Remembering Ipswich theatre legend David Lowe
PUBLISHED: 09:30 22 September 2015
The first thing I’m shown is a beer mat. In the middle is David Lowe, head slightly tilted and his gaze strong and stern, writes Matt Stott.
He is surrounded by The Beatles backstage at the Ipswich Regent, then known as the Gaumont, before their second concert at the theatre in 1964.
Moments earlier, David, the ultimate showman, had set their dressing room alive with crackles of laughter. He had, rather impudently he would later admit, asked: “Now you lads, how would you like to be famous?” John Lennon shot back sarcastically: “How would WE like to be famous?” David smiled and said: “Have your picture taken with me.”
Chris Lowe, one of David’s nine children, lets the anecdote settle before replacing the beer mat back on the dining room cabinet. It is late Saturday afternoon and his father has only passed away the night before; peacefully at Ipswich Hospital. We are joined by four of his siblings, gathered at a family home in Felixstowe and who range from 48 to 66 years old, as they take it in turn to reflect on his rich and rewarding life.
There is a somewhat energetic, soothing flow. Jokes are made (“We were like the Von Trapp family”) and tributes are paid (“He was well-loved around the town”). Some stories have patently been regaled on countless occasions, but I suspect always with the same enthusiasm and nostalgic glee as before. Some stories are told for the first time.
Michael Lowe tells one, which he says perfectly sums up his dad: “At Churchmans (now the Sir Alf Ramsey stand at Portman Road), this man called ‘Boots’ had weird club feet and learning difficulties. But he used to stand behind the goal at Churchmans for the reserves and first-team games and my dad, who used to do PA announcements at Portman Road, one day got Ray Crawford to meet him at a reserve game. So he tapped Boots on the shoulder and said, look who I’ve got to meet you, and it was Ray Crawford, number nine. And Ray said, I’ll tell you what I’ll do, the next time we have got a big game, when we get a corner, I’ll look for you and you have got to cheer, and I’ll punch the air for you.
“And sure enough, when they got a corner, he looked for him and there he was in the crowd, and they both punched the air.
“Years later, I was working in this lady’s home, and I saw a picture of Boots. The lady said it was her son. I said my dad was David Lowe, and she went and got a letter that my dad had written to her. That’s the sort of thing my dad would do.”
David Lowe was the Ipswich Regent manager from 1958 to 1990. He was synonymous with Ipswich entertainment and put the theatre at the heart of the community.
Michael Lowe is keen to add: “When we were growing up, we were so used to that (meeting stars) we didn’t think anything of it. I remember when The Beatles came the first time we were playing blind tag in the auditorium. The Beatles got in early and had a look around and dad called out ‘Chris, Mike, come down here’. We came from our hiding places and had to shake hands with The Beatles, and never thought anything of it. But when you look back, it was pretty special. We lived in the Gaumont. We know every creek and corner in there.”
Referencing the black and white Beatles photograph, daughter Jane Warden says: “My middle son said ‘mum, you do know granddad was in The Beatles?’ I said ‘no darling. He isn’t’. He said ‘he is, look, he’s here!’ I said he wasn’t in The Beatles. He was just the manager of the theatre!”
We delve into their father’s history. Before he passed away, he was thought to have been the last man alive from the tough 2nd Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment who helped to save India from invasion during the Second World War.
“He cycled from North Walsham (his place of birth) to Norwich to sign up, which is about 15 miles,” Jonny Lowe says.
“I reckon his dad said, go on your bike and join the army, because his dad was a prisoner of war in Siberia. Anyway, he got to the barracks, and they said you’re too young, cycle back again. But he volunteered again and off he went to Burma, and fought in the Battle of Kohima.”
Daughter Julie Gatt interjects: “He went home but he turned up a week later and said I’m going to sit here until I can register for the army because I really want to fight for my country. He was very patriotic.”
Triggering wails of laughter, Jonny adds: “On his days off, he would go and watch other battles from a vantage point.” Mimicking his dad, Chris Lowe says: “Let’s go for a walk in the jungle!”
They all admit it was “crazy” but typical of their father, who was nicknamed, without explanation, Congo by his brothers in arms.
“The difference between war and entertainment is heaven and hell isn’t it,” suddenly remarks Jonny.
Returning back to his theatre days and his reputation as a man of the people, Mrs Gatt says: “He would talk to everyone in the town centre, even if that was a homeless person on the side of the road. He used to talk to everybody.” And he spoke with persuasion when trying to book the big acts of the day. “He used to ring them up and persuade them to play,” Mrs Gatt says. “Otherwise they wouldn’t have bothered. He was very persuasive and determined.”
He would organise children shows at the theatre on Saturday mornings, before the days of television, they tell me. He would get dogs to dance on stage and keep hordes of children entertained for hours on end.
He would ride penny farthings through town to promote shows, or dress up as Robin Hood and ride horses, or dress up as Al Jolson. He was an exhibitionist. A man who twice booked The Beatles, attended barbecues held by Sir Bobby Robson and was a caring ear for Roy Orbison and his personal troubles. He knew all the words to hundreds of songs from films and musicals. He would get his whole family singing in the car during family vacations.
I’m shown a video of David, taken on his 91st birthday in his hospital bed just two days before he passed away (“he waited until we were all there to celebrate his birthday with him,” Jane believes).
He is asked to sing The Old Rugged Cross by George Bennard. In a croaky yet determined voice, he delivers a perfect rendition without pause or difficulty. He was the ultimate showman until the end.
David Lowe’s memory is likely to live on at the Regent Theatre when the public areas of the bar and foyer are given a new look next year.
For decades he was as much a part of the theatre and cinema as the extravagant ceiling and the historic foyer.
And the council has acknowledged his role at the centre of the town’s entertainment life. A spokesman for the authority said: “David Lowe played a huge part in the Regent’s history.
“We will always remember with affection and appreciation his long and successful tenure as theatre manager.”
It is likely that part of the refurbishment of the building will include a permanent tribute to the man who brought The Beatles to Ipswich and hundreds of Hollywood blockbusters to the town.
The council added: “We will talk to his family about a suitable tribute but in the meantime we can reflect that perhaps the greatest tribute is to consider the continuing success of the Regent and its hosting of the biggest shows for tens of thousands of people every year.”
Mr Lowe was manager of the theatre as both the Gaumont and the Odeon until it was taken over by the borough council and re-opened under its original name, The Regent, in
It was largely thanks to him that the venue gained a reputation for attracting major acts – which made the people of Ipswich, and the council, so determined to save it as a live venue when it came under threat in the late 1980s.
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