Monday, 10 July 2017

Gracie Fields' Visit to Rochdale, 1934

If there was one thing that brought Rochdale folk to agreement when I was knee high to a grasshopper it was that the sun's brightness originated not in the sky but instead shone out of Gracie Fields. So her visits back to her home town must have been spectacularly successful in drawing the attention of local papers, theatre-goers and even national news.

On one such visit in December 1934 this souvenir and theatre programme was published. "Our Gracie" was to appear at the Hippodrome Theatre, Rochdale from the third to the eighth of December with Gracie's performance on Wednesday 5 December being broadcast on the National Programme by the BBC. Well, naturally it would be the BBC because no one else was allowed to broadcast in those days...

The show was called "Hello! Here I am Again!" which could also pass for fair warning, should anyone not be intoxicated at the thought of Gracie's performances! During the days of her visit Gracie would be visiting a great number of charitable causes - she worked hard enough for one page of the souvenir to include a plea to be not pestered for souvenirs. "If I'd sent everyone who asked, a lock of my hair, I'd have been bald years ago!" she wrote.

Rochdale shop, The Fashion Corner bought advertising space to present their lingerie that "Goes to the tub with a smile"... Hope she remembers to take it off first...

Whittles Bakery in Littleborough (I do remember the name and that they made bread) but apparently they ceased to exist under that name in 1994. Bread in the 1930s and even the 1950s of my childhood had no preservatives in it and generally had to be eaten on the day it was bought. However the Purity Eight loaf was a Wonder of the World! Er... and surely the statue at Olympia that was one of the Seven Wonders was Zeus (head of the Greek gods) not Jupiter (a Roman god)? However I digress. In that time of a total lack of plastic bags, loaves of bread came wrapped in either tissue paper (if you bought them fresh) or wrapped in a single sheet of waxed paper, which would be kept and used to wrap up your sandwiches for work.

Ah, the programme... Unfortunately I could find nothing about Victor Hopwood, Boy Comedian and Lancashire Clog Walloper. I wonder what happened to all those clog wallopers out there... Billy Matchett (1889-1974) was a Liverpool comedian. He had come up via the Music Halls and later acted as Chairman of such shows. The Penslow Troupe seem to have vanished into obscurity but Jack Daly was an Irish comedian and singer with a "racy" style. Joe Adami the comedy juggler was featured a short while back in The History of Light Entertainment TV series hosted by Stephen Fry. Ventriloquist Raymond Smith was the first not to have to hold his doll. He stood behind a couch that the dummy lay full length on and he operated its lips with air blown from a rubber valve behind the couch. Finally Auntie & Co. the acrobatic cyclists seem to have ridden off into the sunset...

Meanwhile, up the road (that would be Drake Street) at the Rialto Cinema (oh how I remember that cinema!) Gracie's film from the previous year Sing As We Go was just a few weeks away. A tale of a factory closure and Gracie taking numerous jobs in Blackpool over the summer season is probably the best cinematic record of my current home town of Blackpool in the 1930s. The jokes may be dated but the Golden Mile and Pleasure Beach and the antics of the B&B landlady, landlord, staff and clients are spot on.

And of Gracie Fields herself... A Dame of the British Empire, she was born 9 January 1898, won a talent show in Rochdale and followed that success into music hall, variety, revue, broadcasting, records and films. She was married three times, first to Archie Pitt, a comedian and impressario who kicked off Gracie's career into a more successful level before moving his mistress, Annie Lipman into the marital home. (Annie actually wrote some of the lines to Gracie's famous song Sally - which must have galled her every time she sang it). She had surgery for cancer in 1939, went to Capri to recuperate and World War II broke out whilst she was there. She married Monty Banks in 1940, an Italian, who would have been interned had they moved back to the UK. Instead they went to America, but she returned to England several times for engagements and travelled into war zones entertaining the troops, but this marriage did damage her career at the time. Finally she married Boris Alperovici, a Romanian after she proposed to him in front of his family. She described him as the "love of my life".

The rear cover of the souvenir. I've missed out more pages than I've included I'm afraid. But nice to be able to mention Gracie Fields in this way. She was given the Freedom of the Borough of Rochdale in 1937. She set up a children's home and orphanage in Sussex in 1933 near to her home and when her first marriage ended in divorce she donated the house she had shared with her husband and his mistress to another orphanage. In 1978 she opened the Gracie Fields Theatre in Rochdale, which continues to stage entertainment today. Her last performance was at the age of 80 at the Royal Variety Performance in 1978 when she appeared un-billed during the finale to sing "Sally" one last time. She died in hospital after contracting pneumonia on 27 September 1979 and is buried in Capri.

Souvenir and Programme from the Geoffrey Burke Collection.

1 comment:

  1. John did you know Gracie was my grandmas cousin ?


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