Theatres and Halls in Cardiff
New Theatre - Empire Palace of Varieties / Levinos Hall - First Theatre Royal - Prince of Wales Theatre / Second Theatre Royal / The Playhouse - The Grand Theatre of Varieties / King's Theatre / Palace Hippodrome
Above - A Google StreetView Image of the New Theatre, Cardiff - Click to Interact
The New Theatre, Park Place, Cardiff was commissioned by Mr. Robert Redford, who had previously been running the Theatre Royal in Cardiff since 1898. Redford hired the well known Theatre Architects Runtz & Ford to build him a new Theatre on a prominent site in Park Place, close to the site of the first Theatre Royal, and the Theatre's foundation stone was laid by his wife Grace Redford, on March the 29th 1906.
Right - A programme for 'Kismet' at the New Theatre, Cardiff for Feb 21st 1916.
The Theatre took ten months to construct and opened on the 10th of December 1906 with a production of Herbert Beerbohm Tree's Company in 'Twelfth Night'.
Left - An early photograph of the auditorium of the New Theatre, Cardiff - Courtesy John West.
This was followed by the Theatre's first Christmas pantomime 'Red Riding Hood'.
Above - The New Theatre, Cardiff - From an early Postcard.
The New Theatre then went on to stage a large assortment of varied productions including a notable touring version of Drury Lane's 'Ben Hur' in 1913 which had a cast of one hundred people, and several horses and camels too.
The New Theatre showed its first film in 1917, D. W. Griffiths' 'Birth of a Nation', a silent film with full orchestra, and by 1931, after Robert Redford had retired the year previously, the Theatre went over to showing films on a more regular basis, interspersed with Music Hall and Theatre productions.
Prince Litler took over in 1935 and turned the Theatre over to twice nightly Variety with the occasional 'spectacular' thrown in for good measure. Litler, who would later go on to become Chairman and Managing Director of the Stoll Theatre Corporation, also reinstated the Christmas pantomimes at the New Theatre in 1935 with a production of 'Alladin', something which still continues there today.
In 1947 the Theatre was sold by the Redford family to the Stoll Theatres Corporation for £20,000, Robert had died some years earlier in 1936. Stoll continued the tradition of Variety, Pantomimes, and touring shows at the Theatre and many of the best known stars of the day appeared there, including of course Cardiff's own Shirley Bassey.
Left - The New Theatre, Cardiff during the run of Can-Can on the 1st of November 1955 - Courtesy Gerry Atkins.
By 1961 the Theatre's fortunes were beginning to look less than happy, the Theatre had been running into trouble financially, like so many others around the Country at this time, and Litler announced that he was planning to knock down the building and have offices built in its place. Thankfully the local population, with the aid of the group 'Theatre Now' got together to oppose the plans and they were eventually successful, the planning application was rejected by the Local Council, including an appeal by Litler who then sold the Theatre to Mecca in September the same year.
Right - A Poster for 'Cinderella' at the New Theatre, Cardiff with Kenny Cantor, Eddie Gray, Charlie Naughton, and Sheila Southern - Courtesy Kenny Cantor.
Two year later the Lease was taken over for five years by Cardiff City Council who ran it under a trust called the New Theatre Trust, reopening the Theatre on the 23rd of September 1963 with a production by the Welsh National Opera. This was the start of a new lease of life for the Theatre which housed high class productions from the National Theatre, D'Oyly Carte, and the Royal and Festival Ballets, along with Gilbert & Sullivan operas, Variety shows, Concerts and Pantomimes.
Above - The auditorium of the New Theatre, Cardiff in 2011 - Courtesy Jenny Rowley
In 1969 the building was bought by Cardiff City Council who, with the Trust, set about refurbishing the building in 1970 at a cost of £100,000, this included constructing a new sunken orchestra pit, new seating, and modernisation of the dressing rooms and ventilation of the building, the work was carried out by John Wyckham Associates. The Theatre reopened on the 13th of September 1971 with a production of 'Falstaff' by the Welsh National Opera. Further improvement work was carried out in 1976 when a new stage was constructed in the Theatre. In 1987 the Theatre was closed for a year for further improvements, externally and internally, by the architects R.H.W.L. And in 2006 the exterior of the Theatre was refurbished to celebrate its hundredth anniversary.
Above - The auditorium and stage of the New Theatre, Cardiff in 2011 - Courtesy Jenny Rowley
Above - The auditorium and stage of the New Theatre, Cardiff in 2011 - Courtesy Jenny Rowley
The New Theatre is still going strong today and is a Grade II Listed building with a current capacity of 1,159. You may like to visit the Theatre's own website here.
The first Theatre Royal in Cardiff was built in 1826 on the site of the present Parc Hotel in an area known as Crockherbtown (renamed Queen Street in 1886) and was stated to have been able to accommodate some 1,000 people. The Theatre was conceived by Mrs. Wyndham Lewis, who would later become Countess Beaconsfield, and was opened by Mrs. Macready, the step-mother of the famous actor Macready, who would go on to appear at the Theatre in later years himself, along with other such notable thespians as Charle Kean and Mrs. Siddons.
Not long after the Theatre opened it was plagued by the inundation of water from local springs, indeed it was often so bad that children would use the pit of the Theatre as a makeshift pond for floating around on planks of wood. Eventually the Alderman J. Bird had the pit dug out deeper and a feeder was constructed to drain the Theatre of excess water from the springs.
