Scottish Music Hall & Variety Theatre Society
(2) Issue 72 & 73, Spring/Summer 2006
BY Bill Reid
It was late Summer in 1961 that quite by accident I got myself employed at the Tivoli Theatre as Stage Lighting Operator. The Alex Finlay Show was in it's last two weeks and the outgoing Lighting Operator (A New Zealand chap) showed me the ropes during that period. My first solo show starred Aly Wilson. It ran for three weeks and I was just starting to enjoy the work when the show was terminated and the theatre closed for some weeks. It was quite a let-down, but the start of the end of the Tivoli as a regular Variety Theatre. It would soldier on with some high moments but eventually closed in 1966, almost three years after I had moved on. Other shows that I worked with were, Alex Finlay, Jack Milroy, Lex McLean, Johnny Victory and Clark & Murray, Calum Kennedy, Scout Show and Christmas Pantomime (Dick Whittington 1962).
I had been a regular theatergoer since first being taken to the Tivoli by my Aunt Maggie around 1946/7. I knew of most of the regular and top artists who appeared there and it was really nice to actually be working on their shows. However, while the Alex Finlay Show had been packing them in over the Summer of 1961 I was soon made aware that the Ally Wilson Show that followed had entered the autumn season and audiences, especially during the week were very thin. We were handing out more free tickets than paying audiences. Likewise, the 1962/3 winter was on it's way and turned out to be the coldest and one of the longest winters since 1947. I recall walking over pavements of deep frozen snow for weeks and often had to walk into work as it was impossible to cycle or take the bus into town. When this miserable winter ended, one of the cartoons in the newspaper I always remember is of a woman pushing her child in it's pram, with the child screaming in terror, and the mother explaining ''It's all right dear, it's only the Sun'. Which really says everything about that winter.
I will always remember when Jack Milroy kindly posed for a photograph, which I treasure very much. Jack never put on airs and graces and would talk to everyone on the same level. He would quite suddenly drop in the room and chat over a cup of tea. If an artist add-libbed a joke during a sketch that raised a laugh Jack would tell them to keep it in for the rest of the week. Many supporting artists were told off or even sacked for upstaging the star of the show. But Jack thoroughly encouraged them. Sadly, Jack died in February 2001, he was presented an M.B.E. by the Queen for services to entertainment. Mary Lee his wife, had been quite a successful singer in her own right with the famous Roy Fox Big Band. The greeting of ''Hello R'ere'' and ''Hello China'' will forever be Jack's catch words. Most of you outside of Scotland will probably have never heard of Jack Milroy but to me he was a star as big as Bob Hope or any other well known International star, albeit within Scotland. Stars who remained in the home stage seldom made it to U.K. National or International status, but that made them no less a star. You can go to a very nice web site dedicated to Jack at: www.paviliontheatre.co.uk/loganmilroy/milroy/index_milroy.htm and learn more about this great comedian. This web site, which is run by the manager of the Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow also includes a dedication to the late Jimmy Logan.
Glen Michael was a feed to Jack for many years. From Devon, Glen would take a lot of stick being in virtually a 100% Scottish Show and this was built into the sketches themselves, where he would stumble over Scottish expressions. It gained Glen a lot of respect and he remained with Jack to the very end. Today Glen still broadcasts on SAGA 105.2fm Radio. This and the following year's Summer Season, of Jack Milroy Shows were the most popular and continually booked up shows in the Tivoli's history, with que's really going 'right around the block'. The atmosphere at the Tivoli was never the same after these shows finished and no matter how good, whoever followed them never stood a chance. I attended the last shows of both these seasons and have never seen anything like them since and all the artists who appeared with Jack are still remembered today by myself and theater going Aberdonians of that period. The spell really wasn't broken until Scottish comedian, Johnny Beattie came along, but in spite of that and the fact that other Summer Shows had successful seasons, none ever ran the length of time that Jack's did. Alex Finlay and Calum Kennedy continued to pull them in until TV kept audiences at home on cold winter days.
Among other stars who appeared at the Tivioli included Ronnie Parnell & Marie Ashton, The Scott Boys, Alan Beal was a very fine clarinetist and all round musician, no variety show was complete without its row of pretty Chorus Girls. These were regular dancers from the Moxon Dancing Group, Arthur Spinks (Accordionist). Arthur went on to become one of Scotlands well-known accordionists, Clark and Murray, Calum Kennedy and many more.
The Tivoli became a Bingo club until the late 90's and today stands empty, but protected as a listed building. Attempts have been made to reopen it as a theatre but never come to anything. Over the last few years it has been opened to the public during the once a year 'Public Building' days, when guided tours of such buildings are in operation. Outwardly the building is looking rather forlorn and will only ever receive a fresh coat of paint should it reopen as an entertainment venue. Perhaps it will glow with bright lights and laughter again, stranger things have happened!
What was it like actually working at the Tivoli! Like any job it had it's up's and down's, but on the main it was a happy place where serious work had to be carried out to quite strict time scales. On a Monday you started at 8.30am and because the previous week's show had to be dissolved and everything prepared for the new show, it was a long day, not getting finished until around 11pm and two performances later, with just a break between Midday and 5.30pm. Monday to Saturday. The Union did gain us a 'day off'' but you still had to go in at 8.30 in the morning until midday. In the case of certain props, that search started the week before. A football was required for one show and you couldn't go out and buy just any football! a trip to Aberdeen's Pittodrie Football ground and a request for a lone of a football is what it took. Of course, Pittodrie got a plug during the show and in the programmes and the local team 'The Dons' received a cheer from the audience, so everyone was happy. Similar dealings were agreed between numerous shops and businesses in the city.
