The Glasgow Empire Theatre: Tales from the House of Terror!
The Glasgow Empire Theatre : Tales from the House of Terror
“Freud said that the essence of the comic was the conservation of psychic energy. But then Freud never played Second House, Friday night at the Glasgow Empire” (Ken Dodd)
For over 60 years the Glasgow Empire Theatre attracted many local, national and international names who came to tread its boards.
Some of the greats played there including the immortal singing voices of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Nat King Cole.
People remember the night that the lights were turned down and in a blue spotlight Judy Garland sang ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ to an enthralled audience. Other well-known female singers such as Shirley Bassey, Eartha Kitt and Lena Horne also performed there.
Of course comedy was never far away and the people of Glasgow mobbed the streets in 1947 to welcome Laurel and Hardy who were performing.
On another visit in 1952 they were carried shoulder high from the theatre and along Sauchiehall Street.
It was a trip down memory lane for Stan Laurel who had actually made his world premiere at the Panopticon Theatre in the city in 1906 as a young 15 year old.
That could be a tough gig as the crowds would come armed with left-over produce from the local fruit market. Or even worse shipyard workers would fire rivets at the stage with catapults.
The young performer was known as Stanley Jefferson then and lived in Glasgow for a time when his father Arthur Jefferson ran the Metropole Theatre.
Abbott and Costello had them laughing in the aisles too and in fact my father met Bud Abbott one night. While Lou was out partying and chasing the girls as you would expect, my dad bumped into Bud Abbott who was out for a quiet walk in the streets.
I recall him telling me that the American superstar was a really nice guy to talk to and came across as unassuming and friendly company.
Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Danny Kaye also did comic turns at the Empire as many American stars brought Hollywood glamour and excitement to post-war Glasgow. They invariably played to packed house and left to rapturous applause of adulation ringing in their ears.
But not every entertainer who faced the Glasgow audience was always greeted with a warm reception.
The Sauchiehall Street theatre was opened in 1897 and was known as The Glasgow Palace Empire until the early 1900s. It could house over 1700 people in the audience, mostly seated but a few hundred standing.
It closed in 1930 for reconstruction and extension then re-opened with an increased capacity of 2,100 in the following year.
Stories of the theatre and its audiences are legendary and memories of those who performed there can be a mixed bag to say the least. This was Variety Theatre of course which included comedians, singers, musical revues, pop stars and various exotic turns.
Such as a circus act which included a live alligator being wrestled in murky water by a scantily-clad woman and also the unforgettable ‘Robinson Crusoe On Ice’ in 1952.
Speaking of scantily-clad woman, one Glasgow patron has mentioned that there was a topless show in 1958 that closed the theatre midway as the audience had started throwing ice cream at the dancers.
Famous escapologist Harry Houdini appeared too and a story goes that backstage he locked himself in the toilet and couldn't get out. The theatre staff had to rescue him.
The teeny-bop idols of the 1950’s Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard played to hysterical audiences of young girls although the Empire never experienced the madness of Beatlemania.
Other lesser-known bands could enjoy a similar reception such as ‘Emile Ford and the Checkmates’ who, as recalled by a lady called Marion Quillan, had the fans screaming.
She admits that she was surprised to see her friends shouting and leaping about. But as she explains;
“When I said that I didn't know they were such fans they replied that the screaming was more fun than listening to the singing.”
Scottish comedians such as Chic Murray, Jimmy Logan, Rikki Fulton and Jack Milroy were always popular. In fact when another Scottish legend Lex Mclean appeared, the theatre needed mounted police outside to control the crowds.
The Empire also provided the inspiration for the song ‘Scotland the Brave’ as the lyrics were written by the late Cliff Hanley in 1951 for a musical revue at the theatre.
Performer and producer Robert Wilson needed a song to finish the show and a classic was born. Alongside ‘Flower of Scotland’ it has become a favourite unofficial national anthem of the people of Scotland.
Not for the faint-hearted
However it was not always the theatre of dreams for many unfortunate performers.
In fact it was described as “A killing field for comics, it was the show-business equivalent of the Roman amphitheatre” according to ‘The Times’ journalist Allan Brown
Throughout the world of entertainment, the Glasgow Empire, Second-House on Friday night struck fear and trembling into many comics.
Usually it was English comedians who incurred the unbridled wrath of the nationalistic Glasgow crowds.
It got so bad that English comics would bribe each other to actually get lower down the billing.
This would let them get the ordeal over with and still have time to catch the last train south.
The Scots entertainer Johnny Beattie summed it up when he said “If they liked you, they let you live” and in a prudent display of self-preservation and knowing your audience he would deliberately wear a kilt because. “I wanted them to know 'I'm one of you’."
But English comedian Eddie Reindeer went even further to avoid the ire of the audience. Whenever he appeared at the Glasgow Empire he completely changed his act. He would blacken up his face, rename himself Eddie Reinhardt and do his routine in an American accent.
Max Miller was a hugely popular entertainer in the 1950s but suffered at the hands of the Glasgow mob. When he was asked to come back again and play the Empire he turned it down; "I'm a comic" he said, "Not a missionary"
The main reason however why Friday night was considered so terrifying was due to the strict licensing laws back then. After the interval the punters knew that there would be no more alcohol on sale for the rest of the night.
Consequently, that interval was the last-chance saloon for the drinkers who got stoked up on the 'bevvy' while they waited. So it seems it was perhaps a mixture of inebriation and frustration that got taken out on anyone who dared to walk on stage.