Sadly this Theatre was destroyed by fire on the morning of Tuesday the 11th of December 1877. The fire was thought to have started in the painting shed behind the Theatre which was housing bundles of straw used in the production of 'The Scamps of London' at the time. The fire quickly engulfed the building, destroying the roof, the interior woodwork, and the stage timbers. The Manager of the Theatre at the time, Mrs. Esmonde, lost everything as the Theatre was not insured.
Formerly - The (Second) Theatre Royal / The Playhouse Theatre
Above - An early postcard showing the Theatre Royal, Wood Street and St. Mary Street, Cardiff
The second Theatre Royal in Cardiff was built on the corner of Wood Street and St. Mary Street in 1878 as a replacement for the Crockherbtown Theatre Royal which had been destroyed by fire the previous year. The new Theatre Royal was constructed by Webb & Son of Birmingham, to the designs of Waring and Blesaley. The Theatre opened on Monday the 7th of October 1878 with a production of W. Gilbert's mythological comedy 'Pygmalion and Galatea'. The play had been produced at the former Theatre Royal in Crockherbtown some four years earlier.
The Theatre was built as a playhouse with an auditorium consisting of Pit, Pit Stalls, Boxes and a Gallery. Construction started at the beginning of 1878, not long after fire destroyed the old Theatre, but took quite a long time to complete compared with others of the same period. The old Theatre could seat around 1,000 people but the new one could accommodate upwards of 2,000. The facade of the Theatre, which was designed in the Gothic style and constructed of Bath stone, faced towards Westgate Street and had four ornate niches which were proposed to house life sized statues of Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, David Garrick, and the Poet Laureate. The entrances to the pit and boxes were from the front of the Theatre and faced with encaustic tiles. Two shops were also fitted into the front either side of the main entrance.
Accommodation in the better parts of the house was fitted with iron seats upholstered by Maple and Co of London and finished in red velvet with swing up seats. There was also a spacious promenade behind the boxes with a bar and refreshment rooms. The Pit Stalls could accommodate 600 people seated on stuffed seats although the alternate rows were backless to provide more room. The Gallery could hold some 800 people although even 1,000 could be squeezed in if necessary. A Sunlight in the ceiling provided the lighting and ventilation of the auditorium but there were also some 800 gas jets fitted in the building. The Theatre was decorated by H. Spry and included a French Scroll of gold and white with other colours blended in, and box fronts fitted with festoons with gold tassels.
The proscenium opening was 24 foot wide and 30 foot high with a raked stage, constructed by Grieve & Son, of 56 foot width and 46 foot depth, and was fitted with traps and three wide slides and six narrow slides for scenery to be slid on stage, the wings were 7 foot wide and 18 foot high. There were 5 principle dressing rooms constructed over the wings on a platform which ran around three sides of the stage and overlooked it so that the actors could watch what was going on on stage. Seven other dressing rooms were fitted in under the stage.
In consideration of the former Theatre's destruction by fire, the new Theatre was fitted throughout with fire hydrants and the main staircases in the Theatre were constructed of stone.
The new Theatre Royal opened on Monday the 7th of October 1878 with a production of W. Gilbert's mythological comedy 'Pygmalion and Galatea' and then went on to stage a pantomime for the Christmas period. The Theatre staged many plays over the next few decades but its future would be rather checkered to say the least.
In 1920 the interior of the Theatre was reconstructed by Willmott & Smith with a reduced seating capacity of 1,000 people and the name was changed to the Playhouse Theatre at the same time. The Theatre had a brief closure for two years from 1925.
Later renamed the Prince of Wales Theatre, in which the Welsh National Opera would stage its first production in 1946, the Theatre continued in live use until 1957 when it went over to Cinema use. This started off with high intentions as the Cinema began by showing art house films, later it went over to popular films and even had some first runs. But eventually it was reduced to showing X rated Soho style films and finally closed on the 30th of June 1984 with a double bill of 'Alexandra, Queen of Sex' and 'Boys and Girls Together'.
The building then went over to Bingo for a while, and was later used as a nightclub called Caesar's, and later still found a use as a bargain store, and then a laser game centre.
In July 1999 this Grade II Listed Theatre was bought by J. D Wetherspoons who carried out a sympathetic restoration of the building, converting it into one of their well known public houses. A bar was fitted into the former stage area and the former circle and stalls areas are now used for drinking and eating.
Right - A Google Streetview image of the former Prince of Wales
Theatre, Cardiff - Click
to Interact. I am told that built into the stone work on the western
wall is the outline of a church. It is a memorial to St Mary's church,
the parish church that occupied the site until the 17th century when
it was flooded by the river Taff and had to be demolished.
The Theatres Trust, remarking on the building's history and condition today, says that the 'interior was, for all practical purposes, obliterated after 1987, following the grant (on appeal) of consent to multiple uses which made radical changes inevitable and a return to theatre use a distant prospect. Such architectural benefits as followed from the new occupation were all external. The three separate street façes were stripped of old advertisement hoardings and the stonework cleaned and repaired. The rose window, high in the the Great Western Lane façe, was reopened and reglazed. The roof was reslated with decorative ridge tiles and the haystack above the stage rebuilt. The main entrance canopy was, however, removed. Internally the spaces were divided to form a slot-machine arcade, a computer games parlour etc and the intention was that there should also be a fast food restaurant and bar. The auditorium was horizontally divided at two levels. Some created spaces remained for a long time unused. The stage was dismantled but the grid remained. This has been a dismal recent history, not unlike that of the Philharmonic adjoining. However, the building was converted to a pub in 1999. Some of the damaging alterations have been removed and the move away from divided use has, to an extent, revealed the quality of the interior, unseen since 1988.' The Theatres Trust.
