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The Astoria Theatre, 157, Charing Cross Road, London, WC2

The Astoria Theatre in 2006 - Photo M.L.

Above - The Astoria Theatre in 2006 - Photo ML

 

The Astoria Theatre on Charing Cross Road, London was built by Edward Albert Stone, who also built the Astorias in Brixton, Streatham, Finsbury Park, Old Kent Road, and the Astoria, Brighton, and was a conversion from a former Crosse & Blackwell pickle warehouse in 1927 for Berkeley Syndicates Ltd. The pickle warehouse, (shown below) was situated next to its own factory, and was built in 1893, not long after Charing Cross Road had been constructed, and was designed by the architect Robert Lewis Roumieu. This Street had originally been known as Hog Lane, and then later Crown Street, before finally being named Charing Cross Road.

The former Cross & Blackwell pickle warehouse in 1923 - With kind permission Shamus Dark

Above - The former Cross & Blackwell pickle warehouse in 1923 - With kind permission Shamus Dark. The building was later converted into the Astoria Theatre. The photograph forms part of a wonderful set of photos on Flickr entitled 'Charing Cross Road before Centre Point'.

 

Programme for the film 'Alf's Button' shown at the Astoria Theatre March 24th 1930, just a few years after the Theatre Opened.The Astoria Theatre, just prior to demolition in January 2009 - M.L.When Berkeley Syndicates Ltd converted the warehouse into the Astoria Cinema and Dance Hall, only the brick shell of the pickle warehouse was retained. The contractors for the conversion were Griggs and Son Limited.

Left - A Programme for the film 'Alf's Button' shown at the Astoria Theatre on March the 24th 1930, just a few years after the Theatre Opened.

It is sometimes stated that Frank Verity may have built the Astoria but although he was the Chief Architect for Paramount Cinemas who eventually owned all five of the London Astorias, Paramount did not take over until 1931, which was after they were all built.

Right - The Astoria Theatre just prior to demolition, in January 2009 - ML

A Thumbnail of the Astoria Theatre in 1930 - Click to see the original.The Astoria Theatre opened on the 12th of January 1927 with the film 'Triumph of the Rat' which starred Ivor Novello, and was designed by the architect Edward Albert Stone principally as a Cinema but it also had a large Ballroom fitted into the basement.

Left - A Thumbnail image of the Astoria Theatre in 1930 - Click to see the original.

The Ballroom was octagonal in shape and had a central dance floor surrounded by a higher gallery and could accommodate a thousand people. This would later be transformed into a nightclub called 'Bang' in the 1980s and later still become known as Astoria 2.

 

The Astoria Theatre just prior to demolition, in January 2009 - MLA Thumbnail of the Astoria Theatre auditorium in 1927 - Click to see the original.This prominent Theatre, forming part of a block on the corner of Charing Cross Road and Oxford Street, had a Facade to Charing Cross Road designed in the Italian Renaissance style and faced with cement which concealed five storeys within.

Left - A Thumbnail of the Astoria Theatre auditorium in 1927 - Click to see the original.

Right - The Astoria Theatre just prior to demolition, in January 2009 - ML

A Thumbnail of the Astoria Theatre auditorium and stage in 1927 - Click to see the original.The large auditorium consisted of Stalls and one Circle with twenty five rows of seats in the Stalls and twenty one rows in the Circle altogether capable of seating some 2,000 people in comfort.

Left - A Thumbnail of the Astoria Theatre auditorium and stage in 1927 - Click to see the original.

The auditorium was in the Pompeiian style with a semi-domed ceiling decorated with grotesques, and framed by a wide arched band of coffers. The Proscenium was flanked by Doric columns and a grille on each side which concealed the Theatre's organ.

 

The Theatre had only been running for a year when it was taken over in March 1928 by the General Theatres Corporation under the control of the production company Gaumont. The Times reported the sale in their 18th of January 1928 editions saying:

THEATRE SALES.
BIG PRICE FOR A CINEMA.

'It was announced yesterday by Messrs. Norfolk and Prior that the Astoria Picture Theatre, in Charing Cross-road, had been sold for over £250,000 to a British corporation with which Sir Walter Gibbons is associated.

The Astoria has been open for almost exactly a year, the anniversary having been celebrated by a special performance last Friday. In addition, it is understood that 15 theatres, including the Palladium, the Holborn Empire, and houses at Brighton, Penge, Wolverhampton, Newcastle, Southend, Portsmouth, Liverpool, Sheffield, Boscombe, Leeds, and Paris, have been negotiated for by the same firm, though-in some cases the contracts have not yet been signed. A large offer has also been made for the Palace Theatre, and this is to be considered by the directors.

Programme detail with information for the film 'Sporting Life' shown at the Astoria Theatre March 30th 1930, just a few years after the Theatre Opened.Nine London theatres - the Rivoli at Whitechapel, the Mile End Empire Cinema Theatre, the Woolwich Hippodrome, the New Cross Empire, the Kennington Theatre, the Kilburn Empire, the Camden Hippodrome, the Shakespeare Cinema Theatre at Clapham, and the Old Kent-road Picture House have recently been sold to Mr. L W. Schlesinger, a South African.'

The above text in quotes is from the Times, 18th of January 1928.

Right - Programme detail with information for the film 'Sporting Life' shown at the Astoria Theatre March 30th 1930, just a few years after the Theatre Opened.

