LEGENDARY Fiesta club compere Tony Whyte - the man known to Sheffield as Mr Entertainment for a quarter of a century - has died. He was 84.
From the late 1950s to the ’70s his limp-wristed camp act, long before the days of Larry Grayson and John Inman, was the talk of the town.
His catchphrase was, ‘Shut your gob, Tony’s speaking’.
Always immaculately dressed, he was the gay blade of the Fiesta nightclub.
“Men would regularly come up to me and say, ‘I’m only here tonight because my wife said she wanted to see the poofy bloke who sings’,” he once said.
“I was outrageous for the time.”
Glasgow-born, Tony’s real name was Frederick York Clark Wight.
He spent much of his childhood in the Fulwood Cottage Homes orphanage in Sheffield, reflecting: “I was born of good parents but on the wrong side of the blanket.”
National Service saw Tony stationed in Germany and Austria with the Army Medical Corps, then he signed up for six years as a medic in the Navy.
Out on Civvy Street he worked first for a tailor in Attercliffe, standing in the doorway to attract custom, later becoming the ‘singing waiter’ at the now demolished Rotherham House pub, near Castle Market.
Later he worked at Firvale Infirmary - now the Northern General Hospital - as a geriatric staff nurse.
But a chance decision to attend an audition landed him with £300 of singing work and - as Tony told The Star in 1980 - “That was the start of the Tony Whyte life in showbiz!”
First he was a singer who told a few jokes. As variety theatres closed and clubland then boomed, he told more jokes and sang less.
Eventually he took up residence as compere at the Fiesta, introducing top acts from Ella Fitzgerald to the Three Degrees and Gene Pitney.
In Sheffield he was as much a star as they were, with his trademark song South of the Border performed with high kicks.
In later years he did charity work, including shows for St Luke’s Hospice.
“He was a pure professional. There was nobody any bigger in Sheffield - an icon,” said Marlene Clare, a long time friend and fellow act.
She described him as ‘a very private person but on stage he came alive’. “He was completely in charge,” she said.
Tony lived in Abbeydale before moving to Barnsley six years ago.
He made no secret that he was gay, though it was then frowned upon. His long time partner Karl lives in Germany, and in 2006 Tony went to visit him rather than collecting a lifetime achievement award from local clubland.
Close friend and clubland singer Stephanie King, who collected the award for him, said he used to advise her.
“He went shopping with me for dresses, saying, ‘Don’t buy this’ or, ‘You must buy that’. He cost me a fortune over the years!”
Jim Trueman, 70, of Barnsley, was a friend of Tony for many years. The retired prison education officer said he was ‘a true entertainer’.
“He worked in Australia and South Africa and with people like the Three Degrees - they used to ask him to compere for them,” he said.
“Tony used to tell amazing stories that people loved. It was his vocal skills and stage presence that gained him a huge fan base.”
Despite being gay Tony married Olga - one half of Sheffield’s variety act the Bradford Sisters - while in Australia. There were no children.
He performed around the world, getting a number one in South Africa in the late 1960s with If I Only Had Time.
While his camp act was ahead of its time Tony had no problem dealing with hecklers. “He could put anyone down in a second,” said Stephanie.
He leaves a sister, Pat.
Tony died from cancer. Sheffield’s CeeBee Variety agency - 0114 275 4507 - is handling inquiries for the funeral.
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