Scottish Music Hall & Variety Theatre Society

The glorious days of Scottish Music Hall and Variety Theatre



by Ray Smith

Ask any jazz aficionado from Peking to Portobello or from Dallas to Dalnaspittal to name the top female jazz vocalists of the 20th Century. The list will invariably include Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Bessie Smith, Della Reese, the tragic but brilliant Billy Holliday and inevitably, Miss Annie Ross.

If this was the old eleven plus exam that used to be written by generations of terrified Scottish bairns, the one that determined at an early age if we were destined to become plumber or pope, we would now be asked, who is the odd woman out? Simple. The first four were African Americans, born and brought up within the black dominated American jazz ghetto.On the other hand, the newborn Annie Ross’s distinctive vocal chords first saw the light of day on England’s pleasant pastures green, Surrey to be exact. Her proud parents famous Glaswegian vaudeville comics Ma and Pa Logan (May Dalzell and Jack Short) promptly whisked her north of the border where she immediately bonded with the land o the hills and heather to become a true Scottish lassie.

Although Annie is as much a Flower of Scotland as Flora MacDonald or Bonnie Mary O Argyle I always thought the international singer got only scant attention in the UK press. Usually I came across one liners describing her as ‘Jimmy Logan’s sister, the jazz singer’ And this is the woman whose innovative style of vocalize singing was described by top American jazz reviewers as The Queen of Jazz. Aye, the same wee Scottish Annie won five prestigious Grammy Awards for her acclaimed recordings as part of the Lambert, Hendricks and Ross jazz trio. Her fans include the brilliant New York comic and moviemaker Woody Allen who chose an Annie Ross vocal as the title song for one of his most popular recent movies Deconstructing Harry.

It’s doubtful whether Anabella MacAulay Allan Short would have taken New York, Paris or London by storm. She might not even have taken Brigton Cross by storm. The name was too long for the Marquee. But as Annie Ross, Ma Logan’s wee lassie acted with Orson Welles in Paris, barnstormed in Sweden with American vibes king Lionel Hampton and created a sensation at New York’s Apollo Theatre on her 21st birthday. Most of us celebrate our 21st by receiving the ‘key to the door’. Not Annie. She got an early morning phone call from her agent. "Billy Holliday has an abscessed’ll have to take over" quite a daunting task to sub for Billy who was both an American blues legend and the darling of New York’s jazz crowd. And as if that wisna’ terrifying enough, the bandleader was a bloke called Duke Ellington. But Annie received the best 21st birthday present of all, a standing ovation. In addition to her many jazz albums including such titles as Music Is Forever, Annie was always in popular demand for gigs in both America and Europe and even branched out into film and TV acting. She played in two of Robert Altman’s most prestigious quality films, The Player and Shortcuts. Other Annie Ross credits include such titles as Pump up the Volume, Superman 111 and Throw Mama from the Train with Danny De Vito. On TV she donned a gray wig to become Howard Hesselman’s maw on Mamma Was A Rolling Stone, a top rated episode of the sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati. Other TV credits have included the Uk sitcom Send In The Girls and appearances on Dick Emery’s Christmas special in the early eighties.

Mind you Annie was no stranger to the silver screen. At an age when you and I were writing that notorious eleven plus exam (aye, again) oor Annie was playing a young Judy Garland’s sister in Presenting Lily Mars. Which remind me of how many showbiz watchers have tended to compare Judy Garland and her lassie Liza Minelli. pointing out somewhat superfluously, that great talent runs in families. No less a comparison can be made between Annie Ross and her mother Ma Logan. (Indeed between Ma and any of the Logan bairns). Although Ma never achieved such international stardom as Annie, the dean of Scottish showbiz journalists Jack House, described Ma Logan as, ‘The funniest woman I have ever seen on the Scottish stage". Aye Jack lad, great talent DOES run within the Logan family!

