My Reminiscences


Imre Kiralfy

The Strand Magazine in 1909 published a series of articles taken from the autobiography of Imre Kiralfy who became in his lifetime one of the greatest figures in the domain of public spectacle and mammoth entertainment’s the world has known. In 1909 he had just finished the successful Franco-British Exhibition and was into his next epic the Imperial International Exhibition. Held in the 140 acre piece of ground at Shepherds Bush which he had converted into a huge pleasure ground. All the buildings, halls and pavilions were painted white from which the term White City was born.

One of these articles covers his life from his first appearance on the stage as a gypsy child in Weber’s "Preciosia" when he was four years old. This led to a tour with the show to Germany where he was presented as an infant prodigy to Frederick William IV of Prussia. By the time he was eight he thought he would like to become a conjuror and then later a musician learning the piano and violin. At the age of 14 he heard his first composition played by an orchestra in Milan.

It was in 1867 when Imre was 22 that he went to Paris to visit the International Exhibition in the Champs de Mars that he finally decided what his role in life was to be. The article carries on,

This was the supreme achievement in the way of pageants and exhibitions. Not a single detail escaped me. I went about daily viewing this great spectacle, in whole and in parts from every point of view and to my youthful mind the greatest man in the world then was the director-in-chief of that great exhibition. At night, often until the early hours of the morn I wrote music. I loved to write for large orchestras. I set to full orchestra many of the compositions of my then friend Camille Schubert, purely for the pleasure of the work. A year later found me in Brussels on the eve of a great municipal fête, which was to last a week. There were to be races, balls, festivals, operas, pantomimes, sports and games. Four thousand soldiers had been told off to participate in the preparation of these fêtes. In the very midst of the organisation the master of ceremonies, harassed and overworked, lost his reason. I have since been told the municipality itself was at its wits end to find someone to carry on the work of organisation. By chance luckily enough for me, my name was mentioned, and at only 23 years of age I became installed as the director of the Brussels fêtes. But my path was not one of roses. To my dismay I found everything in confusion, but I plucked up courage, flung myself with enthusiasm into the business, planned a spectacle on a far more colossal scale than my predecessors, and put into practice some of the ideas I had already formed.

After my initial success at Brussels came a calm. I found no chance in Europe to repeat my triumph, and so resolved to emigrate to America. One day in 1869, I landed in New York. There I was destined to remain for a quarter of a century. I saw instantly that the great popular want in America was spectacle, spectacle that was more or less familiar to Europeans. Spectacular dramas there were, but they were on a very small scale, and greatly deficient in either colour or magnificence. I introduced into American theatres a scenic representation of Jules Verne’s "Round the World in 80 Days" and this served me as a vehicle for the production of gorgeous scenic effects, but before that came a mammoth spectacle called "The Black Crook".

No theatre would serve to exploit the vast pictures which I began to conceive in my mind. I envied the ancient Romans their Coliseum and their wide, free amphitheatres My first experience in architectural work was in Philadelphia, where I was confronted by the necessity of building a theatre, or of not exhibiting the spectacle. I felt that the time had come, so I drew up plans of my own, and that is how the Broad Street Theatre came to be built.

The idea of a play dealing with Siberia and the Nihilists occurred to me, and I handed over the plot and details to an American dramatist, Bartley Campbell, commissioning him to write it for me. But although a large sum was paid on account, when Campbell finished the work he refused to give it to me. He produced it himself with enormous success, he called it "Liberis" so that opportunity was lost. However, I took the matter before the courts, but here again fate intervened, for Bartley Campbell suddenly went insane and died in an asylum. This failure proved another turning point in my career. I decided to dispense with theatres, to "produce" in the open air, to create my own spectacle in some untrammelled expanse outside the city. I found on Staten Island, near New York,

just the spot I wanted, and there, at St George’s, constructed a colossal stage and scenery, I engaged a thousand performers and produced "The Fall of Babylon". That was over twenty years ago. Great as the success of this experiment was, I had something still more ambitious in my mind. This was "Nero" or, "The Burning of Rome". For this spectacle I constructed a stage with a proscenium opening four hundred and eighty feet wide, and employing one thousand five hundred performers.

