Ellena Williams Theatrical Studios, Regent Street, 1946 – 1954

I have put together the montages in this collection as a memory of my parents eight year period at the Ellena Williams Theatrical Studios on Regent Street immediately after WW2 in my fathers hometown of Stockton.

Images and details courtesy of Llewellyn Williams.

17 thoughts on “Ellena Williams Theatrical Studios, Regent Street, 1946 – 1954

    • Yes, Fenny street rings bells for the Daubney family. When working the Hippodrome in 1963 I visited Margherita and her husband who were then living in the town centre, and found that her parents and elder sister, Rosalie, had emigrated to Canada.

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  1. Very occasionally I would see Jimmy James and Eli visiting the Casey family in St Annes Terrace, Portrack. It was notable since it was one of the few occasions one would see a car in the street. Or in the rest of Portrack too.

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    • JIMMY JAMES. A childhood friend of my father’s was Dick Carlton (Instone) who formed a double Tap Dancing act with his sister Nancy in the 1930’s called the Dancing Carltons. When she married he found a male partner until the war when, sadly, his partner was killed in action. After the war as a solo act he shelved this for some time to join Jimmy James and Eli Woods – playing the ‘Is it you that’s puttin’ around that I’m Balmy?’ character, in what must be one of the greatest sketches of all time, The Box Act. When occasionally playing the Hippodrome he would always call to see my parents and once when with Jimmy asked if they could use their studio to rehearse some patter. As we all knew, theatre walls have the biggest ‘ears’ in the world, so keeping fresh material under wraps was impossible and theatrical digs are just as bad. Rehearsing with relatives wouldn’t be free from interruptions, but our studio would be ideal. My parents agreed, but our studio also had a pair of ears – mine! It was on the floor over the huge garage, and creeping into the latter I could hear every word – with a handkerchief stuffed into my mouth to stifle my laughter, as at around 11 year’s old I understood Jimmy’s completely off-the-wall interpolations which I thought incredibly funny. There are some good (clean!) comedians around nowadays, but they ‘don’t make ‘em like that anymore!’ In a 1988 summer season I had the pleasure of playing Eli’s character, when my friend the comedian Don Reid thought it would be a good idea to resurrect the sketch. Between the pair of us we remembered all the dialogue, and such was Jimmy’s comic genius that it still ‘rocked’ the audience with laughter.

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  2. Llew wow that brought a lot of memories of the shows and the fun we had doing ballet at the bar with a monkey on my head.

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  3. In Stockton there was at one time five theatres which produced stage shows including pantomines, prominent amongst these was the Globe, the Empire, the Plaza (formerly the Grand Theatre) and the Hippodrome, there was another theatre called The Gaiety Theatre in Thornaby, and one wonders did this become the Central Cinema, or the Queens Cinema, Thornaby? (“Oh no it isn’t.” – “Oh yes it is) I found this snippet of information which provides an insight into the work of stage show producers and performers; a typical touring show going around number theatres for five weeks would cost around £300 per week.

    There would be no name to top the bill but an established comic would receive £30 a week, a supporting cast averaging £12 to £15 per week, a troupe of eight dancers on five pounds a week and a musical director on around £15 a week. The show would take on an average £600 per week and the split between the producer and the theatre would normally be 65%/35% in the producer’s favour. Theatre costs would average around £l50 per week so the producer averaged a profit of £90 per week and the theatre £60. Over a period of five weeks the producer’s profit added up to £450; if he had four pantomimes out on the road that made a profit of £2250 over the season which was not bad in those days, you could live comfortably on that for the rest of the year and not bother to produce another show if you so wished. One leading producer usually had a minimum of six pantomimes on the circuit so he averaged a profit on each one of them of £1110, multiply that by the six shows on tour over the period of six weeks and you reach a total profit of £6660 which was a nice little nest egg in 1952.

    The big resident pantomimes in the large cities run by such producers as Sam Newsome Emile Littler and Tom Arnold were a different matter. The initial costs of mounting the pantomime in the first year could amount to £1500. There were star names to pay in the fifties, and a top principle boy such as Elizabeth French or Elsie Percival would earn £75 a week and have to provide their own tights and shoes, the supporting cast would average £l5 per week, and a troupe of sixteen dancers and six singers £6 a week each. Only the Dancers stage management wardrobe mistress chorus, and musical director were paid half salary during rehearsal. The rest worked for nothing during the period. All these figures are gleaned from show accounts of the times. Every town had a variety theatre fifty years ago and people flocked to them many on a weekly basis. Now they are but fading memories, a few survive as regional theatres but little or no variety is presented there. Many are bingo halls night clubs supermarkets and office blocks. Because of the impact of national TV, between 1952 and 1959 over four hundred theatres ceased to exist, but an older generation has wonderful memories of magical nights spent in them. Star shows from the past would be: Aladdin, Jack and the Beanstalk, Dick Whittington and His Cat, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, suffice to say “It’s All Behind You!” (www-sources) Bob W.

