The Apollo Victoria Theatre in London celebrates its 80th birthday this year. Celebrations have included an all-star charity gala featuring the cast of the venue’s current show, Wicked, and past productions including Starlight Express. The theatre’s birthday forms part of a historic year for West End theatres, with a number of venues celebrating their 80th anniversaries this year.
History of Apollo Victoria Theatre
The Apollo Victoria originally opened as a cinema called the New Victoria on 15 October 1930 showing George Arlis movie Old English. It cost £250,000 to build – quite significant at the time. Despite being built as a cinema, the venue has always staged shows from its very opening – with a host variety and big bands playing at Apollo Vic. In 1933 a Royal Matinee for King George V was staged at the theatre and in June 1939 the cinema presented a live relay of the Epsom Derby, in an early experiment in “event cinema” which is only now starting to take off with the advent of digital cinemas.
In the 1950s the theatre was nearly demolished but was saved and continued to play host to ballet, live shows and films.
However, the New Victoria cinema finally closed down in 1976, finding it hard to compete with TV and video. The building was empty for five years and then bought by Apollo Leisure, who reopened it as a dedicated theatre space -the Apollo Victoria – in 1981.
It re-opened with a Shirley Bassey concert, followed by The Sound of Music starring Petula Clark. In 1982 Camelot opened starring Richard Harris but it was not a success. Wayne Sleep was up next with his dance show Dash in 1983, and then Topol returned to London to play Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. The theatre was then transformed in 1984 when Andrew Lloyd Webber opened Starlight Express, removing 1,000 seats to accommodate giant roller-skating ramps that weaved through the stalls. The show ran for 18 years and over 7,400 performances.
When Starlight closed it was an opportunity to refurbish the theatre and architects Jaques Muir and Partners came in to restore the auditorium. As part of this they removed over 3,500 power-hungry incandescent lamps and replaced them with 88,000 LEDs – a first for theatre auditoriums.
Following Starlight, Lloyd Webber was back at the theatre in 2002 with Bombay Dreams, which ran for 1,500 performances, closing in 2004. Saturday Night Fever opened next, from July 2004 to October 2005, followed by a short run of Movin’ Out, featuring the music of Billy Joel, in 2006.
The Apollo Victoria’s current show is a smash-hit – on Broadway, in London and around the world. Wicked opened on 27 September 2006 with Idina Menzel, Helen Dallimore, Nigel Planer, Adam Garcia, Miriam Margolyes, Katie Rowley Jones, James Gillan and Martin Ball, and has continued to pack them in at the theatre.
Apollo Leisure sold the Apollo Victoria to Live Nation in 2000. This year the theatre was sold by Live Nation to the Ambassador Theatre Group.
The Apollo Victoria’s design
The building is widely believed to be the most important and architecturally interesting cinema building ever erected in the UK.
The New Victoria was designed by E. Wamsley Lewis in 1929, with W E Trent also onboard as architect to Provincial Cinematograph Theatres – who owned the site. The theatre has two impressive Germanic Art Deco facades – one on Wilton Road and one on Vauxhall Bridge Road. Both are linked with a single foyer. Originally the facades were lit up at night by concealed neon tubes – something that has been brought back in recent years. The theatre is faced in Portland stone, with two bas-relief panels by sculptor Newbury Abbot Trent on either side of the Wilton Road entrance. Also look out for a small Charlie Chaplin figure carved into the wall. Newbury Abbot Trent also produced a relief paying homage to the movies and movie stars, which is on the main foyer staircase.
The auditorium -which is rumoured to have been inspired by “a mermaid’s dream of heaven” consisted of pale blue and green marine life with technically ambitious lighting effects of pink, green and blue. A dolphin used to adorn the walls but has long since disappeared – but some of the aquatic features can still be seen today, including a rather sexy mermaid above the Gents toilet door. The circle had the design of an ocean liner with port holes on the doors.