Ten years later in 1938 the Astoria was in use as a Second Run House with weekly changes of programme.

In 1948 the Rank Organisation took over the building and began to show 'First Run Features' and in 1957 on the 2nd of July the Astoria was used for the premiere of the Michael Todd film 'Around A newspaper advertisement for 'The Fall of the Roman Empire' which premiered at the Astoria, Charing Cross Road on the 24th of March 1964 - Courtesy Richard Carr.the World in 80 Days'. This was filmed using a new process called 'Todd-AO' and boasted a very Wide Screen. Not overly successful this process was only ever used to make sixteen films, but as an innovation it was deemed very successful and these sixteen films went on to win eighteen Academy Awards. In order to equip the Astoria for Todd-AO it had curtains installed over the proscenium to hide the side grilles and the proscenium itself. At the same time the seating of the Theatre was reduced from its original 2,000 to a smaller 1,357, and a new curved screen and 70mm projector were installed.

The Astoria's second major event was on the 24th of March 1964 when it hosted the world premier of 'The Fall of the Roman Empire.'

The Film starred Sophia Loren, Stephen Boyd, James Mason, Christopher Plummer, and and Alec Guiness.

Left - A newspaper advertisement for 'The Fall of the Roman Empire' which premiered at the Astoria, Charing Cross Road on the 24th of March 1964 - Courtesy Richard Carr.

For the presentation of the film the Theatre was redecorated in the Roman Style and a classical design of wallpaper was hung in the circle lounge with Roman trimmings erected in the foyer.

 

The Astoria Theatre during the run of the musical 'Around the World in 80 Days', mid 1957 - Courtesy Allan Hailstone.

Above - The Astoria Theatre during the run of the musical 'Around the World in 80 Days', mid 1957 - Courtesy Allan Hailstone.

 

A photograph of the FOH door staff at the Astoria Theatre, Charing Cross Road, in the 1950s - Courtesy Christine Laurie whose father, James Millgate, is second from left and the gentleman in the middle is her partner’s father Lorne Laurie. The sign behind them appears to say 'Please Note! No Jiving Allowed.'

Above - A photograph of the FOH door staff at the Astoria Theatre, Charing Cross Road, in the 1950s - Courtesy Christine Laurie whose father, James Millgate, is second from left and the gentleman in the middle is her partner’s father Lorne Laurie. The sign behind them appears to say 'Please Note! No Jiving Allowed.'

 

Programme detail for the film 'Alf's Button' shown at the Astoria Theatre March 24th 1930, just a few years after the Theatre Opened.The Dock Doors of the Astoria Theatre in January 2009, these permitted access for scenery to the stage - Photo M.L.On the 2nd of October 1968 the Astoria was closed for major refurbishment by the then owners, The Rank Organisation. Sadly they set about gutting the auditorium, and stripped out most of the plasterwork, removed the inner columns from the proscenium, and removed the domed ceiling, fitting a suspended plaster ceiling hung from the roof instead.

Left - The Dock Doors of the Astoria Theatre in January 2009, these permitted access for scenery to the stage - Photo M.L.

Right - Programme detail for the film 'Alf's Button' shown at the Astoria Theatre March 24th 1930, just a few years after the Theatre Opened.

Part of the front of the balcony was also removed at this time to enable a better throw from the projection box, and the original 'Chocolate Store' was replaced by a modern Kiosk. The first feature to be presented in the newly fitted out Astoria was 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' which opened on the 17th of December 1968.

 

The Gala premier of the Cinerama showing of 'Krakatoa, East of Java' was held at the Astoria in August 1969 and the Theatre was renamed SS. Batavia Queen at the Astoria Dock for the occasion. Invited guests 'came aboard via gang-plank and were welcomed by a lining party drawn from officers of the SS Chusan, one of the P&O crise liners.' Read all about the occasion here.

The auditorium and stage of the Astoria Theatre in its live theatre incarnation - From 'Sightline' 1978.On the 28th of February 1976 Rank closed the Astoria and as it turned out this was to be the last time the building would be used as a Cinema. Later that year the building was radically altered for its conversion to a Live Theatre by the Cooney-Marsh Group, ironically at the same time that the former Carlton Theatre on the Haymarket was being destroyed by converting it into a Cinema.

Right - The auditorium and stage of the Astoria Theatre in its live theatre incarnation - From 'Sightline' 1978.

In order for the Astoria to work as a Live Theatre the Stalls were raised by five feet and lighting positions were fitted on either side of the stage to give a frame to the stage since the proscenium was no longer there, having been removed in 1968. The walls of the auditorium and seating were redone in so called 'Hot Buff'.'

A Programme for 'Elvis' at the Astoria Theatre in 1978.A Thumbnail of the Astoria Theatre during the run of 'Elvis' in 1978 - Click to see the originalThe first production at the new Astoria Theatre was 'Elvis the Musical' with P.J. Proby and Shakin Stevens in the cast.

Left - A Programme for 'Elvis' at the Astoria Theatre in 1978. See details below.

Right - A Thumbnail of the Astoria Theatre during the run of 'Elvis' in 1978 - Click to see the original.

'Elvis' opened on the 28th of November 1977 and went on to win the Evening Standard's 'Musical of the Year Award' in 1978. (See more details on this show below.) After Elvis closed it was replaced by a production of the musical stage version of 'Grease' with Tracy Ullman and Sue Pollard in the cast, which ran for for 3 months. This was then followed by a rather unsuccessful production of 'Beatlemania' which opened at the Theatre on the 18th of October 1979.

