Twilight of the Touring Revue
By Donald Auty
The autumn of 1955 saw the first of a few low points in my career. I was 18 years old and had just finished a summer season for Cecil Buckingham in Bognor Regis at the Pier theatre now long gone. In those days Bognor boasted two summer shows. The big one on the Pier, Eric Ross' Dazzle at the Esplanade Theatre and a repertory company at the Winter Garden Theatre run by Phillip Barrett.
National service loomed in the very near future. I had been through the medical and was waiting for my calling up papers.The quick slide to oblivion had started in the variety theatres due to television and other factors and theatres were closing at the rate of four or five a week. No one wanted to know a young man waiting to go into the army as far as work was concerned, and I was pretty desperate.
I had three weeks out, a long time in 1955, and was eventually given a job as stage manager with what was one of the last number three touring revues at the princely salary of £8 per week, that was bad even in those days when you consider that you had to pay three pounds ten shillings in old money of it on digs.
The show was run by Dave Winton a dapper little man who was based in Leeds close to my home in Dewsbury. He looked rather like Ronald Coleman with his pencil moustache and also did a double act in the show with his wife who was an attractive blonde aged about 35 with superb legs and very Rubanesque who also did all the soubrette numbers in the show. I lusted after her for the duration of the tour. They were both very good professionals and Dave had been running tours for more than twenty five years.Times were now bad but he didn't know how to do anything else so he continued until the end.
We opened at the Hippodrome Keighley which is now a car park and the show was called Don't Be Shy Girls. The opening chorus started in a black out and the dancers sang whilst lighting up their faces with torches that they held in their hands and then they did a dance routine in full lighting. Keighley was one of the first theatres to dispense with a pit orchestra and we were accompanied by an Hammond organ, piano and drums that sounded a bit thin.
Dave was short of money and it was obvious.We had no scenery, I had to borrow what I could from the theatre which did not have much in the way of stock drapes and scenery, so the show looked to say the least a bit scrappy. We ran for two weeks in Keighley and business was not good. Dave told me not to worry about scenery because the next date was the Theatre Royal Bilston in the suburbs of Wolverhampton and we would stock up there.
The Show was headed by an Irish comic who had been resident for many years at the Capitol Cine Variety Theatre in Dublin. It had just closed for good. He was very funny but had such a broad Irish accent so that he could only be fully understood at the Met in Edgeware Road, London and the Pavilion Theatre in Liverpool where there were large Irish audiences. He was accompanied by a middle aged Irish soprano who had also been in the Dublin show who was good but hated having to leave Dublin and it showed in her performance.We also had a miniature circus and one of the girls in the troupe used to do a trapeze act. I used to help her tie off the trapeze apparatus in the grid and pray that the the knots that we had tied would hold for the week. A few months later when with another show she fell from the trapeze at the Theatre Royal St. Helens and was killed.
We also had two ladies who, although a little long in the tooth, did a dance act in tights and a conjuring act. During their dance routines they produced bunches of flowers from nowhere whilst they tapped away to the band playing Happy Feet. They also made up the numbers of the chorus because we had only had four other girls dancers, one of whom was aged around forty. She also acted as wardrobe mistress. We had our own musical director who played the piano in the pit at Keighley and conducted the resident bands at the other dates. He was a mean little man and he lived with one of the dancers. His wife and two sons did not know this and we all put on acts of great subterfuge when they visited the show. He was the only member of the company that I never got on with. A juvenile lead and feed was also in the cast, his hair slightly greying around the temples!
We also had a comic called Joe King who was a stalwart middle of the bill man for many years, he left after Keighley because Dave could not afford him. Joe lived in Keighley and although he had been in the business for many years he had never played the Hippodrome before. He gave two complimentary tickets for the Monday night show to his next door neighbours. Joe's act consisted of a routine about his neighbours and how bad they were. His proper neighbours mistook this as for real. Joe received a solicitor's letter on the Wednesday morning and had to change his act.
The two weeks at Keighley came to end and we moved on to the Theatre Royal Bilston. There were two railway stations there and the truck containing the costumes props and what little scenery we had was put into the station where we did not expect it. The local stage staff and myself spent most of Monday morning tramping around the Railway sidings at Bilston Central looking for it whilst it sat in Bilston Ettingshall Road waiting for us.
Bilston was reaching the end of its life and the theatre was filthy dirty, it closed six months later with Frank Randle topping the final bill. This was also one of the last appearances of Frank. We opened on the Monday night to around 100 people in the audience. The theatre ran on a once nightly basis whilst all the others were twice nightly.We also had two nudes that week. Dave did not want to put them into the show but unless he did there were no bookings so he had to bow to the march of time. The band sounded terrible and although I am first to speak up in favour of a pit orchestra I wondered if the arrangement at Keighley had not sounded better. After the show on Monday night Dave handed me a white fiver to give to the resident stage manager who I was to meet the following morning. He showed me into a scene dock that was full of scenery, props, and costumes of shows that had gone bust there. I took my pick so at least the show was now decently mounted.
A producer was sending out a tour of the musical Good Night Vienna and he phoned Jack Riskett the manager at Bilston to try and book it. His first sentence was, 'Jack how do you think Good Night Vienna will go in Bilston?' Jack replied, 'about as well as Good Night Bilston would go in Vienna.'
We staggered through the week and played to terrible business. The next week was at the Grand Theatre Doncaster. The Juvenile lead also left the show at the end of the Bilston week because Dave could not afford him any longer and I had to take on his duties as well as those of stage manager. I was a lot slimmer in those days.