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    • Hi Bob.
      Sadly, even during the period of my Parent’s business in Stockton I only knew the Hippodrome as a fully working professional theatre. The Empire had long been purely a cinema ( happily a source for viewing the wonderful MGM musicals), the Plaza – hidden away down by the river in a side street – was also purely cinema, known affectionately as ‘the Bug Hutch’ and which still bears my gratitude for frequently re-running above musicals which I might have missed. The Globe ran a pantomime, but for the rest of the year was, again, a cinema – although it may have had the odd, rare variety bill with a visiting American star. The Hippodrome housed one of Harry Hanson’s repertory companies for a large part of the year and, where salaries were concerned, as a child actor in 1952 I received an Assistant Stage Manager’s official Equity stipend of £4.10s (£4.50). Lord knows how a poor ASM survived on that, as accommodation must have eaten most of it up. At the end of 1960 when finishing my RAF National Service I grabbed a George Mitchell contract for the Bruce Forsyth Pantomime at Liverpool Empire. The Dancer’s Equity minimum salary (which was all that managements paid) was then £8.50. For the singers it was £12.50 – work that out in modern ratios! And ‘digs’ (full board) were 4.50 per week. (Bless you Mrs. Ormeshore, R.I.P.) Repertory minimums were below light entertainment rates, and I did not then take up my long-standing offer of Juvenile Lead with one of Harry Hanson’s companies. He now had only two companies left out of over twenty in the mid-50’s and, especially as I then lived in London, his offer of an average summer season run at £9.00 P.W. paled into insignificance when I was offered an audition for singers ‘who could move’ in the Harry Secombe London Palladium summer show. This ran 7 months, twice-nightly and with the 13th performance (three on Saturdays) – ratios again – paid over £17 – plus actually turning out to be a wonderful and useful experience as it turned out to be a new idea of choreographer George Carden’s, who nursed six of us through long rehearsals to produce the first official singer-dancers.
      As for the poor old Stockton Hippodrome, in 1963 – having been taken over by the Essoldo Group – it had long been a Bingo Hall when I got to play it again, as villain in the Ruby Murray tour of Snow White. It was run-down, filthy, clouds of dust descended from the flies on scene changes and I entered my dressing room to find that the ‘fittings’ consisted of a folding card table, a large broken chunk of mirror and a hook on the back of the door. Carrying costumes, my sword slipped from my grasp and neatly all-but disappeared through a crack in the bare floorboards – only being saved by the thickness of the hilt. During the week, playing twice-nightly to packed houses, some Essoldo ‘suits’ arrived and the cast were invited up to the bar after the show for a drink on the management. The latter didn’t stop me from pinning one of them up against the wall and laying into him about the ‘facilities.’ I vividly remember his embarrassment and desperate agreement, but explaining that Essoldo actually believed in live Theatre but they could net attract enough ‘product’ to allow them to refurbish. The point was that they were keeping the building ‘going’ instead of pulling it down, in the hope that matters would eventually improve enough to justify refurbishment – which under the present circumstances would have invited a total revolution from shareholders. If they could just get half a dozen shows like ours booked in each year it would be a very different story. Of course I could then only offer to buy HIM a drink! Sadly matters never improved. Over successive years, when playing Newcastle and Darlington, I popped over to Stockton to see that each time a chunk of ‘my youth‘ had disappeared. The Little Theatre, Holy Trinity Boys School, Nelson Terrace and everything in Regent Street except the side of Marks and Spencers. Finally, in mid-1990’s, I made a couple of passers-by jump when I said aloud, “Okay, I can take a hint” – as I was looking at the site of the Hippodrome which had just been levelled to rubble.
      C’est La Vie!

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    • Llewellyn Williams, Thank you for your reply giving Stocktonians an insight into life on the boards. Whilst reading your notes I got to thinking how educational the theatre was especially for chronically shy people – like me, especially the unemployed, the bereaved and the lonely, and those who needed a few hours entertainment, a ‘mood breaker’ that was badly missing in many peoples lives. Before, during and after the Great 1930s depression, and more so during WW1 & WW2. These were real people up there on the stage, men, women and youngsters who shaped our lives for the better and brightened the national mood. Television was not the same and one could argue, that the stage heroes, actors big and small, and the singers and comedians in Britain then forged this nation of brothers, pals and mates. In Jimmy James we had one of the greatest, his nephew ‘Our Eli’ was a local boy who could often be seen stood on Dovecot St corner, those were the days my friend, we thought they would never end… and thank you to one and all including the stagehands and set designers, and the girl with the torch who showed you to your seat as the band was starting to strike up…