 

The Astoria Theatre during the run of 'Elvis' in early 1978 -  Courtesy Thomas Brain.

Above - The Astoria Theatre during the run of 'Elvis' in early 1978 in a photograph which also shows the frozen fountains outside the Centrepoint building opposite the Theatre - Courtesy Thomas Brain.

The Astoria Theatre during the run of 'Beatlemania' in 1979 - Courtesy Erwin Bouwmeester

Above - The Astoria Theatre during the run of 'Beatlemania' in 1979 - Courtesy Erwin Bouwmeester

A programme for 'Ipi Tombi' whilst at the Cambridge Theatre in 1977, before transferring to the Astoria Theatre in 1980 - Kindly Donated by Linda Chadwick - Click to see more information from this programme.In 1980 the show 'Ipi Tombi' was transferred from the Cambridge Theatre to the Astoria, opening on the 20th of February 1980. The show had previously run at Her Majesty's Theatre from November 1975 before transferring to the Cambridge in March 1977.

Right - A programme for 'Ipi Tombi' whilst at the Cambridge Theatre in 1977, before transferring to the Astoria Theatre in 1980 - Kindly Donated by Linda Chadwick - Click to see more information from this programme.

Sadly the Theatre's venture as a live theatre was never very successful and the Theatre was soon closed and reincarnated as a theatre restaurant which opened on the 15th of June 1982 with a show called "Wild, Wild Women."

The refurbishment for this venture was carried out by the architects Dowton & Hurst in 1981 who enlarged the steps of the balcony to create wider and deeper tiers to enable seating and tables to be added to accommodate approximately 400 people. A retractable cinema screen was also fitted in order that films could be screened before shows.

 

The Astoria Theatre during the run of 'Yakety Yak' in 1983 - Courtesy of Drac

Above - The Astoria Theatre during the run of 'Yakety Yak' in 1983 - Courtesy of Drac

The cast of 'Yakety Yak' on stage at the Astoria Theatre in 1983 - Courtesy of Drac

Above - The cast of 'Yakety Yak' on stage at the Astoria Theatre in 1983 - Courtesy of Drac

A programme for 'Jukebox' at the Astoria Theatre, Charing Cross Road in 1983 - Courtesy Julian Wild.After 'Wild, Wild, Women' the Astoria went on to stage 'Yakety Yak' which opened on the 18th of January 1983. This was a musical based on the songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller which first opened at the Half Moon Theatre before transferring to the Astoria. The show starred Darts and the McGann Brothers but only ran for a few months, although it was produced on Broadway later that year.

A press cutting announcing the Royal Command Performance of Jukebox at the Astoria Theatre, Charing Cross Road on November 7th 1983 - Courtesy Mark Donnelly.After Yakety Yak the Astoria became home to the Bill Martin produced musical "Jukebox", which ran from the 4th of June to the end of December that year.

Right - A programme for 'Jukebox' at the Astoria Theatre, Charing Cross Road in 1983 - Courtesy Julian Wild.

Written by Mark Donnelly, and directed and choreographed by Steve Merritt, 'Jukebox' was apparently a very popular musical, with packed seats most nights, but even so the show closed in the last week of 1983.

Left - A press cutting announcing the Royal Command Performance of Jukebox at the Astoria Theatre, Charing Cross Road on November 7th 1983 - Courtesy Mark Donnelly.

 

Gerry Manly (Left), Julian Wild (Centre), and Sean Kay (Right), rehearsing with other members of the cast of 'Jukebox' which opened at the Astoria Theatre in 1983 - Courtesy Julian Wild.One newspaper at the time reported on the forthcoming production of Jukebox at the Astoria saying: 'Nostalgia the way it used to be, we've had Fifties nostalgia, we've had Sixties nostalgia, now they say Seventies nostalgia is on the way. (Platform shoes — yeuk!)

Left - Gerry Manly (Left), Julian Wild (Centre), and Sean Kay (Right), rehearsing with other members of the cast of 'Jukebox' which opened at the Astoria Theatre in 1983 - Courtesy Julian Wild.

It's clever of Jukebox, a musical extravaganza featuring songs from the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, to cash in on all three. Jukebox follows Yakety Yak into the re-vamped Astoria in Charing Cross Road. Its 26-strong singing and dancing cast are young, unknown ("much more exciting to see a star emerge from nowhere" says producer Bill Martin) and Possessed of a dauntingly high energy level.

 

The cast list and running order of 'Jukebox' at the Astoria Theatre, Charing Cross Road - From a programme for 'Jukebox' in 1983 - Courtesy Julian Wild.

Above - The cast list and running order of 'Jukebox' at the Astoria Theatre, Charing Cross Road - From a programme for 'Jukebox' in 1983 - Courtesy Julian Wild.

If that last name sounds familiar, it's because as a songwriter Bill Martin had mainstream hits like "Puppet on a String", "Congratulations", "Heart of Stone" and a lot of the Bay City Rollers' stuff (remember the Bay City Rollers?) to his credit. For Jukebox, he's picked a range of songs from "Good Golly Miss Molly" through "You've Got A Friend", "Hard Day's Night" and "YMCA" to "Fame". Jukebox opens on Thursday with a charity premiere in aid of the Music Therapy Charity.' - Press cutting and photo courtesy Julian Wild.

