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Cinderella Programme cover from 1939, a black and white and pink illustration of Cinderella, her prince and a pumpkin carriage with footmen

Business as Usual? Leeds Grand Theatre during World War II

The British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared war against Nazi Germany on September 3rd, 1939, and subsequently, venues across the country such as theatres closed their doors amidst rising uncertainty.

This brought to a screeching halt shows that were planned in Leeds, such as the Vic-Wells Ballet Company who had been scheduled to perform at the Grand Theatre. It wasn’t until September 18th that theatres in Leeds were able to reopen again, and shows could once more resume.

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.

Leeds Grand Theatre reopened with a showing of Max Catto’s They Walk Alone, a play about a female murderess starring Althea Parker. The show was able to be secured on very short notice by the Grand, having achieved great success in London already.

Prior to reopening, air raid shelters were established to be used in the event of an attack. The Yorkshire Post described the Grand’s basement as ‘spacious’, with the walls showing ‘the mark of the solid building of last century’. The cellars were opened at City Varieties for the first time in over 20 years in order to be utilised as a shelter too. Because of how long they’d been abandoned for, not even the manager knew how to access them! Thankfully, one of the employees remembered where there was a trap door to access the cellar, and they were able to enter and clear them out ahead of their new wartime use.

Programmes upon reopening gave advice on what to do in the event of an air raid: ‘The performance will stop immediately and an announcement will be made from the stage requesting people to leave the theatre in an orderly manner through the various exits indicated… if you wish to leave the theatre WALK – DON’T RUN – TO THAT EXIT… Don’t leave your Gas Mask behind you on leaving the theatre’.

Air Raid Warning in the 1939 pantomime programme

An air raid warning for the Leeds Grand Theatre taken from a programme. Credit: Leeds Heritage Theatres, West Yorkshire Archive Service, WYL762/105/33

By November 4th 1939, theatres nationwide were allowed to close at 11pm, however, due to transport issues, a 10:30pm curfew was given in Leeds.

Despite the war, there was still ‘heavy booking’ for the pantomime showing of Cinderella that year and it was overall a success. The first show of 1940, the comedy Quiet Wedding, starred Winston Churchill’s daughter Sarah as the leading role. However, the war was still at the forefront of theatregoers’ minds, despite the distraction that watching shows could give. Before the show Bobby Get Your Gun began, the Lord Mayor of Leeds, J. Tait delivered a note to the audience appealing for volunteers to join the National Service.

In September 1940, a year after war was declared, another curfew was imposed on theatres due to increased air raids. Theatres in Leeds and Bradford were to have earlier start times for shows, so that members of the public could get home earlier. That winter, it was decided that special permission should be given so that shows could take place on Christmas Day. This definitely would have brought some additional cheers that year!

For the rest of the war, it was mostly business as usual for the theatres, the show must go on after all! In June 1944, a performance titled Salute the Soldier was shown at the Grand Theatre which included over 250 serving soldiers. In an additional morale boost, in August of the same year, artists from the Leeds Empire helped to entertain wounded soldiers from France at Meanwood Emergency Hospital. Unfortunately, in January 1945 one of the dancers from the Grand’s production of Jack in the Beanstalk learned that her parents, sister and sister’s children had all been killed in the Blitz. However, she still performed in the show on that evening despite fainting when she initially heard the news.

World War II brought much disruption and tragedy for the theatres of Leeds, yet they kept calm and carried on, and continued providing entertainment to the population despite everything.

Cinderella Programme - 1939 - with date details and details of the ticket prices

The programme for the 1939 pantomime Cinderella. Credit: Leeds Heritage Theatres, West Yorkshire Archive Service, WYL762/105/33