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Final curtain comes down for Aberdeen showman Herbert Donald, 87

The man who brought the Rolling Stones to Aberdeen was part of the Donald family's entertainment dynasty.

Herbert Donald, part of Aberdeen's Donald Dynasty, the family behind the city's entertainment venues for decades.
Herbert Donald, part of Aberdeen's Donald Dynasty, the family behind the city's entertainment venues for decades.

Like his grandfather before him, entertainment coursed the veins of Herbert Donald, arguably Aberdeen’s last great showman.

The former Capitol Theatre director who attracted world-renowned stars to the Granite City has died aged 87 following a short journey with cancer.

Never one to let a good tale go untold, he helped pen his own story before he died.

Entertainment royalty

Though he was born on August 11 1936, Herbert Donald’s future among the famous was somewhat predetermined many years before.

From the inauspicious parish of Newhills in north-west Aberdeen James F Donald arrived into the world in 1871. He would go on to found a family business later coined, The Donald Dynasty.

Sharing with his four boys: Herbert, James, Peter and Richard, a passion for entertaining crowds with music, theatre and film, his grandson also caught the showbusiness bug.

His Majesty’s Theatre 1964 where disappointed crowds just learned their show is cancelled because Andy Stewart had laryngitis.

“I’m from an interesting family, I have to admit,” Herbert once said.

“I was the grandson of James F Donald. He was a successful businessman but also a great dancer and founder of the popular Donald’s Dance Academy on North Silver Street.

“He entered the cinema business in 1915 and, when His Majesty’s Theatre was in financial trouble in 1932, he bought it and saved it for the city before selling it back to them in the 1970s.

“Every one of my father’s brothers, danced and taught others to dance.”

Enticed by the crowd

As a child, Herbert watched as the family business expanded. At one point they owned an ice rink, 12 cinemas in Aberdeen, and cinemas in Inverurie and Stonehaven.

How could Herbert, and siblings Brian and Sid, fail to become enthralled themselves?

Herbert said the smell of greasepaint and the roar of the crowd crept under his skin from a young age.

One childhood memory stood out for him more than most.

Laurel and Hardy

“It was a huge thrill for me when, at the age of nine, my father took me to London for the first time, and introduced me to Laurel and Hardy.”

Huge Hollywood stars at the time, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were famous for their slapstick bowler-hatted routines.

Iconic stars Laurel and Hardy. Photo by Hal Roach/Mgm/Kobal/Shutterstock

Herbert senior was friends with Stewart Cruickshank, manager of the double act. After a matinee performance both Herberts were invited to afternoon tea with the famous pair.

“I was pretty excited to meet them,” Herb said, “having only seen them on the big screen. I remember going back to school and telling my pals, who were pretty impressed.”

The ‘business of show’

Herbert was educated at Aberdeen Grammar, Lathallan Preparatory School and Merchiston Castle School, Edinburgh, but it was summer breaks that would set him up for his future.

Working as a stagehand at Aberdeen’s Beach Pavilion and in the Old Majestic cinema as a projectionist, he developed a passion for “learning how the magic happened”.

The building once known as the Pavilion where Herbert worked, before it became The Gaiety ice cream parlour.

After completing two years of national service with the army pay corps, though he “thoroughly enjoyed” it, it was the theatre of music and acting – and not of warfare – that Herb wanted to pursue.

Demobbed in 1957 he found work as an assistant stage manager for the Five Past Eight show in Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre, starring Alec Finlay, Rikki Fulton, and Kenneth McKeller.

Love in the limelights

From east to west, Herb then jumped at the chance to produce Mother Goose, starring Stanley Baxter, at Glasgow’s Alhambra Theatre. While there, and elevated to stage manager, Herb oversaw the first Scottish Royal Command Performance.

It was during the season that Herb met future wife, Diana Taylor. One of Lionel Blair’s dancers, Herb was smitten.

Miss Camay competition winners. Winner Lorna Nicoll is seated, centre with the runners-up, Miss Wilma Shearer and Miss Patricia Jack. Behind them, second from left is Herbert Donald’s wife Diane, wearing black.