If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.
Formerly - The Grand Theatre of Varieties - Later - The King's Theatre / Palace Theatre / Palace Hippodrome Theatre / Hippodrome Cinema / The Gate Keeper Public House
Above - A Google StreetView Image of the Gate Keeper Public House, formerly the Grand Theatre of Varieties, Cardiff - Click to Interact.
The Grand Theatre of Varieties was situated on Westgate Street in Cardiff and originally opened on Monday the 1st of August 1887 with a Music Hall Bill including the Lupino troupe, the Wartenburg troupe, Miss Georgie Wright, Mdlle. Angelina, Miss Melina May, Will Atkins, Charles Sutton, and Mr Hilliard. The Theatre was constructed by Augustus Lewis to the designs of the architects J. P. Jones, and Waring and Son of Cardiff.
Right - A sketch showing the proposed exterior of the Grand Theatre of Varieties, Cardiff - From The Western Mail 19th January 1887.
The Western Mail reported on the new Theatre in their 30th of July 1887 edition saying:- 'On Monday evening next the Grand Music-hall, which has within the last five months been built for the "Grand" Property Company (Limited), will be opened to the public, for which ceremony Mr. Harry Day, one of the best known and deservedly one of the most popular caterers of the day, has brought together as powerful a combination of talent as it would be possible to concieve. The hall itself is one of the most beautiful of its kind. A full description of the exterior view, with a large sketch, was published in the columns of the Western Mail a few months ago. Except with regard to the pit and circle entrances, this has been but little departed from. It is, therefore, unnecessary to describe the exterior at any length. But, briefly, it is as follows:- In style of architecture, Renaissance - harmonising with the fine hotel adjoining, and it has a frontage of over 82 feet. The Bath stone (rusticated) elevation, with massive plinths of Radyr conglomerate, give it a most imposing appearance. Indeed, a more beautiful or striking elevation could scarcely be met with anywhere. The total height from base to roof is 67 feet, On either side of the hall are two wings, capped with circular dormers, which greatly relieve the elevation and add to the appearance. Sandwiched between the hotel and the hall are the main entrances for the pit and circle, it being the intention to arcade the latter. On the street level, in the centre of the block, is a wide exit door, communicating directly with the pit, in fact the exits throughout are most ample. Above the centre door and between the two wings is a spacious balcony, 30ft long, to which access can be had from the dress circle, thus forming a pleasant promenade. The back of the hall being curved for the purposes of sound, the elevation here takes the same curve, the curving being stopped by the two wings. The pit entrance is between 7ft. and 8ft. wide, leading straight in without steps; that to the dress circle is of the same width, the stairs being of Radyr stone. In short the whole facade is one of which any town might well be proud.
Above - A sketch showing the exterior of the Grand Hotel and proposed exterior of the Grand Theatre of Varieties, Cardiff - From The Western Mail 19th January 1887. The Grand Hotel Facade is still extant today, the Theatre's Facade remains but with some changes.
The interior, which will afford accommodation for nearly 3,000 people, has been fitted up in the most elaborate style, every new device or invention that could possibly enhance beauty or add comfort having been pressed into the service. The pit, which gives accommodation for about 1,000 persons, is provided with crush or smoke rooms, cloak-room, and ladies' and gentlemen's retiring-rooms, fitted with lavatories and every convenience. Above the pit is a fine dress circle, which is carpeted and fitted throughout with improved theatrical chairs with turn-up seats, richly upholstered in Utrecht velvet by Mr. James Lyon, theatrical upholsterer, 222, High Holborn, London. Above this again is the gallery, the entrance to which is from Womanby-street, and which will give accommodation for about 500 more. This is also comfortably arranged, and affords a splendid view of the stage, every inch of which, indeed, is visible from every seat in the building. Flanking the circle and gallery are luxurious private boxes, three on each side, access to those on the gallery height being from the dress circle. The dressing-rooms, manager's rooms, and stores are in the block facing Womanby-street.
The lighting and acoustics are as near perfection as it is possible to make them. Everything bas been done on the newest principle. The ceiling, which is dome shape, has for its centre a large sunlight containing no less than 133 burners; the remainder of the lighting equipment is almost entirely electric, the incandescent lamps being fitted with shades of delicate hue, the affect of which is a deliciously soft and subdued light. The major portion of the gas fitting has been the work of Mr. Woodman, of Cardiff, who has also supplied the brackets for the electric lamps, and to whom the fitting of the lavatories, &c., has been entrusted. Another great advantage has been derived from the use of the ingenious system of ventilation recently patented by Mr. Henry Moreton, of Cardiff; this will make a cool atmosphere one of the features of the Grand, a thing that will be especially grateful to searchers after amusement during the summer months of the year. No less than twenty-four distinct currents of cold air, from two ventilators, will be constantly passing into the interior, and in such a way that there is not the slightest risk of draught, the foul air making its escape through other ventilators placed in the ceiling. It is satisfactory to know that the whole of the building has been carried out without an accident of any kind or the slightest mishap, which speaks well for the care taken by the builder, Mr. Augustus Lewis, who has carried out the contract, not only satisfactorily, but in an incredibly short time. The architects are Mr. J. P. Jones and Messrs Waring and Son, Cardiff; and the clerk of the works, who has been indefatigable, Mr. S. Jones.