Guide and catalogue for the International Universal Exhibition 1898 at Earl’s Court

But to make this statement conveys no idea of the labour of organisation and operation. When a drama is produced on such a large scale, of what use would be a stage manager or a promoter confronted by such distances? I had to create a special system of control, so that I could communicate with the performers and "heads". To do this I caused thirty electric bells, invisible and inaudible to the public, to be placed on the stage at intervals, and so, by a code of signals operated from a gigantic keyboard, I was master of the situation.

In the same way the conductor of the orchestra kept all the singers and dancers in unison, all by a single pressure on a button, ringing numerous bells, which unison greatly mystified the audience. As to the size and management of the scenery, one scene represented the exterior of Nero’s palace, approached by a series of terraces and steps, upon which no fewer than five hundred performers, singers, dancers and figurantes were grouped in a scene of revelry. These had previously taken their places at the wings, and then, at a signal, the whole mighty scene, performers and all was rolled in on a series of circular railway tracks.

You may, perhaps, suppose that this enterprise was sufficient for me at one time, but I found opportunity also to produce at the same time an original pantomime at the New York Academy of Music, a leading metropolitan theatre. One scene represented a graveyard by moonlight, a beautiful, artificial moon rising at the back. It so happened that one night I was watching "Nero" when the real moon rose with splendid effect behind the palace of the Caesar’s. Yet many spectators must have supposed it was an artificial moon, for I overheard a young lady near me say to her mother, "Ah, yes, it’s pretty, but not so realistic as the one in Mr Kiralfy’s pantomime at the Academy of Music!".

Those were the days of P. T. Barnum, the famous American showman. Although he was then an old man, I suppose he thought I was beginning to invade his own particular domain. At all events, he saw "Nero", and offered me a great sum to be allowed to produce it in connection with his own show in London. I was just then starting for London, so he commissioned me to examine Olympia and tell him whether or not it would be suitable for "Nero". I told him it would, and so "Nero" , rewritten and produced on a much smaller but more artistic scale, was seen by Londoners.

Kiralfy’s original sketch for Venice in London on the back of an envelope.

It was while I was staying at Barnum’s place at Bridgeport, Connecticut, that the idea of "Venice" flashed across my mind, not a "Venice in Italy" but a Venice transported to London. I took out a scrap of paper, an envelope, from my pocket, and then and there schemed out my idea. My mind went back to my studies of Venice thirty years before, the whole thing as it should be rose up before me, and down it went, even the details, on the back of that envelope. When "Venice" attracted its thousands and hundreds of thousands to Olympia in 1892, it had all arisen naturally from my plans on the back of that envelope.

A still greater opportunity was at hand for me. The Colombian Exhibition was to bring the whole universe to Chicago. A dramatic pageant on an unprecedented scale was demanded, and that is how "America" in twelve acts, came into being at the immense auditorium in Chicago, the largest theatre then in the world. There has since been a larger one. I have built it myself. "America" I am told, marks an epoch in the history of the stage. On its commercial side, at all events, no such average of receipts has ever been recorded before.

By this time I had resolved to settle down in London. Incidentally I may mention that it was not my first period of residence in the worlds capital, for in the middle ‘seventies, during a visit, I had met an English lady who became Mrs Kiralfy and my eldest son was born here. But London seemed to offer the greatest chances of the lasting success I sought. Some years before, overtures had been made me by the gentlemen associated with the series of exhibitions at Earl’s Court. They offered me flattering terms to produce a spectacle in connection with the German Exhibition, but I saw that nothing could be done with Earl’s Court unless a long lease could be obtained, all the old buildings pulled down, and a wholly new scheme carried out. Such a lease of twenty-one years was now obtained. A syndicate was formed to carry out my ideas, and I was appointed director-general. I had never ceased planning schemes of architecture and of colour, and I think I might say that for some years I found at Earl’s Court a fairly ample field for my energies. There I produced in succession the "Empire of India", "India and Ceylon", "The Victorian Era", "The Universal Exhibition", "Greater Britain", "Woman’s", "International", "The Military Exhibition" and Paris in London".

