“When we opened at the Glasgow Empire in 1961 we were sold out twice-nightly for twenty-six weeks”
The Glasgow Empire
In March 1960 Andy Stewart joined Robert Wilson, Joe Gordon, Isobel James and other White Heather Club members in-concert at the Empire Theatre in Glasgow. During the performances Andy caught the attention of Leslie A. Macdonnell, Managing Director of Moss Empires Ltd. who believed that Andy could well headline a show of his own at the Empire and offered Andy a “trial” week from the 10th of October. That week would bring about one of Andy’s biggest-ever pay cheques:
“Leslie Mac asked me if I would do a week at the Empire in October. I got a tremendous deal from him. We worked on a profit-sharing business, with me coming out on the right side of a 60-40 percentage box office deal. I don’t think Leslie expected that we would do much business, and felt that if he broke even by paying the rates, electricity and staff he would be quite happy.
But it did not happen that way. Business was tremendous. I put on my own show and even the first houses were a complete sell out. I grossed about £3000, and, I am almost ashamed to admit it, but I was paying the rest of the cast about £600. You could say it was a good week! Until then the biggest salary I ever drew was about £150 a week.”
“He has the heart and sincerity of Max Bygraves and the whimsicality, charm and pathos of Norman Wisdom” Macdonnell told the Glasgow Evening Times Theatre Critic as they observed Andy during his opening night of The Andy Stewart Show. The show was praised the following day;
“An all-Scots show, a house-filler, a tartan parade with a tang to it too! The comedian has never been better appearing no fewer than seven times, carrying the brunt of the show brilliantly – quite the funniest thing seen in a long time. His take-off of a pop idol is hilarious and his impersonation of eight well-known singers ‘muckin Geordies Byre’ is perfection.”
The Glasgow Herald was in attendance too;
“Andy Stewart continues to grow in stage presence and in ability as a character comedian. His touch is equally sure, whether as a canny farmer’s loon from the backwoods of the North-East or as an orange-shirted rock ‘n’ roller.”
Macdonnell then presented Andy at the London Palladium alongside stars including Judy Garland, Cliff Richard and Bruce Forsyth in a Gala Performance before Her Majesty the Queen Mother on December the 1st. The very next day, December 2nd 1960, Andy signed a three-year contract with Moss’ Empires.
Working in the Moss’ Empires circuit was widely regarded as hitting the “big-time” in British Variety circles. Being awarded a three-year contract thoroughly reflected Macdonnell’s belief in Andy as a crowd puller, so Andy’s agent Hymie Zahl set about drawing up an ambitious plan for a twelve week season at the Glasgow Empire for 1961. A season of such a seemingly marathon length had only previously been experienced by top American idols. However, as ambitious and exciting as this plan was, Andy wouldn’t be enjoying the same kind of box office deal as he had with his previously lucrative week in October 1960. Macdonnell, having learned a lesson from that previous deal, would make sure that the percentages were drawn up in an entirely different way!
If They Liked You, They Let You Live
The Empire had a somewhat notorious reputation of being a tough “gig” to play. This reputation was largely circulated amongst English performers who had ventured north of the border with less than anticipated success, however in truth many English stars including Max Bygraves, Bruce Forsyth and Frankie Vaughan had no trouble winning over the audiences at the Empire. The Empire also played host to many of the biggest American stars, including Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Abbott & Costello, Martin & Lewis and Laurel & Hardy, all receiving the warmest of welcomes.
In a series of “dress rehearsals” of sorts, Andy took his show to the Gaiety in Ayr during the month of February 1961 and provided singer Moira Anderson with her Variety stage debut. The reaction there was tremendous as patrons queued two-deep around the block for seats. He then took his cast on a North-East “road show” beginning in the Highlands on March 8th in Forres, then on to Inverness, Arbroath, Kirkcaldy, Perth and ending in Dunfermline on the 6-8th of April. Attendances at these shows were high and reviews were excellent; a good omen for the Empire.
On April 25th 1961 The Andy Stewart Show opened in Glasgow to press reports of “the greatest post-war ovation since Danny Kaye – the Empire packed to the rooftops” and “Andy Stewart – keeping Variety alive, in Scotland”. Almost single-handedly it seemed, Andy Stewart was bucking the trend of falling sales for theatre tickets and even the most truculent of theatre critics at the time, whilst taking a swipe, had to grudgingly acknowledge that fact: “He can’t act, he can’t dance: all he can do is fill theatres”. More positively, Andy’s triumph was echoed in the Glasgow Herald as Andy “sang, danced, talked and mimicked his way into the ranks of the immortals of the Scottish music hall.”