The Proscenium is one of the finest and most artistic to be seen in the country, and is the work of the well-known London firm of Messrs. Newton and Co., who so successfully carried out the decorations of the private exhibitors in the Indian Court of the Indian and Colonial Exhibition, the window decorations of the Durbar Pavilion, the Mysore Gate, &c. Starting from a base elaborately mounted, spring two light columns, gold fluted and surmounted with an elaborate cap. The spaces between the columns are chastely decorated with banners and festoons. Springing from the cap is a coved arch enriched with bold shell and brick decoration, and with a centre composed of the Cardiff arms and musical trophies. The wall, from the proscenium to the ceiling, is also enriched with golds and decked with scrolls and "swags" of flowers. The grounds are in a light blue, and the ornaments are of light cream relieved with gold.
The festoons throughout are richly relieved with gold, and the groundworks are tinted with relievo tints of blue terra-cotta, drabs, and greens. It may be mentioned that the whole of the gilding has been done with the best English gold, so that no expense has been spared. The material used has been fibrous plaster, which is non-inflammable. A new and novel lace curtain, a gem of scenic art, has been invented by Mr. Day, and painted in a most artistic manner by Mr. Mark Barraud, of the Prince's Theatre, Bristol.
The stage is an unusually large one, giving an amplitude of space for every requirement. The stage arrangements also present several novel features. Leaving the old grooves, Mr. Day, and with him Mr. Clarke, the master carpenter, have invented a new apparatus for working the wings. This consists of a series of forks,which allow of a scene being set at any angle, a manifest improvement on the old system. The arrangements for lighting the stage are superb; no theatre in England will be better lighted. Scenes will be changed without necessitating the use of a drop curtains. The Lights are worked by means of revolving mediums, which allow of as many as eight or nine changes to different colours almost instantaneously. The lime-light reservoirs have been specially made by Messrs. Walley and Co., of Derby. The gridiron, too, is as large as any in the country, and instead of taking up the "cloths" with rollers, by means of counterweights, the change will be done in a moment. The new scenery is magnificent, and it includes a splendid act drop, depicting Windsor Castle by sunset, designed and painted by Mr. John Watson, late of Wallach's Opera House, New York. The decorations have been executed by Messrs, Newton and Co., under the direction of Mr. J. P. Jones, architect, and it will be a sufficient guarantee of their work to mention that they have done more in the way of theatrical decoration than any other firm in the world.
The leading spirit in the venture, and who is sole lessee and manager, is a gentleman born to the business of public catering, being for years co-proprietor in the known-everywhere Day's Concert hall, Birmingham. No less than 22 years have been passed by him as a provider for the public amusement, among the notables be has been instrumental in bringing to the front being Captains Webb and Boyton, in fact he has himself worn the dresses patented by the latter. He has sent entertainments all over the Continent, while some of the finest spectacles ever seen in London have been by his provision. One of the grandest ever seen in the Metropolis was that of "Egypt," upon which Mr. Day was personally complimented by Lord Charles Beresford and Lord Aylesford. The former, as is well known, had passed through the Egyptian Campaign, and was thoroughly acquainted with the incidents of that arduous undertaking, and in his opinion the production of Mr. Day was the most realistic he had ever seen. He has also had great experience in matters dramatic, and made his debut in Cardiff at the theatre, when be appeared for a benefit. It was his intention, he stated to one of our representatives on Friday, to introduce to Cardiff, if possible, some of the grand spectacles which made the Birmingham hall famous, and caused it to be sought for far and near.
For Monday evening he has secured the patronage of the Mayor of Cardiff (Mr.Morgan Morgan),and on that occasion Mr Day will present the ladies of the audience with flowers, those in the boxes being asked the acceptance of beautiful bouquets. Each lady in the circle will also be requested to accept a fan. He has made most expensive engagements. "Cee Mee," the marvellous trapezist, heads the bill, the names of the other artistes being almost too many to mention when space is a consideration. The programme, however, includes Miss Melinda May the charming burlesque actress, and the Lupino troupe in their comical pantomimic ballet. On Friday evening the performance will be for the benefit of the Infirmary, it being Mr. Day's intention to hand over the whole of the takings to the mayor, and on the Friday following for the benefit of the Deaf and Dumb Schools.'
The above text in quotes was first published in the Western Mail, 30th July 1887.
The Grand Theatre of Varieties opened on Monday the 1st of August 1887 and the ERA were on hand to report on the occasion in their 6th of August 1887 edition saying:- 'Grand Theatre of Varieties - Sole Lessee and Manager, Mr Harry Day, - This place of entertainment was opened on Monday last by Mr Harry Day with great eclat, the Mayor and Mayoress of Cardiff being present, with a large audience, every available seat being occupied. The stage, with all the most recent improvements, is under the direction of Mr George Clarke. The effective lace curtain, the design for which has been invented by Mr Harry Day, has been painted by Mr Mark Barraud, and the magnificent act-drop, "Windsor Castle, sunset," by Mr John Watson, the local scenic artist. The architects are Messrs Waxing and Sons and Mr J. P. Jones. A recherche programme had been prepared, the Lupino troupe, a host in themselves, being engaged; and the celebrated Wartenburg troupe following, Miss Georgie Wright, an accomplished danseuse; Mdlle. Angelina, on the invisible wire; Miss Melina May, who warbled some choice songs; Will Atkins, Mr Charles Sutton, coloured comedian; and the popular vocal artist Mr Hilliard completed the list.
