Danny Kaye, Glasgow, 1949

18 Jan

Danny Kaye 1949No movie star enjoyed a welcome quite like the one accorded to Danny Kaye on his first visit to Glasgow, when he came to perform at the Empire Theatre June 1949. A record crowd of 10,000 people turned out to greet the flame-haired 36-year-old who was accompanied on his passage through Central Station by pipers while police stood shoulder-to-shoulder in front of crash barriers in an attempt to keep screaming teenage girls from rushing at the lanky star as he blew kisses to them and addressed them through a microphone.

No sooner was he safely inside the Central Hotel than Kaye climbed out on to a ledge on the second floor. He entertained the thousands packed into Hope Street with a little jig before sitting down, legs dangling over the side of the ledge, to thank them for their warm welcome. He then ran through to a back window, and repeated the performance for the benefit of the fans inside the station, telling them: “This is something I’ll never forget. If your golf courses are as easy as ours, I’ll move here for good.”

Kaye, it turned out, was golf-mad. Just hours before his sensational opening night at the Empire, he squeezed in a round at Douglas Park Golf Club in Bearsden, and the next day he visited John Letters where he was reported to have “come close to crooning a lullaby” to the driver of the new set of clubs he was buying. Three days later, he had the chance to give them a test run at Gleneagles.

Kaye interrupted that particular round, however, to read the now-historic report of the Californian State Un-American Activities Committee, quoted by Reuters, which named him as a communist sympathiser. “It sounds like a lot of hooey to me,” he commented.

But before going onstage that evening, he told a Bulletin reporter: “I’m very disturbed by the report. The whole thing is ridiculous. It’s getting so that everybody who voted for Roosevelt is a communist.”

Text (c) Alison Kerr

Photo (c) Herald and Times Group. To order a copy of this photo from The Herald’s photo sales website, click here.

Sinatra in Scotland: 1990, The Second Time Around

10 Jul

This post was written and first published in July 2010

Alison Kerr's Jazz Blog

Twenty years ago, my hometown of Glasgow celebrated being named a European City of Culture. One of the most eagerly anticipated events in the city’s cultural calendar that memorable year was a concert by the man who was arguably the greatest singer of the 20th century – Frank Sinatra. From the beginning of Glasgow’s year as a City of Culture, a visit by Ol’ Blue Eyes had been dangled tantalisingly before Glaswegians. And when it finally happened, on July 10, 1990, it proved to be a night to remember.

Scots jazz singer Carol Kidd and her London-based trio had been asked to be the support band after Sinatra’s “people” came to a concert and asked for all her CDs to be sent to the man himself. Kidd and her pianist, fellow Glaswegian David Newton, were in Ibrox throughout the day.

“We turned up quite early,” says Newton, “and watched the…

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Louis Armstrong, Glasgow, 1956

4 Jul
Louis Armstrong, Kelvin Hall

Louis Armstrong at the Kelvin Hall, Glasgow, May 15 1956 © Herald & Times Group

By 1956, when Louis Armstrong made the first of his two post-war visits to Glasgow, he was no longer merely known to jazz fans the world over as the singlemost important figure in the evolution of the music. About to be seen in the all-star Hollywood musical High Society, he was also a household name – an entertainer and movie personality known universally as “Satchmo”.

Armstrong’s return to Glasgow, 22 years after his previous visit, was long overdue – so it’s little wonder there was a great deal of excitement about his back-to-back Kelvin Hall shows in the local press. The build-up started days before his arrival, with the Scottish Daily Express publishing “Satchmo’s Column”, a daily diary – clearly ghostwritten – chronicling his tour of Britain.

Nobody could have been more excited than the Clyde Valley Stompers, the trad band which was invited to appear on the bill alongside Armstrong and his All Stars. Four days before the show, the Evening Citizen published a telegram which the band had received:

“Old Pops is happy to hear that you are working on the bill with my All Stars when we play at the Kelvin Hall on May 15. We have got a wonderful show and my boys are playing greater than ever and I know from your reputation that your boys will help us to give the local cats a good evening’s music they will never forget. Regards, Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong.”

Certainly, no-one who was at the show could ever forget it. Even before Armstrong had set foot on the revolving stage, there was the spectacle of the one-legged acrobatic dancer Peg Leg Bates to file away under “unforgettable”. The Bulletin reported that once the All Stars’ set was underway, “the music was alive and the bubbling energy of Louis infectious”.

