Category Archives: Fun Palaces (theatres)

Home of The Entertainer

Former Alhambra Theatre, Morecambe, Lancashire

Former Alhambra Theatre, Morecambe, Lancashire

The Alhambra Theatre, Morecambe, the location of Laurence Olivier’s performances as Archie Rice in the 1960 film The Entertainer, still exists though its interior has gone.

A major fire in 1970 completely destroyed the auditorium, including its roof, though the stage-tower remains.

When the shell was rebuilt the Dutch gable of the façade was removed and the proscenium opening was bricked up.

According to Tony Parkinson [‘Morecambe’s early cinemas’, Cinema Theatre Association Bulletin Vol 46, No 5 (September/October 2012), p 5] the interior of the fly tower remains intact.

The Alhambra was designed by the local architect Herbert Howarth as a music hall and opened in 1901.

Because it replaced the former West End market (1889), its ground floor was given over to shops and market stalls, with the auditorium at first-floor level.

Built at a cost of £50,000, it was a financial liability from the start.  The leader of the consortium that built it, Alderman Gardner, filed for bankruptcy in 1911 with liabilities of £62,257 12s 6d.

A new company took it over in 1919 for £50,000 and invested a further £30,000 on replacing the market stalls with twenty lock-up shops, replacing 700 of the 2,000 chairs with tip-up seating and installing a £,3,000 organ.

In 1927 it became a cinema full-time, and when sound was installed in 1930 it was renamed the Astoria.

It remained closed throughout the Second World War, and reopened in 1946 as a theatre.

After the 1970 fire the auditorium-space became a night club.  At present it’s closed.

There’s a compilation of clips from The Entertainer, with an oddly inappropriate music track, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrP-5BvYM68.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool’s Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire’s Seaside Heritage, please click here.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire’s Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Grand theatre

Grand Theatre, Blackpool, Lancashire

Grand Theatre, Blackpool, Lancashire

Blackpool’s oldest theatre, the Theatre Royal, has now gone, destroyed by fire in 2009: http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/BlackpoolTheatres/TheatreRoyalBlackpool.htm.

In the late nineteenth century its lessee was Thomas Sergenson, who ran a stage-production of Ellen Wood’s East Lynne – “Dead!  Dead!  And never called me mother!” – for twenty-five summers.

He was a smart businessman and made enough money to purchase a plot of land in 1887 to build a Grand Theatre.

He initially erected a row of shops with a temporary circus building behind, until it became apparent that he held a prime site between the Winter Gardens and its new rival the Tower, which was started in 1891.

Accordingly, he commissioned Frank Matcham to complete the Grand Theatre auditorium at a cost of £20,000 and opened it on July 23rd 1894, two months after the Tower opened, with Hamlet, starring Wilson Barrett.

By 1901 Sergenson had bought out his business partners, and he sold the theatre to the Tower Company on December 23rd 1909 for £47,500.

Like so many Victorian theatres, the Grand was threatened with demolition:  in 1972 it was planned to demolish it to make way for a department store.  It was restored, after vociferous public protest, first as a bingo house, and then sold for a quarter of a million pounds to its present owners, the Grand Theatre Trust.  It was reopened as a theatre by HRH the Prince of Wales on May 29th 1981.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool’s Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire’s Seaside Heritage, please click here.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire’s Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Nobbut an annexe

Opera House, Winter Gardens, Blackpool, Lancashire

Opera House, Winter Gardens, Blackpool, Lancashire

Blackpool’s Opera House is the third on its site – a lavish art-deco design by Charles MacKeith, with two balconies and a total seating-capacity of 2,920.  The full stage-width is 110 feet, with a proscenium opening of 45 feet.

The opening-ceremony on July 14th 1939 was performed by Jessie Matthews, who was appearing in I can take it at the Grand Theatre just down the road, with an organ-recital including a duet by Horace Finch, the Winter Gardens’ resident organist, and Reginald Dixon.