The cast of 'Jukebox' at the Astoria Theatre, Charing Cross Road - From a programme for 'Jukebox' in 1983 - Courtesy Julian Wild.

Above - The cast of 'Jukebox' at the Astoria Theatre, Charing Cross Road - From a programme for 'Jukebox' in 1983 - Courtesy Julian Wild - The white haired man wearing a suit in the middle of the photograph is the producer of 'Jukebox', Bill Martin, and the younger guy with black hair standing to his right is Steve Merritt, the director and choreographer.

 

Programme for 'Lennon' at the Astoria Theatre in 1985.In 1984 the Howard Goodall musical 'The Hired Man' was produced at the Astoria by Andrew Lloyd Webber. The show opened on the 31st of October but this only ran for 164 performances, a total of 5 months, and again the Theatre was closed down. The following year a show called 'Lennon' was tried, opening on the 11th of February 1985, but this failed to enthrall anyone and this proved to be the end for the Astoria in this incarnation.

Right - A Programme for 'Lennon' at the Astoria Theatre in 1985.

The Astoria 2 in January 2009, a nightclub which was originally a Ballroom situated in the basement of the Astoria Theatre. - Photo M.L 09.The Astoria was then converted into a Live Music Venue by removing the seats in the stalls, converting the stage into a dance floor, adding a bar to the rear stalls, and converting the circle to nightclub style seating with tables and more bars. Around this time the former Ballroom in the basement of the Theatre was converted into a gay nightclub called 'Bang.'

Left - The Astoria 2 in January 2009, a nightclub which was originally a Ballroom situated in the basement of the Astoria Theatre. - Photo M.L 09.

The Astoria had been staging live music concerts and been home to the nightclub 'GAY' at weekends ever since but had become very run down over the years. Despite a coat of paint to the exterior in 2007 the Theatre had been in serious decline for years despite its success as a music venue and its hordes of loyal fans. The final blow came in 2008 with the news that the Astoria Theatre was soon to be demolished.

A Compulsory Purchase Order was served on the building, and all the other properties on this prominent corner block on Charing Cross Road and Oxford Street, on the 17th of October 2008 in order that they could all be demolished so that construction work could be started on a new crossrail station for Tottenham Court Road.

The main entrance doors to the Astoria Theatre are closed for good in January 2009, just prior to the Theatre's demolition. M.L.The Astoria Theatre closed for good after a final farewell concert called the 'Demolition Ball' on Wednesday the 14th of January 2009.

The old Ballroom in the basement, which had long been used as a nightclub, closed the following night.

Preparatory work began the following week for the Theatre's demolition.

Right - The main entrance doors to the Astoria Theatre are closed for good in January 2009, just prior to the Theatre's demolition. M.L.

Westminster Council have proposed that a new Theatre will be built as a replacement to the Astoria Theatre but only time will tell if it actually happens, and indeed if it's a suitable replacement for this historic and much loved building.

 

Astoria Theatre Replacement Proposal 2011In October 2011 it was announced that AHMM had designed the replacement Theatre and lodged the plans with Westminster Council. The Theatre, which would be the first to be built in London for decades, would seat 350 people and would likely be run by NIMAX Theatres. The Scheme also includes an eight storey office block and shops. It would be good to have a new small Theatre space in London but the scheme may be a disappointment to those who were hoping for true replacement for the much loved Astoria Theatre.

Much of the information on the Astoria Theatre above was very kindly sent in, after careful research, by Andrea Beeson. Most of the photographs on this page were taken by myself in 2006 to 2009. The Thumbnail images were resized from images held on the photo sharing website Flickr and then linked to their own pages. It is hoped that these images will be of interest to visitors of this page and help to collate archive material but if you have an issue with this please Contact me.

 

Excerpts from the opening night souvenir programme for 'Elvis' on the 28th of November 1977

The Astoria Theatre during the run of 'Terry's Juveniles' - From the opening night souvenir programme for 'Elvis' on the 28th of November 1977

Above - The Astoria Theatre during the run of 'Terry's Juveniles' - From the opening night souvenir programme for 'Elvis' on the 28th of November 1977

Built on the site of a jam factory, and making free use of its foundations, the Astoria, billed as 'London's Supreme Cinema' opened to the public in 1927. The building, comprising a 2000 seat cinema, and a downstairs ballroom (now a discotheque), was designed by the team Verity and Beverley. Frank Verity (1867-1937), appointed as architect for the Astoria-Paramount chain, became the first 'specialist' picture theatre architect, pioneering in this country what were known as the 'super deluxe' cinemas.

In 1923 Frank Verity had designed the first large scale cinema - the Shepherd's Bush Pavilion. The architectural profession had at this time given little consideration to picture houses and when Verity announced his plans they were rather dubious. But Verity won the Royal Institute of British Architects award for 'the best frontage completed during 1923 within a four mile radius of Charing Cross', also, the cinema was a great success playing to 25,000 people a week. (Please note that the architect for the Astoria was actually Edward Albert Stone, see top of this page for details. M.L.)

The demand for the new-style cinemas was apparent and the fashion set. With the rush for new cinemas the individualist architect came into his own and many young architects made their names.

When considering those period picture palaces 'individualistic' is certainly the correct term. They have been an integral part of the urban landscape, but recent years have brought the ubiquitous Bingo and the mini-cinema complex to change all that. To our late twentieth century eyes those 'individualistic' 1920's architects' ornate use of decorative detail, mostly inclining to the Italian, could perhaps be best described as over-lavish. Regardless of one's views, in this Frank Verity set new standards in quality and finish.

