Monday, 6 April 2020

The Empire 'Theatre of Varieties'.

The hill that ran down from the Mid Rhondda Athletic Grounds to Dunraven Street in Tonypandy was known locally as the 'Empire Hill' because at the bottom stood The Empire 'Theatre of Varieties'. It was true to its title. I remember my grandfather, a miner who worked in Cambrian Colliery before becoming a barber, taking me there to see one of the many visiting magicians who performed wondrous acts of magic on that stage. Just one of the diverse acts that entertained the community, many in ways that today would be regarded as politically unacceptable. Take Geo the Wonderful Cycling Ape for example. Here is how the Rhondda Leader described the night's entertainment which also included on the bill the risque farce 'The Collar Stud'.

"The capital holiday programme submitted at the Empire this week has attracted crowded houses nightly. Top of the bill is Geo. the 1st, one of the best trained apes we have ever seen. Introduced by his trainer, Dandy George, Geo. the 1st appears before the audience clad in loud checks, straw hat. and manipulates a cane with all the dexterity of the born swell. He. straightaway seats himself at a diminutive table, where with knife, fork and spoon he plays the part of a gourmand with all the grace in the .world. Having washed the edibles down with a glass of claret, he divests himself 'of a part of his clothing, and mounting a bicycle, goes off at a good speed round the stage. The turn is much appreciated. "
Not by Sir David Attenborough I would suggest.
"Another turn that convulses the house is the adventures of Sir Augustus Toffleigh in search of his collar stud. The scene is laid in a lady's boudoir, whither Toffleigh has proceeded in search of that collar stud whilst the occupant of the room is performing her ablutions. The lady returns, and the baronet hides himself in a wardrobe chest, to be subsequently discovered. The situation is highly diverting when the Major, the lady's husband, returns and finds Toffleigh in his wife's bedroom. It is a roaring farce from beginning to end. The Bellong Brothers, in remarkable balancing feats, is another rare turn. There are moments when their performance on the bicycles is positively thrilling."
Remember this was long before NETFLIX and the slightly more risque and explicit fare on offer. Here are some of the acts that entertained and enthralled our great-great-grandparents generation:
The Sisters Sprightly and their musical pig "Archibald". Enough said? Apparently not:
Fred Karno in his latest War product, " All Women," due at the Empire next week. No men figure in the cast. It is managed and played by members of the fair sex, and mere man does not assist in any way in the performance. Like all Karno productions,  "All Women" is full of good things—good swinging choruses, up-to-date dances, and plenty of good fun. Comedy reigns supreme.
Quite where the sisters fit in is not made clear. Plays and dramas reflected the spirit of the times. In a non-comformist stronghold like the Rhondda where the chapel held sway the Osmonds would definitely not have found a welcome in the hillsides.

"THE GIRL FROM UTAH." The magnificent musical play, "The "Girl from Utah," will be the attraction next week at the Tonypandy Empire. A great many plays have been written over the recent scare of Mormonism which has invaded this country during the last few years. (July 1915)

Osmonds beware! 

Next up is Miss Maud Warburton featuring in . . . "a piece of more than usual interest, well constructed and interesting from start to finish, and having a strong moral lesson running throughout, will be staged at the Tonypandy Empire next week by (the company of Messrs. J. A. Campbell and Frank Liston.) "The Sin of Her Childhood."
I imagine the audience were itching to know what Ms. Warburton had got up to in her youth. Hope they weren't too disappointed.
 Any suggestions? 
Answers in the 'Post a Comment' section below please.

The following production must have caused the management some headaches. Never work with animals or children was W.C. Field's maxim. He would have stayed well clear of this offering:
"An Indian Girl's Devotion" will be staged at the Empire next week by Messrs. Glenville and Osmond, of "The Still Alarm" (not Donny) fame. Reminiscent of "The  Whip," a horse race in a novel setting is the striking feature. There is plenty of life and movement in the play, as well as some good fun. Three horses play prominent parts in the show, and one of the principal comedians is a donkey, "Sunny Jim."
I can imagine stage hands stood in the wings with shovels and buckets at the ready.

