Leeds City Varieties
Regarded as the longest running music hall in Britain, Leeds City Varieties offers a year-round entertainment programme in stunning Victorian surroundings. Since opening in 1865, its red velvet, gold trimmed curtains have opened to reveal some of the world’s most famous acts in theatre, music, comedy and cabaret...as well as becoming the backdrop to the BBC’s ‘The Good Old Days’. Aside from its events, its grand structure and ornate décor have stood the test of time, making the music hall one of only four surviving in the UK. Whether intrigued by its fascinating history or inspired by its exciting line-up, there’s plenty to keep all ages entertained at Leeds City Varieties.
Spectacles & Celebrities
The line-up of acts to have trodden the boards at Leeds City Varieties is truly impressive. This historical gem, located on Swan Street, has hosted appearances by the likes of singer Eartha Kitt, double act Laurel and Hardy, as well as American actor Mickey Rooney. ‘Handcuff king’ Houdini was paid £130, 18 shillings and six pence, the equivalent of £7,500 today, to show his act here, while Charlie Chaplin was aged just eight years old when he first performed at the venue as part of ‘The Eight Lancashire Lads’ in 1897.
Another notable name to have appeared at Leeds City Varieties on more than one occasion was Lillie Langtry. The actress was rumoured to have had an affair with Edward VII and apparently the crest above the auditorium was given to the music hall in thanks for its discretion during the times when Edward would visit to watch Lillie perform.
Alongside big names in show business, the Leeds City Varieties venue has also seen intriguing acts and unexpected surprises. There was a woman who ‘hypnotised alligators’ to an orchestral soundtrack, while a circus in 1943 featured the likes of lions and monkeys. Away from the acts on stage, a woman in the audience gave birth during a Christmas performance of ‘Babes in the Wood’ in 1941 and the baby was granted free admission in the future by the theatre’s manager at the time, Harry Joseph.
A Brief History
Leeds City Varieties started out as a singing room above the White Swan Inn, possibly as far back as 1762. However, the pub’s landlord Charles Thornton saw its potential and decided to build his very own music venue in 1865. The 2,000 capacity space was 72-foot-long and originally called ‘Thornton’s New Music Hall and Fashionable Lounge’. It changed names numerous times until 1893, when it became known as Leeds City Varieties, and went on to host music hall and variety shows nightly until January 1953; ranging from burlesque evenings to family events.
1953 became a pivotal year for the venue when the BBC decided to broadcast a programme entirely dedicated to Leeds City Varieties and its shows. Following this, the programme’s producer, Barney Colehan, presented the idea to broadcast from the music hall regularly and ‘The Good Old Days’ launched. It aimed to recreate the traditional music hall for modern audiences and became one of Britain’s favourite TV shows for 30 years. By the time it ended in 1983, the venue had gained nationwide fame and there’s still a music hall season held here every spring and autumn.
Leeds City Varieties Now
Today, the Grade II Listed venue has a capacity of 467 and is a leading venue for comedy, as well as live music and variety performances. It has received support from Paul Merton and Dara O’Briain, while its programmes include the likes of Ken Dodd, Mark Watson, Katherine Ryan and Romesh Ranganathan. Its annual pantomimes also remain very popular, attracting all ages to enjoy family-friendly performances.
Away from events, the building and its grand interiors remain almost unaltered since the day it opened and it is admired as a rare example of a Victorian music hall. Aside from an additional entrance from the Headrow in 1888, the only other changes were made during a major refurbishment between 2009-2011. The backstage area underwent a complete demolition and reconstruction, while there were also major excavations in an attempt to re-establish the cellar network. Many artefacts, documents and photos were uncovered during this process and will be available to be viewed by the public at the West Yorkshire Archive Service.
With such a rich history and diverse programme, Leeds City Varieties remains one of the city’s major attractions. Find out what’s on during your stay at 42 The Calls, just an 8-minute walk away, and book your tickets to experience an entertaining insight into the history of Leeds.