East End Memories

REMEMBERING THE HACKNEY EMPIRE (1948-1956)

Hackney Empire Posters

PART TWO – THE FIRST HALF

The show or bill, as it was also sometimes called, was divided into two halves and separated by an interval. The interval was the time when the bar was open for those in need of alcoholic drinks, while ice cream and orange drinks were on sale in the auditorium. The interval was an interesting time, but more about that a little later.

In the good ole days, which were supposedly in Edwardian times, which was when Music Hall was at its height of popularity, a Master of Ceremonies would oversee the evening’s frivolities and introduce each act. The Master was a gentleman, who sat at a small table to the side of the stage, and he was responsible for entertaining the audience between acts and for their introduction. He would bring the audience to quiet by calling for it, but mainly by his banging of a gavel on the table in front of him. Most patrons would come to order, but there would be a few, generally in The Gods, who would think themselves his intellectual equal and attempt to heckle him. The Master would certainly be someone of quick wit and would flavour his responses to these jokers with a certain acidity that would silence them in their tracks and cause them to hide beneath their seats with embarrassment. The audience would jeer at them and howl loudly with pleasure as the Master took a bow. A Master with wit and charm was both a crowd pleaser and someone to help fill the theatre. The audience appreciated someone who could entertain them with clever repartee and who possessed the ability to piece together ingenious and long-forgotten words as he introduced each act. The Master would be greeted with roars of laughter and thunderous applause as he demonstrated his eloquence to the audience. Patrons would often come to the Music Hall with the specific intention of seeing and being entertained by the Master and oftentimes the various acts would become of secondary importance.

Oer the years, the art of the Musical Hall Masters of Ceremonies declined and their numbers shrank. And sadly with our rush into a more modern world, these orators passed into oblivion and so their art was lost. No host of The Tonight Show could ever match them. With their loss, the Masters were replaced by small monitors placed strategically at the sides of the stage for all to see and which served to announce the next act to appear on stage. The monitors displayed in little red circular button-lights the number that an act had been assigned in the programme. Naturally, much charm and entertainment were lost with the demise of the Master of Ceremonies, and I for one, regret not ever being a part of that age when they thrived.

'The Good Old Days'

Click on a picture to see a clip from the programme

Despite not being a part of the era of the Master of Ceremonies, I was lucky enough to have a taste of their art thanks to the BBC programme The Good Old Days. The bygone era of Music Hall would be periodically recreated at the City Variety Leeds. During this presentation, various acts would recreate old-style entertainment for your delight, as the Master would say. One such act would always be a female singer who would be dressed in an exaggerated gown together with a large hat ordained with masses of multi-coloured ostrich feathers. She would lead the audience, also dressed in period costume, in a singalong consisting of a number of Edwardian and Victorian tunes. Everyone would join in and sing heartily with her and have a great time in doing so. The evening’s events would be overseen with much verve and gusto by the brilliantly talented Leonard Sachs (right in the collage above) who would amuse both audience and television viewers alike with his wit and charm and he would astound us in true vintage style with his portrayal of the production’s Master of Ceremonies.

The first act of all Music Hall presentations would traditionally be a dance routine that would be performed by a bevy of glamorous, scantily clad girls, women, ladies or whatever. Their revealing sequin-studded costumes would most often be topped off with exaggerated feather headdresses made most likely of fake ostrich plumes. It had been normal for all musical theatre to begin in this manner right up until the late 1940s until the musical play Oklahoma! was presented and revolutionized the genre. Oklahoma! was the first real musical that I ever saw performed on the stage. I remember being taken as a special treat to see the original production at the Stoll Theatre in Kingsway in London just before it closed and being most disappointed to find that as the curtain rose to reveal that little farm in Kansas. I remember also being left most disappointed since there were no dancing girls in sight. I had already developed a taste for headdresses made of feathers. In their absence were three characters who, good though they were, sadly lacked that initial impact that a chorus of sequin-ordained feather-headed beauties were guaranteed to bring someone raised on Music Hall.