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      • ELI WOODS OBITUARY; (Born: January 11, 1923, Stockton-on-Tees
        Died: May 1, 2014, Stockton-on-Tees) Eli Woods, real name John (Jack) Casey, died peacefully in his Stockton home in the early hours of yesterday, Thursday, morning. He was 91. Mr Casey (Woods), performed with the likes of Roy Castle and Roy Hudd and Les Dawson was best man at his wedding. His son, Mark, said the highlight of his father’s career was performing in front of the Queen Mother at the Royal Variety Performance in the 1980s. From a family of entertainers he was especially famous for Animals in the Box routine which was a favourite in theatres for many years. The funny man’s uncle was the very famous Jimmy James and the pair teamed up – legend has it Jimmy’s stooge became ill and ‘Eli,’ then driving for his uncle, was persuaded to stand in at the last minute – later they performed together for many years until Jimmy James’ death in 1965.
        After that Mr Casey, aka Eli, had many prime time TV appearances on Roy Castle and Les Dawson’s shows as well as many others including the Des O’Connor programme. Tribute was paid by fellow Teesside entertainer Paul Daniels who said: “RIP Eli, fond memories of you, and the Jimmy James brilliant duo comedy act.” Son Mark, explained his mother, Pamela, was a dancer working with Les Dawson when Les introduced her to ‘Eli.’ The couple, who lived in the Elm Tree area of Stockton, celebrated their Ruby Wedding last year. The entertainer, a son of a steelworker who is also survived by a brother and sister, worked in show business for more than 50 years but had retired in his 80s due to failing health. Despite his fame he lived in Stockton his whole life. Eli Woods also worked for many years with his cousin, James Casey, who was also very well-known as a comedy writer for BBC. The legendary Animals in a Box sketch involved the idea of three animals, including an elephant, lion and giraffe being kept in a small box.
        At one point Eli is told: “You couldn’t get an elephant in there, there’s no room.” To which he replies: ‘You could ask the g-g-giraffe to move over a bit.’ (Northern Echo tribute May 2014)

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        • JIMMY JAMES OBITUARY(20 May 1892 – 4 August 1965) Buried in Oxbridge Cemetery, Stockton-on-Tees

          Jimmy James was a music hall, film, radio and television comedian and comedy actor. James had limited use for jokes as such, preferring to say things in a humorous manner,. He was often hailed as a “comedians’ comedian”. Jimmy James was born James Casey on 20 May 1892, the eldest of four sons of Jeremiah Casey, an iron puddler or steelmaker, and Polly Gartland. Many sources state he was born in Portrack, Stockton-on-Tees, although other sources consider that he was born in South Bank, Middlesbrough, and moved to Stockton-on-Tees at the age of seven in 1899. At the age of ten he won a boy soprano contest at the Stockton Hippodrome and shortly afterwards ran away from home hitching a ride to Darlington to join a travelling show. The police located him a few years later at the age of twelve by which time he had become a stage performer. His father, an amateur clog dancer himself, encouraged his son’s show business talents. At the Sunderland Empire James met Isabelle Darby, a music hall dancer and they married in 1921, they had one son.
          Although James appeared on stage as a convincing drunk, often with a cigar or cigarette in his mouth, he was teetotal and did not smoke off stage. His weaknesses were gambling and his famed generosity which may account for his bankruptcies in 1936, 1955 and 1963. James was last on stage in 1964, retiring that year. He died of pulmonary congestion on 4 August 1965 following a heart attack and is buried in Oxbridge Cemetery, Stockton-on-Tees. Comedian Eric Morecambe spoke in glowing terms about James: “He had that thing that broke all barriers with an audience. He was loved by the pros – professionals – and loved by the audience. Now Jimmy had this fantastic gift, that he was liked and loved – this is an important word – loved by both. One of the few comedians that all the comics used to stand on the side and watch. One of the greats.
          Jimmy James’s son James Casey (1922–2011) was a light entertainment executive producer at the BBC producing shows such as The Clitheroe Kid for radio and television.

          In the First World War 1914 to 1918 James was a sergeant in the Northumberland Fusiliers but was invalided out after being gassed on the Western Front. James appeared in Stockton as a double act with his great uncle Jimmy Howells and they were known as The Two Jimmies. James became a comedian by chance. In 1925, he took over for one night at Longton, Staffordshire, standing in when the regular comedian walked out. His next big break came when he took over from a young Max Miller who had walked out of a show. In 1929, James was talent spotted at the Sunderland Empire by impresario George Black, Taken to London, and by 1930 he was appearing at the London Palladium, earning £100 a week, he also appeared at the London Coliseum.
          In the 1940s, James developed one of the funniest stage routines in variety history with his two stooges, Bretton Woods, later known as Eli Woods, “Our Eli”, and Hutton Conyers, played by members of the Casey family. Eli Woods’s real name was Jack Casey and he was James’s nephew. James named the stage character of Hutton Conyers after seeing a signpost on the Great North Road to the small village of Hutton Conyers, near Ripon, Yorkshire. He appeared at the Royal Variety Performance in 1953 and stole the show. (www–sources/Bob W)

