Nostalgia with Margaret Watson: The late 1940s and early 1950s were years of glamour and romance for the Empire Theatre

​The traffic stopped in Dewsbury more than 60 years ago when this picture of film star Mai Zetterling was taken on Longcauseway while she was appearing at the Empire Theatre.
STAR QUALITY: This picture of film star Mai Zetterling was taken on Longcausewy while she was appearing at the Empire Theatre in Dewsbury.STAR QUALITY: This picture of film star Mai Zetterling was taken on Longcausewy while she was appearing at the Empire Theatre in Dewsbury.
STAR QUALITY: This picture of film star Mai Zetterling was taken on Longcausewy while she was appearing at the Empire Theatre in Dewsbury.

It is a photograph which brings back memories of the days when it wasn’t unusual for Dewsbury people to see world famous stars shopping in local stores.

Ernie Wise bought his wife’s engagement ring at Diss’s Jewellers in Market Place while he was appearing there with Eric Morecambe.

The famous duo delighted workers at Wormalds and Walker’s mill in Thornhill Lees when they popped in to entertain them during their lunchtime.

Most of these stars helped boost the local economy by spending their money at local pubs and restaurants and choosing to stay at local boarding houses.

Film star Anthony Newley always stayed at a house in Halifax Road when he appeared at the theatre, and Julie Andrews as a child stayed with her parents at a house in Eightlands Road while they were appearing there.

Looking at this spring-like picture of Swedish film star Mai Zetterling walking among the flowers in Dewsbury town centre, will surely bring back memories to many who remember those halcyon days.

For, this was a time when Dewsbury stood head and shoulders above all the other towns in the Heavy Woollen District.

The late 1940s and early 1950s were years of glamour and romance for the Empire Theatre. It was a time when some of the country’s leading singers and big bands came to town.

Most had records in the charts and the singing stars drew large crowds. Some of the top names included Frankie Vaughan, Marian Ryan, Lita Roza, Josef Locke, Dickie Valentine and Al Martino.

Three of the big bands which accompanied them were those of Ted Heath, Joe Loss and Billy Cotton.

Local people enjoyed the glamour of all the big names which were posted all around town and they were delighted when they met the stars in the street.

And these stars were grateful to be appearing here, bringing with them a touch of glamour to a mill town which had made its money from textiles.

For while ever these stars shone in Dewsbury, so did the town and those living here, and although those days will never come back, we must never forget them.

Sadly, all the glamour of live theatre in Dewsbury was to end on a damp April evening in 1955 when the imposing theatre, one off the grandest in the country, closed down.

This beautiful theatre, which had opened in 1909, had starred some of the most famous entertainers in the world, including Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurie in their younger days.

Falling attendances were blamed for its closure because, like many other theatres and music halls in the country, the Empire could not compete with the growing popularity of television and the silver screen.

Five years after it closed, the theatre was demolished and replaced by a modern new structure, an office block, aptly named Empire House, which still stands today at the side of the town hall.

The theatre, which had accommodated 2,000, was one of the best-equipped music halls in the provinces and had been constructed in the most approved principles of theatrical architecture.

A 22-tonne girder formed part of the gallery cantilever suspension system and when it was brought to Dewsbury, vast crowds gathered to watch as 22 horses which dragged it form the Midland Railway Station

The theatre’s interior was palatial with rich upholstered seating, luxurious velvet curtains, ornate private boxes, brass fittings everywhere and an eight hundred weight chandelier.

Some of the stars, who appeared in those early days, included Florrie Forde, Frank Randall, Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel and George Formby.

When comedian Frank Randal appeared, nearly 3,000 fans filled the theatre which only had sitting room for 2,000.

More than 1,000 were left standing – little wonder the 22-tonne girder bent with the strain of it – but there were no health and safety rules in those days.

Some years ago, film star Anthony Newly, returned to Dewsbury to open an exhibition about the old Empire Theatre.

He told those attending the exhibition that although he had appeared in some of the world’s most exciting places, he still rated Dewsbury as one of the best.

For, it was here in Dewsbury while treading the boards of the Empire Theatre in the early 1950s, he said, that he had decided to make show business his life’s work.

The young Newley made his first appearance in Dewsbury in 1950 several years after receiving rave reviews as the “Artful Dodger” in the widely acclaimed film Oliver Twist.

He came to Dewsbury fresh from doing his National Service to play at the Empire with the Saxon Players for £15 a week, staying at various boarding houses in the town while appearing at the theatre.

I recall interviewing him when he opened the exhibition in the Dewsbury Town Hall and he spoke warmly of the happy memories he had of the town.

He said: “My memories of Dewsbury and the Empire Theatre will always stay with me. They are a legacy I will keep forever.”

At the height of his career in the 1960s when he was a superstar in America, he was quoted in a magazine as saying that Dewsbury was the place where he realised that acting was the only thing he wanted to do.

Local artist, the late Don Wharton, presented him with a painting of the old Empire, which was to take pride of place in the Surrey home which he shared with his elderly mother, until his death some years ago.