As a curtain riser to my Lost Glasgow wanderings, let’s start with a visit to Sauchiehall Street's legendary Empire Theatre, seen here, in the early 1920s, from the corner of West Nile Street.

The crowd on the near corner, gathered around the Southern Buses station, would today be standing outside the Pret A Manger sandwich shop, while the site of the Empire Buffet, on the opposite corner, is now home to a Starbucks. The horse and carts peching up the hill would have been heading for the goods yard of the now long-vanished Buchanan Street Station. If the carters needed some extra equine muscle for the last leg they could call upon the help of a team of trace horses, who were permanently stationed outside the Empire Bar (now the Iron Horse pub).

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Picture: The Empire Palace

Designed by the renowned architect Frank Matcham, the theatre, launched as The Empire Palace, was operated by Moss Empires, a company formed in Edinburgh in 1899, from the merger of the theatre companies owned by Sir Edward Moss, Richard Thornton and Sir Oswald Stoll, and was a veritable symphony of red-sandstone. This wasn’t the first place of entertainment on the site. The Choral Music Hall once stood at the corner of West Nile and Sauchiehall Streets. This early music venue was to give way to the Gaiety Theatre which opened in 1874, before the Empire was built.

The most luxurious and up to date of all Glasgow’s palaces of varieties, it opened its doors to the paying-public in 1897. And if you think gender-bending pop stars are a recent invention, the opening act was cross-dressing singer Vesta Tilley, who had a big hit with the comic song 'I’m Burlington Bertie from Bow'.

Mans’ laughter, or manslaughter!

Long regarded as the ‘graveyard of English comedians’, the Empire crowd was a notoriously riotous and difficult one to please. The second house crowds on Friday and Saturday nights, after the pubs had closed, could turn nasty, with well-oiled shipyard workers known to rain rivets down on comedians who failed to tickle their funny bone.

That said, if the crowd liked you, they loved you. Ken Dodd proved a huge hit with Glaswegians. Des O’Connor, and Mike and Bernie Winters less so.

O’Connor was so intimidated by the jeering crowd on his opening night that he pretended to faint, having to be dragged off stage by the ankles.

When the Winters brothers began their act, with Mike wandering on stage while tootling on his clarinet, he was met with total silence. When his moon-faced brother popped his head through the curtains to say ‘hello’, a lone voice in the audience piped up: “Oh, Christ! There’s two of ‘em…”. Only, rumour has it that, he used a stronger expletive than ‘Christ’! The list of stars who played the theatre reads like a veritable Who’s Who; Lily Langtry (the mistress of Edward VII), Sir Harry Lauder, Tommy Lorne, Will Fyffe, Harry Gordon. A young Shirley Bassey got off to a wobbly start. She had to plead with the crowd to give her a chance. The Tiger Bay beauty’s bravery paid off, with the by then silenced crowd giving her act a rapturous round of applause.

When risqué comedian Lex Mclean appeared, the theatre needed mounted police outside to control the crowds. ‘Sexy Lexy’, who liked to dash home to Helensburgh after every show, would always carry a half bottle of whisky with him. He used it to bribe the railway guard to hold the last train for him.

Yanks for the memories

US names were also a huge draw, with the Andrews Sisters, Laurel and Hardy, Billy Eckstein, Tony Bennett, Johnnie Ray, Frankie Lane, Connie Francis, Eartha Kitt (useful in Glasgow rhyming slang!), Howard Keel, Guy Mitchell, Bob Hope, Judy Garland, Liberace, and Danny Kaye all playing to packed house. Fats Waller made his European debut in the Empire in 1938.

The legendary Francis Albert Sinatra was less lucky. Arriving in the city during a dip in his career – between his bobby-socks heyday and the launch of his film career - come matinee shows he often found himself singing to a half empty theatre.

As for the tale of American escapologist Harry Houdini managing to get locked in his dressing room lavvy, and having to be rescued by theatre staff, we’ll chalk that one up as wishful thinking rather than documented fact.

The final curtain

As old school variety began to wane, the theatre tried to attract new, younger audiences, staging rock ‘n’ roll package shows, featuring such big names as Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent, and their UK followers, including Cliff Richard.

The Empire also provided the inspiration for the song ‘Scotland the Brave’ as the lyrics were written by the late Cliff Hanley in 1951 for a musical revue at the theatre.

Sadly, with the arrival of television, the audience for live variety began to fall away and the final curtain came down at the Empire on March 31 1963. The cast for the final show featured such strange bedfellows as the Red Army Choir, Duncan Macrae, Robert Wilson, Iain Cuthbertson, Albert Finney, Rikki Fulton, and Andy Stewart.

The theatre was promptly demolished, with Empire House, a pretty bare and banal shops and office block taking its place.

Some years ago, a plaque was added to the building, recalling and honouring the site of the grand old theatre. Sadly, in typical Glasgow fashion, rather than using rivets or screws, the plaque was attached to the building using something akin to Blu-Tak, No More Nails, or chewing gum, meaning, in jig time, it vanished; possibly into a souvenir hunters’ collection, more likely into the crucible of a dodgy metal dealer.

We’ll leave the last word to Ken Dodd, you just try shutting him up! When asked to psychoanalyse the nature of humour, he replied: "The trouble with Sigmund Freud is that he never played second house at the Glasgow Empire after both halves of the Old Firm had just lost!"