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Bob Bain - An Obituary

Bob Bain - Variety and Music Hall champion and archivist

Born April 1, 1938; died December 2, 2019

Bob Bain, who has died aged 81, was a tireless champion and archivist of Scotland’s variety and music hall culture, sharing his exhaustive knowledge of the era with passion, charm and a twinkle in his eye to anyone who listened. Bain’s own extensive collection of memorabilia was a vast in-road to a bygone age which he helped bring back to life as an oral historian, tirelessly giving talks and showing films on the subject.

Bob Bain was born in the Gorbals, Glasgow, and developed an interest in the theatre from an early age, after his parents took him to what would become one of his favourite venues, the old Metropole in Stockwell Street, Glasgow.

“I still remember walking in,” he told the Evening Times in 2018, “I must have been seven or eight years old, and seeing the roaring fire and the old couches where you’d sit and wait until it started. Ever since, I have loved the theatre.”

Bain’s parents died within a few months of each other when he was 20, and he moved to London shortly after, staying for four years.  On his return to Glasgow, Bain became a patent glazier, working on installing roofing windows before he was forced to take early retirement after twenty years due to a back injury.

It was then that his interest in theatre blossomed into a passion after he inherited a box of memorabilia from his wife’s Eleanor’s grand-father, who had performed around the country in a hand-balancing act called the Norman Brothers. From this, Bain developed his own collection of flyers and programmes, tracking down former variety and music hall stars through Equity to ask for help.

Treasured items include a poster advertising Liberace’s appearance at Glasgow Empire, a fake leg owned by 1960s dance troupe the May Moxon Girls Act used for a three-legged dance and a set of bagpipes once played by Billy Crockett for an act that involved a second set that would spray water on the audience.

HOBain also became the stage-door keeper at the Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow, and, crucially, joined the Scottish Music Hall Society. Within a year and a computer course later, Bain had become secretary of the Society, a role which became much more than a hobby, but was his life.

Bain’s fantastic memory combined with an unbridled enthusiasm saw him liaise with numerous institutions to mount talks and exhibitions of variety and music hall material. This resulted in presentations at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Auld Kirk Museum, Kelvingrove Art Galleries, Motherwell Heritage Centre, Summerlee Industrial Muse, the Mitchell Library in Glasgow and Rothesay Pavilion as part of Bute live. 

Along with Society Chair Derek Green, and membership secretary Bill Green, Bain would tour church halls, guilds and community centres to give presentations on variety theatre in Glasgow. 

Bain also organised speakers to give talks for Society members and organised the Society’s annual lunch in Glasgow, at which a Scottish celebrity would receive an award for their service to Scottish entertainment. For many years Bain was editor of the Stagedoor Magazine, the Society’s quarterly journal, and, in interviews on TV and radio, became the public face and voice of the Society. Bain’s particular passion was for the Glasgow Empire, and he made this his personal project, researching many of the hundreds of acts that appeared there, and travelling the country with a talk on it which he devised himself.

During his tenure as secretary, Bain’s dynamism and enthusiasm made him instrumental in the Society widening its reach to include variety theatre alongside music hall. The end result of this came in 2003, when the organisation’s name was changed to the Scottish Music Hall and Variety Theatre Society, the alliance creating a fitting double act of near neighbours as it did so. In 2011, Bain received a lifetime achievement award for his services to the Society

Away from the Society, Bain and Eleanor settled in Auchinloch, North Lanarkshire, where he spent time with his family. He could also be found in the town’s main street, talking to the neighbours. 

Latterly as well, Bain attended events and performances presented under the banner of An Audience With….., a project by choreographer Janice Parker that brings together dancers from the golden age of variety at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre, formerly the Empire. Parker was introduced to Bain by some of the dancers of An Audience With…, whose ranks include Betty Clarkson of the Clarkson and Leslie dance duo and former Moxon Girl June Don Murray. Bain’s encyclopaediac knowledge and passion for keeping such a vital part of grassroots culture and history alive made a big impression on the group, who themselves are a part of living history.

Bain spoke of the need for a Scottish entertainment museum, dedicated, not just to variety and music hall, but to theatre, dance, big bands and buskers.

“Lots of theatres and institutions have their own archives,” he told the Evening Times, “so there’s plenty of stuff, but it’s all over the place. A museum would bring it all together.”

Bain may never have set foot on a stage as a performer himself, but in his evangelical zeal to keep the music hall and variety flame alive, he remained a star turn in his own right.

Bain is survived by his wife Eleanor, his daughter Barbara, his step sons Roddy and Stuart and his grandson Josh.

The Herald, December 11th 2019


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