Leeds Grand Theatre is a grand old dame. She believes she epitomises this month’s Playlist theme of ‘Leeds’ – after all she is the city’s major receiving house. She hosts big West End Musicals and bands and over the years has welcomed cabaret, variety and pantomime as well as some movers and shakers in the music business.
It seemed like a no-brainer to put 10 songs together reflecting her fabulousness. But wouldn’t it be a little too obvious to list ‘top ten musicals’ and pick a big song? Yes. So she has gone for a potted history of her life, from concept to present day. Enjoy dahlings.
1. The Kinks – Victoria The inspiration for the building of The Grand Theatre was apparently a remark by Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert. On their visit to Leeds in 1858 to open the Town Hall, Albert reputedly commented to the Mayor that Leeds seemed in need of a good theatre as ‘nothing was more calculated to promote culture and raise the tone of the people’. The proposal for the building was described as ‘a magnificent temple of drama for the West Riding’ (Leeds did not become a city until 1893). Completed in 1878 The Grand is a fine example of Victorian theatre in a Victorian Gothic style.
2. Mumford and Sons – Sigh No More (Much Ado About Nothing) Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ was the first ever performance at Leeds Grand Theatre on 18 November 1878. When the red velvet curtains lifted, the audience may well have had a shock as the backdrop was not the usual view of Lake Como or the Bay of Naples, but a painting of Kirkstall Abbey completed at a cost of £98 by the artist William Telbin. Would that sets cost the same these days!
3. Adam and the Ants – Prince Charming Until the 1970s pantomime was the big festive show of the year, but there was a period when Cinderella was regarded as unlucky. On one occasion Cinders fell and broke her leg, a later production saw the death of one of the ponies backstage and in 1887 a couple of young men, spirits uplifted after frequent visits to the circle bar, hurled a large bunch of carrots at Cinders played by the popular Addie Branch. They missed their target but Addie’s burly fiancé was so incensed that he grabbed the men by the collar, dragged them out of the circle staircase and dumped them in the middle of Briggate. Not something our Front of House team would get away with today.
4. The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Purple Haze Every theatre has its own ghost – and The Grand apparently has more than the one! Past audiences and staff claim to have seen a somewhat hazy lady sitting in a box – often at the Opera – gently rocking. Because of the distinct lavender scent left after the show, she has become known as ‘the Lavender Lady’. Legend also has it that a gentleman dressed in a Cavalier-style costume wanders the Dress Circle – whether he is a past performer or just a keen theatre-goer we don’t know. In some theatres traditional beliefs are taken one step further and a ghost light is left on at night to allow for phantoms to take to the stage.
5. The Rolling Stones – Play with Fire One of the main features of the theatre when it was built was its pioneering use of fire resistant materials and the abundant provision of water hydrants and fire-fighting apparatus. Exits are especially roomy following reports of crushes during panic alarms. Especially innovative was a forerunner of the modern sprinkler systems whereby water could be directed through the fifteen miles of pipes that normally fed gas to some 400 gaslights. The charismatic manager Wilson Barrett is reported to have said from the stage (perhaps optimistically) that ‘If the stage were to be engulfed in fire, every gentleman would have time to light his cigar comfortably, give his arm to his lady love and saunter pleasantly out of the building!’ We’re not about to put that to the test.
6. Led Zeppelin – Stairway to Heaven The Grand Theatre has a ridiculous number of staircases. There are some narrow stone stairways that allow quick access from Wardrobe to Stage. These are still used by performers today – though how one would get there in a large frock we’re not sure. We counted the staircases for the Leeds Playlist and got to 38 – but suspect there’s more. The collaborators of this list work on the 6th floor. Consider it ‘Heaven’!
7. Charlie Pride – Crystal Chandelier The stunning Waterford Crystal chandelier in the auditorium boasts 6,000 crystals, 136 light bulbs and 120 glass droplets. Mounted on a 36-foot frame it is carefully lowered by a winch when it needs cleaning. It was acquired in 1980, replacing an older one of gold leaf. Before that we still had ‘Gasoliers’ that were converted to electricity around 1895 when the theatre became one of the first public buildings in Leeds to use electric lighting. Amazingly the theatre’s emergency lighting system continued to be powered by gas until 1971.
8. Blondie – Hanging on the Telephone Forget the internet, before the telephone came into common use how did people book tickets? The only seats available for pre-booking were the boxes and these were booked in seasons by the wealthy everyone else paid on the night. If you were sitting in the dress circle you would enter via the main foyer and pay at what now is the sweet kiosk. All other customers accessed the theatre via side doors and made their way via the aforementioned stairways to a ‘pay box’. This evolved over time and obviously became less exclusive. Computers came into use in the late 1980s but were nowhere near the complex systems we have today.
9. David Bowie – Fashion Theatre fashion etiquette has changed over the years – sometimes through necessity. Programme notes from the 1940s stated: ‘To the Ladies – if your headgear obstructs the view of others, would you kindly remove it. Thank you.’ In 1954 they read: ‘In response to many enquiries the management wish to state that the wearing of evening dress is welcome in the theatre. This of course is entirely optional and those who prefer informal dress can be assure that their patronage is equally appreciated.” Former managing director of The Grand is quoted as saying ‘On Friday night it was a beautiful sight. I think a well-dressed audience creates a certain atmosphere.”
10. Queen – The Show Must Go On We think this pretty much speaks for itself! The title is the oft–quoted line of all theatre professionals – and is adhered to at all costs. The Show Must Go On is the very ethos of the theatre and its staff still today. This Queen track also links us nicely to last year’s smash hit ‘We Will Rock You’ which broke box office records and brought the theatre new audiences and fantastic reviews.
Some of these stories are taken from the book ‘The Grand Memories’ by Patricia Lennon & David Joy. Available from our box office!