Theatre and Halls in Balham, London
The Royal Duchess Theatre, on the High Road, Balham, London was built at a cost of £35,000 for The London Theatre of Varieties and Barrasford Ltd, and designed by the architect W. G. R. Sprague who would also be manager of the Theatre until 1903.
The exterior, in stone, was in the Italian Renaissance style, crowned with a copper dome. Above the dome was a colonnade and cupola from which a powerful revolving search-light sent flashes of coloured light around the High Road.
Right - A Programme for the Royal Duchess Theatre, Balham for the week of October 8th 1900 - Courtesy Christopher Luscombe.
The Theatre's auditorium was built on three levels, stalls and pit, dress circle, balcony and gallery, and was decorated in the French Renaissance style, with capacity on opening of 2,500. A novel feature fitted into the Royal Duchess's auditorium was a tubular pneumatic organ, the first to be installed in a British Theatre.
'The Royal Duchess Theatre, Balham, S.W., which is just being completed, has been erected on a commanding site in the High-road, Balham. The theatre is owned by a company under the title of " Duchess Theatre, Limited," of which the directors are Mr W. G. R. Sprague, the well-known architect, and Messrs W. Bennett and H. G. Dudley Bennett, the proprietors of the Shakespeare Theatre, Clapham-junction, who will also be the managers. The theatre will be booked by Mr H. G. Dudley Bennett, in conjunction with the Shakespeare and many others in which Messrs Bennett are interested. (N.B. A correction was made in the following issue of the ERA stating: "In our article on the new Royal Duchess Theatre, Balham, we stated that the proprietors of that theatre are also the proprietors of the Shakespeare Theatre, Clapham. The latter theatre is the sole property of Charles E. Machin and Messrs Bennett.")
The building has been planned on the most unique lines, and will be as perfect and complete as skill and outlay can make it. The building has cost about £35,000. The main frontage is 70ft. wide to the high road, and is entirely of stone and in Italian Renaissance design, and is crowned by a fine copper dome, again surmounted by an upper collonade and cupola on which is poised an elegant winged figure. The upper collonade is about 110ft, above the pavement level, and from this point a powerful revolving search-light will send forth flashes of coloured light.
Left - The Duchess Theatre during the production of 'Worst Woman in London' - From a period postcard - Courtesy Jennie Walton
Entry is made to the better parts of the house through a handsome lobby, and thence into the grand crush-room, an apartment 30ft. by 20ft., a feature of which is a handsome balcony carried around the walls of this room, entirely of fine Italian marble up to the level of the balcony, above which is a beautifully painted and enriched ceiling. Fine saloons and retiring-rooms are provided throughout for each section of the audience.
The auditorium will be the feature of the building, and has been arranged on the most perfect and novel lines. The main walls form part of a circle, which circle is completed at the level of the main ceiling, whilst the different balcony fronts and boxes are schemed within the same radius as the main walls, thus creating a handsome and unique effect to the interior of the house. On the main ceiling is beautifully painted a representation of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, and from the balcony fronts are modelled Cupids holding candelabras. From the main ceiling above are appended magnificent copper mediaeval vases, supported by chains of the same metal with dragons' heads showing electric lights around each vase. Around the "sun-light " a fine effect is again created by a number of copper electric radiating rings, each ring being supported by chains, and giving a final effect of complete beauty and richness to the auditorium.
The decorations and furnishings throughout the building are of the most sumptuous description and of French Renaissance design. The draperies and upholstery throughout are being carried out in a selected tint of copper colour. The tableau curtain and other draperies, which are being executed in Vienna, are richly embroidered in accordance with the selected tone of colour. Lady patrons will have the benefit of a specially designed apartment, wherein they can partake of refreshments without visiting the saloons.
The theatre has been planned on the two-tier system, and, whilst having all its advantages with regard to easy rake of the circles, it will present the appearance of a three-tier house. The building is lighted throughout by electricity, a complete gas installation being provided in case of any temporary failure of the former. The theatre is heated throughout by low pressure hot water pipes and radiators; whilst numerous hydrants and other fire appliances are provided in accordance with the London County Council's regulations. The stage is entirely cut off from the auditorium, and is provided with a double asbestos and steel-framed fireproof curtain.
