Music Halls and Variety Theatres

Music hall was the entertainment for working-class Londoners in the 19th century. Staged in pubs or small theatres, it was loud, raucous and often rude. Variety theatre represented a more commercialised, 20th-century version of music hall. It took place in lavish, large theatres, built and run by the great theatrical impresarios.

Sir Oswald Stoll, the Australian-born entrepreneur who had already established a 'circuit' of theatres in the north, opened the Hackney Empire in 1904, his first London theatre. Next was the Shepherd's Bush Empire, said to be Stoll's favourite. In 1912 came the massive Coliseum in central London. The opening programme was a typical variety mixture of song, dance, acrobatics and spectacle. Topping the bill was the great black singer Eugene Stratton, followed by Tina Clemintina with her dogs, the three Pattinsons on the trampoline, and a full-scale recreation of Derby Day at Epsom involving a moving stage and real horses. Soon after opening, a horse fell off the stage, unfortunately killing his 'jockey'.

The rival 'Moss Empire' circuit under Sir Edward Moss owned the Empire Palace theatres at Finsbury Park, New Cross and Stratford, plus the London Hippodrome. Moss's Palace Theatre in the West End was the venue for the first Royal Variety Command Performance in 1912. King George and Queen Mary sat through a bill that included, controversially, Vesta Tilley, the female to male impersonator.

The other great London circuit was the London Theatre of Varieties Company owned by Walter Gibbons. This ran the Holborn Empire, the Golders Green Hippodrome, the Lewisham Hippodrome, the Oxford Theatre and the Tivoli Theatre, both in the West End. Gibbons' flagship was the London Palladium, which opened in 1910 just off Oxford Circus. The Palladium became London's most famous variety theatre, thanks to its later association with radio and television. 'Saturday Night at the London Palladium' was one of the most popular TV programmes of the 1960s. During the 1930s, the Palladium was the first home of Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen's 'Crazy Gang'. During the 1940s, it staged the classic performances of the great comedian Max Miller.

As the century progressed, London's variety theatre struggled to keep its audiences in the face of competition from cinema and television. Some theatres resorted to 'girlie' shows. The Windmill Theatre in Soho began its famous live nude tableaux in 1933. During the Second World War, Phyllis Dixey performed her 'Peek-a-boo' semi-striptease at the Whitehall Theatre. This form of variety evolved away from theatres and into smaller clubs, the first of which, Raymond's Revue bar, opened in Soho in 1958.

The 1950s saw many of the old suburban variety theatres close. Woolwich Empire closed in 1958, virtually the last of its breed. The only one to survive into the 21st century was the Hackney Empire, which was restored in the 1990s following years of dedicated effort by its supporters.

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