Third Act and Curtain:

Randle Collins 1934-

Josee Collins

Josee Collins

On the demise of his father Horace his only son Randle was 13 years of age, obvously too young to fill his father’s shoes. The halcyon days were over and so at this point Horace’s widow, Josee, took up the reins of the legacy left by her professionally dominant husband. She did this willingly and with the best of intentions hoping that eventually Randle would step into his father’s footsteps.

However, Josee had little idea of what she was taking on and for one who had a pathological abhorrence of taking advice and absolutely no previous business experience, in retrospect should never have made the attempt.

The beginning of the decline

Collins Agency Letter Head

Collins Agency Letter Head

Initially she assumed the mantle of Managing Director of all the Collins limited companies and promoted an aide of Horace’s to be her General Manager. Unfortunately it took several years for her to discover that her choice was flawed and that he was not working in the best interests of the Organisation. At that point he was replaced by Jim Bennett who had started with the firm as office boy only to have his service interrupted by the 1939-1945 second World War which he mostly spent as a Japanese POW in the far- east. As did many, he returned weighing half his normal weight, but quickly slotted back into the old routine. Jim strove manfully to keep things going but he was fighting a losing battle.Meantime, Josee was discovering that she could not persuade directorates to stay in line and in rapid succession, she lost the managing directorship of the Tivoli Theatre, Aberdeen and the Palace Theatre, Dundee. Due to the Collins’ substantial shareholdings in both these theatres, she remained director but as she neglected the obligations which are part and parcel of that office, she quickly lost all influence and not surprisingly, the booking rights. The other directors of each of these theatres felt that they could make greater short-term profits without having to pay for traditional ‘Collins’ quality This they did by using the ‘expertise’ of on-the-spot individuals who were quite capable of handling the day-to-day running of the halls but with little thought to the longer term consequences. Both theatres soon went into decline and eventually closed – but the important thing for the Collins Organisation was that they had lost the means to groom Scottish Artistes for the future as they no longer had a ‘four season circuit’. If you do not have profitable venues for your productions, you cannot produce and if you cannot employ, you cannot collect commissions which was the Collins’ life blood and so the Company slowly wasted away. Collins’ demise was prolonged because it held controlling interests in the Shakespeare Theatre, Liverpool and the Edinburgh Royal workshops. Also, since Jack Anthony was loyal and still under contract, Collins retained the pantomime season at the Pavilion Theatre, Glasgow. Collins was able to negotiate other less profitable venues for seasonal productions but this was an ever contracting market and the writing was very much on the wall.

It was into this scenario that Randle was introduced into the business in 1951 at age 17 having completed and gained his Highers.

Randle Collins

Randle Collins

Randle Takes the Reins

Since around the early 1940’s Randle had been trailed around the halls to observe and hopefully soak up the
atmosphere and no one had ever contemplated that he would do anything but follow-on. Randle admitted that he was in no way displeased at this prospect and perhaps even slacked a little at school knowing that his career was assured.

However, when at 17 years of age he finally joined the ‘firm’, even to one as raw as he, it was quickly obvious that all was not well : “I was handed 30/-d a week and left to learn by watching and helping my senior”, he remarked. In retrospect, he doesn’t think anyone knew quite what to make of him. Their callow saviour!  Randle adds: “it wasn’t too difficult to see what was wrong and how it should be tackled, but doing it was quite a different matter.”

When asked about his time in the business, Randle’s reply was as follows:-
“I can hardly regret my few years in theatre land as in many ways it was for me a most enjoyable time. There 
I was, a youth, the ‘heir apparent’ to one of the most respected theatrical businesses in Britain and no outsider knew the true, perilous state of our affairs. Consequently, wherever I went, I was treated with a deference which was exceedingly flattering and wholly undeserved for one of my tender age!

