The London Palladium opened on Boxing Day 1910 with the first ‘grand variety bill’ featuring acts as diverse as Nellie Wallace and classical actor Martin Harvey. The Frank Matcham designed building occupies a site which was previously home to a Corinthian Bazaar, Hengler’s Grand Cirque and the National Ice Skating Palace. By the 1950s the theatre was known as the ‘Ace Variety Theatre of the World’, a reputation enhanced by the enormous worldwide popularity of ATV’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium. For many years it played host to the annual Royal Variety Performance, and was the home of London’s most spectacular pantomimes.
The history of performances at The Palladium is by its very nature little more than a list of star names. The great and the good from both stage and screen queued up to top the bill at ‘the world’s most famous theatre’ and audiences flocked to see them.
Famous bill toppers in the 1920s included Harry Houdini, Dickie Henderson, Gracie Fields, Billy Bennett, Sophie Tucker, Burns & Allen, Jackie Coogan and Ivor Novello.
The Palladium hosted its first Royal Variety Performance in 1930 and the following year the first Crazy Week which brought together the famous Crazy Gang, and the theatre became their home with later shows including Life Begins at Oxford Circus and Round about Regent Street. Other stars of the 1930s included Jack Benny, Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ramon Navarro, Cab Calloway, Ethel Barrymore, Josephine Baker, Fats Waller and Tom Mix.
In 1940 Top of the World played only four performances before being closed by the Blitz but the theatre soon reopened in 1941 with Max Miller and Vera Lynn in Apple Sauce. Star names of the 1940s included Arthur Lucan (Old Mother Riley) and Kitty McShane, Tommy Trinder, Elisabeth Welch, Tessie O’Shea, Jewel & Warris, Gracie Fields, Betty Hutton, Dinah Shore, the Andrews Sisters, Carmen Miranda, Martha Raye and Laurel and Hardy.
Val Parnell took over as director and general manager in 1945 and began a regular policy of importing major American stars, the first great success being Danny Kaye. Kathryn Grayson, Eleanor Powell, Harpo and Chico Marx, Benny Goodman, Dorothy Lamour, Frank Sinatra, Abbott and Costello, Nat King Cole, Donald O’Connor, Hoagy Carmichael, Judy Garland, Jimmy Durante, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Bob Hope and Gypsy Rose Lee all followed. Home grown talents to top the bill were Max Bygraves, Julie Andrews, Alma Cogan, Harry Secombe, Terry-Thomas, Billy Cotton, Charlie Drake, Cilla Black, Norman Wisdom, Des O’Connor, Frankie Howerd, Ken Dodd, Tommy Steele, Ronnie Corbett, Arthur Askey and Shirley Bassey.
Sunday Night at The London Palladium was first broadcast in 1955 and made stars of its hosts Bruce Forsyth, Norman Vaughan and Jimmy Tarbuck.
The annual lavish pantomimes featured the biggest stars of the day including Cliff Richard and the Shadows in 1964 and 1966.
In 1968 Sammy Davis Jr starred in Golden Boy, the Palladium’s first proper musical show (as opposed to panto or revue), based on the Clifford Odets play. The next musical was Harold Fielding’s Hans Andersen starring Tommy Steele, which was booked for the 1974 Christmas season, stayed for a year and returned in 1977.
In 1979 The King and I arrived with Yul Brynner recreating his most famous role supported by Virginia McKenna and John Bennett. 1981 saw Michael Crawford star in Harold Fielding’s production of Barnum and the next spectacular followed in 1983 with Fielding’s stage premiere of Singin’ in the Rain with Tommy Steele, Roy Castle, Sarah Payne and Danielle Carson (revived in 1989).
In 1986 a two-week season with Liza Minnelli was followed by Jerry Herman’s La Cage Aux Folles starring George Hearn and Denis Quilley. Ziegfeld the musical, starring Len Cariou and later Topol opened and closed in 1988. Other successful shows include a stage version of ’Allo ’Allo! with all of the television cast including Gordon Kaye and Carmen Silvera (twice), The Pirates of Penzance with Paul Nicholas and Bonnie Langford, The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber starring Sarah Brightman, and an award-winning production of Show Boat produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and Opera North (two seasons).
Meanwhile variety was kept alive with seasons by Ken Dodd, Russ Abbott and Bruce Forsyth, not to mention regular Sunday concerts.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat had an enormously successful run with Jason Donovan, and subsequently Phillip Schofield in the title role. In 1994 Fiddler on the Roof with Topol as Tevye played a three-month season prior to Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! This opened with Jonathan Pryce as Fagin and Sally Dexter as Nancy, was directed by Sam Mendes and choreographed by Matthew Bourne. Subsequent Fagins included George Layton, Russ Abbott, Robert Lindsay, Barry Humphries and Jim Dale.
