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F J Butterworth
FREDERICK Butterworth might have gone down in history as the man who saved Variety. But little has been written about the entrepreneur who bucked a 1930s trend by returning cinema buildings to their former use as live entertainment halls, an example others would follow.

  He built a portfolio of 18 theatres spanning the length of England that made him one of its largest independent operators. He was a physically short, hard-working disciplinarian who relished a fight with bureaucracy, usually over what he saw as unfair, crippling entertainment tax. But he was no Oswald Stoll or Edward Moss, and his properties were often on the wrong side of town, ranking them as a No 2 tour circuit.

  When the appeal of television threatened their existence and halls closed down by the score, Butterworth doggedly kept his theatre doors open. But, when faced with harsh economic reality, he was reduced to firing staff, promoting saucy revues and banning the critical press. In the end even he conceded defeat and dropped out of the game entirely, switching his investment to another kind of theatre - the holiday hotel. His achievement was to believe in an entertainment tradition that had ceased to believe in itself. He was perhaps its last champion.
  Today, half-a-century on, few remember F J Butterworth. He was not listed in Who’s Who in the Theatre and there was no obituary of him in The Times. These pages rekindle the spotlight on an unsung hero of live entertainment’s finest hour.
Author: Jonathan Shorney

The Story of F J Butterworth

IN the basement of The Chine Hotel in Bournemouth is a shrine to the remarkable career of Frederick John Butterworth. On a corridor wall hang large glass frames displaying a collage of black and white photographs of the great variety stars of yesterday, signed by them and dedicated to “FJB”. There are Laurel and Hardy, Fred Karno, Robb Wilton, Norman Wisdom, Morecambe and Wise, Frankie Howerd, Max Bygraves and many more - all the big names who worked his theatres and stayed in his hotels.

 

   “To F J Butterworth - ‘I thank you!’” wrote Arthur Askey, using his catchphrase, in 1952; “To F J Butterworth, with my very good wishes,” offered Noel Coward in the same year; “Down in the jungle CCC sends his best regards to FJB” dittied Charlie Chester. Laurel and Hardy are seen in chefs’ hats fooling in The Chine kitchen with frying pan and fish. In acknowledgement of Butterworth’s voracious appetite for property acquisition, comedy performer Johnny Lockwood pleaded on his portrait photo: “Please don’t buy 93 Chamberlayne Road NW10. That’s where I live”!

  We all know the great comedy and singing acts depicted there; they all knew F J Butterworth; but most of us have no idea who F J Butterworth was. He kept a low profile, perhaps deliberately. Among the scores of photos at The Chine, there is just one of him, shaking hands with American cowboy actor Tom Mix just before the outbreak of World War Two.

  It is clear these famous names held Butterworth - FJ to friends - in high regard; some, to whom he had given career-making “breaks”, even affection. Equally, many middle-ranking stars worked his theatres but never met him: singer Jimmy Young (later knighted after becoming a popular DJ) said he met many theatre managers but never

theatre owners such as Butterworth who were “above my pay grade”. The same went for fellow singer Des O’Connor. But perhaps the tribute from midget comedian Wee Georgie Wood summed it up: “With gratitude for his keeping Variety alive.”

 

 

Star portraits at The Chine Hotel. Clockwise: Dorothy Squires, Morecambe and Wise, Billy                              Cotton, Laurel and Hardy, Frankie Howerd, Duggie Wakefield.

  So who was this saviour of live entertainment? Frederick Butterworth was born in Deptford, London, in 1904 to John Butterworth, a 39-year-old lithographic printer originally from Nottingham, and his second wife Amelia, 36. They already had two daughters.

   In 1914 the family moved to Bristol where John died of TB three years later when Frederick had just turned 13. Amelia was left to bring up the family, helped by her husband’s legacy of £418. This was no silver spoon - Frederick would have to be a self-made man.

