City Varieties Music Hall is renowned throughout the world. It also happens to hold the Guinness World Record for the longest running music hall in the UK.
Sunday 6 June is the Music Hall’s 155th birthday. Rather than a celebration to mark a great occasion, the Music Hall has ceased to operate. The only other time this happened was during its restoration in 2009 – 2011.
Only 9 years later, its future is by no means certain.
City Varieties started as the ‘New Music Hall and Fashionable Lounge’ in 1865. It was a room above a public house, meant for the entertainment of working people in Leeds. Leeds Grand Theatre, its sister venue, was meant for the higher classes. “Wear your flat cap to The Varieties and your top hat to The Grand” was the popular saying of the day.
Those earlier days saw the Music Hall welcome Harry Houdini, Marie Lloyd and Lily Langtree. Rumour had it that Prince Edward would sneak into a private box to watch and court the beauty who was Lily Langtree.
Subsequent years saw City Varieties become best known for attracting stars of the highest calibre and for hosting the BBC’s The Good Old Days for thirty years until 1983. Some readers may well remember Leonard Sachs as Chairman, and performers such as Les Dawson, Barbara Windsor, Bruce Forsyth and Barry Cryer. Although not now televised, The Good Old Days is still running.
The restoration project was largely funded by Leeds City Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund. Ken Dodd was the last act to perform before closure, and the first act to perform on reopening in 2011, followed by John Bishop, Russell Crowe, Kerry Ellis, Boy George, Michael McIntyre, Sara Pascoe, Romesh Ranganathan, Phil Wang, Jack Whitehall, and the Queen and Prince Phillip who officially opened the refurbished venue in 2012 as part of their Jubilee tour.
The Learning Programme provides young people with opportunities to develop new skills and gain hands-on training, using the rich resource of its heritage theatres.
Chris Blythe, CEO, said: “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 Music Hall is a significant employer in the area, supporting many neighbouring bars and restaurants with a regular influx of theatregoers.
Whilst 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. Our income generation will be limited potentially months after other parts of the economy start to grow. The whole industry will need to take stock as investors and producers of our wonderful shows have also taken a massive hit.
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.”
Throughout closure, The Varieties is asking patrons (if financially viable) for donations that will help support the Company throughout this difficult period – www.cityvarieties.co.uk.
Photographs provided by City Varieties Music Hall.