Blackpool appearances gave stage star Evelyn Laye the courage to face London’s West End
By Barry Band
Earlier this year we did a ‘league table’ of stars with the longest span of appearances at Blackpool theatres.
Top of the list was music hall star Hetty King with 65 years. Now it’s been asked: Who appeared most times?
Years ago I spent many hours in front of a film reader, looking at Gazette ads dating back a hundred years. Was that a hobby or an obsession? Well, I can tell you it’s a hopeless task where music hall/variety artists are concerned.
But it’s feasible if we focus on the ‘legit’ stage. And I’d bet that Evelyn Laye (1900-1996) would be in the top five. She made 18 Blackpool appearances over a span of 40 years.
Born in London, she made her first stage appearance at 15 and by 1923 was starring in operetta, coming to the Grand Theatre in March that year in a revival of Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow.
Her next visit was to the Opera House in July, 1926, in a musical called Betty in Mayfair.
After her Broadway debut in Noel Coward’s comedy Blithe Spirit in 1929, she was back at the Opera House in August, 1931, touring in an operetta called Madame Pompadour.
Evelyn had divorced her first husband, Sonnie Hale, who had taken up with Jessie Matthews, and during a spell
in Hollywood she met her second husband, British actor Frank Lawton.
Her musical career declined and on her next Blackpool visit, in October, 1940, she topped a variety bill at the old Palace. The next year she guested for a week in the Grand’s summer show.
A return to operetta saw our star at the Grand in November, 1944, in a Viennese piece called Three Waltzes, prior to London.
In April, 1946, Evelyn was at the Grand with her husband in a comedy titled Elusive Lady but her career was still uncertain and she toured in variety, with weeks at the Palace in 1947 and the Opera House in 1948.
In May, 1948, she was at the Grand in Sheridan’s old English comedy School for Scandal and the Grand saw her again in April, 1950, with her husband in Daphne du Maurier’s drama September Tide.
After deputising for Josef Locke for two nights in the 1953 Queen’s Theatre summer show, a career revival came when producers George and Alfred Black teamed her with debonair Anton Walbrook in the musical Wedding In Paris. It premiered at the Grand in March, 1954, prior to London.
The Gazette’s Bill Burgess wrote: “Evelyn Laye’s return to the musical stage is a triumph. Her style and technique are flawless.”
A few weeks later she wrote to the Gazette: “I shall never forget that Blackpool was the first to applaud. Your people gave me the confidence and courage to face the West End.”
After London, the show returned twice to Blackpool, to both the Opera House and the Grand.
Future visits were in plays at the Grand. In April, 1957, Laye and Lawton were in a comedy called Silver Wedding and in June, 1959, were in Noel Coward’s The Marquise. Evelyn next came in May, 1962, in the comedy The Amorous Prawn, after 900 London performances. Her final visit was with Lawton in the thriller Black Chiffon, in November, 1963.
Evelyn Laye became a CBE in 1973.