The Royal Variety Show at the Festival Theatre

🎂 Happy Birthday to HRM the Queen! 🎂

What better time than today, the Queen's 94th birthday, to talk about the most recent Royal Visit to our theatre? In 2003, the Festival Theatre hosted Her Majesty the Queen at that year’s Royal Variety show, but the theatre’s history with the performance, and with the royal family, dates back much further.

At the time of the very first Royal Variety Show, the Festival Theatre was called the Empire Palace Theatre, owned and operated by Sir Edward Moss, and a part of the Moss Empires group. After correspondence with Sir Edward Moss, King George V said he would command a Royal Variety show in his coronation year, 1911, provided the profits went to the Variety Artistes' Benevolent Fund, as the Royal Variety Charity was then known. The original presentation was planned in the Empire Theatre, but the stage and most of the backstage areas were destroyed a month before the planned performance in the fire that killed The Great Lafayette and 10 others involved in his show. You can read more about that story here.

As a result of the fire, the first Royal Command Variety Performance was held in London the following year, and the production didn’t return to Edinburgh for another 91 years.

We have had numerous other Royal visits to the theatre over the decades, including Her Majesty the Queen’s visit to the King’s Theatre in September 1950, at a performance of ‘Ariadne auf Naxos’ by the Glyndebourne Opera.

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On the 24 November 2003, we were delighted to finally hold the first and to date only Royal Variety Command Performance in Scotland in the Festival Theatre, hosting HRM The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in the theatre. Compered by Cat Deeley, the cast included Ronnie Corbett, Donny Osmond, Gloria Estefan, Busted, Westlife and Luicano Pavarotti.

Gloria Estefan was spotted being beyond excited backstage waiting to get her photo taken with the Osmond brothers, who later stole the show when they stepped out from behind cardboard cut-outs of themselves to be the surprise guests performing with Donny Osmond, who was billed as performing solo.

Our staff were delighted to take part in the Royal Variety Show, especially Front of House staff member Graham, who includes his story about his curtseying dilemma on every backstage tour. It’s not every usher who gets the chance to open the door for the Queen herself!


Staff member Pab remembers his experience,

"I held open the doors on level 2 for the Queen to sweep through. All her security were taller than me, Cockney guys in smart grey suits, with pistol holsters under their jackets.  One guy complained bitterly that he always had to hide when the queen came near – because of the cameras, he had to nip out into the fire exit stairwell as she passed.

There were three types of champagne.  Public ticket holders (who’d paid £200 each) were drinking cheap champagne; press (who were stationed in the mezzanine) were on the Veuve Cliquot; the Queen (in the Empire Rooms, with her own porta-throne) had her own-label champers – this was the nicest one of the three (HRH having failed to drink the entire case, there was plenty left over for staff to try).  She had a special box built around her seat in Level 3, on the Left; I’m guessing about A44-48.

Pavarotti, who weighed 25 stones at his largest, was so wide that BOTH doors at Stage Door had to be opened for him to enter.  He was famous for wiping his brow with tissues. Graham Simpson’s mum worked as cleaner back then.  Luciano discarded one upon the floor.  She stood up to him with words along the lines of, ‘I don’t care who that pig is, he can pick it up himself’.

I had to deliver a message to Ronnie Corbett and Frank Bruno at Lafayette corner (they were doing the opening skit), the difference in size was, indeed, hilarious.

So many people were performing, Rachel Stevens (S Club 7) had to change in the Founders’ Room."

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In case you want to re-live it, here's that performance by the Osmond Brothers on the Festival Theatre Stage, taken by an audience member from the televised broadcast:

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