1929 July to September

1st July 1929 – GOOD GRACIOUS

On the stage – for six days – GOOD GRACIOUS – American black theatre writer and musical revue star Eddie Hunter brought his Minstrel Revue “Good Gracious” to the Empire for the week. It contained the hit songs “Diga Diga Do”, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”, “Bandanna Babies” and “I Must Have That Man”.

Eddie Hunter seems to have appeared on the scene suddenly, first attracting notice in 1923 for his starring role in the Broadway production of How Come? He also wrote the show’s libretto, which was criticised at the time for borrowing too liberally from Sissle & Blake’s Shuffle Along. Hunter’s next Broadway appearance came with newcomer Adelaide Hall in My Magnolia during the summer of 1925. Reviewers liked Hunter and Hall but weren’t enthusiastic about the show itself. Hunter came to Europe in 1926 and appeared in variety and revue. In 1928 he starred in the London production of hit Broadway show ‘Blackbirds of 1928’, which became the longest running all-black show on Broadway. In Britain it toured the provinces under the name ‘Good Gracious’. Hunter returned to Broadway to star in Blackbirds of 1933 with Edith Wilson and Bill (Bojangles) Robinson.

A selection of melodies from Good Gracious (Blackbirds of 1928)

8th July 1929 – LUCKY IN LOVE

On the stage – for six days – LUCKY IN LOVE – a revue featuring Harold Walden and an upstart called Hylda Baker played as part of a UK tour. Harold Walden is a name not well known today but back in 1929 he was revered and loved. Walden was born in 1887 in Umballa, India where his father was serving with the Cheshire regiment of the British Army. They returned to live in Manchester but Harold followed in his father’s footsteps by enlisting in the Cheshire regiment as a drummer boy, serving in  India and Ireland where he discovered that he was a talented footballer,  representing the Army against the Navy. By this time he was based in Yorkshire as he signed on with Halifax Town. After a short spell he transferred to Bradford City where he spent four seasons with them and was their top scorer in season 1911 -12. He must have been quite a talent because he was selected for the English amateur team that represented Great Britain at the 1912 Olympic football  tournament in Stockholm, Sweden where he played in all three matches to help  Great Britain to the Gold Medal. In the first match against Hungary, Great Britain won 7-0 and Harold scored six of the goals! He also served in World War I in the West Yorkshire Regiment, rising to the rank of Lieutenant. At the end of the war, Harold continued playing for Bradford City but in 1919/1920 season he signed on with the Arsenal and is recorded as having played two games, scoring one goal. He returned to Bradford City for the following season but he decided to retire from football during the 1921 season. Whilst playing football, Harold appeared on the stage of the Bradford Alhambra in a charity event playing piano and singing. He so impressed theatre manager, Harold Laidler that he booked him for a week’s engagement! After retiring from football, Harold continued with his stage performances, using his football background in some of his sketches. Harold was a born humorist and life and soul of the party and was known for his antics on and off the field and stage. Within two years he had proved himself and was topping theatre bills and  touring extensively  all over the UK. He also toured in Australia, China and India. His Olympic gold medal would be displayed  outside theatres  where he was  performing. He penned several pieces of music for the ukulele and wrote songs such ‘Only Me Knows Why’ which became his signature tune.

A typical Harold Walden sketch

Hylda Baker was born on 4 February 1904 in Farnworth, Lancashire. She was the first born of seven children. Her father Harold Baker was a signwriter and painter by trade, but also topped up his earnings by working part time in the music halls as a comedian. From a very early age Hylda showed great promise in performing. She received an education at Plodder Lane Council School but documentation suggests she left at age 11. She had made her theatrical debut a year earlier in pantomime at the Opera House in Tunbridge Wells and began touring as a single act with comedy, song and impersonations. By the time she was 14 she had already begun producing, writing and performing her own shows and was a variety headliner commanding over £25 a week. Baker met her husband Ben Pearson and they were married in 1929. Her successful brand of northern humour – which didn’t always travel for some performers – worked for Baker, who was to become one of the UK’s biggest music hall variety artists.

