The Nostalgia column with Margaret Watson

Margaret Watson.
Margaret Watson.

LAST week I showed a photograph of film star Anthony Newley crowning a young lady Sunday School Queen of a church in Birstall.

He carried out this duty while he was appearing with the Saxon Players at the Empire Theatre, Dewsbury, in the 1950s.

UNKNOWN ACT: Manager Duncan Mac liked Morecambe and Wise so much he booked them again.

UNKNOWN ACT: Manager Duncan Mac liked Morecambe and Wise so much he booked them again.

This week I’m showing another picture of him taken around the same time at a celebrity charity cricket match in Soothill, Batley.

Stars at the Empire often got involved in such community events throughout the district and also visited local mills to entertain workers in their lunch break.

Our second picture this week shows the young Morecambe and Wise comedy duo who appeared at the Empire in the 1950s in the pantomime Snow White.

While here, they entertained workers at Wormald and Walker’s Mill, Thornhill Lees, which was broadcast as part of the popular radio programme Worker’s Playtime.

Looking at these photographs reminds us of the halcyon days of live theatre when towns like Dewsbury, and later Batley with its famous Batley Variety Club, could attract some of the country’s most glamorous stars.

Many of these stars cut their stage teeth in weekly rep at the Empire, among them Dinah Sheridan, Derek Bond, Billie Whitelaw and Barbara Murray, who, like Anthony Newley, all appeared with the Saxon Players.

Guest stars were often engaged to appear alongside them, including Michael Rennie, Jessie Matthews, Lana Morris, and international film star Mai Zetterling, who we pictured recently.

Another guest of the Saxon Players was Barry Morse, who later became well known for his starring role as the long-suffering detective in the American television drama The Fugitive.

The Empire Theatre, which opened in 1909 and closed in 1955, was one of the biggest and grandest theatres in the country.

It had a seating capacity of 1,600 and was believed to be the largest seated theatre in the North.

Some of the country’s most famous stars were to grace its stage, like Florrie Forde, Charlie Chaplin, Gracie Fields, Stan Laurel, Frank Randall, George Formby, Robb Wilton and Norman Evans.

In later years, other famous names were to appear there, including Norman Wisdom, Irish tenor Josef Locke, Frankie Vaughan, Marian Ryan, Lita Rosa, Al Martino and Guy Mitchell, to name but a few.

Many young stars who appeared there would later become household names when they appeared on television’s Coronation Street, like Bill Waddington (Percy Sugden), Jill Summers (Phyllis Pearce), Mike Baldwin (Johnny Briggs) and Betty Driver (Betty Turpin).

When Morecambe and Wise first appeared at the Empire they were unknown, but the manager Duncan Mac liked them so much he booked them for the following year.

In the meantime they had become famous but they’d signed a contract which meant they still had to keep the engagement and for the same fee negotiated when they were relatively unknowns.

It was a familiar sight in Dewsbury to see famous stars walking through the town, shopping in local stores, eating in local restaurants and drinking in local pubs.

Most of them stayed in local boarding houses, and many became friends of the landladies and their families, often returning to attend family functions like weddings and christenings.

One of the most popular stars to appear at the Empire in the 1930s was comedian Frank Randle, who became a personal friend of former rugby league player and pub landlord Charlie Seeling.

He always stayed with the Seeling family when he came to Dewsbury.

In the 1920s, Florrie Forde, took pity on the poorly-clad children she saw walking through the streets, and promptly took them into the nearest shoe shop to buy them new boots and shoes.

The history of the Empire Theatre, demolished in 1960 to make way for an office block – Empire House – has a rich history, so there is still much, much more to write about. Watch this space.

If you have any memories or photographs of those days, please contact me, Margaret Watson, or ring 07512 768676.

Just a reminder – there will be plenty for history lovers to see this coming weekend if they pop into St John’s Church, Dewsbury Moor, on Saturday 10 June between 11am and 3pm.

There will be choir singing, guided tours of the historic church as well as an organ recital and hand-bell ringing, and on Sunday at 10.30am, a service of Thanksgiving.