Some goods, and especially any electrical replacement for the theatre would come up from England by train and had to be collected at the goods station. I once picked up a couple of 1000 watt lamps that came from A. E. C. in Rugby but for some reason had reached Aberdeen station via Banff! When I asked why, the goods depot worker said, ''Because that's the way it is''. A lesson for my future employment, perhaps!!! Large instruments such as a Hammond Organ would come by a large delivery truck with a lift. The rear stage entrance was set a good 10 feet above street level and that was quite a task to perform. Most of the costumes and small personal props arrived by train in large wicker type laundry baskets, that would take two people to cart upstairs or drag into the dressing rooms. The stars' dressing room was on the second floor a short walk from the stage entrance, while the chorus dressing rooms were on the first floor and the remainder on third and fourth floors. As electrician it was my job to replace or repair all the dressing room and mirror lights.
Monday was busy with setting up stage, backcloths set props etc. I would watch as each artists or set piece was being rehearsed and enquire about the lighting and any cues. In most cased the star of the show, or the producer would seek me out and let me know the routine and 'cue' for a blackout. I had to discuss with the producer and set down all the lighting routines for the individual performers and the set musical pieces that always concluded the first half of the show and the Star's songs etc during their act. With comedians there would always be a 'cue' line for an instant blackout at the end of a joke or routine. This had to be precise, as too soon or too late would ruin audience reaction. Likewise I had to make a copy of my own routine so that the Lime Operators knew what was happening and which colours to use on a singer or whoever as rhythm and moods changed, and of course, the inevitable 'blackout'. There was no voice communications between us and a buzzer code existed so that when I pressed the button it gave them time to react.. The Lime boys were very experienced and many moves could be worked out as they went along. Likewise, for myself. For the first show of the week we would all work to the 'book' but once you knew the routine I could operate the lights more relaxed and time changes of colours etc more smoothly and precisely.
I found that Wednesdays were the worst days! On a Monday you would be all keyed up and eager to learn and get things right and by the second show everything would be in it's place. On a Tuesday everything ran smoothly, but come Wednesday and everyone appeared to have over relaxed and taking things a bit for granted and that was when numerous silly errors would happen. From artist to stagehand we all seemed to fall for that on a Wednesday. The rest of the week would usually go well, with mainly electrical problems having to be overcome, or replacement props for those that broke.
Rehearsals started on as Wednesday, which may have cause the 'errors, as it must be difficult to stop thinking about the news stuff you have learned and go back into the daily routine of the present show. Mornings were mainly used up resetting the stage and props and general cleaning. replacing bulbs and fuses was always ongoing. Cleaning down and resetting the lighting panel and platform was also a daily chore. About the worst job in the building was replacing the 120 watt 'cleaner's lamp'. This single lamp hung from the center of the theatre, above the chandelier and gave out more than enough light for the cleaners. It saved on having the theatre side lights or main lights on. However, to replace the lamp I had to go right up into the rafters of the building and unscrew the mains lead from the lamp holder and untie the lamp from it's fittings and lower it to just above seat level in the Stalls and then go back down to replace the lamp and clean the shade etc, then all the way back up again to haul the lamp back up and tie it on and refit the mains leads. You needed a head for heights as you were looking down through small wooden slats directly to the seating about 80 feet below and you wouldn't want to slip into the well otherwise you would be in among the seats in a flash. However I did once hit my head on the large electric fan just above the cleaning lamp fittings and I not only saw stars for a while but the blades of the fan rang out so loud that the Stage and Theatre Manager all came out of their rooms and looked up to see if I was all right.
This happened in the middle of 1962 when the theatre was closed for some weeks, as it had been doing on an alarming scale. TV had been affecting audiences as it had with the cinemas and the theatre was only opening when a show with some pulling power could be put on for a fixed period. During this long closure most of the staff were kept on and we worked daily setting to and cleaning just about every corner of the theatre that we could get to. I know, I cleaned virtually every lamp in the building, including shades. The rows of front and side stage lighting was heavy going and I know just how heavy, as when I got Dave to lift one section of the front lights to get to some fittings, he accidentally dripped it and I went around with a black thumb nail for weeks afterwards. Charlie, the painter busied himself washing and painting all the walls and ceilings. I did help him at one stage to wash out the Lime Room. Dave worked on fitting a new electric fan into the Stall's Bar. Not as easy as it sounded as he had to punch a hole some inches deep in the stone and plaster to reach the other side and it was a long dusty job.
