A place of entertainment has stood on this very prominent Leicester Square site since 1849 with no fewer than nine changes of name and a fire in 1865 before The Empire was opened in 1884. Built at a cost of £25000 the theatre held 3000 people and was known for its notorious promenade, where gentlemen could meet ladies. This promenade would provide a focus for those in the 1890’s who sought to purge Music Hall of that which they regarded its more unseemly elements. On the whole they were unsuccessful and notwithstanding its promenade the Empire could hardly be regarded as a disreputable house as you could see both Ballet and extracts from Grand Opera alongside the stock in trade Music Hall acts of Singing, Sketches and Comedians.
The Empire continued as a live theatre until it too fell to the demand for cinema as in 1928 the auditorium was remodelled to seat 3500 people, until it closed in 1961, opening couple of years later as a dance hall and cinema before the building transformed once again into the famous cinema we see today.
The Empire, Leicester Square, London 2016.
ROYAL AQUARIUM THEATRE
Located at the political heart of London, The Royal Aquarium Theatre opened in 1876, just a few months after the Royal Aquarium, to which it was attached was declared opened with much pomp and ceremony by the Duke of Edinburgh. The theatre added to the manifold pleasures the visitor could already avail themselves of as they promenaded along the aquarium or saw the impressive picture gallery or even heard music recitals and opera bouffe produced under the guidance of Sir Arthur Sullivan.
The theatre also became famous for the many speciality acts that performed there. In particular strongmen who would challenge members of the audience in feats of strength and acrobats and jugglers who would enthrall patrons with increasingly complex jumps and tricks.
There is nothing left of the Royal Aquarium as the theatre was sold in 1907 to the Methodists who in turn sold it to a Music Hall company who re-erected the theatre brick by brick as the Music Hall of Dockland. The Methodists then constructed their Central Hall as we see today.
The Royal Aquarium as it is today - The Methodist Central Hall.
COLLINS MUSIC HALL
Most famously named after the Irish signer and Comedian, so in demand during the early days of Music Hall of the 1840’s and 1850’s, Sam Collins (o/w Samuel Vagg), took over this Islington Hall in 1863; Collins Music Hall was a long standing fixture of London’s entertainment scene. Positioned prominently on Islington Green, the building, which seated nearly 1500 people survived the dreadful bombing of the area during the Second World War until eventually in the 1950’s a fire caused the closure of this grand old vestige of Music Hall.
The front of the building can still be seen and is occupied by a bookstore.
THE LONDON PALLADIUM
No other theatre stands as testament to variety entertainment as does the London Palladium and the site on which it stands has a varied history that would not look out of place on its own variety bill. In the late 1860’s a building was constructed, filled with things to buy and named the Corinthian Bazaar. Then in 1870, the building was renamed the Palais Royale and began to be converted into an equestrian circus with the main hall turned into a riding ring, where Hengler’s Grand Cirque would produce “ever popular equestrian scenes and brilliant spectacles of picturesque grandeur”. Equestrian entertainment continued until the mid-1890’s when the site was converted again to the National Skating Palace where Londoner’s could ice skate of the “largest real ice floor in Europe”.
These winter activities continued until 1908 when the site was earmarked once again for regeneration into a grand variety house with the construction of the London Palladium we see today. Designed by Frank Matcham with huge theatre holds nearly 3500 seats and become the byword for variety during the television age with “Sunday Night and the London Palladium” being watched by huge audiences as well as hosting the biggest names in entertainment during its long and illustrious history.
THE MIDDLESEX MUSIC HALL
Records show that 167 Drury Lane had been a place of entertainment since Elizabethan times and in the early part of the nineteenth century this very well established public house was known as the Great Mogul. In 1847 the building was renamed the Mogul Saloon and it is from here that the site acquires it’s nickname of the “Old Mo” as from 1851 the building becomes the Middlesex Music Hall with a seating capacity for 1200 people. Two reconstructions occur in 1872 and 1891 before the whole site is rebuilt by the great theatre architect Frank Matcham in 1911 and the capacity increases to 1800 seats.