At the invitation of the proprietors of the New Grand Theatre of Varieties, a few friends assembled on Saturday last to inspect the building, prior to its opening on the succeeding Monday. His worship Mr Morgan Morgan (one of the directors) attended, and during the consumption of the exhilarating "Moet," which was handed round, the Mayor proposed success to the new undertaking, coupling with it the name of Mr Harry Day.'
Although the Theatre opened in August 1887 at this time it still didn't have a dramatic or music license, these were applied for the following month in September. The Western Mail reported on this in their 10th of September edition saying:- 'At the Cardiff licensing sessions, on Monday, Mr Arthur Lewis, on behalf of Mr Harry Day, applied for a dancing and music license for the Grand Theatre of Varieties, Westgate-street. There was also an application for a dramatic license, and he asked that the two should be taken together.
Mr Louis Reece opposed the application for a dramatic license on behalf of Mr. Fletcher, lessee of the theatre; and Mr Spencer opposed the dramatic license on behalf of the Cardiff Theatre Company. Mr Arthur Lewis, in opening his case, said his client intended to go in for high-class entertainments, but he could not put on the stage so much as a ballet, character sketch, or anything involving a dialogue, without a dramatic license. The premises had been erected at great expense, having cost something like £10,000. Mr Day was well known throughout the whole of England; indeed, he had a world-wide reputation, so that it was unnecessary for him (Mr Lewis) to say anything about him beyond that, from his earliest years, he had had experience in matters of this kind. It was his intention in Cardiff to give only a high-class variety entertainment, and, as he wished to make that as attractive as possible, he asked for the license. There certainly was plenty of room for two licenses in Cardiff, which had a population of quite 120,000. Mr Lewis then quoted figures with regard to other towns, Wolverhampton with 75,766 inhabitants and two theatres; Blackburn, with 114,689, had three theatres; Blackpool, 100,000, two theatres; Bolton, 116,000 odd, two theatres; Bradford, 180,000, two theatres; Bristol, 200,600, two theatres; Eastbourne, Halifax, Burnley, two theatres. So that with regard to population Cardiff was quite able to support two dramatic licenses. He had not a word to say against the Cardiff Theatre Royal. He had no doubt it was admirably conducted, and that the entertainments provided there were exceedingly good. But it was not a large theatre, and in his own experience he had been unable to get seats. It would be a serious thing if the application were refused, for Mr Day had been put to considerable expense, and had made arrangements with artists. At the request of the bench, Mr J. P. Jones, architect, was called, and produced photographs and plans of the building. It afforded accommodation for about 1,400 persons, and the exits were ample. One very crowded evening, when the place was more than filled, he had timed the emptying, and everyone was out in 3 min. 2 secs. All the doors swung outwards, and just double the ordinary accommodation was given, that was, 2ft. for every hundred instead of a foot for the same. All the staircases were fireproof, the walls were 2ft. 3in. thick, and there was no exit less than 7ft. 6in. Pit, gallery, and circle all emptied direct into the street, exclusive of each other, so that there was no danger of crushing at the points of convergence. Hydrants were fixed at different parts of the building; in fact, it was the best appointed hall he had ever seen. After giving their evidence, the Bench said they would like some independent testimony, and an adjournment was made until the 21st, when the borough surveyor will give his opinion on the building.'
The above text in quotes was first published in the Western Mail, 10th September 1887.
The above License application was duly reviewed and on Tuesday the 21st of September the same year, 1887, a Music License was approved for the Grand Theatre, but not a Dramatic License. It seems Mr Fletcher of the Theatre Royal had won his case against the Grand being able to put on Drama, but the Theatre would be able to put on variety and music hall productions. Harry Day tried again in October but a dramatic License was again refused.
In 1904 the Theatre was renamed the King's Theatre and by this time, having now received a Dramatic License, it reopened as a Drama Theatre. However, a few years later it was taken over by the MacNaghten Vaudeville Circuit and the name was changed again, this time to the Palace Theatre.
In 1912 the name was changed to the Palace Hippodrome Cinema and its Theatrical days seem to have been over. By March 1927 it had become part of the Biocolour circuit. In the 1930s it was taken over by an Independent operator and renamed the New Hippodrome Cinema with new decorations, but it was unsuccessful and the Cinema closed down. Plans to convert the building into a garage in 1939 were put on hold due to the outbreak of war and the Theatre fell into dereliction. After the war the building was altered and used as a Warehouse and later as an Auction House.
The building was more recently acquired by J. D. Wetherspoon and what remained of the building was converted into a Public House called 'Gate Keeper'. Nothing remains of the internal structure of the Theatre today although the exterior facade is still partly that of the old Grand Theatre.
Information on the final years of the Grand Theatre were gleaned from the excellent Cinema Treasures Website.
Archive newspaper reports for this Theatre were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.
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Formerly - Levinos Hall - Later The Gaumont Cinema
Above - An early postcard view of the Empire Theatre and Queen Street, Cardiff
The Empire Theatre on Queen Street, Cardiff, that people may remember today as the Gaumont Cinema, was built in 1900 and designed by the renowned Theatre Architect, Frank Matcham. The Theatre was a reconstruction of an earlier Theatre of the same name, also by Matcham, which had opened in 1896 but was destroyed by fire in 1899. This first Empire Theatre was itself built on the site of an earlier place of entertainment called Levino's Hall which had been open since the spring of 1887 and was renamed the Empire Theatre in 1889. There now follows a history of the site in chronological order.
