Obituary: Ron Dale, versatile entertainer who moved from theatres to clubs and cruise ships

Entertainer Ron Dale has died at the age of 84
Entertainer Ron Dale has died at the age of 84
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Ron Dale, comedian, musician and compere. Born: 8 February, 1934 in Glasgow. Died: 6 June 2018, in Ayrshire aged 84

Ron Dale brought laughter and entertainment to theatres and clubs in Britain and overseas for more than 60 years, including 33 years working aboard cruise ships.

If asked to what he attributed his enduring success, he would say “luck”, then adding: “I came into showbusiness when most towns in Scotland had busy theatres; consequently there was always work. When the public no longer flocked to variety theatres’ extended summer and winter seasons, I moved to clubs, and when their popularity began to dwindle, I went on to cruise ships”.

He began his showbiz career as a vocalist and musician in a number of duos, trios and quartets and became more widely known during the many summer seasons he appeared in the Lex McLean Shows in Glasgow’s Pavilion Theatre. There, in addition to performing in a quartet, he acted as Lex’s “comedy feed”.

He was born Ronald Smail, the second son of Frederick and Jessie Smail, at Paisley Road Toll in Glasgow.

His father was an engineering instrument maker who also sang and played accordion at dances and it was he who encouraged both sons to become involved in music. In young Ronald’s case, he taught him the basics of the accordion and also tutored him on piano but Ron learned to play the bagpipes – with which he has long been associated –whilst in the Boys’ Brigade.

At Bellahouston Academy, Ronald had no interest in showbusiness and on leaving shool he began work as a sales assistant with Jackson’s the Tailor in Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street. It was a job he really enjoyed and was earmarked for a management role, but in 1952 National Service took him to RAF Lindholme in Yorkshire as an RAF policeman. The Wing Commander in charge of the pipe band at an adjacent camp in Bawtry learned of Ron’s talents as a piper and arranged for him to be transferred to Bawtry Camp where he met Glaswegian singer Don Murray. Together they’d pass time singing harmonies, leading to them appearing in clubs. Don suggested calling themselves The Dale Brothers – from the dales of Scotland. It was then Ronald Smail became Ronnie Dale.

Demobbed in 1954, he returned to Glasgow where his tailoring job had been kept in abeyance and when he learned his older brother George was playing bass in the evenings as a member of a musical group The Stewart Boys, Ronnie joined them.

Buddy Logan, brother of Jimmy Logan, heard the group. He saw potential in Ronnie and arranged for him to join musician Nicky Riccardo and Heather Logan to form The Nicky Riccardo Trio. When they were offered a two-week contract at Glasgow’s Metropole Theatre, Ronnie was delighted but the dates clashed with his day job. However, his boss at Jackson’s suggested Ronnie should take a fortnight’s holiday to see how he felt about working in the theatre. At the end of the two weeks, Ronnie realised he wanted to be in showbusiness. He went back to his boss, thanked him and said goodbye to tailoring.

The trio played the summer season at Barrfield’s Pavilion in Largs, with Clark and Murray topping the bill, and continued for a year until Nicky suddenly left to work in the USA. Ronnie moved to the Gerry Cameron Trio and the new threesome played at Glasgow’s Empress, the Palace in Dundee and the Tivoli in Aberdeen.

Edinburgh’s Palladium offered them a season but Gerry decided to leave the group, causing Ronnie to hurriedly form his own combo – the Ronnie Dale Trio – and under that banner went on to play at the Palladium.

It was there he met Eve Robins, a young soprano on the bill, and in 1958, they wed. Now a married man and requiring stability, he formed The Melody Makers, which included Billy Gordon, John Little and Tommy Banner in the line-up. The Melody Makers appeared in Lex McLean’s shows at Glasgow’s Pavilion for eight consecutive summer seasons, and when Lex’s straight-man Glen Daly left the show, Lex invited Ronnie to take on that role in addition to performing his musical spot with the quartet – which was Ronnie’s introduction to comedy.

With The Melody Makers he went on to play theatres and clubs in Scotland and England, working alongside Engelbert Humperdink (then Gerry Dorsey) and Max Bygraves, but that came to an abrupt end in 1967 when Ronnie received an invitation he couldn’t refuse. He was to compere and perform as a solo artiste in a White Heather Show touring Canada and the USA, sharing the billing with Jimmy Shand, Bill McCue and Jimmy Logan.

The following year, he toured Australia in the Andy Stewart Show. He was now performing his musical comedy act and went on to appear in five overseas tours with Andy in Australasia and in the USA and also performed in overseas tours with the Alexander Brothers. He was now being billed as Ron Dale, jokingly saying that the short name appeared larger on the billing.

It was a hectic time in Ron’s career, because the overseas tours were scheduled to fit in around work in Britain where he was performing in summer seasons at Aberdeen’s His Majesty’s Theatre. He was also acting in Grampian TV’s Melody Inn – in over 40 episodes of the show – alongside Una McLean. And on the same channel was appearing in his musical comedy role on The Jim Macleod Show.

Offers of work were also coming in from Ayrshire, leading to Ron and Eve relocating from Glasgow to Ayr to allow him to work in a number of Gaiety Whirl shows at the town’s theatre and in clubs all over the county.

By tradition, working men’s clubs booked single performers, but Ron managed to persuade many of the clubs’ management committees that audiences would like to see small variety shows and he brought in musicians, singers, dancers and comedians to appear in these shows which for years proved popular.

However club audiences, like those in the theatres, were changing and the demand for these shows was beginning to fall away. As they did, offers came in to perform aboard cruise liners; the first was from P&O and in 1983 Ron made his debut on a cruise ship stage; on Sea Princess sailing out of Hong Kong.

Now billed as a comedy entertainer and with his faithful bagpipes and dressed in the kilt, Ron modified his comedy to suit international audiences. They loved his stage shows where he’d often make an entrance from the auditorium then walk towards the stage, playing bagpipes or blasting on a trombone, and telling the audience “Nobody sleeps when I’m onstage.”

It was a successful format and for 33 years he entertained on ships of the Royal Caribbean, Fred Olsen, Saga and P&O lines. He enjoyed playing to the audiences on cruise liners and felt privileged at seeing the world while he worked, but the schedules were strenuous and he decided to return to playing clubs in Scotland where he was still in demand.

He may have considered he’d been lucky, but his long career would not have endured for over 60 years if he hadn’t adapted and given audiences what they wanted.

Ron died in Ayr Hospital following a short illness. He is survived by his wife Eve, their three children Sharon, Steven and Scott and their grandchildren; also his brother George who lives in Canada.

NORMAN CHRISTIE