Even as a child, I had strong views on just about any subject that interested me. And how a show should begin was something that definitely interested me and on which I had a definite opinion. My preference was that immediately following the band’s medley, the musicians should go immediately into the introduction to the first act with no pause for the band to receive applause. Although I appreciated that the band and the leader deserved recognition for their part in helping make the evening memorable, I was of a mind that any ovation should be saved and given to them and the cast once the show was over and not before. I felt that stopping to applaud following their medley only served to interfere with the continuity of the show. I also felt that the applause given to the first act would be more thunderous if, as the curtain was allowed to suddenly open, we, the audience, were allowed our first glimpse of that bevy of beautiful girls in posed positions with immoveable smiles on their faces who were standing patiently and waiting to entertain us.

Regardless of whatever the circumstances that preceded, once the curtain opened, the scantily clad dancers, along with their smiles, would come to life and throw themselves into their dance and try their best to make us believe that they were happy to be there and ready, willing and able to entertain and bring us joy. The dancers would burst into a series of high-kicks, leaps, taps, and bows as they smiled their way through their meticulous routine while maintaining their steps in time with the music and their smiles intact for some three minutes or so. Their efforts were greatly appreciated by me as well as the rest of the audience.

The Tiller GirlsNaturally, I had an opinion on the costumes worn by the dancers and, as I said earlier, I liked the dancers to wear a costume that glittered along with some form of headdress bedecked with feathers. Over the years, I have seen many dance troupes in many countries and I have enjoyed them all from The John Tiller Girls to The Bluebell Girls in Paris and to the Radio City Rockets. There is something quite spectacular about a line of chorus girls performing high-legged kicks in unison along with intricate formation steps while wearing sparkly costumes topped off with feathered headdresses of long ostrich plumes, all-be-them fake.

Once the chorus girls finished their prance about the stage, they would bow either in unison or offer it in the form of a wave, which I much preferred, and then high-kick their way off stage. The girl at the end of the line, just before disappearing behind the fly, would turn and offer the audience either a final smile or else give one last defiant kick, turn before turning her back to us and give us a provocative wiggle of her behind and then be gone. The audience en masse would be cheering at this point. Even at my young age, I definitely preferred the exit involving the final defiant kick and the wiggle.

The curtains would now close and the band would race through the final bars of the tune so as to reach the end just as the curtain finished its journey. For a second or two, the band would be silent to allow patrons to compose themselves. The little red button lights forming the number of the act on either side of the stage would change and the band would then strike up a new tune, which would be the signature tune of the second act. Sadly, the second act would most often have to be tolerated. Rarely would I find much to enjoy from this act I fear. The act would generally be a comic, and not an especially experienced or skilled one, I am sorry to say. He would make a lot of noise as he came on stage, but would fail to demonstrate much style or class. I always felt that he was someone in training – a kind of apprentice. The crowds on a Thursday were patient and kind and I never ever heard any heckling. I suspect that audiences on Friday and Saturday evenings, as well as the ruffians of the First House, were probably less kind and that the alcohol consumed before the show would most likely loosen their tongues and remove any inhibitions and would cause some interesting comments being directed at the stage by such members of the audience. Anyway, nothing like that happened on Thursdays – we were a classy audience!

I don’t remember laughing very much at such acts. I don’t know if this was due to the comics not being especially funny or if I lacked a sense of humour or whether I was too young to appreciate their humour. I do tell people that I don’t tend to lol, as they say nowadays, and that I don’t find many modern day entertainers amusing. Although this is basically true, I do laugh and find many things amusing, just not modern day comedians. I suspect that I have a certain taste, which I don’t believe is better or more sophisticated than that of others, but it is different. I like situations and stories rather than jokes. As a result, I loathe comedy clubs. I do not find the comics funny or especially talented. Also, I hate it when, after getting the audience to laugh at something, they immediately go into an explanation of their punch line or else milk the joke beyond its natural life span.

Occasionally the audience would be treated to an act specializing in slapstick. I cannot say that I have ever been impressed with this style of humour. Generally, the act would consist of two or three men who would be dressed as workmen of some sort. Decorators were a favourite amongst these acts. The stage would be set with a mock room with a workman’s table in the middle. These men would then attempt to wallpaper the room and would walk into each other while carrying pasted wallpaper or else walk on it while mounting a ladder. The finale would be where each would slap each other about the face with a brush full of paste. The highlight of the act would be when the remains of their buckets of paste would be poured down the trousers of one member. This was supposed to be amusing and cause us to laugh ourselves silly. As you might guess, I did not laugh and found such acts to be totally and utterly without merit.

