Oldham Historical Research Group

Oldham Theatre Royal:

'The Jones Boys'

A Memoir by Bernie Burgess

I wonder how many people remember the Theatre Royal in Oldham? Around 1954 we, the J.B.s were embarking on a variety tour, it was in our very early days as a Variety act. We had worked some very old dates i.e. The Palace Theatre Atercilffe, a theatre that came in for a lot of joking by all the 'Pros in the profession, for example in the orchestra pit they had what we called a 'sample' band - flute, trombone and umbrella. We had played The Palace Theatre Bath where that Musical Director played an upright piano that was flush up against the footlights. We had just had our orchestrations enlarged because we were booked a few weeks later to play some Sunday Concerts with such bands as Jack Parnell, Kenny MacIntosh and The Squadronaires. We handed the Musical Director the band parts and he duly placed the piano part on his stand. His faced dropped when he saw the piano part, then he gingerly peered onto the following page, looked up at us and said - "There's a few Chinese harmonies in this isn't there?"

Then came a week at the Theatre Royal in Oldham. I prided myself with knowing the majority of theatres that presented Variety throughout the British Isles but the Theatre Royal Oldham was one that I had never heard of. As was usual, the band call was scheduled for 11am on Monday morning and we arrived half an hour early so that we could familiarise ourselves with everything. The top of the bill was Hylda Baker, we were second on the bill, an Irish comic called Billy O'Sullivan, a juggling act called Sylvester & Partner and another comedian - Mike Robbins who had with a similar style to Terry Thomas

On arrival at the front of the theatre we were surprised to find that there were no posters, no photographs, in fact nothing to indicate that a show was being presented, not only that week but any week in the future. We entered into the foyer, which had the appearance of extreme antiquity and ventured through some stalls doors into the auditorium. There was a haze of blue smoke hovering over the entire stalls area plus a heavy smell of dampness and the seats had distinct signs of mildew. Peering through the blue haze we could make out figures moving about on stage and drawing closer we realised that it was members of the cast. Each one had a look of bewilderment on their face and questions were being banded around in the hope of finding out what on earth was going on. A stranger appeared on the scene who turned out to be the manager, a Mr Williams. He was inundated with questions, not only from the bewildered artistes but the members of the orchestra who had now arrived for the bandcall.

We discovered that the blue haze was smoke from an old boiler that the manager had tried to ignite in the hope of drying out the seats. Cleaners set about vainly trying to clean the place up. Piecing the bits of information together, it became clear that the theatre had been closed for two years and that a business man had gained a lease but as yet he had not got a licence to open to the public and until he had got the required licence he was not allowed to advertise or display posters etc. Everyone waited for a licence to be granted but there was no sign of one, not that day nor the next. Wednesday morning arrived and Mr. Williams announced to the gathered crowd that the licence would be granted that lunch time. Obviously with no posters, no photographs and no press notices members of the public were totally unaware that the theatre was about to re-open. The artistes put their heads together and demanded from Mr. William a supply of complimentary tickets so that WE could hurriedly distribute them around local chains stores and other venues in the hope of getting an audience to play to that same night. A hurried band call was arranged and artistes rehearsed in turn

We all stumbled through the opening night and to everyone's' surprise the show received a reasonable write up in the local press. The Irish comic showed extreme shrewdness, he obviously could smell trouble and he wisely offered to change places on the bill with Mike Robbins, he wanted to go on in the second spot for reasons which will become obvious as my story unfolds.

Saturday came and everyone was given a cheque after their last performance and those who were able to were asked to stay on for a second week, including ourselves and we were promoted to top of the bill, a fact that was by no means flattering. As the second week progressed we were informed that the cheques that had been issued for the previous week, including Hylda Baker's, had all 'bounced'. Now it became obvious why Billy O'Sullivan wanted to go on second on the bill, he wanted to get into the manager's office as quickly as possible on the Saturday night. When the final night arrived the members of the orchestra refused to start the second performance unless they received their salaries. After much persuasion and arm twisting they agreed to play up to the interval of the second house. The show came to an abrupt end right there but Billy O'Sullivan had completed his performance and had departed.

No-one ever found out whether he had received full pay or partial payment A menacing crowd gathered in the manager's office, including artistes, musicians, cleaners, printers and uncle Tom Cobley and all, each demanding payment. The police were called as the crowd began to turn ugly. At the suggestion of the police the takings from the bars should be brought into the manager's office and in total.... wait for it... a sum of £38 was displayed in a heap on the table and in the ensuing melee we all took our eyes off of the pile of money and to everyone's amazement it miraculously disappeared. In the end, we, The Jones Boys ended up with 10 shillings each towards out train fare to our next destination. Poor Mike Robbins, who was due to get married at the end of that same week, ended up going on his honeymoon with precisely 12 shillings and six pence. Interestingly his wife to be was Liz McCartney, Paul's cousin. Today their offspring are very prominent in show business. Ted Robbins is a well established as a 'warm-up' comic for several television companies and can be seen quite frequently on television screens and the Robbins daughters are all doing very well too. To my knowledge, one of the daughters currently plays a leading roll in a hospital series from a northern television company.

The Theatre Royal, Oldham

Theatre royal, Oldham, Programme

Programme 11th October 1954

Theatre royal, Oldham, Programme

Programme 11th October 1954

Theatre royal Oldham in newspaper

The Jones boys

The 'Jones Boys'

Theatre royal Oldham in newspaper
Theatre royal Oldham in newspaper
Theatre royal Oldham in newspaper
Theatre royal Oldham in newspaper

Theatre Details:

THEATRE ROYAL cine op by 1910; By 1941: (WE) - Prop., Theatre Royal (Oldham) Ltd., F. E. Spring, 3, The Parsonage, Manchester. Phone Bla 7905.
1,200 seats.
Variety, Repertory, Revue.
Twice nightly. Booked by Prop. Prices 5d. to 2s.
Proscenium width 30ft. Stage, 40ft. deep; twelve dressing-rooms.
Phone Main 2549. Station,
Oldham (Mumps) L.M.S. SG46: Prop., Theatre Royal (Oldham) Ltd., Horsedge Street, Oldham, Bookings: Mannie Jay, Chandos House, 45-46, Chandos Place, London, W.C.2.
Cap.: Stalls 181, P. stalls 200, D. circle 180, U. circle 201, gallery 400.
Twice nightly 6.20 and 8.20. Saturday matinee on special occasions. Repertory at present. Stage :
Pros. 30ft., height 50ft., min. depth from setting line 40ft., height under fly galleries 20ft., width between fly galleries 50ft., height of grid from stage 70ft.
No counterweight gear. 60 lines. Elec. equip.: 230 v. D.C. and A.C., 50 cycles.
Footlights, three circuits with ind. dimmers. Four battens, each with three circuits with ind. dimmers. Spot bar with six spots, each with ind. dimmers, Eight dips with ind. dimmers, Eight dips switch controlled. Six spots on stands.
Four floods on stands.
Three f-o-h pre-set spots with ind. dimmers,
Dressing rooms : One single, ten chorus, acc. 30. Band room. Orchestra : Acc. 12. Resident, for repertory three. Amplifying equip. : Microphone. Two bars, dress circle and stalls.

Contributed by Alex Balmforth

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