An Introduction by Josette Marchant, daughter of Horace Collins

Horace-Collins Fred-CollinsThroughout the early years of the 20th century the theatres and music halls of Scotland were the places that brought light, laughter and colour into the lives of the average working man and his family. Before cinema began to take hold in the 1930’s, Music Hall, variety acts and pantomime reigned supreme. The Glasgow of those days was quite different to now. It was an industrial city – oily, dirty and grim – yet with a large working-class population eager to be entertained but not able to pay ‘fancy’ prices.

Every town and city in the country could, in those days, support at least one if not several venues where variety shows could be enjoyed. The city of Glasgow, where our story centres, had a wealth of well known and patronised venues. These palaces of light added much to the thrill of live entertainment with their handsome facades and elaborate interior decor. Early audiences would listen to a full complement of musicians in the orchestra pit which augmented the lavishly staged productions. In the 1930’s and 40’s when the degree of comfort had improved tremendously from the very early music halls, nothing could compare with the thrill of arriving at these imposing theatres and savouring the atmosphere. In those days people would leave their fireside and go out to seek their entertainment. There was a sense of occasion and Scottish people made a conscious, and determined effort to get out of their every day austere environments for an evening at the theatre and once their spirits had been lifted it made the late night walk home through darkened streets feel not quite so bad.

Such then was the picture but our story is not of the stars that trod the boards seeking fame and sometimes
fortune. Our story is about two men, Fred and Horace Collins who through their skills and abilities as impresarios,
theatre owners and variety agents became first and foremost in this field in Scotland. These men did much to provide the framework from which the artistes flourished. They gave countless stars the opportunities to shine and did much to put Scotland in the forefront of variety entertainment. This is the story of the Collins Theatrical Empire in Scotland which spanned a period in excess of sixty years. Founded by Fred Collins, consolidated by his son, Horace who reigned supreme through the decades of the thirties and forties until it faded away in the fifties with his grandson Randle, bringing down the final curtain.

The Collins family hopes this record may be of use to young people studying the history of theatre in Great Britain and be of even more interest to those who are old enough to remember.

First Act:

Fred Collins 1876-1931

Duke Street, Glasgow

Duke Street, Glasgow

Fred Collins didn’t really exist. It was a stage name – his real name was James Nelson. James was born in 1876 in Duke St, Glasgow, within sight of the prison. His father was Andrew Nelson, a police sergeant and his mother was Mary Ann. James had two elder siblings, Mary and Andrew and a younger sister Adena. Their father died when James was only one year old and his mother died just nine years later, leaving them orphans. James’ elder sister Mary became guardian to her siblings and when James left school at 13 she supported him through a six year apprenticeship as a house painter. When James was just about to become self supporting, his brother Andrew died. It was certainly a tough start for the young ‘Fred Collins’.

(3)-Young-Fred-Collins-Front-right-painter-and-decorator

Young Fred Collins- Front right- painter and decorator

W.F. Frame

W.F. Frame

From his childhood Fred was stage-struck. His weekly enjoyment was to visit the Good Templar’s Harmonic Association Concerts. ‘The Bursts’ as they were called, were held in three of the principal Glasgow Halls every Saturday evening, the Wellington Palace, the Albion Halls and the Bridgeton Institute. On payment of 6d Fred received a big ‘poke’ of pastry and as many cups of tea as he could consume whilst the service lasted. The same company appeared at each of the halls and were conveyed there by horse cab. Many well-known artistes appeared and amongst others, Fred enjoyed watching Harry Linn, Pat Feeney, Bessie Bonhill and W F Frame, an established Scots comedian known as ‘The Man You Know’.