Another interesting experience for me was that during this period I did a bit of overtime, acting as caretaker on a Saturday morning until late afternoon when the regular fireman would take over. The Tivoli was over 80 years old by then and a well established building, even to having it's own 'ghost'! Which, of course, I didn't believe in. However, when you are suddenly left alone in a massive building such as this, you soon become aware of all sorts of noises. Most are just aged timbers creaking. The ropes and heavy backcloths high in the Fly's also had their own sounds. After a while you would swear you heard something or someone moving in the wooden walkways around the Fly's. I always brought along the very first portable radio I ever had, which used an old fashioned ear piece and also my mains reel-reel tape recorder and played lots of music to fill the emptiness. Other times I would tinkle on the Grand Piano or partly raise the safety curtain and switch on a few well placed stage lights, the amplifier and microphone and sing, or play my harmonica for a while, pretending there was an audience out there. The sound doesn't half travel and I am sure it was heard out in the street too. The microphone had been used by numerous well known people of the Scottish and British Stage.
However, at the end of it the theatre looked a treat. You almost had to close your eyes when the full lighting was turned up. The Upper Gallery (The 'Gods'), the Circle and the Stalls, the two 'Boxes' each side and the alcoves with statues and backlighting all looked as they must have done when brand new. A photograph of this was published in the booklet ''Aberdeen Tivoli'' by J. H. Littlejohn and I feel quite proud every time I see it and knowing that that experience has been recorded for history. One of the busiest times I experienced at the theatre was during the annual 'Boy Scouts' Shows. These eager beavers used just about every prop invented for the theatre, all in one show! To get the show ready for the Monday opening we stayed after the second house on the Saturday night and worked right through Sunday. While we drank plenty of tea I recall only having one food break and that was on the Sunday afternoon when they held a Buffet in the old Great North Of Scotland Buildings alongside the Station in Guild Street. Every act or scene had the stage filled with scenery and props off all sorts and there was dozens of actors and part players milling about the theatre and stage throughout the whole week.
One set was of Prince Charlie during his flight after Culloden and the usual rendering of 'Over The Sea To Skye', in which there was a storm, where they used a real maritime maroon for the explosion. This was set off inside a dustbin (Litter Can) with a sack cloth over the top. I had to set this off at a given cue, but while every other person and stage hand had cleared out by the time it was due to go off, I of course had to stay in position, up on the lighting stage and set the Maroon off. Even while being prepared for it the shock would virtually lift me off my feet and by the end of the week and 14 performances later I was completely shattered by shell shock and long hours of none-stop work. I wonder how Health & Safety would deal with this today!!! The sack cloth disappeared a number of times, stuck somewhere in the rafters, no doubt. It may still be there yet! If anything, these 'would be' actors were certainly full of enthusiasm, but I doubt if that would have lasted so long, or remained so keen, if they had to do that every week of their working lives. Once a year, is more than enough.
The Scottish artist who did everything he could to keep the theatre open was Calum Kennedy ''The Voice Of The Highlands''. Calum was at the height of his singing profession and had a fantastic team of artists that travelled with him. There was no doubting that he could pull in the crowds. You couldn't go wrong with names such as Will Starr, Accordionist, Ken Swann and Magee, I really enjoyed working alongside Calum and his artists. they were all thoroughly professional and keen to make every show sparkle. Calum was very approachable and took interest in the Tivoli staff. It was also magical to operate the lights for such a show and when Calum was on stage for his main performance, he had the audience in the palm of his hand from the opening beats of music and would go on and on singing great Scottish songs one after the other. I loved playing the lights to his singing and music and sang and danced up on the lighting platform and was able to watch both Calum and the Audience's reactions throughout the performance. Calum also specialized in Gaidhlig songs and I was so taken by these that in the mid 70's I took it upon myself to try and learn the language. I never did become proficient but I still remember enough to make sense of anything I read in Gaidhlig.
In spite of the great shows and drawing full houses at the weekend, the weekdays remained very quiet and the Tivoli continued to close for a number of weeks between further shows. In fact more people turned up for yet another 'final show' than turned up for everyday shows. The Tivoli seemed to do best when it presented local artists and Scottish entertainment or brought in a really big name. I shall always remember the local shows such as the 1962 'Your Ain Folk', with Robbie Shepherd, Bobby Watson, The Curly MacKay Band and the George Sievwright Trio and other local artists. They were pure entertainment and lots of fun and attracted large audiences from all around Aberdeenshire. Perhaps if they presented more of these types of shows and possibly with just one performance an evening, the Tivoli may have kept going, or at least for a lot longer than it did.
Alex Finlay was well named 'The Gentleman of Variety'. He was the first star I ever saw at the Tivoli as a child and he remained a great favourite and it was a great pleasure to work on his show and get to meet him. During his October 1962 show, which included, Bond Rowell and Helen Norman, his long time 'feeds', along with The Scott Boys, George Cormack & Irene Sharp, Ronnie Parnell & Marie Ashton, Danny Drysden (Street) and Roland Roy & Jackie Toaduff. In J. H. Littleton's book he mentions that Roy & Jackie joined the show for the last two weeks of the production. This was due to an incident that included myself as Stage Lighting Operator! The original producer was --- ---, who shall remain nameless, but as I have explained, on A Monday it was my duty to watch rehearsals and get to know the lighting plots and cues. On this particular Monday, of the very first day of the show, the producer totally ignored me and when I eventually insisted he said he would see me at midday. We were normally out of the theatre from around midday until 5pm. I actually hung around the theatre until 2pm, two hours past free time, and in my own time, but he never appeared.
