Aladdin’s cave of Leeds panto props go under hammer

Auctioneer Gary Don with some of the costumes
Auctioneer Gary Don with some of the costumes
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PACKED INTO crates and strewn across the floor, it is a complete theatrical production. All that’s missing is a script and the actors.

A “do it yourself” pantomime kit, rescued from the props stores and warehouses of the Victorian-era City Varieties Theatre in Leeds, goes under the auctioneer’s hammer today.

From costumes and scenery to lights and winches, it contains virtually everything necessary to put on a show - and casts a colourful light on the changing nature of showbusiness. Stages on to which once strode giants and pirates, are now home to rock stars.

The back-street theatre, tucked away behind the shops of the city centre, is one of the few surviving music halls of the 19th century. For decades it was the home of TV’s Edwardian music hall conceit, The Good Old Days, but it has also staged some of Yorkshire’s most popular pantomimes.

It was a tradition uninterrupted either by war or the strip shows which in the 1960s became its bread and butter. In 1941, it was reported that a woman in the audience gave birth during a performance of Babes in the Wood. But when in 2009 the theatre temporarily closed for a £9.9m renovation, the old backdrops and other pieces of kit were put into storage. And following its reopening two years later, they were out of style.

Today, the demand is for rock and roll pantomimes, with casts of multi-talented singers and musicians replacing the soap stars and comics of yesterday. After being allowed to gather dust in a storage unit, the theatre decided to put them up for sale. “It’s a treasure trove for amateur dramatics groups,” said auctioneer, Gary Don, whose Leeds saleroom will take the bids. “There is the beanstalk and the giant from Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella’s carriage and the scenery from Treasure Island.”

The auction lots also include theatrical hoists, lighting boards and such props as a cannon that fires footballs, a flying carpet and a face-sized, giant frying pan. “They are not hugely antique,” said Nev Jopson, the theatre’s marketing manager, “but the tradition goes way back. My wife remembers coming to the City Varieties as a child and seeing live horses pull Cinderella’s carriage on stage.”

The theatre has played host to Charlie Chaplin and the escapologist Harry Houdini, and is credited with helping to launch the careers of Frankie Vaughan, Ken Dodd, Roy Hudd and Barry Cryer. It is now run by Leeds Council, which says money raised from the auction will go towards its preservation.