East End Memories


The Hackney Empire


When I was a child growing up in Whitechapel in the East End of London, Thursday evenings were always something to look forward to, as it was a time when my parents and I would go out for the evening as a family. As far as I was concerned, of the many things to do in those days, there were three special ways to spend a Thursday evening: either one could go to the local ABC cinema on the Mile End Road to see the latest MGM or Warner Bros. musical, costume drama or cowboy film; go to the West End to see a show in one of the many theatres; or, and best of all, go to the Hackney.

The Hackney, as the people of the area affectionately called the Hackney Empire, was a variety theatre – a Music Hall. However, the Hackney Empire was not just any old Music Hall – certainly not! The Hackney was a gem, a joy and a pleasure to see and to go to and is to be found in the heart of the East End of London not to far from where I was born and used to live.

When I was a kid, London was dotted with Music Halls, but none compared to the Hackney. Anyone that had been to the Finsbury Park or the Wood Green Empires or even the Collins Musical Hall could not fail to appreciate that the Hackney Empire was the jewel of them all. The interior was truly an Aladdin’s cave – a place of architectural wonder. It was, in its heyday, a true marvel. It was spectacular in both décor and in ambience. Many have spoken of the beauty of the Theatre Royals in the Haymarket and Drury Lane, which are indeed fine theatres, and of the Palladium and Coliseum with their wide stages and grand auditoria, and they are perfectly right to, but, to me, none of these grand theatres could hold a candle to the Hackney.

The Hackney Empire offered grandeur, excitement and comfort as well as great entertainment. The only theatre that I had seen at that time that could possibly rival the Hackney when it came to charm and spectacular décor was The Stoll Theatre in Kingsway, which sadly, has long since been demolished to make room for an especially dull building of typically boring 1950s architecture. A tiny theatre that was given the name of the Royalty before being leased to London University as a lecture theatre replaced the great Stoll. This theatre has since been returned to the list of London theatres under the new name of the Peacock.

The Hackney attracted patrons from not only the immediate area but from all over London. When I first had the good fortune to go to the Hackney, it formed part of a circuit of theatres or Empires that kept many performers in work for a good period of time. I had not appreciated the concept of a circuit until I visited both the Finsbury Park and Hackney Empires during the same month as a small child and was disappointed with what I saw. In order to explain this, allow me to digress for a minute

.Hackney Empire - Stan Laurel, Charlie Chaplin, W.C.Fields

Click on the pictures to see clips

Top row, left to right: W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy
Bottom row, left to right:
Laurel & Hardy, Marie Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin & Vesta Tilley

When I was young, Saturday evening was a good time to listen to the Home Service, now known as Radio Four. In the early evening, there would be a wonderful magazine programme called In Town Tonight where celebrities of varying degrees of interest were interviewed. This programme had a wonderful tune that opened and closed it and was called Knightsbridge March by Eric Coates. The programme would open with the sound of traffic and a woman offering violets for sale to the passing public. Suddenly someone with a deep bellowing voice would yell STOP! And then there would be silence for a second or two and the announcer would say: once again we stop the mighty roar of London’s traffic to bring to you ………. Following this programme was a variety show. This was introduced at one time by the comedy duo, Jewel & Warriss, who were special favourites of mine. I found their brand of humour to be most pleasing. Jimmy Jewel and Ben Warriss had a long history as a double-act and would tour the Empire circuit. Ben Warriss was the straight man, the one with the brains, while Jimmy Jewel was the stooge. After Ben Warriss retired, Jimmy Jewel went on to have a successful solo career and became well known for his role in the television programme, Last of the Summer Wine.

Jimmy Jewel and Ben Warris

When I discovered that Jewel & Warriss were to appear at the Finsbury Park Empire I was overjoyed. Now Finsbury Park, although not far from Whitechapel as the crow flies, did entail a reasonably long journey on a trolleybus. In those days, one did not generally venture out of one’s own neighbourhood to find entertainment unless, that is, one went up west. Anyway, despite these obvious obstacles, I set about nagging and nagging my parents to buy tickets so that we could see them. Thankfully they did not put up much opposition, and on a specific Thursday evening, off we went to North London.

