Pivotal Moments in Glasgow
and the significance of
By BILL CROUCH
An article in the London published theatrical journal the ERA, dated 4th May 1907 and a similar one in the Glasgow Programme, (which was known as a handy and complete record for visitors and residents of popular amusements and coming events) caught my attention.
The articles were a tribute to Cornelius Coupe Fell, owner of Fell’s Waxworks at 101 Trongate, Glasgow who had recently died. The waxworks had been an established venue in Glasgow’s historic Trongate, east of Argyle Street since 1866.
Fell’s premises had been bought by Yorkshireman Albert Ernest Pickard when Fell retired in 1904 and was Pickard’s first venture in Glasgow. Before moving to Glasgow he had successfully operated amusement arcades in London. Two years later Pickard acquired the ailing Britannia Music Hall a few yards away, and after much internal and external alteration it reopened on the 9th July 1906 with much enthusiasm from the press and public. As well as new amusements and entertainment on offer, Pickard retained Hubner’s Friday amateur try-out nights.
The Britannia had passed to the South African showman, stage illusionist and early film pioneer Arthur Hubner in 1897 and it was Hubner, as lessee and manager, who first advertised these amateur nights as an adjunct to main stage entertainers.
A young Harry Lauder, who went on to achieve international fame and success topped the bill on the main stage at the Britannia under Hubner’s new management in 1897.
Ten years later, a teenage Arthur Stanley Jefferson (Laurel) appeared at one of Pickard’s Friday amateur nights as a solo stand-up comic.
Stan Laurel and AE Pickard, 1932
Many years later, in 1932 Stan, during a weekend visit to Glasgow with Oliver Hardy remembered: “My dad had the Metropole in the old days and he allowed me to go on occasionally as a newsboy or other small character.
I used to slip along to the Panopticon when those try out nights were on. Mr Pickard was the man who really gave me my chance on the stage and I’ll never forget him for that.”
On a return visit to Glasgow in 1947 Stan re-called “When we were here before we didn’t have time to see all we wanted. This time I want to visit my sister-in-law who lives in Glasgow and to look at some old haunts. I’m certainly going to try to see the Metropole where I took gallery takings as a youngster when my father was manager.”
A few days later on a visit to the Metropole Theatre Stan re-called that it was standing close to the stage footlights that he made up his mind to go on the stage.
“I collected gags for weeks and worked up a red-nosed comic act. I cut down my dad’s second best suit and went along to the Panopticon. I got a chance to appear on the following Friday.
I told my father I felt sick in the afternoon and he sent me home. Absolutely terrified I went on stage at a Panopticon Friday amateur night and nearly collapsed when I saw the manager Mr Pickard and dad standing together at the back. Somehow I went through with it and nobody was more surprised than I when the audience liked me. Most of the time I was genuinely on the verge of tears thinking of the hammering I was in for when I got home. Maybe that’s what made me seem funny.
Instead, however, my dad was quite pleased and helped me touch up my patter and got me a job with the Levy and Cardwell company. The star of the company when I joined was Wee Georgie Wood.”
The contract with the Levy and Cardwell Juvenile Pantomime company was signed on 1st July 1907 and soon after Stan left Scotland for a stage career, and later in America a new name.
John McCabe’s 1961 book ‘Mr Laurel & Mr Hardy’ offers the premise that Stan’s debut did not take place on the main stage of the Britannia but in an annexe. It draws on Stan’s own memories of that night, and in reference to the auditorium states that it was “a room of minuscule proportions boasting a tiny stage at one end, where there were no seats, and a small three piece ladies orchestra, where the patrons stood and watched.” This scenario has credence as the entertainment hall, with its pit, stalls and gallery had seating for 500 patrons and a resident review company appearing nightly.
The nexus between flamboyant showmen, Hubner and Pickard, who had managed the Britannia Music Hall in the Trongate with vision and innovation, in what had become a less desirable part of Glasgow, and the chance encounter at that venue in the early 1900s between a theatre manager father and teenage son one Friday, prepared the way for the early career path of Stan Laurel.
But, unlike Stan, who went on to achieve world fame, Pickard who gave Stan his first solo chance on stage, remained in Glasgow for the rest of his life and became one of Scotland’s greatest showmen and perhaps the last of Glasgow’s great ‘characters’ whose idiosyncratic behaviour brightened the Glasgow scene for many, many years until his death, aged 90, on 30th October 1964.