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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.


“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


Roy Rogers & Trigger, Glasgow, 1954

13 Feb


Roy Rogers & Trigger at Central Station, Glasgow, February 14, 1954 (c) Herald & Times Group

The arrival of singing cowboy Roy Rogers and his trusty “four-legged friend”, Trigger, at Central Station on a cold Sunday in 1954 is the stuff of local legend, and a whole generation of wee boys remember the excitement of seeing their heroes in the flesh.

 Children had begun assembling outside the Central Hotel from as early as 5am, and, at around 1pm, Rogers and his cowgirl wife Dale Evans pulled up in a red sports car and entered the station where thousands had been expecting them off a train. Crush barriers and police struggled to contain the excited youngsters, many of whom were kitted out in cowboy gear. Like a Pied Piper, Rogers was followed by many of them as he made his way to the Empire Theatre – where he would be performing in a week’s worth of sold-out shows – and then back to the hotel.

The greatest excitement, however, came when Trigger arrived at around 6pm. Rogers, in his white cowboy suit and silver pointed shoes, led the world’s most famous horse round the crush barriers. To thunderous cheers, Trigger bowed for the thrilled youngsters – despite being jet-lagged after his long flight from the States earlier in the day and despite having already met 3000 members of his public at Prestwick Airport.

A seasoned celebrity, Trigger performed beautifully for the assembled cameras, “signing” in at reception (he had a pen in his mouth), prancing up the hotel’s grand staircase (two steps at a time) and trotting along the second floor corridor to “his” room, number 130. After having his mane combed, the horse star showed off a few of his 100 tricks. He bowed on one knee, nodded “yes” then “no”, yawned heartily and kissed Mrs Rogers.

Tarpaulin covered the floor of room 130 – which was otherwise appropriately decked out for Hollywood royalty, with a pile of plumped-up pillows, a gold eiderdown and a bowl of roses. After his personal appearance and photo call, Trigger left the hotel to “sign in” at another establishment – the British Rail Stables on Parliamentary Road, where, his young fans were assured, he was the guest of some friendly Clydesdales.

(c) Alison Kerr, 2012

To order a copy of the photo from the Herald Scotland’ s photo sales website, click here

Marlene Dietrich, Glasgow, 1966

4 Apr
City of Stars 1 - Marlene Dietrich with child

Marlene Dietrich, Glasgow Airport, Monday November 7 1966 (c) Herald & Times Group

Little did Marlene Dietrich know, when she stepped off the plane for her first visit to the city of stars, that by the end of her stay she would be stepping on to the top of her limo and proclaiming “I belong to Glasgow!”.

She was met at Glasgow Airport by dozens of reporters who tried to solve the mystery of her age. Asked why she looked so terribly young, the witty 65-year-old superstar simply said: “But I’m not so terribly old.”

Also waiting for Dietrich on the tarmac was seven-year-old Iain Robertson, the son of John Robertson, assistant manager at the Alhambra Theatre where the star was appearing in her one-woman show that night. She was delighted with the tartan doll given to her by the youngster, but dismissed the suggestion that she might include some Scots songs in her programme. “The Scots sing their own songs much better than I,” she smiled.

Dietrich clearly didn’t need to resort to trading on the tartan in order to win over her audience that night. She swept onstage in white fur and simply seduced the 2000-strong Alhambra crowd with her charisma and presence – and the beguiling way she sang the 22 songs that made up the 90-minute show.

The Evening Times reviewer said: “She needs no props, no artifice. She looks round the theatre with almost savage disdain as if to say ‘I’m Dietrich, who are you?’.” Accompanied by a 20-piece London orchestra, she sang many familiar, signature, songs from her long career – among them Lili Marlene, See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have and Falling in Love Again. Her performance of the folk song Where Have All the Flowers Gone hushed the spellbound audience.

By the end, she had earned a standing ovation and the stage was strewn with red roses thrown from the audience. At the stage door, more than 100 people waited in pouring rain to catch a glimpse of the star, and she made a point of signing autographs before climbing on top of the car and declaring her love for Glasgow – and Scotland. Cops tried to break up the ever-growing crowd, but Dietrich refused to budge and chatted on to her fans, triggering cheers from Post Office workers assembled on the roof of their building.

(c) Alison Kerr, 2012. To purchase this photo, visit

Sir Harry Lauder, Mary Gordon & Irving Berlin, Glasgow, 1946

12 Mar
City of Stars - Irving Berlin etc

Sir Harry Lauder, Mary Gordon & Irving Berlin, Green’s Playhouse, 126 Renfield Street, Monday September 9, 1946 (c) Herald & Times Group

Irving Berlin, arguably the popular – and certainly the most prolific – of all the American songwriters, came to Glasgow in September 1946 to attend the “trade show” of Blue Skies, a lavish musical featuring a string of his songs and starring Fred Astaire.

The visit by 54-year-old composer and lyricist – whose career stretched back to before the First World War and whose hits included White Christmas, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Cheek to Cheek, Puttin’ On the Ritz, God Bless America and How Deep is the Ocean – didn’t attract the amount of press attention one might have expected.