The original 1887 Levino's Hall
Levino's Hall was first opened in the spring of 1887 by Professor Dolph Levino, who had previously had a successful season at the Circus in Westgate Street, Cardiff, and was well known for his mesmerism experiments. The opening of the Hall was begun with the National Anthem and 'God Bless the Prince of Wales', followed by an exhibition of the Drop Curtain, and then performances by Dusoni's trained dogs and monkeys, Mr. and Mrs. Vahean in a novel entertainment, the Human Farmyard, and a bycicle troup, all accompanied by music, and of course Professor Levino himself, performing his mesmorism act.
However, Levino was soon the subject of a summons brought by Charles Rodney, the manager of the nearby Philharmonic Music Hall in April 1887, who claimed that Levino had opened his Hall without a Licence and the fact that his entertainments were accompanied by a band playing music meant that the place was really being run as a Music Hall. The summons was granted but in the ensuing Court Case at the Magistrates Court, which was attended by a great many local people keen to see the 'star artistes' in attendance, the case was dismissed, providing that Levino's acts were not found to be performing dancing or singing in the future. Loud applause greeted the decision and it shows just how popular Levino's Hall had become with the local population.
The 1887 Levino's Museum of Varieties
By the following year such was the success at Levino's that Levino was soon carrying out extensive alterations to the building. The Hall closed in September for two months and then reopened on Monday the 7th of November 1887 as Levino's Museum of Varieties. The Western Mail printed a report on the new building, reprinted from the Evening Express, in their 7th of November 1887 edition saying: 'Levino's Hall, Queen-street, Cardiff, which has been closed for the past couple of months for extensive alterations and decorations, will be quite ready for the re-opening to the public this (Monday) evening, when a very strong and attractive programme will be produced.
No conception can be formed by those who have not seen the work in progress of the complete transformation effected within the building during so brief a period. Not only have extensive structural alterations been made with a view of providing greater comfort and safety, but the whole of the interior, from top to bottom, has been decorated in a most profuse and artistic manner.
The entrances to the hall from the main street, which are by means of two wide corridors, remain unaltered save that the walls have been completely transformed by the brush of the artist. The most complete precautions have been exercised in every conceivable direction to protect the visitors from any injury in case of a panic, and all the doors open outward. The occupants of the balcony and boxes have also an additional outlet in case of emergency by means of a sub-way constructed for the use of the artistes, and leading from the stage to the area without.
The fronts of the balcony and gallery have been rounded and lowered, and by this means the appearance of the interior has been greatly improved, and at the same time the line of sight to the stage has been made perfect from every corner of the building. So far as the mural decorations are concerned, it is impossible to do them justice in the limited-space at our disposal. Every wall, from top to bottom, has been decorated in oils in a most elaborate manner, and the eye of the connoisseur will rest upon many a work of art which he would gladly transfer to his own picture gallery.
The greater part of the work has fallen upon the shoulders of Mr. Henri Levino, who has performed a most astonishing feat in completing so great an undertaking in so limited a time. Amongst the many pictures are a life-like portrait of Lord Bute by Gillies Gaer, an equally striking portrait of the ex-Mayor of Cardiff (Sir Morgan Morgan) by Henri Levino, a couple of cartoons of Gladstone end Beaconsfield by Dolph Levino, in his inimitable style, and sundry bits of local scenery, including views of Cardiff and Caerphilly Castles by Henri Levino. One of the most charming works is the collection is a subject from the "Midsummer Night's Dream,' depicting Titania discovered asleep by Oberon, in which Gillies Gear has shown himself to be a perfect master of his art. So far as the general decorations are concerned, we can only repeat what we have said before, that the only pity is that so much artistic talent and exquisite workmanship should be bestowed upon the perishable walls of a building of this sort. The whole of the work has been carried out under the superintendence of Mr. W. F. Gillett. Doubtless, however, the appreciation of the public will go a long way to reward the Brothers Levino for their enterprise.' - The Western Mail, 7th November 1887.
The reconstructed Hall reopened on Monday the 7th of November 1887 as Levino's Museum of Varieties but it doesn't seem to have been so popular with Levino's public as the old Hall was, and on the 24th of June 1886 the building itself and some adjoining properties were bought, on a 999 year lease, by Mrs. Stoll and her son Oswald, at a cost of £175 a year. (Oswald Stoll would go on to become the well known Theatrical Entrepreneur and owner of Stoll Theatres Ltd., and later still to merge with Moss Empires Ltd., to form a Company that would eventually become Stoll Moss Theatres Ltd, a huge Company running the majority of Theatres around the Country. More on this below.)
The 1889 Empire Palace of Varieties
By the end of September 1889 Mrs. Stoll and her son had reopened the building as a Music Hall with a newly granted music and dancing Licence, and renamed it the Empire Palace of Varieties, although the papers were still carrying the heading (Late Levino's Hall) in their reports for the benefit of their readers for years afterwards. Levino himself was reported to be somewhere in America by this time.
Right - An advertisement in the Western Mail of October 2nd 1889 for Miss Marie Loftus and powerful variety Company at Mrs. Stoll and Son's Empire Palace of Varieties, Cardiff.