Fans had had to wait an hour for their hero, who didn’t come onstage until the second half. It was reported in the Daily Record the next day that he had been giving an impromptu trumpet lesson to eight-year-old Fraser Watson, whom he had spotted clutching his new trumpet amidst the throng of screaming teenagers at the stage door.

When Armstrong did come on, he played for a solid 60 minutes. The only dampener on proceedings was the sight of rows of empty seats near the front – only the less pricey seats had sold out.

Between his two shows, Armstrong feasted on a fish supper brought to his dressing room by the Glasgow-born jazz singer turned Broadway star Ella Logan who was also on the bill. Mamie Crichton of the Evening News was horrified by the choice of food on a triumphant occasion which called for “chicken and champagne”. She described Armstrong eating his fish, with his shirt hanging out, “jacket off, horn-rim spectacles on, a handkerchief tied round his head and his wide, battered lips smeared thickly with his own special lip-salve.”

Don Whyte of the Scottish Daily Express quoted Armstrong’s opinion of his carry-out. “Man, ah couldn’t have done this a while ago with my old stomach trouble. But now ah’ll have blown this lot down after five minutes with my horn.” Armstrong was famous for sharing his favourite laxative, Swiss Kriss, with new friends, but he doesn’t seem to have done this in Glasgow. Instead, Mamie Crichton and the others present backstage were offered diet charts which Armstrong fished out of a huge grip bag and “insisted on autographing for each of us”.

Telling them that he’d lost 15lbs in a year, he said: “You can eat anything you like on this diet, but the secret is – never eat late at night. You take a spoonful of this [he reached into the grip for a jar of white powder] ten minutes after meals, and some of this [in again for a herb mixture] just before you go to bed.”

While fans swarmed outside his police-guarded dressing room, Armstrong also played host to a tailor. Satchmo, you see, had decided that he wanted to be fitted for a kilt – in the Armstrong tartan, of course. In his column in the Express, he explained that his name probably derived from one of Scottish “boss men on the plantations” in the Deep South during the days of slavery. “They knew how to make all the cats toe the line,” he added.Louis Armstrong with bagpipes

As he was measured by the envoy from Lawries the kiltmakers for the full Highland monty (kilt, shoes, jacket, stockings,  balmoral etc), Armstrong told The Bulletin that he planned to wear it on Ed Sullivan’s TV show back in New York – and that his singer, Velma Middleton (all 350lbs of her) would be getting a kilt too. While reporters took notes and local celebrities – including Jimmy Logan, Ella’s nephew – looked on, Armstrong was busy trying to get his vital statistics from his wife, Lucille. Their conversation was reported in the Express:

” ‘Lucille,’ he asked his dark-skinned fourth wife. ‘What size of shoes do I take?’
‘Nine and a half, my man,’ says Lucille.
‘Hey sugar-brown, what size of hat do I wear?’ asks Satchmo.
‘I dunno. You never wears a hat,’ replies Lucille.”

Perhaps Mr and Mrs Armstrong should have consulted Satchmo’s valet, Doc Pugh, who was in charge of the non-Highland part of his master’s wardrobe. Asked by the Express – for the article MacSatchmo Gets Measured for a Kilt – why Armstrong was wearing a blue suit while the rest of his band was in black, Doc Pugh explained that it was because he only had one black suit. “It’s black mohair – and he’s keeping it off because it’s too warm.”

In fact, it was so warm that, upon arrival in Glasgow, Doc Pugh bought 50 white handkerchiefs (at £5, 5s) to pile up on the piano so that Armstrong would always have one handy to mop his sweaty brow during his shows. Glaswegians who had seen him during his earlier visits, in 1932 and 1933, had been appalled by the amount of sweat to pour out of the trumpeter. One newspaper headline had read: “The World’s Hottest Trumpeter Perspires at the Empire”.

Judging by the reviews, Armstrong needed his hanky supply in 1956. The Citizen said: “He never stopped blowing magic out of dat ol’ horn, hopping about, whooping up the solo bits of his colleagues singing solo or duet with the vast Velma Middleton from a throat that must be a landslide of whole rocks down there to produce that sound. The Daily Record reported that Armstrong got “the Kelvin Hall ROAR”, and that “even a three-quarter’s empty first house didn’t put him off his stride.”

