Stoll-Moss Theatres Ltd.
Stoll-Moss Theatres Ltd.
Sales: £105 million (1999 est.)
NAIC: 71131 Promoters of Performing Arts, Sports, and Similar Events with Facilities (pt)
With roots dating back to the late 19th century, Stoll-Moss Theatres Ltd. has grown over a century to become one of London’s leading theater operators. The venerable theater operator boasts the following storied venues: The Lyric, The Apollo, The Gielgud, The Queen’s, The Duchess, The Theater Royal, Drury Lane, The Cambridge, The Garrick, Her Majesty’s Theater, and The London Palladium. Early in 2000, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Really Useful Group agreed to purchase Stoll-Moss and thus ensure that its rich and colorful history as an icon of theatrical entertainment would continue.
Building Theaters: 1860-1942
In the late 19th century, Sir Edward Moss and Sir Oswald Stoll, working independently with such architects as Frank Matcham and C.J. Phipps, began building theaters in Britain. One of the theaters Moss commissioned British architect Matcham (also known for The Blackpool Grand Theater, The Hippodrome, the shopping arcades at Leeds, and The Victoria Theater) to build was The Empire Palace Theater in Ireland in 1892. The 3,000-seat theater burned down in 1911 when illusionist Lafayette accidentally ignited the draperies with a torch.
Stoll—an Australian-born Irishman who had been running his family’s music hall in Liverpool since he was 14, and who would go on to become a composer/arranger-in turn, commissioned Matcham to build The Hackney Empire Theater in 1901. With 2,158 seats, it is still considered one of England’s finest proscenium arch Theatres and among Matcham’s greatest works. The century-old building was the first all-electric theater and featured opera house acoustics, a vacuum-pump cleaning system, air conditioning via a sliding roof, and a projector box (placing it among the world’s oldest cinemas). Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, Liberace and others passed through before the theater became the home of such television shows as “Oh Boy!,” “Take Your Pick,” and “Emergency Ward 10.” Mecca converted the theater into a bingo hall during its ownership, destroying the original oil paintings, gold-leaf decorations, statuary, and terra cotta domes. In 1986, CAST, a small touring group, acquired the building, reopening it as a theater on December 9, 1986, the building’s 85th birthday.
In 1904 Stoll commissioned Matcham to build The London Coliseum. London’s largest theater—with 2,356 seats—it featured the first revolving stage in Britain, as well as the first lifts, or elevators, to upper levels. In 1931, with vaudeville’s decline, The Coliseum turned to musical comedy, which it discontinued in 1968, becoming a cinema. In 1974, The Coliseum became home to The English National Opera, which still performs there. Stoll actively managed his theaters until at least the late 1920s. He died in 1942. During the 1950s, the Stoll and Moss groups combined to become Stoll-Moss Theatres Ltd.
The Stoll-Moss Fold: Acquired Theaters, 1633-1930
The Theater Royal Drury Lane first opened in 1663 with The Humorous Lieutenant. Nell Gwynne appeared in The Indian Queen (1665), and the theater burned in 1672. The second Drury Lane was attributed to Sir Christopher Wren in 1674. Garrick made his first appearance in 1742 and took over in 1747. Mrs. Siddons debuted there in 1775 and Richard Brinsley Sheridan took over in 1776. School for Scandal (1777) and his later plays were produced there. In 1794, Sheridan built a third, larger theater, which burned in 1809. Samuel Whitbread, founder of the Whitbread Brewery, funded the fourth theater, which opened in 1812. The Drury Lane limped along until 1879, when a series of popular melodramas, pantomimes, and spectaculars filled its coffers. One of the theater’s unique traditions is The Twelfth Night Cake. Started upon his death in 1794, by actor Robert Baddeley who left money for cake and wine for the guests annually on Twelfth Night, the party still occurs today, over 200 years later. Drury Lane also has its own phantom—“The Man in Grey,” supposedly the ghost of a man whose bones were found behind a wall of the theater in 1840—said to haunt The Upper Circle, especially during matinees.
The theater at London’s Haymarket—now known as Her Majesty’s Theater—was built originally in 1705 as Queen Anne’s Theater by architect/playwright Sir John Vanbrugh. Renamed The Italian Opera House, it survived a 1789 fire, name changes with monarchs, became The King’s Theater, and, finally, Her Majesty’s Theater with the accession of Queen Victoria (1837). An 1867 fire closed it for ten years, and lack of success caused its demolition in 1891. The current theater was commissioned by Beerbohm Tree (founder of The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) and built by Phipps in 1897. The theater was refurbished from 1990-93 without interrupting performances.
