Once Upon a Time in Scotland

Story by Bill Watkins

A Soviet stamp celebrating Swan Lake, 1970.

A Soviet stamp celebrating Swan Lake, 1970.

Bill Watkins is known mainly these days as the man behind the Wednesday Pub Quiz at Merlin’s Rest Pub, but he has also worked as a stagehand for many years, both here and in the United Kingdom, and is a published author and sailor. He brings us some lighthearted summer reading about the time the Bolshoi Ballet came to visit the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Scotland in the late 1970s. —Mike Wangen

The late 1970s were a pivotal time in the vitality of the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Scotland’s capital city Edinburgh. The 658-seat theater, replete with neo-Georgian façade, a union card-carrying theater cat named Emma Goldman, and the ghost of Edwardian actress Ellen Terry, was due for its hundredth year refit, and a prestigious visit from the internationally renowned Bolshoi Ballet.

The first hints of perestroika were in the air as the Russian company arrived and were welcomed into the fold. Many of our guests had never been out of the Soviet Union, but spoke very good English as we made great efforts to make them feel at home. Being a lighting engineer, I was impressed by the professionalism of their technicians and rehearsals went swiftly and with few hiccups.

Whether Assistant Stage Manager Sue Legg ever attended Britain’s ultra-posh Roedean School or Cheltenham Ladies' College, I have no idea, but her upper-class English accent was a real contrast to the guttural Scots voices of the majority of the house crew.

Opening night, last check of everything, and go! We on stand-by duty retired to the crew room and were enjoying a cuppa when the door burst open and a wild-eyed ASM Sue dived in, slamming the door behind her.

“I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it!—how could I say such a stupid thing in the middle of all those Russians!"

“Eh?” “What?” “What happened?” was the response. Sue recounted her moment of acute embarrassment.

“I was standing by the rail when the curtain opened and I realized the back-stage work lights were still on. Suddenly, I found myself in the center of the Bolshoi performers shouting ‘Kill the workers! Kill the workers! Somebody kill the workers!’ I’ll never forget the looks on their faces!”

And I’ll bet she hasn’t!