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          • Stage Act: Jimmy James & Eli Woods (Our Eli)

            Their best-known sketch was known as “Its In the Box, James and Woods would be chatting when stage stooge Hutton Conyers entered carrying a shoebox in which he claimed he kept two man-eating lions (James: “I thought I heard a rustling”). James asks Woods to go and get some coffees while he engages Conyers in conversation, Conyers informs James that he also has a giraffe. James: “Where do you keep it?” Conyers: “In the shoe box.” James (to Eli Woods): “Get on the phone. I’ll keep him talking till they (the men in the white coats) come.” Conyers: “Are you telling him about the giraffe?” James: “No, I’ll told him to go and get us some coffeee, maybe, maybe I did mention to him that you’ve got a giraffe in that box.” Eli Woods: “Is it black or white?” Jimmy James: “I’ll ask him. He wants to know if the giraffe is black or white?” (pause) Eli Woods: “No, the coffee I mean.” Conyers says he also owns an elephant. James: “Is it male or female?” Conyers: “No, it’s an elephant.” James: “I don’t suppose it makes any difference to you whether it’s male or female.” Eli Woods: “It wouldn’t make any difference to anyone but another elephant.” James: “I shall have to stop you going to those youth clubs.” After the great comedian’s death – Jimmy James death – , Woods remained popular in panto, on television and in clubs, where he showed he shared his uncle’s gift for ad-libbing. Once when asked if he had a snappy comeback for hecklers, he said: “Yes, so long as they’ll w-w-w-wait for it.” Eli Woods, who lived in Stockton all his life, retired about 10 years ago.
            He is survived by his second wife, Pamela, a former dancer, five children, Giselle, Simon, Neil, Mark and Nicola, six grandchildren and one great-grandson.
            (www-sourced / Bob W)

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            • JAMES CASEY, (JIMMY JAMES SON) FAMOUS BBC SCRIPT WRITER OBITUARY: (1922-2011. DIED STOCKTON ON TEES ).

              ONE of Teesside’s best loved comedians and script- writers has passed away at the age of 88. James Casey, producer and co-writer of the long-running radio comedy show The Clitheroe Kid was born on August 16, 1922. He was the son of James Casey, the comedian who performed under the stage name Jimmy James. As a child, James, who was better know as Jim, would visit his cousin Jack Casey, who would later become comedian Eli Woods. In later life the pair worked together. Eli, 88, from Stockton, said: “We were more like brothers than cousins as we grew up together. He was a smashing lad. He was the only real friend that I ever had.” Eli’s wife Pam, 62, added: “He was very kind, very generous, and there was nothing he didn’t know about comedy.” Growing up Jim toured with his parents as his mother Emmy was his father’s leading lady. When Jim was six Emmy retired and they went to live in Stockton, while his father went on to become a very successful comedian. At 18, Jim was accepted at St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, but despite being given military exemption, he joined the army. He landed with the 9th Battalion Durham Light Infantry on D-Day, and was one of only half a dozen officers who got all the way to Berlin without serious wounds. When he was demobbed Jim became a scriptwriter and stooge to his father. In 1954 Jim joined the BBC Radio in Manchester as a producer and writer, later becoming head of light entertainment. Jim conceived and produced radio shows for big names including Les Dawson, Ken Dodd, Roy Castle and Des O’Connor.

              But Jim’s greatest success was the world famous The Clitheroe Kid, which he co-wrote with Frank Roscoe. The show, which starred Jimmy Clitheroe in the role of a cheeky schoolboy was broadcast between April 1957 and August 13, 1972.
              After his dad died Jim and Eli performed Jimmy James’ infamous Animal in the Box routine on the Parkinson show in 1981. They also appeared in the Royal Variety show in 1982, as well as touring later in the decade. Eli said: “We’ve got some very good memories. He had a lot of confidence but would always get nervous before performing.” Jim moved back to Stockton in the 1990s after his wife Joan and son David died. In recent years Jim suffered from a number of health problems. He died in the University Hospital of North Tees on April 23.
              Jim leaves behind daughter Sue and grandson David. (Source/ Evening Gazette,Mbro)

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        • Eli’s brother is Barrie Casey who was a well known local footballer who played for Head Wrightsons, Ashmores, Portrack Social & St Bedes School, he now lives in Billingham.

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  4. Well done Llewellyn for assembling such a remarkable slice of Stockton history – it is a miracle the collection survived. There will be many of these young people who will still around to tell their stories – hopefully some will be in touch on this website.

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