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City Varieties Playbill for Journey Into Spice with a dancing girl and listings for the different performers

The Leodis Playbills Archive

One of the most valuable archive resources that we have at our finger tips is the terrific Leodis collection operated by Leeds Libraries.

Made up of over 68,000 images (and counting!), Leodis offers us photographs of Leeds past, giving us a real insight into the lives of Loiners over the years. Leodis also looks after something particularly special, the playbills collection. With 5000+ playbills digitised from Leeds theatres from between 1781 – 1998, the collection covers shows of all kinds from circus to opera. We asked Leeds Libraries about the origin of the project and the challenges of preserving the collection.

Written by Louise Birch, Senior Librarian – Local Studies & Research, Leeds Libraries.

Our collection

Like many items belonging to Leeds Libraries our collection of playbills is one that no one can recall how it became part of the library collection. They’ve been here longer than present and past staff members can remember, boxed up and secured in the stacks ready to be retrieved on request.

Pre-millennium the playbills were indexed in a good old-fashioned library card catalogue, mostly listing the headliners, making acts found near the bottom of the bill that bit harder to locate. This old card catalogue is long gone, replaced by the digital catalogue Leodis.net.

What we do know is how they came to be made available to view by anyone, at any time, from anywhere in the world. The Leodis website launched in 1999 thanks to a successful Lottery bid aiming to reflect the history of Leeds through digitised photographic and print collections made available online. The playbills tell the amazing story of Leeds theatres and as a paper-based collection the value in preserving them was high.

While still plodding away at digitising and indexing photographs (68,000 images and counting) we began to scan and fully index the playbills collection. Storage boxes were retrieved from the stacks and an oversized scanner purchased, capable of scanning at such quality that every detail of the folds in the 100 year-old paper could be clearly seen along with the imperfections of the block printing techniques used.

The Theatre Playbill - 1781 - Dissipation and Tom Thumb

The Theatre Playbill - Dissipation and Tom Thumb - 2 July 1781 - Copyright: Leeds Library and Information Services - Playbills Collection

Instead of recording just the headliners, this time every piece of information was entered into an online searchable catalogue. If you are sat over 9000 miles away in Australia and you want to search our playbill catalogue in the middle of your day, and our night, then you can! With only a few clicks on your keyboard you’d have the playbill in front you, evoking images of heavy velvet stage curtains and dimmed theatre lights.

The playbills collection is a theatrical history of Leeds spanning our earliest bill from 1781 to the latest in 1998. They chronicle everything from processions of circus acts and animals marching through the city to scantily clad ladies in risqué burlesque shows. The addition of City Varieties playbills to the digitised collection made the site more engaging as many of the playbills were more recent with acts like Eartha Kitt and Barry Cryer still known by audiences today.

City Varieties Playbill for Journey Into Spice with a dancing girl and listings for the different performers

City Varieties Playbill - Journey Into Spice - 14 June 1954, Copyright: Leeds Library and Information Services - Playbills Collection

The Empire Playbill - Bruce Forsyth - 1960

The Empire Playbill - Bruce Forsyth - 10 April 1960 - Copyright: Leeds Library and Information Services - Playbills Collection

The Grand Playbill - Godspell - 1973

The Grand Playbill - Godspell - 26 November 1973 - Copyright: Leeds Library and Information Services - Playbills Collection

Current work with the collection

This year Leeds Libraries launched its first digital volunteering opportunity involving playbills. Many of the playbills show the day and month of the performance, but not the year. Playbills existed to advertise current showings, and never intended to become items in a heritage collection.

Our dedicated volunteers are working to date over 300 playbills missing their year. By researching and cross referencing, we’re able to increase the accuracy of our records. Some playbills are easier than others. For example, let’s take a show that began on Monday 8 December, a quick internet search shows us various years this could have been. Was the theatre open these years? This will help narrow down only the relevant. Searching the actors listed on the bill may result in a fan site listing their body of work including the year they played that role. Most of this searching can be done from home by our volunteers while we upload it to the site, and just like that our catalogue is now that bit more precise.

Historic items can contain vocabulary and images that no longer align with current beliefs or values. We choose to retain these items within our collections because, while they do not reflect our values now, they are an important reminder of who we were as a society.

The role of the Local Studies Library is not to interpret history, but to save and conserve items of local interest for the scholars and historians, both professional and hobbyists, of tomorrow to research and discover. We don’t know why someone chose to save the playbills or why they donated them to Leeds Libraries, but we’re incredible grateful that they did.

Two playbills side-by-side from the Leodis collection - one a circus playbill and the other is a benefit for W F Wallett from The Varieties

L - The Grand Allied Circus playbill - Pablo Is Coming - 7 July 1858 & R - The Varieties playbill - Extraordinary Novelties - 18 February 1881. Copyright: Leeds Library and Information Services - Playbills Collection

The best way to search the Playbills Collection is by visiting the Advanced Search function of the Leodis.net site. Select ‘playbills’ from the Media Archive drop down menu and either search if you want to see all 5054 playbills, or use the options of the Advanced Search page to narrow down by theatre or years.

Visit the Leodis collection online

City Varieties Music Hall Building Fund

The City Varieties Music Hall is the gem in Leeds’ crown. As the city’s oldest theatre, we want to ensure that Britain’s longest, continuously operating music hall is here for future generations, making it more accessible, sustainable, and comfortable. All donations will be fully invested in the building and equipment and will enhance your experience as a customer.

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