Isn’t it typical, one of your friends gets to be 155 years old and you can’t celebrate because of lockdown. I have a bit of history with this place and so will obviously bore you with it.
In the early years of the twentieth century my great-grandmother used to rent out rooms in her large house to performers who visited ‘The Varieties’ and The Grand. The huge stars of the time such as Marie Lloyd and Dan Leno would stay in hotels but the others on the playbill had to settle for more modest accommodation. My grandmother would tell me about Little Tich who was a famous performer but would stay at the house when he came to town. He was 4ft 6 ins tall and wore really long-toed shoes, almost like skis, enabling him to lean forward to an almost horizontal level before righting himself again. He would also do a silly dance in them. I think that the artistes who lodged with my great-grandma did so because she was plagued by alcoholism and every night was party night with drinks on the house for everyone. The result, as in many of these cases, was that she and her ‘friends’ drank away all the family money and the house was lost. Just think, I could have been raised in a large posh gaff rather than the East Leeds slum where I was dragged up.
When the cinema became popular, and that new fangled television started affecting audience numbers, City Varieties had to think of something to drag the punters through the door. What they did was quite brilliant. In 1953 the owner, Harry Joseph, allowed the theatre to stage a BBC pilot episode of The Good Old Days which recreated the golden days of variety shows but with current stars. The audience would dress in Edwardian costume and the show was compered by Leonard Sachs from a side stage where the artistes were introduced using a gavel.
The Good Old Days ran for thirty years but, although successful, was only on once a week during each season so didn’t generate enough income to keep the theatre profitable by itself so the rest of the time it staged striptease shows. Before 1968 theatres were heavily censored by The Lord Chamberlain’s Office. Anything remotely smutty, political or blasphemous was not allowed meaning that it was forbidden for the girls to move. They had to stand still on stage, the curtain would open so that the audience could appreciate the tasteful tableaux they formed, and then the curtains closed again. I was too young to be granted admission at the time but, as I went to Central High School on Woodhouse Lane opposite the Merrion Centre, and had to walk to Eastgate to catch my bus home, I would stroll down The Headrow, pausing to look at the publicity shots for the week’s show which were displayed on the wall by, what was then, the entrance. They were very tame by today’s standards but being a twelve-year-old with hormones in full rampage they were suggestive enough to let me know that there might be something a bit more interesting than marbles and Dinky Toys around the corner.
In 1962 a pantomime was introduced to try to change the venue’s image and this proved very successful despite the management having to reassure the Leeds public that Cinderella would appear fully clothed. I had a brilliant time at last year’s Rock’n’Roll Panto which is the continuation of the Christmas tradition.
As happens so often in life, things went full circle and City Varieties once again began staging live entertainment from popular artists of the day. Instead of there being several acts on stage during the evening, they were one-night stands by single entertainers who the television audiences now wanted to see in person. In 2009 a £9 million pound refurbishment took place and the theatre was officially reopened in 2012 by Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Philip. The last act before the alterations was Ken Dodd, who was also the first one when performances resumed in 2011. Given the epic length of his act it is quite possible that he just carried on throughout the rebuilding process, perhaps only breaking for food, drink and to complete his tax returns!
A couple of years ago I went on a Ghost and Poetry Walk as part of the first Leeds Lit Festival and one of the stops was outside The Varieties. The guide told us about a chap who had hanged himself in the roof void above the stage during a performance, which continued without missing a beat. He said that the man’s ghost can still occasionally be seen walking on the upper floor of the building. Of course, everyone looked upward at which time, and purely by coincidence, one of the male front of house staff looked out of the window where our collective gaze was trained triggering a chorus of yelps, followed by laughter of relief as we realised that it was a real person.
Since the reopening, artists have included John Bishop, Boy George, Michael McIntyre and Russell Crow. One thing which hasn’t changed is that the stage still slopes steeply forward, catching many performers unaware. My last bit of personal nostalgia is of a trip I took there with a mate of similar age to myself to see Gretchen Peters, the American singer. We were in a box by the side of the stage and, whilst composing herself after nearly coming a cropper on the slope, she looked up, caught sight of the two gentlemen of advancing years, and introduced us to the audience as Statler and Waldorf from The Muppets.
Sadly, like many live entertainment venues, the City Varieties is struggling to keep afloat during this period of lockdown so why not send the old girl a birthday present by clicking on www.cityvarieties.co.uk after all, it isn’t every day you are 155 years old.
Happy Birthday, Love. See you soon.
All images provided by Leeds City Varieties