The Astoria Theatre's auditorium - From the opening night souvenir programme for 'Elvis' on the 28th of November 1977

Above - The Astoria Theatre's auditorium - From the opening night souvenir programme for 'Elvis' on the 28th of November 1977

A description from the Builders Journal of 1927 makes the original interior of the Astoria seem a little removed. `Designed upon Roman lines the cinema follows the pompeian style of decoration. The vestibule, 25ft wide, has vari-coloured marble columns flanked by gold and white decorations'.

In these new 'super-de-luxe' cinemas it was the auditorium itself especially the area of the screen where the fantasy of the film-makers vied hard with the creativity of the architects. Here at the Astoria the designers appear to have been relatively restrained, and the proscenium was allowed to look like a proscenium rather than a gothic shrine or a Mediterranean villa. The description continues: `The proscenium which is flanked by Doric columns, with a grill on each side concealing the organ, has a richly moulded opening 44ft wide, and the stage is of a depth capable of accommodating the most elaborate style setting'. In general the article notes 'the theatre provides accommodation for 2000 persons, all with a clear view of the stage.'

During the late fifties the cinema interior was redone to make provision for the large screen needed for the epic film. The Astoria re-established its importance by re-opening with 'Round the World in 80 Days'. It then played through the next decade a series of large-scale pictures including '55 Days at Pekin' and 'The Fall of the Roman Empire'.

And so the Astoria's history as a cinema ends. This highly successful conversion to a live theatre, the largest and most ambitious project of its kind ever attempted in the West End, with only a limited precedent established with the smaller Regent and King's Road Theatres, is a very exciting development for the Astoria's future. We can only wish it every success.

 

Converting the Astoria - From the opening night souvenir programme for 'Elvis' on the 28th of November 1977

Converting the AstoriaNovember 28th marks a unique happening in the Charing Cross Road. A new theatre comes into being and, furthermore, a theatre created out of a cinema.

A great deal of money has been spent on this conversion and the result is a supremely comfortable 1200 seater with perfect sight lines from every seat in the house. The stage itself is 'open' with no proscenium arch, and can be favourably compared with the recently opened 'Olivier' at the National Theatre.

Various alternative schemes with reraked stalls and enclosed stage were considered, however after careful consultation these ideas were declared not viable.

There is dressing room accommodation for 20 artistes and the stage area, which has an orchestra pit capable of seating 16 musicians, measures 52 feet by 30 feet.

The management controlling the Astoria is the well known and experienced Cooney-Marsh Group. Laurie Marsh is the Chairman of the highly successful Classic Cinemas, whilst his partner, Ray Cooney, is perhaps best known as the author or co-author of such hits as`Chase me Cornrade', 'One for the Pot', 'Not now Darling', 'Move over Mrs Markham', and `Why not stay for breakfast', as well as being responsible for presenting or co-presenting `Ipi Tombi', 'Banana Ridge', 'Dear Daddy', 'Murder at the Vicarage', 'Fringe Benefits', 'Lloyd George knew my Father' and many others.

Theatre controller for the group is farce king, Brian Rix, now retired from the stage, although still active in television. His list of successes goes back to 'Reluctant Heroes' in 1950, but his serious side too, is well known and he was recently awarded the CBE for his services to the handicapped.

Converting the AstoriaThe Astoria Theatre is the ideal home for musicals - but it is intended to make a it a truly 'live' theatre - for seven days a week, for all manner of entertainment, plus art exhibitions, a restaurant and buffet bar facilities.

Stage lighting facilities include the new lighting galleries, stretching the full width of the stage.

Those acting for the management were, Downton & Hurst - Architects, John Lelliott Limited - Main Contractor, Ian Albery - Theatre Consultant, Mathews, Pincus & Kerrigan - Quantity Surveyors, and Paszkowski & Partners - Structural Engineers.


Always the bridesmaid - By Brian Rix

Thirty years ago (can it be so long?) I became an actor-manager. I was twenty-three years old, wet behind the ears, fresh out of the Air Force and with two years' acting experience behind me. My motive was devastatingly simple: The need to work - not if and when others would employ me - but at all hours and on all days at the one job I loved and understood. Luck was on my side and within three years I was ensconced at the Whitehall. There I stayed for sixteen years but in all that time I never ceased to chafe at the inactivity facing West End actors and theatres during the day, and so created work, with a great deal of help from the B.B.C., to while away the hours. As a result, nearly seventy plays were rehearsed and presented from the Whitehall (and later the Garrick) till

Bank Holidays became a thing of dread for all those who hated farce on television!

Brian Rix - From the opening night souvenir programme for 'Elvis' on the 28th of November 1977.In the meantime events overtook me. Bernard Miles conjured the Mermaid out of thin air; John Neville nursed the Nottingham Playhouse into lusty adolescence; others were in the van or hard upon their heels, and the National Theatre is but a glittering jewel in the crown of those who brought forth theatres which were (and are) not only places of culture, but of entertainment and activity lasting for many an hour of each day.

Right - Brian Rix - From the opening night souvenir programme for 'Elvis' on the 28th of November 1977.

