Paul Gregg: The incredible life of self-made Yorkshire millionaire who ran theatres, rubbed shoulders with stars and invested in Everton

‘Theatre doctor’ Paul Gregg went from humble beginnings in Yorkshire to one of the country’s most powerful live entertainment impresarios. He speaks to Chris Burn about his new autobiography.

Paul Gregg’s amazing life has seen him restore and run many of the nation’s most famous theatres, rub shoulders with world-famous stars and even co-own a Premier League football club.

From growing up in 1940s Scarborough and being captivated by the town’s open air theatre to teenage years in Hull developing a love of live music through watching the likes of The Beatles and then starting out his entertainment career as a cinema manager in Sheffield, his new autobiography shows the roots of his showbusiness career very much grew out of his upbringing in Yorkshire.

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Despite now being in his 80s, the self-made millionaire is still working and tells The Yorkshire Post he is in talks over the construction of two potential new tented theatres with capacities for 2,000 people in Ireland and southern England. He eventually aspires to bring something similar to this region.

Paul GreggPaul Gregg
Paul Gregg

"I’m not one for sitting at home, watching TV,” he explains of his ongoing passion for work. “Theatres can bring a lot of life to places. We’d love to open one in Yorkshire.”

While he is still looking forward from a business perspective, the experience of writing his life story in new book Backstage Without a Pass has required examining his past – a process he describes in the book as “cathartic". He says he was inspired to write it by his third “and final” wife Yoshiko.

As well as discussing the ups and downs of his business career, it does not shy away from the many personal challenges of his life – including his mother dying aged just 42, the death of his daughter Wendy at one day old, the suicide of his first wife Jetta after they had separated and the subsequent breakdown in his relationship with their two sons.

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With his second wife Nita, Gregg ended up moving to Southport to manage a venue called the Floral Hall and persuaded the local council to build a much larger venue alongside it.

Paul Gregg at the Open Air Theatre in Scarborough. © Tony BartholomewPaul Gregg at the Open Air Theatre in Scarborough. © Tony Bartholomew
Paul Gregg at the Open Air Theatre in Scarborough. © Tony Bartholomew

He then managed to secure Marlene Dietrich to open the new Southport Theatre. The booking cost tens of thousands of pounds but Gregg says it was well worth the investment as it opened the door to a whole host of stars like Perry Como, Cliff Richard and Morecambe and Wise to playing the venue.

He went onto establish a company which eventually became Apollo Leisure Group after being offered the chance to take over the declining Apollo Cinema in Manchester in the late 1970s. After upgrading the venue to focus it more on live music, it was soon hosting the likes of The Clash, Iggy Pop and Queen.

Gregg’s company expanded to add other struggling theatres to its stable in Oxford, Glasgow and Coventry. He then took his first steps into the West End by reopening the New Victoria Theatre as Apollo Victoria and securing Shirley Bassey as the opening act before hosting a successful run of The Sound of Music.

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Gregg and his company were dubbed the ‘theatre doctors’ for their successful formula of refurbishing ailing venues and staging hit shows.

But they suffered a major setback with a costly flop in Camelot, which starred Richard Harris who was being paid £40,000 a week for playing King Arthur. Scathing reviews meant it closed within weeks, despite Apollo having budgeted for it to run profitably for at least a year.

The company managed to scrape through the financial blow and Gregg says it was an important learning experience. "Everybody has got to have some failure because you think about it and don’t want it to happen again. We’ve been up and down but that is life.”

Apollo went on to acquire more theatres and also organised a tour for Michael Jackson which saw him play gigantic gigs at venues including Wembley, Roundhay Park in Leeds and Aintree Racecourse.

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Gregg then took on his most ambitious restoration project – the historic Lyceum theatre in London which had been empty since the mid-1980s but was painstakingly refurbished at a cost of £14.5m to reopen with Jesus Christ Superstar in 1996.

He then secured The Lyceum as the London venue for The Lion King musical – a show which started there in 1999 and is still playing to this day. Apollo was sold in the same year to US firm SFX for £158m but Gregg admits he immediately regretted signing the deal as it meant giving up control of the theatre empire he had established.

"Money was never the focus but I think today we would have been worth $500m,” he says.

Following the deal, he invested in Everton FC alongside fellow theatre impresario Bill Kenwright. But the men clashed over Gregg’s push to get the club to relocate to a new 55,000-seater stadium with a retractable pitch to allow it to be used for major gigs. The scheme never happened, although 20 years later the club is now building a new stadium elsewhere.

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Gregg still believes the concept he supported would have been a game-changer for the club. "It was designed by the people who designed the new Tottenham stadium – we were about 20 years in advance of them. We designed it so you could have a concert today and play football tomorrow afternoon. Around the ground we had an Everton village with houses that in today’s market would have been really valuable to the club.”

He sold his stake in the club in 2006 and says today he preferred the theatre world to football. "Theatre was far more honourable. I could trust people more. The problem with football is too much money and everyone wants a piece of it.”

A further project was a much more positive – and personal – one. In 2010, Gregg reopened Scarborough Open Air Theatre, the venue he had known as a boy growing up in the town but which had been closed since 1986. Queen Elizabeth travelled to Scarborough to reopen the venue.

Gregg says he is delighted with its ongoing success. "It has given Scarborough an edge during the summer season and it is fantastic to see the place really buzzing.”

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Gregg shows no signs of wanting to slow down just yet. In addition to his plans for new theatres, he also says he also been in discussions about bringing an Indian Premier League team to England to play a cricket match.

He views the idea through the same lens he has had throughout his career: "Everything is by opportunity; some fail, some don’t.”

Backstage Without a Pass by Paul Gregg is published by White Fox on April 25 and is available on pre-order from all good booksellers.

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