WITH the borough celebrating its 150th birthday, I thought why not have a look at popular entertainment in the town over the years.

When our town was merely a series of hamlets scattered around estates of the landed gentry, there were probably no taverns. 

Locals may have entertained in venues, but wandering minstrels and artistic troupes such as those in which Shakespeare and the Kemble family were active, would head to market towns like Prescot. 

Then the world began to change after the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester railway. 

Within 40 years, most cities were linked and London Music Hall stars could travel to the provinces. 

The first music halls struggled because their number one priority was not the quality of entertainment, but sale of alcohol. 

There was an established ‘circus’ in North Road, which for a time was the home of the Theatre Royal while a new theatre was being built on Corporation Street. The older Theatre Royal (now part of The Citadel) was more a theatre than a music hall. 

In 1884 it featured a panto with legendary music hall star Vesta Tilley. Her most popular song in the First World War was ‘Jolly Good Luck to the Girl who loves a Soldier’.

Other popular singalong songs in many a tavern were ‘Champagne Charlie’, ‘The Man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo’, ‘Down at the old Bull and Bush’ (a tavern on Hampstead Heath), and ‘Pop Goes The Weasel’. 

The new Theatre Royal opened on May 20, 1901. Gracie Fields, Frank Randle and George Formby have all appeared there.

Then came the shattering events of the First World War, the impact of the gramophone, and the growing popularity of radio. 

One St Helens chap was in the vanguard of those early days of the gramophone. I have copies of recordings made by Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the Beecham Symphony and the London Philharmonic Orchestras in 1910, 1912, and 1916.

Meanwhile, the first film screening in the town was in November 1896 as part of a Magic Lantern show at the town hall. 

Screenings continued until around 1916 with early films less than four minutes. 

In 1906 Charlie Chaplin appeared onstage at the Hippodrome and in 1907 the Weisker Brothers began showing films on our Co-op Hall. By 1916 St Helens had nine licensed cinemas, six purpose built. 

St Helens Star:

Charlie Chaplin appeared at the Hippodrome in 1906

One local lad, George Groves, born just off Duke Street, went to the USA and helped with establishing sound in talkies. 

When Al Jolson spoke the immortal words, “You ain’t heard nothing yet”, it was George on the other end of the mike recording them to disc. 
He earned 32 Academy Award nominations for sound, winning three.
Our first cinema converted to sound was in Parr, the old Parrvilion, and George came to help with the work. 

In 1996 I helped install a plaque on the house he was born in, provided by the British Film Institute.

Purpose built cinemas began to spring up all around the borough over the coming decades.