Annie Ross is readily associated with such jazz standards as Twisted and Farmers Market. I heard that some years ago during a visit to Scotland she could still produce a genuine Glesca accent and, with the enthusiasm of a wee Gorbals bachle on a Saturday nicht, belt out a truly unique oobla dee oobla da version of Ye Canna Shove Yer Granny Affa Bus. Now THAT would be a recording worthy of archival collections anywhere in the world. Leading New York music critic Kenneth Tynan referred to the sophisticated Scottish Annie as The Queen of Oobla Dah and ‘the most stunning red head since Gwen Verdon’ As she stood backstage as a wee bairn watching her famous auntie Ella Logan star in a hit musical, I wonder if Annie Ross ever thought that she herself would become the toast of the town?

In the early years of the 21st century, Annie was still going strong. In 2005 she released a new cd n the CAP label, entitled Let Me Sing. And 2006 found her performing regularly at the Metropolitan Room in Gotham, NY. Earlier that year she got rave reviews at the World famous Hollywood Bowl. Sure, she was Ella Logan’s neice and Jimmy Logan’s sister. But, to her ain fowk she will always be a musical treasure-Scotland’s gift to the world of jazz.

(6) Issue 76, March 2007 - Chic Murray



I met this chap at the Olympics. I said to him, "Excuse me but are you a pole vaulter?", he replied,"No, I'm German, but how did you know my name was Walter."

I was in London the other day and this man came up to me and asked me if I knew the Battersea dog's home. I said that I didn't know it had been away.

This chap said to me, "If you look over there, you'll see Dumbarton Rock". Well, I looked for 20 minutes and the thing never moved an inch.

"This friend of mine had a terrible upbringing. I asked him once what his ambition was and he replied it was to have an ambition. In the end tragedy struck - as he lay on his death bed he confessed to three murders. Then he got better"

I went to the butchers to buy a leg of lamb. 'Is it Scotch?' I asked. 'Why?' the butcher asked. 'Are you going to talk to it or eat it?' 'In that case, have you got any wild duck?' 'No,' he said, 'but I've got one I could aggravate for you.'

What use is happiness? It can't buy you money.

"I rang the bell of a small bed-and breakfast place, whereupon a lady appeared at an outside window. "What do you want?" she asked. "I want to stay here," I replied. "Well, stay there then," she said and banged the window shut.

"My wife went to a beauty parlour and got a mud pack. For two days she looked nice, then the mud fell off. She's a classy girl though, at least all her tattoos are spelt right."

"There are only two rules for drinking whisky. First, never take whisky without water, and second, never take water without whisky."

It's a small world, but I wouldn't want to have to paint it.

"My father was an Aberdonian and a more generous man you couldn't wish to meet. I have a gold watch that belonged to my father, he sold it to me on his death bed.…… I wrote him a cheque".

"So there I was lying in the gutter. A man stopped and asked 'What's the matter? Did you fall over?' So I said 'No. I've a bar of toffee in my back pocket and I was just trying to break it."

"So I gave him a wave. Actually, it was more of a half wave, because I only half know him."

"He started talking to me about this and that - about which I know very little."

The police stopped me when I was out in my car. They told me it was a spot check. I admitted to two pimples and a boil.

I admit to spending a fortune on women, booze and gambling. The rest I spend foolishly.

It was raining cats and dogs and I fell in a poodle.

I made a stupid mistake last week. Come to think of it, did you ever hear of someone making a clever mistake?

I met this cowboy with a brown paper hat, paper waistcoat and paper trousers. He was wanted for rustling.

If something's neither here nor there, where the hell is it?

My father was a simple man. My mother was a simple woman. You see the result standing in front of you, a simpleton.

I had a tragic childhood. My parents never understood me. They were Japanese.

I won't say I was slow developer, but our teacher was quite pleased to have someone her own age in the class to talk to.

If it weren't for marriage, husband and wives would have to fight with strangers.

After I told my wife that black underwear turned me on, she didn't wash my Y-fronts for a month.

Kippers- fish that like a lot of sleep.

The boat was so old; it must have been launched when Long John Silver had two legs and an egg on his shoulder.

It was a pretty posh place. They were so used to fur coats that two bears strolled in and ordered lunch and nobody even noticed.

I felt as out of place as a left-handed violinist in a crowded string section.

Get into yourself to get yourself out of your self. Then try to lose yourself.

I drew a gun. He drew a gun. I drew another gun. Soon we were surrounded by lovely drawings of guns.