As the Empire Palace of Varieties, business boomed, and by 1895 it was found that the building was of insufficient size to cater for its eager patrons, indeed people were being turned away from its music hall and variety shows on a regular basis. This success led to the Stolls wanting to enlarge the premises and so, in conjunction with H. E. Moss of the Moss and Thornton circuit, set up a new Company which was formed in May 1895, called the Cardiff, Newport, and Swansea Empire Palaces Ltd. Moss bought the lease of the Empire and some of its adjoining properties from Mrs. Stoll and her son Oswald, and the leases of the Newport and Swansea Empires, for a combined cost of £48,000, and then made them over to the new Company, whose Managing Director would be Oswald Stoll, with Moss being the Chairman. The Company, which would eventually go on to become Stoll Moss Theatres, a huge Company running the majority of Theatres around the Country, also acquired a freehold property belong to a Doctor Thomas Evans, adjoining the Cardiff Empire, and set about having the whole site rebuilt into a new variety Theatre which, including the freehold property and construction costs, would amount to around £22,000.
The 1896 Empire Palace of Varieties
Construction of the new Empire Palace of Varieties would be completed by the following year in May 1896. The Theatre was designed by the renowned Theatre Architect, Frank Matcham, and had an auditorium in the French Renaissance style which could seat 1,000 people in some comfort. The original Hall was used as an extension of the stage for the new Theatre which created a large space with a 50 foot depth and space behind and at the sides for scene docks, property rooms and paint rooms. The Theatre opened on Monday the 4th of May 1896 with a Music Hall production which began with the band of the Severn Volunteer Division playing 'The March of the Men of Harlech', the National Anthem sung by the Rhondda Glee Society, and then performances by Marie Loftus, the Three Sisters Wynne, Don Juan A. Caicedo, Master Herbert La Martine, the Marco Twins, Harry Chambers, Professor Parker and his dogs, and Harry Freeman.
The ERA reported on the new building in their May the 2nd 1896 edition saying: 'On the site of the old Empire and adjoining premises this large and handsome new palace of varieties has been erected for the Cardiff, Newport, and Swansea Empire Company, and is now ready for opening. Mr Oswald Stoll is the managing director, and the opening is fixed for Monday. Mr Frank Matcham , the architect, whose name is now associated with some of the best theatre work in this country, has prepared the designs.
The principal frontage is an imposing elevation of red brick and Bath stone, the centre portion being carried up as a tower containing a large circular window filled in with coloured glass, in the centre of which is the word "Empire." This will be illuminated at night. The ground floor is divided into entrances to the different parts of the theatre, and the frontage, with its are lamps and handsome brassier and bright-coloured glass, will be very effective. The theatre has been designed with a view to carry on two performances a night, and special consideration has been given to the entrance and exits, which are in duplicate. By the provision of waiting-rooms it is possible to take the money for the second performance whilst the first is in progress, so that not more than a few minutes' interval need elapse between each performance. The entrances are so arranged that no movable barriers are needed, the exits being always clear and uninterrupted. One pay-office is so placed that the money for each part is taken there, but, of course, at separate batches.
The saloons, lounges, and retiring-rooms are in the most desirable positions, the whole being handsomely decorated and furnished throughout. The auditorium is very cleverly arranged, on quite a novel style, and the galleries are constructed on the cantilever principle, without a column to intercept the sight of any of the audience. The front portion of the ground floor is fitted with luxurious lounge chairs, and there are also ten rows of pit-stalls, with the newest style of lift-up chairs, and eleven rows in the pit, the whole accommodating about one thousand persons.
The grand circle is arranged with bold sweeping lines, and has five rows of tip-up chairs. At the sides are raised promenades, and at the rear are thirteen private boxes with corridors and a handsome foyer filled with luxurious lounges, and the floor covered with Axminster carpet. Over this circle is the balcony, comfortably seated having a wide promenade at the side and at the rear a large gallery.
The stage is very large, and has the usual traps and bridges, and the grid is of such a height that all scenery can be taken up without rolling. At the rear of the stage is an additional stage, it being the old hall, and with this addition a depth of over 50ft. is obtained. At the sides and rear are large scene docks, property rooms and paint rooms. At the side of the stage is a separate block containing large dressing-rooms and a spacious green-room, where the artists can rest between the performances.
The decorations of the auditorium are in French Renaissance,
carried out from Mr Matcham's designs, the
ceiling divided into panels and coves, with raised enrichments, and
the whole decorated in rose colour and gold bronze. The panels are filled
in with artistic painting, and the two box façades on each side
of the stage are most novel in design, and display great taste in decoration.
The upholstery has been a special feature, the boxes are draped with
a light blue plush, and the tableaux curtains are of the same material.
Mirrors are introduced as part of the decorations and the whole, with
the complete scheme of electric lighting, is most effective. Mr Stoll
has spared no expense in supplying Cardiff with a fine up-to-date music
hall, and well deserves the gratitude of the inhabitants for providing
for them such a handsome and comfortable place of amusement.' - The
ERA, 2nd May 1896.
The newly constructed Empire Palace of Varieties opened on Monday the 4th of May 1896 but it wasn't to last for long for it was destroyed by fire just three years later on the morning of Tuesday the 31st of October 1899. The fire was reported to have probably begun on the stage of the Theatre sometime after 5am but by the time the fire brigade arrived at 6am the building was well alight, and by the time they had broken into the building and started hosing down the stage, the roof had caught fire and was raining down on the auditorium. A second fire engine arrived 20 minutes later but between them they were unable to have any effect on the flames and it wasn't long before the whole building, apart from the entrance halls, was on fire. The efforts of the fire brigade managed to stop the fire spreading to surrounding buildings but in the end only the exterior walls of the Theatre, its offices and Entrance Halls, remained.