The Finsbury Park Empire did not especially impress me. Compared to the Hackney, it had a very plain exterior that did not look particularly welcoming or enticing. However, I had made that long and jolting journey by trolleybus, and where I had risked both possible nausea and vomiting, not to see the theatre but to see Jewel & Warriss. I remember that they made their way on stage behind a cardboard replica of a boat, which was greeted with riotous applause led, I liked to think at the time, by me. Once the performance had ended, and a suitable number of bows taken, we left the theatre and made our way to get the trolleybus. I remember being pleased with the performance and I feel certain that I babbled away about it during the journey home. I had passed a very enjoyable evening and happily was unaffected by the jolting, nausea-provoking return journey on the trolleybus. I should say that as a child, I was not an especially good traveler and suffered from motion sickness. Anyone who knows me well will note that I have changed little with age.

Several weeks later, it was announced that Jewel & Warriss were to appear at the Hackney Empire. Another treat, I thought, and this time closer to home, with only a short ride on that vomitus-inducing omnibus. And so again I nagged for us to go and see them. And again, I got my way. However, my parents and I were in for a disappointment, as it turned out that the comic duo presented the same act that we had seen earlier at the Finsbury Park Empire. Needless to say, I was not pleased. In fact, I was much more than a bit miffed and do not remember laughing much at the antics of my favourites this second time around. Sadly, I had not realized that they, like the rest of the cast, were taking their act on the Empire circuit. I later learned that it was common practice for Music Hall acts to do this and that they lived on one act for about a year or so as they toured the provinces and country. Once television began to replace live variety as the major source of entertainment, performers needed to become more versatile and were required to change their acts more often or else risk losing public favour along with a fall from grace. A number of performers realized their impending doom and either sought another profession or else retirement. Anyway, up until then I had not been aware that acts toured and presented their act again and again in different venues. It was a rude awakening for me. I felt cheated and ever after disliked the Finsbury Park Empire and, I have to confess, I never looked at Jewel & Warriss with quite the same admiration again.

The Hackney, like all Empires of the circuit, would present variety twice nightly at about 6.30 p.m. and again at 8.30 p.m. We never went to the early performance in spite of my age. As a child, I appreciated the importance of good behaviour when it came to going to the cinema or theatre. I knew that if I were to misbehave then I would not be allowed to accompany my parents and so miss something special. Since my very first visit to the theatre, I have been totally enamored of the whole experience and so there was absolutely no chance that any silliness on my part would rob me of further visits. In fact, I used to pride myself on behaving in an exemplary manner, and would welcome and relish the compliments given to me by other patrons who were amazed at my ability to sit still and enjoy the performance while being quite small.

There were a number of reasons, which stopped my parents from going to the first house, as it was called. My parents had a shop to open the next day and so they had to ensure that everything was clean and ready for that day’s business before they could think about going out. Another reason for our attending the second house was that we all had to get ready for our soiree and this took time. In those days, people dressed up to go to the theatre and this included the Music Hall. One would wear one’s Sunday best. One’s finery had to be brought out and suitably inspected and then brushed or pressed before wearing. My father was, to say the least, a peacock and took great pride in his appearance. He would spend an age preparing himself, especially his hat! But I will talk more of his habits and his manner of preening himself at a later time. My own getting ready would begin immediately after I got home from school.

I would learn little at school on Thursdays. One’s mind was full of what the evening held. I was not alone in this as a child for most of the class, being Jewish, would be going out that evening too. I remember, years later, while teaching at Yeshiva University in New York City, being re-introduced to Thursday night as going out night or in the students’ case, as date night. I remember being delighted to see that things had not changed. My mother always told me to get home from school as quickly as possible and not to dawdle. I did not have to be told this as I was ready to leave school at lunchtime and found the afternoon classes to be totally unmemorable. As I said, most of the kids in my class felt the same and little was learned by any of us, and we did not care!

Once home, I was immediately instructed to bath myself and not to forget to wash behind my ears. Following ablutions, I had to be inspected that I had indeed bathed to expectation and then I had to undergo a final hateful process prior to dressing. As a child, I was never allowed to go out on special occasions without my mother firstly brushing my hair. My mother, as nice as she was, was not the gentlest woman, and would pull one’s head about into strange and painful contortions as she brushed. My father would occasionally take her place as master of the brush and would prove to have a more delicate and gentle hand. Although I much preferred his attention in this matter, sadly his work would never pass my mother’s inspection and I would then have to suffer more severe brushings at her hand. After this, I was then instructed to dress. This meant putting on my best clothes, which included a tie, which I had learned to do at a very young age. Following this, I was to present myself to my mother for another inspection.

