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Playhouse at 90: From the Rolling Stones to Albert the ghost

Looking back at the life and times of the iconic Edinburgh theatre as it marks 90th anniversary.

The Playhouse hosted the The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1935.
The Playhouse hosted the The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1935.

By Clare McNeill

The Edinburgh Playhouse has staged some of the biggest shows ever produced over the past 90 years.

But the anniversary it celebrates this week nearly never happened after it came perilously close to demolition in the 1970s.

After its final film screening - of James Bond classic Live and Let Die - on November 24, 1973, the Playhouse was sold to a property developer who wanted to destroy it and put up an office block.

It was only saved after a tireless campaign by the Playhouse Preservation Group, which ended with it becoming a listed building, therefore removing the threat of demolition.

From there it went from strength to strength and in the four decades since, star names such as Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner and Bruce Springsteen have tread its boards.

The Edinburgh Playhouse has been a fixture of Leith Street for 90 years.
The Edinburgh Playhouse has been a fixture of Leith Street for 90 years.

The Playhouse began life as a cinema when it opened on August 12, 1929. It was then coined 'Scotland's super cinema', with a capacity of 3000.

The Leith Street theatre was designed by Glasgow architect John Fairweather, who was inspired by the Roxy in New York during a fact-finding trip to America.

It operated successfully for 40 years, regularly featuring Disney films and cartoons alongside the works of Abbot & Costello, Charlie Chaplin and Wheeler & Woolsey.

But crowds for those were nothing compared to the masses who turned out to see Laurel and Hardy in 1932 and The Scarlet Pimpernel three years later.

Secret act rolls into town

In May 1982, the Playhouse announced it was hosting a top-secret performance - so hush, hush that not even box office staff were trusted with the details.

When the day itself came, thousands upon thousands of people queued for entry, such was the sense of excitement and anticipation created around the mysterious show.

Inside, tension was mounting... until the promoter presented staff with blank tickets, ink pads and stamps branded with the words 'Rolling Stones'.

And the price of a ticket? Just £6.50 - or £20 in today's money. For the crowd, plenty of Satisfaction and Wild Horses couldn't drag them away.

Rolling Stones tickets cost just £6.50 in 1982.
Rolling Stones tickets cost just £6.50 in 1982.

Ghostly goings-on

The Playhouse has a resident ghost named Albert who resides on the sixth floor. He's known to walk the stairs, rattle keys and pull on ropes.

One day the staff were playing heavy metal when suddenly the music stopped, the tape door opened and the cassette was 'thrown' across stage.

From this we can assume he doesn't like heavy metal music.

Diversity

Today, the Playhouse presents mix of musicals, dance, comedy and live music, with those who work there highlighting its diversity as the key to its survival.

Among the recent star acts include Billy Connolly, French and Saunders and Kevin Bridges, while this month it hosted the world premiere of Scottish Ballet's The Crucible' as part of Edinburgh International Festival.

Coming up are Frankie Boyle, Mamma Mia the Musical and a nine-week run of The Lion King.

So, while she has turned 90, it seems the Old Lady of Leith Street has plenty life in her yet.

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