From strikes to human cannonballs, dancers recall life in Edinburgh’s variety theatres of 30s, 40s and 50s

Doreen Leighton-Ward and Marie Duthie
Doreen Leighton-Ward and Marie Duthie
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AT the age of 87 and 96 respectively, Doreen Leighton-Ward and Marie Duthie still meet regularly to dance and recall memories of their lives as dancers in the heyday of variety and music hall, back in 1930s, 40s and 50s.

They meet once a week in the Empire Rooms of the Festival Theatre as part of the Janice Parker project, An Audience with... along with two fellow dancers, 92-year-old June Don Murray and 98-year-old Betty Clarkson, who is missing today.

Doreen Leighton-Ward, June Don Murray, Marie Duthie return to the Empire stage, now the Festival Theatre

Doreen Leighton-Ward, June Don Murray, Marie Duthie return to the Empire stage, now the Festival Theatre

Between them they have a wealth of tales about life on the Capital’s many stages, from The Palladium to the Empire, Leith Gaiety and beyond.

Some of those memories have been collated in a new book available from the Festival Theatre.

Despite the glitz and pizazz of appearing on stage with the Music Hall stars of the day, Doreen Leighton-Ward, the youngest of the four, recalls that life as a dancer was far from glamorous.

“We were getting paid the equivalent of £4.10 a week for two shows a night, a Monday band call, rehearsals from 10am-1pm Tuesday to Friday with Saturday and Sunday afternoons off,” she reveals.

“If we were appearing in Edinburgh, my mum might have something warm on for me to eat when I got home, back at Easter Road, at night after the shows.”

In 1953, shortly after performing solo at Leith’s Gaiety Theatre in the Kirkgate, Doreen, who trained at Madam Ada’s Dance School in Picardy Place as a Calderette (a member of the Calder Girls, who appeared in pantomimes across the country), attended an Equity meeting and began to fight for dancers rights.

“We really didn’t realise that working conditions were not great, we just accepted that was the way it was,” she says.

“When we did realise that the chorus were getting much more than us, we did take it to Equity and we had a strike at the Gaiety Theatre.

“We told the then manager Mr Worth that the girls wouldn’t go on until it was agreed they would get 10 shillings a week more.

“He was very annoyed, but it worked and having the extra 10 shillings was a big help.”

She adds, “I gave my mother 30 shillings a week for my lodgings, £1.10 in today’s money, so even with the extra 10 shillings, there wasn’t a lot left over.

“We didn’t know about business, I suppose we were quite naïve. We just knew we were dancers and we loved it. It was all we wanted.”

Doreen went on to be an actress in later years, appearing in many TV dramas including Take The High Road.

Marie Duthie began dancing in 1927 at the age of four in her father’s concert parties around the city.

“I started dancing very young and it became a big part of my life,” she reflects.

However, it was in 1932, when at just nine years old she performed the Dying Swan solo at Lauriston Hall, that she had one of her finest moments.

The Edinburgh Evening Dispatch declared, ‘memories of Pavlova are brought to mind’.

“The Dying Swan was lovely. That performance got a lot of attention, and I was naturally very happy and quite proud of that write up in the paper,” she smiles.

“It felt natural for me to do it, I felt it in my body. My mother used to say, ‘It was born in you Marie,’ so yes, it was lovely. It happened at the right time for me.”

June Don Murray moved to Edinburgh in 1931 when her father Roy became the manager of The Palladium, where, due to the expense of photography in the 40s, he would draw caricatures of the variety acts for the programmes.

June too trained at Madam Ada’s before becoming a Calder Girl and later joining the Moxon Girls.

She then became assistant to Australian illusionist The Great Levante, which saw her regularly being fired from a cannon atop the tour bus. Much to her mother’s dismay.

She laughs, “My mother nearly had a fit when she came the first time.

“‘You’re what?’ Well, I was the wee-est of the troupe, that’s why I was in the cannon.

“‘Oh no, you’re no going back, that’s it finished... You’re no going back, I’m no having that,’ she said.

“I think she thought I was just going to take flight... we didnae get paid, you did it not for the glamour exactly but for love.”

All four dancers will be appearing in 25 Live at the Festival Theatre on Saturday 1 June at 7pm, and more of their memories can be found in the hardback book Janice Parker Projects Presents An Audience With... Priced £19.99 and published by White Water Publishing it is available from the Festival Theatre, Nicolson Street