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The Woolwich Empire Remembered

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 more homes.

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 and cities.

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.

Colin Weightman

To find more about Music Hall and Theatre visit this great site: http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/



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