The stage show included a train-wreck scene incorporating a full-size replica of the Royal Scot locomotive.

The first variety bill at the reopened Opera House starred George Formby Jnr (who was paid £1,000 a week) in a review entitled Turned out nice again.

The Opera House was the venue for the first Royal Variety Performance to take place outside London, in April 1955.

When Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II remarked what a fine building the Opera House was, the company chairman Douglas Bickerstaffe commented, “Ay, I suppose so, although it’s nobbut an annexe to t’Tower.”

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool’s Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire’s Seaside Heritage, please click here.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire’s Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Thirties theatre

Former Garrick Theatre, Southport, Lancashire

Former Garrick Theatre, Southport, Lancashire

Bingo has been a great benefactor of Britain’s historic auditoria.  Without the rise of the bingo industry in the 1960s a great many exciting buildings would have disappeared when television overtook the cinema as the most popular means of entertainment.

Mecca maintains the former Garrick Theatre, Southport, in superb condition, and the building continues to earn its keep at the south-west end of Lord Street.

It was built on the site of the 1891 Opera House, designed by Frank Matcham, which had been destroyed by fire in December 1929, and opened on December 19th 1932.

Matcham’s theatre seated two thousand, and the Southport architect George E Tonge designed its replacement as a live theatre, with a fifty-foot-wide proscenium, seating 1,600.

Tonge devised an interesting mix of theatrical tradition and thirties modernity.

The exterior is a lively essay in jazzy modernity, with tall windows of zigzag glazing and a sweeping corner feature punctuated with stepped verticals.  On the Lord Street façade an open colonnade carries a concrete moulding depicting a violin and a saxophone, flanked by the classical masks of comedy and tragedy.

The auditorium is pure Art Deco, with four practically useless boxes beside the proscenium and a frieze of sunbursts with musical notes and dancing figures.

When the Essoldo cinema circuit bought the Garrick in 1957, they used the follow-spot operator’s perch in the ceiling as a projection box, despite the severe angle which necessitated tilting the 37-foot screen on the stage below.

Southport was already well-provided with cinemas:  apart from the first-run Odeon and ABC there were already four others, and Essoldo quickly returned to a mixed programme of film and live shows, which in turn gave place to bingo in 1963.

Conversion to a bingo club entailed levelling the stalls floor to meet the stage, removing the stalls seating and installing a staircase from the stalls to the balcony.  Otherwise, this fine auditorium is largely unaltered.  The stage-tower is concealed from halfway up the proscenium, and the wings-space is brought into the club.

As such, the building is virtually intact.  It’s in excellent condition, warm and welcoming, and well-loved by its patrons.  All thanks to bingo.

Update:  The Cinema Theatre Association Bulletin Vol 55 No 3 (May/June 2021) reports that Mecca will not reopen the former Garrick/Essoldo after its lockdown closure.  There is a suggestion that the Southport Theatre & Convention Centre, which went into liquidation in May 2020, could move into the bingo hall and Mecca could take over the theatre.  It remains to be seen…

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on seaside architecture, Away from it all:  the heritage of holiday resorts, Beside the Seaside:  the architecture of British coastal resorts, Blackpool’s Seaside Heritage and Yorkshire’s Seaside Heritage, please click here.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire’s Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Morecambe Winter Gardens

Winter Gardens, Morecambe, Lancashire

Winter Gardens, Morecambe, Lancashire

What is now called Morecambe Winter Gardens isn’t in fact the Winter Gardens at all.  It’s the Victoria Pavilion, built in 1897 alongside the original Winter Gardens and Empress Ballroom of 1878.

The original complex began as the People’s Palace, built for the Morecambe Bath & Winter Gardens Company to provide entertainment, baths and an aquarium, on the lines of the Scarborough People’s Palace & Aquarium (1875-7) and the Great Yarmouth Aquarium (1876).

