London’s Royal Albert Hall celebrates 150 years
“It’s a place every young artist wants to play – literally just about every person of fame and notoriety, they’ve all played in this building,” said rock star Roger Daltrey, the front man of The Who.
For Daltrey, London’s Royal Albert Hall is haunted in a positive way by its history. “When you stand on this stage, you feel the ghosts!” he said.
And what ghosts! Over the past 150 years, Rachmaninov, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Diana Ross, Frank Sinatra, Luciano Pavarotti and Adele, to name a few.
“There’s just so much going on, from ice skating to circus to ballet,” said archivist Elizabeth Harper, who keeps a record of all the stars on stage and behind the scenes.
There she showed the correspondent Roxana Saberi photos from the Beatles’ first concert in 1963 in front of a grateful audience: “You can see that it’s pretty much women!”
She has also never seen photos of Princess Diana before.
The idea for a place to “promote the arts and sciences for the British masses” began with Prince Albert.
But he died in 1861 before the hall was completed. A decade later, his widow, Queen Victoria, was still mourning at the opening ceremony.
Harper said, “It is really sad because she says in her diary that she was so overwhelmed by emotions that she could not speak and only thought of her dear Prince Albert.”
At that time the hall was one of the largest in the world. “They didn’t know how to fill a venue like this, nowhere else was there,” said Harper. “But eventually they found pretty crowd-pleasing events to attract people.”
Events like the world’s first major bodybuilding competition and speeches by suffragists and scientists. In 1933 Albert Einstein spoke here and warned of the looming horrors of World War II.
According to legend, the hall survived this war relatively unscathed, as enemy pilots relied on its dome as a navigation point.
In the 1970s, feminists stormed the hall and disrupted the Miss World Pageant.
“The events that have been held here over the past 150 years truly reflect every change in society, every political change that has taken place not just in the UK but internationally,” said Harper.
But the Royal Albert Hall has not always embraced change. It banned all pop and rock concerts in the early 1970s after some shows got a little out of hand.
“Fans pulled down the boxing curtains,” said Harper. “There was a concert where they actually stomped through the ceiling of a box.”
Daltrey recalled, “We found out we were banned from Albert Hall. We said, ‘Why? What did we do?'”
“What did you say?” asked Saberi.
“They said we were ‘rowdy’.”
Harper said, “Pop and rock were slowly returning and I think the ban was forgotten as a small mistake.”
Daltrey returnedacross the UK and USA. “There’s something about this hall that gives it a size,” he said. “It’s 6,000 people, but they could all be in your living room. You can see each person clearly, so it’s great.”
Inspired by Roman amphitheatres, the architecture also allows every viewer to see everyone else. That’s one of the reasons Grammy winner David Arnold, who has made five James Bond films, doesn’t just show shows here; he also likes to come listen.
“You can buy expensive seats, you can get in for five pounds,” said Arnold. “It just feels like any memory you’ve ever had of experiencing something bigger than yourself that somehow wouldn’t exist without you.”
Harper showed Saberi the best seats in the house – the royal box, where the queen and royal family would come to a concert – and the royals’ “relaxation room” where they can enjoy drinks before the show or come during recess.
Last year, the site was silenced for the first time since World War II by the pandemic.
“There weren’t any live events,” said Harper. “We were closed all year. Financially it was very dangerous for the Royal Albert Hall.”
It had to cancel nearly 500 shows and lost the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars.
Saberi asked Daltrey, “Do you think people are ready for live music again?”
“Oh yeah. I have no doubt about that, ”he replied. “People choke to go out and party. We need that connection.”
Now the Royal Albert Hall is coming to life to celebrate 150 years of ghosts … and create new memories.
Daltrey said, “This place can bounce. I’m telling you it’s fabulous!”
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Story produced by Erin Lyall. Editor: Brian Robbins.
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