My thanks to the following sources:
Donald Inkster ‘Union Cinemas Ritz – A Story of Theatre Organs and Cine Variety’ (The Wick Book Publishers 1993)
Focus On Film No 37
Memories of a Forgotten Era
Written by Mike Lang
Part one. Union shows the way
Mostly forgotten now, in the days when wireless (radio) was the king and television, a baby waiting to be born, the mix of films plus a show, is a long gone memory. From 1900, records show that many of the first purpose-built cinemas had musical accompaniment, mostly pianos, but some with an organ and occasionally a small orchestra, plus acts on stage along with the silent film programme.
By the 30s, many cinemas were home to Cine-Variety, a part of the cinema going experience. For the equivalent of 10p or less in today’s money, a visit to the cinema in the 30s would include two films, usually a main feature and a supporting shorter film called a B film, trailers for next week’s show, plus a newsreel, a cartoon and a full stage show, often with a large organ being raised regally on a lift from the orchestra pit to accompany the artists. Those featured, were often stars of film, radio, or variety theatre. There were also a vast number of mostly now forgotten supporting turns. Many of the cinema organists would also become stars due to their wireless shows. There was also sometimes a full orchestra. Most of the cinema chains of that time had Cine-Variety as part of the programme, but the company that probably stands out from the rest is Union Cinemas.
Some background history is probably needed here, as this is now mostly a forgotten company, except for the cinema buffs. Union was started in June 1928 by wool firm magnet, David Bernhard, who made his son, Charles Frederick Bernhard, Managing Director. The company bought and built many family size cinemas based on local needs. Most were named Ritz.
Musical comedy theatre was not that popular in the 1930s, but live stage entertainment, especially variety shows were. Some of this popularity was down to the wireless and films, in which many of the stars appeared, such as ‘Elstree Calling’ (1930) and ‘Radio Parade of 1935’. Both films are fairly poor, but they include in the cast, many of the star acts Union and other chains would employ for their Cine-Variety shows.
Looking at the American wireless variety films of the same time such as Paramount’s ‘Big Broadcast’ movies of 1932/36/37 and 1938, the UK doesn’t seem to know how to showcase it’s artists, live on stage, or more likely is they didn’t have the big bucks of their American rivals.
Patrons seeing their favourite artists, live on stage, boosted the stars popularity, plus their earnings and gave the public what they wanted. By 1933, cinemas as well as theatres were playing more variety acts than any year since the 1st world war.
Live ‘turns’ as they were called, were popular everywhere, and the management at one super-cinema, the 3,250 seat Troxy in East London, now restored and a popular live venue, stated then, that without these acts in the 30s, they probably couldn’t have filled all their seats.
The artists of the day were happy doing these shows, which on the whole were very professional. In 1931, a journal called ‘Variety Music Stage and Film News was launched, binding the stage with cinema.
The peak years for Union’s use of Cine-Variety were 1936/37. Sound had come to British cinema in 1929 with ‘The Clue of the New Pin’, and the first all colour, all talking musical ‘A Romance in Seville’ Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Blackmail’, often quoted as Britain’s first sound feature was really only part-talkie, with synchronised score and sound effects. The sound was produced on a disc and was not of a particular high quality, but by the 1930’s things had improved, with the soundtrack being put into the film itself. Any comments that sound was a passing fad soon faded. Audiences could hear their favourite stars on the wireless and see and hear them on the silver screen.
The next obvious thing to do was to have them appear live on a stage in a cinema. Union had acquired several existing cinemas from small independent owners, and with the advent of sound, decided not to go into film production, which had been the company’s first idea, but to concentrate solely on forming a major film chain all over the U.K. By June 1931, they had 17 cinemas, including the Plaza, Maidenhead and the Super in Oxford, which had small organ consoles, as part of the fixtures and fittings, but rarely used as part of a film programme.
It didn’t take long for Bernhard to realise the potential of a live show, plus films. Another of the company’s acquisitions was a fairly run down building called the Public Hall, an old cinema and music hall built in 1909 at Gravesend in Kent. They decided to fit it out as a super-cinema, their first. A three manual Compton Organ was installed and in September of 1933, it opened as ‘The Super’. The packed opening show included an organ interlude, played by one of the star organists of the time, Alex Taylor. It was a hit and he became part of the show each day. Followed by another organist, Lewis Gerard, this was probably the time that organs plus a live show plus films became Union’s Policy.