The Victoria Pavilion was designed by the Manchester-based practice Mangnall & Littlewoods which had already designed the Morecambe West End Pier and Pavilion in 1895-6, and were then working on the Central Pier Pavilion and the Hotel Metropole at the same time as the Victoria Pavilion.

The Winter Gardens closed in 1977, and the adjacent Ballroom was demolished in 1982 on the specious grounds that the replacement development would finance restoration of the Pavilion.

In fact it didn’t:  the Friends of the Winter Gardens were formed in 1986 and its current owners are the Morecambe Winter Gardens Preservation Trust Ltd [http://www.thewintergardensmorecambe.co.uk/home], established in 2006 to take on the huge task of making the theatre fit to earn its own living once more.

It’s a magnificent building, inside and out, listed Grade II*, and one of the few remaining Victorian structures in a resort that has not stood the test of time.

The Theatres Trust identifies it as “a rare type, probably now unique” – a large-scale concert-party auditorium, very broad in relation to the width of the proscenium and the size of the stage.

It was used as a location for the Laurence Olivier film The Entertainer in 1959.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2013 Lancashire’s Seaside Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

 

 

Cultural capital of cool

St James Theatre, Wellington, New Zealand

St James Theatre, Wellington, New Zealand

Wellington, the largest city in New Zealand’s North Island, came close to losing its most attractive and comfortable theatres in the 1970s and 1980s. 

Now the Opera House, the St James and the Embassy provide a thriving cultural repertoire which enriches the city centre.

The city is currently marketed as the “capital of cool”, but it might easily have been left out in the cultural cold.

I was given privileged access to the St James Theatre, known in the entertainment industry as “Jimmy’s”, thanks to the manager, Bob Foot, and my Wellington host, David Carson-Parker.

Its initial claim to fame is that it was the first steel-framed, reinforced concrete theatre in the world when it was constructed in 1912 to the designs of Henry Eli White (1876-1952), a prolific New Zealand theatre architect, for the impresario John Fuller, who had operated an earlier theatre on the site.

Its ornate auditorium is embellished with plasterwork by William Leslie Morrison, who used his grandson as a model for the cherubs.  (I wonder what angst the lad suffered when he grew into his teens and went with his mates to see shows at the St James.)

The St James Theatre closed in 1987 and became the focus of a furious conservation row between a developer, the Chase Corporation, and local campaigners, with Wellington City Council in the midst.

Eventually in 1993 the city council bought it and restored it as a venue for the New Zealand International Arts Festival and a home for the Royal New Zealand Ballet, extending into the adjacent property to provide a café and bar, “The Jimmy”.

If Wikipedia is to be believed [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._James_Theatre,_Wellington] the St James hosts a wonderful company of ghosts – a Russian performer called Yuri, a wailing woman and wheezing Stan Andrews.

None of these were in evidence when Bob, David and I toured the building from top to bottom on a sunny summer morning.

They couldn’t show me the auditorium of the rival theatre across the road, the Opera House (William Pitt, 1911), because a lighting rehearsal was in progress, so I have to return when I’m next passing by.

The St James Theatre and the Opera House, long-time rivals, are now under co-ordinated management, operated by Positively Wellington Venues:  http://pwv.co.nz/our-venues/st-james-theatre.  To see what’s on, go to http://www.stjames.co.nz.

 

The gaiety of nations

Gaiety Theatre, Douglas, Isle of Man:  marquee

Gaiety Theatre, Douglas, Isle of Man: marquee

A couple of years ago I was invited to the Gaiety Theatre, Douglas to see the Douglas Choral Society’s production of Les Misérables, which is not my favourite piece of musical drama.  After three hours of Gallic posturing and carrying on (which theatre-folk refer to as The Glums, in tribute to the 1950s radio-programme Take It From Here), I commented to my host, my Isle of Man friend John, that though it wasn’t my favourite show I imagined we’d seen the best theatrical production on the Gaiety stage for at least ten years.