We've got stained glass windows in our house. It's those damned pigeons.

You know what they say about stamp collecting. Philately will get you nowhere.

There's a new slimming course just out where they remove all your bones. Not only do you weigh less, but you also look so much more relaxed.

I first met my wife in the tunnel of love. She was digging it at the time.

I dreamt I was forced to eat 25lbs of marshmallows. When I woke up, my pillow was missing.

My girlfriends a redhead, no hair, just a red head.

A neighbour put his budgerigar in the mincing machine and invented shredded tweet.

My parents were wonderful, always there with a ready compromise. My sister wanted a cat for a pet I wanted a dog, so they bought a cat and taught it to bark.

I got up this morning. I like to get up in the morning; it gives me the rest of the day to myself. I crossed the landing and went down stairs. Mind you, if there had been no stairs, I wouldn't even have attempted it.

We were so poor; the ultimate luxury in our house at the time was ashtrays without advertisements. It was all the wolf could do to keep us away from his door. A luxury meal was prairie sandwiches- two slices of bread with wide-open spaces between them. There were so many holes in my socks I could put them on seventeen different ways.

She had been married so often she bought a drip-dry wedding dress.

This friend of mine had a terrible upbringing. When his mother lifted him up to feed him, his father rented the pram out. Then when they came into money later, his mother hired a woman to push the pram - and he's been pushed for money ever since.

A Scot is a man who keeps the Sabbath, and everything else he can lay his hands on.

(8) Issue 75, December 2006 - Johnny Beattie


Johnny Beattie tells a story against himself that reveals a great deal about the man. The comic was standing outside the Gaiety Theatre in Ayr in 1952, where he had been starring in a lengthy summer season..

Suddenly, he was spotted by a wee wifie, who then approached him."It's you! It's definitely you."

"Yes, well, it is."

"Ah jist knew it was you."

"Yes, and you're right. It's me."

At this point, Govan-born Johnny took on a satisfied air, and prepared to sign an autograph. "Aye, I knew it was you," added the wifie. "You were supposed to dae my windaes last week and you never showed up. Where the hell wur ye?"

Johnny has never cleaned windaes, professionally - but has cleaned up in showbiz over almost 60 years. But the story illustrates a couple of points; while his profile has never been as high as that of Stanley Baxter, Rikki Fulton or Lex McLean, Johnny has not been consumed by a need to be a star.

However, at 80, he has proved himself a real success story. He can still sell out a theatre and is working in BBC soap River City. This Sunday, at the Thistle Hotel, the great and the good will pay tribute to Johnny on his birthday. Sir Alex Ferguson, Jimmy Reid, Johnny's daughter Maureen, the Alexander Brothers, Jack Milroy's widow Mary Lee and entertainer Peter Morrison were all on hand to speak of Johnny's talents. The star rolled up, in the company of his family, in a tartan limo - the result of a kind donation - and was piped into the hotel by members of Strathclyde Police Pipe Band. All told, says broadcaster Angus Simpson, one of the organisers, around 450 of Johnny's pals will be here. "It should be quite a night," says Angus. "The fact that Johnny is still working at 80, and has so many admiring friends, says it all, really."

Meantime, back to Johnny: does he think his lack of ambition helped him achieve longevity? "Could be," says the comic at his West End flat, a home that is covered in theatre and film memorabilia and photos of his late wife, Kitty, and their four kids. "I've always been relaxed about it. I never set out to get into the business. One day, I was in the University Cafe in Byres Road and people from the amateur dramatic society came in. "This bloke said the actors were short-handed and could anyone help them out with a performance? "I went along and played a police sergeant in a play called Grand National Night, and quite liked it.

"The strange thing is, I went on to play villains because I had that sort of Mafia face. Then we formed a concert party and a double act with comedian Wally Butler."

Johnny had finished his National Service and worked at Fairfield's shipyards. "Then, students' charity week took place in the Lyric Theatre and I got my first notices in the paper: 'Young electrical engineering student Johnny Beattie is Principal Comedian'. I panicked at the billing! "Robert Wilson, the performer and impresario, asked me to go on tour with his show for six months and, suddenly, I was a professional."

