She was married to Ben Lyon an American light actor and comic, but played a memorable straight part in Howard Hawke's film classic "Hells Angels"
Some of the "Hi Gang" were in a film in 1943, it was set some time after the war,"Give us the Moon." There was a young girl in it, about 14, (very appealing to this 16 year old.) It was Jean Simmons making her debut. However, there was a bill-board in one scene, the copy reads "Spam - still delicious." It was a good joke and when it came into a panned shot it went down well. There were other 'in' jokes as well. Every time I see Spam on a supermarket shelf I do an inward chuckle. Spam had just come into the shops on ration points, part of the Lend Lease deal with America (which ripped Britain off in her hour of desperate need.) But the name Spam to us newly-emerged pubescents evoked erotic associations with ejaculate. Nowadays the word in Australia has taken on more of its American meaning and is used in'polite, with-it' society, and on TV to denote a macho image.
Anne Shelton was at the Empire one week, and as well as capturing her audience in her own style, did a Vera Lynn take-off. Vera never knew what to do with her hands. So like a pleading little girl, clasped them together high on her bosom. Anne did the "Yours" number, then, glancing down at her clasped hands, high on the chest, jerked them down very guiltily... we all knew what she meant.
What were the names of the long and short pair of female comics with a staircase routine? Was it Gert and Daise? They were in a sketch in a shop. The long, tall thin one had to go up and down steep stairs several times to get to the basement. It was all an illusion- as we all realised. She would go behind a low screen, representing banisters, and jerkily lower and raise herself. She got a good laugh and applause each time she worked it.
"Kooringa" was a female fakir, I'm not sure just when I saw her act. She worked with crocodiles, or were they alligators. Anyway, a girl assistant in the show wasn't going to find out when one snapped out out of the alleged 'hypnotic'trance Kooringa had placed on it. (She really just made them cross their eyes and that made them go rigid) This crocag suddenly woke up and made a dash for the girl, who promptly panicked and was backing off into the wings. Kooringa to the rescue, a few passes over the eyes, and it went back to 'sleep'again Kooringa climbed a ladder made of knife blades, ate fire, glass, went rigid into catelepic states. Another good traditional Empire act.
Fake Yank Ranks
It was late 1944 that I developed a loathing for what is called "Wooloomooloo Yank". (This is a fake American accent first adopted by Sydney's radio disc jockeys, it is now standard for any singer, warbler, radio-TV commercial backing and even election jingles for Labour Prime Ministers. ) The song "Woody Wood-Pecker Saung" was the hit of the day in 1944 and it was very easy to get the audience to join in when the act was flagging. It was sung at the Empire at a Saturday afternoon matinee. Complete with bellowed "Saung". Perhaps I was more up-tight than expected that day and perhaps a reason why today I reject any act at auditions attempting fake Yank. Two or three words and notes, and it's "Thank you - don't call us, we'll call you. " ( Unless actually called for as in an "Oklahoma" number.)
Next to me that day was the younger brother of my former best mate. We had buried him the day before. He had died of meningitis.
John "Ginger" Jenkins and I were Messenger Boys in the Civil Defence Corps, ( meeting at high-school before the war, becoming enemies and fighting, then evacuated together - becoming mates) and used to go the Empire together. A 'Doodle-Bug' (VI Flying-Bomb) dropped at the bottom of Sydney Road (now called Kenworthy I am told) the first Sunday morning of the V1 attacks. We attended the incident. Germs of centuries floated in the thick dust that hung over the site for while, then disturbed again as victims were pulled from the debris. John got his infectious 'wog' through the thin nasal membrane of adolescents. From there into the linings of the brain It was not only soldiers who died on battlefields, death also came to those who fought as civilians from disease. "Ginger" did get the honour of a Civil Defence funeral though.
A soldier did die that morning along with civilians. This young soldier, not much older than I, was killed when a V1 hit at the bottom of Chatsworth Road. At first just a foot in an army sock stuck up through the debris. Then as we dug down we uncovered the youth in a bent position with his head buried deep into his chest.
I was working at the Castle Cinema in Brooksby's Walk. Firstly as the Boy Usher, then the re-wind boy in the bio-box, where all the mysteries of past decades were revealed. (I had often looked up into those tiny windows and wondered what magical rites were performed) Then became assistant projectionist. In Australia I wrote, produced and directed a short film, "Behind the Bio-Box" which drew on that experience. One week in 1944 had that American weepie, "The Sullivans", it played to packed houses every night (It was a re-write of an Ameche film, "Four Sons" which didn't appeal in 1940. ) The next week there was hardly a person at any session!
The VI "Doodle-Bug" attacks had started. But it was still "the show must go on." A Doodle-Bug coming in sounded like an out-of-tune motorbike. Generally as long as you heard the ram-jet engine you could consider yourself reasonably safe. . . but when it cut-out there was 15 seconds to find out if was about to dive the last couple of hundred feet with one-tonne cargo of high explosive.
I was rarely at the Empire during those VI attacks. I was usually working nights at the cinema, but the Empire merely included an Alert warning under the programme number on the proscenium arch. The cinemas rigged up their own systems. A simple cut-out light might come on, or a slide break into the film and patrons could do as they wished. Take shelter, or stay and see the show. One place used an usherette to parade along the front of the stalls holding up an Alert sign, bathed in a spotlight. She would often be greeted with howls of derision for daring to spoil a highly-dramatic scene, and breaking the willing suspension of disbelief in the screen story.
After a week or two the audiences started drifting back to the Castle, were we used a simple cut-out sign under the screen, left on, if there was an Alert.
