1930 January to March


on the stage – for six days – THE FIRST MRS FRASER – British actress Zena Dare brought her latest starring vehicle “The First Mrs Fraser” to the Empire on January 6th 1930 immediately following its run at her Theatre Royal, Haymarket in London. “The First Mrs. Fraser” is a 1929 play by the Irish writer St. John Ervine. After his second wife leaves him for somebody else, a man returns to his true love – his first wife. The play has since been revived a number of times and is one of Ervine’s best-known works. Zena Dare (42) was an English singer and actress who was famous for her performances in Edwardian musical comedy and other musical theatre and comedic plays. She started out making her first appearance on stage in 1899, in the Christmas pantomime ‘Babes in the Wood’ in London, where she performed under her real name Florence Dones. She starred alongside her sister Phyllis in the production, and they both adopted the stage name of Dare soon afterwards. She retired from the stage in 1911 when she married, only to make a return in 1926 where she played the title role in ‘The Last of Mrs. Cheyney’. This was followed with a role in The Second Man alongside Noël Coward. In 1928, she formed her own production company and, a year later, took over the management of the Haymarket Theatre.

A tribute to Zena Dare

13th January – THE FIVE O’CLOCK GIRL

On the stage – for six days – THE FIVE O’CLOCK GIRL – EMPIRE – The first musical into the Empire in 1930 was “The Five O’Clock Girl” which opened on January 13th. A hit on Broadway “The Five O’clock Girl” didn’t click with West End audiences, running at the Hippodrome for just 13 weeks, but it did prove to be a big hit at the Empire and on tour. With music & lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby the show tells the story of Patricia Browne and Susie Snow, who are employed at the Snowflake Cleaners’ Shop. Mme. Rosalie, the owner of a nearby dressmaker’s fashion shop, informs Pat that she is the winner of a beauty prize, and will become chief model at Rosalie’s other place of business at Pourville-sur-mer. Secretly Pat has been having a “telephone affair” – every evening at 5pm she and the wealthy Gerald Brooks engage in a sweet-nothings phone conversation – though neither has actually met the other. It turns out that Gerald’s valet, Huggins, has been having a face-to-face romance with Susie Snow, but Gerald has been pretending he is a millionaire. The meetings, confusions, misunderstandings and the inevitable 1920s plot device of a stolen emerald necklace also involve Gerald’s former fiancée, Cora, and her new lover, the fiery Sicilian, Ramon Martinez. Eventually, of course, the whole muddle is suitably and happily sorted out. The cast included a debut in the chorus for a young John Mills, who went on to be one of Britain’s leading stage and screen actors achieving a knighthood for his work.

Listen to a selection from the musical

20th January – THE DESERT SONG

On the stage – for TWO weeks – THE DESERT SONG – which had a sell-out visit to the Empire in 1929 returned. This time with Hovett Worster and Daisy Elliston in the lead roles. The operetta with music by Sigmund Romberg and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, Otto Harbach and Frank Mandel was inspired by the 1925 uprising of the Riffs, a group of Moroccan fighters, against French colonial rule. It was also inspired by stories of Lawrence of Arabia aiding native guerrillas. Many tales romanticizing Arab North Africa were in vogue, including Beau Geste and The Son of the Sheik. Originally titled “Lady Fair”, after successful out-of-town tryouts in Wilmington, Delaware, and Boston, Massachusetts, the original Broadway production ran for a very successful 465 performances. It starred Vivienne Segal.The piece enjoyed a London production and was revived on Broadway in 1946 and 1973. In the 1980s, it was played regularly by the Light Opera of Manhattan and revived by the New York City Opera. It is a popular piece for community light opera groups. The story is a version of plots such as The Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro and later Superman, where a hero adopts a mild-mannered disguise to keep his true identity a secret. He loves a beautiful and spirited girl, who loves his hero persona but does not know his real personality, which he keeps hidden under the milquetoast persona.

A song by Hovett Worster from another show

3rd February – THE LIMPING MAN

On the stage – for six days – THE LIMPING MAN – was a mystery thriller by Will Scott. The Limping Man was called an “outstanding success”, the character of Disher being expanded onstage by Franklin Dyall. Franklin Dyall, was born in Liverpool. His father, Charles Dyall, was the first curator of the Walker Art Gallery. He appeared in 26 films between 1916 and 1948, as well as being the eleventh actor to portray Captain Hook. He was the father of actor Valentine Dyall. Opposite Dyall was Mary Merrall (born Elsie Lloyd), an English actress whose career of over 60 years encompassed stage, film and television work. She made her first stage appearance in 1907, as Queenie Merrall, and for the rest of her life she remained a well-known and respected stage actress. Among her most famous stage roles was as Lady Macbeth in a controversial but influential 1928 modern-dress production by Barry Jackson which opened in Birmingham before transferring to London’s Royal Court Theatre. Her stage career, following her performance in The Limping Man at the Empire, took her to the United States, where she appeared in Canaries Sometimes Sing (Frederick Lonsdale) in New York and Chicago, later in 1930.