Stars that featured in the early days of ‘The Super’ included some large bands like Olly Aston’s 1933 band, Yonkman’s Czardas Band and direct from London’s New Victoria Cinema, nowadays the Apollo Theatre, Jan Ralfini and his Famous Band. These stage shows could feature bands of up to 18 players. It makes me wonder how Union could afford to pay so many artists, which could also include three or more various types of variety act, plus a top-of-the-bill star. The latter was usually booked for a short tour of the circuit, whilst the support acts worked the week. The cost of these shows was part of the upcoming financial problems that would shortly sink the company.
In my research for this book, I was lucky enough to find a gentleman called Eric Fowler, ex-manager to the Commodore Theatre, Ryde, on the Isle of Wight. Used as a cinema during the week in the 30’s, it turned to Variety shows on a Sunday. He has an old ledger, kept by the manager in the 30’s, that records an A-Z of all the artists that appeared and more importantly, their fee for appearing, plus in some cases some very cutting funny remarks on their act. Many of these acts in the ledger worked the Cine-Variety circuit and it does show the difference between being top of the bill in those days, and being an unknown at the bottom. Some of the artists I have covered further on in the book and I have marked those with a *. Money was then called Sterling and was in Pounds, Shillings and Pence, 20 shillings = one pound, 10 shillings = fifty pence, 1 shilling = five new pence. Pay and goods were also in Guineas, i.e. £1 and 1 shilling and so on, marked (gn).
The list I have is A-C, but there are many other names which I will add at the end, with where possible a short biography. Comments from the manager are in brackets and not mine.
The first A is Arthur Askey, billed as ‘Big Hearted Arthur’, another fine Liverpool comic born in 1900. Short in height, big on laughs, and a wonderful dame or Buttons in panto, with six Royal Variety performances at the London Palladium between 1946 and 1968. By 1938 he was a huge star of radio with the hit comedy ‘Band Wagon’ filmed in 1939. In 1934, he played a hit summer season at the Summer Theatre in Shanklin on the Isle of Wight in a concert party show called ‘Sunshine’. So at a guess, it’s no surprise that in 1936, back on the Isle, he received £10 and the following year a rise to 15 Guineas. He took to the new entertainment, Television, like a duck to water. He appeared in many films, even a sex romp in the 70’s called ‘Rosie Dixon: Night Nurse’, pinching nurse’s bottoms. He died in 1982, a much loved comedy star, still well remembered today.
He is followed by *Teddy Brown who got £52 for a weeks appearance, a huge wage for the 1930s. Freddie Bamberger , £8gn (rather blue and too expensive). Bennett and Williams, £18gns, (Two jovial boys with Phono Fiddles). Banjo Allen, £5gns,(Old man still going over). BBC Mystery Singers, £10gns, (mask and cloak straight singers. Personality and mystery rather than talent).Love that description!
Eric Barker (as Lord Blockhead) £15gns, Excellent character actor, radio star, often in films, including three ‘Carry Ons’, really good at playing some buffoon in the Civil service. Spot on in ‘The Pure Hell of St. Trinian’s’ (1960) as Culpepper-Brown.
Al Bowlly (excellent worth re-book). Ivy Benson and Anne Joyce, £10 (Sax, Clarinet, Piano, Vocals, Fairly good). Alan Baker, £1gn, Acrobat and vocal. Rotten). Peter Brough, £6,(Worth re-book). A ventriloquist of some note, born in 1916, who after a slow start, made it big on radio with his cheeky schoolboy doll ‘Archie Andrews’. By 1950, Peter had his own show, ‘Educating Archie’. Many stars started their career supporting the dummy including, 14 year old Julie Andrews, Hattie Jacques, Tony Hancock and Max Bygraves. Television was not so kind to him as his mouth gave him away as a poor vent.
Alice Blanechinni, (Vocalist. Rotten. No idea of stage work). Jeanne de Casalis* as Mrs. Jeather, £35, (Not worthy salary). Leon Cortez, £7, (Coster comedian). Chapelo, £1gn (bad vent, could not be heard). Cardinal and Pope, (Comedy duo, very good). Helen Collier, £5gns., (Crooner, impressionist. Impressions fair, singing rotten). Maxwell Carew, (International tenor, Fair. Act spoilt through not being able to wear costume. Sunday regulations). This was a rule in many towns that no one was to dress up on stage on a Sunday.
I personally would have loved to have met this manager. I wonder if this practice still goes on today in the crackpot PC world we live in.
Also in this period of the 30’s, Afrique, a South American vocalist and Impressionist, who gave up law for the stage.
He first appeared in the U.K in 1930, giving his first variety performance at the famous Windmill theatre in London in 1934. Famous as an excellent Abanazer in Tom Arnold’s productions of Aladdin, top cabaret act, teaming up later with musician Larry Adler touring South Africa. On his return, he starred in several George Black reviews.