My job was to get on to the Castle roof when there was an Alert and watch and listen for any Doodle Bugs coming our way and posing a threat. If the VI's motor cut out and looked like diving on to, or near us, I was to shout down to the bio-box and they were supposed to frantically flash the Alert sign and presumably the audience could duck down under the seats. I had no fears for myself, it was all a great big adventure. Fortunately, that system never had to be used, but I did have a grandstand view of many V1's dropping. One did not behave as programmed by the Germans. Instead of diving it glided for miles, silently, and passed ominously between the Castle at its rooftop height and Homerton High St to crash elsewhere. After it had cleared what we called the Fever Hospital I went back into the bio-box, unconcerned at the fate of others when it did explode.
Another time I watched the final plunge of one into waste land near Hackney Wick. I will always recall the explosion's dull red colour, almost circus like, as it went up. Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour were in " Road to Morocco" at the time. They got an unintentional laugh when Hope tells Lamour that Crosby is a 'doodle bug' in an entirely different context. But most topical. The laughter spoilt the dialogue in the scene. Which I found out was not important when I saw and heard it again years later, in audience silence!
Tommy Trinder, Max Miller and similar names tumble over each other as the memory races through the great acts seen at the Empire. There would be Maxie (Harold Sargent) in his plus-fours Plaistowe pattern, working the tabs with his uke. Regretfully he never told any of the jokes attributed to him, but with a flash of those eyes that joke going over the maiden aunt's head was made all too clear to those wanting to 'see' it. When he came to his musical part he didn't get through to the elderly man sitting next to me. He said to his wife, " 'ear 'e mus git fifteen quid a week doing that." To him that was a large sum, and me too, but I reckon it must have been far closer to fifty quid, it was probably far more than that too. I have three of Maxie's records today, and recently an old trouper, who had worked the halls pre and post war, played me a videotape of a programme about Maxie.
The tap dancers, chorus line-up and other beginners blend together and the negro dancers could often do a cross-talk comic act. I have used one gag I heard there for many years when dealing with a sports injury to the knee. I do an examination, or apply a dressing, then ease the situation, say, "Well you've get to a new knee from Africa. . . . "Why?". . . "That's where the Knee-grows". It makes the casualty laugh all the way to the doctor. . . I hope ?
A witch-doctor turned up once. It was in the Battle of the Bands. One half of the stage held a conventional band, the other half a combination of exotics. They each played their various pieces and the audience judged which was best by their applause. The 'white' band had a compere. . . one gag he threw out went along the lines of "He's the guy with the moraccas.. . . I did say moraccas!" which was good for laugh. Then the exotics got a green lime and a witch doctor in mask, grass skirt and all his paraphernalia gyrated across the stage, crossing in front of the 'straight band.' Compere cracked. . . "Well at least on this side we kept our shirts on". It was something different anyway. Highland pipes and drums always made for a colourful - musical? - and military presentation as well.
The beginners job was to start the show while the audience came in, or straggled back from the bar, and sometimes they would miss a good act. One in particular was a chorus line, the name I forget. In this act all the girls were balanced on big beach balls and going through an intricate routine then one girl loses control, she wobbles all over the stage, clinging to other girls for support, but never bringing them down. It didn't take too long for most of the audience to realise it too was part of - if not the act. I wonder how many people it dragged back from the bars when they heard all the laughter. However there were usually always the high-stepping chorus line, the Tiller Girls, to rely on. Another chorus-line that sticks in mind were the Can Can girls, a lively spirited version, that in the early 1940's would surely have been choreographed by someone actually seeing the girls in Monte Marte doing their thing.
Christmas generally brought a panto, but none ever rivaled that "Mother Goose" of 1939. " Cinderella" was a hardy perennial, like that play "No Orchids for Miss Blandish". Dandino with her beaut legs, most of the characters borrowed without thanks from Maestro Rossini. (But where did Buttons come from?) The illuminated crystal coach always brought gasps and applause from the packed audience. With the blackout outside around for years the coach was a return to Southend ("Sow-Fend") illuminations of peace years. The question on everybody's lips was . . . "Does Cinders use a double when dashing up and down the staircase as the clock strikes out the hours?" Alas never to be answered.
The Fairy Queen for one "Cinders" was either well past her ballet Days, or had failed exams taken decades before. Her efforts got giggles from the more knowledgeable girls in the audience. As well as sniggers from those who thought they knew better.
"Aladdin" broke the "Cinderella" run one Xmas. In the cave scene the poor lad had been sent to the very bottom of the cave, while Abananza looked down from a great height. (Actually he'd got to the very top of the backdrop and looked down at the principal 'boy' - a-lad-in - a predicament.
One of the 'Chinamen' in flowing robes, round hat and long, drooping mustaches did a 'tab'act. He came out and explained he held a genuine Hawaiian guitar, which he played with a great deal of skill. Such is British panto that no one thought it an anachronism. I have always wanted to do Abanaza with a specialty magical act, but so far have only had the dual role of Cassim (chopped up in the first half) and then a specialty act as Court Magican in "Ali Baba". It gave a good feeling at the finale's line-ups to whip off my magician's hat and facial hair (taking the skin one night) to get audience recognition for Cassim too. My other panto's take in "Puss In Boots", "Babes in the Wood" and a "Red Riding Hood"
What was the panto at the Empire with the panto horse where the operators had a disagreement? The kicks and rumbles getting a laugh at first, then some of the audience realising something was wrong. Eventually, the fighting got so dinkum the 'horse' collapsed in a heap near stage left, still fighting , and one of the cast on stage helped pull the curtain out to cover the disagreement. . . but the show still went on in the best tradition. I never did get any back-stage gossip on that affray.