Two days after Armstrong’s triumphant return to Glasgow, the papers were still carrying stories about it. The Evening News revealed that just before the concert, Armstrong had lost his mute and an SOS had to be put out to the London makers of his trumpet. A mute was rushed to Euston Station, put on a fast train to Glasgow and met there by Jimmy McCormack, of the well-known city centre music shop McCormack’s. He jumped in a taxi with it and delivered it to Armstrong in time for the first house….

Sinatra in Scotland: The First Time Around

21 May

Sinatra at Carnoustie, Dundee Courier, July 10He came, he crooned, he conquered. Not once, but twice. Frank Sinatra, whose centenary is being celebrated this year, didn’t just come to Scotland for that iconic Ibrox Stadium concert in 1990; he had already visited the country almost 40 years earlier – when he performed in Glasgow, Ayr and Dundee.

Whereas it was a living legend who held the Ibrox audience in his sway during the 1990 concert, the Sinatra who took to several Scottish stages in 1953 was at something of a low ebb in his career. The terrific popularity he had enjoyed during the 1940s when he was the gangly pin-up of the “bobby-soxers” had waned and his record sales had fallen off; his movie career was no longer anything to write home about and his scandalous affair with Ava Gardner, whom he divorced the mother of his children to marry, had dented his image and alienated many fans.

When Sinatra arrived in Scotland in July 1953, nobody could have anticipated that he was on the brink of the chapter during which his legend would be written. Indeed, 1953 would prove – ultimately – to be a very good year, career-wise, for the future Ol’ Blue Eyes. He arrived here having just joined Capitol Records, where he would go on to record the albums and hits which guaranteed him eternal mega-stardom, and having just filmed From Here to Eternity, the movie which would resurrect his film career, establish his serious acting abilities and earn him an Oscar.

Instead of being greeted by the thousands who had turned out to welcome such Evening Times listing for Sinatra, July 1953previous Empire Theatre headliners as Laurel & Hardy, Danny Kaye and Dorothy Lamour, Sinatra ran the gauntlet of just a small crowd of fans upon his arrival in Glasgow’s city centre just after noon on Monday July 6 1953. Who knows how different it might have been had he arrived by train into Central Station on the Sunday – as was the custom of most stars beginning a two-shows-a-night run at the Empire Theatre on the Monday? Certainly the absence of the scenes of near hysteria which had greeted previous visiting stars added to the impression that Sinatra was a has-been.

The truth is: Sinatra had been unable get to Glasgow sooner as he had been performing at the London Palladium the night before – so he flew up on the day of his first show, leaving Mrs Sinatra filming the MGM costume drama The Knights of the Round Table in the capital. By this point, two years into their ill-fated marriage, the cracks were already beginning to show – and, just three months later they announced their separation.

The subject of Ava Gardner doesn’t appear to have been up for discussion during a relaxed press reception in the lobby of the Central Hotel almost immediately upon Sinatra’s checking-in. Coming over as extremely affable andSinatra in Ayr ad, ET, July 1953 unaffected, the 39-year-old, who was referred to as “The Voice” and “Swoonatra” in the papers, lit his pipe and discussed his love of golf (his handicap was 24) and his plan to support Ben Hogan at the Open Golf Championship which was underway at Carnoustie. (He watched the fourth morning’s play later that week before returning to Glasgow for his early evening performance.)

He raved about some of the BBC television drama he had watched during his British visit thus far – and revealed that he was keen to produce or direct TV shows and movies. And in what now, with the benefit of the hindsight that this was the singer later regarded as the greatest of the 20th Century, sounds like a bombshell, Sinatra told the Evening Times that the “future of Frank”, as he saw it at that point, meant less and less singing and more and more light comedy.

Indeed, that night, in front of a packed first house at the Empire, the star – whose looks were described as “lean and Sinatra arrival, ET, July 6hungry” – revealed his comedy skills. He wisecracked about everyone from Ben Hogan to – intriguingly – Willie Waddell, the Rangers and Scotland footballer, whose inclusion in the act was probably a first-night exercise in Sinatra testing the waters about which subjects went down well in Glasgow.

The crowd howled with laughter in response to his “Old Man [Bing] Crosby” parody of Old Man River and his ad-libbing skills. Having sung the All of Me line “Take my arms”, he paused, and asked increduously: “Arms?!”