15th July 1929 – ALL FIT

On the stage – for six days – ALL FIT – Britain’s premiere comedienne, Nellie Wallace brought her new revue “All Fit” to Southampton. Besides Nellie other acts included Brian Lawrence, Frederick Morant, Claude Gardner, The Three Lads, Liliane Gilbert and The Lawrence Tiller Girls. Nellie Wallace was a British music hall star, actress, comedian, dancer and songwriter who was 59 by the time of her appearance in ALL FIT at the Empire. She was one of the most famous and best loved music hall performers and had become known as “The Essence of Eccentricity”. She dressed in ultra-tight skirts (so tight in fact, that she would lie down on the stage and shuffle back and forth on her back to pick up whatever she had contrived to drop). Her hat sported a lone daisy, feather, or fish bone, and even a lit candle. Her main character was a frustrated spinster, singing ribald songs such as “Under the Bed,” “Let’s Have a Tiddley at the Milk Bar” and “Mother’s Pie Crust.” She wore a fur stole, which she described as her “little bit of vermin”. After a lengthy tour the revue moved into London’s Victoria Palace.

Nellie Wallace performing a song in 1929

22nd July 1929 – LEAGUE OF STARS

On the stage – for six days – LEAGUE OF STARS – The Two Rascals and Neil McKay headlined a variety show entitled “The League Of Stars”. From the outset the ‘turns’ are introduced through a mock trial scene. The Two Rascals are one of the high spots in the field of variety and their songs at the piano were considered to have been delivered perfectly. Neil McKay provided much of the comedy of the evening, his quaint style and eccentric dancing continued to endear him to audiences.

Pathe captured a performance of Neil McKay in 1930

29th July 1929 – DEBROY SOMERS & HIS BAND

Live on stage – for six days – DEBROY SOMERS & HIS BAND played their first dates at the theatre. Debroy Somers was born William Henry Somers, and he became a leading 20th-century big band bandleader. His period of celebrity stretched from the 1920s to the 1940s. He appeared in numerous films, including Second Choice, Stars on Parade and Aunt Sally, and subsequently founded the Savoy Orpheans. So popular they returned to the Empire in 1931, for the week of 8th June, supported by Flanagan & Allen, music hall comedians, they would often feature a mixture of comedy and music in their act; this led to a successful recording career as a duo and subsequently roles in film. Flanagan and Allen also became members of The Crazy Gang and worked with that team for many years concurrently with their double-act career.

Debroy Somers with a 1928 version of a music video


On the stage – for six days – THE ADVENTURES OF PARKER PC. Charles Austin’s PC Parker sketches started in 1911 and developed as a music hall character through the war years and into the 1920s. By 1929 the character had developed sufficiently for a play to be built around him “THE ADVENTURES OF PARKER P.C.” and this opened at the Empire on August 5th 1929. Austin was known as ‘The King of Cockney Humour’. The West End cast included Ruby Norton as Austin’s wife and Alec Dane. At the time the Hampshire Advertiser reported ‘There is no doubt that never before has this great favourite been so excruciatingly, irresistibly funny’.  Charles Austin served an unprecedented 6 terms as ‘King Rat’ in The Grand Order of Water Rats, the exclusive British entertainment industry fraternity and charitable organisation, based in London and known for its high-profile membership and benevolent works (primarily within the performing industries). This show was a resounding hit for the Empire.        

Charles Austin captured for Pathetone Gazette

12th August 1929 – LAUGH, TOWN, LAUGH

On the stage – for six days – LAUGH, TOWN, LAUGH. Another new Revue open “LAUGH, TOWN, LAUGH” graced the stage of the Empire, starring well known Variety performers Elsie Bower and ex-professional footballer, Olympic medal winner, Billy Rutherford who had taken to the stage as a comedian, pianist and singer.

A programme for when the show had been at Nottingham a few weeks previously

19th August 1929 – BEAU GESTE

On the stage – for six days – BEAU GESTE was adapted for the stage in 1929 by British theatrical producer Basil Dean. The play ran for just five weeks at London’s His Majesty’s Theatre before embarking on a UK tour arriving at Southampton’s Empire on August 19th 1929. It details the adventures of three English brothers who enlist separately in the French Foreign Legion following the theft of a valuable jewel from the country house of a relative. It is set in the period before World War I. Michael ‘Beau’ Geste is the protagonist (and an archetype). The story teller is his younger brother John. The three Geste brothers are portrayed as behaving according to the British upper class values of a time gone by, and “the decent thing to do” is, in fact, the leitmotif of the novel. The Geste brothers are orphans and have been brought up by their aunt Lady Patricia at Brandon Abbas. The rest of Beau’s band are mainly Isobel and Claudia (possibly the illegitimate daughter of Lady Patricia) and Lady Patricia’s relative Augustus (the caddish nephew of the absent Sir Hector Brandon). John and Isobel are devoted to each other and it is in part to spare her any suspicion of being a thief that he takes the extreme step of joining the French Foreign Legion, following the steps of his elder brothers. Beau’s behaviour is true to France and the Legion, and he dies at his post. In the West End this production featured a 22 year old Laurence Olivier in the lead role but for the Southampton performances the part of Beau Geste was taken by Claude Horton, who went on to carve a career in film before moving to the US where he continued to appear in films as well as appearing on Broadway and tv.

