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The City Varieties

The story of the City Varieties begins in 1760 when the White Swan Coaching Inn was built in a yard off Briggate. The yard became known as the White Swan Yard, and is shown on the 1847 Edition of the Ordnance Survey map.

The White Swan had a singing room, where various types of acts, though not drama, were put on while people enjoyed their food and drink. In 1857 Charles Thornton became the licensee of the White Swan. He rebuilt the singing room, to a design by George Smith, and opened it in 1865 as 'Thornton's New Music Hall and Fashionable Lounge.' The enlarged building is shown on the 1908 edition Ordnance Survey map, and although we do not have details of its construction, it probably had one balcony, and held around 2000 people. A contemporary report says 'billiards and supper rooms were attached, and the place was noted for its attentive waiters'.

Thornton's music hall was a great success, and other inns, such as the Rose and Crown on Briggate followed his example, and opened their own concert rooms. The Princess Palace Music Hall, newly refurbished, opened in 1874. In the face of all this competition, Charles Thornton decided to give up the licensing trade, and put the White Swan up for auction in 1876. It did not reach its reserve price, and the sale was withdrawn.  Thornton leased the White Swan to John Stansfield, and used the proceeds to build Thornton's Arcade. In 1880, John Stansfield changed the name to Stansfield's Varieties, and in 1880 the lease was taken over by Charles Morritt, who also ran the Princess's Palace.

Charles Thornton, who still owned the Varieties, died in 1881, and the ownership passed to his daughter, Mrs. Addyman. In 1855, improvements were made to the interior, and in 1888, an additional entrance was made from the Headrow. An undated photograph shows the Headrow entrance. In the early 1890s the theatre was bought by Thomas Dunford, who made further improvements, and in 1894, the name was changed to the familiar Leeds City Varieties Music Hall.

In 1898, competition from the new Empire Theatre in Briggate was too much, and the theatre was again put up for sale. It was bought by Fred Wood, owner of the Scarborough Taps in Bishopsgate Street, and re-opened on 1st November 1898, with J C Whiteman as theatre manager. This was the heyday of the music halls, and among famous acts at the City Varieties were Charlie Chaplin, starring as one of 'The Eight Lancashire Lads' in 1897. Lily Langtry, the famous 'Jersey Belle' performed, in 1898, George Formby senior, father of a famous son, in 1898, and Chirgwin, who was billed as 'The White Eyed Kaffir'. Houdini appeared there in 1904, and many later famous acts started out at the City Varieties.

When Fred Wood died in 1913, the building was again put up for sale. These were unsettled times for the Varieties. With the advent of the cinema, music halls went into decline, and many were demolished, or converted into cinemas. The City Varieties survived, but could only afford little known artistes and the cheaper touring companies, putting on both variety and revue.

However contemporary playbills tell us there were some interesting acts around at that time. It is claimed that Morny Cash, the Lancashire comedian, was discovered at the Varieties. He certainly topped the bill there in November 1912. In December 1913 Bobby Leach, 'the Englishman who beat Niagra' was billed as the main attraction, and in March 1915 Bryant and Bryant 'Australia's Novelty Manipulators' appeared. If the playbill is to be believed, their act must have been very exciting!

There was true 'Variety' in the entertainment put on, and sometimes there was an opportunity for local talent to have a go, as in September 1913, and in March 1915 there was a challenge to local men to compete in wrestling matches. By 1913 the advent of the cinema was causing a decline in  theatre audiences, and in an attempt to combat this films were sometimes shown between variety acts.

The City Varieties changed hands several times until in 1941, Harry Joseph leased the Varieties from the White Swan Estate Company. During the war the theatre continued to stage variety, reviews, and Christmas pantomimes. At a performance of the Christmas pantomime in 1941, (appropriately, Babes in the Wood), a woman in the audience gave birth to a baby. Harry Joseph gave the boy free admission to the Varieties for life!

When bombs destroyed the Argyll Theatre in Birkenhead, the City Varieties became Britain's oldest surviving Music Hall. After the war going to the theatre became increasingly popular, often to see performers live, who had been heard on the radio. There were also exciting trapeze and high wire acts, and more unusual performances, like the lady who mesmerized an alligator to the accompaniment of music from the orchestra.

One of Harry Joseph’s discoveries at this time was Frankie Ableson, who went on to become famous as the singer Frankie Vaughan.

In the 1950s, television became increasingly popular, and theatre audiences, including those at the City Varieties, declined. In an attempt to attract audiences back to the Varieties, Harry Joseph put on striptease shows. Girls were allowed to pose on stage, but not to move. But it was not all girls, girls, girls.  In December 1957 Sooty’s Christmas Show, with Harry Corbett, made a change.

1953 was a landmark year in the history of the Varieties, when it was used by the BBC for a pilot programme on the Old Time music hall. It was very popular, and resulted in the programme ‘The Good Old Days’ produced by Barney Colehan. The first programme was broadcast on 20th July 1953, and the series ran for thirty years.

In 1954, the Headrow door became the main entrance instead of the entrance in Swan Street, and in 1960 the building was scheduled as a building of special architectural and historic interest.

Harry Joseph died in 1962, and the running of the theatre was taken over by his sons, Stanley and Michael. After 1968 striptease shows were no longer put on, and at Christmas that year a very successful pantomime, Cinderella, was staged by Terry Cantor. Family entertainment was again established at the varieties, with autumn and spring seasons of ‘A night at the City Varieties’.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, the theatre put on variety shows, reviews, and sometimes drama, but by the 1980s the theatre was threatened with closure, and in 1987, it was sold to Leeds City Council, who leased it to Leeds Grand Theatre and Opera House Ltd. Peter Sandeman was appointed as general manager.

The City Varieites was successful in gaining Heritage Lottery funding for a refurbishment and restoration and was closed in January 2009.  The theatre reopened in September 2011 with seating for 467.
Click images to enlarge
Map, 1847
Map, 1847
Map, 1908
Map, 1908
Headrow entrance
Headrow entrance
Interior, 1949, stage and front stall
Interior, 1949, stage and front stall
Interior, 1949, view from the stage
Interior, 1949, view from the stage
The eight Lancashire Lads
The eight Lancashire Lads
Playbill, 1912
Playbill, 1912
Playbill, 1913
Playbill, 1913
Playbill, 1915
Playbill, 1915
Playbill, 1913
Playbill, 1913
Playbill, 1954
Playbill, 1954
Playbill, 1957
Playbill, 1957
Entrance to City Varieties, in Swan Street, 1999
Entrance to City Varieties, in Swan Street, 1999




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© 2003 Leeds City Council | Site created by: LCC electronic information team | 25 March 2003