Wally Patch, music hall comic also in many films , including ’Cottage To Let ’
Bob and Alf Pearson, pianist-singer Bob and singing brother Alf were brothers born in Sunderland. In 1929 they won a talent competition sponsored by Columbia Records and made their first broadcast. First seen on the stage at Gateshead in 1929, they would, the following year, be in the West End of London at the Coliseum.
Famous all over the world, was their opening phrase “We bring you melodies from out of the sky, my brother and I”. They were regulars on Ted Ray’s show ‘Rays a Laugh’ doing comedy as well as music and vocals. Hearing or seeing them, ensured a lovely evening’s entertainment. A class act.
Harry Tate, (Very good even minus Sunday moustache.) He was a Scots comedian and premier impressionist, born believe it or not, Ronald Macdonald Hutchinson in 1872. He took the stage name of Tate after working for the sugar firm of Henry Tate and Sons. Early sketches that became famous include ‘A Ward in Chancery’ and ‘Number Seven’. His sketch called ‘Motoring’ was considered a classic and many others followed. He appeared in two Royal Command Shows in 1912 and 1919. His last show was in Brighton in 1939 and unfortunately he died the following year from injuries suffered in an air raid on Dundee.
Accordionist Toralf Tollefsen and his music from Norway. A star in his home country.
Oliver Wakefield, the first resident BBC comic and a headline act in films, both here and in the USA and Bertha Wilmot, singer and actress, films include ‘Millions Like Us’ still performing in 1964 on television in The Good Old Days.
Bransby Williams, billed as ‘The Hamlet of the Halls’. London born in 1870, he first was a semi-professional black-faced comic. Also working as a straight actor, he used this talent on the halls as an ‘Actor Mimic’, doing impersonations of the leading stars of the day. In 1890, he formed his own sketch company, playing out amongst others, lavish scenes from Charles Dickens novels, including a study of ‘Little Nell’s’ grandfather. Still well known today is his monologue ‘The Green Eye of the Little God’. With two Royal Shows in 1926 and 1938, he toured as probably the most famous of all the actor managers to countries as far apart as Canada and Australia. He died aged 91 in 1961.
Vic Oliver. An Austrian comic and musician born in 1898 who after the defeat of the Central Powers in his country, moved to France. He had a varied early career including being a jazz drummer, a pianist in a brothel in New York, and a fairly successful stab at singing. His first appearance in this country was as part of a double act with Margaret Cringle, at the London Palladium in 1931. Following a brief return to the USA, he was soon back as joint top of the bill with the legendary comic Max Miller. Revue followed, and then the great radio period he had, first with Bebe Daniels and Ben Lyon and then his music shows, conducting his own orchestra. He was in the Royal Shows of 1945 and 1952. Hit stage shows, plus television followed up to his death in 1964. I met him once many years ago and I remember him as a very witty man and an excellent musician.
Clarkson Rose. Born in Dudley, 1890, Mr Rose was one of panto’s finest dames. For over 40 years he presented his own summer shows, called ‘Twinkle and also worked with his wife Olive Fox, as the double act ‘Fox and Rose’. On the Isle of Wight he would have been a well known figure by the 30’s, as in 1921 he put on his first show on the Ryde Pier. His panto double act with Liverpool character comic Robb Wilton is considered a classic. He took his show to Australia in 1933, where it became a major hit. The show was the start of many then unknowns, who would later be stars including Tommy Fields*, Terry Scott and Norman Vaughn. He was planning the 46th year of ‘Twinkle’, when he passed away in 1968. Another lovely act.
Ella Shields, American born in 1879. She started her stage career as a coon singer, but became a star here as a male impersonator, appearing as such, looking fabulous in top hat and tails. Famous for the song ‘Burlington Bertie’, written by her husband William Hargreaves. She died whilst appearing at Morecambe’s Middleton Holiday Camp in 1952.
Stainless Stephen. Comic born 1892 in Sheffield, hence the name. First a star on radio, then an appearance in 1930 at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London, with an original act of speaking with punctuation, instead of using it. Dressed in a dinner jacket, white bow tie on a shirt with a real stainless steel front, he gave two private shows for the then Royal family and died in 1971.
Theatres Which Became Cinemas
The Hippodrome, Putney (UPT/Gaumont/ABC/Independent)
Shakespeare Theatre, Clapham Junction (Gaumont)
Grand New Theatre, Clapham Junction (Essoldo)
The Camden Hippodrome (UPT/Gaumont) “The screen sits awkwardly on the large stage of this theatre”
Theatre Royal, Blyth (Essoldo)
When I was young, I went many times to all the six cinemas in nearby Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells in Kent. The Union owned Ritz in Tonbridge, one of the companies’ last theatres, opening in July of 1936. A small family size cinema for 1,250 people, was along with its big brother, a few miles away the 1,600 seated Ritz in Tunbridge Wells, the sort of cinema that was worth getting dressed up to go to. When another nowadays forgotten chain, Essoldo, bought the Tunbridge Wells cinema in the mid 1950’s and twinned it, the rot set in for good for single luxury cinemas in my part of Kent.
