Albert Ernest Pickard
BILL CROUCH has been researching a man who played a pivotal role in the career of Stan Laurel
Albert Ernest Pickard was Yorkshire born, but was often referred to as a Glaswegian because he spent the biggest part of his life in Glasgow. He moved to Glasgow in 1904 and continued to live here until his death, aged 90 on 30th October 1964. The cause of death was recorded as carbon monoxide poisoning.
In early 1906 Pickard acquired the aged Britannia Music Hall in the Trongate, Glasgow. After much building work it re-opened on Monday the 9th July 1906 to great acclaim.
Pickard combined it with his adjacent American museum and waxworks. The waxworks were formerly Fell’s Waxworks, which Pickard had purchased when owner Cornelius Coupe Fell retired in 1904. Fell’s Waxworks had been an established venue in the Trongate since 1866.
The new joint venture Pickard named as the Britannia Theatre of Varieties and Grand Panopticon or Pickard’s Pleasure Palace.
Newspaper articles collected by Pickard gave an insight into the new enterprise.
The Theatrical trade paper The ERA (14/07/1906) reported on the opening:
Since the days when the Britannia Theatre of Varieties in the Trongate, Glasgow, had only one rival in Glasgow, it has passed through many vicissitudes. A few months ago Mr A. E. Pickard took it over, and in the interval he has converted it into a unique place of entertainment, which opened on Monday.
The interior of the old music hall has been entirely reconstructed, and equipped for the most part with novelties of a most varied description. There are statues and paintings of celebrities, mechanical working models and automatic machines, distorting mirrors, electric shooting saloon, and several tableaux representing human sacrifices in Dahomey.
In the entertainment hall, which can accommodate about 500 persons, enjoyable turns are given this week by Miss Kate Gourlay, Little Victoria Connor, and the Bioscope. Music is provided by the Japanese Ladies orchestra.
There are no fewer than six performances.
The Times gave more information:
The Britannia Panopticon
The old-established place of entertainment in Trongate has been resuscitated, and is now known as the Britannia Theatre of Varieties and Grand Panopticon, or Pickard’s Pleasure Palace.
It is open all day and has numerous attractions, including realistic scenes in waxwork and diverse busts, figures, paintings, mechanical devices, punching balls, an electric rifle shooting saloon, and very amusing distorting mirrors.
Conspicuous among the decorations is an admirable series of transparencies representing British Kings and Queens, artistically painted by Professor Herkomer and his pupils. Six times daily - thrice in the afternoon and thrice in the evening - there are variety performances in the theatre, and bioscopic views are shown. The drop curtain has a realistic picture of the last exhibition at Kelvingrove, and the orchestra consists of a quartet of young ladies in Japanese costume.
Throughout the building the Corporation Gas Department (under superintendent Wilson) have fitted up their effective system of incandescent lighting, including 30 of the 400-candle power lamps which have given so much satisfaction in the City Chambers - seven of which brilliantly illuminate the theatre- while there are also numerous small lamps similar to those used with electricity.
The Partick Star completed the picture:
The new pleasure palace is under the proprietorship of Mr Pickard, who has been connected with the providing of amusements in all parts of the kingdom for many years past. A genial and enterprising caterer, Mr Pickard has worked wonders with his latest venture, and so perfect is it in every detail that its success is assured. He has an able and energetic manager in Mr Mitchell.
The entertainment hall, with its pit, stalls and gallery, has all been redecorated and upholstered in the latest style. The admission to this splendid exhibition is only twopence, a price within the reach of all. Many new exits and entrances have been made, and altogether the show is one of the most entertaining and compact present in the city.
A.E. Pickard "Unlimited"
In 1906, under Pickard the old Britannia Music Hall had been completely transformed and was now able to compete for business against rival establishments, whether it was permanent concerns like Crouch’s Wonderland, at 137 Argyle Street, owned by London showman Herbert Crouch, who also had his residence on the property, or the cheaper to operate visiting seasonal shows in the fairground spaces nearby.
This would be the area of Glasgow familiar to a teenage Arthur Stanley Jefferson in the years 1905-1907 when his father Arthur, was managing director of the nearby Metropole Theatre in Stockwell Street, and when Stan appeared at Pickard’s Panopticon at a Friday night ‘Amateur Try-Out.’
Newspapers were the regular source for advertising shows and events and no one would go on to use their power in promoting themselves as effectively as Pickard. Along with regular acts he reintroduced Hubner’s successful Amateur Nights. (South African Arthur Hubner was a showman, stage illusionist and early film pioneer who had acquired the lease of the Britannia In 1897.)
Pickard constantly advertised for new acts. Clog dancing was popular and competitive, and in December 1906 Pickard arranged an amateur competition for the championship of Scotland.
