British Music Hall was born, to some degree, from protest and certainly from business owners seeing and seizing an opportunity. Well before it became a popular form of entertainment, puritan influences in England cast aspersions on the nature of actors and the proliferation of theaters. Rulers, including Elizabeth I, assuaged the fun haters by insisting on patents in order to run a theater within city limits. The patents were given to only a handful of theater owners. Though theaters could be built on the far side of the Thames where The Globe and other famous performance spaces stood, audiences longed for the convenience of affordable entertainment within their neighborhoods.
Tavern owners realized they weren’t covered by the restrictive law. They could offer singers, clowns and other types of entertainment without having a patent. Taverns quickly cleared out a space for entertainment and performers flocked to them seeking employment. Much like the dinner theaters so popular in the US during the 70s and 80s, Music Halls were set up with tables rather than rows of seats, allowing audiences to eat and drink during performances. By the 1850’s Music Halls were common across London and other British cities. When Parliament eradicated the antiquated patent laws in 1853, Music Halls grew both in number and in size.
By the mid-1800s, Music Halls were large, seating anywhere from 500 – 5,000 people. And the buildings themselves were growing in opulence and ornamentation. They offered a large variety of acts including singers, dancers, comedians, acrobats, contortionists and anything else that made audiences happy.
Though Music Hall was a popular entertainment for a full century, but the early 1900s it faced challenges. In 1914, Parliament banished alcoholic drinks from the auditoriums. A few years later, they stopped the halls from selling alcohol on the premises at all. England was hit hard both literally and figuratively by two world wars. After the first, the jazz craze threatened variety acts. The big band era during World War II cut further into the variety arts business. Between the two, cinema became popular, gramophones became affordable and radio made families want to stay home. That demon rock ‘n roll took over most performance spaces, forcing other acts out of work. By time television became popular, most of the few remaining music halls had become strip clubs.
As happened in the US with vaudeville, however, many British Music Hall performers found a new home in early film and television. There are die-hard fans who still enjoy the clever comedy and jaunty tunes of the great music hall performers and regularly offer performances to nostalgic crowds.