Mackenzie Murdoch

Mackenzie Murdoch

The first music hall Fred ever entered was Frame’s Concert Hall in Dunlop Street and he formed a very close association with Willie Frame, the forerunner of Sir Harry Lauder and Mackenzie Murdoch, both of whom Frame groomed for stardom. Mackenzie Murdoch ‘Mac’ won his way to popularity largely by his skill as a violinist but it was his song ‘Hame O’ Mine’ which immortalised him. He was billed by Frame as ‘The Scottish Paganini’ and toured in the early days with Harry Lauder before striking out on his own. Fred Collins had the honour of being one of the committee who organised the erection of a monument to his memory in Sighthill Cemetery at the unveiling of which Sir Harry sang a very moving rendition of ‘Hame O’ Mine’. Sir Harry kept the song alive by using it in his act for the rest of his years.

Songwriter to the Stars

Young Harry Lauder

Young Harry Lauder

Stageland became more and more appealing to Fred and at the age of 17 he decided to try his hand at song writing which he had dabbled in since childhood. By the age of 20 be had written many successful songs for many top artistes of the day and became a compositor with Daniel Barr (of “The Poet’s Box” fame), who published a fortnightly song sheet called “The Professional’. This sheet was for the benefit of theatrical professionals and featured news and gossip of the day. He became so engrossed that eventually he was offered a partnership in the business and over a relatively short period it became well worth a visit from artistes requiring new material. He wrote over 300 songs and met up with a young miner from Hamilton who was singing in amateur concerts and on the lookout for material called Harry Lauder. Lauder was closely following W.F. Frame and on one occasion entered a competition and was ruled out by the judges who felt he was too good a copy of Frame! Considering he was being groomed by Frame perhaps this was not too surprising but Lauder never quite forgot the judge’s decision. At this time, at another such amateur competition, Lauder won a silver medal being beaten to the gold by none other than J.H.Anthony (father of Jack) even in these days Lauder had his crooked stick and the proverbial Tam O’Shanter bunnet!

Lauder and Fred became lifelong friends and toured together on many occasions. Fred wrote many of Lauder’s earliest songs and later when Lauder became a promising Scots Singer/Comedian (under his name on the day bills was the sub-title ‘Frame’s Double’) he was singing a song Fred wrote specially for him entitled ‘The Actor’s Wife’ although Fred stated he hardly recognised it as one of his own creations!

An Early Scottish Boxing Show courtesey of F Byatt

An Early Scottish Boxing Show courtesey of F Byatt

Although successful, Fred found song writing was not particularly lucrative, as in those days Artistes, on
purchasing songs for which they paid between £1 and £5 could legally put their own names on them. So it was difficult for the original writers to make an impact. At that time Boxing Exhibitions were storming the Halls and he decided to train to become a professional boxer. He was doing fairly well but very soon decided it was not for him and it would be best to turn his attention to a more profitable and less painful branch of  entertainment…

Fred takes to the Stage

Harry Tate

Harry Tate

After many months of hard practice Fred became a comic/singer and began to tread the boards with an
Irish partner calling themselves ‘The Two Emmets’ – Irish Comedians and Dancers’.  Their first engagement was a touring pantomime in Scotland and the entire company totalled 16. Nevertheless they were ambitious enough to play the Chief Robbers in ‘The Forty Thieves’. Most of the places the Emmets visited were one-night stands and the tour lasted 14 weeks. It proved very successful and, full of confidence, they accepted a booking to play at the Sadlers Wells Theatre, London. Unfortunately, because of their strange accents, the east-end, cockney audience couldn’t understand them and they finished the same evening. On the same bill was another Glasgow boy mimic, the world famous Harry Tate.

With nothing to lose The Two Emmets travelled north playing smaller music halls in Nottingham, Leicester and Birmingham until they arrived in Dudley. They were booked to appear at the Theatre Royal, Ilkeston the following week and decided to stay with friends in Wolverhampton only a few miles from Dudley. Then their troubles began. Instead of taking their baggage, they arranged with the Theatre Porter to put it on a train which they would join at Wolverhampton. Unfortunately they never saw their baggage again, it was assumed to have been stolen en-transit which meant they were unable to fulfil their engagement in Ilkeston. With only a few shillings between them they decided to head to Liverpool where they boarded a steamer as stowaways to Glasgow, Fred was unable to tell the true state of affairs to his relatives but his sister suspiciously declared she would always stick by him provided he made his living by honest means.  In order to try again he drew on his talents as a songwriter and soon had enough funds to renew the wardrobe of ‘The Two Emmets’. With some difficulty they received a new offer to tour Scotland for the princely salary of £2.10 (joint) per week (25/- each) but within several months his partner fell ill and ‘The Two Emmets’ ceased to exist.

