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.