Reminiscences of working Newcastle's Palace Theatre in the 1950s by Donald Auty
I spent my national service in Newcastle from March 1956 until December 1957. I was employed as a touring stage manager with revues and variety bills prior to this time having being brought up by my uncle, a producer of summer season shows and touring revues, called Jack Taylor after the early death of my father in March1949, therefore I had a good knowledge of the Variety Theatre Industry. I have worked in theatre as a tour manager/production manager/general manager/producer/stage director ever since and am, though semi retired, still involved in theatre throughout Europe. I am 66 years of age and I think I am very fortunate to be still working at my age.
The Palace (Shown Left) was a special place with a unique atmosphere it had a stage that was about 40 foot deep and larger than the Newcastle Empire. The auditorium was on three levels and seated in excess of 2000 people.
Left - The Palace Theatre, Newcastle.
It was unique because the lower boxes abutted onto the stage and you could shake hands with the artistes from them. In 1956 when I first visited the theatre it was starting to get shabby and in the first stages of decline. But even at this time when theatres were closing all over the country it had a following from the working class of Newcastle and played to good business even to paying touring revues that visited the place a salary instead of taking them in on a percentage of the box office takings. The audience could be much tougher than that at the Empire and it was not unknown for motor horns to be sounded in the pit on a Friday and Saturday night.
The theatre was owned by a local limited company the managing director being an alderman of the city called Rowe. The Manager was Stan Pell who had been part of a well known comedy act in the twenties and thirties but unfortunately the way that the theatre was run it was inevitable that it would close as tastes changed with the advent of television and the loss of the family audience through presenting nude touring revues. It was a great pity and had the building survived it would have been a great asset to the City, but there were no grade listed buildings in the late fifties.
The theatre had character especially with the orchestra that numbered 14 and was larger than that at the Empire (Shown Left). Most of the members had been there for more than thirty years and the sound was fantastic as long as they were not trying to play the current hit parade. I can still close my eyes and visualize them today. Anton Petrov was appointed musical director in 1955 and told that he could do as he pleased but was not allowed to sack anybody. The strings and woodwind sections were fantastic. They even had an oboe in the pit.
Right - The Empire Theatre, Newcastle.
Anton conducted the shows resplendent in tails and wearing a red carnation every night. After the theatre closed he became the pit pianist at the Theatre Royal playing before the plays started and during the intervals. He was brutally mugged outside Newcastle Central Station a few years ago whilst on his way home to Sunderland and this resulted in his death
The variety bills usually had a Scottish flavor which was very popular with such acts as the Prince Sisters who were two very attractive statuesque ladies who sang and played accordions. I lusted after them many a night when I was seated in the stalls and they performed their act; their wonderfully rubanesque thighs clad in spangled tights.
Pantomimes were presented by a Scottish producer called Pete Davis for many years. They were down to earth affairs and featured local comics such as Frankie Franks. One popular subject was Tom Thumb; it featured a ventriloquist called Tattersall who had a number of dolls, some of them walking across the stage. One of his dolls played the title part in the Tom Thumb pantomime. The pantomimes appealed to a working class audience at lower prices than the grand affairs at the Theatre Royal (Shown Left) and Empire and filled the theatre from the week before Christmas until the last week in February.
Left - The Present Theate Royal Newcastle - Courtesy Gareth Price.
The theatre closed in 1958 and it was not because it did not have an audience but because touring shows dried up that year. It was a sad loss. It was demolished in the early sixties and the site is now a car park fronted by shack like shops; if you go into the car park and move into the middle of it you are about in the place where Anton and the orchestra played. Look at the side of the adjoining building that still stands and you can see the line of where the stairs to the gallery were. Go and have a drink in the Hotspur pub that is still there and was opposite the stage door. Many a top name in variety has had a livener in there.
I do not visit Newcastle very often the Theatre Royal and the New Tyne Theatre are in a parlous state but if I walk up the Haymarket in the evening I seem to hear the sound of Anton and the Palace Theatre orchestra striking up the overture.
The above article was written by Donald Auty and kindly sent in for inclusion on this site in 2003.
Also see - Pantomime In the 1940s & 1950s By Donald Auty
Also by Donald Auty on this site:
Stage Struck Man - A profile of Donald Auty.
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