Some years ago, a joke in The Simpsons suggested that Steve Guttenberg's continuing fame was due to the shady wranglings of the "Stonecutters", a fictitious Freemason-like organisation. Now, the credit can be given to the producers of Cinderella at the Churchill Theatre in Bromley, where Guttenberg stars in his first-ever pantomime as Baron Hardup.
The American actor announced the role in a short video posted on YouTube in September. Sitting by the sea, wearing sunglasses and looking very bronzed, Guttenberg flashed a wide grin, familiar from many films, and declared: "Not only will you be seeing me in my panto debut, but there will be magic and music and audience participation – oh, yes there will. You see, I'm getting the hang of it already. Anyway, I'll see you in December at the show, and please book your tickets early because it's going to be packed."
In 1982, Guttenberg starred in Barry Levinson's Oscar-nominated coming-of-age drama Diner. Through the rest of the Eighties he was in several high-grossing films: playing Mahoney in the first four films in the Police Academy franchise, and a leading man in Cocoon, Short Circuit and Three Men and a Baby. Recently, Guttenberg has been best known for taking part in Dancing with the Stars, the US version of Strictly Come Dancing. So perhaps it's not so surprising that a former Hollywood leading man is doing five weeks of panto in a theatre in Bromley. Nonetheless, despite its slightly cheesy overtones, panto has real appeal to both audiences and actors – and Guttenberg is the first to agree. "Steve Guttenberg is here for the first time and he can't believe it, he's never enjoyed a job so much," says Kevin Wood, chief executive of First Family Entertainment, the company behind the Bromley show and 11 others in the UK. "He keeps saying to me, 'Put journalists in touch with me, I want to tell them how wonderful it is and what a revelation it is for my career.'"
He's not the only US actor doing the panto season this year. "It's a bit of a shock when they first start to perform 12 shows a week and have an audience that shouts back, but they love it," Wood says. Henry Winkler, formerly The Fonz in Happy Days, is doing it for the third time. He plays Captain Hook in Peter Pan in Milton Keynes.
Paul Michael Glaser of Starsky and Hutch fame stars in Aladdin in Sunderland, while the veteran screen actor Mickey Rooney returns for his second panto season. Last year, he played Baron Hardup in Cinderella at the Sunderland Empire and now reprises the role for a run at the Bristol Hippodrome. Rooney is joined on stage by his eighth wife Jan Rooney, taking on the role of the Fairy Godmother, as she did last year.
Another notable American performing this year is Charlene Tilton, playing the evil stepmother in Cinderella at Kings Theatre, Southsea. It's perfect casting for the 4ft 11in actress who became a massive star in the Eighties as the scheming Lucy Ewing in the TV melodrama Dallas. She left the show in 1985, to return a few years later following a dip in ratings and a campaign by fans to bring her back.
There's more to panto than fun, though – there's money to be made, too. There are two major companies producing pantos in the UK, QDos and First Family Entertainment (FFE); both aim to make large profits and work with West End-sized budgets. "The lead person in one of these could easily be paid £40,000 a week," suggests Alistair Smith of The Stage, the performing arts industry's newspaper.
However, the biggest panto in the UK this Christmas is a much more local affair. Cinderella at the Liverpool Empire is the populist culmination of the city's year as European Capital of Culture. The £1m production is notable for the return of Cilla Black to her native city to tread the boards for the first time in many years. Others in the cast include Jennifer Ellison, Les Dennis, Nick Pickard (Tony in Hollyoaks) and local radio presenter Peter Price.
The Liverpool Empire hasn't traditionally done a Christmas panto in recent times, preferring to do a large-scale musical in the vein of Blood Brothers. However, a big-budget panto with West End production values is something that few other theatres in the city can tackle, so it is a good opportunity to jump into a popular market.
Combining the "lorra lorras" with regular cries of "Oh no he isn't!", Black as the Fairy Godmother is undertaking one of her most high-profile outings since walking away from the hugely popular Blind Date television show in 2003. However, the production hasn't been without its minor tempests. Rehearsals took place in London, officially because London is the base for the show's production and creative team, but some mischief-making newspapers suggested that the real reason for the London rehearsals was that Black insisted on them, forcing her co-stars to commute from Liverpool.
Joining the usual horde of minor celebrities and soap actors on the panto circuit this year are some classical actors. Simon Callow adds an air of respectability to Peter Pan at the Richmond Theatre, where he plays Captain Hook. And skilled comic performers John Thomson and Alistair McGowan take to the panto stage in Manchester and Wimbledon respectively. McGowan is joined in the Wimbledon production of Cinderella by the pop singer Gareth Gates, honing his musical theatre experience in preparation for when he takes over the role of Joseph from Lee Mead in the new year. The appearance of Gates in panto perhaps points the way for contestants in the current X-Factor, which will soon reach its conclusion. The singer was runner-up in ITV's talent show Pop Idol in 2002, and for many of this year's crop of pop pretenders, panto will be a natural destination once the voting lines have closed.
Elsewhere – and further proving that panto is popular with big names – John Barrowman is concluding a busy year with Robin Hood at the Hippodrome in Birmingham. Already in 2008 he has had starring roles in Doctor Who and its spin-off Torchwood, a stint presenting a BBC game show The Kids Are Alright and released an album, Music, Music, Music, and an autobiography. Is he the hardest-working man in showbiz? Oh, yes he is.
While few will argue that the typical panto production seen around the country is highly nourishing art the audience levels and the financial rewards are massive, and this ensures a high level of seriousness in both the performers and the theatres."I don't think it would be overstating it to say that it is probably financially the most important period in a theatre season, certainly the regional theatre season," says Smith of The Stage.