After the comic, there would be various other acts, and if I were lucky, there would be a magician. I used to really like magicians, but again, being opinionated, the magician had to meet certain criteria to be acceptable to me. I liked magicians to be dressed in evening clothes complete with top hat and carrying a walking stick with a silver top and above all they had to wear a reasonably long black cloak. This attire was essential since it demonstrated to me that here was not just any run of the mill magician, but someone who was a master magician of significance and excellence. In addition, I did not like my magicians to speak at all. I felt that magicians were more mysterious and more believable when silent. I like the band to play quietly in the background and only come to prominence with the occasional drum roll when some superior illusion was about to be performed. Magicians were, after all, entertainers of action and had no need to waste time with words. Most magicians would be accompanied by an assistant, a woman who, as far as I could tell, did little except silently giggle at what I perceived to be nothing and to overact her part in a coy manner. I did not appreciate the overly expressive responses given by these assistants in response to the tricks and illusions performed. I saw these women as being mere window dressing and there primarily to display long and attractive stocking clad legs while attempting to divert attention away from the magician at crucial times. One point of note was that the fashion of the day dictated that the stockings have a long black seam at the back, which ran up from the heel up the back of the leg and disappeared beneath a very short skirt and overly frilly knickers. The skirt would fluff up to a narrow waist and the bodice would not be complete without a plunging neckline. The outfit would often be studded with Rhinestones, which would catch the spotlight and send sparkling reflections about the auditorium. At times, the assistant would perhaps wear a plain black outfit, again with an almost non-existent skirt together with a little white lacey apron and something white and delicate on her head. The something would not be of feathers and less pleasing to me. I now realize that these additions were to give the assistant the appearance of a French maid, which obviously was meant to tantalize and titillate many in the audience.

Once on stage, the magician would remove his cloak in a flurry and would whirl and twirl it about him before passing it to the assistant. He would next remove white gloves and top hat while smiling at the audience. Now he was ready to start his act. His assistant would make much in her accepting of the hat and would catch the gloves, one at a time, as the magician threw them in her direction. The stage would be quite dark due to the somber lighting and the band would be playing some mood provoking tune, which would help intensify the pending mystery of what was to come, thereby helping to set the scene for something special to happen. The magician would perform his tricks and illusion while bathed in the spotlight. This was true drama in the making and was very much to my taste. Following the completion of a trick, the spotlight would widen to include the assistant, and he would then bow and she would curtsy despite her having done little if anything to deserve any accolade.

Magician's rabbit in a hatI enjoyed most tricks performed by a silent magician. I liked to see vast numbers of handkerchiefs and scarves appear out of his hands. I enjoyed seeing rabbits pulled out of top hats and then seeing them disappear again. What I could not understand at the time was why the rabbits were always white. I used to wonder if rabbits ever came in another colour. As enjoyable as these tricks were, the trick that I liked best of all was when a magician produced white doves out of thin air. This was the piece de resistance as far as I was concerned. I loved to see these birds fly about the auditorium while the audience yelped in pleasure or from fear of droppings falling on them. The birds would circle just above the heads of the people in the fauteuils and then fly up and come to roost in the circle where they would remain for a minute or so before being signaled by the magician to swoop back over the heads of the audience once more and come to land on his or his assistant’s hand and then be moved to a perch.

The magician and his assistant would take several curtain calls since such acts were greatly appreciated. Naturally I was disappointed to see the act end and often voiced my opinion of this only to be told to be quiet by my mother. My father, being somewhat like me, was generally mesmerized by the act of the magician and would not have heard anything that I said since he was far to engrossed in the performance to have noticed.