Then this part of my career came to an end. It was all only a prelude to what I shall consider the summit of my life’s achievements in the domain of public spectacle, the Franco-British Exhibition at Shepherds Bush. In all this I felt it was necessary to surpass all my previous labours. I must have something at once novel and commanding, something in keeping with the greatness of the project.

One night I lay awake in bed and, as if by magic, I saw stretched out in my mind’s eye, an imposing city of palaces, domes and towers, set in cool, green spaces and intersected by many bridged canals. But it had one characteristic which made it strangely beautiful. Hitherto I had dealt in colour in the shimmering hues of gold and silver. This city was spotlessly white. I saw it all in an instant, and the next day I had jotted down the scheme of what London was to know as the "White City". More than four years were needed, four years of unremitting toil, to make that scheme a reality. But on the day when His Majesty King Edward VII and President Fallières of the French Republic, in the midst of a cheering multitude, visited the Franco-British Exhibition I knew that the result had justified all the labour. That was the proudest day of my life.

It would seem strange indeed if the "White City" which was reared with such pains and labour on the barren wastes of Shepherds Bush, should have been as evanescent as a summer’s dream. Fate and the public voice have preserved it from that destiny, and I hope the great Imperial Exhibition now opening will be considered worthy of its forerunners.

Looking back now upon a public career of nearly sixty years, it is very gratifying to me to think that I have never rested content with that which both my friends and critics have thought to be my best. I fear I have never followed the adage and let well enough alone. Still more gratifying is the thought that I may have helped to raise the standard of spectacular entertainment and that I have contributed something to the artistic needs as well as to the gaiety of the nations.

The end.

This was written in 1909 and we know that Imre Kiralfy did not indeed rest on his laurels. He continued to mount huge exhibitions up to the outbreak of the 1914-18 war.

Extract from The Times 29th April 1919.

Death of Imre Kiralfy, Exhibition Organiser.

The death occurred from heart failure at Brighton on Sunday of Mr Imre Kiralfy, who was best known to Londoners as the organiser of exhibitions and spectacular displays in which direction he met with a considerable measure of success up to the outbreak of war.

He started operations at Olympia and Earl’s Court but by 1908 his ideas had outgrown both these places of entertainment and he conceived the plan of erecting at a great pleasure ground at Shepherds Bush. In a comparatively short time he converted 140 acres of ground into the "Great White City and Stadium" and the dazzling buildings and the colossal scale on which everything was carried out drew hundreds of thousands of people there. It was opened with the Franco-British Exhibition in 1908, this was followed in due course by an Imperial International Exhibition, A Coronation Exhibition, a Latin-British Exhibition and an Anglo-American Exhibition. The outbreak of war brought Mr Karalfy’s activities to an end. The White City became in turn a drilling place for recruits, a medical inspection centre and an aeroplane factory, and with succeeding years most of the Dazzling white paint and of the glory that once caused people to flock to Shepherds Bush have passed away.

Extract from The Times 24th June 1919.

Wills and Bequests

Mr Imre Kiralfy of Tower House, Cromwell Rd, S. W., the originator of the series of International Exhibitions in London , the first of which was the Franco-British display at Shepherds Bush. Gross value, 136,680

The bulk of this article was sent to me by one of our members Derek B. Bartlett, it came from a tatty old copy of the Strand Magazine (Derek’s description). I have also recently acquired the personal archives of Fred Fletcher one of the founder members of the Exhibition Study Group which contained details of Imre Kiralfy’s life which I have incorporated into this article.

The Editor.

© Exhibition Study Group 2002