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Fiona Kennedy returns to the Tivoli 60 years after her dad packed in more punters than Kevin Bridges

Fiona Kennedy will be keeping it in the family when she returns to the Tivoli. Image: Wullie Marr/DC Thomson
Fiona Kennedy will be keeping it in the family when she returns to the Tivoli. Image: Wullie Marr/DC Thomson

Fiona Kennedy still remembers walking through the stage door of the Tivoli and being transported into a magical world which gripped her imagination.

It may have been nearly 60 years ago, but the little girl wasn’t the only one enchanted by the theatre and the smell of the grease paint. After all, her father, Calum, owned the venue and enjoyed remarkable success during his lengthy musical career.

But just how remarkable? Well, there were plenty of positive headlines recently about how the popular Scottish comedian Kevin Bridges attracted 40,000 fans during a four-night run at the P&J Live. Pretty impressive….or at least until you consider that Calum, who was billed as ‘The Golden Voice of the Highlands’, drew crowds of 12,000 people for 12 consecutive weeks during his sell-out stint at the Tivoli in 1963.

She grew up in a showbiz household

Variety was in vogue at the time and, prior to the arrival of wall-to-wall TV channels, the public still flocked to the dance halls, cinema houses and concert platforms.

It was long ago and far away. But singer-songwriter Fiona, who is performing at the refurbished Tivoli for the first time on November 3, has lifted the curtain on a golden age; a period when she would find herself tiptoeing over the likes of a young Billy Connolly sleeping on the floor as she got ready to go to school in Aberdeen.

Calum Kennedy seen here in Aberdeen’s Tivoli Theatre in 1997. Image: DC Thomson

She said: “I remember holding my mum and dad’s hand and going through the stage doors where there were literally crowds of people waiting to say hello to them.

“Dad was appearing twice nightly for weeks on end, months on end. Every single show was packed and they did a change of programme every week.

“I wasn’t involved in singing at that point. I was just going in with my parents, watching from the sidelines, and marvelling at it. Eventually, my dad did the last show in 1966 and the theatre closed [to become a bingo hall]. TV was taking over and that was life.

“But my sisters and I grew up knowing Jimmy Logan – he was my godfather – and Jack Milroy, Rikki Fulton, Andy Stewart, Kenneth McKellar, Moira Anderson….all the greats and that really was a wonderful time and I was blessed to grow up in it.”

Fiona has recorded with former Runrig lead singer Donnie Munro. Image: DC Thomson

Fiona’s connections in showbusiness spread all around the world – she has recorded an album with Runrig’s Donnie Munro, worked with such American colossi as Peggy Seeger and Beth Nielsen Chapman, collaborated with Sir Tony Robinson, sung for The Queen at Balmoral, presented the TV series Record Breakers, toured the globe en route to myriad festivals and she even appeared in the cult film The Wicker Man.

So, as you might imagine, she was fascinated to learn about the luminaries who once graced the Tivoli in its early days; Stan Laurel long before he teamed up with Oliver Hardy, Charlie Chaplin’s role in the Fred Karno troupe, Julie Andrews impressing the audience and the Press and Journal as a pint-sized force of nature, all the way through to Tony Hancock, Frankie Vaughan and Billy Cotton in the 1960s.

It would be difficult not to be inspired by such names, but there again, music and performing was in her DNA. And her recollections of being captivated even as a child help explain why,almost  six decades later, she is pouring her heart and soul into encouraging youngsters to sing, dance, and discover the joys of a musical instrument.

How it all began for Fiona

At the start of her own career, the Tivoli was her focus and while it has experienced starkly contrasting fortunes in the last century – Chaplin returned on a whistle-stop trip in 1972 and the venue was on the buildings at risk register before being resurrected – it left an indelible mark on Fiona as she took the first steps on the musical ladder.

She said: “It was a jewel of a place, a Frank Matcham design – he also did HMT – and I think of it as being the ‘People’s Theatre’. There was no fancy entrance in the way you had at other grander theatres, but the inside was like a wee wedding cake.

“It had the tiers – and it still does – and it had the boxes and, in the old days, the ashtrays because everybody used to smoke. There was the grand ceiling with cherubs on it, but you could only see them by peering through nicotine.

Singer Fiona Kennedy makes herself at home on her return to the Tivoli. Image: Wullie Marr/DC Thomson

“When dad bought it in the 1960s, he realised tastes were changing, so he brought up Tony Hancock and Frankie Vaughan and Billy Cotton from England and these were entertainers who were very well-known from television. It was very exciting and I remember watching from the side of the stage and thinking: ‘I want to do that’.

“People might look down their noses at variety, but it had everything. It was stand-up comedy, there were sketches, there was beautiful music, there were bands, there were orchestras and choirs and it was diverse and the audiences lapped it up.

“Perhaps, we are seeing that kind of family entertainment coming back. Look at the popularity of Strictly and the various talent shows on different channels. People want to be entertained and I welcome it. There’s something special about being in front of a crowd and having a connection with them and everybody enjoying themselves.

“I’m hoping people will feel that way when I appear at the Tivoli. It is a homecoming for me after doing shows in other parts of Scotland and I can hardly wait.”

As one of life’s positive characters, Fiona is confident that she will be able to recapture the lustre of the theatre’s halcyon days with a versatile programme of beautiful Scottish and Celtic favourites.

And she won’t be doing it on her own.

A number of well-known local musicians will join the musical extravaganza, which will also include emotive country ballads and get-up-and-dance pop numbers.

Tarland fiddle maestro Paul Anderson will take the stage alongside gifted guitarist and songwriter Nils Elders, and the Aberdeen all-male choir Granite City Chorus.

Fiona Kennedy has been part of the artistic landscape of the north since the 1970s. Image: DC Thomson

Fiona will also be joined by accordionist and bandleader Frank Thomson and singer and harpist Irene Watt and she said: “While the past two years have kept people apart, in many ways they’ve drawn us closer too and given us shared challenges, new perspectives on life, love and loss, on hope and always keeping faith.

“Those are the themes which run through my new show. It’s a celebratory blend of music and friendship with some seriously talented musicians joining me on stage.

“In what promises to be a diverse programme, we will seek inspiration from the glory days of variety theatre for which the Tivoli became so well-known.”

The family connections can hardly be overstated. Fiona has become friends with Peggy Seeger, whose late husband Ewan MacColl wrote such songs as The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face – made famous by Roberta Flack – and Dirty Old Town.

‘He’s famous, but he’s just your dad’

She has recorded with Peggy’s son, Calum, and their work can be heard on the CD Time to Fly. It’s a reminder that, when it comes to making music and joining in a collaborative process, Fiona has grown up with it and it is simply part of her life.

Singer Fiona Kennedy at The Tivoli where she will perform on November 3. Image: Wullie Marr/DC Thomson

She said: “I think it’s what happens when you have a dad whom others regard as famous. To you, he’s just your dad and you become used to the fact that he goes out and performs on stage and there are big audiences coming along to watch him every night. But you have a different perception of him from everybody else.”

Fiona Kennedy is a celebrity, but she would never use the word to describe herself. You could never meet a less luvvie-obsessed individual. It’s all about the music, the songs and the chance to go out on stage and entertain.

Which doesn’t make her any less special.

Further information on the concert can be found here.