The Gaiety is a delightful theatre, one of Frank Matcham’s best survivors.  Dating from 1900, the heyday of the Manx tourist boom, it has superb fibrous plasterwork by De Jong & Co, extravagant house-tabs dripping with ropes and tassels, and the only surviving example of a Corsican trap – an essential requirement for Dionysius Lardner Boucicault’s melodrama, The Corsican Brothers (1852), which doesn’t often get an airing.

This gorgeous jewel of Victorian entertainment struggled for years to earn its keep as a cinema, and was rescued by the Isle of Man Government in 1971.  It could have been pulled down, but was restored in 1976.  It’s by far the most attractive cultural venue on the island, and it serves local communities and holiday visitors in conjunction with the adjacent Villa Marina.

Early this year John’s then-teenage son, Matthew, texted me to ask if he needed to see Miss Saigon.  Yes, I said, most definitely.  Indeed, I said, I’d get on a boat to see it if it was performed by the Douglas Choral Society.

Miss Saigon (1989) is the follow-up work to Les Misérables (1980), and was Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s second successful assault on the West End and Broadway.  It’s based on Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.  It’s a Kleenex job.  Complete with helicopter.

So I enjoyed a captivating evening in Frank Matcham’s stalls, watching the best of Manx theatrical talent pull out all the stops.  Rebecca Lawrence (Kim), Jonathan Sleight (Chris), David Artus (Engineer), Alex Toohey (John) and Kristene Sutcliffe (Ellen) gave performances which were utterly indistinguishable from the professional theatre, and they were backed up by scores of on-stage, back-stage and front-of-house workers.

What more could anyone ask of a Saturday night? – Matthew’s twentieth-birthday dinner at the excellent Coast Bar & Brasserie of the Claremont Hotel [http://www.sleepwellhotels.com/hotels/isle_of_man/claremont/restaurant.htm], the best show in town in a Frank Matcham theatre, and walking home along the gently curving Loch Promenade looking out to Douglas Bay.

This is what Dr Johnson meant by “the harmless stock of human pleasure”.

The Gaiety Theatre website is at http://www.gov.im/villagaiety.  The Douglas Choral Union is at http://www.douglaschoralunion.im/index.php.

The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2014 Manx Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Thanks to bingo

Former Regent Theatre, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk

Former Regent Theatre, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk

I’m indebted to Ian Hardy, of Great Yarmouth Borough Council, for prompting me to seek out the former Regent Theatre on Regent Street, now Mecca Bingo.

Tracy Utting, the Manager, was very willing to allow my Norfolk’s Seaside Heritage tour-group to visit before the club opened, and her colleague Kerry took great trouble to show us as much as possible of the historic parts of the building.

The Regent has a sophisticated classical façade, with huge Ionic columns and a Diocletian window;  within is an impressive staircase, now altered, the former café with an extensive plaster frieze of putti and garlands, and the auditorium which is decorated with rococo plasterwork, with boxes supported by cast-iron columns.

It was built in 1914 for Francis Holmes Cooper, a Wisbech estate-agent who owned a chain of theatres and cinemas across East Anglia, most if not all of them designed, like the Yarmouth Regent, by Francis Burdett Ward.  It closed as a cinema in September 1982, and ever since has operated as a bingo club.

The bingo industry has proved a magnificent custodian for so much of Britain’s entertainment heritage.  From the Blackpool Grand Theatre to the Wakefield Opera House, from the Grade I Tooting Granada Cinema in South London, still operating as a bingo club, to the magnificently restored Stockport Plaza Cinema – any or all of these might not have survived without the proceeds of bingo to keep the building going.

Kerry, as she showed us everywhere from the boxes to the basement (still containing an industrial-sized stove for the café above), remarked that very few people other than club members ever set foot in the building.

Yarmouth people may have forgotten it exists.  If and when the bingo moves on, the Regent will need a new purpose.

It’s too good to lose.