The Tunbridge Wells cinema was the first completely new one to be opened by Union, opening on December 3rd 1934. It was, many said, the most luxurious cinema in Kent. A fully equipped stage, with a £7,000 Compton organ, that had the precursor of what we know today as stereo, the sound being piped through the grilles on the cinema’s side, plus a very good restaurant, complete with its own resident band for dancing. Patrons were well looked after in the 1930s. Live shows started initially on Sundays only, with top acts like Elsie and Doris Waters, sisters of Jack Warner, later to become famous on TV as ‘Dixon of Dock Green’.
Known as Gert and Daisy, they played a couple of Cockney gossips trying to put the world in general to rights, along
with their imaginary husbands, ‘Bert and Fred’. They were in the 1934 and 1938 Royal shows and went on to be very successful in revue. Two films, one in 1941 ‘Gert and Daisy’s Weekend’ and in1942, Gert and Daisy Clean Up. Very funny ladies to this day. So successful were the Sunday shows, that by February 1935 they became weekly.
Top of the bill acts included Teddy Brown, an American, 24 stone classically trained musician, who had started his stage career aged six in Vaudeville. As well as playing the xylophone at a furious pace, he was an excellent saxophonist and drummer with his own band. He died far too early, only 46 years old. He can be seen on You Tube. Well worth a look.
Problems with fixed screens in many of the cinemas had been solved when at the New Empire Cinema, in Ashton-under-Lyne, Greater Manchester, a counter weight system was tried that raised and lowered the screen as required. This hall had originally been a theatre built in 1905 and when Union bought it, in December 1934, they then realised that like Gravesend, and Tunbridge Wells, it would be perfect for presenting Cine-Variety. Shows started in April of 1935. By May 1935 there was a policy here of 50% films and 50% variety. The building alas has gone, but as late as 1937 there was a Christmas Pantomime starring Gertie Gitana, billed as the ‘Star who never fails to Shine’. With beautiful raven coloured hair, usually with a silver top hat on it, she was famous for singing the song ‘Nellie Dean’. She made her debut in London as a child in 1900, appearing in the Royal Show of 1948. She died in 1957 aged 68.
Her leading man was G.H. Elliott, known as ‘The Chocolate Coloured Coon’, not at all PC today. He, like Gracie Fields, was born in Rochdale and had gone to America as a youngster, joining minstrel groups as a song and dance man and ‘blacking up’ as it was known then, a forerunner of the ‘Black and White Minstrel shows’ that were so popular on television and in the theatre during the 60’s. He died in my home town of Brighton in 1962, aged 79.
Another nearby town in my early cinema going days was the Kent town of Maidstone. It already had a Sydney Bernstein owned luxury Granada cinema with 1684 seats. I would often go there, though I liked the Union owned Palace best plus the best fleapit in Kent, the Regal in Earl Street. More on Granada cinemas later. Their cinema had opened before Union came to town in 1935, to open their own Ritz cinema. Granada’s organist was Harold Ramsey, a major star, due to his wireless broadcasts.
Union would later pinch him for a while, by offering him a hike in his pay packet.
Stars that would play the Ritz, in the first few months of opening, included elegant pianist and singer Leslie Hutchinson, better known as Hutch. Hailing from Granada in the West Indies he arrived in the UK in the 1920’s and gained a following on the ladies cabaret with his silky voice and trademark hanky, frequently mopping his brow. He was a specialist in Cole Porter songs, with the composers help and his blessing. He was billed as the ’Millionaire of Melody’ selling many records, appearing in revues, topping the bill for Granada Cine-Variety, a big hit on radio and television, until his death in 1969 in Hampstead, London. By 1936 and with many cinemas added from other smaller chains, Union had, at nearly all their halls, provision for a live show with a stage built in as part of the set up. On February 10th, at the opening of the Ritz in Huddersfield, the show had Harold Ramsey playing the organ, plus Billy Cotton and his Band, later to find fame on BBC television. Harold Ramsey was one of the all time great cinema organists, opening his shows with George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ which the composer was pleased to give him permission to use.
In November of that year, the company expanded to Belfast, to open another Ritz, which would become a major variety cinema in their chain. The opening stage show had Gracie Fields, number one at the UK cinema box office in both 1936 and 1937, headlining, plus Jack Hylton and his Band. This show was broadcast on the Northern Ireland wavelength of the BBC.
