POLA Negri, the celebrated Polish stage and screen actress who had found fame in Hollywood’s silent-movie era, once toured theatres with a one-act play for two characters. During her run at Glasgow’s Empire Theatre she was put up at the city’s Central Hotel.

The opening night at the Empire did not go well. Glasgow journalist Jack House, who was present, later recorded that Negri had come perilously close to getting the bird from the audience. The play, he said, was terrible, and her acting not much better.

The following day House called on her at the hotel, intent on taking her out for lunch and an interview at Lang’s, a male-only, quick-lunch bar in St George’s Place. Her enterprising PR man had even promised that a piper would lead the way to Lang’s. But when House arrived at the Central, it was plain that Negri’s secretary knew nothing about any date.

“We were talking in Pola’s suite”, House recalled, “and, through the open door of the bedroom, I could hear Miss Negri swearing in what I presumed was Polish and tearing up the morning papers with their notices of her performance.=

“I never did take Pola Negri to lunch, and, looking back, I think it’s just as well!”

HeraldScotland: Cliff Richard backstage at the Empire Theatre in GlasgowCliff Richard backstage at the Empire Theatre in Glasgow (Image: free)

Negri was one of many, many stars from home and abroad who lit up the Empire stage in Sauchiehall Street during its influential heyday. Others included Lena Horne, Howard Keel, Tommy Cooper, Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Judy Garland, Nat “King” Cole, Cliff Richard, Harry Secombe, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Cab Calloway, Mel Torme, Danny Kaye, Roy Rogers and Trigger, Laurel and Hardy, Marie Lloyd, Vesta Tilley, Dickie Valentine, Andy Stewart, George Formby and Will Fyffe.

Nor does the list quite end there: Shirley Bassey, Eartha Kitt, Alma Cogan, Connie Francis, Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Morecambe and Wise, Billy Fury, Frankie Laine, Abbott and Costello, and Betty Hutton all trod the boards at the Empire.

It was at the Empire, too, that Bud Flanagan first met Chesney Allen. In his memoirs, Flanagan said that he and Allen then repaired to Wyper’s 4A Restaurant, a well-known venue opposite the Odeon in West Regent Street, co-owned by Will Fyffe and Johnny Campbell. Flanagan and Allan would become famous as a singing and comedy act (to Jack House they were “one of the greatest comedy couples ever known in this country”).

Yet for every household name at the Empire there were perhaps dozens of lesser-known acts. Who now remembers Richiardi Jnr (“the baffling conqueror of time & space”), or Dolores Ventura (“Columbia’s blonde bombshell of the keyboard”), or the Parisian act, Jits Bops, or indeed the “brilliant trick cyclists”, Three Hellos?

HeraldScotland: Judy GarlandJudy Garland (Image: free)

But then this was a time when variety entertainment was all the rage, and audiences in Glasgow and elsewhere were enthusiastic nightly patrons. Every last kind of entertainment was offered at the Empire, from TV, radio and pop stars to ballet, circuses, symphony orchestras, comedy, opera, revues and vaudeville.

As Alison Kerr notes in the book Dear Green Sounds: Glasgow’s Music Through Time and Buildings, the Empire was Glasgow’s top variety theatre, a flagship outpost on Moss Empire’s chain of music halls that made it the Scottish equivalent of the London Palladium. All the best-known stars appeared there.

There was a theatre on that distinctive site for 89 years, all told. The Gaiety opened there in March 1874; the first Empire (sometimes called the Empire Palace) followed in 1896; and the second Empire in September 1931 after a substantial reconstruction extended it to the corner of Renfield Street and allowed it to seat 2,100 people.

Jack House recollected that the first show he saw at the first Empire was “the man I considered the greatest conjurer in the world, David Devant. I was about 12 and daft on conjuring, and my father thought that seeing Devant might put me off the amateur stuff. It didn’t”.

Once the second Empire opened, so did the floodgates. Every night, every week, seemed to bring something new, something different.

HeraldScotland: Artists and staff link arms on stage in front of a pipe band to sing Auld Lang Syne after the final show at the Empire Theatre in Glasgow..1963.Artists and staff link arms on stage in front of a pipe band to sing Auld Lang Syne after the final show at the Empire Theatre in Glasgow..1963. (Image: free)

Danny Kaye, House reflected, commanded the Empire audience with a unique, effortless style: “The enormous stage seemed to shrink to a frame around his personality as he sat with his legs dangling over the footlights and chatted to his friends – in other words, the whole audience.”

Frank Sinatra famously did a week-long run of shows at the Empire in July 1953. Each night had two shows, at 6.10pm and 8.25pm. (Sinatra also performed two shows at the Ayr Playhouse on Sunday, July 12.)

“He came north unobtrusively by plane and had to run the gauntlet of quite a small crowd of his fans as he entered his hotel just after noon,” wrote an Evening Times reporter on Monday, July 6. “Then, pipe in hand and going nicely, he talked easily with a reception committee of pressmen.

“He talked about his golf … He talked about TV … [and] confessed to some admiration for the BBC. TV technique, particularly in televised plays … He talked, only a little and under prompting, about Frank Sinatra. The future of Frank, as he sees it, seems to mean less and less singing and more and more light comedy – not gag-comedy but situation-comedy.”

The papers’ verdict on Sinatra’s opening night was favourable. “Oh! Frankie, How They Loved It”, ran the headline in the Evening Times the following morning. The review began: “He’s here! The swoon king himself, Frank Sinatra, arrived at the Empire last night and, amid squeals, yelps, and whistles from packs of his ardent fans, ‘The Voice’ proceeded to entertain us for the entire second half of the programme.”

The following month, Sinatra’s latest film, From Here to Eternity, was released in America, and his big Hollywood comeback was underway.

Much has been made of the Empire audience being hard to please on some nights, especially where certain comedians were concerned. An unusual example arose in the late 1950s, according to Liz O’Neil, who “moonlighted” as an usherette at the venue from early 1957 until late 1959.

Contributing to the informative Glasgow Empire webpages originated by the late Bob Bain, secretary of the Scottish Music Hall and Variety Theatre Society, she wrote: “Glasgow was not ready for the topless show which was staged around 1958 and they had to close the theatre midway through the show when the audience started throwing ice cream onto the stage and the main dancer nearly slipped on it. Bobby, the maestro in the orchestra pit, was hit on the head with a coin thrown from the audience. The show was re-staged the following evening.”

Jack House recalled an unsavoury incident when the jazz legend, Louis Armstrong, played the Empire.

Armstrong, he wrote, was not allowed to bring his band with him, and was instead backed by Glasgow’s Billy Mason and his band. “Outside the Empire,” House continued, “were bills showing all the nasty things which [the noted critic] Hannen Swaffer had written in London about Satchmo [Armstrong’s nickname]. Every night middle-aged and elderly people in the audience got up in the middle of the Louis Armstrong performance and walked out”.

*Continues next week