Instead, the Glasgow papers focused on the return to the city, after 27 years, of Bridgeton-born Mary Gordon, the Hollywood character actress who was best known as the housekeeper Mrs Hudson in the popular Sherlock Holmes movies (which starred Basil Rathbone) and Mrs M’Guinness in the Bowery Boys films.

Irving Berlin and Mary Gordon were joined by Gordon’s old chum, Sir Harry Lauder, for the the prestigious screening of Blue Skies at Green’s Playhouse and the reception which was held afterwards at the Central Hotel, where Berlin was staying for his one-night visit.

(c) Alison Kerr, 2012. To purchase this photograph, visit

City of Stars Auction

11 Mar

City of Stars 2 001Last February, the first manifestation of my research into the stars’ visits to Scotland appeared – in the form of an exhibition at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

Featuring 24 photos from the archive of The Herald & Times Group, City of Stars highlighted Glasgow’s status as a major stop-off point for major stars from the worlds of music, movies and showbusiness during the decades from the 1920s on.

Indeed, during the late 1940s and 1950s especially there was an incredible amount of traffic from Hollywood in particular; so much so that some of the visits were only given a tiny amount of coverage. Often the photographs taken didn’t even make it into the papers.

The cast of stars in the exhibition included Gene Kelly (above), Elizabeth Taylor, Cary Grant, Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn, Mae West, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Marlene Dietrich, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, Louis Armstrong and Danny Kaye. The texts that accompanied some of these pictures will appear on this website in due course.

The exhibition was due to end in September. It has proved so popular, however, that it is still up – and a second exhibition is due to open next week. In the meantime, the framed photographs from City of Stars (1) are being auctioned off. If you live in or near Glasgow and fancy taking a star home with you, please visit the exhibition and fill out a form to place your silent bid ..

Judy Garland, Glasgow, 1951

22 Feb
Judy Garland

Judy Garland, barefoot in Balmain at the Empire Theatre, Glasgow, May 21 1951 (c) Herald & Times Group

Halfway through her first night at the Glasgow Empire, a very nervous Judy Garland complained that her feet were sore and asked the audience if she could take off her shoes. Like a little girl, she sat down on the stage and anxiously twiddled her stockinged feet as she sang.

The 28-year-old star had already endeared herself to the packed house, having introduced herself as “only a minstrel girl” and opened the show with a “specially written” song about sporrans. During her 40-minute performance she sang many old favourites, among them You Made Me Love You, The Trolley Song, Just One of Those Things and Get Happy, for which she sported a soft hat – as she had done in the movie Summer Stock.

Her “extreme nervousness” was noted by critics who noted that perspiration poured down her face as she walked off stage. Although she was fresh from a hugely successful four-week stint at the London Palladium, Garland was not a seasoned live performer – and, at a press conference the day before her Glasgow debut, she confessed to reporters: “Gee, I feel as nervous as a kitten. I hope I do well.”

As she was grilled by the local press over subjects ranging from her favourite co-star (Gene Kelly) to her favourite song to sing (Rock-a-Bye – “it’s the loudest), the former child star sipped whisky and smoked long-tipped cigarettes. But it was her eating habits which fascinated the reporters. She ate one chocolate, a few potato crisps and a cheese straw and said: “Maybe today I can forget about the diet.”

Her “plumpness” was commented on in every review written about her opening night, but she carried off her brand new Balmain gown (bought days earlier, in Paris) beautifully and she had the audience – which sang along on Easter Parade and Over the Rainbow – in the palm of her hand.

When she left Glasgow five days later, Garland – who had recently been fired by MGM and was newly divorced from her second husband – was given a huge send-off. Traffic stopped on West Nile Street and a crowd of 500 cheered for her – so much so that, after waving to her fans from a window in the theatre, she had to be sneaked out of an emergency exit.

“They’re just too wonderful,” she said. “They’ve restored my faith in people. Now I know why other people always want to come back to Glasgow.”

(c) Alison Kerr, 2012

Katharine Hepburn, Glasgow, 1952

13 Feb

Katharine Hepburn at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, on May 26 1952 (c) Herald & Times Group

Before she posed for this picture, after what critics described as her “brilliant” performance in George Bernard Shaw’s The Millionairess, Katharine Hepburn had been drawing comparisons to Greta Garbo. Why? Because she had succeeded in avoiding photographers, and had refused to talk to the press.

The 45-year-old movie star had arrived in Glasgow from Edinburgh where she had made her British stage debut in the same play a few days earlier, and had hurried straight to her room in the Central Hotel, telling the receptionist that she was not to be disturbed under any circumstances. Reporters who called by, expecting the usual pre-performance interview, were told that she probably wouldn’t emerge until half-an-hour before curtain-up, and that “she would be taking her meals in her rooms”.

Strict instructions had also been issued to the theatre staff. “I do not want stage hands on the stage while I am acting. The stage must be cleared while I am on it,” said Hepburn, whose most recently released film in Scotland had been The African Queen.