Update:  Mecca closed their operation at the Regent “at the end of 2011”.  It reopens as Stars Showbar and Nightclub in April 2014:  http://starsgy.co.uk.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

Rue Britannia

Britannia Music Hall, West Bar, Sheffield (1984)

Britannia Music Hall, West Bar, Sheffield (1984)

The surviving mid-nineteenth century music halls in the UK can almost be counted on one hand – Wilton’s and the Hoxton Hall in London, the Old Malt Cross and the Talbot (now Yates’s Wine Lodge) in Nottingham, the City Varieties in Leeds and the Britannia in Glasgow.  Sheffield had a couple of surviving examples until the 1990s, and one of them at least was worth saving.

In the second half of the nineteenth century West Bar, which runs along the valley floor below the hill on which the town centre had grown, was what the journalist Steve McClarence described as “the Shaftesbury Avenue of the Sheffield working man”.  Here stood the Surrey Music Hall, which burnt down spectacularly in 1865, the Bijou (which survived as a tacky cinema into the 1930s), the London Apprentice (demolished in the 1970s) and the Gaiety, of which fragments survived until it was demolished c2000 to clear space for the Inner Ring Road.

The Gaiety in its heyday was owned by Louis Metzger, a pork-butcher.  He kept a musical pig called Lucy who, if plied with beer, would sing – as indeed a pig owned by a pork-butcher might.

The Britannia Music Hall on West Bar stood literally next door to the former police- and fire-station that is now the National Emergency Services Museum.  Built on the back-land behind the older Tankard Tavern, it dated from around the mid-1850s, and was superseded by bigger, better and more central variety theatres in the 1890s.

Incredibly, it survived as a bathroom showroom, intact but altered with a floor built across the proscenium and a lift-shaft at the back of the auditorium, and was described in detail by historian Andrew Woodfield in 1978.  When I first encountered it in 1984 it was Pink Champagne, providing wedding goods and, it appeared, a venue for wedding receptions.

In February 1988, by which time it was operating as Harmony Wedding World, Ian McMillan and the late Martyn Wiley broadcast their BBC Radio Sheffield Saturday-morning show from the Britannia and an actor called Stuart Howson (whose great-grandfather had managed the Regent Theatre in the east end of Sheffield) gave the final performance, a couple of verses of a Victorian ballad, ‘The best of the bunch’.

Later the building became Door World and then, just as Sheffield City Council prepared to put a preservation order on it in 1992, it went up in flames and was quickly demolished.

There was much hand-wringing by the Council, the Hallamshire Historic Buildings Society, the Theatres Trust and the site-owners, West Bar Partnership who (in The Stage, April 4th 1992) “expressed regret”.  The fact remains that conservationists have to win every battle, while the developer only has to win one.

The space where the Britannia stood is now used for car sales.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.

Theatrical roots

Wilton’s Music Hall, Grace’s Alley, Tower Hamlets, London (1985)

Wilton’s Music Hall, Grace’s Alley, Tower Hamlets, London (1985)

Wilton’s Music Hall stands in a corner of London that you’d never imagine is steeped in theatrical history.

Beside the railway viaduct from Fenchurch Street Station is the site of the very first London Theatre, built in 1577 and twenty years later surreptitiously dismantled by William Shakespeare’s company to be re-erected as the Globe Theatre on the Southwark side of the river.

In Leman Street stood Goodman’s Fields Theatre, opened in 1729 and closed in 1742, where David Garrick (1717-1779) made his London debut as Richard III in 1740.  In Wellclose Square, the actor John Palmer (c1742-1798) ill-advisedly built the Royalty Theatre (1787) without a licence:  it became the East London Theatre before it burnt down in 1826.

Nearby in Ensign Street there are a series of innocuous-looking Grade II listed bollards inscribed with the monogram RBT.  This commemorates the Royal Brunswick Theatre which collapsed in February 1828, shortly after the opening night.  Charles Dickens’ account of this disaster can be found at http://anengineersaspect.blogspot.co.uk/2010/05/collapse-of-brunswick-theatre-february.html.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Fun Palaces:  the history and architecture of the entertainment industry please click here.