The Story of the creation of Moss Empires and their impresarios
Our story starts on two sides of the world, in Manchester and Melbourne, and begins with the birth of Henry Edward Moss (Ted) to James and Martha Moss in 1852. James was a well-known fiddler and character singer in singing saloons in and around Manchester. James must have been very successful at what he did as he went on to become owner of Lorne Music Hall in Greenock, Scotland which enabled his young son Ted to receive a formal education in Edinburgh and Glasgow where he gained his own musical training. In 1872, when he was 20, Ted became the pianist and manager of his father’s Music Hall.
Whilst on the other side of the world, on the 20th January 1866 a little boy to be called Oswald Gray was born. The son of Oswald James Alexander Gray, an engineer and surveyor, and his wife, Adelaide, both of Irish extract; his mother Adelaide, had been a dancer in an act called The Three Hardcastle Sisters. They had two older children. Adelaide was widowed in 1869, when Oswald was three and subsequently decided to move the family to England where she settled in Liverpool and met and married John Stoll a retired sea captain, who was the owner of the Parthenon Rooms in Liverpool which he had bought in 1847. The family adopted the new name and so Oswald Gray became Oswald Stoll. John Stoll died in 1880 leaving the venue to Adelaide. With Adelaide’s drive and fourteen-year-old Oswald’s initiative The Parthenon Music Hall was born.
Adelaide was helped by young Oswald Stoll who had the job of looking after the performers back stage, which in the 1880s was no easy task. He rapidly learnt every aspect of how to manage and cajole the artists and quell their incessant tantrums. Something that stood him in good stead as he developed a career in the theatre. He compiled the programme which in those day would cost £15. As a mere youth he began harnessing the stars to his coach, for he invited them to appear at the Pantheon at Liverpool, which he was effectively managing.
Oswald was a hardnosed business man. In an original contract of employment from the Parthenon Music Hall we can see the tough conditions he put on the artistes. The contract is dated December 17th 1888 and is for six nights. At the top of the contract, and heavily underlined, appear the words that you do not appear at any other Place of Amusement in or within Five Miles of this City. This meant that the artistes could not play at several halls a night as had previously been the case. They struggled financially as they had to pay for board and lodging and travel expenses out of the one engagement. Oswald expected damages of five times the performer’s salary if they broke this clause. There is also a warning that all artistes must submit details of their act for the programme two weeks before the start of the engagement or risk the contract being cancelled or remain good at Mr Stoll’s option.
There are twelve rules on the back of the contract and from them we learn that any artiste who received from incompetency or any other cause, the entire disapproval of the audience, will be dismissed, only receiving salary for that portion of the engagement which may have been fulfilled. Hoping to shake off the old image of music halls as not quite nice, Mr Stoll insists in rule eight that every Artiste must stringently avoid introducing any obscene Song, Saying or Gesture and upon being requested to cease performing any indecorous item which may be deemed nauseous to the public taste, or opposed to respectability, must do so without demur. One wonders how the Stolls dealt with very popular performers who bent the rules. An inebriated artiste arriving for work could be dismissed or fined. In later life Oswald Stoll put up signs backstage prohibiting his employees from using coarse language.
Fire was a constant worry in places of entertainment and there are reports of many music hall fires. Mr Stoll covers this in his rules, disclaiming any responsibility in connection with artistes property and if in the event of fire the hall is closed, engagements must terminate therewith. The performers had to agree to taking the place of the preceding artiste on the programme if they did not appear, so giving a performance that was twice as long – but for the same money. Each infringement of the rules could mean a fine of ten shillings which would be deducted from the offender’s salary. This contract is for two artistes and the weekly salary is four pounds ten shillings between them so any fine would severely damage them financially. The contract is signed by both Adelaide and Oswald Stoll.
When he got a star at last – Pat Feeney, the Irish comedian – to accept the invitation, the popular favourite found he had not been billed. It seemed that there was a mistake, for Master Stoll had billed him on two small posters which he had sketched and painted himself. This was the start of his burgeoning impresario career.