But there was one year when the comic came out in ballet dress, complete with red nose and brief tutu. It was very broad humour, and he did have a broad derriere which he exploited to the full, it was a most entertaining tab act, so good I forget what followed when the front cloth went up.
Occasionally such comics would come out and do a tab piece. I can recall a Scottie in a short tartan kilt and panties doing a tap, hand clapping, acrobatic piece that also got him good applause.
Stanelli was a violinist, who could play the classics too, but preferred to give them a comedy interpretation instead. Not the slow, impeccably-timed discordant note/s of Jack Benny, but more lively and robust. He would also turn up in the occasional film as the crazy or harassed European symphony orchestra conductor. Other unusual violinists could play upside down, behind their back, on their heads and still keep us entertained.
WE MEET THE BARD
Shakespeare also made it to the Empire, but alas poor Yorick, not quite the way Sir Larry would have presented it. Twice a night, three times on matinee days, Hamlet made an appearance, well not all of him, just part of him:
Act 1. Scene 1. Marcellus says to Bernado, "What, has this thing appeared again tonight?"
It was on the asbestos fire curtain which by law had to be lowered and raised in the presence of every audience. In the early days of theatre there were disastrous fires. The floats actually were floats. A trough of kerosene (paraffin) with floating wicks gave the illumination. When there was an accident the stage and theatre caught fire with loss of life. The best known fire was the one where magician and illusionist Lafayette died. Legend has it he went back stage to try and save his beloved dogs, but failed. When two bodies looking like Lafayette were found it was suggested this was a double used by Lafayette in his baffling illusions.
There were longer versions of Shakespeare's plays presented however. . . but not quite in the traditional manner.
There were many people made familiar with his "Romeo and Juliet" by Leon (Shakespeare) Cortez. I am sure that if Will had ever seen Leon present his version he would have enjoyed the good gutsy bawdy jokes in the parody. To hear the audience break up when he came to the finale stays with me. Leon is describing Juliet's death in the tomb, surrounded by all the dead bodies, she wakes from her trance, only to find. . . but let's quote Leon . . .
"There she is... she wakes up. . . and there she sees this ere Romeo there, and wonders which of all these geezers had stuck 'er in the family v-v-v ( pause) vault. . . " The masterly timing and earlier gags, with stooges, cannot be explained in bare print, it needed to have been seen. Nevertheless it must have given many people their first introduction to the basic story. Soon after coming to Australia I heard a radio segment on Auntie ABC, it too was giving a colloquial and descriptive runthrough of "Romeo and Juliet", I thought it was the Leon Cortez version. There were none of the bawdy bits I wanted to hear. Then towards the end realised it was a poem by C J Dennis where a young boundary rider tells his mate about the play he had seen in the big city. C J Dennis, an Australian bush poet, can certainly rank among the greats of the world.
Another set of regular visitors before and between the programme were the advertising slides. One was always good for a laugh. CADBURY'S chocolates, with their glass and half of milk. Hardly ever in the shops, and then on a ration card. But Cadbury's maintained their advertising throughout the war, and the tough times afterwards. That image was retained by civilian and service personnel all those dark years. When times got better they bought Cadbury's, their children were brought up on Cadbury's in the home. With their pocket money they bought..? Then when adults with kids of their own they too bought..? And reinforced by Cadbury's advertising today, still with that glass and a half! It Pays To Advertise.
There is only one sad incident I can recall at the Empire. Looking back it was probably something designed rather than spontaneous. It was an anti-Semitic 'demonstration'. Its origins were 'over my head' so I could not have been very old. It was the first and only time I ever heard heckling of an artiste there, other than that set up by the act. The act was Issy Bonn, the Jewish Comedian, that was the billing. Issy told a few straight jokes, then went into a song. Then the heckling from several spots started. The comment I recall was "Sing us the prisoner of war song. . . Issy". Issy waited. Not saying a word. Then putting his arms on the microphone stand, let it go down slowly. Then he spoke as he pulled it up and adjusted it again: "Trouble with the Irish. . . come up Mike!" He got a laugh, a round of applause, and finished the act in what seemed a normal style.
What was racism in those days ?
There were many black acts at the Empire, generally a tap-dancing duo, perhaps it was something there under the surface, few of us had much contact with black people in those days on a one-to-one basis. There was a little fuss when a Fire Brigade withdrew its usual gesture of providing blankets to servicemen caught overnight between trains. These were black troops. The excuse, "black men don't sweat the way we do!" That there could be a difference was indicated when Hutch, the black pianist and singer, appeared at the Empire. He sweated most profusely. Indeed it was his 'gimmick'. He was always mopping his face. An impersonator could always get a laugh with a wet sponge in hanky and wringing it out. Today a Pavarotti take-off' only needs to pull out a wet hanky, wipe his face, then wring the cloth for a laugh
Perhaps I came up with a racist remark when a mini-teener and seeing a black man in RAF uniform, with a Jamaica flash, I naively asked him, with every good intention in the world, if he found it awkward wearing clothes. He laughed off this little boy's question without offense . . . I fear he had heard it too many times before.
But firemen were heroes in those days. Overnight they went from being called four pound a week dodgers before the Blitz to their heroic status. My mother would often tell of the firemen surrounded by flames in our back yard playing their hose on the burning house across the way. The oil bomb outside our front door fortunately didn't ignite. It was one of a stick dropped from Marshes onwards.