At some time in the show, there would be either a juggler or a troupe of acrobats. If we were lucky, we would get both. Naturally, had I been booking the acts, we would have had both types of acts each week since they were great favourites of mine. As a result of seeing these acts and being inspired by them, I learned to juggle three oranges at once and do cartwheels, tumbles and forward and backward rolls as a child. I am still able to juggle oranges, but sadly I have not been able to perform an acceptable cartwheel, tumble or roll, either backward or forward, for many years now. I admired those jugglers who could spin hoops on their arms and on one leg while balancing several rubber balls on a stick held between their teeth. I also enjoyed those acts where choppers, giant knives and other sharp and dangerous utensils were tossed about with great speed and caught with dexterity. Although I saw the ability to fling and catch such dangerous objects, at that time, as great talent, I soon learned that such an ability was insufficient to allow those blessed with such a gift to ever top the bill at any theatre. And sadly, neither would tumbling nor flying through the air and being caught on a partner’s shoulders bring headliner’s fame to the exponents. However, despite this such artistes gave me much pleasure at the time and for this I am grateful.

Chic Murray and MaidieThere would be a number of specialty acts on the bill each week for the entertainment of the audience. Most would be fillers in for the first and second halves of the bill while the audience waited patiently for the better-known acts to appear at the end of each half of the bill. However, there would be an occasional act that would work their way up over the years to top the bill. One such act, which I remember fondly, was the singing comedy duo of Chic Murray & Maidie. Chic Murray was a tall man and was head and shoulders taller than Maidie. He used their difference in height to great effect, as he would stand directly behind her while he sang and she played the accordion. He would make faces and roll his eyes as he sang while Maidie played and smiled. He had a very dry wit and would relate amusing anecdotes in a very droll manner. I was very taken by this act and always enjoyed seeing them. He seemed to be a mild mannered man and never raised his voice during their act. He was without doubt a master of the throwaway line.

Another type of specialty acts was the animal act. Now, since I was a child, it would be reasonable to suppose that I would enjoy these acts. Unfortunately, I did not. Most were dog acts and since I did not like the kinds of dogs used in the acts, I was not too impressed with their abilities to chase or catch balls thrown their way or else applaud as one animal walked a thin beam without falling from it. One act that I remember was one where the trainer was a woman and the dogs were poodles. I have never been a lover of the poodle and dislike what owners do to their coats. I dislike the fact that these hunting dogs have been reduced to delicate frou-frou creatures decked out in silly exaggerated feminine attire including a bow on their heads.

I much preferred larger animals as seen at circuses. I liked lion and elephant acts very much. When I was a child, several giant circuses traveled about the country although Britain was never really a circus country. By the time I left school, I believe that there was only one company still touring the country. I was taken only once to a large circus as a child. I have never had the wish to return as an adult although I had the opportunity each year while living in New York City to attend a performance of the Barnum & Bailey, Ringling Brothers Circus during their annual trip to Madison Square Gardens. I used to belong to a theatre club at that time and would regularly be offered very reasonably priced tickets to do so, but never took advantage of it. The one time that I did go to the circus was when I was still quite small, and it was to see Tom Arnold’s Circus just before Christmas one year. The circus was being presented at the Harringay Arena in North East London, which was a long bus ride from where we were living. The presentation was a three rings circus and was jam packed with acts of various types. The clowns did not overly impress me, as I did not like their outfits or their make-up. In fact, I found them to be somewhat creepy and really disliked it when they came into the audience. I felt as if they were about to kidnap me. I did my best to smile as they ran by, as I did not want to give them an excuse to single me out for the taking.

Sabu the Elephant BoyI remember that Sabu, the elephant boy, topped the bill. He was an Indian who had made some rather good films in both England and the U.S.A. before and just after the war. As tastes changed, he moved over to the circus and finished out his career there. The elephants were magnificent and I was especially impressed when Sabu allowed one of his legs to enter the elephant’s mouth and then suspended himself upside down thanks to the grip of the animal’s lips. There were also lions and tiger acts in the circus. Each was daring and slightly frightening. What I did not like was the sound of the cracking of the whip used often to maintain order amongst the big cats. I believe that someone actually put their head into a lion’s mouth that evening. I remember thinking that they must be nuts to do this.

