Often regarded as the father of musical comedy in this country, George Edwardes took that branch of the British theatre in a new and exciting direction. The two theatres he made so famous, though both presenting exclusively musical productions during his years in charge, were quite different in character. The Gaiety shows were light, bright, frothy and sparkling - and of course always included the celebrated Gaiety girls - whilst those at Daly's were romantic, opulent and sentimental. Each theatre had its own particular atmomsphere. A Gaiety show would never have worked at Daly's, nor a Daly's show at the Gaiety.
THE GAIETY THEATRE
Between its opening on 21st December 1868 and George Edwardes' death in 1915, the Gaiety Theatre in the Strand only ever had two managers. The first was John Hollingshead, a Londoner born in 1827 who presented a wide range of productions during his eighteen years as sole manager. Burlesques, though, were what the Gaiety became best known for during the theatre's early years. Sometimes billed as an 'extravaganza', a burlesque of this period was usually a parody of a play or historical event comprising a mixture of operetta, comedy and music hall, incorporating rhyming couplets and puns broadly in the style of pantomime. The revue, which became so popular just before the First World War, can perhaps be regarded as an updated version of the late-Victorian burlesque.
Having spent ten years as manager at the Savoy, where he presided over the inaugural productions of many of the most famous Gilbert & Sullivan operas, Edwardes acquired a half-share in the Gaiety in December 1885. The following year, Hollingshead offered Edwardes his remaining half share in the business and Edwardes thus became the theatre's sole lessee and manager; a position he was to retain for the rest of his life. Edwardes intitially continued the tradition of presenting burlesques, but around the mid-1890s evolved a new kind of musical production with shows such as In Town and The Shop Girl. Though both were billed as 'musical farces', they were really two of the prototypes of what became known as musical comedies.
In 1903 the original Gaiety Theatre (together with three other theatres) was compulsorily purchased by the London County Council as part of a road-widening scheme, with provision for the re-erection of the premises elsewhere. The site chosen, only a stone's throw away from the original building and in terms of frontage and appearance far superior to the old one, was on the corner of the Strand and the new road being constructed, Aldwych. The inaugural
production at the new Gaiety, with the King and Queen in attendance - the Gaiety had been Edward V11's favourite theatre when he was Prince of Wales, and remained so in its new location when he was King - was The Orchid. With Gertie Millar in the leading role, it was an immediate hit and went on to enjoy a run of 559 performances. It was also the production which introduced the beguiling Gabrielle Ray to the West End stage. The next few years - perhaps ending in 1911 when Gertie Millar ended her long run as leading lady - can probably be regarded as the theatre's 'golden years', when the Gaiety Girls were at the height of their popularity and practically every production was a 'hit'.
The Gaiety Theatre closed in 1939. In 1946 it was purchased by Lupino Lane (a child star billed as 'Nipper' Lupino Lane in Edwardian musical theatre) for £200,000 with the intention of restoring it to its former glory as the home of musical comedy. The structural repairs required unfortunately turned out to be more extensive than had been envisaged, and Lane's brave and almost single-handed attempt had to be abandoned. He was forced to sell it at a loss, and the Gaiety was finally demolished in 1957.
In 1890 George Edwardes acquired a site in Cranbourn Street (just off Leicester Square) with the intention of building his own theatre there. He was not in a position to proceed with its construction at the time, and two years later, in order to resolve his temporary financial difficulties, he leased the project to the American impresario Augustin Daly (1838-99), whose name it was agreed the theatre should bear. Daly's two seasons there, commencing in June 1893, were not successful, so Edwardes re-acquired the lease and began to present a series of high quality musical comedies and comic operas, the most successful of which, in terms of the the number of performances, were The Geisha (1896, 760 performances), San Toy (1899, 760 performances), A Country Girl (1902, 729 performances) and The Merry Widow (1907, 778 performances).
Daly's Theatre closed in 1937. It was acquired by Warner Brothers, who demolished the original building and rebuilt it as a cinema, which was itself then demolished in the 1980s.