Showbiz stars of mid-war Sunderland

FIFTIES SCENE: Holmeside in the 1950s. Black's Regal Cinema can be seen on the left.
FIFTIES SCENE: Holmeside in the 1950s. Black's Regal Cinema can be seen on the left.
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A NEW book featuring the great and the good of 
Wearside has just been 
published. Today we 
spotlight an entire family featured within its pages.

THERE was no business like show business for Wearsiders in the early 20th century.

Coal and shipbuilding may have paved the way for Sunderland’s industrial success, but light entertainment soon proved big business as well.

Empire Theatre creator Richard Thornton helped establish the Moss Empire circuit, while former post office worker Frank Allen put Sir Harry Lauder on the road to fame.

And, at the same time as Thornton and Allen were laying the foundations for their success, so the Black family were venturing into cinema.

“They made their mark across the country,” said John C. Foster, author of an article on the family just published in the new Durham Biographies book. “They brought enjoyment to generations of theatre-goers, with top-class productions and stars being brought to areas outside the capital.”

Birmingham-born George Black was head of the family and best known for opening Sunderland’s first permanent cinema – Monkwearmouth Picture Hall – in 1906.

His sons, George junior, Edward and Alfred, all helped out at the picture hall – bringing in extra cash and visitors with a popular waxworks display.

Such was the success of the cinema that the Blacks went on to open others in Gateshead, Hartlepool, Blyth and North Shields. And, when old George died in 1910, his sons carried on the business, expanding it further.

“George junior became the proprietor of a circuit of theatres in the North East, eventually selling this business to the General Theatre Corporation,” said John. “In 1938 he was appointed managing director of the powerful Moss Empires, whose holdings included the mighty London Palladium.

“Here, with Val Parnell, he brought together the famous Crazy Gang and, being well-disciplined by Black, they were triumphant in a number of pre-war revues.

“He was also responsible for shows such as The Lisbon Story and No Orchids for Miss Blandish in London, and for arranging several Royal Variety Performances.”

Meanwhile, as George was rising up the ranks in British entertainment, his brothers Alfred and Edward remained back home in Sunderland.

They were not, however, idle. Indeed, the pair opened Wearside’s most luxurious cinema in 1932 – Black’s Regal in Holmeside – which proved extremely popular.

“The programme often included stage performances, together with an orchestra, and during the Second World War, Sunday concerts were presented,” said John.

“Alfred kept an interest in Black’s Regal until 1959, when the Rank Organisation took over.

The hall became an Odeon and showed films until 1982.
 “But in 1936 Edward lost interest in the business and moved into the production side of films, working at MGM in London and joining London Films in 1946.

“He was associated with many memorable films during his career, including The Man in Grey, The Lady Vanishes, Millions Like Us and many, many more.”

The death of George junior in 1945, while only in his mid-fifties, left the next generation of Blacks to strike out on their own in the entertainment industry.

George’s sons, another George and Albert, had been born in Sunderland just before the First World War. Both attended Durham School before entering show business.

“Prior to the Second World War, George had been a director of famous repertory company The Court Players, whose companies travelled across the country,” said John.

“He then served in the Royal Artillery, and his experience in show business led him to become associated with the Stars In Battledress.”

The Battledress shows fostered the talents of stars such as Charlie Chester, Terry Thomas, Wilfred Hyde-White and Arthur Haynes, proving a huge success for George.

His younger brother Alfred, meanwhile, became a film and stills cameraman for the Army Film Unit, working in Africa, Sicily and Italy alongside a young Alan Whicker.

“Alfred had been a film cameraman at Elstree Studios, and had assisted on a number of stage revues in London, before joining the Royal Armoured Corps,” said John.

“When the war was over, the brothers came together as theatrical producers, sending out touring revues. Their firm quickly rose to one of considerable importance.

“They soon became established on the London stage, introducing to the capital the comedian Sid Field in Piccadilly Hayride at the Prince of Wales Theatre in 1946.

“Their summer shows in Blackpool were highly successful too, so much so that in 1948 and 1949, they were transferred to the London palladium for autumn seasons.”

With their confidence now running high, the brothers took over London’s Adelphi Theatre and enjoyed a string of successes with revues starring Tony Hancock and Vera Lynn. Finally, the pair deemed the time right to put into practice the advice their father had given them on his death bed – to get into television.

“Dad always saw the way ahead. He could see what customers wanted. He could sense a vogue and he knew we should get into television,” said Alfred in a 2001 Echo interview.

A show starring comedian Arthur Haynes proved a hit for the brothers on ATV and, on the strength of this, they joined the group formed to set up Tyne Tees Television. For five years, from the station’s birth in 1959, they were guiding lights. Indeed, their One O’Clock Show drew the highest audiences for a regional programme of its type.

Despite this success, however, the brothers returned to the theatre at the end of their five-year contract with Tyne Tees and, when George died in 1970, Albert decided to retire.

Albert died in 2002, at the age of 89, a year after the death of his wife Roma Beaumont – a former actress who toured with Ivor Novello’s The Dancing Years during the war.

“The Black family, through three generations, was closely associated with many of the best-loved actors and productions in theatre, film and television,” said John.

l Durham Biographies Volume Seven costs £10 plus £1.50 postage. Cheques should be made payable to the History of Education Project and sent to the project at: Miners Hall, Red Hill, Durham, DH1 4BB. Further details available on: 370 9941. Look out for another biography from the book tomorrow.