5pm came around and I still didn't have any information, nor could I give the Lime boys any cues etc. However, I hurriedly caught each artist as they turned up at the theatre and got their views and what numbers they would be performing and going by the tempo of the tunes and performance I wrote down a basic lighting routine. I never saw or heard from the producer right up to and during the show. The Lime boys were livid, but did their best and waited for my buzzer codes and tried to stay in step with the performance. Such was their experience they did very well, as I did, until during the first half finale, there was a dance routine with the producer, who was also a dancer, and the chorus and I found that I couldn't catch lighting changes or make colour changes as the mood and pace was changing too quickly. At One point in the performance I was also getting pretty annoyed and at a certain point the producer wanted a certain lighting mood and I had no idea it was coming or what it should be and from the stage I heard quite clearly the producer, shout Useless B---d'', and I could see the reaction from the Musical Director, Johnny Douglas, and the band, in the orchestra pit, that they too heard it clearly, as possibly the front row did too, at which point I raised all the stage lights to maximum brilliance and left them there for the remainder of the act.
I was expecting trouble, and sure enough the producer roared off the stage and came straight for me, but thankfully Tommy Wright and some stage hands cooled the situation and we simply exchanged words, with him at stage level and I on the control panel platform. The remainder of the show went all right as we all understood what was required. However, next morning I had to report to Theatre Manager, Andy Foley, to explain the situation. I explained things as truthfully as possible and half expected to loose my job, but the outcome was, that I remained with the show while the 'producer' was replaced by Roland Roy and Jackie Toaduff, who went on to produce great shows. They were very professional. My disappointment in the outgoing 'producer' was that I also knew of him and had seen him in numerous shows over the years and while he always had an air of arrogance about him, his shows and performances were very entertaining. I got no joy from this situation and even today just feel sad that it turned out that way. How or why he expected me, or the Lime Boys to work to 'unwritten' script, is a mystery!
The Alex Finlay show was great fun. Another incidence I will always remember with fondness was that Alex Finlay had recently toured Australia and he had some 8mm cine films arrive and wanted to view. He asked around the theatre for anyone with a projector and as luck had it, that was my hobby. WE arranged to bring the projector (an old Specto) and screen and set it up in the Star Dressing room, one afternoon and Alex, his wife and others bunched into the room and we ran the reels of film. As Alex's show in Australia took place during Christmas and along with all the new scenes in the film it was the first time that I had ever seen Christmas being celebrated in the heat of Summer! It was quite fascinating and I shall always appreciate having played my part in making that gathering possible. The Calum Kennedy Show followed in October 1962, with his regular touring team of Scottish artists, that was assured success but also with him was an Irish comedian, Sammy Short, who was a real live wire. Sammy was as funny off stage as he was on and his energy and sense of fun carried every sketch to belly-laugh level.
As mentioned above, cine photography was my hobby, but I was always reluctant to take film in the theatre. Film was expensive and very slow in those days and I couldn't be sure that I would even get an image on the film. However, I took a few shots from the lighting platform and then during a longish sketch when all stage lights were up, I went down to stage level and grabbed a few shots from that angle. I didn't get much time to use the camera. However, between the two performances I managed to take 3-4 minutes of film during the same scenes. One or two artists objected as they thought I may be trying to make some money from the film, but I assured them that it was purely for my own use. I eagerly waited the films return from processing and was very pleased at the results. After 43 years it has become quite a historical piece of film. The scenes include Calum, Will Starr, Ken Swann & Magee, singer Rae Gordon, dancer Vi Day and comedian Sammy Short. Part of a sketch which includes a 'Bucket' and a musical sketch with Calum and the chorus. The film ends with clips of Calum doing his own act.
I came across a web site dedicated to Scottish Theatres and Cinemas and which includes some photographs of the interior of the Tivoli as it is today. The photos were taken by a member of the public who attended one of the annual 'Open Public Buildings Days' when organised tours are given of buildings usually closed to the public. The photographs are not very sharp, no doubt due to the available light and a handheld camera but they give a fascinating insight to the present day situation with the theatre. While I enjoyed seeing all the pictures, one in particular, far right , on the second last line, is of interest to me as it shows the Stage Lighting Control Panel still in situ, which I am sure you will recognise from the first two pictures of this web site, of myself on the platform. I feared that it may have been dismantled. However, it controlled both the stage and the 'house' lights and probably is still required for present use and, maybe even it's future use, albeit there are more modern electronic and digital systems today that could do the job more easily and economically, but the control panel is every bit as historic as the theatre and deserves to continue playing it's part.
Another picture that tells a story is the interior shot far right on the top line. It shows the newer 'Lime Box' at the back of the 'Gods' (Gallery). This was built in the 40's and I remember it being in different stages of construction. However, you can see two 'windows' cut out on the proscenium, a little apart from each other ... this was the original 'lime Box' if you could call it that. One of the Lime workers, the late John Lynch, lodged with us during the 50's and he told us stories about working in the 'Limes' fascinating as you virtually had to lye down to operate them and the side-to-side movement was so narrow that the carbon arc would hit the sides and restrict how far you could point or spread the light. Being carbon arc usage the fumes too were quite bad at times. I had a look inside the 'room' during one of our closure periods and it was really no more than the space between the gallery floor and the proscenium roof. As John was over 6 foot tall it must have been quite a squeeze. I can recall watching what was going on there during a show and when you consider they had to rotate coloured wheels and add colour filters etc, they must have had their work well cut out for them. The new box was more like a small projection room at a cinema.
