Pavilion takes a bow at 110 years

THE PAVILION Theatre is now an incredible 110 years old.

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  • Some of the stars who will be appearing at a special anniversary show on Sunday night
    Some of the stars who will be appearing at a special anniversary show on Sunday night
  • Some of the stars who will be appearing at a special anniversary show on Sunday night

Not only has it survived two world wars and competition from Glasgow's 19 theatres, it is the only unsubsidised theatre in Scotland.

Designed by architect Bertie Crewe, 'an expert at designing temples of fun', the 1600-seat Pavilion has long stood on its own two feet.

"We've done well, but we've had a little bit of luck along the way," says Pavilion boss Iain Gordon.

"Just as we've hit the difficult times, an incredible show has arrived on our doorstep and propelled us forward."

The Pavilion was hugely successful in its early decades, operating as a music hall and variety theatre, offering a stage to greats such as Charlie Chaplin, Jack Anthony and Tommy Morgan - whose ashes were scattered from the Pavilion roof in 1958.

The Renfield Street theatre became synonymous with comedy, evidenced by the success of comedy giant Lex McLean in the 1960s, with his summer seasons that lasted nine months.

But when McLean died in 1975, the theatre had no-one to replace him and began haemorrhaging money. The building fell into a state of disrepair and the doors shut for the summer season. Closure loomed.

Turns appearing at the time, among them Frankie Vaughan, offered to cut their fees to keep the theatre alive, but it looked hopeless.

However, in a story that's a theatre script in itself, it was the theatre's electrician who sparked new life into the business.

Just married, Iain Gordon had moved over from the Apollo Theatre across the road, enticed by the prospect of regular hours. But he was astounded at the depths to which the theatre had fallen.

"One night, before a Hector Nicol show, I told the manager that the show would never go on because all the crew were drunk," he recalled.

"I offered to get a couple of boys from the Apollo to work the equipment. It all worked out okay.

"From there I took over as stage manager but there was little to do. No new shows were booked."

It looked as if the Pavilion would go the way of theatres such as The Queens, Metropole, Empire, Alhambra and Empress.

Each day, Iain came to work, clocked in - and left five minutes later. But one morning the phone rang. London-based Scottish producer Jamie Phillips suggested staging a Scottish panto at the Pavilion. Was Iain interested?

"I asked owner Jimmy Glasgow, who said: 'Do what you like. You've got the keys.' And I did."

The result was A Wish For Jamie, starring Jack Milroy and Ross King.

"We were in business," says Iain. "It was then a case of keeping the doors open."

Sheena Easton, Sydney Devine, Barbara Dickson and Wet Wet Wet all performed concerts, and comedians sold out.

But the real money-maker for the Pavilion was nostalgia. Productions such as Pride of the Clyde and retrospectives featuring Dorothy Paul combined easily with home-grown comedy, plays such as Paras Over The Barras and musicals such as Please Stay.

A series of Billy Connolly plays confirmed that Glasgow was ready to laugh at its history.

And when Glasgow grew a little tired of laughing at the same plays, Iain Gordon found a new star in the form of hypnotist Robert Halpern.

"We were having financial problems until Robert arrived. But he was so successful his summer seasons ran for 16 weeks."

Over the years, other shows raised the roof - and the Pavilion bank balance. The Steamie and The Celtic Story were out-and-out winners. The Chippendales once sold out for 16 straight nights.

"We even made a fortune on merchandising during that show," says Iain Gordon, grinning. "The women in the audience all bought a Chippendales G-string. We sold thousands."

Over the years, the likes of the Ladyboys of Bangkok have pulled in the punters, as have a new series of jukebox musicals.

But ten years ago, when the Pavilion was again feeling the pinch, a new comedy act came to the rescue. The appearance of Mrs Brown's Boys at the Pavilion launched Brendan O'Carroll on to the UK stage and international TV success.

"I'd say Mrs Brown has been our greatest success story," says the theatre boss. "It's the funniest show imaginable and Glasgow was the perfect place to develop it.

"Mrs Brown brought people to the theatre who had never been near one before. Seventy per cent of the audience was new."

The audiences keep on coming. Right now they're laughing at Peter Powers. Back soon is the phenomenally successful girls night out comedy 51 Shades of Maggie, which sold more Pavilion seats than anywhere in the UK

Who's to say the success story, highlighted by panto audiences rising year-on-year won't continue? Glaswegians still believe in Bertie Crewe's fun palace.

"And I'd guess 110 years down the road we still won't get a subsidy," says Iain Gordon, with a wry smile.

"Maybe local government doesn't think we need it, and I suppose that's praise for what we do in itself."

But the programme has not always been an unalloyed success story. There have been a couple of errors along the way.

"I guess examples of that are the female mudwrestling and Stripperoke shows," he says, grinning.

"These are show which would never have happened had common sense prevailed."

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