I arrived with the scenery at the Grand Doncaster on Monday morning at nine o'clock and thought I was at the wrong theatre. A show called Memories of Old Ireland was billed there. I looked closer at the bills and saw that it featured the same names as 'Don't be Shy Girls' so it must be us. Dave explained when he came in that he changed the name when there was an Irish element in the town. The show content was exactly the same.
Doncaster was a better number three date so the bill was strengthened that week with an elderly comic called Phil Strickland who, like Joe King, had been a stalwart of the number three theatres for many years. Part of his routine was to look down into the orchestra pit and say, 'I see you have fresh straw down there tonight.' The musicians union shop steward at the Grand was the trombone player, who was very militant. When Phil did this the entire band walked out. It cost me two crates of beer and a profuse apology from Phil before they would go back into the pit.
Business was better at Doncaster and I had a bit of an adventure with one of the dancers so I cheered up a bit. The next week we went on to the County Theatre in Bedford and became 'Don't Be Shy Girls again.' There was a big electrical factory in Bedford that was staffed almost entirely by Italians who were the nucleus of the theatre audience because of the nudes. One of duties was to dress as a French Apache, now that I was also juvenile lead, and speak a commentary whilst the curtains opened and closed on the nude. Nudes were not allowed to move so the curtains had to be closed whilst she changed poses and opened again when she was ready. My job was to fill in the time for this with my commentary. On the Saturday night second house the Italians threw everything that they could get their hands on at me and I retired from the stage rather quickly.
There was a bar at the rear of the stalls with a roller shutter. Just before the interval every show there was a clatter that filled the theatre as the shutter was opened . This was repeated during the opening of the second half when the bar closed.
The next week we were at the Grand Theatre Luton and Dave was certainly glum. Business was bad and when Saturday morning came he did not give me the money as usual to go the station and buy the rail tickets to Preston, the next date. Instead he told me that he would be playing cards in the manager's flat above during the first half so I would have to go on and play all his parts. This was a problem because unless I bought the tickets I could not gain entry to the free scenery that they supplied as long as the tickets were purchased. He told me to go up to the flat at the end of the first house. This I did and Dave was playing cards. He excused himself on seeing me and came backstage and gave me the money to buy the rail tickets. He had played cards in order to get it together, things were that bad. I went to the station and Dave was stage manager and juvenile lead whilst I was away. Things were really bad.
On the Monday morning in Preston Dave gave me the notice for termination at the end of the following week at the Theatre Royal St. Helens. He was taking the show off for three weeks until the Brennan dates came up, where we would be paid a salary instead of a percentage of the takings. It was a pity and Preston Hippodrome was a nice shoe box shaped theatre with a good orchestra but business was abysmal. I noticed that Dave was walking to the theatre, his car had gone.
On Thursday he called the Company and apologised for taking the show off for three weeks but he had run out of money and even had to sell his car. He paid us all however on Friday lunch time. We all went back into his dressing room voluntarily and gave him back 25% of our salaries. Show business people were like that then.
Dave and his wife Margie did a double comedy act with some rather bad material:
MARGIE 'What is the most beautiful thing in the world?'
They then finished the act with Margie singing 'The End of a Perfect Day' accompanied by Dave on the Cello with muted strings from the orchestra, both were bathed in amber and surprise pink lighting. Even the Cello had gone by the end of the Preston week.
For the last week at St Helens Theatre Royal the show was called 'Memories of Old Ireland.' This was before the theatre was rebuilt and it was old, shabby, and filthy. The stage manager and crew were drunk most of the time. There was an old stage door keeper there who was always dressed in a dirty overcoat and an even dirtier Homburg hat. He would sit on a hard backed chair on the side of the stage and point to the scenery as it fell over saying, 'There it goes again.' One night the drummer turned up without an evening dress shirt and sat in the orchestra pit wearing a dinner jacket and a filthy brown zip up shirt that he worked in at the local glass works. I loaned him one of my white shirts for the evening. The week ended very sadly
With all the trials and beset us this was one of the closest nit companies I ever worked with, we were a family and all pulled together and I loved them all with the exception of the musical director. I respected Dave very much and still respect his memory, he was a gentleman and even today fifty years later I can picture every one of them.
The theatre managers and stage managers were mostly men in their mid fifties who had worked at the theatre for many years and loved the places passionately. They did not know what had hit them when the business declined, and many of them never worked again and died shortly after the theatres closed. This period was the 'Somme' of the Variety Theatre.
On the Monday after the week at St. Helens I took the costumes props and scenery to the Hulme Hippodrome Manchester; the first of the Jimmy Brennan dates that we were to play on salary in three weeks time. I stored it in the scene dock there and went home to Dewsbury. My calling up papers were waiting for me. I was to go to Devizes and join the Pay Corps on the Thursday of the Hulme Hippodrome week.
Hulme was a pleasure to work it was a clean well run theatre with an excellent staff well equipped and a good orchestra. I had a wonderful three days there. I left at the end of the first house on Wednesday night to join the Army. All the cast hugged and kissed me even the musical director shook hands. I wept profusely.
I visited the show at various times when on leave. One week just before Christmas when the show was called 'Memories of Old Ireland' it was to go to the Alexandra Gardens Weymouth the following week as a pantomime, and be called 'Babes In The Wood' with very few changes. Even though I visited the show when ever I could I was not part of the family any more and felt this deeply even though the cast were wonderful to me, and there was a new cheerful musical director. So to the cast of 'Don't Be Shy Girls' and whatever else it was called I drink a toast. I love you all.
I spent the next two years in the army with theatres closing at the rate of five a week and wondered if there would be any business left when I came out. There was thank goodness.
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