May 26, 2016

Britannia Panopticon - The World's Oldest Surviving Music Hall

By Steve Wacker

Imagine, if you will, what life was like for the population of Glasgow, Scotland in the mid-19th century. Living conditions were awful, at least by contemporary American standards, but two basic needs were provided for: entertainment and communal laughter. The Britannia Music Hall (as it was then known) provided four variety shows a day, primarily featuring dancing women and ballad crooners. Some 1500 attendees would pack themselves into the hall to be entertained and find a bit of escape.

According to Moisture Festival co-founder and current Artistic Director Ron W. Bailey, music halls flourished during the Industrial Revolution when populations in cities like Glasgow practically tripled overnight. Over time, the Britannia's bill was expanded to include novelty acts, child performers, acrobats, comedians, high-wire artists, and trapeze artists. Stan Laurel worked there as a janitor while his father performed on stage. Stan was encouraged to try his hand at performing, he made his first public appearance after the hall was rechristened the Grand Panopticon in 1906 and the rest is history. He eventually went to Hollywood with his friend Charlie Chaplin. There, Stan partnered with Oliver Hardy to become Laurel and Hardy, the well-loved comedians of silent film

Bailey recently returned from a tour of Scotland and Ireland. "My mother, Sadie Bailey, was born just outside of Glasgow and I always treasured visits there." While in Glasgow, he saw a poster for a fundraiser for the hall's current incarnation - now known as the Britannia Panopticon Music Hall. "I was immediately intrigued, because I knew that the entertainment style in music halls led to American vaudeville and eventually to The Moisture Festival," said Bailey.

During his tour Bailey met many other vaudevillians, and he also spent some time researching the history of music halls and those theaters that inspired this art form. Many Moisture Festival artists share in the fascination of the history of the art form, and it wasn't very long before a plan was hatched to help the Britannia Panopticon in its restoration efforts. And you, dear Moisture Festival supporter, can help by making a GoFundMe donation at

 "One element of the Moisture Festival's mission is to educate the public about the rich history of the variety arts, and music halls were a major part of that history," said Bailey. "To help with this restoration project is the chance of a lifetime. We will use the funds to provide transportation for artists (some from North America and some from Europe) and per diem for them while in Glasgow for 10 days. We will perform in three different venues, and then donate the ticket money to the trust that is in place to restore the Britannia Panopticon Music Hall!"

The shows are planned in the Panopticon and two other venues - the Oran Mor and the Briggait - for the last weekend of the Merchant City festival, August 4-7, 2016. Moisture Festival hopes, along with the good people of Glasgow, that this will become an annual visit and a wonderful point of connection with the fascinating wild history of music halls, vaudeville, and the variety arts!

Seattle's Moisture Festival of Comedy/Varietè, founded in 2004, is the largest and longest running comedy/varietè festival in the world. Learn more at

Thanks to Kirby Lindsay and Judith Bowers for background information.