Comedians aplenty have died a death at Sunderland Empire. Only one actually died.
Sid James laughed his last dirty laugh at the theatre 40 years ago but, if on-going rumours have any truth, he still haunts the building.
“He was appearing in a suitably smutty comedy called The Mating Season,” said ex-Echo entertainments editor Alistair Robinson, now a senior journalism lecturer at Sunderland University. “The old joke about Sunderland being a graveyard for comedians made the incident feel unreal. No one – from the audience to his fellow actors – could believe he was gone.”
Indeed, when Empire manager Roy Todds phoned the show’s producer, Bill Roberton, to tell him the shocking news, Roberton thought it was a joke. “Sid James has just died in Sunderland,” said Todds. “Don’t worry, everybody dies in Sunderland,” replied the producer.
Sid was born Soloman Joel Cohen in May 1913 in South Africa. He trained as a hairdresser but, after serving in the army during World War Two, moved to Britain to become an actor.
Initially he worked in repertory theatre until, in 1947, he made film appearances in the crime dramas Night Beat and Black Memory. Film was to become his acting love.
Indeed, after a role in 1951’s The Lavender Hill Mob, followed by a stint on Tony Hancock’s radio show Hancock’s Half Hour, he went on to star in 19 Carry On films.
“Sid suffered a severe heart attack in 1967, prompting him to give up cigarettes, lose weight, eat more sensibly and cut down on his drinking,” said Alistair.
“Despite his health scare, he continued to work hard. By the time of the tour of The Mating Season, he was also the star of long-running TV comedy Bless This House.”
But, on the opening night of April 26, 1976, Sid suffered another heart attack. Sitting next to Sid on stage was actress Olga Lowe, an old friend from his days in South Africa.
“I came on, said my first lines and he answered as normal. Then I sat on the sofa with him. I said my next line and he didn’t answer,” she was later to recall.
“His head had slumped and his eyes had gone back into his head. I thought it was a gag. Well, you would with Sid. He was such a rascal.”
Olga tried a few ad libs, but Sid did not respond. Eventually, after realising something was seriously wrong, she told the crew to bring down the curtain.
Technical director Mel James appealed to the audience: “Is there a doctor in the house?” His request sparked laughter, and even the doctor who stepped forward thought it was a gag.
“But Sid was in a coma,” said Olga. “The doctor called the ambulance and I believe he died on the way to hospital. It was awful. Ten minutes earlier, he had been the same old laughing Sid.
“After the curtain came down we sat in the dressing room, not knowing what to say. We were all so shocked.”
Sid’s death made national headlines and, when Carry On actress Barbara Windsor was later interviewed by the Echo, she claimed Sid would turn in his grave if he knew how he died.
“It (touring to provincial theatres) was everything Sid hated. He liked his films and his television. The only time he did theatre was if he could have some lovely location,” she said.
“Everyone said to him: Don’t go up to Sunderland. He looked so ill, so unhappy. He went up to Sunderland and the rest is history.”
Showbiz legend has it, however, that Sid has never left the Empire. Indeed, soon after his death actors began to report strange happenings in the late star’s dressing room. Comedian Les Dawson was among those who hinted at a disturbing encounter with Sid’s spirit while in panto at the Empire in 1989 – and allegedly refused to return to the theatre ever again.
Alistair, however, refuses to believe in the existence of the ghost. “It’s a total no-no for me. Senior managers at the theatre never witnessed the ghost in all their years of service, and I don’t believe it exists,” he added.
l Alistair’s book on the theatre, Sunderland Empire: A Centenary History, is on sale via Amazon at £12.99.