Wellington Pier’s box office record-breaker
- Credit: Archant
IT pricked my conscience and made me slightly embarrassed, reluctant to write about a legendary entertainer without confessing here that the first time I saw him on stage, I was in the Britannia Theatre here in Great Yarmouth...to see his co-star!
As I was only 16 then, perhaps me and my two teenage chums can be forgiven for buying tickets in the summer of 1951 not principally to hear bill-topping singer, yodeller and whistler Ronnie Ronalde but an up-and-coming comedian named Max Bygraves.
Moreover, we were not there for Max’s jokes and banter but because he did excellent impersonations of our current favourite Al Jolson, an American entertainer then back in vogue because of two recent Hollywood biographical films featuring all his hit songs, many of which we had at home on 78rpm discs.
My February recollections of Ronalde spending a remarkable three summer seasons starring in the resort came to the attention of his widow, Rosemarie, who contacted me. Presumably through Google, she had found on-line my column about BBC Television highlighting Yarmouth’s 1955 summer shows by presenting a live programme from the Wellington Pier Pavilion where Ronnie starred not only that year but also the next.
My feature added that Ronnie’s death, aged 91, was announced while I was preparing it.
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Rosemarie, who lives near Salisbury, tells me: “Ronnie had returned to live in England during 2012 and had settled in Kessingland but unfortunately suffered a major stroke four days after his 90th birthday which he had spent in Beccles with his family, having lunch sitting next to his beloved River Waveney in 2013.”
Needing specialist care and physiotherapy, he was moved to an entertainers’ retirement home in Twickenham where he peacefully died, his family by his side.
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Mrs Ronalde continues: “Whilst we were living in New Zealand, Ronnie wrote a book in 1998 entitled Around The World On A Whistle dealing extensively with his time in Suffolk and Great Yarmouth and, of course, his mentor and friend Arturo Steffani who was a Beccles boy, Freddie Whisker.”
She sent me that autobiography, plus a 26-track CD of his recordings, and consented to extracts from his book being included in this column.
Its 300 pages detail his rise from obscurity to world-wide acclaim, provide an insight into the sphere of live entertainment in that postwar era, and are packed with anecdotes, photographs and theatre advertising posters, all covering not only the big-name stars but also the supporting acts that were an enjoyable mainstay of variety programmes.
Ronnie devoted two chapters to his seasons here in Yarmouth in the Fifties when the holiday industry, fortified by live showbiz summers in our range of theatres and the Hippodrome Circus, was burgeoning as the nation looked to a brighter future after the bloodshed, ravages, austerity and deprivations of the war.
Londoner Ronald Waldron, whose whistling prowess began in childhood, was recruited into Steffani’s 2l Silver Songsters, a boy choir, making his debut at the Regal in Beccles in 1938. After touring nationally and in Europe, the troupe returned to the UK when war was imminent.
Unfit for conscription into the armed forces, young Ronalde went solo and was in demand not only in variety and pantomime throughout the land but also on national radio, the BBC. He went to the United States and Canada where his performances were received with acclaim. His gramophone records sold in millions.
In 1951 Ronalde chose Yarmouth’s Britannia Pier over Blackpool for a summer season, despite a smaller pay packet and shorter run. He explained: “It had to be Yarmouth. The thought of spending some time on my beloved boat on the River Waveney in Beccles only a few miles away made my decision quite easy.
“I regarded Beccles as my home, having spent so much time there during the war, and it was Steffani’s home town.”
There was one vacancy on that bill, but after a visit to the London Palladium to see the up-and-coming Max Bygraves, Ronalde happily welcomed him to the Britannia company.
Which reminds me: in the book Ronalde calls Al Jolson “my idol,” so perhaps he would not have been miffed that my pals and I went to his “Brit” show primarily to hear Max in Jolson mode...
During that season here he supported charities by opening garden fetes, handing over trophies and making speeches, and presented the sash and cheque to the Miss Yarmouth 1951 beauty competition winner, preferring Max Bygraves to do the judging.
The show’s success delighted Ronalde and the producers, for it beat all previous Britannia records, a point emphasised on the final night by the mayor, Herbert Shorten, when he thanked the stars and company.
Before returning to Yarmouth to bill-top at the Wellington in 1955 and 1956, Ronalde bought property in Beccles – a house named Red Tiles and two Georgian villas with a garden sloping down to the river, and a boathouse for his new craft.
To reduce his global travelling, Ronalde opted for something nearer home – and Yarmouth fitted his bill perfectly for the 1955 season, a long run arranged through our director of entertainments and publicity, John Kinnersley. In an opening-night welcome, entertainments and publicity committee chairman Edgar Barker correctly forecast that the show would be a winner. Takings and audience numbers broke records: in six days 11,560 people saw the show.
It was that summer that BBC-TV featured Ronnie and fellow Yarmouth performers in a live show, mention of which sparked my interest in February.
Ronalde’s 1955 summer engagements included reading a lesson with Tommy Trinder at the annual actors thanksgiving service at St James’s Church, and the midnight matinee featuring artistes from all seven shows in the borough. Before that season’s run was over, Ronalde had been booked to return to the Wellington in 1956.
His memoirs tell us that he met his Austrian wife Rosemarie when she became a receptionist at the hotel he bought in Guernsey in 1959, and they married in 1961, having three children. Later they emigrated to New Zealand and where they were naturalised.
Ronnie’s book and CDs are available from his website www.ronnieronalde.com