Meantime, Johnny was about to be married to model Kitty Lamont. "I was worried about leaving Fairfield's, and Kitty could have been upset at the idea of me touring for six months, but she had tremendous faith. She said 'If it fails you can always go back to the shipyards'." He never did. For years, Johnny toured Scotland in variety shows such as the Tivoli Aberdeen summer season that lasted 16 weeks. "Kitty used to line the kids up to meet this stranger who would come into their lives every so often. "Even when I did get home I would be so busy writing material I would fall asleep with a pen on my pillow."

By 1959, after working in the Gaiety Ayr for five consecutive summer shows, he was wheeched off to the King's Theatre for panto A Wish For Jamie. However, his next panto role, at the Empire Theatre as Buttons, brought slight criticism. "I was told I was 'too sexy' to play Buttons'. So the next year I played Dame in Mother Goose." Johnny, regarded as a generous performer on stage, went on to work with the great Duncan Macrae. "He hadn't a clue what was funny. He would ask me to read scripts and tell him if they were worth doing. "But I have had great funny people around, around me, like Alice Dale, Anne Fields, Hector Nicol and Walter Carr."

While variety died, Johnny moved into TV, with seven series of Welcome To The Ceilidh, and nine of the quiz show Now You See It. He even wrote a speech once for Ronald Reagan. Johnny says of his career: "I have never been driven - it seems to have fallen into place. Even when I landed a part in River City I couldn't believe how straightforward it was."

There is another reason why Johnny has gone the distance. He is a consummate pro who has never caused offence. "I was known as the Mary Whitehouse of Scottish comedy," he jokes. "But I think career distance is about working hard and enjoying it. By and large I have been very lucky."

This article on Johnny Beattie is by Brian Beacom and appears by very kind permission of the Evening Times Newspaper.

(9) Issue 75, December 2006 - The Panto Crinoline

The Panto Crinoline

by Beryl Beattie

Once upon a time there was a grand pantomime filled with wonderful characters and dancers and magic. There were costumes worn by the fairy tale people, including perhaps one of the most important, the Queen of Hearts. She wore a huge crinoline, which is to say a long dress with a petticoat stiffened at the bottom by a hoop of fine metal sewn into the fabric. This made the dress stick out like a meringue. The top was made of the finest velvet with a pointed bodice which fitted snugly into the tiny waist of whomsoever wore it. The cream sleeves were puffed at the shoulders and then narrowed into velvet at the wrists. There were bands of the brightest red, ribbons to decorate the sleeves. The skirt itself was of the most beautiful sky blue satin and at the foot, there was a pattern of dots and crosses in red and cream. The final touch was a silk apron which was decorated with pale blue designs to match the edge of the dress. It was said that whoever wore this dress felt like a real queen. And certainly the Crinoline knew she was very important because when she went on stage each performance, the audience all applauded. She was the happiest crinoline in the world.

The years went by and all of a sudden the fashions changed and poor Crinoline was no longer chosen from the long line of costumes in the theatrical store. She was passed by. She was ignored. She was, dare one say, unwanted. Then one day some people came by and asked if they might borrow some costumes for the famous festival cavalcade parade. To her delight, crinoline was immediately selected and luckily did not hear the owners mention she was of no further use and the new owner could keep her. Oh my, how she rejoiced when she heard the cheers from the crowds as she swept along the main street. Once again she was happier than ever.