MeMy mother would turn me around as she pulled at the back of my coat. Once I had passed preliminary muster, I was told to stand at a distance so that I could be inspected further. This was done so that she was able to give her final opinion of the overall effect that I would be presenting to the world. There I would be, standing in front of the fireplace, dressed in a little woollen suit, which had been especially made for me, with a neatly folded white handkerchief in my top pocket. My shirt would be of fine linen and my tie would blend neatly with my suit. My shoes would have been polished by me, and at my mother’s insistence, until I can see my face in them. Despite all efforts, I never was able to see my face in them, but evidently she must have seen hers since I would eventually be told to cease brushing and continue with the next step of getting ready. Once ready, my mother would gaze at me for what seemed to be an eternity. Despite all efforts, I was always told to stand up straight and to pull your shoulders back. After walks back and forth and several turns, my mother would eventually proclaim me ready to be seen by the world awaiting me just outside the door.

The description of my mode of dress may well give the reader the impression that my parents were rich when I was a child. This was quite the opposite. Although it was common for young boys to be dressed in suits at that time, I do have to admit that mine were of a superior quality and craft compared to those of the other kids in the area. However these garments did not cost my parents an arm and a leg as it might be supposed. Since we lived in Whitechapel numerous small tailoring factories surrounded us. My mother knew many of the factory owners, as well as those that worked in these establishments, and since she was a likeable person, she would be given a special price and an even more special one when something was for me. I was a firm favourite with owners and workers alike, as I was genuinely polite to them and would always display my most charming self when they spoke to me. So it was that I came to be dressed in suits that would normally be saved for Savile Row.

MotherMy mother would dress in a grand manner too and would always wear a hat. Her hats were generally bought in the area, but on occasion she would wear one from up West at C & A, but again, more of this later. There were two things that were especially important to my mother, and which would cause me much pain and suffering in my later life. Much trouble came to me regarding my mother’s hair and shoes. My mother was a short woman and had tiny feet. As a result, finding a suitable shoe for her would take on the nature of searching for the Holy Grail. And like many women, she loved to shop for shoes. Getting her hair done so that it was acceptable to her was one of those impossible dreams often sung about in songs. But again, I will speak more of these odysseys at a later time.

My mother, delightful as she was as a person, and as good hearted as she was, was someone with strict views and ideas. One thing that she disliked intensely was to wait in certain queues. She would wait at the doctor’s clinic or for a bus but she would not join a queue to the cinema and she would not wait outside the Hackney while the first house clientele made their exit. To attempt to dissuade or convince her to do this was pointless. She was a woman of strong will and strong conviction. Happily, or unhappily, I have inherited her strength of will and this was apparent at a very young age. Like her, I have strong opinions on just about any subject that you might care to mention. To be honest, no subject is too insignificant or too trivial for me not to have an opinion about. So it was not surprising to me that my mother had a strong opinion about waiting in a queue.

To be fair, my mother had plenty of reasons for not enjoying waiting in a queue. I suspect that she must have had her fill of this when as a child her mother would send her to the numerous missions and tabernacles that existed in the East End where the poor could go for food and clothing. She, being the eldest daughter, was given the charge of her siblings during her own childhood. This meant caring for them from morning until night and seeing that they were fed and clothed. Her mother and stepfather were far too busy with their own pursuits to have time to take care of the multitude of children that they produced. So it fell to my mother to take her siblings to the houses of charity and wait until it was their turn to be fed or else clothed. In addition, during the war when supplies were short, besides working long hours on the railway, she would have to line up for staples. Therefore, it is easy to understand why she would dislike waiting in line and would only do it when absolutely necessary.

I believe that the true reason why my mother wished not to be seen waiting outside the theatre while the first house patrons flooded out came more from a case of being snobbish than anything else. I fear that she, like the majority of those attending the second house, did not want to be mistaken for a patron of the first house. First house patrons were thought of as a rougher, less cultured gang. They were mostly dismissed as ruffians. Goodness, most of them had gone straight to the theatre in their working clothes! To the toffs that went to the second house, this was nothing short of barbarism and therefore totally unacceptable. Imagine these poor lambs having to actually sit next to such scruffs. It was enough to make them experience a case of the vapours. Even I, at my tender age, although knowing full well that we were not actually rich, felt myself, nonetheless, to be in an elite group and did not want to associate with the first house ragamuffins either. After all, what did they do after they tumbled out of the theatre at top speed? Why most of them headed for the pub in order to get drunk! Tut, tut, tut!

