OVER the last few months a tribute has quietly been paid to a remarkable man who had a quite remarkable collection of Scottish variety memorabilia.

Bob Bain, who died, aged 81, just short of four years ago, had a lifelong passion for theatre – Glasgow’s fabled Empire Theatre was a big part of this - and he was the tireless secretary of the Scottish Music Hall and Variety Theatre Society. Over the decades he assembled a huge collection of memorabilia, props and posters from the heyday of variety theatre. And now, after a donation by his widow, Eleanor, much of it has been digitised by his friend and colleague, Derek Green, the society’s chairman.

%image('17367114', type="article-full", alt="An Empire Theatre poster for the Folies Bergere")“The main reason for doing this”, Derek said this week, “is to give people the chance to see old memorabilia relating to Scottish variety theatre online and to preserve it for years to come”. A website is, he added, is a lot more accessible than theatre-memorabilia archives that require people to apply in advance to see specific items and to wear white gloves when examining them.

The webpages at scottishmusichallsociety.com include much fascinating detail not just from the Empire (which staged its final show sixty years ago this year) but also the Glasgow Empress, Metropole and Pavilion theatres, the Paisley Theatre, the Palace in Dundee, the Cragburn in Gourock, the Barrfields Pavilion in Largs, the Empire in Inverness, and the Queen’s Hall in Dunoon. New material is being added all the time.

Obituary: Bob Bain, variety and music hall champion and archivist

Together, the scanned items are a potent reminder of the role played by variety theatre in the days before rival attractions, such as television, ate away at its popularity. The programmes are full of names of entertainers who once held audiences spellbound: Francie and Josie, Tommy Morgan, Billy Stutt, the Moxon Ladies, Jack Anthony, Jimmy Benson, Alan Carson & Molly Miller. The language and message of advertisements in the nightly programmes are of their time, too.

 “Bob’s collection was enormous”, Derek said. “What we have received from Eleanor in her donations is nowhere near it all. He had nearly 3,000 programmes. The society has a fair chunk of them already, though not them all. In time they will all be put onto the website.

“I just feel it’s a tribute to Bob to put them all online and make them available to people. It’s high time that people were able to see these things when they’re not readily available elsewhere. One theatre archive has it all locked away and if you want to view anything you have to speak to them, and fill out forms, and you have to wear white gloves when handling any exhibits.

%image('17366132', type="article-full", alt="An eye-catching poster from the late Glasgow Empire")

“Our view is that if it’s on the website – it’s history, and it’s there for people to look at whenever they want to”.

Bob’s collection filled the attic of the family home in Auchinloch, near Lenzie. “There were hundreds and hundreds of books, and then there were all the Empire posters. I’ve no idea where he got them from”, says Derek. “He collected them over the years.

“I joined the society 25 or 26 years ago and he was collecting things even then, and he was doing that until not long before he passed away.

“Some people got in touch with him and handed him material. I believe there was one person who rescued things from a car-boot sale somewhere and passed them onto Bob. That was how he got all these bits and pieces and built it all up.

“He had sketch scripts from Tommy Morgan. There was a lot of material from Harry Gordon. I’ve been looking through it. It’s all his material, handwritten in pencil, on stationery from the old Alhambra Theatre [an elegant theatre that staged its final show in 1969] – he wrote sketches and monologues in his dressing-room inbetween shows. That’s not the sort of thing you really want to see disappear. It’s part of history.

%image('17367134', type="article-full", alt="Francie and Josie were among the stars who played Jimmy Logan's Metropole")“The society’s now sitting with about 3,000 items – programmes, photographs, posters, that kind of thing. As I said, it’s a tribute to Bob for all the amazing work he did over the years”.

Bob Bain’s interest was first kindled at an early age by the old Metropole theatre in Glasgow’s Stockwell Street. As he told the Evening Times in 2018, “I still remember walking in. I must have been seven or eight years old, and seeing the roaring fire and the old couches where you’d sit and wait until it started. Ever since, I have loved the theatre.”

Later, he fell in love the Glasgow Empire, the monolithic venue on Sauchiehall Street and West Nile Street that for decades attracted the biggest showbiz stars on both sides of the Atlantic, not to mention thousands of lesser-known variety and novelty acts. The first of many, many Empire posters soon came his way.

“From there”, adds Derek, “he started collecting things from the [nearby] Pavilion, and when he began working there he got even more. Then he started to acquire programmes from places such as eBay from other theatres. People would contact him, saying, ‘I’ve got a bag of programmes here, would you like them?’

%image('17364384', type="article-full", alt="Bob Bain, photographed in 2010")

“Bob would say, of course I'd like them. I’d be in his house and he’d say he’d just received a bag of programmes. He’d go through them: it was literally everything and anything. He would take out the variety ones out, the pantomime ones. He’d pass any others, like opera programmes, to somebody else”.

Derek said that while the British Music Hall Society, in London, has an extensive array of costumes, photographs, posters and costumes, “it’s all kept in their archive and if you want to see anything you contact the Archivist and they’ll maybe email you a photograph as they are very helpful, but I don't think the Archivist would be able to digitise their vast collection. It would take a lot of time for them. Scotland at the moment, I suppose, is one of the places that has started to digitise things for the benefit of the public”. He does describe the excellent Arthur Lloyd site of theatre history, however, as invaluable.

An appreciation: Bob Bain, secretary of the Scottish Music Hall Society

Among the next items to be digitised by Derek from Bob’s collection are pantomime programmes from the Theatre Royal, which starred Harry Gordon, and programmes from the old Cosy Corner theatre in Dunoon (which has been recalled affectionately by, amongst others, Sylvester McCoy, who played Doctor Who in the Eighties). There are also programmes from a theatre in Saltcoats, and from the Tivoli, up in Aberdeen. “There’s still a lot of material to be gone through in Bob’s loft”, observes Derek.

%image('17364491', type="article-full", alt=" A photograph of comedian Lex McLean with the Moxon Girls, part of Bob's collection")

“Apart from anything else, Bob’s collection represents a piece of history that is no longer there. A lot of people nowadays don’t know about the pantos and about some of the good shows that used to be staged in Glasgow and indeed all over Scotland.

“I thought that if I get everything on, then it will be there for research purposes. It’s there for entertainment purposes and for historical value. It’s something that doesn’t die.

“Maureen Beattie, daughter of Johnny Beattie, is our honorary president, and she says the work that is being put into this is absolutely amazing. ‘Just keep going with what you can manage to do’, she says, ‘because at least people can view it without having to pay anything or having to fill out forms, and there’s no red tape involved.

“In Glasgow, we still have the King’s, the Theatre Royal, the Pavilion and the Citizens, of course”, Derek adds. “But the other theatres have all long since gone. So much has disappeared with the passing of the years. That’s why it’s important that the society keeps on doing what it is doing”.

Continues next week. Website: scottishmusichallsociety.com