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Those good old days -What is the next act in store for Leeds City Varieties?

PUBLISHED: 08:33 30 September 2010 | UPDATED: 17:55 20 February 2013

Circle Bar

Circle Bar

What is the next act in store for a venue cherished by showbiz legends past and present? Chris Titley reports

The name says it all: City Varieties. Found in the heart of Leeds, just off Briggate, entertainment doesnt come more inner city than this.

As for varieties, well lets see Charlie Chaplin, Fairport Convention, Tiny & Mite, George Formby Senior, James Blunt, Record Quartette (the Great Spectacular Novelty Banjo Act), Suzanne Vega, Billy Eldid the trick cyclist, Eddie Izzard, Harry Houdini, Little Zaza, Donovan, the Five Trippellos, Supergrass, Striparama and Sooty.

Bills dont get any more varied. These famous and forgotten acts make up only a fraction of the thousands of musicians, comedians and novelty performers to have trod the boards at The World Famous City Varieties Music Hall.


Its been months since the Varieties last staged a show. But two comedians from different generations were back recently to pay tribute to a very special venue.


I love the place, said Leeds own Barry Cryer, whose first paid job was at the City Varieties. Its the oldest music hall in the country. Its like a time machine.


Weve got to keep it because its a part of history. Its certainly been part of my little history. May it go on forever.


Have I Got News For You star Paul Merton is another fan. The City Varieties in Leeds is a wonderful theatre to play. I have played it several times now, he said.


Its really thrilling for me to be here. Its a wonderful building.
The pair joined forces to launch Regeneration the final phase of fundraising to restore the venue to its glorious best. Work began last November and is being overseen by City Varieties general manager Peter Sandeman, who knows what a rare gem rests in his hands.


There used to be about 300 music halls but there are only about four left, three of which are Grade II* listed, and of those the City Varieties is the largest and possibly most untouched, he said.


It was built in 1865 above the Swan Inn and called Thorntons New Music Hall and Fashionable Lounge, named after the licensee. Many ups and downs followed until it was threatened with closure in the 1980s, when Leeds City Council bought it and put Peter in charge.


The venue is best known as host of the Good Old Days, the BBC1 music hall spectacular which premiered in 1953 and only went off air in 1983.
As a child in South Wales, Peter remembers tuning in. When I watched it I had no idea that so many years later Id get this opportunity to run the venue. It was a little strange at the start: here we had a very long and well-established venue, yet there was no future programme, no mailing list of customers. It was almost as if you were opening a new venue and starting from scratch.


He determined to keep the Varieties true to its roots, and has brought a diverse range of entertainers to the loyal audience. There have been some great acts, like the late Danny La Rue, Hinge And Bracket, Eartha Kitt, Barbara Windsor and Ken Dodd.


And people possibly dont remember weve had stars like Peter Kay, Frank Skinner, Ed Byrne all those sort of people as theyve been on their way up. The one I was in awe of was Mickey Rooney. To sit in a very intimate auditorium with such a Hollywood legend on stage had an impact.


Fewer speciality acts exist in this country than on the continent as there are too few places for them to perform. But he hopes that may change, thanks to Simon Cowell.


Im quite grateful to Britains Got Talent because it has reawakened peoples interest in variety. There was a generation that didnt see variety because it disappeared off the television. Id like to think there would be a resurgence.


Peter brought the Good Old Days back to the Varieties, this time without the TV cameras, with the help of its long-serving producer Barney Colehan who lived in Guiseley. With the very popular pantomime, it is one of two in-house productions which will return when the venue reopens in the second half of next year.


The audience will notice the difference, said Peter. With the council buying the Swan pub underneath the Varieties, that is going to be reincorporated as it was up until 1905 when the councils licensing department ordered the separation of the two venues. Here we are, just over 100 years later, re-establishing the link.


Larger, more comfortable seats are to be installed; reducing capacity from 531 to around 460, therell be extra toilets and an external glass lift. The flock wallpaper is disappearing along with the chandelier as they return City Varieties to its original Victorian look. And just like the new interior, next years programme will be a mix of the old and the new.


Well be more selective and try to ensure we improve the quality of the productions, both in-house and the ones that tour to the venue. Broadly speaking, we will stage a similar mix of music, comedy and family entertainment.



How you can help

The City Varieties restoration project will cost 9.2m. With awards of 5.2m from Leeds City Council and 2.74m from the Heritage Lottery Fund, most of this has been raised. Regeneration is the name given to a final push to raise the remaining 700,000.

Businesses or individuals can contribute in many ways, from individually-tailored sponsorship packages to the naming of a seat, and donations of any size will always be welcomed.
To help, go to www.cityvarieties.co.uk

Do you have memories of the good old days at Leeds City Varieties? Share them with us by emailing letters@yorkshirelife.co.uk or leave your comments on our website yorkshire.greatbritishlife.co.uk. Pictures are welcome too.

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