The City Palace of Varieties, or the Leeds City Varieties as it is otherwise known, still trading as a music and theatre venue in continuous use since its opening in 1865 making it the oldest music hall venue in the UK.
It was originally built as a music hall facility for the adjacent (and still adjacent) White Swan Pub which had had a popular “singing room” on the 1st floor for some time, the landlord at the time, a Mr Charles Thornton, commissioned a compact venue to be named The White Swan Varieties where the working people of the day could gather for a small stipend to stand on the lower floor whilst being regaled by the popular music hall acts of the day. Seating was available in the balcony boxes and another cheaper standing area on the very top tier, whilst all at the same time being served copious amounts of Mr Thornton’s ales.
Many famous faces appeared at the venue, Charlie Chaplin, Marie Lloyd and Houdini among them and from 1953 to ’83 the BBC used the theatre to film their “Good Old Days” recreation of a Victorian/Edwardian music hall albeit that their recreation was far more genteel than will have been the case on a drunken Saturday night in central Leeds.
Located down a narrow alley wedged in between Briggate and The Headrow, two of Leeds’ main thoroughfares, there is no spectacular theatre frontage to the City Varieties, it resides in the White Swan Yard with a second small box office entrance down a passageway off The Headrow, the City Varieties does not shout its presence out loud in the city yet every Loiner will point a stranger in the right direction.
The theatre is now operated in trust with the aid of a council grant and after refurbishment from 2009 to 2011 is now open almost nightly for touring troubadours and entertainers in a very similar vein to the original music hall usage.