Leeds Heritage Theatres receives £119,900 grant from National Lottery Heritage Fund

The logo for Leeds Heritage Theatres: a name drawing on the past for the future of Leeds Grand Theatre, City Varieties Music Hall and the Hyde Park Picture House cinema

LEEDS Heritage Theatres has received £119,900 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to help address the impact of COVID-19 on its three venues. 

Leeds Grand Theatre, Leeds City Varieties Music Hall and the Hyde Park Picture House cinema now operate under the collective Leeds Heritage Theatres umbrella, a re-branding announced amid the ongoing Coronavirus crisis.

Since the doors to all three closed on March 17, the company has lost 99 per cent of its income, earned through ticket, bar and merchandise sales, and furloughed 96 per cent of staff; with a small team being kept on to manage customer refunds, reschedule performances and maintain necessary administrative functions.

Chief executive officer Chris Blythe said: “Since our venues ceased trading due to the pandemic, we have been doing everything we can to ensure our survival throughout this period, as well as prepare for the economic uncertainty that will follow, including drawing on our reserves which we had planned to invest back into our three heritage buildings.

“This grant is a lifeline, and while it won’t quite see us out of the woods – we are waiting to hear if we have been successful in our bid for emergency funding from the Government – we’re hugely grateful to the National Lottery Heritage Fund for supporting us at this crucial time. It’s invaluable to us and others who are passionate about sustaining heritage for the benefit of all.” 

The UK-wide funding, made possible by National Lottery players, was awarded through the National Lottery Heritage Fund’s Heritage Emergency Fund. In all, £50million was made available to provide emergency funding for those most in need across the heritage sector and to help organisations to start thinking about recovery. The money awarded to Leeds Heritage Theatres will be used to fund re-opening costs across the Grand and City Varieties, including signage and PPE. 

Ros Kerslake, chief executive of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, said: “Heritage has an essential role to play in making communities better places to live, supporting economic regeneration and benefiting our personal wellbeing. All these things are going to be even more important as we emerge from this current crisis. 

“Thanks to money raised by National Lottery players we are pleased to be able to lend our support to organisations such as Leeds Heritage Theatres during this uncertain time.”

Like Leeds Heritage Theatres, other charities and organisations across Britain affected by the pandemic are being given access to a comprehensive package of support of up to £600 million of repurposed money from The National Lottery. “This money is supporting some of the most vulnerable people in our communities and span the arts, community, charity, heritage, education, environment and sports sectors,” said Kerslake.

Thanks to National Lottery players, £30 million is raised every week for good causes, including heritage of local and national importance. By playing the National Lottery, people up and down the country are contributing to the nationwide response to combatting the impact of Covid-19 on communities across Britain.

Explaining the Heritage re-branding that came into effect on August 26, Blythe said: “The planned name change, and brand launch were originally scheduled for April 2020, when we were hoping, and had plans, to announce the exciting news in a manner more fitting of our industry.

“Unfortunately, due to the current pandemic, we had to postpone the announcement while we attended to more urgent matters, namely closing our three buildings and furloughing 96 per cent of our staff, while maintaining some business continuity. Now, after considerable work behind the scenes, we are ready to put the new name, brand and website into the public domain.”

Blythe continued: “While we have been trading for more than 30 years as Leeds Grand Theatre and Opera House Ltd, we have long known that the name was not befitting of our company, and the role our venues and people play within the Leeds arts scene.

“We knew we must choose a name that encapsulates our people, our venues, our heritage and our future, and will raise awareness, both regionally and nationally, of the breadth and quality of our shows/screenings and educational function.

“Now, more than ever, as our venues stand empty, it is important that we make people aware what Leeds and Yorkshire stand to lose if our venues close due to COVID-19.” 

Leeds Heritage Theatres does not receive funding from Arts Council England and the company has been massively hit financially by the pandemic crisis. 

“As we put forward our bid to receive funding from the Government’s arts rescue package, we know that competition is fierce, and we need the support of our loyal customers more than ever,” said Blythe.

“We’re asking that people, if financially viable, buy tickets, memberships and vouchers, or donate what money they can. In such dark times, theatre is a positive force: it provides an opportunity for people from all backgrounds to come together to share a common bond – a love of performance. Just when our future was looking so bright, we cannot let our theatres fade into the darkness.” 

Donations can be made at https://donate.leedsgrandtheatre.com/.