The Middlesex Music Hall was such a long standing presence when considering the history of Music Hall that it has become almost legendary and all of the greatest stars of Music and Variety have graced its stage. Following the rebuild in 1911, the theatre was renamed the New Middlesex Theatre of Varieties and then in 1919 it became the Winter Garden Theatre for the next fifty years - the fact that there still remains a theatre on the site in the New London Theatre, built in the late 1960’s is testament to the importance of this place in London’s Theatre History.
THE BRITANNIA THEATRE
The great nineteenth century novelist, Charles Dickens, was a visitor to the theatre and describes the Britannia in his book “The Commercial Traveller in 1865, “Magnificently lighted by a firmament of sparkling chandeliers, the building was ventilated to perfection. The air of this theatre was fresh, cool and wholesome. It has been constructed from the ground to the roof, with a careful reference to sight and sound in every corner, the result is that its form is beautiful and that the appearance of the audience as seen from the proscenium with every face in it commanding the stage and the whole is so admirably raked and turned to that centre, and is highly remarkable in its union of vastness and compactness.”
There had, in fact, been a theatre on this site since 1858 and had operated under the management of the Lane family; Samuel Lane and following his death, his wife, Sarah Lane who remained in management from 1871 to 1899 as was held in very high regard by the people of Hoxton. The theatre seated nearly 4000 people and had an enviable reputation for producing vast pantomime productions, as well as popular plays and variety entertainment.
A fire in 1900 caused the sale of the Theatre into the hands of Gaumont and by 1913, the Britannia Theatre had become a cinema and continued in this vein until the late 1930’s when it was demolished to make way for a new cinema, which in the end was never built.
THE PALACE THEATRE
Dominating Cambridge Circus, The Palace Theatre marks one end of Shaftesbury Avenue, the heart of London’s Theatre land. Opened to the paying public on the 31st January 1891, D’Oyly Carte’s New Theatre was billed as “one of the most comfortable and convenient places of amusement in London” with the introduction of “every modern improvement”. The first performance was the Gilbert and Sullivan opera “Ivanhoe”
Soon the theatre would be known as the Royal English Opera House and provided an outlet for the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera’s so popular at that time. However, by 1892, the building was sold and works commenced to convert it into a “Grand Theatre of Varieties”. Re-opened in 1893 as the Palace Theatre of Varieties, management soon passed from Sir Augustus Harries to the great “Father of the halls” Charles Morton who, over the next 5 years turned the Palace into a hugely successful variety house.
This success and the very zenith for Variety entertainment was fully recognised in 1912, when the Palace Theatre was chosen as the venue for the first Royal Command Performance in the presence of King George V and marked by a very portentous quote from Sir Oswald Stoll who said “The Cinderella of the Arts has gone to the ball at last”.
The Palace Theatre has survived, offering live theatre entertainment throughout its history and more recently has become known for some of the longest running and spectacular musicals of the twentieth century that include Jesus Christ Superstar and Les Miserables which ran at the Palace Theatre for nineteen years.
With almost 100 years of continuous entertainment on this site, the story of the Holborn Empire plays an important part in understanding the growth and changing nature of Music Hall. In its various incarnations, the theatre on this site grew out of a public house, developing into the 1857 Weston’s Music Hall and just over ten years later, into the Royal Music Hall and finally the Holborn Empire.
Managed by all the best theatre managements, the Holborn Empire would continue to provide entertainment right into the late 1930’s, way beyond the closure date of many Music Hall’s, and no doubt would have carried on had the building not been seriously damaged by enemy action in 1941 and then demolished after a long period of closure in 1961 to make way for office space.
The site has since been redeveloped and it is encouraging to note that the new building on this site is Weston’s House.
Perhaps no other London Theatre best expresses the opulence and luxury of the quintessential Edwardian Variety Theatre as does the Hackney Empire. Designed by Frank Matcham and opened in 1901 this huge theatre that seated 3000 people was one of the many “Empires” that made up Oswald Stoll’s Syndicate and such was its immediate success, that the shareholders resolved to build another Empire at Shepherds Bush, which itself was completed and opened in 1903.
The Hackney Empire continued to play both Variety, Revue and Pantomime until the 1950’s when it was acquired as a TV studio and then converted into a Bingo Hall until the mid-1980’s when threatened with demolition, a campaign was mounted to save the building and an ongoing programme of restoration has enabled the Hackney Empire to continue to provide a wide range of entertainment for the residents of Hackney to this day.
