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Seaside entertainers


Long before the days of charter flights and an affordable fortnight in Spain, the summer holidays of many Scottish people were spent at the seaside. There were Clyde coast resorts like Saltcoats, Gourock, Largs, Millport, Rothesay and Dunoon, while east-coast folk may have preferred to go to North Berwick, Carnoustie, Arbroath, St Andrews or Aberdeen. There were many holiday towns in Scotland and the seaside entertainers were to be found in all of them. Whether it was a pierrot show on the promenade or 'twice nightly' at the local theatre, the singers, dancers and comics were hard at work.

The Pierrots

There is a story about the pierrot which relates how a small naked boy was found outside the gates of Heaven. It was winter, and as St Peter picked up the child and blessed him, the snow on his body turned into a suit of pure white clothing. St Peter adopted the child and gave him his own name - Little Peter or Pierrot - but there was one condition, Pierrot was not to be allowed to play with any of the human children he might come across as he wandered outside the gates of Paradise. Of course, this was almost impossible for a small boy, and on his return from just such a meeting he realised that his white suit now had black marks on it where the ordinary children had touched him. They proclaimed his guilt, and Pierrot was excluded from Paradise forevermore.

The pierrot of such legends was a wistful, melancholy character rather than an exuberant summer-show comedian, but the white costume with the black pom-poms is unmistakeable. The origins of the pierrot lie in the Italian commedia dell'arte troupes. An Italian actor, Guiseppe Giratoni joined the Italian company in Paris in the 1660s and introduced the role to France, dressing in a distinctive white costume with a ruff and whitening his face. In the first half of the nineteenth century the role was taken up by Jean Gaspard Deburau and made famous at the Theatre des Funambules. Deburau was followed in the role by his son and then by Paul Legrand. In 1891 the mime L'Enfant prodigue was popular at the Prince of Wales's Theatre in London, bringing pierrot to the notice of the British theatregoer. Christopher Pulling, who tells the above legend, notes that it "may just have been the fancy-dress, or perhaps also the happy association of the name with the 'pier' which led the first pioneers to take the name of pierrots." Whatever the reasons, the first pierrots appeared in 1891 at Bray, near Dublin. The troupe had been formed by Clifford Essex, a singer and banjo player who had seen L'Enfant prodigue and visited France. They played at Cowes during the Regatta and after being watched by the Prince of Wales, who became Edward VII, Essex was given permission to call his troupe the Royal Pierrots, and the fashion had begun.

Pierrots were as popular in Scotland as they were in the rest of the UK, giving their performances to deck-chair seated audiences from small booth theatres, pavilions and bandstands. Variations appeared, most notably the change of costume to a naval style blazer and white cap, as worn by the troupe in the postcard from Dunoon. The entertainers are just visible on a small stage at the waterfront, with a large crowd milling about before them and in the background a Clyde coast steamer making its way 'Doon the Watter'. Open-air performing had its problems! The postcards in the Logan collection are a valuable record of seaside entertainment, illustrating both the people involved and the places where they played. The messages on the back, sent home to relatives and friends, testify that the entertainments on offer were an important part of a summer holiday.

The summer show

These shows provided the resort's evening entertainment. A resident company would perform twice-nightly, with a weekly midnight matinee in some places, and the programme often changed twice a week. This meant that, in a fifteen-week season, everybody needed thirty different routines, costumes and music. The hectic schedule meant that a lot of the acts were put together at the last minute, and many comics learned to improvise and ad-lib. The shows were in fact a training ground for many entertainers. Jimmy Logan recalled that at times things could be "so desperate that we were actually rehearsing a sketch while the audience were coming in - and saying, for instance, "Look, I'm ill in bed and you want me to come out and have a drink." Johnny Beattie tells a similar tale of his first season, in North Berwick in 1955, when he asked the comic Wally Butter one night "What are we doing?" Butler's reply was, "We'll just go on and talk to each other." Charlie Kemble, one of the Rothesay Entertainers for many years, was an example of a comic who could ad-lib with apparent ease. Alec Finlay recalls his time as second-comic to him, "Going on with Charlie, there was no script. He just blethered and you had to keep going, otherwise the thing would have flopped. I learnt to be an ad- lib comic through Charlie Kemble and I am terribly grateful to that man."

Harry Gordon had a long association with summer shows. At eighteen he played with Monty's Pierrots at Stonehaven, and in 1913 he was offered a place at the Beach Pavilion, Aberdeen at £2 a week. After three years in the Army during the First World War he returned to the Beach Pavilion, taking it over in 1924 and successfully running it until 1940. Jack House notes that during this time "it was seriously stated by officials of Aberdeen Town Council that Harry Gordon was one of the chief advertisements for Aberdeen as a holiday resort."

Glasgow also had its summer shows. Tommy Morgan had nineteen consecutive summer seasons at the Pavilion. Anne Fields joined his show when she was seventeen and recalled the way you were just expected to take everything in your stride. Margaret Milne, Morgan's feed, was ill one night and Anne was simply told "You're on." Fortunately her father had got her into the habit of watching other people's acts from the wings so she knew roughly what was meant to happen if not what the lines were. Howard and Wyndham started their summer shows in 1933, deciding to try a once-nightly performance at half-past eight, and this became the show's name. They ran in the Alhambra in Glasgow and the King's in Edinburgh, changing their name and starting time to Five Past Eight some years later, and were immensely popular.


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