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A Shout From The Attic: The Palace Theatre

...On Saturday nights I paid my shilling, climbed up to the gods – so called from the celestial beings painted on the exalted ceiling a few feet from the top of my head – sat on one of the wooden benches with other poor but equally ardent patrons, and entered the world of entertainment at its very best...

Ronnie Bray remembers the variety stars that he saw on the stage of the Palace Theate in his home town.

For more of Ronnie's life story do please click on A Shout From The Attic in the menu on this page.

At the bottom of Kirkgate, Huddersfield is a large, once imposing building covered in pale fawn tiles. The last time I saw it, it was a bingo hall. Some years ago, It was the Continental Café, a sort of cabaret restaurant. But, when I was a boy, the sign above the entrance canopy proclaimed it The Palace Theatre, and I knew and loved it as the home of variety.

On Saturday nights I paid my shilling, climbed up to the gods – so called from the celestial beings painted on the exalted ceiling a few feet from the top of my head – sat on one of the wooden benches with other poor but equally ardent patrons, and entered the world of entertainment at its very best.

Scott Simpson, The Old Philosopher, carried a basket on stage and considered the strangeness of life in a humorous way as if he was contemplating, but involved his audience with a pattern of thought grown out of experiences that they related to.

Archie Lewis, the West Indian crooner, sounded like Bing Crosby. I waited outside the stage door on Venn Street after one of his appearances, and he signed his photograph for me, ”To little Ronnie.” Lewis was a big man and I was about fourteen, so I was little. I never grew taller than 5’ 7 ½” so I stayed little.

Issy Bonn sang My Yiddishe Momma as if he had one. I loved his voice, plaintive, but strong and pleasing, coupled with good-natured humour.

G H Elliott, The Chocolate Coloured Coon, was a veteran of British Music Hall. He wore black face, and when I saw him in Huddersfield he was in his seventies and almost in heart failure. He wouldn’t slow down, he cavorted around the stage and gave his very best, but he was breathless after each number and at times seemed like to die and cremate himself on the footlights. He had inspired Spike Milligan’s father to imitate him, but he had been too shy to perform in public, a condition that did not affect his son.

Karinga, the Fakir, was a short but good looking dark-haired woman who did impossible things, such as walking up a ladder of sabres, lying on her back on crushed glass bottles as an assistant smashed concrete paving stones on her chest with a ten pound sledge hammer, and laying on a bed of four-inch nails and letting her assistant walk all over her.

I once went up on the stage as a volunteer for a hypnotist, whose name I cannot remember. How I got myself up there I will never know, but I must have migrated to the stalls, probably the back stalls, to be one of his subjects. He stood us all in a line, walked down onto the pit floor, and with one of those flourishes of the hand that stage hypnotists are famous for he made each of us fall backwards into the safe arms of a burly assistant. I was still a little afraid of making a fool of myself, so the experience was nerve racking, but I survived, unlike the time I volunteered to bathe the baby.

Variety meant what it said and one of the acts that drew my attention was The Electric Baby. This was a metal model of a baby, larger than life, and of a greyness that would have rendered a real infant post mortem, but the leaden diminutive served to amuse the audience. The proposition of the act was that volunteers would sit the metallic child on their knees and bath him with a sponge and a tin bathful of soapsuds. The electricity came in when the operator mystically manipulated his occult controls that made a powerful magnet in the sponge deflect the bubbles onto the would-be-baby-bather’s face. It didn’t take much to make people laugh in those days before alternative comedy tore the heart out of humour.

I had already had a bit of a history with electricity and was lucky to have emerged unscathed from the shocking experiences, and as I stood by to take my turn I saw the bundle of wires that were attached to the sponge and I panicked. Although the current victim – er, volunteer – didn’t see, to be emitting blue sparks, and his hair was still held down by half a tin of lavender Brilliantine, things could go wrong!

Walking slowly backwards, I slid around behind one of the stage curtains and made my way unnoticed through all the paraphernalia at the back of the stage, and eventually found the stage door, and slipped out into the night. Phew! I had missed some acts, but I was still alive! I do not remember volunteering again after that.

The Harmonica Rascals burst onto the stage in a madcap glory of sound and visual joy. Their never ending high energy zany antics thrilled and amazed their appreciative audience, and their command of mouth organs, large and small, produced scintillating music that turned the most dour person into a foot-tapper.

Frank Randle was an archetypal Northern comedian, whose schoolboy vulgarity, innate sense of the ridiculous, and his penchant for pricking the bubbles of the pompous, appealed to my boyish anti-authoritarian sense of humour. I saw him every time he came to the Palace, an annual event.

His vulgarity, which was never profane or obscene, alarmed some of the better raised people and he was castigated in the press for being coarse and unconstrained. He decided to play to his critics and appease them, so he renamed his Randle’s Scandals, calling it, I’m A Good Boy Now!

I went to see the new Frank Randle and was not surprised to find that the only thing he had changed was the name, and that he was still the Frank Randle playing the same familiar characters we knew and loved.

Such was this comedian’s appeal, that when he appeared at The Pioneer Theatre in Dewsbury in the 1950s, his aficionados overcrowded the building by two thousand, and the steel girders supporting the circle sagged, never to straighten again.

Frank worked with Gus Aubrey as his foil. Gus appeared in several films with him. One newspaper reporter wrote glowingly of Randle’s Scandals but called Gus Randle’s stooge. On the final night of the week when I attended, Frank stood at the curtain and spoke of his friend, saying passionately, “He’s not a bloody stooge. He’s a damn fine artiste!” So he was.

Frank also delivered a broadside to an audience member who asked where the Manchester Lads were at finale time. Frank sneered and said, “They have to be off stage by nine o’clock because of the demands of the Employment Law affecting minors.”

I remember one husband and wife team that played the Palace. I met them outside the theatre and they talked to me for a while. I said I would like to see them again, and they said that I would know when they were in town because their ‘Yellow Peril’ would be parked on the big vacant lot at the bottom of Southgate.

He was about six feet twelve and she was about four feet ten, but they were a sweet and talented couple. The Yellow Peril was their living van that they towed from town to town to make their appearances. I never saw them again and do not remember their names.

And there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of performers whose names I cannot remember, but whose magic I shall never forget. These were my transports of delight, my flight path to a better world, where light, laughter, song, and good humour were common standards, and every prospect pleased.

I loved the lights, the music, the performers, the colourful, zany and romantic worlds they created onstage, where nothing, it seemed, was impossible, and very magic was in the common air.

For me, Variety had a magic that lasted long beyond the final curtain. It warmed my heart, led me into a world I loved, and, in memory’s consolation, gives as much joy as it did when the band began to play, the curtain went up, and the performers brought the stage to life, drawing me into an enchanted vortex, enticing me to sink into its unique worlds of make-believe, could-be, and dare-to-dream. I was, and remain, stage struck.


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