Staying with the Western theme I couldn't see Clint Eastwood playing the lead in the this production . . . 
. . . "that picturesque and exciting Mexican drama, entitled "The Pride of the Prairie" Since its production at the Elephant and Castle Theatre, London, the piece has proved itself to be one of the most popular plays of its kind. A charming love story is written around the title role, "Clattering Kate," a  baby found on the Sierra Slopes (who 17 years afterwards finds herself the idol of the camp and the Pride of the Prairie "), and Dick Dandy," a young English cowboy. Startling situations abound, chiefly caused by the unscrupulous dealings of Carlos Durango, a Spanish- American half-breed,  an Irishman, Pat O'Donovan. and Ohing Ching, a Chinese." No racial stereotypes there then!

This next offering, 'The Dollar Princess' was apparently the favourite of kings, queens and heads of state. Whether that is a valid recommendation is open to question.
 "The lucky and successful musical comedy that was so much honoured by the presence of Kings and the aristocracy was the popular and favourite, "The Dollar Princess," which ran for close on two years at Daly's Theatre, London. During its career, our late King saw it three times also our present King, when he was Prince of Wales. The ex-King of Portugal went twice during the same week. Among others who were infatuated with the dainty Dollar Princess are the Duke of Connaught, the Queen of Spain, Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein, Princess Alice of Battenburg, and Princess Victoria. How many musical plays can claim such an honour?"

I might be skating on thin ice recalling, the management of the Empire Theatre's  clumsy and slightly racist revue of the dramatisation of Henry Seton Merriman's novel "With Edged Tools" . Merriman's intention was to expose the brutality of the slave trade. One of his novels, 'The Sowers' which describes the hopeless misery of the Russian peasant was banned in that country. The management appear to have missed the point.
"Lovers of of good sound dramatic fare will congratulate the management of the Empire on having secured for their attraction next week a return visit of that sterling play, "With Edged Tools," a capital dramatisation of Henry Seton  Merriman's novel of the same name. It is realistic, even brutally so in many respects, but is enthrallingly interesting, and cannot fail to hold the audiences. The play turns on the discovery in Central Africa, by Victor Durnovo, a half-caste, of a marvellous herb, which is a kind of general panacea. Durnovo organises an expedition to exploit this discovery and a feature of the organisation is his wonderful power over the  natives, which is not to be wondered at when one discovers that he is secretly a slave owner.  The scene of the play, when his slaves turn against him is really uncanny in its revelation of the ferocity of the unchanged African savage."
How many 'unchanged African savages' the management of the Empire Theatre had ever encountered is open to debate but I would have thought not very many. 
The distant and mysterious Orient always held a certain mystique so I imagine there would have been packed houses to witness the visit of Chung Ling Soo  the famous Chinese magician.
"He will be there in a display of all his wonderful arts. It is the general opinion that all other masters of similar stagecraft to Chung Ling Soo have to take a back place to the famous Chinaman, who is not only enjoyed by reason of his skill, but because of the very entertaining style in which he presents his show. It has been well described as a performance which interests, astonishes, and amuses all who witness it. He begins by giving in- numerable tricks illustrative of his marvellous sleight of hand. These leave the audience spellbound before him. Amongst them is an illusion entitled The "Willow Pattern Plate." Here you see a little Chinese lady in the twinkling of an eye changed into an orange tree right in front of your eyes. But this is not anything to approach what follows in the second part of the programme. 
The opening is entitled "The Mystic Bottle," and here again you see the same little Chinese lady, Miss Suee Seen. One clever and amazing feat is that in which Mr. Soo swallows aflame strips of Chung Ling Soo paper, to which he adds a large quantity of cotton wool, and after washing these down with the top of a burning candle, and a little liquid, there emits from his mouth a large quantity of smoke and smouldering flames. "The Creation of a Butterfly," "A Dream of Wealth," "The Birth of a Pearl," and "The World and its People" are among the remaining feats . . . Altogether his is the performance of a thoroughly practised magician, and one which will long remain in the memories of those who witness it. Never has there been seen on the stage, in a like performance, such a quantity of elaborate scenery and special fittings for various illusions. Those who witness a performance will long remember the cunning which he displays." 