My mother would insist that her dislike of waiting outside the theatre came from her inability to tolerate being in the midst of a crowd. Naturally her argument did not make sense since she would be soon sitting in an auditorium surrounded by a host of other spectators. Her fear of crowds also extended to where she would sit. She had very strict requirements when it came to where she would and would not watch a film or a show. She would not, under any circumstances, sit in the middle of a row in a cinema or a theatre. She always insisted on sitting at the end of a row. No other place, other than a box, was acceptable to her. My mother made a great deal about this throughout her life and I was brainwashed in knowing this from an early age and learned to remember this whenever I booked seats later in life. I do recall that on one occasion, when I thought that I had booked seats at the end of a row at the Follies Bergeres in Paris, I was given what I had supposed to be acceptable seats only to learn once at the theatre that they were next to a rail that separated us from cheaper seats. My mother was not pleased and complained that she would feel hemmed in and would not be able to breathe. However, once the show started, her complaints mercifully ceased and her fear evaporated as she began to enjoy the show and seemingly forgot totally about the poor seating assignments. So much for her claustrophobia, I thought. Naturally, even as a young adult, I did not dare to question her affliction, as this would not have been taken kindly. My mother was very good at snapping back suitable replies to such criticism. As I aged, I got to enjoy tormenting her, as most of her retorts proved to be absolute gems - but this too will be discussed at a later time.

Goddess of DanceAt one time, actors and actresses looked down their noses at those of their fraternity that made film. Once television dared to rear its ugly head, it took on the role of an even worse ugly stepsister and both theatre and film people sneered at those that worked in the new medium. The theatre has always been held aloft over other forms of the performing arts and theatre people thought of themselves as breathing the rarified air of Mount Olympus. Many have laughed at this outrageous display of elitism and dismissed the theatre in this day and age as being obsolete and a meaningless bourgeois pleasure with nothing to say to the modern world. This, to me, and many others is mere tosh. As the playwright said, the play’s the thing. Good as film is and as entertaining as television may be there is something indefinably captivating about the theatre and of a theatre! A theatre is magical place, where dreams are spun, stories are told and mystery and magic awaits! Few places on earth exhibit such a hold over me.

The threshold of The Hackney EmpireMany theatres have a smell associated with them. This is not the musty smell of a disused building, but an intoxicating perfume that greets you as soon as you give your ticket to the usher. It fills the nostrils and causes one’s step to quicken with anticipation at what is to come. It is a hypnotic odour and is like none other experienced. Cinemas do not have it and, sadly, neither do all theatres, however the Hackney had it, and had it in spades. I am still amazed, and very pleasantly surprised, when I go to a theatre and find that same intoxicating perfume about me. I have experienced it in many countries and in both grand and less grand theatres that are hidden away from the mainstream. Sadly, I have failed to experience it in some of the most famous theatres of the world, one being the pre-modernized Palace Theatre in Times Square in New York. This theatre is said to be a special theatre with a long history, which has been immortalized in song. Americans mistakenly believed that it rivaled the Palladium in prestige and majesty. Anyway, all I had to do as a child was to put my foot on the first step up to the entrance of the Hackney and I became excited and knew that I would soon be immersed in that intoxicating perfume and knew that a great time was going to be had. Once inside the magnificent foyer, the sense of occasion would fully enfold me. The perfume would be at its strongest now and I would become completely captivated by it. I was now hypnotized and enslaved and could not wait to get to my seat and for the show to start.

The Box OfficeI would insist that we walk slowly up the steps before the entrance of the Hackney and that we entered through the central wooden and glass doors. The box office was outside the theatre at the level of the top step up. Here, there would always be a number of people who would be picking up their tickets or else trying to buy one for the next house. I was not impressed with this behaviour and felt that tickets should all be purchased in advance and snootily never felt sorry for those patrons being turned away when the performance was sold out. Hearing a commissionaire informing waiting would-be patrons that this performance is sold out only served to heighten my own excitement.

