Scottish Music Hall & Variety Theatre Society

The glorious days of Scottish Music Hall and Variety Theatre

STAGEDOOR ARTICLES

Auditorium of the Empire Theatre, Glasgow.



How Moss Empires worked

By Donald Auty

 

Moss Empires worked with military precision with a comparatively small staff. The headquarters were in Cranbourne Mansions in Leicester Square in London that is part of the London Hippodrome complex. The Company owned this theatre from the day it was opened until it closed and became the Talk of The town.

 

The company controlled over thirty theatres at one time and running this immense circuit on a weekly variety basis was no mean feat. At this time around 350 acts a week were employed and this meant a lot of contracts. Louis Benjiman who became the last managing director of the company started as an office boy in this department and delivered most of these contracts by hand to agents who were based around the West. These contracts had to be issued, collected after signing by the artistes and confirmation issued, that meant 750 separate tasks each week. He did not have a lot of spare time.

 

Running orders for each variety bill were sent out by Charles Henry the production chief. These laid down the time allotted to each act and the setting. This was extremely important and every artiste had to adhere to their time or woe betide them. The settings were also extremely important especially if artistes could finish or start in front of the number one running tabs if the presentation was going to be slick.

 

The advertising bills had to be printed each week for each theatre and the artistes position on the bill, size of type and bill matter were of extreme importance and were dealt with by the publicity department who sent out the copy. Most of the printing was done by the firm of Tribe in St Albans but one or two independent theatres that were booked by Moss had their own local printers.

 

There was also a financial department at Cranbourne Mansions a detailed summary of box office, bar, ice cream and programmes had to be sent there nightly from the theatres and the managers sent an overnight telegram that contained the box office summery every night. It was not an easy job controlling the cash flow of such a large organisation in these non high tech days.


The staff numbers were small for such a large organisation this worked because the theatre managers were given a great deal of autonomy. In fact there were more staff at Cranbourne Mansions in the eighties when the circuit controlled only a handful of provincial theatres plus their West End venues than when they were at their most powerful in the thirties.


Each manager was fully in control of his theatre and could make decisions that would be unheard of in present day circuits. Most of them were at least middle aged and some of them in their late fifties and early sixties and had spent a lifetime with Moss. Age went with experience in those days and they were extremely valuable assets to the company. Each one was a character and most of them tended to treat the theatres as though they were their personal possessions. They would stand immaculate in evening dress in the  foyers of their theatres smoking a cigar greeting the public as they came in and departed at the beginning and end of each performance. They had one or two assistant managers under them depending on the size of the theatre and the number of bars it had. The assistant had to do all the cashing up. The manager at Nottingham was in charge of two theatres the Empire and the Theatre Royal that were adjoining.


Each theatre had a resident stage manager various stock cloths and an immense amount of drapes. The stage manager was expected to use these to the full and grids were packed most weeks, The Stage manager was responsible for the setting and running of the she but the theatre manager had overall control. It was not until the advent of the American star bill toppers that touring managers were employed with variety bills.

 

Each theatre had its own orchestra numbering from eleven to fifteen again depending on the size of the theatre and the resident musical director was solely responsible for this and for hiring and firing until the early sixties when a circuit musical supervisor was employed. The orchestras were top notch and sounded terrific.

 

Many present day organisations would profit by making some research on how Moss Empires worked and profit from the results.

 

A Few Glasgow Empire snippets from Iain Gillespie

 

(1) I attended the Red Army Dancers show on the last week of the Empire and had the programme for many, many years. We had the St Petersburg Opera in the Kings', Edinburgh During the Edinburgh International Festival in the mid 80's. One of the Technicians was telling me that his father was a dancer in that show and asked me where the Glasgow  Empire was, as he would like to go and see round it. I told him that it was no longer in existance, but that I had a programme of it. I brought it in and showed it to him. He pointed out his father's name and then started to cry. He had never seen anything appertaining to the Red Army. I gave him the programme. The unfortunate fact was that, even if the Empire was still open, he wouldn't have been allowed to go there as this just happened to be the final year of the K.G.B. involvement  and they wouldn't allow any of the Company to anywhere without them. They were so strict that they (the K.G.B.) came in to the theatre and checked every dressing room and toilet backstage before allowing the Company to alight from their coaches. The Company was counted in and then out at the end of the show, and even during the performance, they were escorted from their dressing rooms to the stage. There was one K.G.B. member, he was obviously a trained singer, even went on stage for crowd scenes and sang along with the cast. Maybe that was the way the did things in Russia, but he rather stood out in Edinburgh as he was dressed in a suit and wore blue tinted specs similar to Michael Caine. We had a massive row with them as they demanded that all emergency exits backstage were chained shut. The Festival Director, the Fire Brigade, myself and, eventually, the Police were all involved. They were told that the show would be cancelled and the remainder of their fee (they had been paid a deposit) would be cancelled. They eventually agreed and then placed chairs in front of the emergency exits for their officers to sit on and not allow anyone to escape. This started another argument with the Fire Brigade stating that they would have a backstage presence during all their performances. The following year we had the Gorky Theatre and they had an unofficial K.G.B. member with them although he had very little authority. He was easily noticed because although he had told the Festival interpreter that he couldn't speak English, he was trying to tell the Tech crew what to say in answer to questions, totally forgetting that our interpreter was standing there.