(Humprey B Jennings made his only drama-documentary with "Fires Were Started". It showed how the Auxillary Fire Service, later called National Fire Service, had fought the blitz. When the Germans saw it after the war they could not believe that was how the Third Great Fire of London was actually fought. "If we'd had known" they are reported to have said when assured it was factual, "We'd have carried on fire bombing")
Hutch was among the many pianists appearing at the Empire. Perhaps the best known of these were the duo, Rauwitsch & Laundar, (if I have their names spelt correctly). With their grand pianos 'kissing' they would go through a medley of 'pop' classics and other favourites. Once there was a female, of that we were made well aware. What she lacked in her technique at the piano she made up for when she swapped it for a piano-accordion. Then standing up showed off her brief tights, with pink rear skirting and a magnificent pair of legs as she strutted up and down the stage.
THE AUSSIE CONNECTION
An Aussie act, or one claiming to be, was a frequent visitor. The "Old Australian Sundowner" ( A swaggie who used to arrive at homesteads at sundown, when all the work was done, and beg for his tucker). The artiste entered top stage left, battered hat and long coat, bent body, playing a concertina in a halting fashion. Then he'd stand up, throw off his clobber and stand there in white shirt and jodhopers. His nearly bald head shining in the spots. Then play a whole range of instruments, ending up with a saxophone.
One week we were promised a boxing kangaroo. . . great disappointment. Certainly the roo wore boxing gloves, but never used them. He simply sat back and balanced on his big tail and lashed out with his feet at his human opponent. It was a lesson in marsupial anatomy if not entertainment
Tommy Handley's "ITMA" was still being played on Australian radio around 1949-51. I was in a coffee shop late one night after doing a magic act at a private function. There was young chap with me enjoying coffee and toast. It had been his first paid show as an entertainer at the same function. Tommy Handley could be heard in the background as we talked, or rather as I pratted on with all my extra 'years' of experience in the business. Drawing on the couple of thousand acts I had seen at the Empire. He listened too. Today the whole world knows of him. He listened to my tales of the Hackney Empire and learned, but very few others have.
But another one did. In 1977 I auditioned an 11 yr old boy for a part in "Babes in the Wood." I picked him as star material from his opening effort, despite it being his first time on stage. I still keep in touch with that boy, kid from Cloverdale, called Danny Roberts and known in Europe for "Sons and Daughters" and other Australian television roles. When he was Jack in "Jack and the Beanstalk" in London, 10, 000 seats were sold in advance. Keep your eyes open for a young magician, illusionist, ventriloquist, clown, actor and all-round entertainer Jim Morrison, he should get to the top too in a few years time. He's already made tours of Japan, and Australia's eastern States. I had Danny and Jim doing a double clown act in shopping centres. Danny was 16 then, and as we sat in the manager's office having a drink, Danny said he was off to the eastern States to make his name.... he did too! I wonder what the future holds for other young entertainers I am trying to develop? Today he is married and his son is doing well in the teenage soaps.
Somewhat later I taught Joan Sydney (Matron Sloane in "Country Practice") and her sister, Maggie King, their magic for a show "Songs from Sideshow Alley," by Robyn Archer. Joan and Maggie are two Pommy troupers in the old tradition, and can handle the 'soaps' and telemovies too.
It was in 1943 I first saw a comedy act using a trampoline. Then it was over forty years, and a hemisphere apart, before I saw another comedy trampolinist. In all those years I often suggested to trampolinists they work in comedy. But no. All thought their act with tumbles and gyrations was good enough as it was. It was at a Circus Oz presentation I saw comedy trampoline again. As good as that 1943 comedy trampoline act had been, this was a hundred times better, and a world class act. The act was with Silver's Circus very recently, and watch for it if an Australian circus makes it to British television screens.
Memories blur and tumble over each other, was that act early in the war, during or after it? One experience was post-war for sure It was a very warm day. That I can recall because for the first time ever in my attendances the bio-box opened up the central rotunda's cover high above us. It peeled back like a pair of eyelids opening, sending a shaft of sunlight into the auditorium while we waited for the show to start. During the war years it must have been sealed tight. We were all well aware of the need for a blackout. However, we never thought about searchlight beams breaking it or the fires started by air raids. The closing of the aperture brought forth eager anticipation, the show was about to start.
Others were definitely post-war, and post-army too, still more seen on leave. I was late getting into the Army, but still caught up with the Empire when on leave, and yes The Great Lyle was there again. Went up and helped with the Egg Bag trick, a great item that, do it close up, or on a full stage. I remember VJ (Victory in Japan) Day very well. I was in a camp in Yorkshire and was being transferred to the Isle of Wight to join the Parachute Regiment. Six of us fresh-faced kids were making our way from one railway station to the other. In FSMO (Field Service Marching Order) or everything the Army had issued or you owned. Kitbag over one shoulder, rifle over the other, and festooned with large pack, small pack, pouches, water-bottle, bayonet et all, we asked our way from station to station.
The trains blew their whistles all along the track that day, people at their doors, seeing us kids ( for that's all we were) some women at their front gate said, "Are you boys coming or going ?" ... " Coming," we said... "oh, " said the women, " we thought they 'ad sent you all 'ome". The troop trains were still operating and working to the routines perfected by years of war. At some stations there were reception committees with jam jars full of tea, and for some, a sandwich. The empty jam jars were handed over at the next stop. So on VJ Day 1945 I joined the para's with indelible memories. Two days later the QM had said "peace time issue." So one pair of socks went back. The armourer said "No wire gauze on rifle pull-throughs" so with a ritual circumcision sliced off that excellent rifle barrel cleaner at the extreme end of the pull-through.