One such example is the Norwich Theatre Royal. This year the 1,300 seat Art Deco theatre, which recently undertook a £10m refurbishment, is producing Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs. Neighbours actress Caitlin Stacey stars, while Stephen Fry, who was patron of the theatre's fundraising appeal during refurbishment, appears in a pre-recorded cameo as the Magic Mirror. The five-week panto run will bring in a quarter of the theatre's entire annual income.
"The thing is, so many people go to these shows, you can't really afford to be snobbish about it," says Smith. "Obviously it's not Chekhov, but I don't think the children would enjoy that very much. Generally the quality is very high, obviously in a specialised field. If you went to a panto to get great insights into human nature you'd be disappointed, but you get something else."
Watch out! They're behind you
1. Cilla Black: Fairy Godmother, 'Cinderella', Liverpool Empire (0844 847 2525)
2. Steve Guttenberg: Baron Hardup, 'Cinderella', Churchill Theatre, Bromley (0870 060 6620)
3. Mickey Rooney: Baron Hardup, 'Cinderella', Bristol Hippodrome (0844 847 2325)
4. Charlene Tilton: Evil Stepmother, 'Cinderella', Kings Theatre, Southsea (023-9282 8282)
5. Britt Ekland: Fairy Godmother, 'Cinderella', Shaw Theatre, London (0871 594 3123)
6. John Barrowman: Robin Hood, 'Robin Hood', Hippodrome, Birmingham (0844 338 5000)
7. Shaun Williamson: Abanazar, 'Aladdin', Wyvern Theatre, Swindon (01793 524481)
8. John Thomson: Captain Hook, 'Peter Pan', Opera House, Manchester (0844 847 2295)
9. Simon Callow: Captain Hook, 'Peter Pan', Richmond Theatre, Surrey (0870 060 6651)
10. Henry Winkler: Captain Hook, 'Peter Pan', Milton Keynes Theatre (0870 060 6652)
11. Malandra Burrows: Good Fairy, 'Sleeping Beauty', Palace Theatre, Leeming St Mansfield (01623 633133)
12. Letitia Dean: Wicked Queen, 'Snow White', Grove Theatre, Dunstable, (01582 602080)
13. Ray Quinn: Aladdin, 'Aladdin', Broadway Theatre, Peterborough (01733 316100)
14. Brian Conley: Buttons, 'Cinderella', Theatre Royal, Nottingham (0115 989 5555)
15. Paul Michael Glaser: Abanazar, 'Aladdin', Sunderland Empire (0844 847 2499)
16. Nigel Havers: Abanazar, 'Aladdin', Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford (01483 440000)
17. Brian Blessed: Captain Hook, 'Peter Pan', Fairfield Halls, Croydon (020- 8688 9291)
18. Alistair McGowan: Baron Hardup, 'Cinderella', New Wimbledon Theatre, London (0871 297 5474)
19. Karen Dunbar: Fairy Godmother, 'Cinderella', King's Theatre, Glasgow (0870 060 6648)
20. Phil Daniels: Abanazar, 'Aladdin', Lyceum, Sheffield (0114-249 6000)
From the late Eighties to earlier this decade, Cilla Black ruled Saturday evening television and was one of the highest-paid presenters in Britain. She's slated to return to TV next year with a new dating game-show on Sky One. Before that, she's taking to the stage in Liverpool, where her singing career began, as the Fairy Godmother in the year's biggest panto, 'Cinderella' at the Liverpool Empire (0844 847 2525).
Thomson starred in some of the best British television comedy of the Nineties, particularly in his regular role in 'The Fast Show'. He enjoyed even bigger success from 1997 to 2003 in ITV's comedy drama 'Cold Feet' and continues to do regular television work. This Christmas, he's on stage at the Opera House, Manchester (0844 847 2295), playing Captain Hook in 'Peter Pan'.
Famed for his 'EastEnders' role as the hapless Barry, and for playing an equally hapless version of himself in Ricky Gervais's comedy 'Extras', it's entirely in keeping with the persona he portrayed in the latter show that Williamson should be in panto. It's not his first time, and this year he stars in 'Aladdin' at the Wyvern Theatre, Swindon (01793 524481).
As well as starring in the 'Doctor Who' spin-off 'Torchwood', Barrowman has presented a BBC game show this year, and recently released an album, which he will tour next year. Starring in 'Robin Hood' at the Hippodrome (0844 338 5000) in Birmingham, however, may be a welcome tonic after the recent phony controversy surrounding Barrowman's "flashing" incident on BBC radio.
With a showbiz career that began in his infancy in the 1920s, and with 200 films under his belt, Hollywood survivor Mickey Rooney is no stranger to the sort of graft required for panto. This is his second go in panto; last year, he played Baron Hardup in 'Cinderella' at the Sunderland Empire, and he's reprising the role at the Bristol Hippodrome (0844 847 2325).
Ekland is an unlikely veteran of British panto; the former Bond girl and star of 'Get Carter' and 'The Wicker Man' returns to panto to tackle 'Cinderella', playing the Fairy Godmother at the Shaw Theatre in London (0871 594 3123).
The actor's first attempt at panto was an ill-fated repertory production of 'Dick Whittington' in Lincoln in 1973. This year, he's back starring as Captain Hook to Bonnie Langford's Peter Pan at the Richmond Theatre (0870 060 6651).
The tiny Tilton was the scheming "poison dwarf" Lucy Ewing in 'Dallas'. Now she's playing the evil stepmother in 'Cinderella' at Kings Theatre, Southsea (023-9282 8282), in her first panto.
Guttenberg stars as Baron Hardup in 'Cinderella' at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley, Kent (0870 060 6620). In the Eighties, he starred in 'Cocoon', 'Three Men and a Baby' and the 'Police Academy' franchise. But can he do the gruelling panto schedule?