In 1886 when he was 20, he and his mother channelled the profits from the Parthenon into acquiring the lease of Levino’s Museum Of Varieties in Cardiff, along with the adjoining properties, which led to a major development project culminating, in September 1889 with the opening of a new music hall on the site with a newly granted music and dancing license. Under its new name The Empire Palace Of Varieties it became an immediate success,
During this time Ted Moss had moved in 1877 to Edinburgh where he tried a number of ventures including its Gaiety Music Hall which he renamed Moss’s Theatre of Varieties. For 27 years he presented the Annual Carnival at Waverley Market. He bought a new site and opened his first Empire Palace Theatre on November, 7th 1892, designed by Frank Matcham who went on develop a close working relationship with Ted Moss. The original “Moss’ Empire” at Edinburgh was built on the site of Newsome’s Circus in Nicolson Street, which was acquired for this purpose by Mr. Moss in the spring of 1891. On opening night Nicolson Street was thronged with sightseers “gaping at the brilliantly illuminated entrance and dome . . . gazing with envious eyes at the favoured mortals who had gained admission.” To a packed auditorium when all the electric lights were put full on just before the performance “the effect was magical. The theatre, with its stately proportions and beautiful decorations, stood revealed in all its grandeur, and the audience, charmed with the brilliant spectacle, broke out into a loud and hearty cheer.”
In the same year, 1892, the Stolls had been able to acquire The Philharmonic in Cardiff, The Empire Swansea and The Empire Newport. By this time the family had relocated to South Wales and sold the lease of the Liverpool Parthenon to part fund the new projects.
At The Empire Palace of Varieties in Cardiff, business was booming, and by 1895 it was found that the building was of insufficient size to cater for its eager patrons, indeed people were being turned away from its music hall and variety shows on a regular basis. To satisfy demand he inaugurated the system of two houses a night at Cardiff from which he never looked back.
This success led to the Stolls deciding to enlarge the premises and to part finance the project and spread the risk they set up a new company in conjunction with someone that Oswald had known and had numerous business interactions, Ted Moss of the Moss and Thornton circuit, formed when Ted Moss had linked up with Newcastle theatre impresario Richard Norton. Together they set up a new Company which was formed in May 1895, called the Cardiff, Newport, and Swansea Empire Palaces Ltd.
Moss paid £48,00 for his share of the business which facilitated the transfer of title to the new company of Stoll Theatres, which in turn were joined with the portfolio of the Moss and Thornton circuit to form Moss Empires Ltd., theatre combine which was created on December 15th 1899 and floated on the Stock Exchange. Oswald Stoll was installed as Managing Director under the Chairmanship of Ted Moss. The Company amalgamated ten smaller companies, namely The Edinburgh Empire Palace Limited, The Birmingham Empire Palace Limited, The Newcastle Empire Palace Limited, The Sheffield Empire Palace Limited, The Glasgow Empire Palace Limited, The Cardiff, Newport and Swansea Empire Palaces Limited, The Liverpool, Leeds and Hull Empire Palaces Limited, The Nottingham Empire Palace Limited, The London Hippodrome Limited and The London District Empire Palaces Limited.
These companies owned music halls or variety theatres corresponding to the company names, with certain additional properties which included the Operetta House (previously known as the Gaiety Variety Theatre) Edinburgh.
The new Company rebuilt The Empire Palace Of Varieties in Cardiff reopening it as The Empire, Cardiff on 30th September 1900. Business here and across the other theatres boomed, the size and strength of the circuit which now numbered 37 variety theatres, ensured the best acts and productions were able to be booked to their premier houses.
The London Hippodrome was Moss’s first in the West End, whilst the London District Empire Palaces were the Stratford, New Cross and Holloway Empires. Other music halls taken over from the amalgamated companies included the Metropole Theatre, Glasgow; the Empire Theatre, Bradford; the Theatre Royal, Nottingham; the Panoptican, Cardiff, and the Olympia, Cardiff.
