Finney and Conti line up to save the greasy spoon of the stars

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Audrey Hepburn drank coffee there. Dustin Hoffman was once sent to the back of the queue. And a host of stars, from David Cassidy to Maurice Chevalier and Sir Harry Secombe have popped in.

But from 11 November, a cafe which has fed and watered London's theatre folk for nearly half a century will be no more.

The site of Valoti's in Shaftesbury Avenue is to be re-developed although the actors Tom Conti and Albert Finney are among 600 who have already signed a petition opposing the cafe's closure.

Valoti's was opened 48 years ago by Victor Valoti, now 84, and in ill health at home in Italy. With bangers and mash at pounds 2.80 (today's prices) and roast lamb, pudding and tea for pounds 4, it has become well-known to the back-stage crews and chorus lines of a host of nearby shows.

The chorus girls of Les Miserables once sent a note pleading that the cafe should not feed garlic-filled chicken kiev to one of the leading men before shows when he had to perform stage kisses.

Julia Mackenzie, best known for the television sit-com Fresh Fields but an accomplished interpreter of Stephen Sondheim, once led the cast of Sondheim's Into The Woods across the road from the Phoenix Theatre to present a bouquet of flowers to the cafe's manager, Mirka Summers, on her wedding day.

Mrs Summers, 41, has worked at the cafe for 11 years and is disappointed at the expected closure. She is grateful to "all our friends in the theatre" for their concern, but admits the landlords have the right to ask them to leave.

"We are trying to fight for our survival," she said. "All our friends from the theatre decided they've got to fight and help us try to do something. We are very popular - lots of people come and see us."

The cafe is ideally placed to feed theatre-land. The musical Tommy is blasting out at one end of the street, while behind them Fame is entertaining the crowds at the Cambridge Theatre. After half a century as a theatrical institution, 5pm to 7pm is the busiest time of day as crew and cast come in for a snack before an evening's work.

Mrs Summers, in charge while Henry Valoti attends his sick father, is nostalgic about the cafe's good times. Posters from them all adorn the walls.

"Everybody has come here. Audrey Hepburn used to pop in for a coffee when she was on the chorus line," she said.

When The Merchant of Venice was playing down the road, all the cast visited Valoti's for bangers and mash. "One day, this scruffy man came up to the front of the queue. I said, `Excuse me, the queue is at the other end.'

``The little thing went to the back and Henry said, `You've got guts, woman, that was Dustin Hoffman.' `Well, I said, `Everyone is equal.' "

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