Right - The Royal Duchess Theatre, Balham - From a Postcard sent in 1904.
The theatre throughout has been constructed of concrete and steel, and is thoroughly fireproof. Every possible consideration has been given to the artistes, for whom are provided numerous well-ventilated dressing-rooms, with hot and cold lavatory accommodation and heating apparatus.
In addition to the usual attractions of a theatre, Mr Sprague has provided in the auditorium, for the first time in this country, a grand organ. Our 'cute American cousins have already recognised the importance of the aid which the "king of instruments" is capable of rendering, and in the new Theatre at Balham will be found a splendid instrument which should prove of inestimable value in augmenting the orchestra.
The organ, which is being carried out on the tubular pneumatic system, will be concealed and entirely hidden within certain portions of the decorations, and so arranged with regard to the acoustics of the building that the most perfect modulations and intensity of tone can be produced. In order to give some idea of the wonderful effect which can be produced on this organ, it may be stated that it will be equal to a band of 100 performers. The directors anticipate that there will be considerable public appreciation of this novel feature, and whilst many purposes will be served from the introduction of this new effect, it should prove a considerable boon to patrons of the early doors, who will have the benefit of a delightful musical recital to enliven the oft-times dreary wait pending the selection by the orchestra and the rising of the curtain.
Left - The Royal Duchess Theatre, Balham when it was known as the Duchess Palace - From a Period Postcard
At the end of August the commemoration or completion stone of the building will be laid by Mr Charles Wyndham, who has very kindly promised to officiate at the interesting ceremony, and to launch the Duchess Theatre on what we trust will be its prosperous and successful career.'
'Mr. Charles Wyndham yesterday visited the Royal Duchess theatre, Balham, with the avowed intention of laying a stone in commemoration of its completion. The builder had, however, done his work so well and effectually that he had himself set the stone, so Mr. Wyndham's share in the ceremony resolved itself into formally unveiling a suitably inscribed tablet and making one of his characteristically brilliant speeches. The building, which is a particularly handsome addition to suburban playhouses, fronts the High-road, and offers seating accommodation to some 1,200 persons. It is built in two tiers, but, being constructed on the useful cantilever principle, there are no Pillars to obstruct the view. The interior is tastefully decorated, the predominating colours internally being; white and red. A striking feature of the exterior is a huge copper dome.
Above - Colour Postcard of the High Road, Balham with the Duchess Theatre in the far distance - Courtesy Kevin Phelan who has other images of Balham Theatres and Cinemas on his Flickr page here.
The commemoration stone is paced in the ladies' lobby. It bears a simple inscription, recording the names of the architect and builder and dates of building. Mr. Wyndham touched the stone with a silver trowel, presented by Mr. W. G. R. Sprague, the architect and managing director of the theatre, and promptly declared it to be "truly and well-laid." Subsequently the distinguished actor, accompanied by Miss Mary Moore, was formally welcomed on the stage, the auditorium being crowded with spectators.
Left - A Colour Postcard of the High Road, Balham with the Duchess Theatre to the left - Courtesy Kevin Phelan who has other images of Balham Theatres and Cinemas on his Flickr page here.
On behalf of the proprietors, Mr. Kimber, thanked Mr. Wyndham for attending, and incidentally mentioned that the Royal Duchess was the first theatre in the borough of Wandsworth. In reply Mr. Wyndham said that bad workmen complained of their tools. He, however, had done his work well, for the trowel was a most charming present (laughter). It was a source of great pride and pleasure, both to Miss Mary Moore and himself, to assist at the opening of this handsome theatre, and to be connected with the ceremony that commemorated its completion. Nevertheless he did not feel out of place, a fellow-feeling made one wondrous kind. It might be known to some that he would shortly open a new theatre of his own (cheers) - and he consequently looked upon the directors of the Royal Duchess as a sort of consolidated bridegroom whom he was serving as best man previous to going to the altar himself, (laughter). He did not know whether they would regard that as a happy augury, but he was aware that many bridegrooms liked to be attended by a man who was going to do likewise (laughter). However, whether there was any good fortune in the association of his name with the present ceremony, whether there was any virtue in his sincere goodwill, the directors might rest assured that he gave them both one and the other in the fullest measure.