Once we had made our entrance, we entered the foyer. The foyer although small had a dramatic effect on the patron both from its spectacular décor and from its magnificent staircase that led up to the circles and boxes. The colours of the foyer were, to me, unusual and remarkable. I cannot be sure if my memory serves me well here, but I remember the foyer as being ornate and decorated in oranges, whites and various other colours that produced a spectacular and breathtaking effect. I seem to recall that the walls appeared to glisten, as if covered with something akin to mother of pearl. This caused the whole foyer to shimmer and take on the appearance of a giant grotto. I suspect that my imagination has taken over here and embellished somewhat my memory.

People filled the foyer prior to the start of the show where they would chat to companions or else wait for others to join them. In the foyer, to the right of the grand staircase, stood an ornate board and easel. This board proudly displayed the name of the star turn that would be appearing as the last act of that week’s production. I never quite understood the necessity of this display. Surely everyone knew who was topping the bill that week. Why else would they have bought tickets and dressed up in their best clothes and were now there waiting to take their seats?

The Hackney Empire Foyer

This picture was taken by Matthew Lloyd who has kindly allowed it to be reproduced here

From the foyer, the wide and magnificent staircase, of what appeared to me to be of the finest marble, led straight up to the circles and boxes. I remember that during my first visit to Paris, I attended a performance at the Opera House. I remember my companions marveling at the spectacular staircase that swept up to the upper levels. It was of the finest marble and appeared to have been designed for patrons to be seen as they glided upwards. I remember being impressed by its form and colour. However, despite agreeing with them as to its beauty and design, I do remember in my heart, thinking that the staircase of the Hackney was every bit as startling and as majestic as this one. The steps of the staircase were wide and when my mother had booked a box or seats in the circle, I was made to hold my mother’s hand as we made our way up the steps. My mother, never sure of foot, would attempt to hold the rail as she ascended, but I fear that we were unsure of our footing as we progressed upwards and I also feared that we were about to tumble down at any moment. My father, as was his way, would bound up the steps, leaving his loved ones to fend for themselves. But, as I have said earlier, more of my father’s ways later.

At the top of the staircase was a seat, a chaise longe, which was also brilliant in its decoration. This chaise fascinated me as a child as no one ever seemed to sit on it. My parents certainly would not allow me to do so despite my requests and protestations. I could not understand why no one sat on it and I understood even less why I was not allowed to. Over time, I came to view the chaise in a detached manner much like a visitor would when viewing a piece of furniture in a museum.

Most times that we went to the Hackney, we would sit in the stalls. This meant entering the auditorium after passing along one of the passages beside the grand staircase. We would move along this corridor where the walls were covered with mirrors and posters of past shows. Before us would be another set of wooden and glass doors, which were open wide and bordered by plush deep red velvet curtains. Since we had entered the theatre at the earliest opportunity, we would now have to wait for those before us to pass through these doors. Waiting here was quite an experience in itself, as passage through them would herald the advent of something special to come. And by now, my excitement was at its peak despite my having passed this way many times in the past. At the doors stood an usher and an usherette both dressed in a dark red and gold uniform, waiting to take one’s tickets. The usherettes wore skirts and pillbox hats placed on their heads at a jaunty angle. They gave patrons broad smiles as they asked for their tickets. Once taken, the tickets would be torn in two and one would be requested to make one’s way through the open doors and curtains and into the auditorium and given instructions as to which aisle to go to once there. Generally, the usherette would give me a special smile as I passed by. Naturally, I would be sure to walk close to her in order to obtain this prize. At this point, my excitement was beyond its peak.

Once one went through the doors, one was greeted by the magnificence of the auditorium. I would defy only the soulless not to gasp at this spectacular vista. If the foyer of the Hackney had impressed the patron, then he or she would have been left breathless at their first sight of the auditorium. In those days, the auditorium was a true miracle, a veritable Aladdin’s cave with a décor of Empire red, gold and black.

The Hackney Empire Auditorium

It was difficult to know where to look first upon entering the auditorium. Naturally, one’s eye would be drawn to the stage. At this point, the stage would be separated from the auditorium by the presence of a large curtain. Occasionally, if one looked carefully, one could see it move as a stagehand touched it as he moved something into place on the stage. The presidium was extremely ornate and included both figures and swirling golden foliage. I fear that my abilities cannot do justice to its brilliance. To each side of the upper part of the presidium were two large domed urns of red and gold. I was fascinated by these vast objets and thought that at one time they were used to transport huge amount of food to a hungry giant.

