My dad had his fireman's ticket, as
he was a fireman during some of the war years with the
Auxiliary Fire Service. Every theatre had to have a resident
fireman when open to the public, by law. (This was because of
some very bad fire incidents, from many years before, that had
resulted in a big loss of life.)
My dad worked at the old Woolwich Empire,
as a fireman there. He worked part time of an evening. He then
went on from there into London, on the Southern Railway, as
he worked full time on nights on the 'Permanent Way' doing maintenance
work on the London Underground tube rail system. (This is why
we moved, later on, to East London, to East Ham, Manor Park,
because it was much closer and handier for dad to get to and
from work from there.)
When I did get to go to the Empire I
would usually take a mate. We would get in free because my dad
worked there. We would have to sit way up in the gods because
we were not allowed in the stalls for some reason. So there
we sat way up above, looking down and snickering behind our
hands when the nude show started. In those days the nudes were
not allowed (by law) to move and were only allowed to pose,
remaining perfectly still. They stage curtain would open to
reveal a posed nude, usually lit up with coloured lights. Then
the curtain closed. Shortly, they would open again to reveal
another, differently posed, nude.
My dad sat in a little reception office,
just inside the stage door at the side of the theatre. Now and
again I had to take him his sandwiches for work. I would go
in the stage door to deliver them to him.
On one of these occasions I remember
my eyes nearly falling out of my head as the nudes walked passed
me! One had just come off the stage and another was going on.
They both swept past me, oh so very close, with just a page
of a flapping newspaper held around their important 'below and
above' bits, with lots of bare bits on the sides and in between!
This was my first view of a naked lady!
But when we were up in the gods they
were there on stage for gawking at......and did we gawk!
The Woolwich Empire was a very popular
venue for the many servicemen who were billeted in the Woolwich
Barracks. So you can see that the nudes would have been a popular
part of the theatres programme.
The Empire had a good variety of acts.
Being only a young boy, I enjoyed the juggling acts and the
magicians. I especially enjoyed the breathtaking balancing acts.
They even had trapeze artists, very nerve racking to watch;
especially as the music, played live from the music pit, situated
directly in front of the stage, slowed and went into a drum
roll, as the trapeze artist did some death defying leap or triple
somersault as the cymbals crashed. I always enjoyed the comedy
acts. There were a good many comedians on the stage in those
days, before television began to get established in more and
When TVs finally got established it
was the end for most of these comedians who travelled around
performing at all the different city theatres and towns throughout
the country. They could tell the same jokes at every different
theatre and get a laugh. On a TV show, a joke routine could
only be told once. After that, a new joke routine was required
to be ready for the very next performance! Only a very few comedians
successfully made this transition, of them were Benny Hill and
Morecambe and Wise.
I remember on one special occasion,
when aged about seven, I actually performed on the Empire stage,
in front of the audience. This event came about because my dad
had jacked it up for me to go on the stage with an artist named
Mr Blow. He was well known in those days. He blew up balloons
and twisted them into different shapes, usually animals. He
acted the clown, dressed in a full length old scruffy fur coat
and a straw hat. On this particular evening I was seated in
the front stall seats, for the first time ever! Dad told me
that when Mr Blow asked the audience for someone to give him
a hand, I was to quickly put up my hand and volunteer. Finally,
the moment arrived and, right on queue, I shot up my hand and
I was asked to accompany him on stage.
Nervously I climbed the small stairs
at the side of the stage and walked on to the stage. A little
girl had also been chosen and we were both standing there with
the audience applauding us. Mr Blow took both our hands and
asked us our names. I then had to skip the length of the stage
and back again with him. The girl did the same. Again the audience
applauded us. When I looked out from the stage the lights were
really dazzling in my eyes. Mr Blow then went straight into
his routine, blowing up the long thin balloons and twisting
them into animal shapes whilst he made funny faces and let the
odd balloon fly off like a squid. He made one for me and handed
it to me. I whispered to him, asking him if he would also make
one for my little sister who was at home. He turned to the audience
and told them what I had just requested and they all laughed
and clapped loudly. Things were so much simpler in those days.
My dad got to know and meet a lot of
well-known theatre celebrities in the course of his part time
job as a fireman at the Woolwich Empire.
Occasionally, some of the celebrities stayed at our home in
Sladedale Road. I remember one couple who stayed with us. They
had a very large python snake that was used during part of their
act. It was kept in a large wicker basket with a lid. I was
allowed to see it close up and even touch it!
I remember going to the Empire with
my older brother Mark as a child of around five to see a colour
film of the FA Cup Final, the winners being Charlton Athletic.
This would have been around late 1948 ish, I think.
My brother Mark says that he remembers
a character who performed there, called Jack Doyle.
Now, if anything made our mum happy
it was the Irish connection of the famous.
She would say, "Bing Crosby is from Irish background and
James Cagney." He was
a real favourite of hers and many others. Mark recalls one such
favourite, a character, which he says, as a young kid he would
hear our mum and dad discuss. A smile would light up mum's face
followed by a chuckle when the name Jack Doyle came up.
Jack Doyle was born in Cobh, near Cork
City, Ireland, where he made a reputation as a brilliant boxer
and a fine tenor. In 1933 at a time when he was earning 600
pounds a week as a singer, he could draw 90,000 fans to London's
White City to watch him fight.
His only vice was alcohol. He married
the famous Mexican actress Movita and they raised hell together.
But a growing drink problem proved too strong for Jack. He struggled
with it until he eventually died, destitute and shoeless, on
the streets of London, in 1978.
When Mark was working in the Hermit
Road Barber Shop, in Canning Town, around 1960-1, he overheard
a customer mention that he'd seen the sad state of the once,
so handsome, Jack Doyle, at the Chingford Greyhound Track.
Jack Doyle appeared at the Woolwich
Empire when dad was a part time fireman there. Mark remembers
dad telling mum about Jack. Jack had been booked there to sing.
This was in the early to mid 1950s from Mark's recollection.
There is a sad song called, 'The Contender'. It is a tribute
in song to Jack's life.
Years later, the Woolwich Empire was
demolished, this being too often the sad fate of many of the
old theatres, once so popular throughout the country's towns
In its place they built, at a huge cost,
to the ratepayer's horror, a multi-storied auto-stacker car
park. A Royal Highness was there to formally open it, along
with all the important dignitaries. The button was duly pushed
and the very first car went up to be auto-stacked. The auto-stacker
then jammed and everyone went home. After much work and lots
of controversy it eventually was later demolished, at a further
huge cost to the angry ratepayers.