Music Hall life in Brixton and Lambeth celebrated – enjoy an exciting series of free online talks throughout September

The Empress Theatre Brixton- “Twice Nightly. Always a West End Programme”.
Programme cover, 1915

Brixton and the surrounding London borough of Lambeth was home to thousands of music hall and variety performers and associated businesses between the 1850s and the 1960s.

As part of this year’s  Lambeth Heritage Festival 2020 , during September you can attend and enjoy Music Hall Wednesdays, a series of talks about Brixton’s colourful Music Hall history. The Loughborough Road history project , The Society for Theatre ResearchBritish Music Hall Society and the Brixton Society have all come together to support the project.

All events are online this year.

Please note that you will need to book for access to each of these fascinating talks which I believe should last around an hour each. The subjects are:

Come round any old time – Brixton’s music hall community Wed 2nd Sept at 19:00 BST. At this, the first of the Music Hall Wednesdays talks, Sue Mckenzie looks at how and why Brixton was home to so many people from music hall, early cinema and variety in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She will also tell the stories of some of the performers, their careers and their fortunes in what was a precarious and unpredictable world.

Empress Brixton – Display card from 1955, towards the end of the theatre’s life as a variety hall. Note that bottom of the bill act, “Morris, Marty and Mitch” included the man we would later celebrate solo as Marty Feldman.

The Empress, Theatre of Varieties: Wed 9th Sept at 19:00 BST. Bill Linskey will talk about the history of The Empress Theatre of Varieties. The building on the corner of Bernays Grove opened in 1898 and quickly became one of Brixton’s best-known venues; it was described as ‘one of the finest of London’s suburban music halls’. Bill’s talk draws on a variety of sources including contemporary newspaper reports. 

Empress auditorium, from 1962
The Empress’s 1931 updating of the exterior was itself remodelled in 1957 for its reopening as Granada cinema in late 1957 (Photo from 1965)

Researching Brixton’s Music Hall connections Wed 16th Sept at 19:00 BST. Christine Beddoe and Tracey Gregory share some of the sources they have used to uncover the stories of Glenshaw Mansions, Brixton Road, the one time home of Charlie Chaplin, at the time when the area was a thriving hub for music hall people and when so many fascinating music hall people lived and passed through these buildings. 

Brixton Empress advertisement from 1910
Here’s a short film piece from the Empress’s reopening as the Granada in late 1957, attended by the Mayoress, her escort, and stars Sabrina and Forrest Tucker (Tucker was one of the stars of the opening film playing the venue). Courtesy of British Pathe’s YouTube channel.
Paul Cinquevalli juggling. McAllister, James, 1869-1952 :Negatives of Stratford and Taranaki district. Ref: 1/1-007877-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22759699

Music Hall Jugglers of Lambeth Wed 23rd Sept at 19:00 BST. Charlie Holland’s talk on music hall jugglers, featuring original props, posters, programmes and photographs, will draw you into the globe-trotting lives of Paul Cinquevalli, the Mongadors, and Hanvarr & Lee, all of whom were Lambeth residents for several years.

Poster advertising Chuckles of 1933 at Brixton’s New Empress Theatre

International Music Hall Wed 30th Sept at 19:00 BST. A panel discussion on how music hall linked Brixton to the world and how performance names and personas disguised true identity. Featuring Alison Young (British Music Hall Society); Steve Martin, (Brixton based historian and author, specialising in Black British history); Amy Matthewson, (Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London). 

1949 Hellzapoppin goes crazy at the Empress with Dave and Joe O’Gorman
Display card for a tour of The French Peep Show, 1955. You can bet the only French model you’ll have found anywhere near this theatre was an old Citroen in the local used car showroom.
Programme cover from 1938. “New” relates to the theatre’s revamp in 1931.
The Brixton Empress belonged to the VTC – Variety Theatres Consolidated Ltd -circuit, which also owned the Palace music halls at Chelsea, Walthamstow and East Ham, the Regent at Kings Cross and later the Metropolitan Edgware Road. Sidney and Cecil Bernstein, founders and heads of the Granada cinema circuit, bought into VTC in 1951, which is one of the main reasons why the Brixton Empress later became a Granada.

If you enjoy Music Hall, you can find other related articles on this blog here, here and here, and by searching this blog on the words “music hall” . Enjoy!

Programme covers from the Empress Theatre Brixton

7 Replies to “Music Hall life in Brixton and Lambeth celebrated – enjoy an exciting series of free online talks throughout September”

  1. I was wondering whether you still had any research on the Empress Theatre. I am an Architecture BSc student in my second year at the Bartlett and I am currently doing a project on the Empress. Any help is appreciated.

  2. Hi, I’m Liz Burton, Streatham Society Treasurer, and founder member of Streatham Theatre Company. I have an interest in all things theatre including Music Hall and Variety. I’m currently writing a talk on Music Hall and Variety artists with links to Streatham, and Mark Bery tells me that Alison Young is doing the same! I’m keen to avoid overlap, so please could Alison contact me? Thanks!

    1. Hello Liz. Thanks for your note. Although I am not directly involved with these events, I have passed your note on to someone who I hope will be able to put you in touch.

    1. Hello Charles and thanks for your kind words. I will look forward to taking a good look at your writings when I get a moment.
      In the meantime, I think that you should be able to attend the talk even though you are in the US.
      Why not click the booking link in my blog piece and you might be pleasantly surprised! I certainly hope so.
      All good wishes to you
      PS why not subscribe to my blog to get a weekly Catch Up? Lots of folk from the US do this already!

    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting Ronnie.
      Just had a moment to look at your website and you have an amazing CV of work- everything from Muffin the Mule to the fabulous Little Angel Theatre to the brilliant 80s film of Little Shop of Horrors (one of my favourite films- it was filmed during the original London run of 42nd Street while I was managing there, and quite a lot of our supporting company got roles in the film). We even went to the premiere! Perhaps we were in the sam room all those years ago…..
      I will definitely take more time to look through your work, and I am sure that many others will be interested in your extensive catalogue of work. If you get a moment folks, pop along to

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