Pickard held his first Carnival in the Panopticon at the end of December 1906, and doors were open each day at 6am.
It proved to be a great success with 17,358 visitors attending on New Year’s day alone.
During the first years of running his complex he had great success with a succession of fasting men and women.
One of the most enthusiastic and daring of fasting men, 31 year old Swiss Victor Beaute, undertook to break all fasting records and drew large crowds at the waxworks each day. However, after 39 days, the authorities intervened for health reasons, and ordered the exhibition to be stopped. Beaute stated that he would try again within 12 months and attempt a record 50 days without food.
Herbert Crouch and AE Pickard brought the strangest human beings to the public gaze in Glasgow in what was a highly competitive market. Living exhibitions and freaks were excellent box office. Pickard scanned newsprint for freaks and actively promoted and exploited them.
The Panopticon became the home of such freaks as the Bear Woman of Texas; Lucy Moore, American Fat Girl, 97 inches around the bust, 46 stone;Tom Thumb, “The World’s Greatest Living Curiosity.” There was even talk of a a leprechaun!
Crouch’s Wonderland countered with the great Brazilian Novelty, Louis, half-man, half-elephant; The Blue Man; The Hungarian Wonder, age 18, 35 stone - still growing; L’Homme, age 25, Weight 34lbs. “£500 to anyone showing similar attractions.” Together with a thousand little wax figures and side shows to amaze and interest.
In the summer of 1908 Pickard expanded his premises and installed a menagerie to compete with one of the most influential impresarios in Glasgow, Edward Henry Bostock, who had a zoo in New City Road to the west of the city centre.
The first advert for Pickard’s Noah’s Ark and Glasgow Zoo, as he named this additional attraction, stated that the entrance was from New Wynd which adjoined the Panopticon.
The Panopticon was primarily for the working classes who could not afford to indulge in more expensive pursuits and at the Panopticon they had a combination of entertainments under one roof. What set Pickard apart from his rivals was in his use of advertising and how he engaged with the public. He cleverly used his name in phrases and slogans to promote his shows; ‘Pickard Unlimited’; ‘Pickard, Ahead of the Times’; ‘The Sun Shines on Pickard, Visit his Theatres and Share his Pleasures’; ‘Dr Pickard for all trouble’s got the cure’.
He asked the public to provide catchy slogans or limericks and offered cash prizes for the best each week. Pickard always had the edge on competitors on advertising and the public responded. By 1910 Pickard had transformed the old ailing Britannia Music Hall into one of the most flourishing places of entertainment in Scotland.
The Eccentric Millionaire
After 1910 Pickard began a gradual process of switching the Panopticon over to the new medium of film shows, interspersed with live acts. The museum and zoo remained open for business. Pickard’s bizarre approach to advertising is evident in this 1914 photograph of the Trongate where his large posters say
‘Worst advertised show in the world’
and below that
‘The only freak museum in Britain’.
Gradually it became evident that film was the most effective and profitable medium. Cinemas began to take the place of the old type of amusement, and auditorium audiences began to diminish.
Pickard, because of his shrewd business sense was able to build up a circuit of theatres and cinemas .
He continued to promote himself by making gestures in the grand manner. At the opening of his Norwood Cinema in the 1930s he rushed at the entrance with a giant prop, a huge crowbar, to open the doors.
The reopening of his Seamore Cinema in 1926 was accompanied by the snappy slogan - ‘You’ll see more at the Seamore’ - indeed you would. Inside the large auditorium were a series of ceiling paintings of female nudes in various shapes and sizes!
Cinemas were being purpose built rather than adapted theatres like the Panopticon, which by 1922 was primarily a cinema but with variety acts.
The waxworks and Panopticon did not survive the depression of the 1930s. They were both victims of a change in public taste.
Pickard transferred ownership of the Panopticon to his son Peter in 1935 and by 1938 when it was no longer profitable was sold to a tailoring company, Weaver to Wearer.
Pickard made most of his wealth on land speculation, buying and demolishing decaying properties to sell the sites for development. He built up a very large portfolio of housing, commercial properties and real estate.
In 1938 The Sunday Post reported that Mr Pickard was leaving Glasgow for a time to visit America and quipped “Unlike another famous comedian, Mr Pickard does not belong to Glasgow. Nevertheless, Glasgow belongs to him, or at least as much of it, temporarily, doesn’t belong to somebody else.”
The article called him ‘Glasgow’s leg-puller‘- but everything he did was aimed at winning publicity for his ventures.
He was one of Scotland’s greatest showmen and perhaps the last of Glasgow’s great ‘characters’ who brightened the Glasgow scene for many, many years.
He died, aged 90, as a result of a fire at his home at Belhaven Terrace in the city’s West End, and his ashes were scattered in the Garden of Remembrance of the Western Necropolis.