“It was a case of love at first sight and we were married for 28 years. We had two sons together before we divorced in 1987.”

Herb and Diana married in 1959. Herb returned to Aberdeen to work within the family entertainment empire. Their first son Nick was born in 1961.

‘The best years of my life’

Desperate to be at the beating heart of British showbusiness, the family relocated to London in 1962.

Herbert became press relations officer for Harold Fielding, a well-known West End producer who attracted high-profile stars such as Noel Coward and Tommy Steele.

In 1964 Herb was approached by Howard and Wyndham, a television and theatre show production company to become their publicity manager. Second son Tim came along in 1966. In the years following, promotion followed promotion.

Herbert with British star Bob Monkhouse, right.

For six years Herb cast and produced shows including stars such as Jimmy Tarbuck, Les Dawson, Ken Dodd, Eartha Kitt, Barbara Windsor and Lulu.

“This was the best period of my working life and I enjoyed every minute of it,” Herb said.

Silver City comeback

In 1977, when his father retired from the family business, Herb accepted an invitation to return to Aberdeen.

The entertainment dynasty founded by Herb’s grandfather owned and managed His Majesty’s Theatre and a slew of cinemas across the north-east. Herb was invited to replace his dad on the board of James F Donald (Aberdeen Cinemas) Limited, and Aberdeen Picture Places Limited.

Herbert met and worked with scores of stars of stage and screen over his long career. Picture by COLIN RENNIE.

“Life jogged along and in early 1978 I became company secretary of both companies as well as running the Capitol Theatre.

“It had a capacity of 2,100 and if we announced a big star people started queuing at the box office straight away,” said Herb.

The loud and the lairy

During his time everyone from Johnny Mathis and Shirley Bassey, to Tina Turner, The Rolling Stones and Duran Duran played.

Making a point of being at every show he took to wearing earplugs.

“Status Quo were great and there was a terrific atmosphere when they were on stage, but they were loud,” he once remarked.

The Capitol in 1980, on Union Street, Aberdeen.

Though not all of his guests met with Herb’s approval.

“I remember at Bob Geldolf ‘s first visit with the Boomtown Rats, he incited the audience to cause trouble. He told them to stand on the seats and swore at them to pay no attention to the stewards.

“I found him a very arrogant man.”

Times changed

In 1983 Dick Donald – who was chairman of Aberdeen FC – acquired the 75% stake in the business held by his siblings Herbert, James and Peter. When Dick died nine years later, his son Ian became chair of the company and he and Herbert formed a close working relationship expanding into commercial property lets.

Aberdeen chairman Dick Donald inspecting new seating at Pittodrie in 1981.

“Ian and I worked hand in hand. We opened Eagles Nightclub (the former Queen’s Cinema) and Oscar’s Theme Bars in Aberdeen and Inverurie.”

In 1996 Herb married Lynn Barber.

Enjoying semi-retirement they liked golfing in Deeside and Portlethen, cycling and walking. The couple also spent September to October each year in the South of France.

Herbert Donald in 2017 in his garden at home.

In December 1997, after nearly 20 years at the helm, Herb was there when the Capitol closed its doors for the final time.

“My heart lay in the world of musical theatre, but I was still sad to see the Capitol closing,” he said.

Final curtain

As a result of Parkinson’s and dementia Herb’s wife Lynn passed away in January 2023.

Just months later Herb was diagnosed with bowel cancer.

After what he described as a “long and lucky life” Herbert William Girvin Donald, died in Glasgow Royal Infirmary aged 87 on January 26, a year after Lynn.

His funeral service took place on Friday February 16 in Aberdeen.

He is survived by his children Nick and Tim, and his grandsons, Rory and Will.

Herbert Donald discussing his life story in 2017. Picture by COLIN RENNIE.

Bringing the curtain down on his life his final words were read at the service.

“I have some wonderful friends here in Aberdeen,” he wrote, “and I am so grateful that you have been able to join me today to hear my story.”