If you had gone there in the first two weeks of opening, as well as the films, you would have seen, Sonny Farrar and his Band, comedy duo Bennett and McNaughton and The Gordon Ray Girls. The stage was 76 ft wide and 28ft deep, with a full scenery dock and dressing rooms. It had a similar organ to the one at Tunbridge Wells, plus the latest in an illuminated surround. Belfast continued to have organ shows broadcast from the Ritz well into 1937.
Union had some of their best Cine-Variety shows broadcast live from the massive Regal, Union Cinema, Kingston-upon-Thames, which could hold up to 3000 people. The stage was 120ft long, 25ft wide, with a proscenium arch 50ft wide and 30ft high. In 1937 first of many shows from this cinema featured cross-talking comics, Clapham and Dwyer, who Union would use regularly, Dwyer played the straight man to Clapham’s silly ass, complete with a monocle. They were recognised as masters of the cross-talk act.
Another regular on the show was Gypsy Nina who played the accordion, sometimes with her band. The top of the bill was dancer and mimic Florence Desmond, a C.B Cochrane Young Lady, a revue star in 1927, when she was only 22 years old. She appeared in films of the 30s with Gracie Fields and was George Formby’s girlfriend, second billed in his first big studio comedy ‘No Limit’. In 1950 she played it straight, in the superb Second World War drama ‘Three Came Home’ and in her last film in 1956 ‘Charley Moon’, she starred alongside Max Bygraves, with a story of the so-called lurid life in the musical hall business, of which she certainly knew something about. She died in 1993, one of our national treasures of variety. You can see her on YouTube impersonating Gracie Fields. Wonderful.
On Boxing Day, Union opened the Rivoli in Southend, Essex. Along with two feature films, on the stage you would have seen and most definitely heard comedian Stanelli, who as part of his act, played a set of finely tuned motor horns, calling them his ‘Dorchester’. A copy of this act was recently seen on the BBC talent show ‘When Will I be Famous’. Also on the bill and again much used by Union, was comedy cartoonist Van Dock.
1937 would be a year Union would not forget, but for all the wrong reasons.
On January 4th, the Ritz Ipswich opened with the regular acts plus Macabre and his Dutch Accordion Serenaders and The Eight Step Sisters. In March, the BBC broadcast a Cine-Variety show from the Regal Kingston called ‘Radio Roundup’. Top stars were Renee Houston, with her American born musical comedy star, third husband, Donald Stewart. Scottish born droll comedienne and actress Renee, had been part of a double act with her sister Billie, who had by that time, unfortunately become ill. She went on to appear in many films, remembered especially by me for being one of the awful teachers in the wonderfully funny ‘Belles of St Trinian’s’ (1956). No less than three organists played both organ and piano, plus the patrons were, for the first time, encouraged to take part in community singing. The result of that at Kingston, was the song ‘Home on the Range’ becoming the cinema’s anthem.
The 12th of April saw the Ritz Woking opening with Gypsy Nina plus her band, Stanford and McNaughton, O’Shea and Joan, plus The Original Staircase Dancers, a great name for a dance troupe. A week later in Oxford, a second Union cinema, the Regal opened. Zigano’s Anglo-French Accordion Band topped the bill, with Sydney Torch on the organ, famous for his playing of ‘Hot Numbers’!
By May, the title of the BBC show was changed to ‘Radio Rodeo’. George Robey headed the bill. A brilliant comic known as ‘The Minister of Mirth’, he would in the year of his death, 1954, be knighted. Very few comics to this day have achieved this honour. Along with some regulars, this show also boasted Randolph Sutton, a Bristol born, elegantly dressed light comic, who had become famous for his 1920 recordings of ‘On Mother Kelly’s Doorstep’ and ‘Give Me the Moonlight’ many years later before Frankie Vaughan revived the 1918 song, to use as his opening music. I met Mr Sutton along with male impersonator Hetty King many years later, while they were both appearing in Music Hall at the Royal Hippodrome in Eastbourne.
Union used two other top comics that are worth a special mention, their type of comedy was as different as chalk and cheese.
Billy Bennett, billed as ‘Almost a Gentleman’ was born in Liverpool in 1887. A star of the Royal Variety Show in 1926, his comedy was of the old school Music Hall. With a quiff at the front of his hair, a walrus moustache and a costume consisting of a very dilapidated evening suit, a shirt dickey that had a mind of its own, a bright crimson hanky in the top pocket and a ladies suspender for a watch fob, crowned off with large brown boots, the laughter started before he opened his mouth. His act was done at full speed, in a very loud voice, in which there were piles of nonsense verse, lampoons of current hit songs of the day and send ups of poetry, usually Rudyard Kipling. On occasion, he also worked a black-face double act called Alexander and Mose with Australian comedian, Albert Whelan. Bennett collapsed on the stage of Blackpool’s Opera House theatre in 1946 and died five weeks later. A genuine one-off star.