Fred's Calling Card

Fred’s Calling Card

Yet again Fred returned to Scotland and eventually became a Master Painter. He paid a return visit to Wolverhampton where he married Annie Randle, a young lady he had befriended when playing the halls in that area. He and Annie came back to Camelon, near Falkirk and for two or three years he worked as a painter trying hard to forget the stage. They had a son, Horace Horatio and a daughter, Edith.  Due to the Boer War, his little business was badly hit by rising costs and he decided to succumb once more to his love of the stage, but this time as a solo act. He toured the UK as a Scots Comic and Singer and became known for his ‘Sullie Wullie’ character. One of the songs he wrote for his act was ‘I’m the Saftest of the Family’. A song Sir Harry Lauder perpetuated until his death in 1950. Jimmy Logan continued to sing this song until he died in 2001.

Fred Collins top hat n' tails

Fred Collins top hat n’ tails

Fred was particularly successful playing at the Fife Coast venues and on a return visit to the Town Hall, Bo’ness, decided a change of programme was required and appeared for the very first time in full evening dress telling funny stories in addition to playing piano and singing popular songs of the day under the stage name, Alfie Cowie.  After several tours throughout the UK and Ireland, success came quite unexpectedly when he signed contracts extending over two years to appear at the principal London and provincial Music Halls. He was billed as ‘The Representative Scotch Comedian’. Eventually dates became due at the Queen’s and Tivoli Theatres in Glasgow and Fred decided to rearrange his act and change his name to Fred Collins which became the family name.

The Tivoli, which became the Glasgow Concert Hall courtesy Cinema Theatre Association - Tony Moss Collection

The Tivoli, which became the Glasgow Concert Hall courtesy Cinema Theatre Association – Tony Moss Collection

Around this time it became the ‘in thing’ for entertainers to change their names in the hope that they could further their careers i.e. Johnnie Herbertson became Jack Anthony etc, in the hope the chosen name would look better ‘in lights’. Future generations of the family have since never been known as Nelson but as Collins.

Fred’s Pierrot days

Fred Collins Entertainers 1913

Fred Collins Entertainers 1913

Fred Collins became a pierrot entertainer and appeared all over the UK. As time progressed, he started to organise groups himself and to arrange bookings. He also became deeply interested in things concerned with human welfare.

Around this time he met a man who was running skating rinks very successfully and they formed a partnership with Fred taking over the rights for entertainments at Inverness. In due course, he found his new partner was an adventurer and immediately split with him and took over the sole responsibility. From then on he never looked back. He produced shows under the name ‘Alfresco Entertainments’ designed to appeal not only to the townspeople at seaside venues, but aimed at attracting summer visitors.

Fred Collins Entertainers Burtisland 1915

Fred Collins Entertainers Burtisland 1915

At that time there were lots of different groups of entertainers who rented halls, bandstands, even outdoor sites, to perform in and “Alfresco Entertainments” reached a high standard. Mainly because as an entertainer himself Fred had worked under conditions he knew could be vastly improved upon to the great advantage of everyone concerned. For 4d patrons were entertained at Kinghorn, Fife on a site near the seashore with cliffs on either side and it proved such a success that a deputation from the Town Council of Burntisland persuaded him to transfer there for more space and comfort.

Fred Collins Pierrot group with Harry Gordon

Fred Collins Pierrot group with Harry Gordon

In 1913 the company included the Aberdonian comedian, Harry Gordon, and when in 1914 the First Word War broke out, the company motto became ‘business as usual’. Fred raised money for war funds and made sure the military who were barracked in the Burntisland District were well entertained by building a Pavilion costing several hundred pounds (around £50,000 today).