The photos of the 'Fly's' area also brought back some memories. When all the backcloths were hanging from their fittings, you got the smell of heavy rope and he thick wooden railings which made if feel as if you were on a ship. It was the darkness and creaking of the ropes and woodwork, during the time when I was acting as caretaker and on my own, you could easily image that there was indeed a theatre ghost! This area was never as bright as it is in these photographs.
Until I read a report in the Press & Journal of a statement by an Aberdeen Councillor that they were planning a new entertainment venue in the centre of the City and were turning their backs (financially) on the Tivoli, I had thought that the Council were interested in keeping the theatre going, but it seems that this now lies solely in the hands of the Tivoli Steering Group and it will be up to their efforts to see that the Tivoli reopens as a Variety Theatre once again, or not, if their plans or willpower and enthusiasm fail. Therefore, at the time of writing the future of the theatre is still very much in the balance and the building is crying out for a voice and assitance before it is too late. If up to the Council it will be left to rot away. It would be very sad to loose yet another grand old building and source for live entertainment that would be open to numerous local groups who can't afford the other stage venues in the City. The Steering Group will require a lot of assistance, especially in the way of voluntary work to bring the building up to public standards once again and to build up a finance to afford the work.
If you think that 'Variety' is dead, then have a look at the page in the Scottish Music Hall & Variety Theatre web site, in reference to The Grand, another 'Frank Matcham' theatre, in Blackpool, that has recently been fully refurbished and brought back to life. www.freewebs.com/scottishmusichallsociety/eventsarticles.htm A fine example of what could be done for the Tivoli and of which Aberdeen could be proud of having in their City. Note too the well-known artists who are still involved in the live theatre and the decendants of late artists who carry on the great traditions. There would be no lack of artists to appear at the Tivoli.
(4) Issue 71, Winter 2005
Dr Walford Bodie M.D.
Dr Walford Bodie M.D.
HE WAS hailed as a worldwide phenomenon, a wonder of modern science and the finest showman ever to tread the boards.
He was a doctor of medicine and master of surgery at colleges and universities in the UK and abroad, and the creator of blood less surgery. He also happened to have hailed himself all of these things and made up qualifications on the spot, but that didnt stop Dr Walford Bodie, packing in the crowds at Kirkintillochs town hall for two days in 1909.
The visit of Bodie and his touring variety company is one of many fascinating facts discovered in the Kirkintilloch and District Society of Antiquaries search for information about the town hall. The group plans to publish peoples memories and recollections of the town hall in a special booklet.
Dr Bodie MD (which he claimed meant Merry Devil, when threatened with court action) may not have been the medical marvel he claimed to be, but he was a brilliant showman, ventriloquist and hypnotist. In his shows he would tame electricity, experimenting on his assistant La Belle Electra live on stage and apparently passing thousands of volts through her body to illuminate bulbs.
Nancy Stewart of the society told the Herald that her father, David Craig, often spoke of the astonishing events that took place at Bodies shows in the hall. She said: "Apparently, La Belle Electra was literally fizzing with electric sparks around her body while she had bulbs inserted into her mouth to be lit up. "The Electrocution Chair was wired up to her hands and feet and switched on, where upon she was completely surrounded by brilliant lights. DRAMATIC "The really dramatic moment came when the chair was switched off and she slumped
forward as if dead. "A great commotion was created on stage while Dr Bodie worked over her. Needless to say he saved her and brought her back to life.
"There was a full concert accompanying Dr. Bodies performance with soloists. dancers and musicians, but the climax of the evening was the undoubtedly stunning performance of the good doctor and La Belle Electra.
Barrfields Pavilion Theatre
Celebrating 75 Years: 1930-2005
By Ryan Moir
Barrfields Pavilion Theatre
Celebrating 75 Years: 1930-2005
By Ryan Moir
"Were playing the Barrfields this summer!"
This was the response from many comedians, musicians, actors, singers and entertainers who played during the Summer Season in the Clyde Coast holiday town of Largs at the Barrfields Pavilion Theatre.
Mansfield (also known as Mansefield) was a Victorian mansion in Largs owned by Dr Hugh Lang - it stretched from the putting green to the sports ground and included Millennium Court Housing Complex at the north side of the Pavilion. In 1925, Local Largs man Mr Robert Barr purchased Mansfield House and donated it to the Town Council with £1,000 towards development. The development of the Mansfield land was to add popularity to the town as a holiday resort. In honour of his generosity, it was decided to rename Mansfield as Barrfields. A sports ground was built and in 1930, a pavilion was built. Largs was an extremely popular resort for holidaymakers and day-trippers from doon the watter and it was felt somewhere was needed for them. Originally to be called the Barr Hall, the Pavilion was to be used as a place for holidaymakers on wet days (quite common in Largs!) instead of them standing on cold street corners. The theatre would not just provide summer entertainment, but act as a "town hall", a venue for amateur productions, the local dance hall and a receiving house for shows.