It was unfortunate that the stage at the Hackney was too small to accommodate a large animal act and so nothing as exotic as one with lions or elephants was presented there, or rather was seen by me. However, I do remember seeing a trapeze act at the theatre on one occasion. I recall that the troupe had an exotic name and were apparently brothers. They wore spectacular shiny costumes of bright gaudy colours along with long flowing cloaks. I liked the cloaks very much, but sadly, was not overly impressed with the act. However, I was impressed with the trapeze act that I saw at the circus since this was high wire and dangerous despite the use of a safety net. Naturally, the Hackney did not lend itself to being a venue for such an act. The stage lacked sufficient height to cause the audience to feel that the performers were daring and that their feats were spectacular and, as a result, their act failed to impress me to any great extent.

Orson Welles in The Third ManWhen I was a child, new films were showcased in the West End of London and then after several weeks were sent out on general release where they could be seen at popular prices. They would play for a week at the local Gaumont, Odeon or ABC and would then disappear, never to be seen again unless they were revived at a Classic cinema. Rarely would a film be re-released or held over for a second week in general release. One film that I believe was returned to general release was The Third Man, which is an excellent film noire set in an eerie Vienna just after the end of the second world war. The film was directed by the great Carol Reed and starred Orson Wells and many other excellent performers including Valli, whose grandniece was in the same residency programme as me during my medical training. Some of the great success that this film enjoyed was due to the soundtrack, which was provided by the excellent Anton Karas and his zither playing. He had played with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and can be heard to perfection on their Tales of the Vienna Woods.

The main theme in the film, The Harry Lime Theme, was a haunting melody and became a big hit of the day. It was played constantly on Housewives’ Choice and the other request programmes of the time. Both the film and its music impressed me very much and caused me to write to Uncle Mac, the then presenter of Children’s Favourites, which aired each Saturday morning and asked him to play it especially, but he didn’t. I never liked Uncle Mac and found him to be somewhat of a snob. He hardly ever played anything modern and only seemed to like nursery rhymes and antiquated songs. I remember that on one occasion he aired Chuck Berry’s School Day. Obviously the poor fellow had not heard this song before and interrupted taking it off the air midway through while saying well, I think that we have had quite enough of that! That was it, as far as I was concerned and caused me to have enough of him. I never listened to Children’s Favourites and Children’s Hour again whenever he was the presenter.

The Third Man became an instant classic and I still watch it from time to time and find it as interesting and entertaining as ever. The film was made in black and white and was filled with wonderful scenes with the most remarkable and memorable images: jagged shadows slicing across cobbled streets and with danger lurking around every corner. As a result of this film, I became a lifelong devotee of film noire and could not wait to visit Vienna and especially The Prater and to go on The Great Wheel. I remember my first visit. I could not wait for night to come. I remember waiting until it was past midnight before I slipped out alone to prowl those same dark streets. Despite the occupation being long since over and the black market having long since ceased to trade, I was not disappointed with what I found. The streets were poorly lit still and were silent. They appeared to retain that same forbidding quality captured to perfection on film by Carol Reed. The sense of mystique and danger was heightened by my shadow, as it seemingly chased me down the streets and by the menacing sounds caused by my footsteps.

In those days, I liked to put metal taps on the heels of my shoes. As I walked those cold, dark and slippery streets, despite my wish to creep along the streets without being seen or heard, my presence was announced by the sound made from steel striking the worn cobblestone of that war-ravaged part of the city. The echoes made by my steps - click … click … click – resonated up and down those narrow deserted thoroughfares and bounced back and forth off the somber and seemingly empty buildings that lined them. As I made my way, I remained in the shadows trying to limit the offensive sound as best I could. I fear that I was unsuccessful in this. Unfortunately, I am sorry to say that the combination of the echoes and the menacing and threatening shadows that I made as I moved with increasing speed down the street caused my imagination to take control and quickly I soon began to believe that someone or, worse yet, something was in pursuit of me with harmful desires. I was relieved when eventually I reached a larger and better-lit thoroughfare. Too much imagination can be dangerous.