CHELSEA PALACE OF VARIETIES
Located along the fashionable Kings Road, opposite Chelsea Town Hall, the Chelsea Palace of Varieties opened its doors to the public on the 13th April 1903 and had a capacity of 2524. The foundation stone was laid by the Mayor of Chelsea, Major W F Woods and the theatre was operated by the Chelsea Palace Syndicate.
The theatre presented twice nightly variety entertainment provided by all the famous artistes of the day, also, and in common with a number of London Music Halls, the Chelsea Palace showed the biograph as part of the bill – short films projected onto a screen on the stage.
Variety and Comedy Revue continued at the Chelsea Palace right the way through to the 1950’s when it was purchased by Granada Theatres, but closed very shortly after in 1957 to become a TV studio until the mid-1960’s when the building was sadly demolished in December 1966.
ROYAL STANDARD MUSIC HALL
Better known as the Victoria Palace, there has been a place of entertainment on this site since the 1832 when the Royal Standard Hotel was built. By 1863 a Music Hall had been constructed seating 2440. This building was demolished to make way for the construction of Victoria Station and in 1886 the Royal Standard Music Hall was erected. By November 1911 the theatre was rebuilt by Frank Matcham with a seating capacity of 2000 and presented both Variety Bills and Revue.
The theatre has a number of associations with productions and very long runs there. These include Lupino Lane in Me and My Girl, which ran from 1939 to 1944, The Crazy Gang during the 1950’s and the Black and White Minstrel Show which was in residence from 1962 – 1972.
The Golden Figure on the cupola is of the ballerina Anna Pavlova and is a replacement for the orginal which was taken down for safe keeping during the war and lost.
WILTONS MUSIC HALL
Wiltons Music Hall is a real survivor and considering both its history and location it is nothing short of miraculous that it should survive the London Blitz and the wrecking ball of the developers. It is the only real remaining example of the land grab undertaken by enterprising landlords during the 1840’s, where a “Music Hall” was built as an extension to the public bar as a means of providing a suitable place for both drinking and entertaining to take place.
Starting life as the Prince of Wales Public House, Wilton’s Music Hall was opened in 1850 and very shortly after re-modelled in 1858 at a cost of £20,000. Then in 1877, the building was destroyed by fire and rebuilt once again and the interior is from this time – however by 1888, Wilton’s Music Hall had closed and was purchased by the Methodists who used it as a temperance hall. During the War, the building was a warehouse and remained in a parlous state, attracting many “Save Wiltons” campaigns over the years before, more recently it was brought back into use as a bar and entertainment venue
THE GRECIAN THEATRE
Like many places of entertainment in the early nineteenth century, the Grecian Theatre grew out of the City Road pub, The Eagle and a pleasure garden that surrounded it. The theatre was opened in 1825, and was rebuilt by famous pantomimist and animal impersonator George Conquest in 1858 and again in 1877 with a capacity of 1850 seats. Chiefly known for its musical plays and pantomimes, The Grecian was a well-established playhouse until it was taken over by William Booth of the Salvation Army in 1882.
The adjoining pub, which remains in place is immortalised in the Nursery Rhyme – Pop Goes the Weasel – “Up and Down the City Road, In and out the Eagle, that’s the way the money goes, Pop goes the weasel”. The Police Station now occupies the site of the Grecian Theatre.
THE GAIETY THEATRE
This site is the second for the Gaiety Theatre which started its life at 354 The Strand, in the building that was formerly known as the Strand Musick Hall. The theatre at the Aldwych was opened in October 1903 and was built as a result of the formation of the Aldwych which necessitated the demolition of the original Gaiety. The second Gaiety was designed by Theatre Architect Ernest Runtz, occupying as it did a very prominent location at the junction of The Strand and the newly designed Aldwych.
The theatre could seat 1267 people and continued its tradition of Musical Theatre, with the manager George Edwardes drawing on the appeal of the Gaiety Girls and many of the biggest comedy actors of the Edwardian Theatre to deliver success after success. The theatre continued in operation until 1939 and then was finally demolished in 1950 for a further development on the site.