Above - Detail from the Colour Postcard of Balham High Road, showing the Duchess Theatre - Courtesy Kevin Phelan who has other images of Balham Theatres and Cinemas on his Flickr page here.
The theatre being completed, his duty was simply to name her, to launch the vessel. What her sailing capacity might be had to be demonstrated, but when admiring her graceful lines, and remembering the distinguished men who had designed and constructed her, the captain in command, and the officers and crew who sailed in her, would take every care of her, and would do their best to secure rich freights and prosperous voyages for her owners (cheers).
Left - A postcard view of the High Road, Balham, showing the Duchess Theatre to the right of the image.
In the many theatres springing ap round London, almost monthly (laughter), one could see a significant sign of the times, the modern spirit of decentralisation. These theatres must be regarded as so many centres of distributive culture. Each brought a new body of men under the imperial sway of art. The managers in central London would ultimately gain great deal more than they would lose by that competition. These managers had lost the exclusive right of purveying dramatic nourishment, which they had enjoyed from the days of queen Elizabeth to those of Queen Victoria. Happily, the patent theatre went down before the onslaught of enlightenment and free trade. As for the Royal Duchess, long might its history be worthy of the art it served and the building in which it was enshrined (cheers).
Subsequently, Miss Mary Moore, in acknowledging a special
welcome of applause, said she was very glad to be present on so interesting
an occasion, and wished the theatre every success.'
The above text in quotes was first published in the ERA, 16th of September 1899.
Two days after the laying of the completion stone, on Monday the 18th of September 1899 the Theatre opened to the public with Hayden Coffin in a production of the play 'The Geisha'. The ERA printed a review of the opening production in their 19th of September 1899 edition saying:
'That most handsome of new suburban playhouses, the Royal Duchess Theatre, at Balham, was crowded last evening in every part with an enthusiastic audience on the occasion of its opening. "The Geisha" was presented by Messrs. H. H. Morell and F. Mouillet's Company, and a decided success was scored. Mr. Hayden Coffin (by permission of Mr. Geo. Edwardes) resumed his part of Reginald Fairfax. He was in excellent voice, and of course received a cordial greeting. He will take part in tonight's performance, and in the matinee on Thursday. Miss Ethel Irving as "Miss Molly Seamore", Miss Beatrice Edwards as "O Mimosa San," Mr. Daley Cooper as " Wun-hi," the Chinaman proprietor of a tea-house, Mr. W. E. Richardson as "the Marqus 'Imari," and Mddle. A. D'Arcier as "O Juliette Diamant," and Miss Alys Rees in the part of Lady Constance Wynne, were all warmly applauded. Encores were frequently demanded, and freely accorded.' The ERA 19th of September 1899.
Right - A postcard of the Theatre when it was known as Duchess Palace, despite the caption reading Royal Duchess Theatre, Balham.
The Theatre became known as the Balham Hippodrome in 1909 (shown left ) at which time the seating capacity was reduced to 1,268.
Left - The Theatre when it was known as the Balham Hippodrome.
The Theatre was seriously damaged by a German Bomb during the first half of the Second World War and was forced to close. Sadly it was never repaired and remained closed until it was demolished in the 1960s to make way for a block of Council flats known as the Balham Hill Estate.
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Later The Balham Music Hall / Balham Empire Music Hall / The Empire Theatre / Theatre de Luxe / Olympia / Pavilion / Gaumont Cinema
The Balham Varieties Music Hall was built by E. T. Foley to the designs of the architect W. Hancock, and opened on the 23rd of July 1900. The Music Hall was built on the site of a former Swimming Bath which had itself been converted in 1890 to house Concerts etc.
The auditorium of the 1900 Balham Varieties was built on three levels, stalls and pit, balcony, and gallery, and had four boxes, altogether being able to seat some 1,800 people.
'This latest addition to the music halls of suburban London opened its portals to the public on Monday evening, when a crowded and enthusiastic audience attended and greeted the excellent entertainment which Mr Randall Andrews, the courteous general manager, had provided for their edification.
The hall, which is situated in the High-road, Balham, will hold upwards of 1,800 persons. There are orchestra stalls, pit, balcony, gallery, and four private boxes, two on each side of the stage, which is 30ft. wide by 40ft. deep. The decorations are salmon-pink and cream, relieved with gilt and apple-green, of the Queen Anne style, with beautiful drop curtain of similar hue, and when illuminated with the electric light the effect is exceedingly bright and charming. There is also gas in case of emergency.