Anton Karas playing his zitherI was overjoyed when I learned that Anton Karas along with his zither was to appear at the Hackney. Fortunately my parents were as enthusiastic as me to see this man and hear his playing. I took it as a personal insult that he did not top the bill, but was given a spot in the first half. Naturally I voiced my disgust at the insult that was made to the great virtuoso for those about me to hear after taking our seats at the theatre, but my mother told me to be quiet or else there would be no ice cream during the interval. Herr Karas appeared seated centre stage with the zither on his lap and played a number of tunes that were pleasing on the ear. I was disappointed that he did not speak to the audience between tunes, but I don’t believe that this was a disrespectful act, for he appeared to be a happy, almost jolly man, who smiled his appreciation to the audience. I do remember being greatly taken by his outfit. He was dressed in very fine dark gray woolen suit with what seemed to be green embroidery on the breast pocket and on the lower part of the sleeves. I later learned that his suit was in the Austrian style. I also remember hoping that my parents would buy a similar one for me. Again, I was disappointed. Years later, I did buy myself an Austrian-style overcoat and still have it in my cupboard, although I hate to say that it has long since ceased to fit me. Somehow, I cannot bring myself to part with it.

The climax of his act was the playing of the theme music from the film. This brought much applause as the first few notes were plucked and once again after he finished playing. I was very impressed with everything that I saw and heard but especially with this piece. All too soon he had now reached the end of his act. He stood, smiled and bowed and then held his zither above his head for all to see and admire. I remember standing and clapping for I most certainly admired him and his zither. I wanted more playing but encores were not generally given by supporting acts. I was most unhappy when the curtains closed on him and his zither and the band began to play the signature tune of the next act. Still, it was exciting to have seen a zither and heard it played. I remember being amazed that such a small and unusual instrument could produce such wonderfully haunting sounds. The act was without doubt the highlight of my evening and, sadly for all the other acts that followed, they were all destined to pale in comparison.

I remember still those haunting sounds that came from Anton Karas’ zither. They were both haunting and captivating. Each time I hear the strains of that particular tune from The Third Man, I find myself transported back to those dark and dangerous cobblestone streets and to that subterranean world portrayed in the film and I remembered that cold night that I walked them when I was younger and lacked sense.

There were many other instrumentalists that played for the audiences during the first half ranging from accordionists to sea lions blowing little horns. Although I have long since forgotten their names and the details of their acts, I feel certain that each act tried its best to please their audience and most succeeded.

I think that one of the strangest acts that I saw at the Hackney was that of G.H. Elliott, or as he billed himself G.H. Elliott, The Chocolate Coloured Coon. Please remember that this was the early 1950’s, and political correctness had not entered the public psyche as of yet. Mr. Elliott’s skin did appear chocolate in colour, but whether this was from being of African descent or by the use of make-up, I am unable to say.

G.H.ElliottMr. Elliott was well past his prime when I saw him on a Thursday night since he was no longer topping the bill or even topping the first half. When I saw him, he was appearing in the first half of the bill and was about the fourth or fifth act. I remember my mother being especially pleased to see him and she sang along to all his songs. He was casually and colourfully dressed with a bright yellow waistcoat, check trousers, white shirt and cravat. I was very impressed by his attire and thought that he wanted to be a golliwog, which were dolls that were very popular in my childhood.

G.H. was a song and dance man and sadly one that had seen better days. He was reasonably tall and very thin but was no longer young. His singing voice was unusual to say the least. I had never heard anything like it before and have never heard anything like it since. It was, to my young ears, more of a wobbling than actual singing. The sound was somewhat higher than that of a tenor but not quite as high as a soprano. I think that he could yodel too, and may well have. Sadly, yodeling is not a singing form that I admire as it is somewhat unpleasant to my ears and so not to my taste. He sang a number of songs, which were well received, yet for a song and dance man I noticed that during these initial songs, he did not appear to dance much at all. Rather he remained in one spot and swayed somewhat in time with to the music.

Although G.H. appeared to be limber and spry, when he finally began to move about the stage, one could see that he had great difficulty walking. Sadly, his inability to move with ease proved even more problematic later for him once he decided to dance, which mercifully, he did not do until the last song of his act. By then, although I felt great pain for him as he tried to limp about the stage and was very embarrassed by his poor feeble efforts, I had my own problems to contend with, which would bring me much sadness during the interval. But I am getting ahead of myself.