THE LONDON PAVILLION
Originally located in Tichbourne Street, above the site of a former stable block, the original London Pavilion opened on the 23 February 1861 and had a seating capacity of 2000, later reduced to 1750 and remained on the same site until 1878 when the Metropolitan Board of Works paid £109,347 to undertake street improvements. This hall is closely associated with McDermotts Great War Song, where it is said that members of Gladstone’s Cabinet came to witness the patriotic fervour brought on by the song.
The second Music Hall to take the name of the London Pavilion was opened on the 30 November 1885 at 3-5 Piccadilly, and then almost immediately reconstructed when the traditional tables were removed and tip up seats were installed. The London Pavilion was a major Music Hall in the heart of London – it was reconstructed internally in both 1900 and 1918, until it was eventually converted into a cinema in 1934.
The external of the building remains and currently houses Ripley’s “Believe it or not” entertainment.
CANTERBURY MUSIC HALL
Regarded by many as the “first” Music Hall, the Canterbury grew out of The Canterbury Arms following the ownership passing, in 1848, to the “Father of the Halls” Charles Morton. The Hall opened in 1851 and was reconstructed a few years later in 1854 at a cost of £25000. A further refurbishment in 1876, under the architect Albert Bridgman and builder WH Bracher and Son saw the addition of a sliding roof, which had been designed and patented by Frederic Villiers, the manager.
The Canterbury does have a claim to be regarded as the first purpose built Music Hall – leading the way in both architectural design and through the wide range of entertainments provided by Charles Morton, including an art gallery, which the satirical publication, Punch, named “The Royal Academy over the water”
All of the greatest stars of Music Hall would have appeared at the Canterbury and it rightly deserves its place in Music Hall history. The Hall continued and in 1890 was redesigned by Frank Matcham, eventually becoming a cinema until the building was destroyed by enemy action in 1942.
The former site of the Canterbury Music Hall is now a serviced Car Park in Upper Marsh.
Built for Theatre Impresario Sir Oswald Stoll by the very famous Theatre architect Frank Matcham, the London Coliseum opened its doors in December 1904 and could seat just over 3300 people. Its construction was an expression of Variety entertainment so favoured by Oswald Stoll that enabled the roots of Music Hall to be sanitised and delivered before an audience who were not just traditionally working class, thereby broadening its appeal.
The London Coliseum operated as a twice nightly variety house for many years and all the major stars of Music Hall and Variety, who were engaged by Stoll’s Syndicate performed there. Later the theatre became known for its Musicals and more recently it has been the home of the English National Opera and English National Ballet.
METROPOLITAN MUSIC HALL
Constructed on the site of a 16th Century Inn – The White Lion and rebuilt first as Turnhams Grand Concert Hall in 1836 and then in 1864 at the cost of £25,000 the building re-opened as the Metropolitan Music Hall with a capacity of 2000, before undergoing a further refurbishment in 1897, under the supervision of the architect Frank Matcham where the capacity was reduced a little to 1855.
The Music Hall continued to operate uninterrupted for the next 100 years, offering twice nightly variety and other entertainments. However, by 1963 the end had arrived and there was an emotional “last night at the Met” on Good Friday of that year where the bill included performers from the past and the current crop of artistes. Many a tear was shed when the theatre was finally demolished to make way for road expansion and the current police station now stands on top of this site.
SOUTH LONDON PALACE
Part of the first wave of purpose built Music Halls, the South London Palace was constructed in 1860 and called itself the South London Music Hall. It cost £8000 to build and seated 1200 people. Succumbing to a fire, the theatre was rebuilt in 1869 by the architect William Paice and the builders Langmead and Way who enlarged the auditorium to seat around 4000 people.
During the 1870’s and 1880’s the theatre was managed by the Pooles – John Joshua and then after his death, by his wife Ellen who enjoyed great success there. Like many early Music Halls, the South London catered for all tastes and you would just as likely to see exerts from Grand Opera and Ballet Divertissements as you were the comic singer and specialty act. JJ Poole was known his enterprise and is said to have coined the phrase “Lion Comique” to describe a very particular type of male comedian – one such Lion Comique was the great George Leybourne - Champagne Charlie himself.
The theatre remained in operation until 1941 when war damaged forced its closure.
The site of The South London Palace is now The South Bank University.