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When Paul Robeson, Des O'Connor and Billy Daniels graced Great Yarmouth stages

PUBLISHED: 08:00 10 November 2019

Des O'Connor is light-heartedly “restrained” by mace-bearing Yarmouth Town Hall staff and civic leaders during one of his summer seasons here.

Des O'Connor is light-heartedly "restrained" by mace-bearing Yarmouth Town Hall staff and civic leaders during one of his summer seasons here.

Archant

Long gone are the days when nationally-acclaimed stars headlined at Great Yarmouth's several theatres, attracting regular "House full!" notices as holidaymakers and locals clamoured to see their summer shows.

Where top stars entertained...Great Yarmouth's Regal/ABC/Cannon cinema and theatre being demolished 30 years ago to make way for the building of the Market Gates shopping precinct.Where top stars entertained...Great Yarmouth's Regal/ABC/Cannon cinema and theatre being demolished 30 years ago to make way for the building of the Market Gates shopping precinct.

Most entertainers were here for months, although the ABC/Regal for years specialised in weekly variety featuring top names.

We all had our favourites, but possibly the greatest international performer ever to grace a Yarmouth stage was not post-war, when we competed vigorously with Blackpool to attract the current top stars, and not for a summer season.

He was the unforgettable American bass-baritone and Hollywood film actor Paul Robeson, making brief visits in the Thirties for one-night stands at the Wellington Pier Pavilion in 1931 and 1933, and the Regal (1935). His pictures included Sanders of the River (1935) and Showboat (1936).

The new Regal had been officially opened in 1934 by Hollywood leading lady Merle Oberon.

The programme for Paul Robeson's show at Great Yarmouth's Regal Theatre in 1935The programme for Paul Robeson's show at Great Yarmouth's Regal Theatre in 1935

Another leading US star, Billy Daniels, was unable to weave That Old Black Magic after one of his twice-nightly performances during a week at the Regal in the Fifties.

Learning that the annual Midnight Matinee featuring entertainers from Yarmouth summer shows was taking place that night, he was anxious to do his bit and, with his retinue, hurried to the venue to offer to take part in the charity production.

But the running order of the show was already settled and looked likely to extend until well into the small hours as usual, and it fell upon Windmill Theatre owner Jack Jay, who had assembled the cast, to perform the unenviable task of declining - with thanks - the great Billy Daniels' offer.

One version says the venue was the Wellington Pier Pavilion but I cannot recall a Midnight Matinee being staged there, but no matter.

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US star Mel Torme, after a Sunday night performance at the Wellington Pier Pavilion, returned on-stage after the final curtain to entertain with impromptu jazz piano, a memorable bonus for audience members who had not yet left the building and had no bus to catch.

Next, Des O'Connor, now in his 90s and once a regular summer performer here (Royal Aquarium and the Wellington and Britannia Piers). My clearest memory is of an unusual gimmick on opening night.

Everyone in the audience found a bingo card on their seat, and Des came on stage to run a game to get us all in entertainment mode. Me? I thought it was my lucky night as I crossed off number after number, needed just one more... and up it came!

Feverishly I shouted "House!" or "Bingo!" or whatever, but my voice was drowned by everyone else in the audience "winning" on the same number. Yes, it was a well-managed stunt, but kick-started the show before the opening act came on stage.

I wondered if that Bingo happened at every house through the summer.

In the mid-Fifties, I saw the then unknown Des along the the A12 at Lowestoft's Arcadia Theatre in a modest show called Jimmy Currie's Water Follies, the finale featuring the entire cast in Highland dress singing by a "river" crossed by a rustic bridge.

Who would have guessed that he was to become one of Britain's most popular entertainers?

It has been recalled here occasionally that zany comic Ken Dodd's announcement that he was undertaking a swim from Yarmouth beach to Scroby Sands attracted a huge crowd to witness his attempt in 1963 during his season at the Regal.

It was all a successful publicity stunt by the novice swimmer who hardly got his feet wet.

Ask any adult those memories go back to the 1950s and 1960s to name their favourite variety act, and the chances are that 90 per cent of them would reply, without hesitation: "Morecambe and Wise."

That dynamic duo spent only two summers here (Wellington Pier, 1964) and Regal (1967) but I think it was after that when their television shows became compulsory viewing.

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