Leeds Grand Theatre exterior in the 1930s

“Watch where you’re going!” A series of accidents at The Grand, 1947-1954

‘Break a leg’ is a common saying used in theatre, but in some instances this may have been taken too literally. Looking into the Leeds Heritage Theatres archives has helped to uncover some interesting stories that took place during some of their shows in the past…

Written by Megan Glanville, Making History: Archive Collaborations student at the University of Leeds, who has been working with West Yorkshire Archives to uncover stories from our collection.

You’d expect your time in the theatre to be pretty smooth-sailing, and for the show to go off without a hitch, with all the stars of the show being well-rehearsed and ready to perform for everyone. However, this wasn’t always the case. And, it wasn’t always just the actors causing havoc – sometimes it could be the surroundings.

During one play, under the management of Wilson Barrett (who managed the Grand Theatre from its opening in 1878 until 1895), a loud explosion could be heard during the performance which caused panic amongst theatregoers. Barrett managed to catch the attention of the audience and loudly declared that there was “no need for alarm, a barrel of beer has burst. That is all”. Now knowing the source of the loud bang, the audience immediately calmed down and returned to their seats, allowing the show to continue.

The period between 1947 and 1954 somehow appeared to be a very accident-prone time for the actors of the theatre, however. The August 1947 showing of Gardenia Lady provides perhaps an extreme example of this. The American actor Lyn Ceeley, playing one of the leading roles, was accidentally stabbed in the leg during knife-throwing rehearsals for the world premiere of the show that night, where the Musical Director had also been taken ill and had been replaced by the pianist. Thankfully, Ceeley’s injury wasn’t serious and he was able to return to the Grand ahead of the performance, which went ahead as planned.

However, the rest of the running of the show wasn’t so simple. Only a few days after Ceeley’s injury, another accidental stabbing took place during rehearsals for the show. George Stevens, who played the role of a guard, received a deep cut to his forehead following an accidental blow with a sword from a fellow guard. He sustained further injury by crashing into a piece of scenery while dazed and received further bruising. Perhaps using sharp blades on set wasn’t the best idea…

Gardenia Lady Programme, 1947, starring Lyn Ceeley

A programme for Gardenia Lady from 1947. Credit: Leeds Heritage Theatres, West Yorkshire Archive Service, WYL762/105/40

In September 1949, the actress Eve Lister collapsed on stage during a performance of Bitter Sweet in which she was playing a leading role. She was ‘temporarily knocked out’, reported the Yorkshire Evening Post on 20 September 1949, following a collision with scenery as she was rushing to do a quick outfit change in between scenes. Lister continued into the next scene while ‘dazed and bruised’ until she collapsed while performing a song. Although her understudy briefly appeared on stage to take over, Eve was able to quickly recover and ended up finishing her scene successfully. Now that’s dedication!

The January 1951 performance of Dick Whittington also had its fair share of incidents. During a performance on the 10 January 1951, one of the acrobatic dancers of the show collapsed with suspected flu and was absent the following night. On the 24 January, the Yorkshire Evening News reported that Gerry Lee, the actor playing the role of the cat, ended up straining a tendon after a tussle with King Rat during the play. He missed the next few subsequent performances and was replaced with Al Stevens, who usually played King Rat. 

Bitter Sweet 1949 Programme starring Eve Lister

Bitter Sweet 1949 Programme. Credit: Leeds Heritage Theatres, West Yorkshire Archive Service, WYL762/105/42

Dick Whittington 1951 Programme

Dick Whittington 1951 Programme. Credit: Leeds Heritage Theatres, West Yorkshire Archive Service, WYL762/105/44

Concussion was also a common problem, it seems. Sheila Cross, the 22-year-old head chorus girl in Jack and the Beanstalk in February 1952, hurt her head after being struck by a falling piece of foliage that was 18 ft. high. In her absence, the deputy took over the head chorus role. Additionally, in January 1954, the trick cyclist Banner Forbutt performing in Robinson Crusoe on Ice had a fall while skating on stage. He, too, got concussed and was taken to Leeds Infirmary, which led to some missed performances while he recovered. 

Unearthing hidden stories in the Leeds Heritage Theatres archives such as these helps bring the past to life as we gain insight into what went on both behind the scenes and in front of audiences. Even the most talented performers were prone to accidents, and Leeds Grand Theatre certainly has had its fair share over the years.

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