Following on from the success of Your Theatre History events in Glasgow and Paisley, the Scottish Theatre Archive headed to Dundee Central Library for a day, to celebrate the city’s famous variety theatre, the Palace. Opened by the Livermore Brothers in 1893, over the next seventy five years it hosted everything from circus, variety and cinema to summer seasons, amateur dramatics and pantomime. Although it closed in 1968, this iconic theatre building and its part in community life, is remembered by performers and theatre-goers alike.
A workshop on researching family theatre connections was followed by an afternoon session which began with an illustrated talk on the Palace’s early history. Dr Paul Maloney (University of Glasgow) began with a brief history of the theatre site, which was previously occupied by a circus. He quoted an episode in the life of the infamous Dundee poet William McGonagall (c 1830-1902) who made what was – even by his standards – a disastrous appearance at Zeigler’s circus in the 1880s:
“As soon as I emerged… arrayed in my Celtic garb, with sword and buckler complete, strutting as proud as a peacock, a whole big jute bag full of soot was emptied right over me… I walked boldly forward to the far end of the stage, and had only time to say ‘Gentlemen,’ when an unparalleled atrocity occurred. Boots, beef tins, rotten eggs, and bricks showered around me, and with such force were they hurled that such of them as missed me ricocheted from the platform right into the plush chairs beyond… From this place a general stampede took place, the orchestra finding safety for themselves and their instruments below the scene of action…” (From George M Martin, Dundee Worthies (1934).
This introduction was followed by a short screening of home movies, courtesy of the Scottish Screen Archive, showing Harry Gordon’s company in variety shows in Dundee in the 1930s and 1940s. But for the lived experience of variety at the Palace, the highlight of the afternoon was a lively discussion led by three veteran variety performers who captivated the audience with their stories of the theatre. Unlike McGonagall, they had very happy experiences of appearing onstage in Dundee!
Betty Melville appeared at the Palace as a girl soprano with Tommy Morgan. Aged only fifteen at the time but anxious not to fall foul of child employment rules, she told the stage manager that she was seventeen, a fib that they joked about when she returned to play the theatre in later years. Betty went on to work with everyone from Clark and Murray to Rikki Fulton and Jack Milroy.
Her friend, the dancer Middy Coburn, first played the Palace in 1947 with Alec Finlay, and subsequently worked there for fifteen years, many of them in shows with Johnny Victory, a great favourite with Dundee audiences. Middy’s late husband, the comedian Ron Coburn, worked for Victory, and was manager of the Palace in its final years in the 1960s, when he fought to keep the theatre open by augmenting variety with weekly competitions for local beat combos.
Moira McConnachie, who like Middy was a dancer with May Moxon’s troupes, first appeared at the Palace in 1953 with an Irish revue starring Cecil Sheriden and went on to dance in Johnny Victory and Lex McLean’s shows.
The ladies delighted the audience with their stories of variety in the 1950s and 60s, answering questions about the working lives of dancers (who had to pay for their own makeup and tights) and prompting audience members to share their own experiences of the theatre. These included memories of the special warmth of Palace audiences (an empathy which prompted Middy and Ron to move to Dundee from Edinburgh), of long queues around the block outside the theatre on Friday and Saturday nights; and of how exciting it was for amateur performers, to appear on the Palace stage. One contributor remembered how the musicians in the resident band liked to go to the nearby Queen’s Hotel for a drink between shows. This meant that at the end of the first house on Saturdays, they would play the exit music (that saw the audience out) at double speed!
In the end dwindling audiences led to the theatre’s closure, but the warmth of the discussion and the recollections and memories it generated affirmed the special place that theatres like these still have in the popular imagination.
Thanks to everyone that joined us, our colleagues Maureen Hood and Eileen Moran at Dundee Central Library for their work in making the day possible, and to Paul Maloney for contributing text for this blog post.
Categories: Special Collections