  What prompted Frederick’s interest in the entertainment industry is unknown, but his entry to it was in cinema, eventually becoming general manager of the Alma Kinema in Luton by 1931. The Alma, which had opened less than two years earlier, was a sumptuous 2,000-seat cine-variety house, in which “talkie” films were interspersed with live variety acts, accompanied by the grandly-named Alma Symphony Orchestra. It boasted a large stage, café and even ballroom. This gave Butterworth valuable experience in managing live entertainment.

  It was at the Alma that he first met Sydney Phasey, the orchestra’s musical director, who would go on to work at several variety theatres across the country, including Butterworth’s, in the years to come. Phasey was best man at his marriage to nurseryman’s daughter Molly Hooper on Christmas Eve, 1931.

  As the craze for cinema gathered pace, Butterworth, with thoughtful foresight, or just nostalgic obstinacy, hit on the novel idea of converting a theatre-turned-cinema back into a theatre. Whatever his motive, it was remarkably prescient: as the decade wore on, it became clear that too many cinemas were chasing too few new films, and there was a clamour for a return to the good old days of all-variety theatres. Butterworth had stolen a march on Sir Oswald Stoll and others who followed suit some years later.

 

1933

  He began more than 100 miles to the north in the Lincolnshire heavy industrial town of Scunthorpe. Its Palace Theatre was built in 1912 but had since been converted to a cinema and in 1931 introduced “talkies”, although it did host on the small stage (30ft wide, 12ft deep) an annual production of the local operatic society and Christmas pantomime.

The former Palace Theatre, Scunthorpe, is seen here in sorry state after conversion to a store.                                             (Picture: Old Theatres Magazine, www.oldtheatres.co.uk)

  In 1933 Butterworth and his wife moved into the town’s prestigious Crosby Hotel and, on September 27, registered a new private company, Northern Entertainments Ltd, of which they were the only directors, to take over the Palace’s 14-year lease, which still had 12 years to run. At once, Butterworth had a vision - to transform the place into a first-class cine-variety house like the Alma, although that would be some way off.

 

  He anticipated he would initially receive £100 a year (£4,000 today) “free of

income tax” from the company, which, in a format that would become standard for his maze of many companies, had a capital of £500 in £1 shares.

  The most immediate task was to replace the 720 worn-out seats, and, having done that by December, the Palace was promoted as having “the finest sound, the brightest screen, the most comfort”. Butterworth introduced very occasional variety turns, although at this time it remained essentially a picturehouse, and he still described himself as a cinema proprietor.

1934

Frederick Butterworth welcomes American film star Tom Mix and “wonder horse Tony”, who               performed at theatres when in Britain, including Butterworth’s Savoy, Scunthorpe.

The Palace Theatre in Cole Street, Scunthorpe, as it looked when Butterworth took over the lease.

  Sole live acts were gradually introduced between films, such as “crazy pianist and partner” Dexter and Russell, or the Three Godwyn Sisters. By mid-year Butterworth was busily transforming the Palace character and in July appealed for “first-class shows”, for which the stage was deepened to a massive 45ft, wooing artistes with an assurance that the town was “in flourishing condition” and the venue was “taking big money”. One reason for this was because he had bumped up seat prices from the 4d to 1s 3d range of the year before to a more realistic 6d to 2s, although this was still cheaper than at the Alma.

  In mid-August, audiences were promised “London’s sensational variety act” Hartman Company with their show Marching Along, and at the end of the month it was announced: “Great News! What you have been waiting for - sensational full stage revue”. This was One Night in Paris, with comedians Jack Clifford, Jack Shelley and Nat Jackley.

1935

  Butterworth continued to intersperse films with variety throughout 1935 and in August he appealed for a Cinderella pantomime with “very strong comedy cast” for the coming winter season. This saw an “all-star” show headed by comedian Tom E Brennan as Buttons and Doris Lyndon as Prince Charming, in “ten wonderful scenes”.