More years went past and the once vibrant satin began to look a little dull and there were signs of wear and tear at the hem of the dress. The owner was no longer involved in the festival parade and so Crinoline was carefully hung up in a wardrobe which she had to share with a pretend fur coat, some evening dresses and a man’s evening suit. Who knows what tales they all told each other when the wardrobe door slid shut. But for once Crinoline was silent. She knew they all were modern and would be taken out and worn again. Alas, there would be no more occasions for her to be seen. Then one day the door slid open and the owner took Crinoline out and brought her downstairs. To her delight, she was laid carefully on to the ironing table and her huge skirt carefully ironed. The apron was next. Oh how happy Crinoline was. How she loved the way the iron tickled her fabric and freshened up all the creases so that she knew she looked young once again. It turned out that the owner had offered the use of Crinoline to a lady who was to take part in a charity event selling raffle tickets to help children. But oh dear, who could possibly have anticipated the reaction Crinoline would receive when she was carefully presented to the lady. "Would you wear that?" asked someone in a most disparaging manner. The owner suggested the lady try on Crinoline. But to her dismay, the feisty female refused to remove a black tee shirt which would have completely spoiled the look of the velvet top. Instead of admiring her, they looked down their noses as if she were ugly. Crinoline shivered in fear. How could anyone dare to spoil her beautiful design? The owner luckily agreed with that sentiment and said: " It is quite all right. You cannot spoil the look of this beautiful costume, so there is no need for you to wear it, thank you." Crinoline sighed in relief as she was carefully put back on the hanger and returned to the car. But once alone, she wept her heart out.

Maybe in the harsh light of the large supermarket she did look a little bit worn but that was only at the hemline. She was sure she had seen several little girls look in curiosity at her, now here she was, unwanted and not apparently good enough to be seen in modest surroundings far away from the fabulous pantomimes and parades she had been so used to starring in. She cried herself to sleep. It is a dreadful thing if you feel unwanted and unloved. Crinoline knew that feeling for the first time. But she was unaware that the owner had secretly been very annoyed at the reaction to Crinoline from people who, if the truth be known, were just a tiny bit ignorant and could not appreciate beauty. Soon she was safely home and back in the wardrobe and when the other clothes asked how the big event had gone, because she always told the truth, she confided it had been a disaster. The pretend fur coat put her arm round crinoline’s velvet shoulders and the man’s evening suit squeezed her arm reassuringly. "Never mind, Crinoline, we think you are the most beautiful crinoline in the world," they told her. "Oh, it is so good to be home," she told them gratefully. But even they could never guess how hurt and disappointed she had been.

Christmas was coming. In the shops toys and decorations had begun to appear. The panto rehearsals were in full swing. There was a promise of snow and rosy cheeked children were busy writing letters to Father Christmas who had arrived at the shops. The owner had heard about a group of people who used to be in the theatre who loved to stage exhibitions of a very important nature. One such extremely important display was to take place in a magnificent concert hall which boasted its very own art gallery and restaurant. And so it came to pass that Crinoline was offered as a prize exhibition in the very next show. The offer was gratefully accepted and the day came when once again the wardrobe door slid open and the owner carefully took out Crinoline and transported her to the gallery. Now Crinoline had no idea what was happening. The owner had simply told her it was to be a surprise. A very nice surprise. A beautiful mannequin was set up in the corner of the huge gallery amongst the old play bills which advertised the shows and the stars taking part. There were old photographs of famous artistes and shows taken long before digital cameras were even thought of. Even before there were colour photographs. Crinoline was placed carefully on the mannequin who looked almost alive and was the perfect size for the dress. Somebody had cleverly placed theatrical spot lights at the foot of the model so that the blue satin once again shone brightly and the bodice revealed the true beauty of the velvet and the cream silk looked crisp and fresh.

At last Crinoline was back in the spotlight. Even the red ribbons on the sleeves spread themselves evenly over the silk and velvet. Crinoline’s appearance was an instant success. People came past and gently touched the fabric, noting the workmanship and the design. "My, they don’t make costumes like this any more, " they praised. Crinoline was so happy. They were admiring her beauty and seeing her as she was in her days of glory and pantomime. The owner smiled to herself. The magic of King Panto had once again woven its spell. As for Crinoline, well this was the best ever Christmas present. Whisper it, but even Father Christmas agreed.

(10) Issue 75, December 2006 - Over the Sea to Pantomime


By Ray Smith 

Oh no! Not another nostalgic article aboot Scottish Panto, I hear you gasp. Well, I had to write this article as an educational piece back in the 70s. That was the first time in the history of Canadian theatre, that a genuine UK pantomime was staged and toured across the land.