Tommy Handley was also from Liverpool, a city that seems to breed wonderful comics. Born in 1894, he toured in variety with his own comedy company, often working with another Union used star, Ronald Frankau, as the characters, Murgatroyd and Winterbottom, famous for their funny dialogues. But it was the radio show ITMA (It’s That Man Again) in the 30’s and 40’s that would propel him to the top. The show attracted 40 million listeners during the war years. There was also a touring stage version that included Jack Train and Maurice Denham from the original cast. He had a stab at films; the best is probably ’Time Flies’ in 1944, with him taking a trip to Elizabethan England. He died in 1949.
The running and performance times caused some problems to all the circuits. Programmes were, in those days run continuously, most beginning at 1.45pm and finishing at around 10.45pm. This allowed three, three hour shows. The audiences tended to be missing for the early live shows at say 2.30pm and by 5.30pm; the matinee audience had gone home and the evening patrons hadn’t arrived yet. The best time for the live shows proved to be 8.55pm.They had tried putting them on at 7.00pm and again at 9.00pm, but that failed, as too many people sat through the show twice, in order to see both feature films.
In August Cicely Courtneidge, without husband Jack Hulbert topped the bill at Kingston. They were the favourite British stage couple for three decades both on stage and in films. Cicely was a vibrant excellent comedienne; she could sing and dance and was the lead in many musical shows and films. When variety and musicals faded for a while, both her and her husband turned to light comedies. In 1961 she had a West End hit with Ronald Miller’s ‘The Bride Comes Back’. In the same year she can be seen in a wonderful ‘straight’ role in the film ‘The L Shaped Room’. Their beautiful home in South Audley Street in London became the plush headquarters of ‘The International Music Association’, of which my father, Eric Major MBE, was the then President. She can be seen on YouTube at her very best.
Supporting acts on this bill were very strong with Claude Dampier and his wife Billy Carlyle, Rusty and Shine and Billy Costello, the voice of Popeye in the popular cartoon movies. August saw the opening of the Ritz Warrington with Tommy Fields, comedian brother of Gracie Fields, who once again topped the ‘Radio Rodeo’ show from Kingston – on –Thames on September 16th. This show also featured Harry Hemsley who impersonated children, tenor, Fred Hudson and Leslie Strange, whose billing was ‘The Political Jester’.
In August, Union had started working with commercial radio as well as the BBC. Broadcast from France by Radio Normandy, these shows were recorded onto gramophone records before an invited audience on a Sunday morning from the cinema and then flown over the channel to France and broadcast the following Sunday. Acts that recorded these shows, called ‘Radio Parade’, included The Two Leslies, Leslie Holmes and Leslie Sarony, who composed witty songs, playing and performing them on the piano with popular accordionist Tollefsen.
The Union cinema, Luton, opened on October 11th, with a complete stage show from Terry’s Juveniles, plus a stage appearance of film star Robert Douglas and musical comedy star Chili Bouchier.
October 20th saw a very strong bill for the Radio Rodeo show, with top Hebrew comic and singer, Issy Bonn and Jeanne de Casalis, with her character, Mrs Feather, who recited very funny comedy monologues. By the end of 1937, Union were experiencing managerial and financial problems. A ‘Radio Rodeo’ broadcast was unexpectedly cancelled in November from Kingston, as was the weekly show on stage starring piano duo Rawicz and Landauer.
Maryann Rawicz was Polish, whilst his partner came from Austria. Both had come to Britain in 1935, to escape the Nazis. They very soon became firm favourites, playing their two grand pianos, topping variety and wartime concert bills. Landauer eventually went solo after his partner’s death in 1976. The touring version of this show was presented for the last time with Harold Ramsey at the organ of the Regal, Bexleyheath.
It soon became apparent that Union were cutting down their live shows. The recordings of the later ‘Radio Parade’ shows were then switched to the Regal, Walham Green, owned by ABC. The final radio broadcast from a Union cinema, was with organist Robinson Cleaver, on February 27th 1938. By the end of 1937, the Union Company had gone into receivership and from the 23rd of January, 1938, ABC managed all their 136 cinemas. With a small reduction in the ticket price, ABC gradually phased out all the Cine-Variety shows.