1936

  By 1936, the Palace had steadily evolved into a variety house, in the main. Buoyed by its success, Butterworth decided to branch out, and, in January, acquired the lease of a functioning theatre, the Theatre Royal, Lincoln, 25 miles away.

 

  A manager was appointed to run the Palace while Butterworth and wife set up home at Greestone Mount, Lincoln, to focus on refurbishing and modernising the intimate 790-seat Theatre Royal that dated from 1893.

 

  As at the Palace, the first job was to replace the seats, and stage lighting was also renewed. The seamless re-fit was completed by March. With his instinct for popular appeal, Butterworth at once launched a Grand Talent Competition with “big cash prizes”. He advertised for “first-class revues” and assured artistes of “big business” under the new management.

 

1937

  His new company, Theatre Royal (Lincoln) Ltd,  possibly provided collateral that allowed him to buy the Palace, where he had been paying an annual £850 rent. At auction in June 1937 he bought the property, with fixtures and fittings, for £8,700, which was below the undisclosed reserve, but the owners, a group of local businessmen, decided to let it go at that price.

  Butterworth announced the premises would close almost at once for reconstruction and enlargement to stage and auditorium, with modern lighting, furnishing and equipment. He would also apply for a liquor licence.

 

   The policy would be, in the main, live theatre, with revues, musical comedies, plays and variety programmes, with an occasional break for films, for which the latest Mirrophonic Sound System would be installed. He expected the theatre to re-open in the Autumn.

  But in October the work was postponed to the following March because of a steel shortage, rather ironically in a town whose major industry was steel production.

 

  So as not to deprive Scunthorpe of live entertainment during the winter months, the Palace was temporarily re-opened, but redecorated inside and out. The first offering was the famous revue Splinters with comedian Hal Jones, who had “made the battlefront rock with laughter” with it in the Great War. Butterworth arranged interchange between his two theatres, Palace shows often being accompanied by Ralph Powell and his Lincoln Royal Variety Orchestra.

  From now on the name Frank Pope loomed large in the FJB success story. He became exclusive booking agent for Butterworth’s theatres, initially from the Hyman Zahl Vaudeville Agency, then at his own National Theatrical Variety Agency (NTVA) based in Charing Cross Road in the heart of London’s theatreland.

  Pope (pictured, right), who in later years would propel Morecambe and Wise to the big time after seeing them at a Butterworth theatre, was instrumental not only in ensuring a ready supply of turns for the ever-growing Butterworth circuit, but in administering that expansion, although the Theatre Royal’s Clasketgate address in Lincoln would be the initial registered offices for the circuit’s various companies, of which Butterworth was managing director.

1938

  The Scunthorpe Palace, as such, took its farewell bow slightly later than planned, with the musical play Lilac Time, starring Frank Sale and Isabel Barrie, concluding on Saturday, April 23. The major six-month rebuild that followed, thanks in part to a £1,500 mortgage raised on the Theatre Royal, showed just how serious Butterworth was to preserve the playhouse tradition.

  The Palace was completely redeveloped within its existing shell, except the height was raised to incorporate larger balcony and licensed lounge, and it sported a new art deco façade. The stage was now 5ft wider than before. The result was a well-appointed, 1,500-seat theatre in the latest design, with cream, gold and green interior, concealed lighting and Western Electric sound system for the films that would still be shown.

 

The newly-rebuilt Scunthorpe theatre is billed in November                      1938 as The Showplace of Lincolnshire.

  Ironically, considering the fatal competitor television would become to variety theatres, special operating boxes were installed for radio and television broadcasts, only two years after the BBC had begun a regular television service. The number of dressing-rooms was doubled to 12. When the theatre was officially opened by the mayor on November 7 it was rechristened the Savoy and dubbed The Showplace of Lincolnshire.

 

  Radio pianists Ivor Moreton and Dave Kaye, formerly of Harry Roy’s Band, topped the bill for the inaugural production, along with film and stage comedian Robb Wilton.

