Eddie Menday explores the 100-year history of a renowned place of entertainment, the london palladium.
THE London Palladium, one this country's most famous theatres, marked its centenary on Boxing Day. During the course of its 100 years, it has hosted just about every type of celebrated stage act ever performed.
The theatre was built on the site of Argyle House, in Argyle Street in the West End. Previously, the land was home to the Corinthian Bazaar, Henglers Grand Cirque and the National Ice Skating Palace, which was famed for featuring real ice.
The cirque, or circus, was run by Frederick Hengler from 1871 until 1895. The ice rink then had a brief life until another circus moved in, only to fade away in the early 1900s because of the popularity of the London Hippodrome, on the edge of Leicester Square.
I well remember my mother, who lived to a great age, telling me she saw elephants perform at Henglers. The circus was said to also have had an aquatic display.
The Palladium opened as a variety theatre on December 26, 1910, with its first bill featuring acts as diverse as Nellie Wallace and classical actor Martin Harvey.
The building was designed by the renowned theatrical architect, Frank Matcham, with much of his interior still there today. Mr Matcham also designed Richmond Theatre.
Famous bill toppers in the 1920s variety shows included Harry Houdini, Gracie Fields, Billy Bennett, Sophie Tucker, Burns and Allen, Jackie Coogan and Ivor Novello.
In 1930, the Palladium hosted the first Royal Variety Performance. The following year, the first Crazy Week brought together the famous Crazy Gang, a collection of comic double acts and a single comedian who packed out every theatre they appeared in.
The gang - Flanagan and Alan, Nervo and Knox, Naughton and Gold and Monsieur Eddie Gray - made the theatre their home. They joined with other well-known music hall acts to present shows full of laughter and fun.
Later shows included Life Begins at Oxford Circus and Round About Regent Street. Other Palladium stars of the 1930s included Jack Benny, Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ramon Navarro, Ethel Barrymore, Fats Waller and Tom Mix.
One of the Crazy Gang's shows, The Little Dog Laughed, had just opened at the Palladium when the Second World War broke out. The government decreed all theatres and cinemas should close at once, but they were allowed to open again after a short time to help keep up the public's morale.
I managed to get a ticket for the show, and delighted at seeing these comedians live on stage.
The Little Dog Laughed was full of
patriotic performances and its hit song was one we still sing today - Run Rabbit Run. The little song often became the signature tune of many a stage magician.
I became a fan of the Palladium and saw performances by stars such as Danny Kaye, Vera Lynn - who appeared out of a giant radio - George Formby with his ukulele banjos and, above all, the great Gracie Fields. She had the audience laughing one minute and almost in tears the next. What a performer.
Entrepreneur Val Parnell became director and general manager in 1945, and brought many American stars over. I remember almost bumping into Bing Crosby in Argyle Street, outside the theatre, on one occasion.
In one show, Tessie O'Shay - a rather
large entertainer - appeared on stage on a small elephant, which reminded one of the days of Hengler's Circus.
By the 1950s, the theatre was known as the Ace Variety Theatre of the World. Its reputation was further enhanced by the enormous popularity of the television programme, Sunday Night at the London Palladium.
There was hardly a household in the country which did not tune into this ITV variety show, with its Beat the Clock games and Tiller Girls dance troupe. It made stars of its hosts over the years - Bruce Forsyth, Norman Vaughan and Jimmy Tarbuck - until it finally ended in 1974, and featured many big acts, from Chubby Checker to The Beatles.
For many years, the Palladium played host to the annual Royal Variety Performance and was the home of spectacular pantomimes.
The theatre can seat 2,286. Until recently, one of its features was that the roof could be slid back between performances to let out stale air - useful in the days when people smoked during shows.
The Palladium is now owned by Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Really Useful Group and is a Grade II listed building. It continues to stage first-class entertainment in the form of musicals and revivals - a spectacular new production of The Wizard of Oz starts next week, for instance.
And may this grand old theatre continue to entertain the nation for many more years to come.