Burntisland Concert Hall now closed

Burntisland Concert Hall now closed

As time progressed, the management side of the business greatly increased.  He worked hard trying to encourage other town councils to welcome men with capital who could invest it in entertaining the visitors as he had done. He had seen the success of many of the English towns which he greatly envied such as Blackpool which to this day still has its pier shows. He continued to appear at many venues, Carnoustie, Millport, Rothesay, even as far away as the Highlands and Islands, but he was most successful in Burntisland, where he spent ten years, travelling to and from Balgrayhill in Glasgow.

Fred's children Back Annie & Edie Front Horace & Pete

Fred’s children Back Annie & Edie Front Horace & Pete

The family grew and another daughter, Annie and son, James Alfred Junior, (known as Pete from his schooldays) were added. In later years he didn’t take part in the performances but never missed a show which kept him in direct touch with the patrons.

During his many tours of the UK he had become aware of the appalling conditions under which out-of-work artistes had to seek work. Each town or city would have several public houses, referred to as ‘professional houses of call’ – although the average ‘pro'(Professional Artistes) was by no means a pub hunter. There was Jones Corner at Leicester Square in London. The Clock Tower, Liverpool and in Glasgow it was Lauder’s Bar at the corner of Sauchiehall Street and Renfield Street. Pros would visit these venues thereby forming a great attraction for the general public and often excellent business resulted. Fred recalled one theatrical Manager interviewing his clients in a public bar and the artiste who bought the most beer got the best contract. Fred frequently lobbied The Variety Artistes’ Federation to have some form of recreation rooms in each town
to help alleviate this situation. Over the years things improved greatly after the Theatrical Employees Registration
Act was passed and conditions became much more standardised. Chorus troupes were only engaged by Agencies subject to a private rehearsal and they worked for a fair salary, which at that time ranged from £1-3 weekly, with every prospect of rising in the profession. Prior to this Act any adventurer could supply a dancing troupe, pay them a pittance and live very well by taking a ridiculous fee out of the profits. The girls were much maligned and some who were conscientious and hardworking had to stand a fair amount of abuse.

The Fred Collins Variety Agency

The Fred Collins Variety Agency office next door to the Pavilion Theatre, Glasgow

The Fred Collins Variety Agency office next door to the Pavilion Theatre, Glasgow

Then came an important juncture in Fred’s life. His agency work increased to such an extent that he decided to look for office premises and within a short time The Fred Collins Variety Agency was established at 115 Renfield Street, Glasgow. The offices were strategically placed above Lauder’s Bar, which is right next door to the Pavilion Theatre. He engaged a manager, a typist and an office boy. At first he met considerable opposition, as people in the business had heard of these Agents in England and word was put about that Agents were mainly sharks and rogues. However, he worked long and hard, sometimes accepting engagements to appear on stage at half his salary in order to make the business sound.

Fred Collins and family

Fred Collins and family

Horace Horatio Collins

Horace Horatio Collins

The family moved to Hill Street in Garnethill which was an area of Glasgow where theatricals looked for digs and bought a very impressive 20 horsepower motorcar in which Fred drove along Sauchiehall Street attired in top hat and tails and looking very impressive – even though he probably didn’t have a lot more than an average wage earner – but it put him in the limelight which was the object of the exercise. In 1915, his eldest son, Horace Horatio Collins joined the business at the age of 14 and gradually Scotland’s first successful Variety Agency was established.

Tommy Lorne courtesy of Jeremy King

Tommy Lorne courtesy of Jeremy King

The Collins’ travelled around assessing ‘raw material’, from Wick to Plymouth, which with care and dressing might develop into the finer article. Budding stars realised a contract for work with the Agency and could channel their talents into the most successful venues as Fred & Horace built up the booking rights for a considerable number of Scottish theatres. Around this time Fred had his first meeting with the great Scottish Comedian, Tommy Lorne, who was working with a partner, the act being called Wallace & Lorne.

