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The London Palladium

Walter Gibbons was an early moving pictures manager who built the London Palladium which opened on 26 December 1910. The Palladium is a West End theatre famous for putting on Variety Shows and pantomimes. It is located in Argyll Street and thousands of stars have performed there over the years.

I enjoy collecting old London Palladium show programs as not only do they tell stories of the acts who performed there they feature adverts showing what was fashionable in times gone by.... houses, dress shops, drinks, places to socialise, cars - you name it, it was advertised!

The London Palladium claims that no stardom is complete "until you have played at the Palladium"! Some of the performers to tread the boards over the years include Jack Benny, Gracie Fields, Judy Garland, Ethel Merman, Bette Davis, Danny Kaye, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Fats Waller, Frank Sinatra, Max Bygraves, Julie Andrews, Neil Diamond, The Beatles, Bette Midler, Ginger Rogers, Liberace, George Formby, Tommy Steele, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Michael Crawford and Barry Manilow to name but a few. It would be rude to not mention Bruce Forstyth who hosted many a royal variety show at this historic London theatre.

Frank Matcham (below) was the architect who designed the London Palladium relatively late in his career (he was in his fifties). He was born in Newton Abbot in 1854 and was articled to a local architect before working for Jethro T. Robinson who was the architect to the Lord Chamberlain. Robinson had designed several theatres, including the Theatre Royal, Margate and the auditorium of the Old Vic.

Matcham married his employer's daughter and when Robinson died in 1878 he took over the specialised theatre practice. The entertainment business was doing well and by 1890 the new variety syndicates were making excellent profits. During this time many new theatres were built or old ones were re-cast. There had been a number of disastrous fires in the 1880s and safety controls became more rigorous. Drinking was banned from the auditoriums as the theatre owners wanted to shed the old beery music hall image.

Matcham produced approximately 90 new theatres and 40 reconstructions as well as a number of other designs in collaboration with other architects. It is estimated that Matcham can be credited with designing approximately 150 theatres. Nearly all of his theatres had separate entrances on every level so that customers did not mix with another of a different class all having alternative exits in case of an emergency.

Matcham tried to ensure that his designs gave all audience members a good view of the stage. His interior decorations ranged from Rococo in the Lyric Hammersmith to Elizabethan motifs at Richmond Theatre to Indian Baroque at the Hackney Empire.

The site that the Palladium was built on was L-shaped and until the early 1860s had been occupied by four houses in Great Marlborough Street and a mansion called Argyll House which was set back from Argyll Street. Argyll House was demolished in 1864 by a wine merchant called George Haig who then built the Corinthian Bazaar and Exhibition rooms designed by Owen Lewis. This venture failed and in 1871 it was converted into a circus by Frederick Charles Hengler (see picture below). The building was unsafe and the circus was redesigned by C. J. Phipps, a leading theatre architect, in 1884. The circus was used for 22 years and in 1895 it was converted into an ice skating rink. The circus had stiff competition from lavish entertainmnent at the Hippodrome and in 1909 it was sold to Walter Gibbons and the Capital Syndicate Limited.

Gibbons wanted to create a variety palace to challenge the Hippodrome, the Coliseum and Alfred Butt's Palace - the first two were designed by Frank Matcham. When the Palladium was built it was described as "the latest thing in music halls" and "the last word in luxury". It had a booking hall the size of a main post office, a Palm Garden with a string orchestra, a Ladies Boudoir with "reading and writing requisites", a hairdresser's, dressing rooms, tea-room and everything was embellished with marble, white, cream, coral and gold leaf decorations and gold and green draperies.

The theatre's capacity is 2,286 and Matcham designed it so that every seat has a good view of the stage. Matcham died of blood poisoning in 1920.

I saw Dita Von Teese perform at the Palladium last year and I felt that the door to the ladies power room was very apt! The acts who perform at the Palladium may change over the years, but Matcham's design works as well today as it did on its opening evening on Boxing Day 1910.


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