Planned in 1929, opened on 11th April 1930, the Pavilion was set with a wonderful walled rose garden to the south east and a quick addition, was the 18 hole putting green to the west. It was formally opened in 1930 by the wife of Robert Barr. The theatre had a fully equipped stage, dance floor, tea and luncheon rooms and seated 1003 people exactly on three levels- the stalls, the balcony and the gallery. Reflecting the 1920s with art deco architecture it was designed by local architect William Barclay. For summer 1930, the theatre was leased to Mr John Robertson Mungo of Prestwick who was to provide summer variety entertainment in the form of "Largs Entertainers of 1930." The theatres first summer season was a financial disaster and a great loss for Mr Mungo and the Town Council. In the winter of 1930, the Largs Choral Society Musical and Dramatic Junior Section presented the first pantomime at the theatre- Aladdin. The advertisement stated with full orchestra, scenery and effects. The theatre was leased to Mr Harry Kemp (Mungos offer was refused) in 1931 for 10 seasons at £600 per year. Harry, who leased and owned a chain of cinemas, theatres and amusements arcades from Dunoon to Troon , was renowned for his all-Scottish shows like 'Scotch Broth' at the Barrfields' sister theatre La Scala in Saltcoats and 'Sunny Days' at the Barrfields Pavilion featuring George West, Dave Willis, Pat Kirkwood, Jack Radcliffe and the Tiller Girls.
"HALF PAST EIGHT"
Soon, many Scottish stars preferred the Barrfields to other Scottish theatres outside Glasgow. Many performers would follow a routine of pantomime in the winter and summer shows like Half Past Eight in Glasgow [began in 1933] and perform spots at seaside theatres. Having to live up to Kemps standards of entertainment, George B Bowie leased the theatre in 1940. George B Bowie like Kemp, also had many entertainment buildings in the west of Scotland. During the war years, the Pavilion was used as a maintenance and repair base for Catalina RAF seaplanes. The putting green at the front was actually laid out as a runway. Somewhere was needed for the summer shows when Barrfields was unavailable, so a large marquee was set up outside the council chambers further along the Largs seafront
In 1951, Louis Freeman leased the theatre but despite booking stars such as Mary Lee and Hector Nicol, the promising venture lost money. In 1952, George Bowie took over the lease again with his son Ross producing the spectacular productions. Ross, by the sixties had took over the entertainment empire his father once had. In the late fifties, the theatre was enhanced with the stalls seats becoming a permanent fixture replacing wooden benches.
During the 1960s Rikki Fulton and Jack Milroy as Francie and Josie proved popular. "People were literally hanging from the rafters" quoted Mr Fulton who referring to the audience laughter remembered the theatre from a young age visiting Largs with his family. Other popular regulars were Johnny Beattie (referred to in the Largs and Millport Weekly news as the king of comedy), Andy Stewart, Calum Kennedy, Una McLean, the Alexander Brothers and Clark and Murray. One thing is - what Scottish stars didnt perform there! "They like saying were playing the Barrfields!" said Mr Bowie. However by the late sixties popularity of Scottish seaside holidays was fading out. One factor was the power of television. Variety theatre suffered severely from this as most of the population could now get stars in their own homes via the box. But the biggest blow to Barrfields, came when package holidays abroad began to replace seaside excursions. By the early seventies, the summer show as it once was had vanished. Originally a routine would be long running shows from June until September with a resident cast of up and coming performers, with a new change of programme on a Monday and on the complimentary ticket evening on a Thursday. And of course a big Scottish star (or two!) would perform often to packed houses. However this was minimised on certain years in the sixties and particularly the early seventies to one night performances per week. George Bowie led the theatre through these times with his more cabaret style show Big Night Out. In 1967, numbers were reduced to 800 to provide more comfort for patrons.
In 1970, the foundation stone for the Barrfields Swimming Pool was laid to the left of the Pavilion in place of the garden. A major event took place the following year. As well as the pool opening in March 1971, it was to be the last ever year since 1930 that a summer show was to be produced. In 1971, the only remaining summer shows in the West of Scotland were at the Gaiety Ayr, the Winter Gardens Rothesay and the Barrfields Largs. This was soon reduced to just two. After the departure of the summer show, the Pavilion was kept alive through the Largs Players, Largs Amateur Operatic Society and the North Ayrshire Arts Centre - and of course touring productions and one night concerts. But a few years later in replacement of the summer show, all touring companies and performers that booked the theatre during the summer, were to be publicised as part of the summer season, hoping to attract audiences- but the project wasnt as popular as the summer show.
However, certain one-night shows did bring audiences into the area. 70s regulars included Dorothy Paul, the big yin Billy Connolly and of course, local boys Gallagher and Lyle. Graham Lyle began life in a local Largs band called The Bluefrets and soon met his fellow musician Benny Gallagher. They moved to London and their success grew with countless top hits. Graham has written music for artistes such as Cliff Richard, Wet Wet Wet, Tina Turner and Diana Ross - but they dont mind popping back to Largs for a performance now and again! Converting the theatre into a community centre was one option. Another option was a sports hall. But many theatre-goers, performers and residents of Largs disapproved. The solution was that the theatre would coincide as a cinema and projection equipment was installed- this action saved the building.