For me there was still a little time to go in the Army, but others were getting out, and with them the teams who made up the services concert parties, or shows with a military theme. The 'Gang-type Shows' came to the Empire. There was "Cheerful Charlie Chester" and the leads from other popular radio shows. That perfect observer, the good old working man, summed up one concert party's chorus 'girl' line-up very well. He whispered to his wife, "They're all the Nancy Boys from the Army." Empire management was still giving new acts a 'go' and one week on came a vocalist with a banjo. The booth announcer said it was his first civvy appearance here at the Empire. He'd been a warrant officer before. (He gave an amateur effort at comedy when trying to duck behind the piano at that comment.) It was just a pleasant enough act. He came back a year later and had developed a more friendly parlour-style attitude. He went on to become a radio favourite... his name... Donald Peers with his "Babbling Brook." I think Ronnie Ronalde, with his whistling act, made an early appearance too. Frankie Howerd was there for one gang show. I had never liked him on radio, but when I saw him working live I realised he was a great comic and ever since have enjoyed his many bawdy roles on television and in films.
There was an act that had half the audience 'sitting on its hands' with the other half 'rolling in the aisle'. It was an act that must have been polished, refined and honed through years of camp concert shows. Those of us in the audience who had been through it got a double laugh . First from the double entendre 'in' jokes, then again laughing at the civvies who were not getting the joke.
The young performer was working the tabs wearing a dinner-jacket, sophisticated comic style. He adopted the style and tone of a commanding officer welcoming new recruits to his camp. He started off:
"Welcome to Bullshot camp". . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . (First snigger)
"Today you have had your FFI. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . (Laughs)
"Your First Free Issue" . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . (Guffaws)
"You also have your blanco. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . (Wait for it )
"The only item of your kit not blanco'd". . (Hysteria)
There was much more in the same vein. Eventually the civvies caught on this was a bawdy act and were not going to be left out, so joined in the laughter, taking their cue from ex-service and us service types. The act left to thunderous applause from the whole house, the civvies not wanting to be left out, or show they hadn't got it the way the rest had.
For those of you wondering what that was all about I should explain that even today the FFI is still performed on service personnel at camps all over the world. It's familiar name is "short-arm inspection" or Free From Infection. It's an inspection of the genitalia generally done en-masse. Blanco was a khaki-coloured paste of varying hues that was liberally applied to the webbing belts, gaiters, packs and anything else the Army decided needed to look 'clean'. I'm sure you've got the idea now.
Another post-war 'entertainment' were the Frogmen. A huge glass-fronted water tank was set up centre stage, and the 'Frogmen' did their thing by putting 'limpet' mines in the right place, without exploding them. Complete with running commentary. Hardly entertainment, but they still got huge applause when they flipped-flopped in all their gear to the floats. I often wondered who they were, could one of them have been Commander Crabb who got too close to a Soviet warship when in a British port for a ceremonial occasion? (The Queen's Coronation I think.) His body was found headless, with all the frogmen gear, several days after he went missing.
"Twenty Questions", or "Animal, Vegetable or Mineral," another of the radio shows with Stuart McPherson - I think- came to the Empire with 'smart' volunteers from the audience. Nothing really remarkable about it, except you managed to see what these radio voices looked like.
THE YANKS INVADE
The topline American acts were also coming to England. They were led by Mickey Rooney at the Palladium. Huge posters everywhere extolling the virtues of this great artiste. The First... the Great and so on. Poor Joe Rule bombed out, the audience sat on their hands. He flopped, the reviewers gave him a hammering... would any more stars come to Britain? Well one of the next along was a David Daniel Kaminski... he was so nervous he couldn't step out to face his first Limey audience. His films had all done alright. Someone gave him a push... he stayed out there for two hours! Danny Kaye had captured Britain. Sadly Danny Kaye was all front. He was known as a monster to his fellow actors and crews in later life, but as soon as a camera came on... it was the Danny Kaye of the screen image. The question has always been posed. If Danny Kaye had led the American invasion of Yankee acts would he have got the same treatment as Rooney? Then the Yanks got heart and most opened at the Palladium, then went on to the better music halls... and that of course just had to include the Empire.
First came the announcement from the booth, then the few bars of music and then the tenor tones of Alan Jones with his "Donkey Serenade"
Then the entry of star... a few songs... well received... the bows and exit. "Wot... no Donkey Serenade?" That's what we had come to hear and see... wild howls and applause... then by Public Demand, back comes Jones with his great encore, yes, "Donkey Serenade".
We left considering we had got our money's worth It was another lesson in showmanship, production and direction.
There was another tenor's name that came to the Empire; Mario Lanza, no not Alfredo Cocozza, killed by the Italian Mafia for not meeting his dues to the American Mafia while singing through a few films. (That other Maria Lanza had a few years to go before making a film.) The Empire's was billed as Mario (Harp) Lanza. Harp music had been popularised in films such as the "Big Store" with Harpo Marx, so the real Mario Lanza had a solo spot centre stage too and went down well with a mixture of old and new, backed of course by the competent band of hard-working musicians in the pit.
A further lesson came from the close-harmony group. "Four Hits and Miss." They too turned up in Yankee films, generally as the backing act in the cabaret scene. ( Usually when a country girl goes to the big city she has to stand in for the sick-missing-kidnapped-shot or otherwise hors de combat star and makes good) That was another lesson in deportment, a beautifully drilled and timed and line-up for final applause and encore.