Because then the onslaught would begin.
There is a famous story about singer Des O'Connor who was so overcome by fear that he ended up fainting onstage and had to be carried off.
He always denied it, claiming that the only way to get off stage in one piece was to pretend to collapse.
He was then taken off to hospital and lived to tell the tale.
But before he exited the stage the orchestra leader asked him "Is this part of your act"
Mike and Bernie Winters died a death on their first ever visit to the Empire in a tale that has been gleefully recounted by Billy Connolly on television.
The act started brightly with Mike onstage playing a lively tune on the clarinet. After a couple of minutes Bernie's face peeked through the curtains wearing a silly leering grin. This drew a shout from the audience; “Christ!, there's two of them!'
It happened to the best
Even the most famous names in British show-business suffered the agonies of the Empire. Eric Morecambe & Ernie Wise turned up at the stage door one night and noticed that the road in West Nile Street was being dug up.
Eric said to Ernie "They’re digging our grave already”. After walking off-stage to the sound of their own footsteps the duty fireman who was standing in the wings said “They're beginning to like you”.
Music Hall veteran and comic genius Ken Dodd christened it ‘The House of Terror’ in the days before he became a real legend of the circuit.
When he appeared for the first time in 1954 he took the bull by the horns.
"My first line was, 'I suppose you are all wondering why I've sent for you?'
"That got a bit of nervous titter and then a drunk, in the middle of the third or fourth row, uncoiled himself from the seat, looked at me and shouted, 'Crivvens, what a horrible sight!'
"Then the drunk collapsed back into his seat. The audience roared with laughter and I was saved."
Apparently he wasn't so lucky on another occasion when dealing with a persistent heckler. He stopped his act and asked his assailant;
"And what would make you laugh sir?"
"A comedian!" came the reply.
It could be hard for performers to keep the crowd entertained when they were playing down the bill to a big star, especially if the headliner was a famous American.
Multi-talented Roy Castle was part of Jimmy James' comedy team for a couple of years along with Eli Woods. Working the Glasgow Empire they played second-billing to Country Music superstar Slim Whitman.
Despite their best efforts the audience started yelling; “We came to hear Slim Whitman” followed by loud hissing which grew louder and louder by the second.
Their eighteen minute act was over in four minutes flat!
It must have been encouraging for the network of entertainers to hear that someone could fight back against the baying masses of Glasgow.
A lady called Cissie Williams who was the chief booking agent for the Moss Empire circuit received a phone call about Jimmy Edwards who had suffered heckling the previous night.
Jimmy, apparently after having imbibed somewhat himself, had told a Glasgow drunk to “Piss off!” on stage. Expecting Miss Williams to be enraged at such bad language the caller was surprised to hear her say “Well, it's about time somebody did that up there”.
Welsh diva Shirley Bassey was remarkably more assertive as a young 18-year old in 1955. Despite her nerves and the hostility of the crowd she walked to the edge of the stage and told them off for their behaviour. They audience sat quietly through the rest of her singing.
Sometimes though you might get support from an unexpected quarter as not all of the audience were heartless fiends. A story has been told that apparently an elderly English songstress was warbling though her repertoire to the jeers and catcalls of the audience.
Suddenly a man jumped to his feet in the stalls, turned to the crowd and shouted
“C’mon! Give the auld cow a chance!”
The lady looked down at him then up at the rest of the audience and proclaimed “At least there is one gentleman in here tonight”
The Revenge of the Hunchback
A fantastic story was told by comic impressionist Victor Seaforth who was on before US rock n’ roller Charlie Gracie one evening. He recalled;
“On the opening night the audience was more suited to a cup final than a theatre. It was very distressing and the artistes found the noise quite frightening. All we could hear was ‘Bring on Charlie Gracie! Where's Charlie Gracie?’, plus plenty of rude noises.”
Victor admitted to feeling physically sick at the thought of going on when all he could hear from the wings was “Bring on Charlie Gracie! Bring on Charlie Gracie!" as well as more rude noises which had become even louder.
He battled on regardless before finally coming to his final skit which was an impersonation of Quasimodo as played by Charles Laughton in ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’.
An attempt to introduce it over the shouts of “Bring on Charlie Gracie! Bring on Charlie Gracie!" proved a waste of time so he just went straight into the act.
As he twisted his body and contorted his face he delivered the monologue but was only met with the demand to "Bugger off!!!" and more of "Bring on Charlie Gracie!, Bring on Charlie Gracie!".
However despite the cacophony of rude noises and shouts to get off Victor carried on until near the end of his act when a loud voice shouted
"Away hame you humpy-backed old bastard! "
This would have killed lesser men and we can only wonder how Des O’Connor would have handled that. But Victor stayed composed, walked up to the microphone, gazed up into the circle and in the voice of Quasimodo shouted back;
"Don't you recognise your father?"
The final curtain
The final curtain came down on the theatre on the 31st of March 1963. The owners decided to close it down for economic reasons and the building was then sadly demolished.
The last night saw Albert Finney, the Alexander Brothers, Johnny Beattie, Rikki Fulton, and Andy Stewart among the last ever performers to play the Glasgow Empire.
Or maybe not as one J. Brown recalls; “I worked on the demolition and I was the last man to sing on stage before we tore it up."
"I sang 'Champion the Wonder Horse'”