London’s Royal Albert Hall celebrates 150 years

“It’s a place that every young artist wants to play – literally almost every person of fame and notoriety, they’ve all played in this building,” said rock star Roger Daltrey, the frontman for The Who.

For Daltrey, London’s Royal Albert Hall is haunted, in a good way, by its history. “When you stand on that stage, you feel the ghosts!” he said.

And what ghosts! Over the past 150 years, Rachmaninoff, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Diana Ross, Frank Sinatra, Luciano Pavarotti, and Adele, to name, just a few.

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Since 1861 the venue has been haunted (in a good way) by its history, hosting artists from Rachmaninoff to The Rolling Stones. Now, after having cancelled nearly 500 shows due to the pandemic, the 6,000-seat hall is reopening, filling a hole in Britain’s cultural life. CBS News

“It’s hosted just an incredible array of things, from ice skating to circus to ballet,” said archivist Elizabeth Harper, who keeps records of all the stars, on stage and backstage.

She showed correspondent Roxana Saberi photos from The Beatles’ first concert there, in 1963, before an appreciative audience: “You can see, it’s quite female-heavy!”

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The Beatles’ first Royal Albert Hall performance on April 18, 1963, part of the BBC’s “Swinging Sound ’63” program.   Royal Albert Hall

She also has never-before-seen photographs of Princess Diana.

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Princess Diana backstage at the Royal Albert Hall.  Royal Albert Hall

The idea for a place to “promote the arts and sciences to 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 grieving at the opening ceremony.

Harper said, “It’s really sad, because she says in her diary she was so overcome with emotion, she couldn’t speak, and she just thought of her dear Prince Albert.”

At the time, the hall was one of the largest in the world. “They didn’t know how to fill a venue like this, nowhere else existed quite like it,” Harper said. “But eventually they found quite crowd-pleasing events to draw people in.”

Events like the world’s first major body-building contest, and speeches by suffragists and scientists. In 1933, Albert Einstein spoke here, warning of the looming horrors of World War II.

Legend has it the hall survived that war relatively unscathed because enemy pilots relied on its dome as a navigation point.

In the 1970s, feminists stormed the hall, disrupting the Miss World Pageant.

“The events that have been held here over the last 150 years, they really reflect every social change, every political change that’s happened, not just in the U.K., but internationally,” Harper said.

But the Royal Albert Hall has not always embraced change. It banned all pop and rock concerts in the early seventies, after some shows got a bit out-of-hand. 

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Jimi Hendrix smashing guitar licks, and guitars, at the Royal Albert Hall in 1969. “The Jimi Hendrix Experience: The Royal Albert Hall”

“Fans were ripping off the box curtains.,” Harper said. “There was one concert where they actually stomped through the ceiling of a box.”

Daltrey recalled, “We find out, we’d been banned from Albert Hall. We said, ‘Why? What have we done?'”

“What did they say?” asked Saberi.

“They said we were ‘rowdy.'”

Harper said, “Pop and rock gradually made its return, and I think the ban was sort of forgotten about as a bit of a mistake.”

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“I get excitement at your feet”: The Who performing at the Royal Albert Hall.  CBS News

Daltrey returned, hosting annual shows at the hall supporting teen cancer units in hospitals across the U.K. and the U.S. “There’s something about this hall that gives it a grandeur,” he said. “It’s 6,000 people, but they could all be in your front room. You can see every person distinctly, so it’s great.”

Inspired by Roman amphitheaters, the architecture also allows every member of the audience to see everyone else.  That’s one reason Grammy-winner David Arnold, who’s scored five James Bond films, doesn’t just put on shows here; he also loves coming to listen.

“You can buy expensive seats, you can come in for five pounds,” Arnold said. “It just feels like every memory you’ve ever had, of experiencing something bigger than you that somehow wouldn’t exist without you there.”

Harper showed Saberi the best seats in the house – the royal box, where the Queen and the royal family would come to see a concert – and the royals’ “retiring room,” where they can have preshow drinks, or come during the interval.

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The royal box.  CBS News

Last year, for the first time since World War II, the site was silenced, by the pandemic.

“There haven’t been any live events,” said Harper. “For that whole year we’ve been shut. Financially it’s been very perilous for the Royal Albert Hall.”

It had to cancel nearly 500 shows, losing the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars.

Saberi asked Daltrey, “Do you think people are ready again for live music?”

“Oh, I don’t think any doubt about that,” he replied. “People are gagging to go out and party. We need that connection.”

Now, the Royal Albert Hall is coming back to life, in time to celebrate 150 years of ghosts … and to create new memories.

Daltrey said, “This place can bounce. I tell you, it’s fabulous!”

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CBS News

      
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Story produced by Erin Lyall. Editor: Brian Robbins. 

      
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