Delfont Mackintosh Theatres
Take an area famous for 'The Emporium', a large draper's store patronised by royalty and turn it into an area famous for a theatre, such were the beginnings of the Prince Edward Theatre. Named after the then Prince of Wales, it opened on 3 April 1930 with Rio Rita, a romantic musical comedy set in Mexico starring Edith Day and Geoffrey Gwyther. The show was a variation on the old theme of cops and robbers and had been a big hit in New York's Ziegfeld Theatre. Sadly, it did not find similar success with London audiences and closed after only 59 performances.
However, the building itself was a success, designed by Edward A. Stone, who had been joint architect of the Piccadilly Theatre in 1928, it had interior decorations by Marc-Henri Levy and Gaston Laverdet. Entering through arched doorways the audience found a spacious circular foyer, decorated in the fashionable art deco style, with staircases leading off to the stalls and dress circle. While from outside the theatre - designed in the style of an Italian palazzo - appeared rather severe, inside it was decorated in warm shades of fuchsia and gold. The auditorium was large, seating 1,650 people, with fully upholstered tip-up seats (then still something of a novelty) and plenty of leg room. The size of the stage was exceeded only by those at Drury Lane and Covent Garden. It was specifically designed to accommodate extravagant musical shows during which an Austin saloon might bowl on stage (Nippy, 1930) or a large, filled swimming pool would form part of the set (Wish You Were Here, 1953). One of the features that attracted most attention was the proscenium arch made up of a series of niches with amber glass covers designed by René Lalique with pseudo-fountains also by Lalique on each side.
The theatre's chequered early production history resumed in October 1930 with the musical Nippy starring Binnie Hale, who was a great 1930s attraction. This show did better at the box office, but a series of short runs followed including Fanfare, a glamorous period revue with Bernard Clifton and June, Lady Inverclyde that lasted just three weeks. In 1932 Un Vent de Folie brought publicity of a different kind when the Lord Chamberlain demanded the removal of four 18ft (6m) high female figures erected outside the theatre for promotional purposes. A response came from the producer, Jack Taylor, saying 'True they are scantily clothed, but for my part I can see nothing in them'. After all it was a theatre on the fringes of Soho.
The cabaret artiste Josephine Baker made her London debut in 1933; billed as 'The Idol of Europe', her star turn was the renowned 'Banana's Dance' previously seen at the Folies Bergere in Paris. She was astonished by the size of the theatre, "One looks out over acres of stalls that seem as though they were a huge field or a prairie."
After acting as the venue for a series of trade film shows it seemed like the final straw for the Prince Edward when Aladdin closed in January 1935 with insufficient money to pay the artistes wages. However, its fortunes were about to change. A syndicate was formed to turn the theatre into a cabaret-restaurant; large kitchens were installed beneath the stage, a semi-circular revolving dance floor was put in and staircases linking the dress circle and stalls levels were added. In this guise it re-opened on 2 April 1936 as the London Casino with a spectacular revue called Folies Parisiennes, one of the most popular numbers being 'Ladies and Their Dogs' in which the s matched their dogs - a lady wearing a chic spotted dress would be accompanied by a dalmation and another wearing tartan trotted on with a Scottie. The London Casino quickly became the place to go for an evening's entertainment and for the first time it was making money, takings of £6-7,000 per week being not uncommon.
In 1940 the Blitz called a halt to all such frivolity and for two years the theatre was dark. Then in July 1942 it became the home of the Queensberry All-Services Club. The audiences were members of the different forces who gathered for the recording of shows like Variety Band Box. By the time the Club closed it had made more than 2,500 moral boosting broadcasts to troops overseas. Leading artists who appeared included Vera Lynn, Jack Warner, Max Wall, Flanagan and Allan, child star Petula Clark and band-leaders Glenn Miller, Ambrose and Jack Hylton. Bing Crosby was singing there when he found himself competing with the noise of London's first flying .
After the war the theatre reopened as the London Casino, under the management of Tom Arnold and Emile Littler, with the American court drama Pick-up-Girl followed by a revival of Ivor Novello's ever popular musical The Dancing Years. From 1947 onwards it largely hosted variety shows, The Ink Spots famous for the song 'Whispering Grass' played to packed houses and an aged Mistinguett made a somewhat shaky appearance. Robert Nesbitt presented a series of spectacular Latin Quarter revues and there was a traditional annual pantomime - Julie Andrews appeared as Humpty Dumpty, Arthur Askey was a cheeky Buttons in Cinderella and Richard Murdoch made his pantomime debut as Queen Hysteria in Little Miss Muffet. Mona Inglesby's International Ballet Company gave an autumn season in 1948 that included Dorothy Stevenson's Sea Legend, the first time that an Australian ballet had been performed in this country.
In 1954 Cinerama arrived and the theatre that had been wired for 'talkies' since the day it was built was converted to house a large, curved 64ft wide screen with three projectors to create a three-dimensional effect. How the West Was Won ran continuously for over two years and Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey for more than a year. It was briefly rescued from this existence in December 1974 by Bernard Delfont who re-opened it under his management with the pantomime Cinderella starring the Twiggy.
Prince Edward Theatre - Refurbishment 1992However, the show that finally enabled the theatre to establish itself as the venue for musicals, for which it had originally been built, was Evita which ran from 21 June 1978 for almost eight years. It was the first of a new generation of musicals written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice that brought the leading lady, Elaine Paige, to fame and fortune. To coincide with the opening the theatre reverted to its original name of the Prince Edward. Evita was followed by a three year run of Tim Rice's Chess and later by Anything Goes, both of which also starred Elaine Paige.
In 1990 Bernard Delfont and Cameron Mackintosh decided to rebuild the Prince Edward. They spent over £3 million on a complete refurbishment which included deepening and widening the stage, improving the acoustics, remodelling and redecorating the auditorium, the addition of side boxes to improve the spacial relationship between different areas of the theatre and sophisticated new interior and exterior lighting. The whole project was completed in just over three months and put the owners, Delfont Mackintosh Theatres Limited, at the forefront of musical theatre design.
The Prince Edward reopened on 3 March 1993 with the hit Broadway musical Crazy for You. In 1996 Cameron Mackintosh was able to bring one of his own shows to the theatre when Martin Guerre, written by the award-winning duo, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, enjoyed a run of almost two years. Mamma Mia!, the musical love story featuring Abba's greatest hits, broke all previous box office records when it sold out for five years before transferring to the newly refurbished Prince of Wales Theatre in June 2004.
Prior to the opening of Mary Poppins the Prince Edward has again undergone some refurbishment to improve the bar areas and other facilities front of house and the artistes dressing rooms. For the first time audiences are able to walk out on the balcony outside the dress circle bar just as if it were a real Italian palazzo. And if you are curious why the Mozart Bar in the entrance foyer has been so named it is because the young Wolfgang Amadeus and his father lived at 28 Frith Street, now the theatre's stage door, from 1764 to 1765.
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