 

  Although in having at least 1,000 seats the theatre fulfilled a key condition of being a No 1 circuit venue, it was still in a No 2 town, and was therefore rated No 2 itself. But, despite this and scepticism from some quarters that variety was “as dead as mutton”, Butterworth’s instincts proved right and the Savoy was a runaway success.

 

  There were appeals for first-class pantomimes and revues, and while the theatre played host to variety (“twice brightly”!) to suit its working-class audience, the Theatre Royal tailored its fare to middle-class Lincoln, with seasons of repertory by well-known actors Hector Ross and Douglas Quayle and the prospect of their proposed Lincoln Repertory Company becoming a permanent feature. Ross and Quayle did, however, appear briefly at the Savoy as well.

    During the 1930s, nude shows at London’s Windmill Theatre, inspired by the Folies Bergeres and Moulin Rouge in Paris, were proving a huge commercial hit. With an envious eye on this success, it was not long before risqué revues would become the hallmark of Butterworth theatres. In November, the Savoy introduced Continental Glamour, which, under the euphemism of “a modern and artistic entertainment”, saw Millie Jackson’s Glamour Girls take to the stage in revealing costumes.

 

 

1939

  In September 1939, Butterworth took control of the Boscombe Hippodrome, Bournemouth, which would become the group’s flagship, and the attractive surroundings his eventual home. The Hippodrome, built in 1895, was originally a circus in the round but had been radically altered four years later and proscenium arch added to make it a variety theatre.

  He was not allowed to open it right away because all theatres were forced to close at the outbreak of war, but it was up and running a week later with the revue Oh! You Girls!, arranged at short notice. Presumably in reference to cinemas showing Hollywood films, Butterworth appealed in its newspaper listing: “IMPORTANT: Be British, keep your money in the country by supporting live British Artistes.”

 

The Boscombe Hippodrome, as it was and today as a nightclub.

  He began as lessee of the General Theatre Corporation but became freehold owner in February 1943 when his FJB Theatres (Boscombe) Ltd company was registered. The following year he bought the adjoining Royal Arcade of 40 shops, Library Buildings and Arcade Café.

  The growing Butterworth empire appears to have been financed by mortgaging existing properties. For example, in 1942 loan capital of £18,753 was raised on the Savoy from an investment firm and a bank. However, as all his companies were designated “private” because of their small number of shareholders, they were exempt from filing accounts, so the fine detail of his financial affairs throughout his tenure as theatre proprietor is unknown.

 

   However, normally Butterworth received 40 per cent of box office takings and the touring companies the rest, although amateur groups would be charged a flat rate.

 

  When war broke out Butterworth was 34 and of military service age but presumably was deemed to be playing an important role as theatre proprietor in lifting morale on the home front. The

 

war stalled a number of building projects he was said to have had in hand but failed to halt the growth of the FJB Theatres group.

 

     He advertised in The Stage newspaper that he wanted to buy or lease more theatres and appealed for repertory companies and concert parties for his Hippodrome, Savoy, Tivoli and Theatre Royal “when allowed to open”. Butterworth promoted himself as the man who “kept the flag of variety and revue flying in Lincolnshire in difficult times”.

1940

  At the Savoy, where the best seats were now 3s 6d, servicemen in uniform could sit anywhere for a shilling. One of the most popular variety turns there was American film cowboy and singer Tom Mix and his white horse Tony in April 1939 during a British tour. The local Scunthorpe paper praised Butterworth’s “commendable piece of enterprise” in securing the booking. Crowds cheered as Mix rode through the town before his first performance. Unfortunately, he was trapped in Britain by the outbreak of war and Tony was commandeered for the Leicestershire Yeomanry.

  In September 1940 two more struggling theatres were scooped up at the same time, as Britain suffered the start of the blitz. They were the Bristol Empire, and, FJB’s first in London, the Bedford Theatre, Camden Town, both being bought from the same company - Bristol Entertainments Ltd, which had gone into voluntary liquidation earlier that year, although the theatres had stayed open. Butterworth had made it to the capital!