The show was Cinderella. Now you'd think that even the most backwoodsian of Canadian Lumberjacks would have known the story of Cinders. And indeed they did. But definitely NOT in the context of a stage pantomime which was hardly Walt Disney. So for the hundreds of French-Canadian lumberjacks NOT born and raised with the Scottish panto tradition, this is how I explained what Lionel Blair as Billy Buttons and that wee stoater Fiona Kennedy, in the title role, were getting up to on the mighty stage of Ottawa's 3,000 seater National Arts Centre.

'The word pantomime will signify a typically French form of entertainment. Usually it’s a silent mime performed in classic Continental tradition by that brilliant wee Frenchman, Marcel Marceau. He wore a skintight leotard, a bowler hat and highly exaggerated clown makeup on his face. He went through one hilarious comedy turn after another. It was a throwback to the days of Charlie Chaplin and silent movies like the Gold Rush. The laugher and the pathos were created entirely by arm, leg, face and body movements. Not a single word was spoken. Aye lads, it was exactly how you wanted your mother-in-law to behave, especially when you were being nagged tae death! There was nothing common about the French form of pantomime. It could easily be described as ethereal, ephemeral and esoteric. (That explains why Monsieur Marceau sold Chamber’s dictionaries at every performance-well it would be easier than selling Chamber’s pots!!).

On the other hand, the traditional Scottish Pantomime is a horse of a very different race! Its detractors might use slightly less hoi polloi adjectives such as lewd, rude and crude. But that’s unfair. A Scottish Panto is a boisterous traditional (or contemporary) fairy story converted into a musical variety show for family audiences. It will be splendidly costumed and feature fantastic scenery and effects. Look for outrageous 'drawers-drooping' comedy and dreadful cross talk between the comedians: Father: son who is the laziest boy in your class?: "Faither, I huv nae idea" "Well when you are busy writing your assignments who just sits watching you instead of working?" "Och that’s easy faither-it’s oor Teacher!(Oh the size of it!). Join the singalongs in which a gigantic song sheet flies down to fill the entire stage proscenium opening, while children of all ages bawl out such choruses as ‘Gilly Gilly Ossenfeffer Katzen-ellen bogan by the sea" Och that sort of dates me doesn’t it hen? . These days Top 20 pop songs from rap to reggae have replaced "There’s A Tiny House’ Ítsy bitsy Spider’ or Three little fishies and a mammy fishy too" The story line or plot is as thin as ever.

Such classic tales as Cinderella, Robin Hood, Mother Goose and Aladdin have become loosely followed 'coat-hanger' stories around which are featured the comedians, rock singers and TV soap opera stars who participate in this 'lucrative' wee earner. Over the years Scottish audiences have turned out in their thousands to enjoy such home grown panto’s as Goosie Goosie Glasgow and A Wish For Jamie. While some might consider the French mime to be a unique form of entertainment, nothing could be more unique than the Scottish panto. It’s the only type of family entertainment on earth, in which men play women and women play men. Traditionally the Panto Principal Boy is really a principal girl. A leggy woman in leotards plays such male hero characters as Robin Hood, Aladdin and Robinson Crusoe. The Scottish singer Fay Lenore was one of our best-loved Principal Boys. Meanwhile Aladdin’s mither, the Widow Twanky, is portrayed as a 'grotesque dame' by the male comedian.

Over the years, Scotland has produced some brilliant panto Dames, as enacted by such stars as Jimmy Logan, Duncan McRae, Harry Gordon, Stanley Baxter and of course Johnny Beattie The Panto Dame is quite different from the female impersonator or drag act. The Panto Dame is an outrageous, larger than life character, a deliberately grotesque 'man in skirts' whose underlay of masculinity including a 'cod' woman's voice and 'bursting balloon bosoms' adds to the laughter. The closest example of a grotesque panto dame seen regularly on TV talk shows around the world is the outrageous Dame Edna, depicted by actor Barry Humphries. John Inman, long pensioned off from Grace Brothers Department Store on TV's Are You Being Served? is currently one of the most popular grotesque Dames in contemporary Panto.