The Limping Man begins with a man suffering victimisation after inheriting an estate, and enlisting a detective to find out why. This play was a development of Scott’s 1928 novel, Shadows. The play was revived onstage and made into two films: Creeping Shadows (1931) and The Limping Man (1936). This is not the same story as Frances D. Grierson’s The Limping Man (1924). The play opened on tour and this was one of its first dates, it then debuted in London on Monday 19 January 1931 at the Royalty Theatre, starring Franklin Dyall. It was copyrighted in the same year as a play in three acts in the United States.

The Daily Express review said: “Will Scott, an artist and author, has written in The Limping Man a comedy thriller which is far above the average if only for the reason that it contains at least a score of very amusing lines. There is a valuable Rembrandt, a Henry VIII mansion, mysterious footsteps, a bell that rings by itself, a suspicious-looking butler, Americans, a man murdered at the crossroads – all sorts of ingredients that would mix up into a stage mystery. The solution is by no means an obvious one. Franklin Dyall is a modern man of mystery – a being who wanders all over the globe solving crimes that baffle every one else. Arthur Hardy, who has been acting in this play on tour for some months, has some admirable lines as a fashionable physician . . . If The Limping Man had been produced two years ago I should have promised it a long run.” By1935 The Limping Man was at the Phoenix Theatre and then in 1936 the play was at the Saville Theatre.

A performance by Franklin Dyall in a 1931 play

10th February – BLUE EYES

On the stage – for six days – BLUE EYES – In 1928 the year after Showboat opened on Broadway Jerome Kern premiered his new musical BLUE EYES at the Kings Theatre in Southsea on 9th April 1928 before opening London’s new Piccadilly Theatre. Written with Guy Bolton and Graham John the show transferred to Daly’s Theatre on July 30th, 1928 and ran for 276 performances before setting out on tour in 1929 coming to the Empire, early in 1930. Starring Southampton favourites Winnie Melville and Derek Oldham in the romantic costume musical about Bonnie Prince Charlie. The very old fashioned book gave opportunity for lots of colourful military costumes and allowed Winnie to fight a dashing duel. The book may have been antique but the Jerome Kern score was bang up to date and included the lilting ‘Back To The Heather’.

The title song from the musical

17th February – MR. CINDERS

On the stage – for six days – MR CINDERS – had opened at London’s Adelphi Theatre on 11th February 1929 following a UK tour, where it ran for five months before transferring to the Hippodrome. In total it played 529 West End performances before returning to tour. This Southampton date was one of the first and featured Derek Oldham having remained in the town from the previous week’s production. This time his leading lady was Marjery Wyn. The musical had a book by Clifford Grey and Greatrex Newman with music by Vivian Ellis and Richard Myers. The score was a winner and included ‘Spread A Little Happiness’, ‘I Want The World To Know’ ‘One Man Girl’ and ‘Every Little Moment’. The story is an inversion of the Cinderella fairy tale with the gender roles reversed. The Prince Charming character has become a modern (1928) young and forceful woman, and Mr. Cinders is a menial. The show captures the last frantic gasps of the roaring twenties before the gloom of the Great Depression settled in.

This was the first of many visits of this musical to Southampton.

Footage from the original West End production


On the stage – for six days – COVENT GARDEN ENGLISH OPERA COMPANY – was formed in September 1929, with John Barbirolli as its musical director, and continued under that name until 1938. Not the forerunner of what became Royal Opera, but a touring company, which under the leadership of Sir Thomas Beecham played a short season each year at the Royal Opera House, which at this time was home to drama, pantomime and even revue. It was effectively a renaming of the British National Opera Company which had employed most of the leading British and British-based singers and conductors of that time. The company had been short of money throughout its existence, and the resumption of international opera seasons at Covent Garden deprived the BNOC of its lucrative London seasons which had in the first years subsidised its provincial tours. The company ceased to exist in 1929 following a tax demand for £17,000 which forced it to go into voluntary liquidation.

The Company brought a strong and varied programme to the Southampton Empire. Opening on the Monday with TURANDOT which was performed again for the Saturday matinee; whilst on Tuesday they performed LA BOHEME. On Wednesday there was a matinee of CAVALLERA RUSTICANA and an evening performance of TOSCA: followed on Thursday by MASTERSINGERS and then on Friday BARBER OF SEVILLE, ending the week on Saturday evening with MADAME BUTTERFLY.

A recording from Madame Butterfly by Emmy Destinn


On the stage – for six days – THE SHOWS THE THING – Its extended stay in London had been a change of heart for Archie Pitt who had resisted past offers of open-ended London bookings. However, his wife’s career had now reached the point where it was impossible for him to ignore her success and her right to play London. The show opened for a successful run at the Victoria Palace, having changed their twice a night variety policy to showcase ‘our Gracie’ in a ‘musical production’ but had to move out for the next variety show to move in. “The Show’s the Thing” then transferred to the Lyceum Theatre, opening the 19th August 1929. In November the posters outside the theatre and the newspaper listings announced ‘Last Weeks – Ending November 23’, indicating the show was coming to an end. This was not the case for it was transferring to yet another venue. Mr and Mrs Archie Pitt went to court to get the announcement altered and to have the transfer theatre mentioned. When they had moved to the Lyceum Theatre they knew there was a pantomime booked for December and that they would have to either close or find another theatre. The Lyceum’s management offered them the Princes but not at such favourable terms as offered by the Winter Gardens which was taken. The outcome was a change in the notice to ‘Last Weeks at the Lyceum Theatre’; they were unable to make them advertise the rival before transferring to the Winter Garden Theatre, Drury Lane.