After coming through the entrance to the auditorium, one saw the stage at the far end with the stalls between. There was a marked rake that they progressed from the rear stalls down to the orchestra pit, which allowed the view of the stage to be unimpeded by other patrons, especially those who wore outrageously large hats. Arranged above the stalls and around the parameter of the auditorium were a number of boxes and circles. The boxes were at the level of the Royal Circle but were situated just behind them at a slightly higher level so as not to interfere with the view of the stage. Above the Royal Circle were another circle and a balcony. I never sat in the balcony, but I did hear that here one sat on wooden forms. I remember finding this concept to be far from inviting. As a child, I had sat on such a seat while in infant school and had found it not to my pleasure.

Around the various circles, the house lights were found, which were dowsed during the performance and then turned up at other times. Each fixture was of multiple bulbs, each with their own ornate glass shade. I believe that a number of chandeliers were suspended from the ceiling to add to the light, but I cannot recall what they looked like. I remember that the auditorium was never over lit, but I do recall that it gave a warm glow to the place and had a calming effect on the patrons.

Ceiling of the Hackney EmpireThe ceiling of the auditorium was highly decorated and an area could be opened thanks to the placement of a skylight. Prior to the advent of air conditioning, large moveable windows were commonplace in theatres and were often kept open during the performance to help circulate the air. In those days, smoking was permitted in all parts of the theatre and most of the clientele would smoke during the show. This made for a cloudy atmosphere that would be tolerable when the roof was opened. On warm summer evenings, there would be a pleasant breeze created in the auditorium by the opening of both the exit doors and the roof skylight. However, when it rained, the skylight would be hastily shut saving those directly under it from getting wet.

Each time I went to the Hackney, I would rediscover the grandeur and the spectacular beauty of the décor of the theatre and especially of the auditorium. I would have happily spent hours just standing at the entrance gazing around it and discovering and rediscovering its treasures. However I would not be allowed to admire the beauty from this vantage point for too long, as I would find myself being pulled off towards one of the aisles that led to our seats. As I was encouraged to follow my parents, I would be gazing upwards with mouth open at the wonderment of the decorations and would mostly be bumping into other patrons. This would not please my mother and I would be told to stop daydreaming and to keep up with her. As requested, I would need to interrupt my admiration of the auditorium and follow.

While making our way down to our seats, we would be greeted by yet another usherette who would enquire whether we wished to purchase a programme. In those days, most patrons always bought a programme. They were of good value then and not the exorbitant price that they are today. Sadly, the British Theatre has not learned from the American Theatre where each patron is given a Playbill upon entrance to the auditorium and is not asked to pay a ridiculous sum of money for the pleasure of reading it. Obviously in America, the cost of this publication’s printing and distribution is included in the price of the ticket. When one considers what it now costs to go to the theatre, it would not hurt the management of British theatres to include a similar publication in the price of the ticket.

Following the purchase of the programme, yet another usherette would be ready to greet us. Generally, this poor woman would be a little hurried and less smiling, as it would be her job to whisk us along and to show us to our seats. By now, the auditorium was beginning to fill up with patrons also looking for their seats and so this poor woman was finding herself somewhat pushed. As a result, she would want to get everyone in her area seated as quickly as possible so that she could help the next group of patrons. In those days, usherettes would wait until patrons actually found their seats and not just fling a command in the general direction of where they were to be found and expect them to find them on their own.

Once we arrived at the correct aisle, we would then remove any outer coats and then make our way along the row to our seats. I had been instructed by my mother to say excuse me and thank you to each patron that I had to pass. Most patrons would rise from their seats before we passed so as to allow us sufficient room to get by and most would smile at me as I went by. However, there would be the occasional grump who would just sniff and snort and not get up from his seat for us to pass. Still, I did not care. I dealt with any rudeness on their part by accidentally on purpose treading on their toes or else falling on them, as payment for their intolerance.

Once we found our places, we were ready to sink back into those red plush seats with the full expectation of a having a grand time. One could sense the excitement in the air as the audience took to their seats. There would be an increasing sound of excited chatter as people arrived, settled down and read through their programmes and informed others that a particular favourite would be appearing that night. My parents were no different. My father would look at the programme first and inform my mother who was playing. Most times my mother would be happy at the announcement of the supporting acts, but should she not be, she would not be afraid to voice her lack of appreciation to him. I would not look at the programme at this time since I would be far too excited and would be filled with anticipation at the thought of the oncoming spectacle. It was all I could do at this point to admire the beauty and majesty of the décor of the auditorium.

