Stan Laurel was one of the greatest comedians of all time and one of his oldest friends was a man from Wearside – Benny Barron.
Benny first appeared on the same stage as Stan in 1907 when they played in the pantomime The Sleeping Beauty.
In the show was a young man called Stanley Jefferson who would later find worldwide fame as Stan Laurel.
Chris Cordner reports with the helping hand of Philip Curtis and the Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
Benny Barron was part of a successful double act called Graham and Barron.
The panto he starred in had another Sunderland connection as Wee Georgie Wood received top billing.
He was only seven when he joined a juvenile pantomime company. He was a seasoned veteran of 14 when he made his first appearance at the Empire in 1910.
While Stan found fame in Hollywood with Oliver Hardy, Benny, with a large family to support, reluctantly swapped the stage for a career in the brewery trade. In 1938, he became the licensee of the Burlington Inn on Hendon Road. He used to challenge regulars to bring in any musical instrument.
Whatever they brought in - be it tin whistle, banjo, harmonica, saxophone, cornet or clarinet - Benny could get a tune out of it.
Three of Benny’s sons became professional musicians. Billy was a trumpeter in the Sunderland Empire orchestra and Benny Jnr and Leslie both played in the Edinburgh Empire orchestra.
Leslie played with Geraldo as well as Judy Garland when she toured Britain and in later years with Joe Brown and the Bruvvers.
The early days with Stan held the fondest memories for Benny.
When Stan and Olly visited Sunderland in the 1950s Benny again met up with his old pal in person.
Benny’s son, Billy, met his wife Sabina when she worked at the Sunderland Empire. Their son, Bill, is a member of the Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
In 1969 Sabina, along with Rita Brown and Molly Wilson looked back on their days as usherettes at the Empire in the 1930s.
At that time they wore elaborate uniforms – maroon dresses with flared skirts and 40 brass buttons down the front, red cuffs, black patent leather belts and black stockings.
The usherettes had to pay for their black silk stockings out of their own pocket at a shilling a pair. A shilling was a whole night’s wages but this was supplemented with concessions for programmes and ice cream sales.
When Sabina compared her days at the Empire in the 1960s with those in the 30s, she said: “It’s not such hard work these days but it’s not such fun either.”
By the 1960s, she was running the buffet at the theatre, Molly was looking after the coffee corner and Rita was head usherette.
As well as Sabina meeting her future husband at the Empire the other two ladies also met their husbands there. Molly married an electrician and Rita married a policeman.