“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.”
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.
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.