G.H.’s most popular song was Lily of Laguna and he obviously sang it now as the finale of his act. As the introductory bars began to be played by the band, the audience broke into a hearty round of applause. They were evidently eager to show their admiration of him I do not doubt since many remembered him in better days. I recall him smiling and then bowing his appreciation of the crowd’s response and then began to sing.

Community singing is something that I had, and still have, strong opinions about. I think group singing should be saved for church, folk clubs, outside of pubic houses after closing time and before football cup finals. I find it embarrassing to be seated amongst a group of strangers who are somewhat familiar with the lyrics of a song and who all seem to sing in different keys. My parents always thought that I was miserable when I refused to sing along with the audience.

Towards the midpoint of Mr. Elliott’s rendition of Lily of Laguna, he went into his dance – a soft shoe shuffle. Although he was still able to hold a tune, his dancing left much to be desired. I remember my mother, obviously thinking aloud, remarked as he stumbled about the stage, that he obviously had trouble with his pins, meaning that he suffered with some foot problems. An innocent comment, you might think, and under other circumstances I am sure that it would have gone unnoticed by me. However, at that precise moment, her remark must have hit my funny bone since it was remarkable in its understating of the situation at hand. I recall that I found her comment very funny and began to laugh. Once I started to laugh, I found that I could not stop. My laughter could not, and would not, be controlled despite my mother telling me to be quiet. I tried pretending that I was having a coughing spell, but this only made the laughter louder. One or two of those about me now began to turn around and tut-tut at me and made comments on how I was obviously too young to be allowed in the theatre since they felt that I did not know how to behave. In the end, I had to slip out of my fort-tell and on to the floor and stuff a handkerchief in my mouth until G.H. had completed his act whereupon I could hide my laughter in the sounds of the applause, which mercifully, was robust and loud.

Fortunately, G.H.’s dance and act soon came to an end and he left the stage after receiving a great deal of applause and several curtain calls. The following act was, thank heavens, a comic. Whether he was good or bad, I do not know, but thanks to him, I was able to laugh officially and, again thanks to him, I was soon able to return to my normal non-laughing state as a result of my inability to find anything that he said to be funny.

My behaviour during G.H.’s act, I knew, would not go without comment and would most likely reap a punishment. I was dreading the interval and once it came, I learned fully of the shame and humiliation that I had brought on my family and on my mother in particular. My mother was mortified. I was accused of showing her up in public and, as a result, I was to be given no ice cream. Obviously, my mother refused to take any responsibility in this event and would not listen when I dared to accuse her of causing the laughter with her comment. She would have none of that. What upset me was the severity of the punishment given to me. It wasn’t that I minded not getting the ice cream. I could easily live without it. What I found unfair, if not cruel, was being denied my visit with the ice cream lady. In general, I was the only child in the theatre during the second house, and as a result, I was somewhat of a curiosity and was often singled out by both public and staff. My parents were told often how lucky they were to have a son that knew how to conduct himself in public. I would smile sweetly and would sometimes be rewarded with little gifts of sweets or ice cream from these folks. Naturally, amongst the staff I had my favourites, and the ice cream lady topped that list. So it was with a heavy heart that I was forced to accept such severe punishment and not visit her as she stood at the front of the stalls with a large tray of tasty morsels for sale. I remember asking if I might go and say hello to her, but my mother with one of those stony looks on her face said no. I tried appealing to my father knowing full well that this would be useless, but one always lived in hope that he might overrule my mother. My father never really bothered himself with my upbringing and never overruled my mother in such matters. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about me or that he necessarily agreed with her wishes and punishment of me, it was simply that he lacked the interest to involve himself in the matter. And so my appeal to him proved, as it always did, to be fruitless. He dismissed it, with a wave of his hand, which indicated his unwillingness to become involved, and told me that it was my own fault. He would then give me a wave of his hand, as if to dismiss me totally, and turn away. And I am afraid to say that this was the end of the matter and I had to lump it and go without my treat and my talk to the ice cream lady. Fortunately, I was not the sulking kind and soon got over this harsh punishment.

