THERE’S no business like show business for George McCarthy.
The former Empire lighting technician has devoted the past 20 years to documenting the stars and shows to grace the theatre’s stage since it opened in 1907.
But he has now hit a major stumbling block – and today appealed for members of a dance troupe from bygone days to step back into the spotlight and help with his research.
“I have managed to index all the shows performed at the Empire since Edwardian times, as well as the dates they were on and the names of hundreds of the performers,” said George.
“There are still gaps to fill though, and my next project is to document all the names of the Rosslyn Babes, a hugely successful local dance company which performed nationwide.”
Formed in 1944 by dance teacher Mary Harbord and her sister Norah Geere – who grew up in a theatrical family – the troupe was named after their childhood home in Rosslyn Street.
Just a few months remained of the Second World War when the Babes made their debut at the Empire later that year, in Mother Goose. They instantly captured the hearts of audiences.
“The Babes were a proper, professional company, and the girls were well drilled in dancing and singing,” said George, who was just a teenager when he helped to light the early shows.
“They only performed at the Empire at pantomime time, and were very well trained. They tried their hardest, and you could see the determination to do their best on their faces.”
Although often billed as “Your Favourite ‘Step’ Children”, the Babes were also known as the “Small, Cute And Clever Tappas”. The word ‘small’ was a most important one.
“Mary insisted on the small, and argued that the girls ceased to be cute, no matter how clever they were, once they were over 4ft 8ins,” said George.
“The dancers had to bid a reluctant farewell to the group if they grew any taller than that. Tall Babes, according to Mary, were not popular with panto audiences.”
Mary’s policy obviously worked. As the popularity of the “small and cute” Babes grew, so she often hired out several groups of girls to appear in Christmas pantomimes across the country.
The Wearside youngsters wowed audiences from The Hippodrome in Margate to the Theatre Royal in Barnsley, as well as The Palace in Newcastle and The Essoldo in Gateshead.
And they even came second in a hard-fought episode of Hughie Green’s Opportunity Knocks show in 1967, performing a complicated routine filled with high-kicks, hornpipes and polkas.
“Among the stars they shared the bill with were Bobby Thompson, Frank Ifield, Bob and Alf Pearson, Archie Glen, Bill Maynard, Sandy Powell and Craig Douglas,” said George.
“It was claimed Mary and Norah could transform any schoolgirl from a learner into an able dancer in a minimum of six weeks. Several generations grew up in the years the Babes were on stage.”
Although the girls were professionals, all well-drilled in taking centre, there were still strict rules to follow. Education was a must, with a tutor provided for lessons between rehearsals. And, despite the fact they shared the stage with big-name stars, the Babes were not allowed to socialise after a show. Instead, they had to be out of the theatre at 10pm – and go straight to bed.
“Rehearsals were held at the Royalty Theatre and church halls all over Sunderland,” said George.
“The Babes graced shows the length and breadth of Britain for more than 40 years.
“Eventually, it all came to an end in the 1980s though. Their final pantomime appearances at the Empire were in the early 1980s, and the dance company folded in around 1989.”
George, from Pennywell, has collected details of several Empire shows featuring the Babes, but now needs to compile lists of individual performers – to help him finish his research project.
“I want to document the complete history of the Empire,” he said. “I believe what I am doing is unique, and I am planning to eventually donate it to an archive at some point.
“My files are almost complete, but I really need some help here.
“If any former members of the Rosslyn Babes could come forward and help me out I would be very grateful.”
** George can be contacted on 551 0314 or by email at email@example.com