At the Winter Gardens the show remained essentially as it had throughout its run. The only cast change was Carleton Hobbs replacing Edward Chapman. It stayed at this, its last London home, until the middle of February.

A second company had already gone on the road in December with an initial date in Newport on Boxing Day; that company starred Polly Meadows in the Gracie Fields role. However, on the 3rd March 1930 “The Shows The Thing” returned directly from the Winter Gardens to Southampton’s Empire with Gracie leading the company for its third visit to the City.

For Gracie Fields there was a change in her career. She went into variety, playing the Victoria Palace and the Palladium in 1930. She also made her New York debut in September of that year at the Palace where she played for two weeks to excellent notices; but for Christmas, Gracie Fields returned to the Southampton Empire starring in an eight day run of “This Week Of Grace” which would open on December 26th.

Gracie Fields singing in 1930

10th March – TRAFFIC

On the stage – for six days – TRAFFIC – Dennis Neilson-Terry’s second visit marked the World Premiere at the Empire of Noel Scott’s “Traffic” ahead of a London run at the Lyceum Theatre, where it ran for 117 performances. Dennis Neilson-Terry’s co-star in this play was his wife 35 year old Mary Glynne. She started her career in 1908 when she made her first West End appearance which led to many West End successes; she toured the provinces and, later, South Africa. The play was a detective thriller involving the traffic in white slaves.

View a profile of Dennis Neilson-Terry

17th March – RIO RITA

On the stage – for TWO weeks – RIO RITA – had been a big hit on Broadway, presented by Florenz Ziefeld in February 1927 and running for 494 performances, it was reckoned to be one of the last, great, ‘light musical comedies’ or ‘Follies-based’ type of musical. It opened for this two week run at the Southampton Empire ahead of its London premiere as the opening attraction at London’s newest theatre, the Prince Edward. The star of the show was Broadway actress Edith Day, who had become the first lady of West End musicals, starring in such successes as Rose-Marie, The Desert Song and Show Boat. Her co-stars were Billy Merson an English music hall performer and songwriter. Songs he wrote include “The Photo of the Girl I Left Behind”, “Desdemona” and (possibly his best known) “The Spaniard That Blighted My Life”, which also became one of Al Jolson’s first hits. He went on to become chairman of the music hall at the Players Theatre in London.

Unfortunately “Rio Rita” failed to take off with London audiences. The writer Edgar Wallace had been called in during the Southampton run and asked to do some re-writing to help save the show, but in London it came off after just 59 performances. A film version had been made in 1929 with Bebe Daniels and John Boles, and this film had been shown in London six months before the stage version opened. There was a great deal of argument about whether the film had killed the theatre business, and whether films should be shown before any planned stage production. However, since the film itself had been a flop, the arguments faded and as the show had been a hit with the Southampton public it would return in September for a further week before it kicked of its British tour.

Excerpts from the show

31st March – NEW MOON

On the stage – for six days – NEW MOON – starred Eileen Moody, who often performed with The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company and Sidney Pointer an actor that specialised in ‘operetta’ type roles. The show was on a tour following its premiere run at The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Set in New Orleans in 1792, this is the story of Robert Mission, a French nobleman who, threatened with arrest in his native France, has fled to America and is working in disguise as a bondsman. He is captured and shipped back to France on the “New Moon”, whose passenger list includes his beloved, Marianne Beaunoir. Robert’s loyal followers take over the ship and rescue their hero, who takes Marianne with him and establishes a colony of freemen on the Isle of Pines. A year later the Revolution in France has overthrown the monarchy, and Robert is exonerated and appointed Governor of the Island.

This was another musical piece composed by Sigmund Romberg with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, who also co-wrote the book Frank Mandel & Lawrence Schwab. The score included songs such as ‘Lover Come Back to Me’ and ‘Stout-hearted Men’. The original Broadway production opened in September 1928 after a troubled gestation period involving an abandoned tour, a new book, new songs, and several cast changes. It finally won through and ran for 509 performances. It was not so lucky in London. Although it was the fourth successive Hammerstein musical to play Drury Lane, it turned out to be the least successful, and managed just a four month run.

Announcing the end of the run, Sir Alfred Butt issued the following statement to the Press: ‘The New Moon is playing to £4,000 a week, but those receipts do not justify its continuance in the bill. The chief outgoings are as follows: Artists’ salaries £1,587; authors’ and composers’ fees £543; orchestra £279; stage staff £231; lighting and warming £183; advertising £330; house staff £199; upkeep of wardrobe £131. The important item of rent and other charges is not included. There is also the production outlay to be taken into account. The policy of the big musical play – especially from America with authors and composers taking more than one-eighth of the total receipts – is a very hazardous one’.

Two tunes recorded to coincide with the London opening
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