The show MUST go on at Leeds City Varieties, urges chief exec amid uncertainty ahead of music hall’s 155th birthday

Leeds City Varieties Music Hall: Britain’s longest-running music hall

“HOWEVER daunting, I am certain we have a future. We must.”

This is the rallying call of Chris Blythe, chief executive officer of Leeds City Varieties as the Guinness World Record holder for Britain’s longest-running music hall turns 155 years old on Sunday (June 7).

On a day that should be marked with great celebration, instead the doors to the oldest theatre in Leeds remain closed under the Coronavirus lockdown.

This is the first time in its long and colourful history that the 19th century venue in Swan Street has ceased operation, other than in 2009 to 2011 when it underwent a £9 million restoration. 

Now, alas, the future of Leeds City Varieties Music Hall is uncertain, but Mr Blythe trumpets the comedy, music and theatre venue’s importance. “The Varieties is a Leeds, if not a national, institution. A hidden gem with a warm Yorkshire welcome.

“Contributing to the vital cultural life of the city, City Varieties is a significant employer in the area, supporting many neighbouring bars and restaurants with a regular influx of theatregoers.

“While we’re all working towards and looking forward to the day that we can reopen our doors and welcome our audiences back, we must face facts: venues like ours will be the last to open.”

Knotty Ash comedian Ken Dodd (1927-2018) performed the last show before the 2009 refurbishment of Leeds City Varieties and the first after its reopening in 2011

Income generation will be limited for potentially months after other parts of the economy start to grow, suggests Mr Blythe. “The whole industry will need to take stock as investors and producers of our wonderful shows have also taken a massive hit,” he says.

“And when we do reopen – notice the emission of the word ‘if’ – the future is going to be much changed. Reserves will be exhausted, and patrons will have difficult choices to make with a financial recession and their own well-being and safety to consider.

“We will have to continue to operate with appropriate safety measure in place – careful consideration will need to be given to both staff and patron welfare, our cleaning regime, appropriate distancing measures and potentially a period of cashless transactions. The list goes on. But, however daunting, I am certain we have a future. We must.”

Noted for its intimate atmosphere and “brutally honest” audience, the City Varieties began life in 1865 as the “New Music Hall and Fashionable Lounge”: a room above a pub established by business entrepreneur Charles Thornton for the working people of Leeds to be entertained.

Its affluent sister venue, Leeds Grand Theatre, in Briggate, was meant only for the higher classes. Indeed a popular saying at the time was: “Wear your flat cap to the Varieties and your top hat to the Grand”.

In its early years, the City Varieties welcomed many weird and wonderful acts, such as the world-renowned escapologist Harry Houdini, singer, comedian and actress Marie Lloyd and Victorian music-hall socialite Lillie Langtry, the Jersey Lily, for whom it is rumoured Prince Edward would sneak into a private box to watch and court.

The City Varieties is probably best known for hosting the BBC’s The Good Old Days from 1953 to 1983, re-creating old-time music hall entertainment with audiences encouraged to dress in Victorian garb.

Produced by Barney Colehan and chaired by the alliterative Leonard Sachs, it starred Les Dawson, Barbara Windsor, Bruce Forsyth, Danny La Rue, Ken Dodd, Barry Cryer and many more besides. 

A lad in a dress in Aladdin: a Leeds City Varieties Music Hall rock’n’roll pantomime

Albeit untelevised, The Good Old Days still runs today and the original series has enjoyed a re-run on BBC4.

In 2009, the City Varieties benefited from a £9million regeneration project, funded largely by Leeds City Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The work included demolition and reconstruction of the backstage areas, ceiling and plasterwork repairs, inspired by a 1900 design discovered during the restoration; new carpeting and seating throughout the auditorium, and the fitting of an external glass lift to improve access to the building.

Ken Dodd, the last act to perform before the 2009 closure, was the first act to grace the reopened music hall in 2011.

The City Varieties now presents live music, variety, comedy and National Theatre Live and delayed screenings, as well as the annual rock’n’roll pantomime that showcases actor/musicians in a break from traditional panto.

Since the 2011 re-launch, the venue has played host to Russell Crowe, Kerry Ellis, Boy George, Michael McIntyre, Sara Pascoe, John Bishop, Romesh Ranganathan, Phil Wang, Jack Whitehall et al.

Her Majesty The Queen and Prince Phillip officially opened the refurbished music hall in 2012 as part of their Diamond Jubilee tour.

Throughout the Coronavirus-enforced closure, the City Varieties is asking patrons, if financially viable, for donations to help support the company throughout this financially difficult period. For more details, go to cityvarieties.co.uk.