We’re getting our skates on to remember this wonderful stage act
It’s an apt time to tell a Sunderland story of love – but what a story it is.
During a search of our archives, we found this tale of the talented and much-loved London stage act who came to Wearside, met the woman who would grab a piece of his heart, and stayed in the North East.
At the height of his powers, he appeared on the same bill as the Billy Cotton Band Show and Mrs Mills.
He could fondly say that his friends included Roy Hudd and Larry Grayson among many others.
And while he was a Cockney by origin, he was a man of Wearside when he eventually called it day. But who was he?
We are talking about Ken Wheal who was otherwise known to generations of show goers as Checker Wheel.
His act was a real speciality ... it was tap dancing on roller skates.
But let’s find out more by delving into one stage magazine from the good old days, where his act was described as ‘a very tall young man who clowns around merrily on roller skates’.”
“He gives a hilarious impression of a battered but genteel gentleman manfully trying to retain his dignity in spite of being the worse for drink.
“His tap dancing on skates shows a wonderful sense of balance and timing and his entire act is one long laugh.”
It’s quite the recommendation and it wasn’t the only write-up Ken got.
He appeared in a Sunderland Echo feature in 1996 when we described him as ‘once the Fred Astaire of roller skating’.
Ken’s stage act was unique.
Again, as we put it in 1996, he was “requiring no words to get his comedy across, he went down a bomb from Ethiopia to Iceland.”
It was clever. He had a pair of skates bolted on to football boots and could do amazing things. He could do acrobatics, the splits and tap dance. A man of real and unique talents.
But even he admitted back then: “I can’t dance a step without my skates.”
Ken was a familiar face in pantomimes, summer shows and on variety bills and the photos prove it.
Chiswick Empire was one calling point where he was billed as ‘Laughs On Wheels’.
At the Newcastle Palace, he went on twice a night on the same show as 15-year-old Terry Wayne and his Golden Guitar, the dancing duo Duvelle, and Moulin Rouge hit Denise Vane in her ‘exotic poses’.
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.
“I was a speciality, something different, and they took to it,” he told the Echo 23 years ago.
But now to that love story. 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.
He boldly said to her: “Hello, little darling. How about you and me getting together.”
Ken thought it was only going to be for a week as he would be moving on after that.
How wrong he was. He ‘ended up with a date for life’, said the Echo.
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.
It could have been all so different if Ken had stuck to the family business of working as butchers. He was employed by the East London Butchers.
He did that as a child and only began his love for skating when a group of workmates persuaded him to go to the Forest Gate skating rink. He turned out to be a natural.
He told the Echo in 1996: “I’d never had a pair of skates on in my life but within two weeks, I was well away.”
His pals in the showbusiness world is an impressive list of names and also includes Bill Maynard and Bob Monkhouse.
Arthritis eventually put a halt to Ken’s stage act and he returned to the butcher’s trade he started out in.
However, after it was all over, he kept the old bills to remind him of the good old days.
Which stage act do you have fond memories of? Who was your favourite on the local stages in times gone by?