What was seen as an initially ambitious twelve week season was doing so much business that Andy’s residency was extended by a further seven weeks – then extended again, totalling 26 weeks in all.
“When we opened Glasgow Empire in 1961 we were sold out twice nightly for twenty-six weeks, and I don’t think I can ever forget the reception… and I suddenly realised that this was not a compliment being paid completely to me, it was being paid to the music of Scotland that had lain dormant as a viable commercial proposition for so long.”
The artistes appearing in the Empire shows included many outstanding performers in an excellent Variety line-up that changed every six weeks. Appearing in the shows over the months that followed included talent such as the West-End operatic singer Margaret Mitchell; The Four Jays – a comedy vocal group; The Cherry Willoughby Dancers; The Aeolian Singers; juggler Helmuth Gunther; The Pipes & Drums of the City of Glasgow Artillery; The White Heather Club dancer Dixie Ingram; actor and radio star Alex McAvoy (who had appeared with Andy in the Drama School College Pudding revue and went on to star as ‘Sunny Jim’ in BBC Scotland’s The Vital Spark) and the comedian Max Kay.
During the early sixties Max Kay was one of Andy’s closest friends. A native of Govanhill, Max had been a singer with local dance bands in Glasgow in his teens and during his National Service he entertained with many of the military dance bands. Max joined Andy’s troupe as a singer and comic feed during 1959 while Andy was performing with his Heather Mixture shows at the Inverness Empire. He quickly became a constant companion taking on the role of Andy’s personal manager in 1963, handling his business and managing the touring company.
Andy had secured Ian Powrie’s band to back him during the season.
Ian Powrie had been playing the fiddle since he was five years old, and played in his father’s band aged just nine. He became a much respected musician in Scotland, broadcasting for the BBC at an early age and forming his own band in 1949. His was the band featured in the BBC TV show The Kilt is My Delight, a companion piece to The White Heather Club, for which Powrie’s band were also regularly booked. Although there were minor changes in the line-up, the most memorable configuration would prove to be; Ian on fiddle, Jimmy Blue on Button Accordion, Mickey Ainsworth (Piano Accordion), Dave Barclay (Double Bass), Pam Brough (Piano) and Arthur Easson (Drums). A 26 week season meant that all members of the band had to give up their full-time jobs in order to devote their time to the engagement. They embraced this new lifestyle (and the rise in weekly wages) and became Andy’s band of choice for future engagements. Harry Carmichael, the pianist from The White Heather Club, would join the Powrie band to participate on the tours that would follow.
In late May, Hymie Zahl invited Howard and Wyndam producer Freddie Carpenter and musical maestro Geraldo to witness Andy in action at the Empire. The party slipped in quietly and totally unannounced taking in the show with quiet deliberation. Speculation as to their appearance was rife among those in theatre circles. Was Andy being sized up as a future star for their successful revue productions of the Five Past Eight Show? The assumption may well have been true, as Andy did indeed star in the said production at the Kings Theatre in Edinburgh in 1965.
Changing the programme at the Empire every six weeks meant a regular hunt for new ideas and new material. During the run Andy had some unexpected help from his friend and colleague Jimmy Logan:
“I was in the middle of the 26 week run at the Empire and I’d been saying (to Jimmy) how tough it was getting. He sent me a whole lot of material to my dressing room with a note saying he hoped I would find some of it useful…
A very rare gesture from one comic to another.”
In July 1961 a special announcement was made at the Empire and a star prize offered of supper with Andy and the company and a trip to London as a guest of Leslie Macdonnell with a place in the royal box at the London Palladium for the lucky 250,000th patron at the Empire. By August the show had been seen by 300,000 delighted patrons and still had a month to run.
Andy was receiving many letters daily from fans who had enjoyed his Empire show, including one from a gentleman who had “enjoyed every minute of the show” adding that “the artists work hard and what impressed me most of all was the fact that you were on the stage practically all the time. As a rule other stars just give occasional appearances.” This was true. During a single performance Andy would sing 13 songs, and work right the way through the production, making a total of six appearances. The letter-writer continued: “To show my appreciation and to give some less fortunate people an opportunity of seeing your show I am enclosing herewith a postal order for £5, and I will be very pleased if you will buy as many tickets as possible and have them sent to really deserving cases.” The tickets were duly sent to Dr. Arnold Cowan, crusader for Glasgow old-age pensioners.
All-in-all the wildly successful 1961 Empire stint lasted for the best part of six months, his residency finally ending on September the 9th. To commemorate the longest-ever run at the theatre a special plaque was presented to Andy by Leslie Macdonnell at a well attended press event. After a well-earned fortnight’s holiday in Tangier, Andy flew to London to record another batch of songs for EMI, travelled to Dumfries to begin a short tour and rounded off the year back at the Gaiety in Ayr for the Christmas season.