The London Hippodrome in particular has had an interesting history. It was originally designed to accommodate spectacular water carnivals, made possible by lowering the vast circular arena in front of the proscenium arch to a depth of eight feet.
The theatre was opened on January 15th, 1900, with a combined variety, circus and water spectacle entitled “Giddy Ostend,” of which is reproduced here the original Silk Programme presented to the audience on the opening night.
Oswald Stoll was determined to provide the best for his patrons and developed relationships with the cream of Britain’s architects and made it his business to keep abreast of all the latest developments in every aspect of construction and design. This determination and the strong relationship with Frank Matcham, who had become the most famous theatre designer of the day, was a winning combination. Following the architectural and commercial success achieved with Hackney Empire, the pair created what was to become their crowning achievement, the London Coliseum. Designed to be the largest and most luxurious variety theatre in every respect in Britain, even better than the largest London theatre of the time the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The Coliseum opened on the 24th of December 1904.
The Coliseum was at that time the only theatre in Europe that had lifts. It had a marble staircase and tea rooms on every tier. Oswald Stoll was a teetotaller who wanted to create entertainment for families. The seats in the Coliseum had armrests and for the first time could be booked in advance for performances. There were four performances of the variety show daily.
As well as traditional Music Hall acts, Stoll introduced musical spectaculars, ballets (including the Diaghilev Ballet), and short dramatic plays with major theatrical stars like Sarah Bernhardt. At first many theatre stars did not wish to appear in a variety bill with acrobats, jugglers and animal acts. Sarah Bernhardt cabled Oswald Stoll before signing her first contract with the message ‘Between tigers. Not’. She was implying that she would not go on stage before or after any animal acts as this would not be appropriate for a woman of her status. Some Music Hall artists never appeared at the Coliseum – including Marie Lloyd, as their acts were not deemed appropriate by Oswald Stoll.
In many ways, Stoll was an unlikely music hall manager. He spent most of his life in a little suburban house in Putney in South West London. He did not drink or smoke, and not only did he not swear, he had signs put up backstage prohibiting his employees from using any coarse language.
At the time the Moss combine had 37 variety theatres of which the flagship was London Hippodrome. The company advertised its list as follows:- London Hippodrome, Empire Glasgow, Empire Edinburgh, Empire Newcastle, Empire Leeds, Empire Bradford, Empire Sheffield, Empire Birmingham, Empire Liverpool, Empire Cardiff, Empire Swansea, Empire Newport, Empire Nottingham, Empire Ardwick, Manchester, Empire South Shields, Empire Hackney, London, Empire Holloway, London, Empire New Cross, London, Empire Stratford, London, Empire Shepherd’s Bush, London, Empire Dublin, Empire Belfast, Empire Coventry, Empire Sunderland, Palace Hull, Palace Leicester, Palace Bordesley, Palace Camberwell, Granville Walham Green, Manchester Hippodrome, Glasgow Coliseum, Olympia Liverpool, HM Theatre of Varieties Walsall, Reading Theatre, Richmond Theatre, Philharmonic Hall Cardiff, Zoo and Hippodrome Glasgow. It was regarded as the largest circuit in the world and in 1904 was the first to introduce “four shows a day” system at some of their theatres and also the first to allow advance booking of seats in a music hall.
It was the London Coliseum which eventually drove Oswald Stoll to part company with Moss and Thornton in 1910 and to go it alone as Stoll Theatres Ltd, a Company which would eventually include, along with the London Coliseum, the Manchester Hippodrome, the Middlesex in London, the Bristol Hippodrome, the Hackney Empire, the Shepherds Bush Empire, the Chiswick Empire, the Wood Green Empire, the Ardwick Green Empire, the Chatham Empire, and the Leicester Palace. Edward Moss was knighted in 1905 for his services to charity and entertainment, the first variety impresario to be honoured this way. When Sir Oswald resigned in December, 1910, Sir Edward Moss resumed the double role of Chairman and Managing Director.
King George V commanded a public Royal Variety Performance to be directed by Sir Edward and held in the Edinburgh Empire in July 1911 as part of the Coronation celebrations that year. This would be the first such production in Britain, confirming the new respectability of Music Hall.