Bruce Forsyth celebrated his 70th birthday in 1998 with a week-long run of his one-man show and a special Sunday Night at the London Palladium television broadcast with Diana Ross. Robert Stigwood, Paul Nicholas and David Ian produced the stage premiere of the Bee Gee’s Saturday Night Fever with Adam Garcia as Tony Manero.
The London Palladium became a Really Useful Theatre in 2000 when Lord Lloyd-Webber’s Really Useful Group and Bridgepoint Capital purchased Stoll Moss Theatres Ltd. Elaine Paige and Jason Scott Lee starred in a lavish revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I.
The famous but outdated revolving stage was removed at the start of 2002 to accommodate the state-of-art technology required to make a car fly in the world premiere of the stage spectacular Chitty Chitty Bang Bang based on the 1968 film. Chitty now holds the record as the longest-running show ever to play The Palladium with 1,414 performances.
The 2005 seasonal run of Scrooge saw Tommy Steele consolidate his position as the performer to have headlined more productions at the London Palladium than any other star. A plaque celebrating this fact was unveiled in the Cinderella Bar opposite the recently donated bust of Bruce Forsyth. Steele returned to play a second season of Scrooge for the 2012-13 festive season.
2006 saw the return of Sinatra to the Palladium stage in an all singing and dancing technological concert and the opening of Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Ian’s new production of The Sound of Music, followed by Sister Act which premiered in June 2009.
The London Palladium celebrated its centenary on Boxing Day 2010.
Celebrations included a gala concert presented by the building staff, paying tribute to the musicals and artists that have appeared in the last 100 years, the return of The Royal Variety Performance to its spiritual home, a month of special centenary building tours and small exhibition in the rehearsal room, a plaque unveiled by Bruce Forsyth, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Danielle Hope, celebratory radio broadcasts on BBC Radio 2 and Radio 4 and a one-hour documentary on BBC2. Major building works began after the closure of Sister Act in October to transform the front of house areas.
With the opening of the new production of The Wizard of Oz in 2011, Andrew Lloyd Webber also unveiled his major renovation of the box office facilities and a brand new means of accessing the Dress Circle and Stalls directly from the box office. The works substantially increased the movement space and comfort for patrons on arrival and during the interval and have also allowed the provision of more ladies’ lavatories – a grand gesture to mark the second century of the world’s most famous theatre.
2013 saw short runs for a revival of A Chorus Line and, over the Christmas period, Barry Humphries Farewell Tour. The Palladium once again hosted the Royal Variety Performance in the presence of Prince Charles and hosted several one-off special events including Elton John being presented the first ever Brit Icon Award during a televised concert, Robbie Williams in a televised concert of his new album ‘Swings Both Ways’ and an on stage interview with Al Pacino. Early 2014 saw another on stage interview, this time with Sylvester Stallone and hosted by Jonathan Ross, and I Can’t Sing the Musical produced by Simon Cowell and Stage Entertainment had a much shorter run than anyone hoped for.
In December 2014 Andrew Lloyd Webber reunited the original production team of Cats to re-visit his musical based on T.S Eliot poems to bring it back to the London stage for a new generation. Nicole Scherzinger was cast as Grizabella and the revival was a sell-out success. Kerry Ellis took over for the final weeks of the run to April and the production returned for a Christmas season from October 2015 with Beverley Knight. Beyond Bollywood and Sinatra at the Palladium filled the stage over the summer months of 2015.
Other important events in 2014 and 2015 included the return of television broadcasts of Sunday Night at the London Palladium, the record breaking live broadcast of Comic Relief and Jerry Lee Lewis’s 80th birthday concert.
2016 sees an exciting programme of concert bookings at the Palladium under the banner of RUT Live taking the London Palladium back to its roots in variety entertainment.
Concerts scheduled include Joe Jackson, Bryan Ferry, Primal Scream, Anastacia, Elvis Costello, Mika and Foreigner. For full details visit www.rutlive.co.uk
Since December 2005 the London Palladium has been owned 100% by The Really Useful Group Ltd.
Mark Fox, January 2016
Mark Fox conducts tours of The London Palladium on the second Friday of each month when productions are running. Tickets may be purchased from the theatre box office in person or by calling 0844 412 2957.