The recent article on Sir Bob Russell’s nostalgia on The Playhouse struck a chord with reader Vince Rayner. Here he shares his memories of attending performances at the much-loved Colchester Theater
MEMORIES flooded me when I remembered those great variety shows that I went to see with my family.
My father had permanent seats in the circle, because at the time you could see stars from the stage, film and recording locally.
The Playhouse, at the time, operated as a cinema for three weeks, then for a week it was used as a theater, with a panto at Christmas.
Colchester had five cinemas – The Empire, where St Botolphs Circus is now located, The Hippodrome, in High Street, The Regal, in Crouch Street, and The Cameo (which started out as a theater, where Arthur Askey made his professional debut) who stood in front of The Playhouse.
The Regal had concerts on Sundays – usually musical acts like Ted Heath and His Orchestra, Stan Kenton, Lonnie Donegan and Chris Barber – while The Hippodrome occasionally had pantos and variety shows featuring a young Shirley Bassey and Jim Dale’s Skiffle Competition.
However, it was The Playhouse that stood out above the rest as it was part of the famous variety circuit used by top London promoters, including Jack Hylton and Paul Raymond, trying out new acts before putting on their shows in the West End.
I’ve lost track of every celeb I’ve seen over the years, but some stand out, like Arthur Lucan as Old Mother Riley and Harry Secombe performing his famous shaving routine that fired him. in a theater when the director has I don’t pay you dearly to go on stage while you shave! “.
I also saw Arthur English, Prince of the Wide Boys, who Jimmy Perry says inspired Pt Walker’s character in Dad’s Army.
On BBC Radio’s Billy Cotton Band Show, Peter Brough and Archie Andrews, along with Beryl Reid and harmonica player Ronald Chesney, became mainstays of BBC radio comedy and their half-hour shows were broadcast around Sunday noon.
Peter must have known the area as he joined the army as a driver and was stationed at the RASC department here in Colchester.
During this time, he perfected his ventriloquism by entertaining his pals when he was not on duty.
He was spotted and sent to join the artist pool of the War Office in Greenford, which sent him to a company called Stars in Battledress, eventually joining the Entertainment National Service Association (ENSA).
Peter and Archie Andrews became big stars in the 1950s and were popular with the royal family.
Sadly, Peter passed away in 1999 and is buried in a cemetery in Maldon.
All of these wonderful acts appeared at the Playhouse, and thanks to the foresight of my father, who hated to queue for movie seats, I had a wonderful opportunity to see amazing performers who would later become highly regarded stars of radio and television.
These include Morecambe and Wise and Stan Stennett, whose son I am in regular contact with and who has given me a lot of information about the lives of these artists over the last few years of variety.
The artists all knew each other and enjoyed each other’s company, except for a few who kept to each other.
A number of neighborhood landladies offered inexpensive “digs” at movie theaters, especially low-end ones, while big names usually stayed in hotels (the Red Lion on High Street is one of them). .
An interesting article about Max Miller’s visits to Colchester hangs on the side wall of The Playhouse, now Wetherspoons, and while he was at the peak of his profession he often expected the theater to pay for his accommodation, even though he was earning around £ 500 a week (a small fortune at the time).
He would just pack his bags and leave without paying his bill.
I remember seeing Max Miller twice, once in 1951 and again in 1953, although I couldn’t understand why people laughed because, being very young, his humor crossed my mind.
Jimmy James & Co, a family band from the north of England, way ahead of its time with haunting surreal comedy, is another act that remains in my memory.
Their famous sketch “Lion in a Box”, starring nephew Eli Woods, is still on YouTube to this day and is as funny as it was then.
Although James always appeared to be drunk on stage, with a cigarette in his hand, he was both sober and not a smoker off stage. His only great vice was gambling.
Recording artists of the time were frequently booked to perform at the Playhouse, as it gave locals the chance to see and hear their favorite performers.
I also saw Dorothy Squires, David Hughes, the Welsh opera tenor, the star of the multi-million dollar record David Whitfield and Alma Cogan, the bubbly young singer who many years later helped the Beatles.
These artists would sometimes go to the Radio Center on St John’s Street, across from the old bus parking lot, to meet their fans and sign autographs, increasing their record sales.
The Playhouse has always had a wonderful pantomime that sometimes lasted for a month, from Boxing Day to the end of January, always performed in full halls.
Local dance troupes are part of the group as they have attracted entire families to visit to see their budding offspring tread the stage with professional actors.
One production that has always been successful was This Was The Army, an all-male magazine created by Jack Lewis, who had worked for ENSA. During the demo, he had formed a touring variety show that visited The Playhouse every two years.
Jack was also involved in some of the Pantos in the 1950s.
Hypnotists, conjurers, animal acts, jugglers, musical specialties and exotic dancers – the list goes on and on and all have appeared at the Playhouse.
However, the variety was coming to an end and in a few years there would be no more shows.
The Playhouse reverted to being a movie theater and, apart from the rare occasions when it staged productions by the local opera company, the “Gang Show” or the Colchester Scouts “one-nighters”, it remained so until. ‘to turn it into a bingo hall. How depressing!
Colchester will never see those “golden days of variety” again, I’m sorry to say. However, I’m just glad I was there in the fifties to see it for myself.