The Lyric Theater at London’s Shaftesbury Avenue is Stoll-Moss’s oldest original building. Funded by composer/arranger Henry Leslie and designed by Phipps, The Lyric was built in 1888—although what is now the dressing room entrance was built back in 1767 as anatomist Dr. William Hunter’s home.
The Garrick at Charing Cross Road was designed by Walter Emden and Phipps. The theater opened in April 1889 after two years of work and nearly being abandoned because the deep excavations necessary for the below-ground auditorium unearthed a river which flooded the foundations. The Notorious Mrs. Ebb smith opened in 1895, and a woman named Ebbsmith drowned in the Thames with a ticket for the play in her pocket. In addition, the ghost of former manager Arthur Bourchier reputedly haunts the theater. During the early 1930s, plans to turn the theater into a cinema were scrapped when Wendy Hiller starred in Love on the Dole (1935) and saved the venue. Other plays included Rattle of a Simple Man (1962), Stand by Your Bedouin (1967), and No Sex Please, We’re British! (1982-87).
The Apollo Theater—commissioned by Henry Lowenfeld and built by architect Lewen Sharp—opened with The Belle of Bohemia (1901). The fourth theater to be built on Shaftesbury, the French-facade building with 769 seats featured Kitty Grey (1902), Tom Jones (1907), Gaslight (1939), Flarepath (1942-44), Seagulls over Sorrento (1950), Sir John Gielgud in Forty Years On (1968) and The Best of Friends (1988), Albert Finney in Orphans (1986), and Hiller in Driving Miss Daisy (1988), to name a few.
The Gielgud, also on Shaftesbury Avenue, was built by W.G.R. Sprague and opened as The Hicks in 1906. Renamed The Globe in 1909, it has been directed by some of England’s top managers, including Charles Frohman, Anthony Prinsep, and H.M. Tennent.
The Queen’s Theater—named with Queen Alexandra’s blessing—was designed by Sprague as a companion to The Globe, opening with The Belle of Brittany (1908), followed by The Apple Cart (1929); Gielgud as Hamlet (1930); and Margaret Rutherford, Tempest, and Rex Harrison in Morley’s Short Story (1935). During du Maurier’s Rebecca (1940), the theater was bombed by the Germans and remained closed until 1959, when Gielgud soloed in The Ages of Man. Notable performances include Vanessa Redgrave in Chekhov’s The Seagull (1964, 1985); Noel Coward in his last stage appearance in his own Suite in Three Keys (1966); Getting On (1971); The Dresser (1980); and Another Country (1982). The theater was refurbished in early 1991.
The Palladium-which opened on Boxing Day in 1910—dates back to the 1870s, when circus showman Frederick Charles Hengler housed Hengler’s Grand Cirque there. It then became The National Skating Palace and a music hall before being rebuilt by Matcham. Rivaling The Hippodrome and The Coliseum in magnificence and size, it is London’s second largest theater, with 2,302 seats. Renamed The London Palladium (1934), the venue housed Peter Pan every Christmas from 1930-38. Sunday Night at the London Palladium, televised live, was one of the ITV’s first great successes, and almost every international star has appeared there, from Judy Garland to Bob Hope.
The Duchess, on Catherine Street, was built in 1929 by Ewan Barr and is one of the smallest theaters in London. The first production, in 1930, did not finish opening night, but the theater recovered and went on to produce Eden End (1934), Cornelius (1934), Night Must Fall (1935), The Corn Is Green (1938-39), Murder in the Cathedral (1936), Blithe Spirit (1942), The Deep Blue Sea (1952), and Oh Calcutta! (1974-80). Stoll-Moss acquired the theater in January 1986.
Designed in 1930 by Wimperis, Simpson, and Guthrie, The 1,283-seat Cambridge Theater on London’s Earlham Street has featured Finney in Billy Liar (1960s), Ingrid Bergman and Michael Redgrave in A Month in the Country (1960s); Maggie Smith in Hedda Gabler (1970); Sir Lawrence Olivier as Shy lock in The Merchant of Venice (1970); and Return to the Forbidden Planet (1990s).
New Owners: Australia and Back Again: 1980s-2000
In 1984, Stoll-Moss was purchased by Australia-based Heytesbury Party Ltd. (founded in 1923), at the time led by tycoon Robert Holmes à Court. Upon his death in 1990, his widow Janet inherited everything. In 1994, she announced major changes for the theater group, including renaming The Globe after Gielgud (so there would be only one Globe in London-Shakespeare’s) and announcing plans to reopen The Royalty Theater.
Stoll Moss Theatres has its roots in the late 19th century. The last 100 years has seen the company develop into London’s leading theater operator. We welcome over 3.5 million visitors to West End Theatres each year.