The mime-team, George and Bobby Bernard scored well. Unfortunately far too many acts tried to copy them and 'miming' became a substitute for real talent, an artiste's song would be used and a clot open and close his/her mouth. They are still with us today. But every time I see a person imitating a recording, I think back to the great act of George and Bobby Bernard and to date have only seen one other mime act in Australia that had the same satire, pace, choreography and entertainment value.
Martha Raye came along to the Empire, with a long line of credits as a film comedienne. She accompanied herself on the piano and went down OK, but I was surprised to find that she included dirty jokes in the act... there was no need, she was good enough as she was!
Then came an acrobatic comic, a Frank Faylen I think... I saw him first at the Palladium... he was good... he was held over for their next variety bill... then held over again. Then he did the halls... which of course meant the Empire... but there he 'blotted his copybook'. Frank's act started by tap-dancing his way on from stage right. He would then trip and go over the floats ( you know where they are) and tumble into the orchestra pit. He would then do a series of stunts, and make a mess of most of them. He'd balance a chair on top of another and attempt to leap over the top one, but no! his toe would catch the top... and crash!... the lot would fall and he'd be in a heap. He would argue with the orchestra, "I told you to play Paganini..." gets handed the music"... look that's page nine!" Corny, yes, but when the guy has just saved himself from almost-certain death, it was a great laughter-getter. However, Frank left the British music-hall circuit after doing the Empire. Show-biz legend has it that he disgraced himself in a dressing room with a struggling Two-Ton Tessie O-Shea, her husband came to the rescue... and so Frank went back to the States.
Much earlier another acrobatic-type act impressed me. The sides of the dress circle culminate in the boxes (see above). In the left hand one there was a big well dressed man, he had obviously been indulging freely at the bar, because he fell out of the box, saving himself at the last moment with a one-handed grip. Then in his well-oiled state had to get himself back into the box, after some hilarious antics - and with assistance - he managed to get back into the box without crashing onto the folk below.
A trapeze-act is another I remember, he could do a double dislocation of both shoulders. He hung from the trapeze, and wrummp! an arm was out the socket, then wrummp, he put the other one out. Today with a little knowledge of anatomy, I marvel at that act and often think of it when having to deal with a shoulder displacement.
Another act that had the 'toffs' in the stalls and fautailles craning their necks up, and those of us in the circles looking down or along was a rope act. The rope had been strung from the Circles to the stage and a girl with a parasol for balance walked down it to the stage. For safety sake she was attached by a clip to the rope, but this is no way deterred the applause. After all, nobody wants a girl in their lap, at least not after a hundred foot fall or more. There were some excellent balancing acts too. Out of all of them I remember were the couple able to let the female partner balance on one foot on her partner's head while going through a variety of movements.
A LESSON FROM DANTE- AND ELSEWHERE
The greatest lesson I ever learned about the 'business' came not from the Empire, but at an unknown theatre in the West End. Dante the Magician opened for his first post-war British tour. I was lucky and was on leave at the time. So made a great effort to be there for his first 'night', actually it was his first day, or matinee. Theatre space was limited, so Dante (Harry Janssen) had to share his theatre with a play in the evening. Dante had made a film with Laurel and Hardy and was a bit of a legend among magicians. I paid my way in, cheapest seat of course, not quite the gods, but the next one down, and right up the back of that one too. Shown to my allotted seat I waited and was soon to be the only person up there! Craning my head I could see only a few heads down below too.
House lights went down... a spot on the curtains... Dante came through... "well," I thought, "here's where we get our money back," but no . Dante gave us a grand welcome... he said there'd be short delay before the show started... and why... well he wanted us to sort out the best seat in the house we wanted... he'd pay, and we'd get the full show. So I went right to the front of that Upper Circle. Dante put on his full show for half-dozen people, with a crew of about 20 or more people. Did Dante pack-up and go home? No. He stayed. Within a few weeks he had moved his show to a much better theatre (The Gaiety I think) and with two shows a night, plus the usual matinee, was packing them in with standing room only... and he gave the same full show too. The reviews in magical magazines said it was a "pale imitation" of his pre-war show. WOW! That must have really been something. Even that post-war Dante show made Lyle's shows at the Empire look like a good amateur's efforts.
When I came to Oz I met up with another Dante legend. There were two Dante's... an American one and an Australian one. The Yank one I knew, but here in OZ was the one and only Dante too! How come? He was working the agricultural shows in country towns, and the occasional State Fair (or Royal Show). There he was in side-show alley with all the gaudy, garish front drops you can imagine. He'd be out there on the line-up with Billy Andrade, a great Oz clown. They were still doing the interval spot at the pictures too. I got to know both of them well, and solved the great puzzle for me.
There had been yet another Dante the Magican (Oscar Allison) in America, and his name had been taken over by the one seen at the West End. He came to Oz just before World War 2 only to find there was someone using the name Dante. There was a confrontation between them then fisticuffs, and one got his jaw broken. Legal action followed, and it was shown the Oz Dante had used the name before the Yank Dante, so a compromise was reached. The American Dante could use the name in Australia, but the Oz Dante could use all of the American's promotion and publicity in his own tours. Our Oz Dante kept going around fairgrounds, sideshows and cinemas for years and years.
"Hellzapoppin" also went to the West End with Olsen and Johnson. It had been made into a film, and a spin off, so it had a name to live up to... it did. It was packed every night, and I can say that was the funniest show I have ever seen, but of course it had been doing the rounds of American States for years and highly polished.
Ralph Slater, an American hypnotist, made the West End, better than Peter Casson, these hypnotic acts rapidly degenerated and for the past 40 years all we ever see are slapstick stooges a few deluded people and another few going along with the gag. Like that free lunch... "there ain't no such thing" as hypnotism either in entertainment or medicine. (Yes I have done hypnotism... and also that little medicine too.) I can never recall a hypnotist at the Empire, along the lines of Slater and Casson. The nearest thing to it would have been the Kooringa girl with her cross-eyed crocs.