The day after her triumphant Glasgow opening night, which not only wowed critics but also the fashion-conscious ladies in the audience who gasped at the Balmain-designed gowns, Hepburn granted an audience to the press. Wearing a yellow dustcoat, regularly brushing the back of her hair up with her hand (a familiar Hepburn gesture), and flouting the no-smoking-on-stage sign just behind her, she explained why she preferred to be alone during the run of the play. “I need all the rest I can get. I am told that the part I am playing is one of the longest ever written for an actress. It’s an endurance test.”

Between her stints in Edinburgh and the Glasgow, she had spent the weekend driving round the countryside, and shopping for “curios”. Her verdict on the natives? “The people are fascinating, but I could not understand what many of them were saying. Of course, many of them would not understand what Katharine Hepburn was saying either.”

(c) Alison Kerr, 2012

Gene Kelly, Glasgow, 1953

13 Feb

Gene Kelly, Gordon Street, Glasgow, April 21 1953 (c) Herald & Times Group

Gene Kelly may have been at the peak of his fame and popularity in 1953, but when he stepped out of Glasgow’s Central Hotel and into the morning sunshine on Gordon Street in his tweed coat and bunnet, he went virtually unnoticed by passers-by.

The 40-year-old Singing in the Rain star had motored up overnight from London with the celebrated MGM producer Arthur Freed for a brief visit to Scotland. After a quick chat with Evening Times film critic Tom Goldie, the Americans set off for a tour of Burns country and the Trossachs to soak up the atmosphere and seek out inspiration for their next collaboration – a movie version of the Lerner and Loewe musical Brigadoon, a fantasy set in Scotland.

Following their reccie, Kelly said: “I had looked forward to making Brigadoon in Scotland. Now that I’ve seen even a little bit of your country I’m sorrier than ever that plans have had to be changed. But a picture like this has to be made in the new big-screen Cinemascope system that gives an impression of depth, and it has to be done in Hollywood.”

He did at least promise that backgrounds would be photographed in Scotland – and that they had been sussing out ideas for these during their trip which would continue with a visit to Edinburgh and a tour of the Highlands.

And for entertainment on his night on the town in Glasgow? Dance-mad Kelly went to the Theatre Royal, where he parked his bunnet in a box, to see the Celtic Ballet featuring Andrew Rolla, who danced the principal part in the touring stage production of Brigadoon. Promising to return during the summer, Kelly said: “You know, this Scotland of yours is quite the loveliest country I’ve seen. This is my first visit – but,” he added with a wink, “it won’t be my last.”

(c) Alison Kerr, 2012

Cab Calloway, Glasgow, 1934

13 Feb

Cab Calloway, GlasgowBefore he had even set foot in Glasgow, singer and bandleader Cab Calloway had broken box office records by selling out every performance (2000 seats) of his two-shows-a-night, week-long run at the Empire Theatre. His arrival in the city was front-page news – witness the cartoon which ran on the cover of the Evening Times, shown at the bottom of this page). After all, the dashing 26-year-old was something of a pop idol: Minnie the Moocher had been the first jazz record to sell a million copies, and he had become familiar to cinema audiences thanks to a series of cartoons and short “soundies”.

The opening night, on Monday March 26, was a sensation. One reviewer wrote that thousands of “apparently sober Glaswegians almost ‘hi-de-hied’ the roof off the Empire under the baton of Cab Calloway and to the inviting rhythm of the Cotton Club Orchestra. Cab took us over the whole history of Minnie the Moocher. We ‘hi-de-hied’  Minnie into Chinatown and ‘hi-de-hoed’ her through an opium party and a marriage where ‘she kicked the gong around’.”

The more cynical critics pointed out that the band played just as dynamically when – at one point – Calloway wandered offstage, and that his writhing and wriggling style of cajoling his 13 musicians was all for effect. But the crowd loved it.

Even Calloway’s rich and swinging scat vocals were subject to a spot of sniping. Another reviewer wrote: “They tell me that this mobile creature invented the ho-de-ho convention of vocalisation but that is quite wrong. The coalmen of Partick have known the secret for generations, and if there had been a window before my fauteuil I would almost certainly have put my head out and asked for a bag.”Cab Calloway cartoon

Text (c) Alison Kerr, 2012.

Photo (c) Herald & Times Group. Click here to order a copy.

Cartoon Capers

8 Feb

City of Stars 2 001

Laurel & Hardy’s 1947 visit to Glasgow attracted a great deal of newspaper coverage. No wonder: it was their first trip to the city since 1932 when several people were hospitalised following a crush around Central Station where thousands of fans turned up to welcome their heroes. In the course of my research into the post-war visit, I found two cartoons – the first one, above, by the legendary Bud Neill, from the Evening Times and the other (below) from the Evening News. A photo of Stan and Ollie attending a gymkhana in the Glasgow suburb of Giffnock on the last day of their historic 1947 run at the Empire Theatre has pride of place at the forthcoming City of Stars 2 exhibition at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. Watch this space.City of Stars 2 002

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