Throughout Britain I had only to present myself at any theatre in the country to be made most welcome. Ostensibly to view and assess the current show, I would be ushered into the best seats by people who were by far my seniors in experience but who thought my influence might some day work to their advantage. Most of them were genuinely nice people and those who were not, still felt it prudent to at least be deferential. In our own backyard, Scotland, I think some of them latterly had their suspicions that all was not well, but when I went to England, their ignorance of affairs north of the border, made them really roll out the red carpet! “I knew your Father and even Grandfather” was the oft quoted cry which always preceded an effusive welcome and hospitality to match.  Almost to a man they were very kind and did everything they could to make my visit enjoyable which anyone must realise made for a very pleasant existence.”

Talent Spotting Tales

Don Arrol

Don Arrol

“I was expected to be on constant alert for talent wherever I went, or was sent to, and quickly became quite
adept at spotting it. I think the main trick was being able to recognise raw potential and as an agent/producer, getting in on the ground floor to maximise this value to one-selves. As I have already made clear, our problem was finding placements for our discoveries and this is what beat us in the end – not being unable to discover the stars of tomorrow.In Scotland we were no longer able to sign young artistes to option contracts as we could no longer keep them
in work all the year round. We were no longer able to build our own future stars Therefore increasingly, we had to
bolster what Scots artistes we could get by importing up and coming English names who were known through radio and T V.  Probably the last Scot we really pushed was Don Arrol, born Campbell, who showed a great deal of promise in our shows. When we could no longer keep him employed, he went to England and almost immediately became host of Sunday Night at the Palladium – probably the plum job on British TV at that time. Unfortunately for us alas, talent and money gone to waste!

Ken Dodd courtesy of Quentin Telford

Ken Dodd courtesy of Quentin Telford

On another occasion, I was sent to scout the north of England and the Midlands for pantomime talent. In Sheffield I noticed a young chap called Ken Dodd who I thought would be accepted in Scotland because he was so visual. Enquiries were put in hand and he was ‘pencilled in’ for the following year’s pantomime at the Glasgow Pavilion. However his Agent, Teddy Hinge I think it was, called off as he got a better offer and we finished up with Arthur Haynes just before he became a household name in the 1960’s. Remember those national stars were to play supporting roles to one of our own, probably Jack Anthony.

Arthur Haynes

Arthur Haynes

I recall on another occasion we were asked to send a representative to assess an English Road Show at the Opera House Dunfermline with a view to giving it a few of our dates. Dunfermline was not the easiest of towns to reach except by car in the 1950’s so ‘Yours truly’ was dispatched. I took a pal with me for company and it proved to be a reasonable show which we both enjoyed In it there was a Balooniac called ‘Windy Blow’ who doubled as a cartoonist by the name of ‘Cole’. In his second guise, he sketched a few celebrities and then started picking people from the audience who he would draw and then pass them their portrait in the form of a scroll across the footlights. Now I am completely bald and he had obviously spotted me early on so for his grand finale we had:- “What is that I see? Is it an egg? Is it a balloon? Is that a hair I see?” (drawing a curly one). Then finally, “Thank you sir for being such a good sport etc etc” and I duly received my scroll!

When the show ended. I was ushered backstage where I was to meet the Touring Manager who was duly sent for. Needless to say, that hapless soul turned out to be none other than the cartoonist doing double duty. When the door opened and he espied me waiting to greet him, his face was a picture as he realised he had just made a fool of a chap he had hoped would extend the run of his show! Eventually his “Oh my God – I knew your father, I knew your Uncle – I really am SO very sorry” dissolved into laughter and we were able to fit a couple of extra dates in for him. My pal and I laughed all the way back to Glasgow!

'Hot From Harlem' courtesy of Tom Oates

‘Hot From Harlem’ courtesy of Tom Oates

No one is infallible – least of all me. I recall our office was approached by another English management and asked to have a look at one of their touring shows which was coming to the Stockwell Street Metropole – an unusual occurrence as few English Road Shows played Scotland, but they wanted a date at our Shakespeare Theatre, Liverpool. The show was titled ‘Hot from Harlem’ and on week two ‘Memories of Jolsen’. It was an all coloured show made up of a mix of veterans and raw newcomers and was pretty mediocre. Now each time anyone from the Agency saw an artiste, a reference card was filed for him and this followed him for the rest of his career. In the cast there was a young soubrette who wasn’t much of a singer or dancer, didn’t dress well and in no way impressed me so I wrote my report in this vein.