Of course it was his singing which drew squeals, yelps, whistles and roars from the full house. He brought gasps from the women in the audience with his prolonged notes, and the last few bars of every number were drowned in applause. And it wasn’t only the women who were dazzled by “The Voice”. Hugh Napier of Helensburgh recalls “the magic” of Sinatra at the Empire. He says: “We knew we were experiencing greatness. It was wonderful. His phrasing was immaculate and the way he put over the number in sympathy with the words was spell-binding.”

Concentrating on songs from earlier in his career (“There have been no songs written in the past six months which are conducive to me,” he explained), Sinatra sang for an hour, accompanied onstage by his pianist Bill Miller, and with Billy Ternent’s Orchestra in the pit. Among the numbers were a show-stopping version of Old Man River, September Song, Nancy With the Laughing Face, Birth of the Blues and Embraceable You.

And, taking a page out of Danny Kaye’s book, he endeared himself to the crowd by taking a tea-break, just behind the footlights. “It gives me a rest,” the down-to-earth crooner explained.

Indeed, being down-to-earth was one of the most striking characteristics of the Frank Sinatra who came to Glasgow that summer. So unaffected was he that he didn’t wear any stage make-up and strolled onstage wearing the suit he had left his hotel room in.

Writing in 1990 about his 1953 encounters with Sinatra, the Glasgow Herald’s entertainments editor Andy Young said: “He never used his dressing room at all at the Empire. The same towel hung unused all week. A limo would drop him at the theatre a few minutes before each show. He would walk straight in off the street onto the stage, without a sign of the screaming, hysterical, fainting bobby-soxers who had mobbed him everywhere he went” just a few years before.

The 1953 Sinatra was also extremely approachable; he even did the approaching in one notable instance cited by Andy Young. “One night I was standing at the Empire stage door when a woman, unused to the theatre, was trying to buy tickets there. Suddenly, this quiet, friendly American voice came from over her shoulder. ‘I’ll show where to get them,Sinatra at Caird Hall advert ma’m.’ Yes, it was Sinatra and he took her out onto the pavement in West Nile Street and directed her round the corner to Sauchiehall Street, where the box-office was located.”

It wasn’t full houses throughout the week, unfortunately, and the audience numbers worsened dramatically when Sinatra gave concerts (as opposed to appearing as the headliner on a variety bill as he had done at the Empire) in Ayr and Dundee for Glasgow impresario Chalmers Wood. At Green’s Playhouse in Ayr on Sunday 12, the 3pm show only attracted 500 audience members, but the 3000-seater hall looked to be well-filled in the evening. At Dundee’s cavernous Caird Hall, on Monday 13, it was a similar story, with 586 seats – out of over 3000 – taken in the first house, and 1200 in the second.

At the Caird Hall – where the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and Kurt Elling bring their Sinatra celebration this month –  he made a virtue of the compact size of the audience which was scattered throughout the stalls and gallery during the first show, and invited punters to move down to the expensive seats. “Don’t worry about the fellow who runs this place,” he said. Let’s be one big, happy family.” And once the musical chairs round was over, he added: “There now, that’s cosier.”

Stories of Sinatra being pelted with coins during his Scottish tour are as fanciful as the urban myth that Ava Gardner

Sinatra signed the Caird Hall visitors' book on the 1933 page!

Sinatra signed the Caird Hall visitors’ book on the 1933 page!

was waiting for him in his Dundee hotel after the Caird Hall concert. (In fact, he was driven back to Glasgow from where he flew to London the next morning.) Audiences gave him warm welcomes, and he sang their praises afterwards – though who knows what was said in private?

The only public indication he gave of disappointment in audience numbers was his cutting short the afternoon show in Ayr. A letter to the Dundee Courier a few days after his Dundee debacle sheds some light on why the concerts weren’t better attended.

“Whoever arranged Frank Sinatra’s concert must have been optimistic regarding his fans’ finances,” wrote Catriona of Dundee. “Teenagers form the largest part of his following, with the result that they just couldn’t afford the Caird Hall prices. A popular all-over price would have filled the hall easily with young people.”

Of course, ticket sales wouldn’t have been an issue had he returned to Scotland at any point in the four decades before he finally did .. But maybe there just wasn’t a golf tournament he wanted to attend …

* Sinatra’s centenary is being celebrated in Scotland throughout the summer, starting with a  tour by Kurt Elling and the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (www.snjo.co.uk) from May 21; Frank Sinatra Jr plays the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on June 28; Todd Gordon/Sinatra:100 Years is at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh from August 6-30 (www.edfringe.com), and the BBC Big Band Sinatra Centenary Concert (with Curtis Stigers, Jacqui Dankworth & Todd Gordon) at the Festival Theatre on July 17 as part of the Edinburgh Jazz Festival.

