The Nostalgia column with Margaret Watson
EVERY so often an envelope lands on my desk from someone happy to share memories of old Dewsbury.
The other week a pile of old programmes relating to the old Empire Theatre were pushed through my letterbox with the same intention.
Whoever it was I am indebted to them for reminding me of the rich live entertainment which once existed in Dewsbury.
The programmes date from 1948 through to the early 1950s, a number of which relate to the Christmas pantomimes there.
Two stars who took part in Cinderella in 1951 were the relatively unknown duo, Morecambe and Wise, who were booked on the spot to appear the following year.
By the time they returned they had become household names, but they still got the same fee because they had signed a contract.
While in Dewsbury, they visited Wormald and Walker’s Mill, to entertain workers, for the radio programme – ‘Workers Playtime’.
Ernie Wise, who was born in nearby West Ardsley, met his future wife while both were appearing at the theatre.
They got engaged here in Dewsbury and bought their ring from a local jewellers shop.
Looking through old programmes you recognise names of stars, who although unknown at the time, later became famous.
Many appeared later in Coronation Street, including Percy Sugden (Bill Waddington), Mike Baldwin (Johnny Briggs), Phyllis Pearce (Jill Summers), and Betty Turpin (Betty Driver).
Actress and comedienne Hylda (She knows you Know) Baker, brought the house down as the wicked stepmother in Cinderella.
Many years earlier a more famous actress and singer, Florrie Ford, appeared in the same pantomime as Prince Charming.
Chesney Allen from the famous duo Flannigan and Allen, played Buttons and both stayed in local boarding houses.
Whenever Florrie Ford appeared in Dewsbury, she could be seen shopping in the town centre.
And, if she saw any poorly shod children, she would immediately take them into the nearest shoe shop and fit them out with new shoes or boots.
This was in the 1920s when the Empire was packed to the rafters, especially for the Christmas pantomimes, and you were always advised to book early, or you wouldn’t get a seat.
The most famous stars ever to grace its stage were two young men, completely unknown, called Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel.
They were part of a travelling troupe by the name of Casey’s Circus which toured the country, and they became great friends.
Later they would go to America where they went their separate ways, Charlie on his own, and Stan to eventually team up with Oliver Hardy.
The Empire was opened in 1909 and was one of the biggest and grandest theatres in the north, but it was closed down less than 50 years later.
Its demise in 1955 was blamed on the increasing popularity of television and the silver screen.
Dewsbury by this time had opened its fifth cinema – The Playhouse.
In its heyday, the Empire provided jobs for many local people, both full as well as part-time, with many girls working in the mills by day and the theatre at night.
Peter Croughan, from Westtown, went to work there aged 18, working the spotlights, and was still there when it closed.
During that time he met and befriended many stars, including Anthony Newley, who appeared regularly with The Saxon Players, and Robert Beattie.
He also remembered a young girl called Julie Andrews, whose parents, Ted and Barbara, also appeared there.
Julie attended local schools while her parents were performing in Dewsbury, and the family lived in a boarding house on The Eightlands.
Peter also played the harmonica with a small group which included local singer Nora Riordan and Joe Hill.
He organised a charity concert in Batley Carr Working Men’s Club in which the future Coronation star, Vera Duckworth, would take part.
To ensure there was always a packed house the stars appearing took part in local events to advertise their presence.
When Houdini, the famous escapologist came, he attracted great crowds to watch one of his remarkable feats at a local mill.
He was put into a straightjacket, wrapped in chains, and the Dewsbury Police came along to handcuff him – no health and safety rules in those days!
He was put into a padlocked basket and hoisted up to the crane-hole door of Machell’s Mill, where to the amazement of the vast crowd, he managed to escape.
Stan Laurel, who had a number of relatives living in Dewsbury, returned to visit them many years after appearing at The Empire.
Before arriving he phoned to ask directions for his chauffeur who was to drive him to their home in Birkdale Road.
He told them – “Tell me how to get to you from the Empire – I know where that is.”
The last show at The Empire was “Chu Chin Chow” performed by the Dewsbury Collegians amateur dramatic society.
And, as everyone in Dewsbury knows, the star booked to play the following week was Issy Bonn – a question still asked at many local pub quizzes.
The bill post announcing his scheduled appearance remained posted outside the empty theatre for five years until it was demolished.
I hope in the new year to write more about the fascinating history of The Empire, including the landlady who refused to take in chorus girls because she couldn’t get the lipstick off their pillows.
○ If you have any memories or photographs of this famous theatre, please let me know – [email protected]