By Royal Command
Andy’s record-breaking year of 1961 was crowned, quite literally, with his appearance on the Royal Variety Performance on the 6th of November at the Prince of Wales Theatre, London, in front of Her Majesty the Queen Mother. Royalty became quite the fans of Andy and he was invited to perform at a Christmas Party in Windsor Castle and a return appearance was arranged for the Royal Variety Performance before Her Majesty the Queen at the London Palladium on the 29th of October 1962.
“Appearing in the Royal Variety Performances, between the ones I’ve done in Scotland and the ones I’ve done in England, it’s something like eight or nine in all. A Royal Variety Show from the Palladium in London is rather a similar experience to one’s wedding day. You know you’ve definitely been there, and you’ve definitely been an integral part of it, but it’s all rather in the way of being somewhat hazy… You’re terribly, terribly charged up and you’re terribly, terribly excited about it no matter what anybody says. I defy anybody to say they’re not terribly keyed-up.”
Royal Variety Performance (BBC 1961)
Will Ye No Come Back Again?
As if to prove that his Empire stint was no fluke, Andy announced another six-month programme for 1962. Frank Mathie, Manager of the Glasgow Empire, opened a special booking office in the basement of the theatre in February 1962 to cope with the public demand for tickets for the next run beginning on April 17th. “Andy really needs a booking-office of his own now” Mathie stated. The previous year Andy had notched up more than 400,000 ticket sales, and Mathie expected even more this time “Postal bookings opened last August – before the end of the last run – and already 20,000 seats have been sold. One of the first postal bookings to come in was 20 seats ordered from New York!”. By March the tally was up to 100,000.
The 1962 season began on Tuesday the 17th of April. Unfortunately Andy did not make the opening weeks of this run due to an undisclosed illness which was later revealed to be an ulcer operation. Frank Mathie made the surprise announcement at a hastily arranged press conference on March the 30th, stating that Andy had had an (unspecified) operation at Claremont Nursing Home in Glasgow and was under strict instruction to rest. Comedians Jack Radcliffe and Johnny Victory would step into the breach until Andy returned from convalescing in Majorca to claim his throne on the 29th of May. Artistes appearing in the shows included Ian Powrie and his band, Dixie Ingram and The White Heather Dancers, Sally Logan, Max Kay, comedian Hector Nicol, The Arthur Blake Singers, song and dance troupe The Trio Vitalites, a young new comedian Eric Burns, Andy’s wife Sheila, The Leslie Roberts Silhouettes, James Urquhart, The Barry Sisters, the Pipes and Drums of the City of Glasgow Artillery and The Rutherglen Pipe Band.
End Of Empire
Andy’s two seasons at the Empire completely outperformed any other show of the time, and set new attendance records for Scottish variety theatre. However, coming as a shock to many (but to others not a total surprise), within a year it was announced that the Glasgow Empire was to close. A grand all-star charity night was announced by Johnnie Beattie – then vice-president of Scottish Equity – on March the 5th 1963 for its send-off on Sunday 31st March. No particular theme was intended for the show, Johnny said, but its intention was to touch on all the phases of the Empire’s history, from variety to pipes and drums. The show would include most of the biggest names in the Scottish theatre – a night that could not have been complete without an appearance from Andy Stewart. Andy joined a line-up to include Johnny himself, Duncan Macrae, Jack Milroy, Calum Kennedy, Jack Radcliffe, Dave Willis, Robert Wilson, Rikki Fulton and many others.
The final Show of Shows was organised by Equity, the Musicians’ Union, the Federation of Theatre Unions (Scottish section) and the National Association of Theatrical and Kiné Employees. Every performer appeared voluntarily and the price of tickets was limited to 15 shillings. The show was an extraordinary and lavish event with the theatre packed to the roof. There were moments of laughter from Jimmy Neil and Charlie Cairoli; moments of sombre sobriety with Duncan Macrae, John Mulvaney and Albert Finney posing as the demolition gang; memories of the music hall of yesteryear introduced by Iain Cuthbertson; moments given over to sheer elation from the Alexander Brothers and the White Heather Dancers; and cheers mixed freely with tears as the night ended with Auld Lang Syne and God Save the Queen.
Unfortunately Andy’s box-office success could not be duplicated by every artiste and a theatre cannot survive on one artiste alone and the Empire became another casualty of the times.
It is perhaps appropriate that given all the talent that paraded on the stage of the Glasgow Empire, the greatest success of all came with a Glasgow-born entertainer and all the more ironic that this success came at the tail-end of the story of Variety.
Now was the time for Andy to cast his eye further afield and take his show on the road overseas.