Julie AndrewsPerhaps the most famous person that I saw in the first half of the bill at the Hackney was Julie Andrews. Ms Andrews began her career when she was very young. She formed a trio with her father who sang duets with her and her mother who accompanied them on the piano. She was obviously a talented young girl as I remember her well and remember thinking that she had a good voice. She must have been about fourteen years of age at that time and had long brown hair and wore a white dress. She was very ladylike and curtsied to the audience after each song.

The young Miss Andrews and her father would sing old-fashioned songs and one that she sang alone and which I am able to recall was The Merry Merry Pipes of Pan. My father, who fancied himself as a singer (more of this later!), would sing this song in the bathroom. However, he could not reach the high notes with the same ease that Miss Andrews achieved. Sadly, such songs were not to my taste as a child. I had discovered, without realizing it, rhythm ‘n’ blues, at a young and tender age thanks to the teachings of a ‘record seller that had befriended me (more of him elsewhere also) and was, without realizing it, into Louis Jordan and was merrily singing ditties like Is you is or is you ain’t my baby? and I want you to be my baby. At that time, I saw nothing remiss in the lyrics. We were after all in the early 1950s and these types of songs were not commonplace in Britain at that time and were rarely, if ever, played on the radio, thanks to the puritanical policy imposed on listeners by the B.B.C. at that time.

I remember that when I was about seven or eight years old, I was once walking down a corridor at school and singing aloud one of these R ‘n’ B songs. I feel certain that it was Is you is or is you ain’t my baby since this was my favourite song for many years. I fear that the teacher who overhead my singing must have had obvious differing musical tastes to myself since she immediately marched me off to the Head Master’s office to await his pleasure. Unfortunately, he too was not hip to the tunes much admired by me and I was severely spoken to and given a note to take home to my parents detailing my detestable and despicable behaviour. The letter complained of my choice of song and my parents were asked to see that such an incident did not reoccur. My parents were mortified at the shame that my behaviour had brought down on them as a result of my careless choice of song and I was told never to repeat this obvious offense to society again. Over the years, I have come to believe that it was not so much that I was singing that was of such an offense to my teachers’ sensitive ears, but rather the poor grammar associated with the song that most disturbed them. I feel certain that they were not familiar with my chosen musical genre of the time and certainly were not familiar with the history of the singers that popularized it.

The last act of the first half of the bill would be reserved for someone on their way up, that is to say, an act that was on the rise, someone on their way up to the top. When the Beatles started their careers in earnest, their manager, Brian Epstein, arranged for them to travel the Music Hall circuit and the group members often credited what they learned from the other acts regarding stage presence and how to talk to an audience to this time spent on the boards. During this time in their careers, the group was seen as being on their way up and would regularly close the first half of the show. Apparently, they toured with the singer, Helen Shapiro, who became miffed with them as the tour went on, as they began receiving more applause than she even though she was topping the bill at the time.

When I was taken to the Hackney, such a singer, on the way up, would most often close the first half. These performers were on the brink of becoming a household name and most had enjoyed some recent success selling gramophone records. Their success would be assured thanks largely to the request shows that were very popular at the time. Once this happened, and if they could come up with a follow up hit, it would not be long before these singers would be topping the bill and closing the second half. With this, they would be considered as having made it in their chosen profession. At that time, television was still in its infancy and few owned a set, but this was about to change and the one-time novelty was about to explode onto the scene and become part of almost everyone’s home. In the achievement of this goal, suitable programming would be necessary in the hope of luring the general public into purchasing television sets, which were not cheap in those days. And so, alas, the television companies began to ravage the Musical Hall circuits and woo the talented and not so talented away from the boards with the promise of easier and increased revenue along with quick fame thanks to the vast audience that the medium would soon attract.


READER COMMENTS
 

G.H. Eliot was definitely a white man, blacked up.  He came from Rochdale, Lancashire.

Though there were some noted black performers (I wonder how many of the radio audience knew “Hutch” was West Indian?) I think they would have found the going hard on the provincial variety circuits.   My dear friends Fred & Frank Cox (a pair of identical twins who married another pair of the same, working as The Cox & Miles Twins) told a story of going home on the tram while playing summer season at Blackpool.  A “blackface” double act travelled with them, still in makeup.  It transpired they actually WERE black, but had to hide the fact from their landlady!  (The story *may* be true!)

LP

 

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