For health and safety reasons the gallery, the highest seating level was removed. Still, the theatre was suffering from lack of maintenance. The theatre had been hardly been updated since its beginnings in the Britain of George V and it became clear that something had to be done about it. Approaching the nineties, 60 years after building, rules and regulations regarding public entertainment buildings had changed. So while planning on bringing safety up to date, probably the biggest development in the theatres history was about to take place.
In 1993, work began on developing the Barrfields grounds. It was revealed that the Barrfields Pavilion Theatre and swimming pool was to be built in a new complex, joining the two buildings with other facilities in the middle of the two. In 1263, 730 years previously, the people of Largs fought out the Viking invaders. The new Barrfields centre was to be entitled the Vikingar. The Barrfields Pavilion is today almost unrecognisable from before work began in 1993. Several windows were removed from the new restructured theatre façade and the entrance room to the theatre was demolished. Theatre numbers were reduced to 500 with disabled access and the stage was updated with new technics. In place of the Pavilion tearoom, the Vikingar reception was built. During an interval in the new look Barrfields - ice cream could be bought from the new Winter Garden café or drinks could be ordered from the beautiful theatre bar, built on the first floor, overlooking picturesque horizons of the Firth of Clyde. The caretakers flat at the back of the theatre was demolished to extend dressing rooms, build administration offices and to build a soft play area. The new Vikingar attraction, incorporating the Barrfields Pavilion Theatre, was opened in 1995. 20,000 people visited the theatre itself within one year of refurbishment. The original box office in the theatre foyer is a reminder of former days at the Pavilion. Inscribed above it and at the balcony entrance foyer are the words Pavilion Theatre which are familiar to so many who holidayed in Largs.
"THE PRIDE OF THE CLYDE"
Despite the summer shows long gone, the theatre is extremely popular. Touring theatre companies like Borderline and Scottish Opera are regular visitors, as are variety shows like the Pride of the Clyde and concert parties. Every Monday there is a tea dance for older citizens of the town. Local societies like the Largs Players, Largs Amateur Operatic Society and Largs Youth Theatre are also popular with One Act Comedies, musicals, light opera and variety shows. The Players produce and perform the annual pantomime at the Pavilion, that has run since 1972 and the Operatic perform an annual Spring musical production.
Many variety theatres in the past forty years have went the unfortunate way - into bingo halls, permanent cinemas, nightclubs, dereliction or even demolition. But it is good to know, as we approach the theatres 75th Birthday, that even in the smallest community, there is still a place for live theatre entertainment.
It is regular productions by local societies these that ensure the Barrfields Theatre still thrives and it is up to them to ensure that future generations share many happy times as generations did before.
Heres to many more happy years at the Barrfields Pavilion!
(9) Issue 60, Spring 2003
By Derek Green
For some time now I have been carrying out research about Haunted Theatres in Scotland. I hope that you enjoy some of the following encounters with our Scottish Ghosts in Greasepaint.
Many of us love a good ghost story and are at our happiest when the story is so good that the hairs on the back of our necks start to tingle. Here are a few of my favourites.
The Ramshorn Theatre in Glasgow near Ingram Street has been converted from a former church and sets a scene for various disturbances. A woman called Edie is said to haunt the toilets where the minister's vestry was once located and strange footsteps have also been heard echoing round the main auditorium.
The New Century Theatre in Motherwell began as the Rex Cinema and dating from around 1936, is said to be haunted by a ghost called "Oscar", who is reputed to be a man who committed suicide by jumping from the gallery into the stalls. Over the years there have been many recorded sightings of "Oscar" roaming corridors and stairwells in the building.
The Royal Princess Theatre in Glasgow, which was built in 1878, became the Citizens in 1945, and reputedly has an apparition of a green lady haunting the building. It is believed that the ghost of the woman was a former front of house manager who sadly died in the theatre and her apparition has been reputedly witnessed in the theatre on a number of occasions in the areas of the Stalls and the Circle.
The Byre Theatre in St Andrews was converted in the 1930s from a dairy and throughout the years, has staged a succession of performances for audiences of all ages. In spite of the difficulties of the time, the theatre was kept going right through the dark years of the Second World War thanks to the unstinting efforts of its director, Charles Manford. It would appear that Manfords dedication to the Byre has stayed with him since his death, for although he passed away in 1955 his ghost still haunts backstage. Manifestations have consisted of cold feelings on the stairs leading to the green room and the impression that a person was pushing past when nobody was apparently present.
His Majestys Theatre, Aberdeen, a fine building dating from 1906 was fully renovated in the 1980s. It is said to be haunted by the spirit of a former stagehand known to everyone as "Jake". It is recorded that Jake was killed in 1942 by a stage hoist and it has been reported over the years that objects move by themselves and his apparition has also been reputedly seen. There has also been an appearance of a "Grey Lady" who glides through the foyer of the theatre.
The Playhouse Theatre in Edinburgh, which was built in 1927-29, is one of the largest theatres in Scotland, a former cinema with a capacity to seat around 3000 has become one of the main Scottish venues for many of the West End large scale Musicals. This theatre is said to be haunted by a ghost called "Albert", his apparition has been seen on a regular basis and is said to be very friendly but mischievious. Albert is believed to be a maintenance man who very sadly was killed in a backstage accident. His presence has been felt in certain cold spots in the theatre, and also on occasion he has materialised as a figure in a grey coat.
The Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh dates from 1883 and was beautifully remodelled in 1992 with a glass foyer. The Theatre has a fine Victorian interior, and is said to be haunted by an apparition of a woman in a blue dress. Various sightings of her having have seen in an upper gallery, which is not open to the public during performances and ghostly laughter has also been heard in the auditorium.
The Theatre Royal, Glasgow, which dates from 1867, has a fine interior with 3 circles of beautiful decoration. The Royal has had a great history over the years and at one time was used by Scottish Television to record the One O Clock Gang with Dorothy Paul and Larry Marshall. The Theatre is now home to Scottish Opera and is said to be haunted by at least 2 ghosts. The first is said to be a ghost of "Nora" a former cleaner, who reputedly was an aspiring actress whose work sadly was not taken seriously, and unfortunately she threw herself to her death from the upper circle. Her ghost is said to manifest itself with moaning and slamming doors. The second ghost is said to be an apparition of a fireman who was killed in the theatre while on duty. He has reportedly been seen lurking in the shadows of the orchestra pit.
The Rothes Hall Theatre in Glenrothes, Fife, was built on the site of an old burial ground. Workers have reported many ghostly occurrences over a number of years; and many of the incidents are impossible to explain. Today the hall is used by a group of Spiritualists who in fact claim that the building is haunted by at least 3 ghosts.
The former Edinburgh Empire, which was reopened as the Edinburgh Festival Theatre in 1994, has a staff that claim to have seen a tall dark shadowy figure of a man on a number of occasions, creating the speculation that this apparition might be the ghost of the great magician Lafayette. Lafayette was killed in a fire at the Edinburgh Empire during one of his performances and his ghost has been identified in the circle area of the auditorium and also on the stage.
The Pavilion Theatre, Glasgow celebrated 100 years in February 2004, the Pavilion was home to the great comedian Lex McLean and is said to be haunted by at least five ghosts. The great comedian Tommy Morgan is reputed to haunt the theatre. After Morgan's death, his last wish was to have his ashes scattered on the roof of the pavilion and at that time the management carried out his last wish. Tommy is said to wander the upstairs corridors and back stage area of his favourite theatre. Another two ghosts in the theatre are believed to be firstly the apparition of a woman who has been sighted in one of the boxes in the auditorium, and secondly a seat which mysteriously seems to go down itself in Row F of the stalls.. Most of the theatre staff have on occasions reported various items of equipment very strangely disappearing from right under their noses. The Ghost of a female dancer is said to haunt one of the Chorus dressing rooms on the top floor. In the early days of the Pavilion, the Dancers shared the top dressing room as it was the largest, and legend has it that the girl caught her dress on a fire in the room and was burnt to death. The final ghost which is alleged to haunt the fine building is reputed to be a phantom pianist. Over the years there have been one or two reports of strange piano music coming from the locked auditorium, and on inspection auditorium staff can find no pianist and even more strangely no piano!
The Empire Theatre, Glasgow, opened in 1897 and played host to many great stars from the world stage, television and film, the final performance was on Sunday 31 March 1963. Sadly after this the threatre was demolished and now some shops and offices stand on its site. Two ghostly accounts from the Empire were brought to my attention through Mr Daniel Fernie who had worked in the Empire in its later years. These accounts are from Daniel himself.
In June of 1960 I left Colston School in Bishopbriggs and began a signwriting apprenticeship with David Mars and Co. of Bishopbriggs. The Empire was the first assignment I had under my trainer. In August of 1960 we were gold-leafing the pilasters on the upper balcony when I happened to turn and look down at the stage. There was a feeling of electricity in the air and a faint apparition of what looked to be Nuns singing on the stage. The lead singer was a very strong soprano and powerful women. I could faintly hear the music which was the Easter Hymn from Cavalaria Rusticana. I am very familiar with the classical music genre. Anyway at that point for some reason the name Marion came to mind. I do not know why... My trainer heard and saw what I saw. He told me that we were supposed to be the only people in the theater. He went downstairs to investigate and I sat down to view this spectacle which lasted about 3 minutes. My trainer came back and said that we must have imagined it but I knew otherwise. At home I recounted the happening to my Mother who at that point told me that the singers name was Marion... I forget the last name. She was part of the Charlie Chester show and was introduced as the Golden voice of...I wonder if anyone remembers that particular Charlie Chester show where this number was performed".
"About a week later I and my trainer were up on the stage working with the fire-curtain which was down. I had just finished lettering an advertisement when my trainer turned to me and said, "Did you stamp your feet on the floor?" I said no! Just then we could feel the boards move on our side and on the other side of the curtain as if someone were dancing rather forcibly. This time I said to my trainer that I would go to the other side to check it out. On the other side there was nothing visible but I could still hear the boards move. I checked the surrounding areas. I was just by the scene door when I heard some music. It sounded foreign to me but I could not quite place the type of music. I was some two years in the USA before I found out that the Red Army Choir and Dancers were featured at the Empire. I bought one of the records in the U.S. It was only then that I realised that the music I heard was a Balalika. Were the dancers moving the boards? It still gives me a shudder when I think of It!"
Ghosts are known to haunt many of the theatres in the British Isles. Next time you go to see a show, pause for a thought and have a look around. You never know who or what may be sitting beside you.