Shirley Bassey courtesy of Tom Oates

Shirley Bassey courtesy of Tom Oates

Imagine my chagrin when a year or so later Shirley Bassey came to the Empire as equal top of the bill, especially when reporting back to the file I saw my previous
assessment. Everyone had a good laugh at my expense. Someone had obviously seen what I had missed and nurtured her into the undoubted accomplished performer she became.”

The Touring Company Manager

“Another travelling job I used to be given was that of touring company manager. This meant that when a production moved venue on a Saturday night for the next Monday opening, you had to be there to pay your cast on the Friday and oversee the ‘get-out/get-in’ as it was known over the weekend. Sometimes, to cut costs, a member of the cast was designated to do this job but if I was available, I was often landed with it. It entailed a lot of travelling and time consuming hard work especially if it was a heavy show – one with a lot of scenery. I think the Unions must have been slightly star-struck because we got away with murder when dealing with lorry men, railway men and back-stage staff. We used to offer the drivers, porters etc., a few pounds to help on and off-load as required and my trick, being young and fit, was to get stuck in with the labourers, never stopping for a smoke or drink until the job was finished and seeing my example none of them ever liked easing off if I didn’t! Usually when the job was finished and the cash and beer were handed out, someone would tell me what they all thought of me but as each job was paid by the hour, it was well worth it I can still recall the weight of some of these
batons.Once you got into a theatre there was a strict pecking order for the dressing rooms etc., most pronounced someway down the cast which was another headache as you always seemed to miff someone. The trick then was never to favour the same act twice if their billing was equal but after a week or two most companies would become like families and largely got on very well. Again, as I got to know the House Managers better, by the end of the week, I was often told I was favoured above my peers because I bore the Collins name.

Final Memories of the Royal, Edinburgh

The shell of the Theatre Royal after the fire courtesy of Ian Rintoul

The shell of the Theatre Royal after the fire courtesy of Ian Rintoul

“Near the beginning of my employment it was decided to make an inventory of all the costumes and accessories
accumulated by us over half a century. I was seconded to our Edinburgh wardrobe mistress, Miss E Cooke, for nearly three months lugging and listing thousands of outfits of all kinds so that they could be located at will for the first time in decades. Some had been specially tailored for our productions but others were absolutely authentic uniforms and dresses of all kinds and if we still had them today, I imagine I would be one of any TV Producers favourite sons! Alas, some five years later we sold the lot as we had nowhere to store them. Our store was a block of about six large flats forming the rear of the fire damaged Theatre Royal, Edinburgh. The Royal site and its appendages were sold to the adjoining St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral which bought us out, or so it was rumoured, because they had constructed crypts beneath our mutual gable wall. Soon afterwards the Cathedral sold off most of the site to the Edinburgh City Council retaining a small area just beyond the gable as a garden of remembrance – so who knows, I don’t!The back stage area of the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh became our scenic workshop after the fire in 1946 and was
presided over by Mr Bill Grayson, a genial and talented artist who was aided by squads of joiners and general handymen as productions demanded. Up to the mid 1950’s shows were much heavier in scenery than they are today when the accent is more on lighting and costumes and Bill was kept hard at work all year round. I recall there always seemed to be last minute alterations right up to the dress rehearsal in all productions and I never ceased to be amazed at the difference coloured lighting could make to a finished set. One of our company producers was so fond of magenta that he became known to the limesmen as “Mr Maginty” His name was Jay
Morelle and he had been loyal since the 1940’s.”

When the scenery studio and wardrobe were created they had to be staffed. During the time ‘Collins’ owned the Edinburgh Royal every member of the permanent staff became part of an extended family and they were all very concerned with the best interests of their theatre. When a vacancy arose, another employee would often suggest someone suitable to fill the position and the system worked very well as everyone pulled together. At that time there were no unions but everyone got along with good sense and camaraderie. When a wardrobe mistress was first required the musical director Mr Fox suggested his wife ‘Gladdy’ who stayed until the disastrous fire of October 1946, ruling her own little empire very successfully, hiring and firing as demand waxed and waned. When she retired her place was taken by Miss E. Cook who did the same job with equal aplomb until the site was sold. The wardrobe was closed in the mid 1950’s. By that time the collection numbered many thousands of items.