Dave Willis

Dave Willis

On his return from 4 years’ active service, Fred gave Lorne his first booking in pantomime in Edinburgh which proved a great success. He wrote songs and material for him and was proud that “Tommy Lorne became one of Scotland’s greatest pantomime comedians”. Later Lorne went into the management side of the business himself and ran his own revues. It was Lorne who secured the services of another Glasgow boy, Dave Willis in 1929. Later, under contract to Collins, Willis went to the top as a panto comic – “with a little careful handling he became top-rank” was how Fred Collins put it!

Will Fyffe

Will Fyffe

The Collins Agency provided work for hundreds of artistes in Scottish Variety. Acts were imported from as far
away as America. Father and son worked tirelessly, Horace proving a tremendous asset to his father. They were at their desks from 7.30am until 6.30pm then they would visit two or three theatres evaluating the various acts and then return to the office at 11.30pm to dispatch the mail before midnight. The Agency was doing a great amount of business throughout the week so weekends became the time to visit managements. During one of these journeys, Fred visited a booth occupied by a touring theatrical company “a penny geggy” as they were called in Glasgow and saw an artiste who deeply impressed him with his comic songs. He was the celebrated Scottish comedian Will Fyffe – and he was immediately booked for £6!

Britannia Panopticon courtesy of Judith Bower

Britannia Panopticon courtesy of Judith Bower

An early visitor to the Agency was Jack Buchanan who asked if Fred would visit his show which was appearing at the Panopticon, Glasgow. Another person associated with Fred at that time was Mr George Urie Scott who opened a small hall in the east end of Glasgow for which he gave the Collins Agency the exclusive booking rights. Eventually George Urie moved over to Picture Palaces but he ran the Pavilion, the Empress and also the Dennistoun Palace Dance Hall, Glasgow. He remained a close family friend until his death in the 1960’s.

The agency had the booking rights for many theatres throughout Scotland and artistes, far too numerous to mention, became ‘stars’ in the profession. Many old billboards from these early days are still around and have been reproduced in various books and journals.

Revues could tour without leaving Scotland for almost a year by visiting towns throughout Lanarkshire, Kilmarnock, Kirkcaldy, Methil, Montrose, Arbroath, Falkirk, Alexandria and Clydebank, proved very popular. In the early days of the Collins Agency, their best known productions included ‘Guess the Title’ and its follow up ‘Keep Guessing’. The latter was so successful it ran for over three years and then moved on to London for a 14 week season. This was one occasion when the Scottish element was appreciated as the London audiences loved the ‘Highland Glen Scene’ with the Six Lauder Lassies and famous pipers and highland dancers. Then came “Say When” which was the first time a jazz band was toured. “The Manhattan Melody-Makers” originated from Glasgow and went on to be very successful on radio.

Lofty the Giant

Horace & Josee Collins Brussels trip

Horace & Josee Collins Brussels trip

The Collins’ toured Europe in search of novelty acts for their revue shows and one of the most unusual they met up with was in Brussels. This was Albert Johan Kramer who was a Dutchman billed as “The Dutch Giant” by a touring showman but owing to labour difficulties, the tour was not meeting with much success.

Albert Johan Kramer 'Lofty' courtesy of Daniel Canford

Albert Johan Kramer ‘Lofty’ courtesy of Daniel Canford

“Lofty” as he was renamed, was reputed to be 9 feet 3 and a half tall and it took 8 and a half yards of material to make him a suit. To make himself look even taller, he wore a frock coat and top-hat together with thick-soled shoes because he was actually ‘only’ 7 feet 9½ inches. His breakfast consisted of two soup plates of porridge, ten soft boiled eggs, five chops and ten bread rolls all washed down with eight cups of coffee. He smoked on average 50 cigars daily.