So it seemed I would always be the bridesmaid. Eight performances a week and a dark theatre for the rest of the day would be my lot. Then at the end of 1976 Ray Cooney suggested that I might care to join the Board of the Cooney-Marsh Group as Theatre Controller. It would mean giving up regular acting on the stage - but as my notoriety appeared to be based on the number of times I had dropped my trousers in public, I felt the loss could easily be born by both the theatregoers and myself. My acceptance of the position came in about two minutes flat. At last I had a chance to be the Bride and the aisles of the Astoria Theatre are as good a place as any to flash smiles at the assembled congregation. Here in Charing Cross Road and within the re-built confines of an old jam factory-cum-cinema, are as many of the perks as you are likely to see anywhere in a modern theatre.

First the theatre itself. An open stage, fully equipped with the latest lighting and sound. Perfect sight-lines for the audience and legroom for the tallest among you. Backstage, the artists are housed in comfort and with a goodly sprinkling of shower-baths to cool them after sustained effort. When I was a lad luxuries like this were unknown and one of my claims to fame is that I fought for shower-baths to be installed in the Whitehall, the Garrick and the Cambridge Theatres. I will resist the obvious pun about good clean fun, but remind the reader that a lack of shower baths for actors belonged to the same era which decreed that members of the public could only use the theatre during the hours of performance.

Credits for the conversion of the Astoria Theatre.So what else do we offer you? A stalls bar which is open every week-day for buffet lunches as well as booze; a fully operational ticket agency (in conjunction with Abbey Box Office) which enables you to book for any theatre in town, as well as other activities; a Credit card system which is second to none in its ease of operation and availability for the telephone booker; an Art Gallery which exhibits paintings organised by a group of enlightened business houses, calling themselves 'Industrial Sponsors'; and a restaurant created out of the old circle bar - which in turn, becomes the Circle Bar during performances. Lest our kitchens remain underworked, we even offer outside catering from the Astoria - and no doubt experience will enable us to add to all these extra-mural activities.

Left - Credits for the conversion of the Astoria Theatre.

Welcome then to the Astoria. Created by private enterprise, at a time when all new theatrical activity seems to need the support of the Arts Council or local government, it must surely be unique in this last quarter of the twentieth century. Our only help has come from those listed on Page 39 (Shown Left). Our grateful thanks to them, and to you - for without an audience actors look pretty lonely. So do restaurants, ticket agencies, art galleries etc. Welcome to you all. Long may you grace these portals . . .

 

Financing the commercial theatre in London - By Laurie P Marsh
From the opening night souvenir programme for 'Elvis' on the 28th of November 1977

Financing the commercial theatre in London - By Laurie P Marsh It is often stated that London's theatre is 'the finest in the world' and the Tourist Board tells us that well over two million theatre
tickets a year are bought by overseas visitors. Despite the immense publicity achieved by the National Theatre it should be remembered that London's theatres are mainly private enterprise operations. The continuity of many of these Theatres has been threatened for many years, often by redevelopment projects either comprehensive or individual, but some through lack of financial support. The Arts Council of Great Britain has initiated numerous reports and published statements supported and welcomed by various organisations interested in saving theatres. Nevertheless the government and financial institutions, although often expressing goodwill and concern, do not materially assist the commercial theatre in any way.

It is acknowledged that the building and equipping of a new theatre is nowadays only deemed to be economically viable if included among other more rewarding property development. It is also maintained that, because theatres lack flexibility of use as property, they are not readily accepted as security for funding purposes.

Despite these financial strictures, for some years I have been modernising and saving theatres from closure and reopening them. Starting with the famous Windmill Theatre which I acquired in 1968 and re-opened as a beautiful 312 seat auditorium in September 1974 after a year of re-building costing over £250,000. The Broadway in Maida Vale with some 500 seats completed earlier this year after a conversion absorbing similar time and cost. The latest theatre to be re-built is, of course, the Astoria, about which other contributors are writing at length, and which has taken a year of planning and under one year to rebuild the auditorium and stage area. This project has been the most sophisticated of them all and naturally by far the most expensive. I am particularly grateful to Ian Albery my technical consultant and Donald Armstrong, the partner of Dowton and Hurst our architects, both of whom have devoted countless hours to the development, wholly justified as can be seen.

The Rt Hon Keneth Robinson, Chairman of the Arts Council.In addition I have re-opened the Regent (Poly) in Regent Street and have been responsible for converting the Kings Road Theatre, Kings Road, Chelsea. The latest acquisition is of course the Shaftesbury which in the next two or three months we aim to return to its former glory by cleaning and restoring the beautiful exterior stonework and arranging the exterior gardens.

Left - The Rt Hon Keneth Robinson, Chairman of the Arts Council.

These theatres coupled with the experience of Ray Cooney, Brian Rix and the team have resulted in the emergence of a new and vital theatrical group which was finally incorporated in September 1977 under the banner of Cooney-Marsh Group Ltd. This we hope will continue the breakdown of the monopoly of interlocking arrangements known as 'the Group' which has controlled and operated the West End theatres for some 40 years.

There are a number of ways in which my somewhat lonely efforts could be supplemented. For a long time the arts have been aided by commercial industrial and financial institutions both for altruistic and commercial reasons, but there is no record of any national or international company sponsoring commercial theatre in Great Britain. It seems that this vital area,with its attendant benefits to the community and prospective sponsors concerned, has so far been overlooked. The financial funds, sources and institutions are not only guilty of this lack of support but also have not yet seen fit to provide long term finance for theatre acquisition or improvement regardless of the commercial viability or desirability of such projects. Since a nation's arts have long been considered a crucial yardstick to the state of the society therein, this might well be an area where government pressure might be brought to bear.