Much of the inspiration for the stage play was taken from the 1926 film

26th August 1929 – BY CANDLELIGHT

On the stage – for six days – BY CANDLELIGHT. A major coup for Southampton’s Empire was the World Premiere of “BY CANDLELIGHT” which opened ahead of a direct transfer to Broadway where it would open at New York’s Empire Theatre on 30th September. It starred Gertrude Lawrence and Leslie Howard. The title came from an old quotation: ‘Choose neither a woman, nor linen by candle-light.” The plot is the one Plautus and Terence thought up centuries ago about the master and the man changing places for the success of their peccadillos. It originated as an Austrian play and this was an adaption by P. G. Wodehouse and Gertrude Lawrence, being an ambitious lady’s maid, flirts with Leslie Howard, a perfect prince’s perfect man, over the telephone. Agreeing to call at his apartments, she meets Leslie, thinking him the prince, and he meets her, thinking her a grand lady. He always has so wanted to flirt with a real lady. He tires of maids and nurses, with perhaps a governess at Christmas time. It is a grand game of pretence until the prince returns unexpectedly. Then it becomes more and more embarrassing as he enters into the sport by pretending to be his own valet in order that Leslie may carry on with Gertrude. In the end everybody is unmasked and nothing much has happened. The first act is prompting, the other two disappointing.

Critics at the time wrote:

‘The action takes place between seven and ten o’clock of an evening in December, in Prince Rudolf’s apartment. The three-act harlequinade that creates the occasion is adapted from the German by P.G. Wodehouse, and adapted superlatively at least for the opening act. Just as you are settling down with a purr of delight, you discover that the playwright is reaching the end of his invention. Even without the excitement of comedy to music, Miss Lawrence is remakably consoling to gaze upon – lithe and vital and steadily interesting. Miss Lawrence has the talent and presence of the true comedienne. Reginald Owen and Leslie Howard, who have been playing these starched comedy parts for some time, are superbly adroit as the master and the servant.’

‘Reginald Owen plays the prince as if he had grown up with princes of the kind; Leslie Howard indicates, sometimes with surprising subtlety, the comic nuances of the character of the valet. And Gertrude Lawrence brings to the playing of comedy most of the little tricks and charms that have made her a delight in comedy with music. Rita Vale and Betty Schuster are attractive young actresses. All nice people, all skillful, all winning. But they play more like nice people than like actors, who know exactly what is required of them “By Candle-Light”.’

The show was packaged up and dispatched to Southampton Docks where cast and crew embarked for their transatlantic journey and the bright lights of Broadway.

Here you can see Gertrude Lawrence performing a song from one of her 1929 films

2nd September – LOVE LIES

On the stage – for six days Love Lies was a new musical comedy written by Hal Broday and Desmond Carter from the book by Stanley Lupino and Arthur Rigby who also directed the show. It was destined for a successful run at London’s Gaiety Theatre after which it was made into a major British film.It tells the story of Rolly Ryder (Laddie Cliff), who runs an art school in Torquay, who has just married Joyce (Connie Emerald) even though his Uncle Nicholas (Harry Wotton) in Australia has written his firm opposition. Rolly’s friend Jerry Walker (Stanley Lupino) similarly has a distant uncle, Uncle Cyrus (Stuart Mellor), in South America – but in this case the uncle is urging his nephew to find a girl, get married and settle down. A third friend, Jack Stanton (Cyril Ritchard), has fallen in love with Valerie St Clair (Gilly Flower), but since she is so far above him, he has pretended to be a Lord Luston – picking the name out of thin air. Naturally both Uncles and the real Lord Luston (Wyn Weaver) turn up unannounced, and many complications ensure, involving knockabout farce and even crossdressing.