In those days, the seats of the stalls were referred to as fauteuils. As a child, what little appreciation I had for France and the French language came entirely from the television programme called Café Continental, which would be shown occasionally on a Saturday night. I used to like this programme. It was set in a French café and I was very taken with the waiters with their black coats and their long white aprons. However, it was the dansceuses and their dance that totally captivated me. The dance – the Can-Can – was like nothing that I had seen and I was totally enthralled by it, and still am, if truth be told. Anyway, as I said, I was not especially familiar with the French language and certainly had no idea of its pronunciation. Just like everyone else, I used to refer to the large and comfortable stall sieges as four-tells. I cringe at the thought of this now.

My mother liked these four-tells since they offered a good view of the stage and were very comfortable, but she would often book a box when there was someone really special appearing or else it was Christmas and we were going to the pantomime. The boxes were found around the perimeter of the Royal Circle and offered a number of advantages compared to seating elsewhere. Most boxes gave an excellent view of the stage and also offered privacy. In addition, sitting in a box allowed one to be pampered, as one did not have to fight to buy ice creams or drinks during the interval. When one sat in a box, an usherette would come to see if the patron required anything from her tray. I found this to be the absolute height of luxury, as did my mother, and she would always treat me, and herself, to something delicious from her tray. Again, more smiles would always come my way from the young seller of the delicacies.

Naturally my mother, being a person with strong opinions, had a favourite box for these occasions. This was Box J. This was the most central of the boxes of the Royal Circle and offered the best view of the stage. I would love sitting in any box, but I enjoyed sitting in Box J best of all. There was an entrance door to the box, which would be closed by an usherette just prior to the start of the show. There was a small wall couch along one of the walls where one could, I presume, entertain visitors during the interval, and a series of pegs to hang one’s overcoats during the programme so that they did not risk becoming creased. I found such additions to one’s comfort to add that extra touch of luxury to the evening and helped make an evening spent at the Hackney to be even more an occasion than it already was.

The Hackney Empire StageWhile waiting for patrons to fill the remaining empty seats, it was possible to feel and hear the excitement of the audience mount. During this time, my patience was being tested and I would be willing the large red velvet curtain separating the stage from the auditorium to rise and for the show to begin. But no matter how hard I tried, I was unable to move it. Meanwhile, the usherettes were continuing to hustle patrons to their seats. What amazes me now is that in those days people were able to find their seats with ease and without help. Sadly today, I despair that people are less adept at doing this and that there is at least one fracas per performance where people are moved out of seats that they have either decided to take in belief that no one would be coming to claim them or else taken in genuine error. Such a situation occurs once the performance has begun and intervention of an usher or usherette complete with torch would be required to mediate and negotiate a settlement and peace. Naturally, no matter how much, or how little, the combatants would try, disruption of the pleasure of others is inevitable and would be the cause of various grumbles and hisses from those in the immediate vicinity to alert them to their displeasure.

About ten minutes before the show was to begin, various members of the band would amble their way through a hatch under the stage and find their way to their place in the orchestra pit. These musicians would, however, not form an orchestra, but a band. Their job was to accompany the various acts that would be presented to us that evening. As a result of their status as a band, their leader was not referred to as the conductor but as the bandleader. It should be remembered that Music Hall was not thought of as entertainment for cultured people. It had always been dismissed by society as lighthearted fare – nothing serious and perhaps a trifle vulgar. It was thought to lack artistic merit – a mere bagatelle. It was viewed as something to amuse the lower classes and allowed them escape the cares and woes of their humdrum lives – something that could and would be forgotten quickly – there was nothing highbrow about it – and certainly nothing that would require an orchestra or serious consideration by cultured people. Of course, in America where Music Hall was known as Vaudeville, it did not hold the lowliest of positions. This was held by Burlesque, which was also a form of variety but which was considered both vulgar and risky. Mind you, in England, Music Hall could be vulgar and often risky, but since it was always done with taste, it became acceptable to most members of society.