Union cinemas were very individual in their style, both inside the theatre, with its use of design, and the outside with its architecture, unlike today’s cold looking Multiplexes, being in a Union Cinema felt like being in a very large posh version of your home.
Associated British Cinemas were a hugely successful company in the 30’s. In 1937 they were bold enough to claim that they were the biggest circuit in the world. Their founder was a ‘canny’ Scotsman named John Maxwell, who came from a family of Solicitors. Like the big Hollywood moguls, he enjoyed good cigars and driving to work in his Rolls Royce. But in spite of enjoying the high life himself, he was not keen on wasting money. He was said to have been amazed on his takeover of Union, at the extravagances that the company had lavished on some of their projects. He was not particularly keen on Cine-Variety and thought that the films should be good enough reason for the patrons to turn up, not variety shows. That’s not to say that ABC didn’t have some lavish shows, but these were mainly before the Union takeover and to keep up with the local opposition.
The company had been formed in 1928, as part of a subsidiary of British International Pictures (BIP) with 44 properties. Their first new cinema would be in Scotland, the 1,925 seat Ritz in Edinburgh.
On taking over Union along with other smaller chains, in 1937, they had a total of some 460 cinemas.
They acquired 47 organs from the Union company, but failed to hang on to that company’s star organists. Harold Ramsey left after a brief time to tour the legit theatre circuit. Sydney Torch went to main rivals Gaumont, playing at their vast 4,004 seat State cinema in Kilburn, London and Robinson Cleaver went to another rival firm Granada in Welling, Kent. By 1939, at the start of the Second World War, all the chains lost many of their younger musicians to call up. The company’s policy on organs generally was a little obscure. By 1946, they would still have about 100 organists round their cinemas, ABC had in the early 30’s many cinema orchestras, probably the most famous being Harry Davidson who regularly played live BBC radio concerts on a Saturday, from the huge ABC 2,884 seat Commodore in Hammersmith, London. The early Cine-Variety shows here had lavish sets, with flying scenery, full sized detailed backcloths including scenes from the Orient and the Thames Embankment. There was also ‘The Eight Piano Rhapsody’ in which, among velvet drapes and chandeliers, would be a rising staircase set with eight grand pianos being played all together.
By 1937, John Maxwell had reduced the budgets dramatically and the stage sets vanished, relying on the tabs (curtains). Also looking at the bills of their shows, it’s difficult to find the kind of star names that Union and other circuits employed.
One of their main stars would be Ted Ray, whose billing was ‘Fiddling and Fooling’. Born in Wigan in 1906 as Charles Olden, he moved to Liverpool, where he played the violin on the departing liners from the docks. He began his stage career in 1927, appearing as a gypsy violinist, Nedlo, his own name spelt backwards, but was advised to concentrate on doing comedy and to definitely change his name. He was very keen on golf and the then British Ryder Cup Captain was called Ted Ray. By 1949, his radio show, ‘Rays A Laugh’ would make him a star. He was in several films, including one with one of his two sons Andrew Ray, a crime drama called ‘Escape by Night’ (1953) and an excellent 1952 version of Noel Coward’s Portmanteau piece ‘Tonight at 8.30’ renamed ‘Meet me Tonight’ for the cinema, in which he played one half of the feuding ‘Red Peppers’ opposite Kay Walsh. Better known today is the lead role he had in ‘Carry on Teacher’ (1959). He was in three Royal Shows and died a household name in 1977.
Issy Bonn, born in 1903, was one of several Jewish humourists who became popular in the 30’s. A large smiling faced man, he would tell the audience stories about the lives of fictitious ‘Finkelfeffer’ family. Best remembered today for his pleasant light tenor voice singing ‘My Yiddisher Momma’.
Many of ABCs turns are very hard to find anything about. As you read this and know more than I, please let me know anything about them.
Irwin, Nan and Felix, comedy acrobats, Ivor Vintor and company, with scenes from plays, Kay and Edna, tap dancers, Tom Katz and the Saxophone Six, Eddie Sharp, whistler, Ralph Sylvester, songs at the piano, Archie’s Juvenile Band, Les Trois Matras, acrobats, The Act Superb, living statues, Avon and Vale, trapeze artists, Japanese acrobats, The Andos family, The Damora Ballet company, and last but not least The Ganjou Brothers and Juanita.
Circus, including animal acts is another dyeing art in this country. Duncan’s Royal Scots Collies was a top dog act of the day, even giving private shows in front of King Edwards VI. Started in the 1880’s by Scottish animal trainer (Professor) John Patterson, the acts was’ taken over by his son, Victor in 1926 and would later feature with Danny Kaye for a season at The London Palladium.