Pete Collins (5'8) with Lofty and Seppetoni

Pete Collins (5’8) with Lofty and Seppetoni

He had been partnered with a little man called Josef Fassler billed as ‘Seppetoni The Swiss Midget’ at 3 feet 6 inches. He was reputed to be the smallest man in the world. Seppitoni would make his entrance to the stage carried in Lofty’s attaché case. Strangely enough Lofty married Seppetoni’s sister and they ended up brothers-in-law! The Revue, entitled ‘The Big Noise!’ toured every town of importance in the UK.

Although arranging travel for Lofty was difficult and costly as he required special railway carriages. Lofty was paid a very high salary for the three years the Revue ran and on his return to Holland, settled down as a hotel proprietor. This revue was later retitled “Would you Believe It” the cast being costed to suit the Box Office and capacity of each theatre played.

‘Would You Believe It?’ Poster artwork for sale

Would You Believe It 1939

Would You Believe It 1939

Prints of this wonderful rare original 1939 ‘Would You Believe It?’ Dundee Palace Theatre playbill are available for purchase. High quality Giclee art prints on fine quality paper are available at £70 plus P&P. Prints are made to the Playbill’s original size 340x760mm and are delivered unmounted and unframed. Proceeds from the sale of prints help to maintain this website. Payment may be made by Paypal or cheque. Click on “Shop” for more information.

The First Collins Pantomimes

Fred precides over a panto  rehearsal

Fred precides over a panto rehearsal

Fred then decided to venture into the world of pantomime. In an old ‘Chambers Journal’ dated 1825 which he found on his office shelf, he read ‘Is Pantomime Dead or Dying?’ Fortunately the answer was ‘No’ as it is for pantomime that the Collins’ became most renowned. Fred’s first venture as a pantomime producer was in partnership with Miss Florrie Forde, one of the most famous chorus singers of her time.

Florrie Forde

Florrie Forde

Two seasons later he went into full production on his own account. After due negotiations, he purchased a 4 hour ‘Mother Goose’ panto from a London syndicate and the contract included the producer. The following year, he dispensed with the producer and rewrote and produced his own ‘Mother Goose’ show for the Opera House, Kirkcaldy, a theatre under his management. He cut scene after scene including the long boring ballet which always formed part of the old-style pantomimes until he managed to half the show’s run time to two hours.

Glasgow Pavilion courtesy of Iain Toppin

Glasgow Pavilion courtesy of Iain Toppin

Owing to the laughter and applause the show overrun by 35 minutes and if there was to be a second house, commencing at 8.40pm some drastic action was necessary. Much against the consensus of opinion, he deleted a complete scene which had cost over £200 to build, but fortunately this did not interfere with the story. The original pantos had very large casts and long drawn-out intervals and were extremely costly.  He felt his panto should he built for laughing purposes and adhere to the fairy tale faithfully without insulting the juvenile intelligence. This proved one of his greatest successes. The production went on to Stirling and then to the Kings Theatre, Greenock where a Mr M Ballantyne, Managing Director of the Pavilion Theatre Glasgow, saw it and asked if it could be taken to the Pavilion the following year. This became the first resident twice-nightly pantomime in Glasgow and Fred was very proud of himself for having pioneered this type of show.

Kitty Evelyn

Kitty Evelyn

Unlike others, Collins’ not only produced and wrote their productions but they also designed their own scenery. Costumes were made in the early days by a sister-in-law, Miss Edith Randle, and later at the Agency’s Edinburgh workshops where dedicated staff gave artistes individual attention. ‘Mother Goose’ ran for 12 weeks and then played at Glasgow’s Lyceum Theatre and Olympia Theatre and created a record at the Hippodrome, Hamilton. The principal boy was Miss Kitty Evelyn who was a sister-in-law of Fred’s.

Dora Lyndsay

Dora Lyndsay

Power and Bendon

Power and Bendon

The comedienne Miss Dora Lindsay played Mother Goose who sang ‘Meet me at the Shell’ and the comedians Power and Bendon also starred in this production. After the third production at the Pavilion, Fred arranged with Moss Empires to transfer to the Coliseum Theatre, Glasgow with its larger seating capacity and the twice-nightly format became the norm.