Did Wee Georgie Wood ever come to the Empire? I don't remember. Another midget did, Jimmy Clithero was in one show and his small stature allowed him to handle all the dirty bits and get an extra laugh. I should have known about Wee Gorgie Wood and Dolly Harmer. The Varney family were related to them. A Frank Varney worked the halls along with a Beryl Harmer, but I can never recall meeting up with them. (Reg, of course was a concert-party pianist before getting into TV comedy. His father was a pianist too.)
No mentioning of other variety shows would be complete without a look at other music halls and entertainment venues. In particular Collins Music Hall. The grand-daddy of them all. Its acts were rarely, if ever, the first-class ones of the Moss and Stoll circuits that ranged from Wood Green, to Finsbury and Kingston.
Left - An image of the original frontage of Collins' Music Hall - Courtesy Peter Charlton.
George Robey, as mentioned, was there, way past his abilities, Harry Tate Jnr in his father's (?) motoring sketch, the Two Pirates in a fake balancing act "Oh yes there are... Oh no there isn't." The father-son 'Chinese'dancers, Artemis with his fake magic. Then ice and water pouring all over the small boy assistant from the audience (he looked remarkably like the woman in the act, as did other kids coming up to get doused as the curtains closed. ) They did make another West End variety house.) The dressing rooms at Collins reminded me of dungeons cut into rock. There is one 61 year old, well-known in the "Thee-A'tric-AL" Australian arts scene, who was passed over the footlights of Collins as a babe a few weeks old in 1949. Is he proud of that traditional honour... or does he disguise it from the 'blue rinse brigade, as he does his original name? I hope it is the former. (Put your hands in the air Simon if it is.)
Then there was an Empire at Kingston-on-Thames, where there was a military convalescent depot for those of us needing it. There I saw the mental act of Maurice Fogel, and even though a fairly good magician by this time, wondered whether was "there anything in it?" I know now of course there was nothing but conjuring tricks involved. Another act there was Lionel King, a card worker, using three genuine assistants from the audience, he would demonstrate card sharping. His finale was to let them shuffle the deck and deal out hands for Kitty Nap ( Napoleon). The one with the worst hand would win all the tricks, as Lionel called the cards as he walked around the auditorium. I appeared in the local talent quests in the cinema too.
The British Legion and Working Men's Clubs of the north of England could also present top class acts on their Sunday afternoon shows. Top line comics, talented amateurs, composers playing their own music My club was the British Legion's Nottingham Ivy Leaf club. I was working in the coal mines then, and saw many acts equally as good as those at the Hackney Empire. Perhaps they picked up the extra job at the clubs. I would also do an occasional Sunday afternoon magic spot at the local cinema too.
The last show I can recall seeing at the Empire, complete with its gaudy poster, would today run foul of several sets of legislation. It was a "freak" show. Today the militants would have picketted it for exploiting "the unfortunate victims of nature" and its organisers severely punished for profiteering from 'elephant men'. To say nothing of false advertising. However, to me the show demonstrated the ability of humans to overcome their handicaps and made me proud of them. (I had just survived the first of a series of operations to last another sixty years as a medical 'guinea pig' and go into the medical text books.) The posters promised to show us the biggest man in the world, and also the smallest. To prove their point there was a dwarf/midget (Little Person) standing on the hand of a giant.
It was a most interesting show. The giant was huge, and dressed in top hat and tails, which increased his height. We were given his vital statistics, and great weight. He was Dutch. His English was poor, so that when he spoke it sounded like someone mentally-retarded. Then the booth announcer announced "the smallest man in the world." But out trotted a conventional dwarf, in the traditional walk. Naturally he looked small alongside the giant. He never got onto the giant's hand... as we all expected. We had been 'conned' in the best traditions of Phineas Taylor Barnum. Although there must have been a number of other 'freaks' in that show only one other stands in my memory. A lesson again in the human will and hidden abilities in our bodies.
This man had no arms. Whether born that way or lost them I forget. But he could do everything with his legs, feet and toes as if they were hands. Scratch his head, light a cigarette, write... and made it entertaining too. It gave me hope too, and I consoled myself if ever in the same predicament I could do the same. In fact I started using my left hand to do things and exercise my toes so that I can still grab items on the floor and lift them to my hand.
Over the years there would have been any number of brilliant, specialty acts. Most of them would do their four minutes or so, then be off. Often there could be a little talk before the act. An education in itself. (The 'Chinaman' in Aladdin with his Hawaiian guitar for example.) Typical of these was the man with the long, silver post-horn. He explained what it was. The trumpet blown as the stage coach (British of course) approached a staging point, hopefully Dick Turpin or someone else had not bailed it up. (Our Richard was a frequenter of the White Hart Inn over the Marshes). He then blew a range of calls, each a different message going on ahead. His finale was a resounding Post Horn Gallop, accompanied by the orchestra. Its notes still ring in my ears and reminded of it whenever a reasonable facsimile is heard, but never sounding as good as that one at the Empire. One can hear similar calls in Mozart and other composers' music with folk and every-day tunes included .
Freddie Brown was another xylophone player, but with lots of comedy thrown in. The hit tune of the day was "Deep in the Heart of Texas" which required singers to clap their hands five times. When Freddie did it, two great big hands swung out from the bed of the keys to give the claps, and lead the audience.
