Keep our seats warm this Christmas
For over 400 years our three heritage venues have been bringing the magic of Christmas entertainment to the people of Leeds and beyond. Until now. Now they stand empty.
This is the first time in our history that all three buildings will be closed over the festive period (bar refurbishment at The Grand from 2005-6 and City Varieties from 2009-11). It is the first time that families and friends won’t come together to revel in live performance and Christmas screenings, filling our auditoriums with love, laughter and good cheer.
We know this is a financially difficult period for everybody, but we are asking our patrons, if you can afford it, to please help secure our future and ensure we can celebrate Christmas 2021 by donating to our ‘Keep a seat warm this Christmas’ campaign, buying tickets or memberships, or purchasing gift vouchers or merchandise.
We thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your ongoing support and generosity and wish you and your loved ones a very merry Christmas and happy New Year. We hope to see you very soon.
How you can help
The history of Christmas at Leeds Heritage Theatres
Leeds Grand Theatre
The ‘Grand Old lady of Leeds’ opened her doors on 18 November 1878 with a performance of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, masterminded by the then actor-manager and playwright, Wilson Barrett. Shortly after, Barrett started working on his ‘new and strictly original comic grand Christmas pantomime’, entitled Blue Beard the Grand – or Harlequin the Amorous Ameer; an opulent and spectacular production with 11 scenes and a 300+ strong cast. The first pantomime ran until the end of February 1879, with successive pantomimes becoming the norm for the festive season.
Records show that there was a period when Cinderella was deemed unlucky at The Grand. On one occasion, Cinders broke her leg, on another, one of the ponies died backstage, and in 1887, a couple of ‘drunken’ young men hurled a large bunch of carrots at Cinderella, then played by Addie Blanche – the pair were dumped in the middle of Briggate by Miss Blanche’s burly fiancé!
The Grand continued to play host to huge stars of the day over Christmas, including Morecambe & Wise, Les Dawson and Roy Hudd. Upon Opera North’s residency in 1977, the company presented many Christmas seasons, until Northern Ballet also became a permanent resident in 1996, when an agreement was reached that both companies would take alternate Christmas Seasons. During this arrangement, a visiting pantomime would sometimes play for a week or two in January.
In more recent times, The Grand now leaves pantomime to sister venue, City Varieties Music Hall, and instead hosts the best of the West End touring productions, including Shrek and Nativity The Musical.
Pantomime at City Varieties Music Hall
Pantomimes at The Varieties date back to (at least) the early 1940s when Harry Joseph was proprietor. One famous tale exists of a woman giving birth during a performance of Babes in the Wood in 1941. Legend has it that the child was gifted free admission to The Varieties for life!
Towards the end of the 1940s, pantomimes fell from favour. It wasn’t until 1968, after Harry’s sons, Stanley and Michael, had taken over, that they made a return to the Varieties’ stage, with Terry Cantor at the production helm. These often-featured Terry’s son, Kenny Cantor, alongside other variety stars, including The Patton Brothers, Leeds’ own Wendy King and the hugely popular clown Charlie Cairoli. Productions of Cinderella during this period were famed for a coach pulled on stage by real (but very small) horses.
In the early 1980s, ownership of The Varieties passed into the hands of Leeds City Council and General Manager, Peter Sandeman, was appointed to run the venue. As well as reintroducing a live stage version of The Good Old Days, Sandeman also revived the family pantomime. Forming a partnership with writer-director Robin Davies (Catweazle, Shakespeare in Love), these hugely successful shows (the early ones often featuring popular TV stars), ran for over 20 years and formed the Leeds tradition of an anarchic ‘rock fight’ with sponges!
After Jack & the Beanstalk completed its run in January 2009, the venue closed its doors for a major restoration. The music hall re-opened in the Autumn of 2011, hosting Aladdin, the first of the Rock ’n’ Roll Pantos, in December. A very different format to the traditional Christmas pantomime, Rock ’n’ Roll Pantos mix traditional elements of audience participation and corny gags with a jukebox full of classic rock anthems and chart-toppers – all performed live on stage by an ultra-talented cast of actor-musicians. The ‘rock fight’ was also given a 21st Century make-over to become a ‘boulder battle’ with giant inflatable bouncing balls creating bedlam around the auditorium.
Over the past few years, Cinderella, Jack & the Beanstalk, Dick Whittington, Robin Hood and Sleeping Beauty have all been given the Rock ’n’ Roll Panto treatment with increasing success and a whole new Leeds tradition has been born.