Another interesting character was Mr A.J. ‘Bumper’ Wark.  Bumper was a major in the Indian Army and when he took retirement at the end of the 30’s he decided to try theatre management. He approached Horace, and when asked what his idea of salary was he offered to work for a month gratis and only then would they talk money. He then became manager of the Royal, quickly becoming an Edinburgh ‘worthy’ until the fire of ’46, then, rather than seek a new host offered to upgrade the managerial systems at the other ‘Collins’ theatres. This was short term and it was decided that he would front the scenic and wardrobe departments to free up Bill Grayson and Miss Cook from the paperwork which was becoming onerous. He remained until the business closed.

In the final few years of trading ‘Collins Productions’ rented complete productions and individual costumes etc to other managements including amateur companies and also as fancy dress to the public. The assets of both departments were sold George Urie Scott of the Glasgow Pavilion but within a very few years were resold and sadly dispersed.

The End of the Collins Theatrical Empire

All good things must come to an end and the Collins Empire was no exception.It is Randle’s considered opinion that he had neither the drive nor force of character to save the failing business and he felt that even if he had had the financial clout to try, he would almost certainly, under the prevailing conditions, have failed. As it was, he was gradually given more and more duties in the running of all aspects of the business which he would like to think he came to do as well as anyone could but with ever shrinking venues the one thing he could do nothing to remedy was to prevent the imminent closure.

“Everything was wound down bit by bit. Our creditors were all paid off and we retired honourably into oblivion and l would like to think into theatrical legend. Looking in from the outside,  from what I can see of today’s entertainment scene, it has changed so much that I am not really sorry my time came to an end when it did in 1957.”

Although Randle and his three sisters were young enough to make lives for themselves outwith the theatre, Horace’s widow, Josee had suffered tremendously. Trying to handle the family business alone took a great toll on her health. Josee was hospitalised on many occasions during this period due to alcoholism and eventually although cured of her main problems, developed premature senile dementia and remained in hospital until her death in February 1978.

Horace and Josee’s children, Randle, Josette, Judy and Jill all stayed in Glasgow and raised families. Their children and grandchildren continue to be proud of their theatrical heritage.

Judy, Randle & Josette 2010

Judy, Randle & Josette 2010

A Final Bow

The Collins family were involved in Scottish Variety Theatre from 1893 to 1957, some sixty four years. The Fred Collins Variety Agency was the very heart of Scottish Variety Theatre and Pantomime for forty four years. It was through their hard work and love of the stage that countless Scottish performers built their careers with many becoming household names. Their Five-Theatre Circuit gave many performers year-round work, season after season, a luxury that performers today seldom have. They brought light, humour and spectacle to the people of Scotland throughout the war years but seldomly received the applause or an ovation. We hope that this site has given an insight into the contribution the Collins Family made to the history of British entertainment and that their names will be remembered with a smile.

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Acknowledgements

(122)-Journey-Through-StagelandThis website is based on the book “Journey through Stageland” – The Collins Family of Glasgow’, written by Josette (Collins) Marchant with assistance from her brother Randle Collins.

The website and its imagery have been compiled by Randle Collins’ son, Ross Collins, who is a children’s book author and illustrator: www.rosscollins.net

Thanks are due to Josette’s husband, Tom Marchant for his kind help in film archiving.

Thanks to the many website owners and individual collectors who have contributed imagery for this site.

This website has been privately funded. For their generous donations thanks must go to Tom and Josette Marchant. Also to Randle, Elizabeth, Melanie and Judy Collins and to Jacqui Solomons.

Thanks also to Patricia de Vries web enthusiast and website designer for all her hard work in building this site. Visit her at defreeze.net