  The 1,168-seat Bedford dated as a music hall from 1862 but was rebuilt in 1899 as the Bedford Palace of Varieties. It had been run by ABC as a cinema from 1933 to 1939. The 1,350-seat Empire (pictured, left) had a similar name - the Bristol Palace of Varieties - when it opened in 1893. It too had been operated by ABC as a cinema, from 1931, but had already reverted to variety, on Boxing Day 1939.

  Butterworth now issued an urgent appeal for variety acts and revues for his newly-acquired theatres, and, for the Bedford, musicians for all instruments. A more general advertisement appeared in August for “solid and genuine touring shows.”

  On October 14, the Empire, which had been temporarily closed since the July, reopened under Butterworth ownership with the revue Don’t Blush Girls!, marking a turning point at the theatre with a descent into saucy and revealing shows. What it also did, however, was pack the house, which was the important thing as far as Butterworth was concerned.

  In November, the Norwich Hippodrome (pictured, right) was added to the circuit. It was opened as the Grand Opera House in 1903, became a music hall the following year and a cinema in 1930 but had returned to variety in September 1937. FJB Theatres (Bristol) Ltd and FJB Theatres (Norwich) Ltd were both registered on the same day, November 8, 1940, each with 500 shares of £1 each, Butterworth owning the majority and his accountants a smaller number.

  Butterworth was now controlling his seven theatres - the Bedford, Bristol Empire, Grimsby Tivoli, Scunthorpe Savoy, Lincoln Theatre Royal, Boscombe Hippodrome and Norwich Hippodrome - from his Lincoln home.

  From there he had a motivating wartime message to their performers: “To my artist friends - in these times of trouble and uncertainty may I say ‘Faith, courage and hard work will always win through and be rewarded’.”  He was as good as his word. In December 1940 staff of the Savoy placed a notice in The Stage wishing FJB Theatres every success in the coming year and thanking Butterworth for paying three days’ salary as a Christmas gift and double pay for Christmas Day opening.

1941

  The winter blitz took its toll on Bristol and, although the Empire escaped serious damage, it was closed from November 1940 until February 1941, and the Bedford, closed since Butterworth took it over, remained shut until March, although there was good business on the rest of the circuit. FJB Theatres (London) Ltd was registered on March 5, with Butterworth, his wife, accountant and Frank Pope as shareholders, although Pope went off “to do my bit in this spot of bother” in May, leaving Durrant Young, based at the Bedford, to deputise.

Bedford Theatre, Camden Town, London.

  Butterworth now went even further down market, promoting naked girl shows, although under the Lord Chamberlain’s strict rules they had to remain motionless while on stage. Such an act was usually passed off as an artistic representation of perhaps a classical scene, with somewhat pretentious commentary, after which the curtains would swish together before re-opening to reveal the same girl in different pose.

 

  One of the most popular models was Phyllis Dixey, who had been banned for allegedly moving while nude. But Dixey wore a body stocking, and a determined Butterworth escorted her to the Lord Chamberlain’s office at Windsor Castle in a successful bid to get the ban lifted.

  Just as they were leaving, Dixey asked the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Clarendon, if they could say it was a banned act. Clarendon agreed and Butterworth had posters made up with the word “Banned” in big letters. From then on, punters queued down the road to see The Girl the Lord Chamberlain Banned at the Lincoln, Norwich and Bristol theatres.

  A Bristol reviewer said: “Phyllis Dixey, who has charm and beauty…gives several model scenes, one being The Confessions of a Fan Dancer.” (However, Dixey was later fined for overstepping the mark at the Savoy [see below]).

  Show titles in coming years gave away their tawdry content: Strip, Strip Hooray; Girls, You’re Gorgeous; Sexciting; Take a Peep, and The Naughtiest Girl of All.

