The Sunderland musician who was loved by Morecambe and Wise

Anton Petrov once rubbed shoulders with Morecambe and Wise.
Anton Petrov once rubbed shoulders with Morecambe and Wise.
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It’s 1972 and sitting in his home in Foyle Street was Anton Petrov, enjoying watching Morecambe and Wise who were appearing on Michael Parkinson’s TV show.

Imagine his surprise when Eric Morecambe actually began to reminisce about Anton.

Reginald Birks, who appointed Anton Petrov at the Empire Theatre in Sunderland.

Reginald Birks, who appointed Anton Petrov at the Empire Theatre in Sunderland.

Philip Curtis, from the Sunderland Antiquarian Society, takes up the tale.

It was a special moment when Eric Morecambe began recounting a tale from the early years of their careers.

It was all about how both Eric and Ernie once had to run for their lives thanks to Anton Petrov.

This was when he was working as pianist and cook for a circus with which they were all touring. Eric explained that Anton had laced everyone’s soup with Epsom Salts.

Born in one of the greatest cities in the world, Anton had lived in and loved Sunderland for over 25 years and entertained thousands of Wearsiders throughout his time here. Eric and Ernie would have been proud of him

Philip Curtis

Eric continued: “Anton was a marvellous character – I wonder where he is now?”

Well of course he was alive, well and resident in Sunderland.

So who was Anton Petrov?

During the 1960s and ‘70s, Anton was one of Sunderland’s best-known musicians, being the resident musical director at the Sunderland Empire.

He had been appointed in 1961 after the theatre’s director, Reginald Birks, had dispensed with the services of the Empire’s full-time pit orchestra.

This was done only after agreement with the Musicians’ Union that he appoint at least one permanent musician on a full-time basis - that musician was Anton Petrov.

Anton was used as much as possible, playing the old Bechstein grand piano in the pit, entertaining the audience prior to curtain up.

He certainly was quite a character, always appearing resplendent in tails with a fresh carnation in his button-hole.

He would usually get the audience’s attention by initially coughing very loudly and lifting the keyboard cover before removing what appeared to be an enormous handkerchief from the top pocket of his dinner jacket and wafting it over the piano with exaggerated movement.

When it was time for the actual show to begin, Anton would rise, take a bow and wave to his audience before leaving the pit.

He lived in Sunderland for over 25 years and became a familiar, recognised figure throughout his time in the town, initially living at Roker before settling down in Foyle Street.

However, few Wearsiders would have known his background.

Anton was born in Prague and studied law and philosophy in his native Czechoslovakia.

He came from a musical background and was encouraged to learn the piano by his mother who was an operatic singer.

When aged only 13, Anton actually toured Australia as accompanist for her.

In 1939 he arrived in England and studied at the Royal Academy of Music before serving with the Intelligence Corps in the Middle East during the Second World War.

After the war Anton returned to his musical career. He appeared in theatres throughout Britain and, in 1957, came north to work for four years as musical director at the Palace Theatre in Newcastle, before coming to Sunderland in 1961.

He remained at The Empire for fourteen years before becoming resident pianist at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle.

However, Anton remained a resident of Sunderland having fallen in love with Wearside.

Wanting to help the local community he even stood four times, albeit unsuccessfully, as a Liberal candidate at the local council elections for the St Chad’s and Fulwell wards of the town.

In his retirement Anton became a part-time lecturer in music and the arts.

He died on June 1, 1985, six weeks after a burglary at his home during which he had been physically attacked.

Born in one of the greatest cities in the world, Anton had lived in and loved Sunderland for over 25 years and entertained thousands of Wearsiders throughout his time here.

Eric and Ernie would have been proud of him.