Tributes to Checker Wheel - the unique stage star who swapped London for his beloved Sunderland

A tribute has been paid to a unique Sunderland stage star who has died aged 91.

Tuesday, 28th January 2020, 4:30 pm
Ken Wheal pictured in later life.

Ken Wheal – better known to generations of show goers as Checker Wheel – passed away just days before Christmas last year at Sunderland Royal Hospital.

But what a life he had. He was a Cockney by origin but swapped London for Wearside and loved it.

His links with Sunderland really grew when he popped into Summerside’s newsagents to buy a copy of The Stage and caught glimpse of Pauline Langley, the worker smiling back at him over the counter.

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Checker on stage.

It was thanks to Pauline that Sunderland became the base for Ken and, by the mid-1990s, the couple were still living in the Springwell area.

On stage, Ken was known as Checker Wheel and his speciality act was comedy on roller skates.

He appeared in a Sunderland Echo feature in 1996 when we described him as the ‘Fred Astaire of roller skating’.

Reports said he ‘went down a bomb from Ethiopia to Iceland’.

A poster advertising Checker's stage act.

Checker had a pair of skates bolted on to football boots and could do acrobatics, the splits and tap dance.

From the early 60s, he was a hit and even made a success of it in the workingmen’s clubs of Sunderland where the audiences were thought to be among the hardest in the business.

He could count Bill Maynard and Bob Monkhouse among his many friends and one review of his act said: “His tap dancing on skates shows a wonderful sense of balance and timing and his entire act is one long laugh."

Arthritis eventually put a halt to Ken’s stage act and he returned to the butcher’s trade he started out in.

Checker on the bill in 1957.

His son Alan told the Echo: “The earliest memory I have of Dad is when he told me he was going to take me to a circus where he would be working.

“Even though he told me this, I don’t think I really understood what was about to happen. Then the second half got underway and into the ring came Checker Wheel.

“Of course, you are watching your Dad doing his act but you can also see and hear people laughing and enjoying what he did.”

Checker had a stage record of playing 6,237 shows in 1,442 venues during his career. His other great joy was his family.

Checker Wheel who has taken his final bow aged 91.

“Dad was proud of his family and was overjoyed to become a grandad and then in the last two years become a great grandad,” said Alan.

“But I think his first and maybe secretly his greatest love was for the stage. Even after retirement, a visit was always marked by memories of his show business days and the many people he had met along the way and he could not resist telling us a few jokes from his joke book.

“Maybe when you are growing up it is hard to know how you feel about your dad and his job, because it’s just dad doing his act.

“But dad played 6237 shows in 1442 venues and along the way I know entertained a lot of people with his unique act. He passed away peacefully in Sunderland Royal Hospital in December.

“I struck me that Dad would have probably said ‘its time to take the final bow’.”