London Theatre during WWII
“I went to every theatre in London … did not miss a one.”
In 1991, Hedvig Johnson Allen, former secretary with the Office of Strategic Services, wrote to her grandson Johnny about her days in London during the war.
Yes, the Americans loved to go to see the plays but the London theatre was an important part of life for the British people during World War II. When the war first broke out, the government closed the theatres for fear that they would be hit by the bombings. Gradually the rules were relaxed. Theatres opened again and became an important “escape” for the Londoners, a reprieve from their problems.
Hedy saved the handbills, and yes … she probably did see every one! Most of them are located in London’s “West End,” comparable to New York’s Broadway theatre. Here is a list of the ones she saved in her scrapbook:
Stoll Theatre (at this site is now the Peacock Theatre.) Hedy saw two plays there … “Hi-de-Hi” presented by Jack Hylton and starring Flanagan and Allen, a British singing and comedy team, and Florence Desmond. Another was Bernard Delfont’s “The Student Prince.” Delfont was an important figure in the London theatre and presented more than 200 shows in London and New York.
Globe Theatre (now the Gielgud) on Shaftesbury Avenue – “While the Sun Shines” starring Michael Wilding who divorced his wife in 1951 to marry Elizabeth Taylor the next year.
The Playhouse Theatre on Northumberland Avenue. The United States Army in association with The American Red Cross presented “Our Town,” a Pulitzer Prize winning play by Thornton Wilder. According to the playbill, “The Playhouse Theatre has been provided by the British Government under Reciprocal Lend Lease to the U.S. Forces … The Theatre Unit is composed of soldiers of the United States Army together with personnel from the American Red Cross and certain London actresses. THE THEATRE UNIT is a spare time activity and all members of this cast perform normal duties through the day. The only concession to this policy has been a partial release from normal duties during the week prior to the opening of this play.
Also on the playbill were these instructions: In the event of an Air Raid Warning an announcement will be made by means of an illuminated box sign installed immediately in front of the footlights. Patrons are advised to remain in the Theatre, but those wishing to leave will be directed to the nearest official shelter, after which the performance will be continued for so long as is practicable. This alert was found on other playbills.
Hedy also saw “Mr. Bolfry” at The Playhouse. Here is a detailed history of this theatre at the Arthur Lloyd website.
London Hippodrome, “The Lisbon Story.” At the Hippodrome have been many venues during the years … circus, theatre, night club, cabaret. According to Wikipedia, it is now undergoing restorations to be a casino.
Aldwych Theatre – Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in “There Shall Be No Night” by playwright Robert E. Sherwood. Incidentally, during World War II Sherwood was a speechwriter for the President and worked with Donovan and the OSS.
Apollo theatre – John Gielgud’s “The Cradle Song.”
St. Martin’s Theatre – “The Druid’s Rest,” a comedy.
View London Theatres World War II in a larger map