When I complimented the late Rikki Fulton(Francie and Josie/ Rev. IM Jolly) on his excellent female nurse and nanny characters, he pointed out that the secret of making this sort of role funny was to ensure that it was always larger than life. Said Rikki,’I always tried to create a particularly masculine type of Dame. The children knew it was a man in skirts and laughed even louder because of it! Had I tried to exactly replicate a vampy woman in the Danny La Rue style, it wouldn’t have worked in Panto’ Some people suggest that the most famous Dame in pantomime history was likely Arthur Lucan who made a lifetime career out of portraying the dirty, bedraggled, Irish washer woman known to millions of 1950’s movie fans as Old Mother Riley. Nobody could possibly mistake the 'typical Irish' washer wifie for a 'real' lady. It was as if Arthur Lucan took the Widow Twankee in Christmas Panto and turned it into a lifelong year round career! But life in the Riley household got even stranger. When Old Mother Riley starred in Panto, the Principal Boy was played by his on stage daughter Miss Kitty McShane, who in real life was Old Mother Riley’s wife!

The origins of Panto cross dressing go back in time to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Women were not allowed on stage and so pre-pubescent boys played the female roles. But I think the origins of Scottish panto were somewhat different. After his tragic defeat at Culloden Moor, Bonnie Prince Charlie had to flee the pursuing Redcoat Armies. Dressed as his maidservant Flora MacDonald, the young pretender rowed over the sea to Skye. That’s one version of history. But another version suggests that Bonnie Prince Charlie rowed to Skye, not to get away from the English, but to star in panto, at the Palace Theatre, Portree. So popular was Charlie as The Widow Flora, that the people of Skye composed an anthem in his honour-Will Ye No Come Back Again? (Aye, Charlie, to star in next years panto!)

Men dressed as women, women dressed as men, husbands playing mothers, wives playing daughters, princes dressed as princesses, understudy drag queens doing impersonations of other drag queens, an aging Irish washerwoman colleen who was really a pipe puffing old codger in baggy troosers, and the inevitable question asked by the Fairy Queen in every panto I have ever attended," Children, do YOU believe in Fairies?" All this and more, belongs to the eccentric but very real world of Scottish Pantomime.And with that simple, historically accurate explanation, I rest ma case!

(12) Issue 74, Autumn 2006 - Will Starr


By Henry Aitken

His Childhood Years:

At the age of two in his home in the miner's houses in Smithstone Row, Croy, Will attempted to play his first tune, "Poor Old Joe", on a melodeon belonging to his father, Joseph Starrs. He was a child prodigy. His family recognised the musical potential in young William and encouraged him to continue playing the melodeon. Later he progressed from the melodeon to the chromatic button accordion and began to develop a method of playing which suited his style and personality.

Although, as a two year old toddler, he started his musical life playing the family melodeon, his ultimate choice of instrument was the chromatic button accordion, which he continued to play all his adult life. As the years passed, his playing technique developed and he quickly acquired a growing repertoire of tunes in the Scottish tradition. Soon he became confident and accomplished enough to enter the local accordion competitions and at the age of ten he became Scottish accordion champion. Together with his younger sister, Rosie, who sang, Will would frequently play at local events, social functions and go-as-you-please competitions. Sometimes they would compete at more than one event on any night, often travelling as far afield as, Larkhall, Motherwell or Cowie. However, it was soon accepted by the other competitors, that if Will and Rosie had entered, they did not stand any chance of winning. Prize money for the winner in these days was £3.00 per event. In one particular season, Will is known to have won at least 13 individual events and together he and Rosie won 9 events.

At this time of his life, not only did Will develop his accordion playing to an advanced level, but he also taught himself to play the piano and the coronet and to read and write music. In an attempt to improve his musical ability, Will attended music lessons with a teacher, Mr Serafino Arcari, at the Arcari family home in Main Street, Lennoxtown. (Serafino had a Paolo Soprani accordion made specially for him at the factory in Italy. It had square buttons.) The lessons cost £1.00 per hour, but after a month, Serafino Arcari took him aside and declared that these lessons were a waste of time and money, as he could not teach Will anything.

During his primary education, Will attended the local Holy Cross School in Croy. From there he progressed to St Ninians School, Kirkintilloch, but was allowed to leave school at the age of 14 to pursue a stage career.