 

  The Lord Chamberlain was not the only guardian of public morality. So-called Watch committees of local authorities sat at the back of theatres on opening nights to check for swearing or vulgar jokes. Butterworth was fined after one comic asked: “How does an Eskimo catch fish? He cuts a hole in the ice and places two peas on the edge. When the fish comes out for a pea, he bangs it on the head!”

 

  If Frederick Butterworth had an unmistakable characteristic it was his impatience with bureaucracy, and wartime clothes rationing in June 1941, in as much as it affected stage artistes’ dresses, was his first cause célèbre. This, he regarded, would prove a heavy burden on his industry and urged everyone in it to write to their MPs to seek relief from the new regulation.

  In July he added another company to his portfolio, Anglo-American Stage Productions Ltd, and two months later took over the lease of The Palace, Burnley (pictured, left), appealing at the same time for “first-class attractions and pantomime” for the theatre.

 

  It had been built for variety as the Palace Hippodrome in 1907 but was obtained in 1931 by ABC for cine-variety, which continued until 1937. It changed hands again and returned to variety, but only until 1939 when ABC re-acquired it for use as a cinema. Butterworth now returned it to variety and revue, but it would also host musicals and repertory under his tenure. Controlling company FJB Theatres (Burnley) Ltd was registered in December 1941.

 

  In September he had won High Court damages of £110, plus costs, from a firm of show producers after their performing lions had failed to appear at the Boscombe Hippodrome. But his generosity was in evidence at the end of the year when the management and staff of six of his theatres publicly thanked him for Christmas week double salary. “We are pleased to be associated in the making of FJB Theatres the greatest independent circuit in Great Britain”, they proudly announced.

   IN June 1954, Phyllis Dixey (pictured) was fined £5 after being found guilty of indecency during the show Peek-a-Boo, at Butterworth’s Savoy, Scunthorpe. Her husband, comedian Jack Tracy, was fined £20 at the same hearing and they had to pay 15 guineas costs.

  Scunthorpe magistrates were told that in a scene called The Varga Models, a Living Contribution of Art, Dixey “removed first one and then another article of clothing and mounted a dais and stood there apparently completely unclothed.”

 

  In another act, in which a girl wore a piece of cloth six inches by three inches as a sporran, Tracy interfered with the sporran, saying “Which girl has the Toni?” And when young ladies of the show “in very flimsy nightdresses” purported to get into a bed, Tracy appeared to attempt to get into it as well, the court was told.

 

  A policewoman, who went to the show with a detective, said that in a sketch “A Wee Bit o’ Scotch” Miss Dixey was nude except for furs on her shoulders, which she dropped to the floor before quickly picking them up. A police chief inspector said his wife, whom he had taken to the show, complained about it, but agreed under cross-examination that no member of the public complained.

 

  Miss Dixey said a similar scene, done in London, was passed by the Lord Chamberlain; it was artistic, not indecent. “We give artistic studies, and our bodies must be lit and made up properly. I couldn’t stand up here and do it in this courtroom, for instance.” Tracy strongly denied any improper act on stage. “I never did such a thing.”

 

  He said later the result would have no effect on the show. “After all, it is only a local by-law we are said to have broken.” This stated: “No person shall exhibit any indecent show in street or public places, or in places to which persons are admitted with or without the payment of money”.

  The success of the Savoy and Theatre Royal was a springboard for rapid expansion to cash in on a growing appetite for escapist live entertainment.

 

  Butterworth now took a lease on Grimsby’s Tivoli Theatre (left), which opened in 1905 but had been a cinema since 1914, closing as such in November 1937. He re-opened the premises the following week as a live theatre, announcing “No more films” and beginning with Australian escapologist “Murray - The Man without a Middle”, with Ralph Powell and orchestra in the pit. This was therefore another venue rescued for variety. Operating company FJB Theatres (Grimsby) Ltd was registered in November 1940.

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