Coliseum Theatre courtesy of the Scottish Screen Archive at the National Library of Scotland

Coliseum Theatre courtesy of the Scottish Screen Archive at the National Library of Scotland

Annie 'Nancy' Collins

Annie ‘Nancy’ Collins

Such was the family involvement at this time that Fred’s younger daughter, Annie, begged her father to give her a chance to become a performer. Fred was totally opposed to this as he knew what a hard life it could be from experience, but relented and she attained considerable success as a dancer until, whilst appearing in pantomime ‘Miss Nan C. Collins’ (her stage-name) broke her pelvis whilst doing the splits. Sadly Annie’s health prevented her career from developing and in 1940 she died of T.B.

Fred’s Autobiography

In 1930 Fred Collins wrote his autobiography which was published over some ten weeks in the ‘Glasgow Weekly News’. Under the title ‘My Thirty Years in Stageland’ he recalled that he had written and produced 18 different pantomimes all of which were successful, at the box office at any rate! He also refers to his very many friends in the business. Below are all ten installments, for those who wish to hear Fred’s story in his own words.

The Collins Theatres of Ayr, Edinburgh, Aberdeen Dundee and Liverpool

Ayr Pavilion - courtesy JTK Barr

Ayr Pavilion – courtesy JTK Barr

Edinburgh Theatre Royal

Edinburgh Theatre Royal

Fred soon became lessee for the Pavilion in Ayr which had been under the control of Ben Popplewell who returned to his home in Leicestershire but was anxious to return to Ayr. Fred met Ben and his son, Eric, in the Euston Hotel in London and to everyone’s satisfaction the Popplewells returned to Ayr where they ran both the Gaiety and Pavilion. Fred had received several big propositions in Edinburgh for which he had a very soft spot – he liked to believe that his father was born in Edinburgh Castle whilst his father was stationed in the army there. Also he was recognised as one of the favourite Scottish comedians in Edinburgh. He felt sure there was an opening for a variety theatre and accepted a long lease for the Theatre Royal from Howard and Wyndham. After an uphill struggle, the theatre, having been somewhat neglected, was firmly established as ‘Edinburgh’s Home of Variety’.

Edinburgh Theatre Royal Seating Plan

Edinburgh Theatre Royal Seating Plan

Aberdeen Tivoli courtesy of J Young

Aberdeen Tivoli courtesy of J Young

The Royal had a wonderful atmosphere under the auspices of the manager, Mr A.J.’Bumper’ Wark. The musical director was Percy Fox who led one of the finest orchestras in the country. Shortly after, Fred was offered a long-lease for the Shakespeare Theatre, Liverpool, again through Howard & Wyndham (on behalf of Robert Arthurs Theatres limited). He controlled the bookings for the Tivoli Theatre, Aberdeen and, through his friend Bernard Frutin, was entrusted with the booking arrangements for the Metropole Theatre, Stockwell Street, Glasgow – all theatres in which he had appeared himself.

A Meeting with John Logie Baird

John Logie Baird courtesy of J. Browne

John Logie Baird courtesy of J. Browne

Fred’s son Pete recalled a meeting his father had with one of Scotland’s famous sons in his autobiography. One day Jock Kirkpatrick, the manager of the Pavilion Theatre, Glasgow, brought a friend to Fred’s office for an interview. This gentleman was bushy-haired and bespectacled. He seemed to be a rather dreamy sort of person, but a very pleasant one. Pete was instructed to be present to take notes.

“This,” said Jock, “is Mr J L Baird from my home town, Helensburgh. He has a proposition to put to you.” Baird thereupon explained that he was engaged in perfecting an invention which would revolutionise the whole entertainment industry.

Fred listened to his discourse for a long time, completely absorbed. Then he crushed out his cigar and pulled down his waistcoat at the front – a characteristic gesture. At that time he had a successful pantomime running at the Glasgow Coliseum.

“Let me get this straight,” he said “If I understand you correctly, you are at the point of completing an invention which, by the mere turning of a knob, will enable people all over this city to see – let us take an example – my pantomime, while sitting in the comfort of their own fireside?”