His Teenage Years:

At the age of thirteen, while making a solo guest appearance at a County Dinner in the Grand Hotel in Glasgow, Will was introduced by Sir Ian Colquhoun to Jock Kilpatrick, the manager of the Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow. Jock invited him to join the cast as a solo performer, and after being granted permission to leave school early, Will began his professional stage career. The next four years saw Will develop his own unique style of playing. His technical skills became renowned and his repertoire extended to include the full range of traditional Scottish music, Continental music and the classics.

When World War II broke out, Will was seventeen and was eligible for military service in the armed forces, however, since he had been born into the mining community of Croy, he was already working underground in the mines. There he had contracted pleurisy which left a shadow on his lung and caused him to fail the Army medical examination. Consequently, he was sent to work as a ‘Bevin Boy’ in the coal mines at Number 3 Gartshore Colliery, Dullatur. His fellow miners were so considerate of Will's status as a highly talented young stage performer with a great future, that they allowed him only to work at the pit bottom - not at the coal face - where the work was less demanding. He was also allowed to wear gloves to protect his 'valuable musicians' hands from any damage done by the hard manual work of manoeuvring coal tubs on and off the mine shaft cage.

Historical Note:

Britain experienced great difficulty in importing coal during World War II. This meant that the production of indigenous coal from British mines had to be immediately increased. The Minister of Labour at the time was Ernest Bevin and in an effort to alleviate the coal shortage, he proclaimed that twenty percent of young men, eligible to serve in the armed forces, should be enlisted to work in the coal mines. These conscript miners were given the nickname ‘Bevin Boys’. Will was well aware that it was at the same Gartshore Colliery on the 28th July 1923, that an underground explosion had killed 8 men. Nevertheless, in 1939 he started work in the coal mines as a 'Bevin Boy' in the service of his country.

At the age of eighteen, he made his first 78 record in London for Parlophone. The music was his own composition, "The Jacqueline Waltz". At that point the tune did not have a title, so he decided to name it after his current girl friend, Jacqueline Georgson, an English chorus girl whom he had met in a show. In 1940, while playing in a Sunday night concert in Dunoon, Will was introduced to Robert Wilson, the famous Scots tenor. Wilson was so impressed by the playing ability and stage presence of the young eighteen year old, that he invited him to join the 'White Heather Group' of Scots entertainers as a touring professional. That was the start of a long-time friendship and show business association, for they appeared on stage together for many years thereafter and Will made many recordings with "Thistle Records" of 65 Berkeley Street, Glasgow, a record company owned by Robert Wilson.

His Adult Years:

Although Will Starr travelled the world as an international performer, during his spare time he always enjoyed returning to his home in Croy. Will spent his later years with his sisters, Rose and Theresa, at 16 Weldon Place, Croy. The family had moved there when the family home at Smithstone Row, Croy, was demolished. After a losing battle with cancer of the spine, Will Starr died in his home town of Croy on 6 March 1976 and was buried in the Starrs family grave in Howe Road Cemetery, Kilsyth, Stirlingshire. The funeral on March 10th 1976, was attended by hundreds of local people, civic dignitaries, show business celebrities and many family friends from all over Scotland.

The Croy Silver Band played the funeral march as the cortège walked to the local Holy Cross Church in Croy. Will Starr was a life-time supporter of the Band and often played with them at rehearsals and functions. This was their opportunity to show their appreciation for that support by giving him a fitting send-off. Later, the funeral cortège stretched for a mile and a quarter, as the mourners walked the distance from his home town of Croy to the Cemetery in Howe Road, Kilsyth. The week before he died, the great Scottish Dance Band leader, Sir Jimmy Shand, paid him a visit at his home and played a few tunes for him. Shand was invited to play at Will's funeral, but he declined with the words, "Ah could'nae play that great man oot!" This was an expression of the great sadness Sir Jimmy Shand felt at the loss of such a good friend, fellow countryman and highly respected vituoso accordionist. The honour of playing was granted to Bill Powrie (brother of Ian Powrie, the famous Scottish fiddler) who played the slow air, "The Mist Covered Mountains" on Will Starr's own black Hohner Morino at the graveside.

Visit the fabulous site in memory of Will Starr at

This aritcle appears by kind courtesy of  Henry Aitken.



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