We, as our programme of expansion unfolds, shall re-invest our profits to re-build and improve our existing theatres and re-open more theatres at every opportunity, and we feel that the Astoria's an excellent example of what can be achieved, and of which we feel we have every right to be very proud.

Laurie P Marsh.

 

"Elvis" - The Production - By Ray Cooney
From the opening night souvenir programme for 'Elvis' on the 28th of November 1977

The opening night souvenir programme for 'Elvis' on the 28th of November 1977

"Elvis" - The Production - By Ray Cooney The 'backroom boys' involved in the production of 'Elvis' number more than the combined total in all my previous productions put together! We have had three researchers who, between them, have spent 1000 hours delving into and sifting through the millions of words and thousands of photos published during the life, career and times of Elvis Presley. The information having been gleaned we then had to approach more than a hundred individuals and companies to clear the copyright and obtain permission to use the various articles and photographs used in the production — photographs ranging from early Presley family in Tupelo to a laughing R.A.B. Butler (not easy to come by!). Our photographic team numbered 18 and they have been responsible for producing in excess of 2,000 slides in both colour and black and white.

The enormous screens used in the show measure 40ftx 20ft and are the largest ever designed as a permanent setting in a stage production anywhere in the world. The 12 projectors used give both back and front projection and require from the people operating them a split-second timing.

In addition to the 'still' photos used in the show there is a combined total of half-an-hour of movie-film comprised of such diverse clips as Queen Mary and George V at their 1935 Silver Jubilee, the First Moon Landing, and Elvis during his army service. Our movie researchers travelled throughout Europe and America to obtain the material and they reckoned they looked through 125 miles of film! The theatre has had installed two projectors, one for colour and one for black and white.

The sound system installed for the shows is probably the most sophisticated in London — and it has to be! Our thirteen musicians have to contend with approximately seventy non-stop musical numbers so we have a permanent team of five technicians to deal with the many varied sounds from the simple style of Elvis and his early recording days through to the Las Vegas period.

The exciting lighting effects have meant the installation of two computerised 'memory' boards. At a quick count we have two thousand lamps in use in the theatre — mind you, this includes dressing rooms and loos.

 

Timothy Whitnall, Shakin' Stevens, and James Proby in 'Elvis' at the Astoria Theatre - From the opening night souvenir programme for 'Elvis' on the 28th of November 1977

Above - Timothy Whitnall, Shakin' Stevens, and James Proby in 'Elvis' at the Astoria Theatre - From the opening night souvenir programme for 'Elvis' on the 28th of November 1977

Probably — and quite rightly — the most detailed research has gone into the musical numbers. Every number ever recorded by Elvis Presley was obtained, listened to scores of times and discussed for hours on end. There are over a hundred composers and lyricists involved and permission had to be obtained from each and every one for his work to be performed in 'Elvis'!

In addition to those involved in the research, the projections, the movie excerpts, the sound, the lighting and the music, we have another eighteen people involved 'back stage' and a further twenty-two people in the production office. It's a lot of people — but it's been a lot of fun. We all hope you enjoy 'Elvis' as much as we have. Ray Cooney.

The Astoria Theatre closed for good after a final farewell concert called the 'Demolition Ball' on Wednesday the 14th of January 2009. The old Ballroom in the basement, which had long been used as a nightclub, closed the following night. Preparatory work began the following week for the Theatre's demolition. Westminster Council have proposed that a new Theatre will be built as a replacement to the Astoria Theatre but only time will tell if it actually happens, and indeed if it's a suitable replacement for this historic and much loved building. Below are some photographs of the Astoria Theatre prior to, and during, the Theatre's demolition.

Timothy Whitnall's career in show business is non-existant. 'ELVIS' marks his very first production ever in London or elsewhere. Just sixteen years of age when cast in the role of the Young Elvis, Tim was a pupil at St. Benedicts School, Bury St. Edmunds. He was studying for his 'A' levels, Art. Geography and English. Hearing Director Jack Good on a recent 'Start the Week' radio programme prompted Tim to apply along with hundreds of others for an audition. He has done 'Elvis' impressions for family and friends since the age of 12 and publicly for the first time last Easter, during a school concert. A keen record collector, Timothy plays the guitar and piano and 'dabbles' with many other musical instruments. His one and only Job before his lucky break was as a part-time Saturday shop assistant in Boots the Chemist in his home town.

The son of a miner, Shaky was born in Cardiff, South Wales twenty-six years ago. He was encouraged by teachers at school to pursue a career as a singer. After playing locally, around Wales, the big break came when he and his group the Sunsets were asked to support the Rolling Stones in their 1969 concert at the Saville Theatre. Since then the group have been rockin"n rolling on with some success, Shaky's records "Sea Cruise' and "Lonesome Town" were European hits, and he is now very happy to be working with Mike Hurst of Track where he is in the process of recording an L P His record 'Never' was a minor hit earlier this year and his current release is "Somebody Touched Me''

Born James Marcus Proby in Houston Texas, James graduated from the Western Military Academy Alton, Illinois, and went to Hollywood where he worked in films for a couple of years. He was signed as a writer by Liberty Records following an introduction by Sharon Sheeley and Jackie de Shannon. It was they who introduced Proby to Jack Good who engaged him for the pilot of a TV Show that became an international success —'Shinclig' Following this Brian Epstein and Jack Good brought him to England for the Beatles' first 'Special' — 'Around the Beatles' After this Proby's career really took off, and his recording of 'Hold Me' rising to number 3 in the charts clinched it. This was followed by 'Together' After taking the Royal Albert Hall by storm, Proby appeared in concerts and television all over the world. Success followed success with such records as 'Somewhere' and 'Maria' In 1970 Proby again linked with Jack Good to play Cassio in the London production of 'Catch My Soul: Since then there have been more concerts, cabarets and television shows, culminating with his appearance in 'Elvis'.