Mr Baird confirmed that such was the case.

“And you are short of a few hundred pounds, which you wish me to provide?”

The great inventor nodded, gravely. Fred rose and paced thoughtfully about the room.

“I’ll tell you what I’ll do.” he said at length. “I’ll give you a thousand pounds to take a hatchet to the bloody thing and throw it into the Clyde!”

The Scottish Musical Artistes Benevolent Fund

Musical Artists Benevolent fund presentation

Musical Artists Benevolent fund presentation

Things were going extremely well for Fred, the ‘little orphan’ who frequented the Halls. He was asked to be Founder President of the Scottish Musical Artistes Benevolent Fund and served for over six years until his death. The mission was to help the unfortunates of the profession which could only be done by appealing to the public for donations.

Harry Lauder & wife

Harry Lauder & wife

Although one hears stories of Sir Harry Lauder being ‘a mean Scot’ Fred found this unfair as Sir Harry gave a tremendous amount of time and money to this cause and others. In 1919, when Sir Harry received his knighthood, The Scottish Musical Artistes’ Benevolent Fund organised a luncheon in his honour presenting him with an illuminated address from his old-time associates. When acknowledging this, Sir Harry stated it would be one of his greatest treasures quoting the very old proverb ‘East, West – Hame’s best’. He promised to give a concert in aid of the Benevolent fund. Two years elapsed before he returned to his native soil but he did not forget the promise he had made and appeared in the St Andrews Halls, Glasgow. As a result, the Benevolent Fund benefited to the extent of over £600. Later, Fred organised another matinee which was to take place in the Alhambra, Glasgow. Tickets were selling badly despite an excellent programme so he immediately got in touch with Sir Harry who was in Edinburgh receiving the Freedom of the City. He had cancelled all public engagements on account of the death of Lady Lauder but he agreed to appear and the result was another packed house.

Fred Collins’ Final Curtain

Fred Collins obituary

Fred Collins obituary

Fred's death announcement

Fred’s death announcement

Throughout the 1920’s and 30’s the Fred Collins Variety Agency had become well-established and was famous for it’s productions all over the country. There was a staff of around six working extremely hard for long hours and the family moved to Pollokshields. When Fred’s two daughters Annie and Edie, contracted TB they were sent to Tor-Na-Dee nursing home in Aberdeenshire to recuperate. It was whilst on a train travelling between London and Aberdeen to visit his daughters that Fred first felt a pain in his leg. Initially his doctors were not alarmed but Fred’s health suddenly became worse and he was moved to a Glasgow nursing Home in March 1931. Within just a fortnight, at the age of 54, Fred developed a blood clot and died.

 

Sir Lauder unveil's Fred's Memorial

Sir Lauder unveil’s Fred’s Memorial

Not only was he mourned by his family but also by the entire theatrical profession. The headline announced ‘Cochrane of Scotland, Mr Fred Collins is dead’. Sir Harry Lauder was instrumental in organising the erection of a memorial tombstone on behalf of the Variety Artistes Benevolent Society at Eastwood new Cemetery in Glasgow.

Fred & Edie Collins' headstone

Fred & Edie Collins’ headstone

Sadly most of the embellishments, including the bronze bust of Fred, executed by Benno Scholtz, the eminent Glasgow sculptor, were stolen by vandals in the mid 1970’s. The family was advised that it would be folly to restore the stone as any precious metals would only attract a repeat performance. However, the original stone still remains.

Fred had a hard but enjoyable life and his advice to the younger generation was “There’s no fun like work”

In Fred’s autobiography he stated

“I cannot do better than repeat the words of one of my earliest song successes:

“Dae as ye’d like tae be done tae yersel,
dinna be hard on a fella that fell.
Never dae ocht that’ll gar ye regret,
let your motto aye be forgie an’ forget”

He was quite an ‘act’ to follow…

Fred Collins 1876 - 1931

Fred Collins 1876 – 1931