A comic did a tab act. He was well rugged-up, cap, scarf, overcoat and his face as white as a Joey clown. His opening line was as well-timed as that I saw of Jack Benny's at the Palladium. He waited and waited for the laughs to die down, then in a north-of England accent plaintively-bleated "Ah'M... not... WELL!" After that he had us all sympathising with his "condition" and that of fellow sufferers He was a tonic in himself to anybody really sick.
Cyril Fletcher was at the Empire one week with his monologues. He had just appeared in an Anna Neagle film, "Yellow Canarym," as a German spy talking in a code. Even in those days his "Story of Sonia Snell... to whom a serious accident befell..." could arouse a fair amount of suspicion and spy hysteria.
There were eccentric ballroom dancers, teams on roller skates whirling around on a huge inverted disc... and oh so many others. I would like to list more of them, but many names have long been forgotten, and the memories also dim. There were 20 acts, usually changed every week so I would have seen a few thousand performing at the Empire. I cannot really recall a bad act, or else that would have really stuck out and a vivid memory retained, like the heckling for Issy Bonn.
THE UNSEEN ARMY
But can one leave the Hackney Empire without a word for that unseen army behind the scenes. The men in the bio-box, the stage hands hidden behind the fold of the curtain as it rushed to close on an act. Their feet showing at times. The acts generally running like a well-kept clockwork motor, following the printed programme exactly.
On the sides of the proscenium arch the electric numbers were usually always the same as the programme. When on the very rare occasions there there was a change a new word flashed up, "Deputy." What did the musicians do in their little cubby-hole under the stage... have a have a quick drink at the interval, as one comic accused them of doing? They would emerge one by one , and take up their positions in the pit. A few discordant notes as they tuned up, then Paul XXXX, the orchestra conductor would take up his baton. The drum-rolls for the National Anthem would start. The audience would rise as one and stand still and silent. We were all very patriotic in those days. It would have been a very brave person who would have dared dishonour it.
Paul was the orchestra conductor, whatever his name was I cannot re-call although it was always on the the sixpenny, four-page programme He wrote and composed a song one year. How did it go? "Variety Turns Your Leisure into Pleasure It's the spice of life you see..." That's all I can remember now. It never took off despite the Empire's efforts to teach us it.
The front of house staff. What did they do during the day when not at a matinee? Did they have a day-job? Some did, and every night would earn extra income and keep the war-time workforce happy.
The acts themselves could relax at the hotel (pub) that adjoined the rear of the Empire. It nestled down a side lane within a few feet of the stage door not far from the god's entrance. There they would sneak out in full stage make-up that made them look like over-cooked lobsters or crabs. Then 'beef' about the rotten agents who had 'worked' some deal or other on them.
Let me conclude this personal stroll down memory lane - or Mare St - with a thought for the tower of the old church. In its day providing the simple-living, superstitious parishioners with the main form of mass entertainment available... religion. The gorgeously-robed clergy in their colourful raiment, the music and ritualised magic. The old church seeing them through pestilences, fire plagues and civil war and its remaining tower surviving the bombs of World War 11.
A little way up the street in year 1901 the Hackney Empire opened. It too provided the people of Hackney with their mass entertainment taking them through two World Wars, poverty, economic depression and post-war hardships. It has seen variety, vaudeville, plays , musicals, films, political rallies, bingo... and being cannabilised for an opponent... a television production studio... but has survived! Both structures have served the needs of parishioners and people of Hackney very well over the centuries and worthy of their retention.
Above - The Hackney Empire in August 2009 - Photo M.L.
The Empire is now over a 100 years old. Now as the Third Millennium has started, it is showing it will be just as important to the world of entertainment as it did opening the Second Millennium at the Empire's birth. That one has proven to be the most notable in human history. The third is going to have an even greater impact on human history than all the others put together. The Empire's first hundred years has seen more changes in every aspect of life and environment than in five or fifty thousand years of rituals and ceremonies from cave dwellers to that of entertainments in ancient Egypt to the plays of the Greeks.
Throughout it the Empire kept the traditions of good popular entertainment going... based on thousands of years of popular performing arts. The 'gilly gilly' men in the shadows of the Pyramids doing their 6, 000 years old cups and balls routines, the medieval market place entertainers, then further back to the shamans and medicine men of the cave dwellers. Live entertainers will keep fellow travelers amused on long space voyages, and who knows, perhaps one day on Planet X in a Galaxy far, far away, some enterprising promoter will one day present his "Real Live British Music Hall."
The above article was written by Danny Varney in 1991 and kindly sent in for inclusion on this site, with some revisions, by him in 2010.
All rights and Moral Rights reserved, Copyright © Danny Varney 1991.
Note 1: Please note that Percy Court, who worked on this production as stage and FOH manager, talks about it in great detail in his 'Memories of Show Business here', and says that the show opened on Monday, February 1948, at the Empress Theatre, Brixton as the beginning of an extensive tour which visited the London Palladium half way through before continuing on tour around the country afterwards. M.L.
Note 2: A visitor to the site, Alan Bunting, has sent in the following correction to the war time codes paragraph in the article, which Danny thanks him for. Alan says 'Wonderful article by Danny Varney re. Hackney Empire which I really enjoyed reading. However, regarding wartime, when he says "were we really fooling the enemy with recorded shows and scripting to stop a code being used ?" he has missed the point. The scripting ensured that a code WAS used. Coded messages, which were intended for British agents in occupied Europe and for people such as the French Resistance, were often incorporated into BBC radio programmes and, if scripts weren't used and closely followed, then the hidden message might be incorrect or not sent at all.' Alan Bunting.
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