 

(2) When Liberace appeared there in the 60's, Chalmers Wood had booked him to appear in the Winter Garden for a Sunday Concert. Unfortunately, it didn't happen, as the Empire insisted that Rothesay was inside the 40 mile embargo. This prevented any artist appearing in the Empire from appearing in other venues within the 40 mile area. There was also a time limit. I think it was a month each side of the Empire appearance. If I remember rightly, Chalmers Wood then moved him to Arbroath. I often wondered how Liberace would react when he saw our rather decrepit grand piano as he had asked for a white Steinway.

 

(3) This was told to me by John Kerr, the Deputy Technical Stage Manager in the Empire. One time when John was up in the grid, he dropped his sheath knife. He, of course shouted out a warning, and when he came down to the stage, he and the crew searched everywhere for it, but it couldn't be found. A couple of years later when the theatre was being demolished, it was found with about a half inch of its point wedged between two bricks. It was a miracle that the rumble of the adjacent safety curtain hadn't dislodged it when going up and down

 

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This April 2020 is the 85th Anniversary of the death of Scottish Comedian Tommy Lorne. In the Sir Harry Lauder Society Newsletter issue 27 1993, the late George Gillespie wrote the following article.

 

Tommy Lorne - One of Scotland’s funniest

By George Gillespie

 

Perhaps one of the funniest performers ever to appear on the Scottish variety stage was the late Tommy Lorne. This Glasgow-born comedian, who’s real name was Hugh Gallacher Corcoran born 7 December 1890 was a gaunt craggy faced individual and could make people laugh merely by looking at the. In some ways his facial appearance and build were akin to that of the late lamented Duncan Macrae.

 

As a young man, Corcoran was employed in the drawing office at Blochairn Steel works, but his real ambition was to entertain and to make people laugh. On one occasion his senior colleague heard strange noises coming from the drawing office and , on going to investigate found Corcoran and a friend practicing tap-dancing. This of course did not endear Huge to the establishment.

 

The adoption of his stage name came about when, having started his new career with different parties under various names, he was given a chance to appear as a comic in his own right. Here he had to select a name for himself, and as he greatly admired the well-known English Tom E Hughes, he decided to style himself as Tom E Lorne. This soon became Tommy Lorne, which suited him better.

 

Lorne had begun to establish himself in some of the smaller theatres when the Great War broke out and he soon found himself serving his country in the army. Immediately after the war Tommy, while still in uniform, attended a rehearsal of a pantomime in the Royal Princesses Theatre in Glasgow. He was spotted by the leader of the orchestra, Robert McLeod, and introduced to the owner of the theatre, Harry McKelvie, who gace Tommy some money to buy a new suit, at the same time telling him to come back in a week. When Lorne did return he was engaged as a comic in a touring pantomime. Two years later McKelvie teamed him up with a first class feed - one called Bret Harte, who was noted for his great sense of timing.

 

Tommy became a great success at the Princess’s and was often seen journeying around Glasgow observing the passing scene and listening to the “patter”, all in order to get ideas for scenes and scripts. In his sketches he used topical Glasgow phrases such as “in the name o’ the wee man” or “Ah’ll get ye, an if Ah don’t get ye then the coos’ll get ye!” Another was “Sausages is the boys!” Latterly he only has to say “In the name” - and he had his audience in stitches.

 

He later played at the Theatre Royal pantomime and proved to be a tremendous success. Lorne was no earning big money but felt that she should be better rewarded. He discovered that, although his contract stated that he would have a salary of £250 per week plus a percentage of the takings, the small print showed that overall his total earnings could not exceed the sum of £275.

 

The late discovery irked him greatly and upset him so much that he started to drink heavily. Again he became involved with unreliable friends and was further dispirited when Howard and Wyndham did not renew his contract. As a result of this experience Tommy was compelled to arrange his own pantomime which he took on tour, including a season at the Empire Theatre, Glasgow, with Cinderella.

 

He eventually settled his differences with his former employers and signed a contract for the season 1935-36 at the Theatre Royal but died from pneumonia on 17 April 1935. The great Tommy Lorne was laid to rest in Kirkintilloch Cemetery, his funeral being attended by many hundreds. 

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