IT WAS a sad closing scene for a much-loved Glasgow venue known for its risqué pantomimes, when the Queen’s Theatre on Watson Street went up in flames 70 years ago.

Brian Henderson, a keen amateur theatre historian and former president of heritage society the Old Glasgow Club, wonders if any Times Past readers recall this variety theatre with a reputation for ‘earthy’ shows and salty humour.

Glasgow Times: Interior of Queen's following the fire. Pic: Newsquest

“’Oh my Chinas,’, is how the spirit of the late, great Sammy Murray might have greeted the fireman fighting the flames engulfing his beloved Queen’s,” says Brian.

“From all sides, they battled, perched - as the Evening Times reported - on top of four turntable ladders. But not even the spirit of Sammy could have saved the stage and roof from this devastating finale.”

It was the early morning of Thursday, January 24, 1952. when the blaze broke out. Our report, under the heading, ‘The Queen’s, where fur coats met cloth caps’ explained: “The fire ranged fiercely for two hours before being brought under control at 6am and destroyed the stage and the roof of the theatre.

Glasgow Times: Queen's Theatre. Pic: Glasgow City Archives

“The Evening Times was reliably informed today that it is unlikely the theatre will ever be reopened.”

The Queen’s Theatre’s roots stretch all the way back to 1878, when it opened as the Star Music Hall. In October 1881, Scottish theatre impresario Arthur Lloyd went bankrupt refurbishing it and running it - for 14 weeks - as the Shakespeare Music Hall and in 1884, it became the New Star of Varieties. Tragedy struck one evening when 14 people were killed when a fire alarm caused a panic in the audience.

Glasgow Times: Comedians Frank and Doris Droy who performed regularly at the Queen's Theatre in Watson Street, Glasgow. Doris was also known as Suicide Sal...19 January 2022.

Over the coming decades the building was known as the People’s Palace of Amusements, which opened its doors in 1892 with a company headed by Parisien contortionist Ames, never before seen in Scotland, and then the Queen’s Variety Theatre, operated in the late 1890s by Barney Armstrong and TJ Colquhoun. In 1907 it became the Pringle’s Picture Palace, Glasgow’s first cinema.

“Pringle’s continued certainly until January 1914, with the likes of Herr Doring and his well-trained pigeons, and comedienne and dancer Rita Hutchieson, both very much of their time, adding to first-class bioscope pictures,” says Brian. “Bernard Frutin, of Old Metropole, Stockwell Street fame, runs the venue as the Queen’s Picture Palace, in another cine-variety venture for a while and then James Close, better known by his stage name of Harry Hall, acquires the theatre ‘for a song’ and introduces the novelty panto with a Glasgow twist. The first one, Old Mother Hubbard, opened to acclaim on Monday, December 18, 1933. It was advertised with the added attraction of the theatre’s new central heating system – an innovation for its day, perhaps?”

Glasgow Times: Sam Murray, 1936. Pic courtesy of John Short.

The cast included Frank and Doris Droy and Sam Murray, who would become firm favourites at Queen’s. Sam Murray continued to tread the boards there until his death in 1949.

“If anyone ‘belonged to Glasgow’, Sam Murray did,” smiles Brian. “His famous panto dame, Fanny, and his Glesga cry of ‘my china’, adopted to such great effect by Francie and Josie many years later, would bring the house down.”

In 1952, the panto in full flow when the fire broke out was Sanny’s Magic Sporran, a typically raucous tale starring Billy Rusk and described by our reviewer as a ‘Glasgow tale gaily thumbing its nose at current fashion and going on its own sweet and strictly local way.’

“The fire ended almost 20 years of Glasgow pantomime tradition,” says Brian.

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The Evening Times reflected: “For many years, the Queen’s has been the home of the city’s earthiest annual pantomime. It was a byword among city theatregoers for salty Glasgow humour and in the days when Doris Droy and the late Sam Murray headed the cast the honest vulgarity of the sketches and the hearty slickness of other players, drew an audience not to be found in any other auditorium in Scotland.”

Brian explains: “It has been fascinating looking into the history of the place – I’m grateful for the help I received from John Short, in clarifying certain dates, including the 1914 cine-variety venture.

Glasgow Times: Front page of a copy of a programme for the production of  The Gorbals Story by Robert McLeish that was staged by The Unity Theatre at the Queen's Theatre in Glasgow in the winter of 1945/46. The illustration on the cover was done by Bud Neill of

“Later on – in 1946 - Glasgow Unity Theatre’s The Gorbals Story by Robert McLeish starring, among others, my family member Betty Henderson, as Peggie, would bring its own sense of working class tenement drama to the Queen’s stage.

“But it is to Doris and Sam and their fellow players, that we must doff our caps and hats; for it is with them that the New Queen’s Theatre, Watson Street will forever be synonymous.”

He smiles: “How many passers-by today, I wonder, are aware of the spirits treading the ghostly boards on this site? Very few, I suspect.”