The electric light and gas fittings are by Messrs Vaughan and Brown; plastic work, decoration, and seating in bright terra-cotta plush, by A. R. Dean and Co., Birmingham; scenery by Mr W. Henry; contractor, Mr E. T. Foley; and architect. Mr W. Hancock.
Prior to the performance Miss Maude Mortimer sang with exquisite taste "God Save the Queen," the audience rising and joining en masse. At the outset Mr Harry Maxam appeared, and proved himself a comedian of great resource and grotesque humour. His song, "It's getting too hot for me," tickled the audience immensely, and excited much hilarity. " I know what I'm at "was equally successful, and the refrain "I shan't charge much for doing that " quite caught on. "When mother goes out we play at hide and seek" almost convulsed the audience, and Mr Maxam tripped the light fantastic with fine agility.
Miss Jessie Burnett's catchy refrain, "Oh, Mother Eve, if you could have lived to see and hear the things they say about you," had the desired effect, and the house roared again and again. Dressed as a bridesmaid, Miss Burnett sweetly warbled, "You can easily guess I've been to a wedding to-day," and for this she gained a hearty encore. This lady is also a capital votary of the Terpsichorean art.
With a fine contralto voice Miss Maude Mortimer scored a great success in her songs and ballads. "When the heart is young," and "Cupid comes along" gained undeniable recalls, as also did "I'll be your sweetheart if you'll be mine." She excelled herself in charm and pathos when she gave "The Star of Bethlehem," and received an ovation.
Clara Wieland's excellent work was greatly enhanced by her charming presence and winsome ways. Her ditty. "I've been out with Tom, Dick, and Harry," was greeted with rapturous applause and encores. "He's a soldier and a man '' appealed to the patriotism of the audience, and right heartily did they respond and join in the chorus, "We thank you all for the way you have answered to the call, in the name of the soldiers of the Queen." Her song, "Tommy Atkins," with topical Transvaal allusions, fairly brought down the house.
Mr Charles Bignell, that very popular comedian, kept the crowd in roars of laughter by his funny sayings and songs. "Poor Jim is off his Cra-ni-um " proved especially side-splitting, and "The War, the War," caused enthusiasm. "If it were not for the girls we'd all be millionaires," was also heartily enjoyed.
The Two Graces - a blonde and brunette - highly entertained with their excellent coon songs and dances, singing with charm and dancing with much grace. The Musical Howards, with their various instrumental items, elicited hearty greetings. Mr W. H. Downes, the coloured Australian ballad vocalist, with his fine tenor voice, sang, "I will not say good-bye " and "I must leave you now; I must cross the sea," with delightful pathos and power. Harrigan and Holt, eccentric comedians, in their new act, "Night duty," proved decidedly diverting; their gags and wheezes are very laughable.
The Edisonograph contributed some capital animated war pictures, Mr C. E. Howells is chef d'orchestre, and the band does yeoman service, the selection "Success," by this gentleman being capitally rendered. At the close of the performance Mr Randall Andrews thanked the audience for their attendance that evening, and assured them it would always be the endeavour of the management to provide the best entertainments for their amusement, with a regular change of programme. Mc S. P. Cooke Frankish is the courteous acting-manager, and Mr G. H. Wilson is secretary. Mr F. Marchant is stage-manager.'
Unfortunately the new Balham Varieties wasn't much of a success and only lasted under this name until 1902 after which the Theatre was altered and reopened as the Empire Theatre with a reduced capacity of 766.
But even this incarnation only had a short life and the Theatre was closed again in 1907 when it became the first Theatre in London to be converted to full-time Cinema / Cinematograph use.
In 1909 the Cinema became known as the Theatre de Luxe. In 1915 the Cinema was renamed the Olympia and then in 1920, having been taken over by the National Electric Circuit, the Cinema became known as the Pavilion. Eventually Gaumont took over the building in 1938 and renamed the Cinema, in 1949, to the Gaumont.
The Cinema closed in 1960 and was converted to a Bingo house, and eventually this long checkered history finally came to an end when the Theatre was demolished in 1974.
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Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.