John Maxwell would die of a diabetic problem in 1940, aged 63. His company would be challenged for the top chain position, by the rising Odeon chain of Oscar Deutsch, another gentleman not fond of Cine-Variety.
An Intermission- The Crooner’s Crutch
The manager’s comment at the Commodore Theatre in Ryde about him being unable to hear the vent, Chapolo was a major problem for the turns back in the 1930’s. Cine-Variety. Most of the smaller halls either had no mikes of their own, or relied on the dreaded ‘Carbon Microphone’. This was advantageous to the cinema owner as they were cheap to run, but for any act that required movement and speech at the same time, carbon was not the answer. The slightest movement could cause piercing shrieks and whistles, as they could pick up any electrical band going. Many of the turns learnt their lesson the hard way, buying their own mike and advertising this fact on their CV. There were many bad acts that ended up working far more than the good ones due to owning their own. It was an extra way of topping up their wages, by charging another act on the bill for the use of it. The term the ‘Crooner’s Crutch’, comes from the way some of the acts would stand, bent over double to be heard.
The Granada chain of theatres, whose founder Sidney Bernstein insisted they were called theatres rather than cinemas, started in 1930. They had a mix of large and small halls. The most famous is probably the Granada Tooting in London. This 3750 seater whose interior was designed by Russian-born Theodore Komisarjevsky was bigger than any of its West End neighbours at the time, both in seating and stage size.
The Cine-Variety shows were on a huge scale, the pantomime in 1936 had a cast of 60 and due to a drying up of films from the USA in 1947 the cast of Jack and the Beanstalk was up ten to 70. .The stars of that show were Jimmy Hanley and Adele Dixon. Tooting and some of the other large Granada Theatres including Maidstone, Clapham Junction, Woolwich, Walthamstow, Sutton, Shrewsbury and Rugby would host on their stage, stars as diverse as The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Ballet, Opera and Wrestling. Tooting is alive and well thanks to bingo. Allen Eyles’s book The Granada Theatres is a cracking good read for anyone interested in this lost chain.
As a kid I loved going to my local Granada theatre in Sevenoaks Kent. A family size 1150 seater, this was the first cinema I saw the wonder of Cinemascope in. It also boasted a very good restaurant. Fifty years later, I can still taste their cheese on toast. The theatre was sadly demolished to make way for a road in 1960.
The magazine Picture House (no 34) shows some of the Cine-Variety bills of 1934. Granada used several hundred different turns, so I have selected some of them and anyone who reads this and knows the missing acts, again, please let me know. Many already mentioned would of course work the Granada circuit.
The dance act in my pictures are easy to find on Google. It’s one of the most beautiful dance acts I have ever seen. Apart from Cine–Variety, they would be second or third on a variety bill and Karina would also work alone as a dancer. Just look. So much style.
My thanks to Picture House no 34 for help with the next piece. On July 2nd 1934, for a week, the Granada Tooting had a show advertised as THE GREATEST ALL COLOUR STAGE SHOW IN EUPOPE. Could not headline any show this way in 2011.
Called BLACK SCANDALS, it boasted a cast of 35 all star coloured artists. These included, The Cole Brothers, 8 Black Streaks, Myrtle Watkins and the 10 Creole Aces Band. The films shown that week on the manager’s weekly report states that both films were rather weak and had it not been for the stage show, the takings would have been down. When Union went bust, many had to search hard for work. Unlike Odeon and later Gaumont, with very few shows, ABC would also phase them out, Granada would continue with shows of one sort or another for many many years to come long after the demise of Cine-Variety. Here are a few of the turns Granada used. Many of them, stars in their day, but sadly probably not remembered in 2011.
The Songsters are still going strong, be it different voices. I have tried to avoid lists in the book, so as I end this love of Cine-Variety, there will be soon a list on this site of at least 50 turns who worked on Cine-Variety. Anyone who knows anything about these lost acts, please let me know either by Email or ring me in Brighton on 01273-23-25-74.
This book will appear abridged in two copies of The Old Theatres Magazine later this year 2011. I hope some of these memories will be happy ones.
Mike Lang. 26/5/11.
Looking for the turns that appeared on the Paramount Circuits. Contact as above please.
Paramount London. 1936. 2568 seats. Tot court road. Closed 1960. Demolished, also Carlton Haymarket.
1930 Manchester 3000 seats. Decided to build a theatre in the north of England. This was it.
Newcastle 1931 2600 seats, live shows stopped 1936 ?
Leeds 1932 2500 seats . Sold to Odeon 1940.
Liverpool. 1934. 2670. Odeon 1942.
Glasgow. 1934. 2784 seats.
Birmingham. 1937. 2424 seats. Odeon 1942.