* First published in The Herald on Saturday, May 9th

Laurel & Hardy in Edinburgh, 1932

20 Mar

This delightful newsreel has just come to our attention and we had to share it. In scenes which seem to mirror those at Glasgow’s Central Station (but without the casualties – as far as we know), Stan and Ollie are seen arriving in the capital’s Waverley Station, visiting Edinburgh Castle, onstage at the Playhouse and indulging in some classic L&H “business”.

Silent Stars in Scotland

12 Feb
Anna_Mae_Wong,_Aberdeen

Anna May Wong, Tivoli Theatre, Aberdeen in October 1933 (c) Herald and Times Group

Stars in Scotland is back with a new exhibition for the 2015 Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema, in Bo’ness, near Falkirk. Silent Stars in Scotland comprises photos – from The Herald’s photo archive – of some of the biggest stars of the silent era.

The advent of talkies hit Hollywood like an earthquake. So said sultry silent star Pola Negri in a Scottish newspaper in 1931 – and she certainly knew what she was talking about. One of the biggest screen stars of her day, she was now treading the boards on the British variety circuit – paving the way, it turned out, for her fellow “silent” players who would follow her to Scotland’s theatres.

During the 1930s, stars who had only existed on celluloid for movie fans here in Scotland materialised on their very door steps – with voices. In a five-year period, Lillian Gish, Pola Negri and Anna May Wong could all be seen in the flesh in Scotland’s theatres – and photographers from the Glasgow Herald’s sister newspapers, the Evening Times and The Bulletin, were there to record their visits.

Some stars tried to make a gradual transition into talkies but many had to rethink their careers – and in numerous cases this meant returning to the stage or taking to it for the first time, either to keep themselves in the public consciousness while they pondered their next move, or to try to make a living while their name and celebrity still had currency.

Silent Stars in Scotland features photographs of silent era legends mostly taken during the years and decades following the talkies “earthquake”. The visits in the 1930s – when these stars were still big news – were well-documented, but by the late 1940s and early 1950s, even a silent era giant like “The Great Stone Face”, Buster Keaton himself, couldn’t excite a picture editor…

The exhibition runs in the Forth Valley Royal Hospital from February 17 – March 15, at Bo’ness Library from March 19 – April 14, then tours community venues in the Falkirk area.

(c) Alison Kerr

Houdini, Glasgow, 1920

28 May

HoudiniOne of the earliest international stars to be photographed during a visit to Glasgow was the legendary Harry Houdini, pictured here about to embark on his famous “Water Torture Cell” escape onstage at the Pavilion Theatre on Thursday, June 3, 1920.

The daring escapologist (or “self-liberator”, as the publicity described him) and master showman was known to audiences the world over thanks to his extensive touring and to the films he had begun making to showcase his exploits. Glasgow had played host to Houdini several times from 1904; his 1920 visit was part of his “Farewell Visit to Scotland”.

A brilliant self-publicist, Houdini had developed a unique form of advertising his shows: he would accept challenges issued by local businesses while he was in town. Among the challenges issued to the 46-year-old in 1920 was this one, published in the Evening TImes.

“SHIPWRIGHTS CHALLENGE HOUDINI

“We, the undersigned shipwrights, employees of Lithgow, Ltd, Glen Yard, Port-Glasgow, having heard that the authorities have refused permission to permit yourself to be nailed in a box which is to be weighted and thrown into the Clyde River, naturally, you not being super-human, must admit that the box is of your own construction, and we HEREBY CHALLENGE you to escape from a heavy wooden packing case which we will specially construct for the challenge.

“We will send it to the Pavilion Theatre for examination, but before you enter, we will thoroughly renail each board to prevent you having manipulated same. If you accept our challenge, it is understood you must not demolish it in your efforts to escape. If you are afraid to try this in public, will you try it privately?”

The letter was signed by five men and below it ran the statement: “Houdini accepts above challenge. Test to take place at the second performance tonight, June 2nd, 1920, under the condition that the box must not be airtight.”

Houdini escaped death for another six years – but never returned to Glasgow.

Text (c) Alison Kerr, 2012; photograph (c) Herald and Times

To order a print of this photograph from The Herald’s photo sales website, click here

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