Pathe captured a scene from the show

9th September – PERSONS UNKNOWN

On the stage – for six days – Persons Unknown is a restrained melodrama written and produced by Edgar Wallace and directed by Carol Reed. This was one of a handful of pre-London runs where it would open on the 28th September. It starred Paget Hunter and Ellis J Preston. Carol Reed would go on to become one of Britain’s top film directors and consistently cited amongst the world’s best. In 1953, he would become only the second British film director to be knighted for his craft and in 1969 he would be awarded the Oscar for Best Director for his film version of Oliver!

It tells the story of a Scotland Yard detective and an ace reporter’s pursuit of a mysterious blackmailer who stabbed a ‘person unknown’ in the street.

Director Carol Reed

16th September – FOLLOW THROUGH

On the stage – for TWO weeks – Follow Through is a successful Broadway musical comedy from a book by B. G. DeSylva and Laurence Schwab, lyrics by B. G. DeSylva and Lew Brown, with music by Ray Henderson. It Had its European premiere at Southampton’s Empire, having been chosen as the opening attraction for the Empire’s West End sister theatre, the Dominion, on the following Thursday.

Called “a musical slice of country club life”, the plot involved a golf match at a country club. The stars of the show included Leslie Henson and Ivy Tresmond. The show produced several songs that are now standards, including “Button Up Your Overcoat”, “My Lucky Star”, and “I Want to be Bad”.

The Times wrote – “What opportunities the game gives the chorus may be imagined. If only they were under the necessity of keeping their eyes on the ball it would be a mournful reflection that a little drilling seams to have given these young ladies what many men in the audience have failed to acquire alter years of practice – an easy swing and no uncertain follow through. Some, but not all, of the jokes for which the game is a pretext may also be imagined. Not all, for the best jokes in the piece are neither spoken nor sung; they are to be found at play upon the comic mask of Mr. Leslie Henson’s face, which sometimes resembles the face of a chameleon, sometimes (when it is disdainfully observant) the face of a Pekingese dog, sometimes wears the expression of a startled goldfish, and in its more human moments may be the face of a cheerful idiot inspired by some whimsical imp. What, would the piece be like without this richly comic mask? For it seems to have been found impossible to invent a story to carry this musical tribute to golf. There is, of course, much love-making, but we follow it with as little excitement as we would follow a set of lancers; and now and then somebody attempts to recover an heirloom which he has thoughtlessly bestowed upon a lady at a masked ball. But, whether disguised as a plumber and rejoicing in the licence that ladies of the club-house are used to accord to a “mere workman,” or in the fine anguish of addressing the ball, or in full cry after the not very elusive ring, Mr. Henson, aided and abetted by Mr. Mark Lester, is the mainstay of the piece. The singing rather than the dancing is the chief charm of the rest of the entertainment, though Miss Ivy Tresmand and Miss Elsie Randolph dance charmingly, and Mr. Henson himself ventures on some very fleet and intricate footwork in partnership with Miss Ada May, a sprightly and accomplished purveyor of American light humour. “Button up your overcoat” and “I can give up anything but you,” two duets by Miss May and Mr. Henson, and Mr. Bernard Clifton’s “Lucky Star” are good examples of the spirited and tuneful songs which are likely to spring up when you have begun to lament the thinness of the soil. Miss Tresmand, Mr. Clifton, Miss Rita Page, and Mr. Harry Pelissier handle the lovemaking and the burlesque of love-making with skill and delicacy. The scenery is admirable and, during the golf match, it becomes realistic. Some parts of the play are so good, it seems a pity that the whole should be rather disappointing.”

In 1930 Paramount Pictures made the musical into a film – watch it in its entirety –

30th September – CARL ROSA OPERA

On the stage – for six days – The Carl Rosa Opera Company was founded in 1873 by Carl Rosa, a German-born musical impresario, to present opera in English in London and the British provinces. The company premiered many operas in the UK, employing a mix of established opera stars and young singers, reaching new opera audiences with popularly priced tickets. It survived Rosa’s death in 1889, and In 1924, after a financial crisis, H. B. Phillips became the company’s owner and director, and placed it on a sound financial footing. Regular London seasons alternated with large-scale provincial tours during the 1920s and 1930s.

This was the second opera company to visit the Empire and during its week’s stay they performed Carmen on Monday, La Boheme on Tuesday, at the Wednesday matinee they staged Cavallera Rusticana and in the evening Madame Butterfly. On Thursday Tales Of Hoffman was performed and on Friday The Flying Dutchman, ending the week on Saturday with Faust.

A 1929 recording from Cavallera Rusticana
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