In those days, most band members were men and, to be honest, I cannot remember seeing any female members, but this does not mean to say that there weren’t any. Once I started attending more sophisticated productions, I would sometimes see a woman orchestra member and she would, naturally, be playing the harp or a violin. As the members of the band settled into their seats in the orchestra pit, they would begin a most unpleasant ritual, which I believed was to inspect their instruments and then take them apart only to put them back together again. I never quite understood why they had waited until they were in the pit to do this. I used to think that such activity should have been done before they came out from under the stage. Naturally, I felt that this inspection was holding up the start of the show. And then, to add insult to injury, the members of the band would go through a second ritual, which I was told would result in the tuning of their instruments. This was also something beyond my comprehension at the time. Again, why was it that they had left the tuning to this late time? What if the instrument could not be tuned? Did this mean that the show would have to be postponed? Tuning up annoyed me very much as a child. The sounds caused by it were very unpleasant and I failed to understand how it helped tune the instruments or helped them play well. Tuning up sounded as if a number of cats had been let loose in the pit and each was screeching to be heard above the rest. Obviously, all would be made clear to me once I started piano lessons and learned something of scales and pitch etc.

At long last a magic moment arrived where several events would occur at once. These events not only heightened my own excitement but also alerted me to the fact that the show would soon begin. Firstly, the sounds of the cats in the pit appeared to be reaching a crescendo. The trumpets would make some half-hearted attempts to run up and down a scale thereby assaulting the ear further. This would cause the trombones to reply with what I mistook to be an impersonation of a rather rude sound. Next, the violins plinked and plucked with increasing loudness and speed. Finally the drummer would come to life and insist upon bashing his cymbals and bass drum in the hope of drowning all other cats out. At this point, the audience would be hushed in a mistaken idea that the show was about to start. Realizing its error, the audience would then begin to buzz, which would quickly spread throughout the house. Now, the audience and I were unified in our open voicing of our impatience for the show to begin. It was at this precise moment when our collective buzz and excitement were about to reach their height and drown out what was going on in the pit that order would miraculously be restored and the auditorium would be momentarily hushed. It was now that I would have reached my bursting point and would need some restraint to prevent me from leaping to my feet. It would be now that the bandleader would make his appearance from out of nowhere, and climb up to the podium. Immediately, a spotlight would surround him. In a matter of seconds, he would bow briefly to the audience, turn his back to them and briefly fumble with the music placed on the rostrum. He would then tap his music stand with his baton, raise his arms to his sides, look to the left and then to the right at his fellow band members, wait for a split second until each member was brought to order and then nod. His nod was the sign that they had been waiting for, and as he brought his arms down to his sides in a violent manner, in unison the band would launch into a medley of tunes, which would reappear at various times throughout the show. As the various band members began to play, all of that horrible tuning up would take on some meaning. In response, the audience and I would explode into life at our anticipation of the pleasure that was to come and we unleashed our unabashed pleasure and greeted the music with grateful and loud applause. At long last, the show was about to begin.

Although I had been more than ready for the show to begin long before the band began to play their warm up tunes, I would now sit back and enjoy the music since I knew that it was a necessary evil to give notice to the audience to settle themselves and perform those last minute little chores that needed to be done before the show began. These chores included the opening of boxes of chocolates, arrangement of their coats about them, clearing of their throats and glossing through their programmes to see what was in store for them.

The medley played by the band would consist of both tunes of the day and old favourites. Each tune was presented to get the audience tapping their feet to the rhythm and to help them unwind from the cares of the day and so put them into a jolly and receptive mood. In general, there were about twelve or so musicians in the band. Although I cannot be sure of the exact number, the band would always include both brass and string players along with a drummer and a pianist. Many of the musicians were able to play more than one instrument and so expand the range of the band. Stuck at one end of the pit was the double bassist whose role in the band I never could work out since I could never hear the sound that he produced. Once the band completed its warm up routine, the bandleader would turn to the audience, give a slight bow and receive a round of applause and then return to the job at hand. He would once again tap the rostrum and the band would strike up the introduction music to the first act. And as he did, the curtain would slowly open to reveal the stage. At this point, the house lights would dim and a spotlight from high up in the auditorium would direct all attention to stage centre, and this, along with the footlights, now illuminated the scene that unfolded as the curtain swung opened. This was truly a magical time for me, as I was about to be drawn into the magnificent wonderful land that is theatre.

Continue to Part two - The First Half

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