Opera was always popular given the rich culture of music and song that existed in valleys communities, none more so than the Rhondda. 

"Welcome Return Visit of the O'Mara Opera Company. Mr. Duckworth, the enterprising manager of the Empire Theatre,' Tonypandy. has arranged with Mr. Joseph O'Mara, the famous Covent Garden tenor, to pay a return visit with the O'Mara Opera Company for nine nights and tour matinees. They will commence on Christmas Day with a matinee at 2.30 of "La Traviata." and "The Lilly of Killarney" at 7.30. . . The company has been strengthened in each department since their last visit, and now number over 100, which include some of the finest soloists of the day, and has the reputation of being the largest and most expensive -Grand Opera Company now touring: and unless the theatre is really filled at the present prices at every performance it will entail a very heavy financial loss on Mr. O'Mara's part, who is bringing his entire West End Company and will play to much less than the West End prices. This is a musical treat that should not be missed by anyone within a reasonable distance of the theatre."
I sincerely hope Mr. O'Mara broke even. 
My favourite Rhondda Leader review concerns the legendary Northern star of music hall and cinema, George Formby.  I don't think it would get the Editor's approval today!
"George Formby, Who will Shortly Appear at the Empire, Tonypandy   -  Mr. George Formby, the popular Lancashire music-hall singer, has received His Majesty's command to sing at Lord Derby's Royal house party at Knowsley Hall on July 7th—a most appropriate booking" considering the place and the circumstances. George Formby is a whimsical Wiganite. He is not pretty to look at, and his facial expression is even more lugubrious than Alfred Lester's, but his ditties, sung in the richest Lancashire dialect, are so intensely humorous that they will bear hearing over and over again. His burlesque of the Lancashire "nut," entitled "I'm one of the boys," his serio-comic, "Jim Willie," and his skit on Spanish airs are among the biggest music-hall hits of recent years."
Hopefully Mr. Formby remained ignorant of the 'compliment' afforded him by the Rhondda Leader review otherwise Mr. Duckworth might have been left looking for a replacement act.
If you fancied a bit of audience participation this next act may be right up your street. 
"Votaries of the science of physical culture find their Mecca this week at the Empire, Tonypandy, where Peter Gotz, the world-renowned wrestler, gives nightly demonstrations of the art which has made him famous. Mr. Gotz takes all-comers at his weight in the catch-as-catch-can style, and, needless to say, the competitions provide some excellent as well as exciting moments. He is a very clean and scientific wrestler, and those upon whom he conducts his "experiments" may rest assured that their limbs will receive human consideration (????) at the hands of Mr. Gotz. In addition to his wrestling exhibitions, the famous wrestler gives about 20 illustrations showing how to defend oneself against a possible sudden attack by hooligans. A very clever and well-appreciated turn is that given by Irve Hayman and Company. The midnight episode, "Christmas Eve," wherein is shown the taming of a burglar by a little girl, is extremely touching."
Doesn't say how she tamed him. Perhaps she watched one of Mr. Gotz's nightly demonstrations.
"And", to quote a more recent comedian, "there's more." There were juggling milkmen, barrel jumpers, quick change artistes and more mysterious magicians than you could fit in Lord of the Rings. Those were the days!

The Empire Theatre has long since been demolished and replaced. Iceland currently occupies the place where it once stood as a bastion of live entertainment, an echo of a bygone age. 

The Mid Rhondda Athletic Field has, so far, survived almost intact although is now under consideration as a site for housing development. There are enough housing developments taking place in the area and a distinct shortage of green spaces. If you believe the Mid Rhondda Athletic Field should be preserved and maintained for the local community please sign our petition to register your support. Thank you.

The 'Mid' is left of centre.

1 comment:

  1. So much on our doorstep. Amazing to consider when compared to Pandy present. Bring on the great grandson of Geo the gourmand.