In August 1999, Heytesbury suddenly put Stoll-Moss on the market. It was their only European-based asset and Heytesbury wanted to concentrate on projects in Australasia. Before the shocking announcement, it was believed that Stoll-Moss was looking to acquire Associated Capital Theatres, the second largest West End group, with eight theatres, including Wyndhams, Albery, and three Curzon cinemas. The Albery and The Wyndham theatres went to promoter Sir Cameron Mackintosh in late 1999 for about £7 million (US$11.2 million).
Stoll-Moss’s availability came on the heels of the £170 million acquisition of The Apollo Leisure Group—Britain’s biggest theater operator, with 27 London-based and regional venues, and the US$116 million acquisition of Livent Inc. by SFX Entertainment Inc., the world’s largest promoter. Apollo’s venues included The Lyceum, The Apollo Victoria, The Dominion, and The Apollo Hammersmith in London; The Opera House, The Palace, and The Apollo in Manchester; The Bristol Hippodrome; The Edinburgh Playhouse; The Old Fire Station and The Apollo in Oxford; The Liverpool Empire; and others in Sheffield and Cardiff. The acquisitions by SFX included Apollo’s 50 percent stake in concert and theater production company, The Barry Claymore Corporation. Parties involved in the bidding eventually came to include U.S.-based Shubert Organization Inc.; a consortium led by Sir Michael Grade and Peter Holmes à Court, Janet’s producer son; and SFX, whose subsidiary PACE Theatrical sold its 25 percent in The Ambassador Group in November.
In March 2000, The Really Useful Group-repurchased from Seagram in 1999 by founder and famed composer Andrew Lloyd Webber (the creative force behind Phantom of the Opera, Cats, and numerous other hit musicals)—bought (with Nat West Equity Partners) Stoll-Moss from Heytesbury for approximately £87.5 million (US$200 million), beating out competitors Mackintosh and American entrepreneur Max Weitzenhoffer. Lloyd Webber already owned The Adelphi, The Palace, and The New London; the acquisition made him one of London’s biggest theater owners. In a TV interview with David Frost, Lloyd Webber said he purchased the group to preserve London’s theatrical tradition and keep it safe from what he called “the money men.” In the interview, he said, “If you were a pen-pusher or a number-cruncher, and you were given a musical about furry animals dressed up as cats, to poems by T.S. Eliot and directed by the then-director of The Royal Shakespeare Company, you would have perhaps said ‘I don’t think I fancy that.’ It’s terribly important that for the interest of theater we are willing to take on new ideas and try them out.”
Stoll-Moss CEO Richard Johnson and his management team would stay on to run the new company, whose name would likely change to Really Useful Theatres. Lloyd Webber would lose The Gielgud and The Queen’s in 2006 when their leases reverted to Mackintosh, who purchased them in 1999 when they were not producing expected revenues. But, with Lloyd Webber’s vision and over 3.5 million visitors each year, the Stoll-Moss empire was expected to continue through the 21st century.
Select Theater Breaks.
SFX Entertainment Inc.; Shubert Organization Inc.; Jujamcyn Theaters.
- Sir Oswald Stoll is born.
- Stoll and Frank Matcham build The Hackney Empire Theater.
- Stoll dies.
- Stoll and Moss groups combine to become Stoll-Moss Theatres Ltd.
- Stoll-Moss is purchased by Australia-based Heytesbury Party Ltd.
- Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber purchases the company.
Barker, Felix, The House That Stoll Built: The Story of the Coliseum Theater, London: Muller, 1957, 256 p.
“Mackintosh Buys U.K. Theatres,” Back Stage, October 8, 1999, p. 2.
McGillivray, David. “West End Power Struggle Rages,” Back Stage, September 17, 1999, p. 19.
Peers, Martin, and Claude Brodesser, “Britain’s Stoll Moss Eyes Livent,” Variety, February 16, 1999.
“Stoll Moss,” Economist, August 7, 1999, p. 5.
Thorncroft, Tony, “Lloyd-Webber Pays £87.5M for Theatres; Entertainment Really Useful Group Bids for Stoll Moss’s 10 West End Venues,” Financial Times, January 10, 2000, p. 2.
——, “West End Plays Leading Role in Stage-Managed Profitability: Lord Lloyd-Webber Is Becoming a Leading Light in Theater Ownership As the London Stage Shines, Writes Antony Thorncroft,” Financial Times, January 11, 2000, p. 5.
“Top London Theatres for Sale,” August 2, 1999, http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/entertainment/newsid_409000/409753.stm.
Treadgold, Tim, “Heytesbury’s Theater of the Absurd,” Business Review Weekly, August 13, 1999, p. 41.
Wolf, Matt, “Court Houses on the Mend in West End,” Variety, August 29, 1994, p. 45.
—Daryl F. Mallett