Glasgow Empire: Where Comedians Went to Die

I don’t know if any of you caught the BBC2 show about the Glasgow Theatre that was broadcast on Sunday evening? You can still catch it on BBC iPlayer (if you’re a non-UK bod, just install Hola or Cyber Ghost and you can access everything with no problems). Anyway, the show concentrated on two old theatres, the Pavillion which still hosts variety shows, and the Glasgow Empire which, sadly, had its final curtain in 1963.

The Glasgow Empire entertained the working class of Glasgow since the 1890s and many Scottish variety stars and American movie names regularly trod the boards there. Danny Kaye, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, Laurel & Hardy, Bob Hope and many more were welcomed with open arms by a warm Glasgow audience. English comedians, however, had a totally different experience there and I’d like to share some of their stories.

The most infamous story about the Empire involves Des O’Connor. He was just a young comedian and singer and stepped out on the stage with some apprehension. The reputation of the Friday night Empire audience brought many English entertainers out in a cold sweat. Des began to tell his jokes to an audience so quiet, you’d think they had died on their seats. there were no laughs, no claps, nothing. O’Connor panicked and thought he had to get off the stage, and get off it quickly. So he did what any self-respecting performer would do: he pretended to faint and went down like a sack. He was unceremoniously dragged off stage and through the curtain, the soles of his shoes the last thing to disappear. He was taken to the hospital to be checked over where his caring agent told him he had to get back because he had another show to do.

Mike and Bernie Winters were brothers and ‘all round entertainers’ who suffered a similar reception to O’Connor. In their act, Mike came on stage first, playing his clarinet. The Weegie audience was unimpressed and when Bernie, wearing an old-fashioned coat and a bowler hat shoved his face out between the curtains with his usual grin and ‘eeeeeeeeeeeee’ noise, one jakey in the front row was heard to shout, ‘Christ, there’s two of them!’

My favourite story is about Roy Castle, a multi-talented entertainer and lovely man whose act was no match for the hard-to-please Glasgow audience. He came on stage and sang a song, followed by some jokes and a tap dance. When he pulled out his trumpet and started to play one audience member was heard to dead-pan to his pal, ‘Is there no end tae his talents?’

These stories are everything I love about the Glasgow sense of humour. Like most other working class areas, if we spend some of our hard-earned money on entertainment, we’d bloody well better be entertained! I really wish the theatre had lasted longer, that variety hadn’t become so out of fashion, and that I could have gone along to the theatre on a Friday night to be entertained by the audience, if not the acts.

The site where the theatre stood now has an Italian restaurant and an Ann Summers shop and I have no comments to make about that!

Tagged as: comedians, glasgow, Glasgow Empire Theatre, theatres, variety


Originally published at www.nettiethomson.com on October 27, 2015.

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