 

Below are some photographs of the Astoria Theatre prior to, and during, the Theatre's demolition

Workmen in the foyer of the Astoria Theatre preparing the building for demolition in January 2009 - Photo M.L.

Above - Workmen in the foyer of the Astoria Theatre preparing the building for demolition in January 2009 - Photo ML

The foyer of the Astoria Theatre just prior to the building's demolition in January 2009 - M.L.

Above - The foyer of the Astoria Theatre, just prior to the building's demolition, in January 2009 - Photo ML

The side elevation of the Astoria Theatre on Sutton Row just prior to demolition of the Theatre in January 2009 with Centre Point in the background - Photo M.L.

Above - The side elevation of the Astoria Theatre on Sutton Row, just prior to demolition of the Theatre, in January 2009 with the iconic 1960s Centrepoint building in the background - Photo ML

The side elevation of the Astoria Theatre on Sutton Row, just prior to demolition of the Theatre, in January 2009 - Photo M.L.

Above - The side elevation of the Astoria Theatre on Sutton Row, just prior to demolition of the Theatre, in January 2009 - Photo M.L.

The rear elevation of the Astoria Theatre on Falconberg Mews, just prior to demolition of the Theatre, in January 2009 - Photo M.L.

Above - The rear elevation of the Astoria Theatre on Falconberg Mews, just prior to demolition of the Theatre, in January 2009 - Photo M.L.

The side elevation of the Astoria Theatre, just prior to demolition of the Theatre, in January 2009 - Photo M.L.

Above - The side elevation of the Astoria Theatre, just prior to demolition of the Theatre, in January 2009 - Photo M.L.

Above - Loyal fans of the Astoria Theatre leave their mark on the building just prior to its demolition in January 2009 - M.L.

Above - Loyal fans of the Astoria Theatre leave their mark on the building just prior to its demolition in January 2009 - M.L.

Above - Loyal fans of the Astoria Theatre leave their mark on the building just prior to its demolition in January 2009 - M.L.

Above - Loyal fans of the Astoria Theatre leave their mark on the building just prior to its demolition, in January 2009 - M.L.

The Astoria Theatre and the rest of the block of buildings on the corner of Charing Cross Road and Oxford Street, just prior to their demolition, in January 2009 - M.L.

Above - The Astoria Theatre and the rest of the block of buildings on the corner of Charing Cross Road and Oxford Street, just prior to their demolition, in January 2009 - M.L.

The Astoria Theatre just prior to its demolition, in January 2009. To the right centre can also be seen the Dominion Theatre - M.L.

Above - The Astoria Theatre just prior to its demolition, in January 2009. To the right centre can also be seen the Dominion Theatre - M.L.

 

 Scaffolding begins to rise around the Astoria Theatre prior to demolition in March 2009 - Photo M.L.

Above - Scaffolding begins to rise around the Astoria Theatre prior to demolition in March 2009

 

Scaffolding covers the Astoria Theatre during internal demolition in May 2009 - Photo M.L.

Above - Scaffolding covers the Astoria Theatre during internal demolition in May 2009

 

The Astoria Theatre and the rest of the block of buildings on the corner of Charing Cross Road and Oxford Street during demolition work in May 2009 - Photo M.L.

Above - The Astoria Theatre and the rest of the block of buildings on the corner of Charing Cross Road and Oxford Street during demolition work in May 2009

 

The Astoria Theatre shrouded in scaffolding during the Theatre's demolition on the 16th of June 2009  - Photo M.L.

Above - The Astoria Theatre shrouded in scaffolding during the Theatre's demolition on the 16th of June 2009

 

The Astoria Theatre being demolished in a photograph taken from the 32nd floor of Centrepoint in July 2009 - Photograph courtesy Andrew Woodyatt

Above - The Astoria Theatre being demolished in a photograph taken from the 32nd floor of Centrepoint in July 2009 - Photograph courtesy Andrew Woodyatt

 

The Astoria Theatre almost completely demolished in August 2009 - photo M.L.

Above - The Astoria Theatre almost completely demolished in August 2009 - photo M.L.

 

The Astoria Theatre almost completely demolished in October 2009 - photo M.L.

Above - The Astoria Theatre almost completely demolished in October 2009 - photo M.L.

The site of the former Astoria Theatre in a photograph taken from the 32nd floor of Centrepoint in October 2009 - Photograph courtesy Andrew Woodyatt

Above - The site of the former Astoria Theatre in a photograph taken from the 32nd floor of Centrepoint in October 2009 - Photograph courtesy Andrew Woodyatt

 

If you have any more photographs for the Astoria Theatre that you think would enhance this page, or you were working on the demolition of the Theatre and have internal photographs you are able to share, please Contact me.

Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.