“They were the household celebrities of their day,” said Molly to Jonathan, “troupers, all of them hard working acts, entertaining millions of people up and down the country. I told you about Charlie Chester, Tessie O”Shea and Max Miller, but I was also on the bill with the likes of Rob Wilton, he was funny, and Jimmy Clitheroe, with his schoolboy voice. You’d have heard him on the radio, Sunday lunchtimes years ago.” Molly was gazing at nothing in particular. She was looking at a distant time, lovingly blurred by nostalgia, and she was smiling as she talked. Jonathan could see that she was enjoying her reminiscences.
Molly liked to talk. All Jonathan had to do it seemed was to ask a few questions at the beginning of their sessions and a switch clicked in the showgirl’s head and off she went. In this interview, she remembered some shows at the famous, but to some terrifying, Glasgow Empire. “Most of the acts would take any booking that came along, including Glasgow, but you could see as the night of the show came closer, that they would be dreading it. The thought of it made some of them sick, literally. Others seemed to have an extra scotch to normal at lunchtime on the day of the show. Comics, in particular, would break out in cold sweats because there is nothing worse to a comedian than silence after he’s told a joke. They used to call it walking off the stage to the sound of your own footsteps. It was torture, absolute torture. Dancers like me could get away without much trouble, one because we were girls and the men in the audience would call out to us, the cheeky monkeys, and two because the band always kept playing until we were off the stage. But comics had the toughest job of the lot. One of the stage managers at the Empire once said: ‘If they like you, you’ll live.”
One of the double acts, Manny and Mitch I think it was, were on one night and their act was going down the drain. At the end of their half hour they trudged off the stage, hearing just one person in the audience tittering. As they came off, one of the stagehands walked up to them and said: “Do you know, I think they’re warming to you?” Manny caught Mitch’s arm inches before his planned punch on the man’s nose. As the years went by and the veterans got the hang of the Glasgow Empire, some of them would stitch signs on the backs of their jackets with messages to the audience. In the unlikely event that the performance went down well, the acts always sidled off stage without turning round. But if, as predicted, the audience failed to clap or make any noise in appreciation, some of the bravest troupers would turn their backs and show off the signs. Some of them were very rude and insulting. I remember one of the clean ones but the comedian still had to run for his life. On his back was a sign that said: “You can always tell a Scotsman but you can’t tell him much.” Molly sat back and laughed until tears rolled down her cheeks.
Jonathan kept listening with one eye on his tape recorder to ensure he didn’t miss a word and occasionally scribbling something on his note pad. When Molly had finished laughing, she dabbed her eyes with a tissue and Jonathan saw that suddenly her mood had changed. The tears were still there but this time there was sadness in her face.
“Molly,” said Jonathan reaching out to touch her arm, “what’s the matter?”
“Oh, I’m just being a silly old woman. All this talk of the old days has so many stories running through my head. I just remembered that Glasgow was where I met my first true love, not Herbert, but a young lad who played the trumpet in one of the bands. He was called Johnny. We went out a few times, to pubs and cafes and had the odd little kiss and cuddle now and again, nothing more than that, but he was lovely to me. Sometimes being on the road, even when you’re in with a group of other performers on buses and trains, you can still get a bit lonely. Some turn to drink, some get about a bit in the bedroom department and others, like me, just tried to get on with the work, read books, go for walks and stuff like that. But Johnny was my companion for about three weeks. We could have made a great couple.” Molly looked at Jonathan with eyes that only minutes before had sparkled with joy but now looked empty of delight, yet full of sorrow.
“What happened?” asked Jonathan gently squeezing Molly’s arm.
“He was killed in a car accident. He had run across the road to get us ice creams and on the way back, the ice cream dropped out of one of the cones. He was distracted and the car hit him. He was killed in front of my eyes. It wasn’t the driver’s fault. It was nobody’s fault. But my Johnny was gone forever.”
Jonathan moved over and cuddled Molly. “Molly,” said Jonathan, “if all of this is too painful for you, we can stop it now. The last thing I want to do is to upset you.”
Molly drew away from him. “Oh no, it’s time all of this came out. If I’m going to tell my story, I want it to be the complete story, the good and the bad, otherwise what’s the point.”
“Only if you’re sure,” said Jonathan.
“Oh I’m very sure. It is like my own personal MOT. I want to see if I still have all my faculties, can use all my senses, laugh, cry, get annoyed, talk for England, you know, to see if there’s life in this old girl yet.” Molly was laughing again and Jonathan was glad to see it. This book project was proving to be an emotional task.
“I’ll just wash my face and tidy myself up after that blubbing,” said Molly walking toward the bathroom. “Do you know, you’re the first man to cuddle me since Herbert passed away. It was nice, very, very nice.”
Jonathan felt a little uncomfortable with that remark but he laughed to be polite. He realized that for the first time in years, this fifty-four year old man was blushing.