However, having followed a successful policy of variety (and, incidentally, introduced an item then known as “The American Bioscope” into its programmes . . . the fore-runner of the Hollywood movies) for nearly twenty years, The Edinburgh Empire was to end in tragedy. On the evening of May 9th, 1911, a disastrous fire broke out backstage during the performance of the Great Lafayette, the world-famous illusionist, in which he and members of his company lost their lives. Although there was a full house, the safety curtain was lowered and the audience left the theatre in an orderly fashion. According to a member of that audience, the last words spoken in public by Lafayette were when he came to the front of the stage just before the curtain was lowered and said, “Keep cool.” This request was carried out, with the result that there were no casualties among the audience.
Instead, a Royal Variety Performance was arranged for the following year. Unfortunately, Sir Edward’s health was not good and Oswald Stoll was asked to take over, so, on the 1st of July 1912 Oswald Stoll put on the first Royal Command Performance at the Palace Theatre in London. Profits from the show were donated to the Variety Artistes’ Benevolent Fund, now known as the Entertainment Artistes’ Benevolent Fund (EABF). Since this performance over 80 more have been produced over the years, always attended by a senior member of the Royal Family, and always in aid of EABF. The show is produced in various different Theatres and always televised nowadays and has become known as the Royal Variety Performance.
King George V and Queen Mary attended. This was a lavish occasion; the theatre was decorated with 3 million roses which were draped around the auditorium and over the boxes. The performers included music hall stars Alfred Lester, Gus Elen, Dan Leno, Vesta Tilley, Vesta Victoria and the great Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova but with a few notable omissions such as Marie Lloyd (whose act was considered too risqué for the Royal party) and Albert Chevalier. In defiance Marie appeared on the same night at a nearby theatre billed as ‘By command of the British public’. Chevalier took out a page in The Era newspaper explaining the unfairness of his omission and why he should have been included.
The Royal party by all accounts enjoyed the show. The only embarrassment occurred when Queen Mary saw Vesta Tilley appear on stage in trousers. Apparently she buried her face in her programme. Women were never seen in trousers until the First World War and it would have been considered most immodest in 1912.
Sir Edward’s health deteriorated and he died on 25 November 1912 at his mansion and estate of Middleton Hall, Gorebridge, near Edinburgh, and he was buried in Portobello Cemetery in eastern Edinburgh, close to the cemetery entrance. On the death of Sir Edward Moss, William Houlding became Chairman, which office he held until his death in January, 1930. Under his chairmanship Frank Allen was Managing Director from December, 1912 to December, 1919, when he was succeeded by R. H. Gillespie.
In 1919 Oswald Stoll was Knighted and a Complementary Dinner was organised for him by Viscount Barnham at the Savoy Hotel in London where many of the luminaries of Theatre and Government were in attendance. The Stage Newspaper reported on the event in their June the 19th 1919 edition saying: –
Sir Oswald Stoll had every right and reason to feel a proud and happy man at the Complimentary Dinner given to him at the Savoy Hotel on Sunday evening in celebration of the knighthood recently conferred upon him. It was in every respect a memorable occasion; a well-deserved tribute to a man who has done so much to improve the tone and advance the interests of the modern variety theatre. I see that in the reference books he puts down “variety theatres” as his recreation. If they are his recreation, he only shows what we know – that he has the great gift of combining business with pleasure.
Sir Oswald Stoll was not just a Theatre owner and Manager but was involved in Film Production too. In April 1918 he bought a small studio in Surbiton and in 1920 he purchased a former Airplane Factory in Cricklewood which he converted into a production facility called the Stoll Studios in Cricklewood, which would be in production until 1938.
Stoll was also a philanthropist, in 1916 he had provided the land for what the War Seal Foundation, today known as the ‘Sir Oswald Stoll Foundation’ in Fulham, which was a charity set up to provide housing for disabled soldiers from the first world war. This is something he believed in passionately and the charity continues today.