Unperturbed by the fire however, Oswald Stoll managed to secure the nearby Panoptican for his performers and the show which had previously been performed on the Monday night at the Empire, was put on the next day at the Panoptican instead, whilst the Empire itself was still smoldering. The performers, which included Lottie Collins, Lotto Lillo and Otto, the Brothers Etherian, Vernie Belfry, the sisters M'Nulty, Burt Shepard, J. P. Adderly, and The Haytors (Eddie, Arthur, and Frank), were also given a cheque for £90 by Oswald Stoll which was a duplicate of the funds received for a benefit they had performed for the Army Reserve Fund the previous week. The artistes put an announcement in the ERA the following week thanking Stoll for his kindness saying: 'Could a man do more? His kindness will always be gratefully remembered.'
The 1900 Empire Theatre
Above - The Empire Cardiff - From a postcard dated 1911
It seems Oswald Stoll could do more in fact, because it wasn't long before he had commissioned the architect of the previous Theatre, Frank Matcham, to set about designing a replacement for the Empire on the same site in Queen Street, and by Saturday the 30th of September 1900 the Cardiff Empire was once again in business.
The Western Mail carried a description of the new Empire Theatre, accompanied by a sketch of the auditorium (shown right) on the day before it opened saying: 'It was like old times when on Friday afternoon a large party of ladies and gentlemen stepped into the Cardiff Empire - the new edition of an old and favourite establishment. Several months have passed since that memorable morning when the most beautiful of the public buildings in Cardiff was burnt out before breakfast, when the place was wrecked, stage appointments were consumed, artistes' belongings were lost, and musical scores and instruments went off in smoke instead of sound.
It will not be easy to forget the quiet energy of Mr. Oswald Stoll and his manager (Mr, Lee). who set to work at once to meet, the emergency, and before dinner thus announced that the performance would take place as usual in the old Philharmonic-hall. And the performance did take place, although some of the artistes had to go or send to London for new clothes, and the singers had to hum their tunes Mr. Griffiths to write fresh accompaniments during the day, and the men in the orchestra had to vamp where they hadn't time to copy the music, and Lottie Collins sang "On the Run-dan" in a dress made almost on the spot, all just as if nothing had happened. It took Mr. Stoll but a short time to "fix up" for a new hall, and the co-directors of his company almost immediately announced that the empire would be re-built.
The work is completed at last, and the private view that always precedes a public opening nowadays took place on Friday afternoon. In general outlines and at first sight, it seemed like going into an old home done up afresh. But an inspection showed that great and many alterations have been effected. For one thing, the seating accommodation has been increased by about 500. In order to ensure this, the stage has been set back several feet, and the arrangement of the balconies, &c., has been improved, especially in the direction of dividing the gallery into two sections - one a sort of second-class "dress circle," with benches nicely cushioned in red velvet, and the other with the ordinary gallery benches. The "upstair" department, therefore, shows up in three tiers. The dress circle has been carried out to the front a little, thus increasing the space, and the boxes have been re-arranged, as the centre ones are set a little beyond those on the wings.
The entrances and exits have been dealt with upon progressive lines, and a new exit has been added, whilst to meet the difficulty found with the audiences, who sometimes will not fill up the middle seats, central entrances have been provided. But the most important feature of the building is that everything that up-to-date invention has yet conceived has been adopted to make the hall fire-proof. The auditorium is built absolutely of steel and concrete, so that if anything caught fire it would be only the upholstery and one or two yards of side-railing.
Right - A colour postcard view of the Empire Theatre and Queen Street, Cardiff.
The architect (the now famous Mr. Frank Matcham) has recognised the fact that fires in theatres almost invariably originate on the stage. The stage in this case is accordingly cut off from the auditorium by every known means. Iron doors are at the side entrances, a. fire-proof drop scene (made of asbestos) has been fitted up, and, in order to prevent the flames from "licking around should a fire break out at the back, the proscenium is finished off with lintels and an archway lined with slabs of alabaster, which adds to the beauty of the place as well as its safety. In addition to this, there is a full complement of fire hydrants, hose, &c.
The seating is of the most comfortable description, upholstered throughout in the cheering hues of a rich red plush. The decorations are charming, Paintings of classic and other subjects, by De Yong, fill up every available space, and the fluted pillars and cornices are painted in delicate hues, with rich gildings. The beauty of the place is, naturally, the feature that first catches the eye, but beyond that comes the question of safety, and then comfort. In connection with the latter subject we should mention that a large sliding roof has been provided, so that a maximum of ventilation may be obtained during the hot weather.
Left - A colour postcard view of the auditorium of the Empire Theatre, Cardiff.
The hall has been built throughout upon the most approved "London County Council" lines. Mr. Matcham regards it as one of his achievements, and after a short, chat about the arrangements said to one of our representatives, "It is absolutely fire proof - it simply cannot burn down. Mr. Matcham further pointed out a peculiar feature of the arrangements at the back. Taking into account the fact that fires begin on the stage, he said that in this new Empire as much wood as possible has been used in the roof and elsewhere. The object is, that should a fire break out it would blaze away for a short time, but soon burn itself out. Naturally, the chance of the rest of the building being damaged by long heating would be diminished. Messrs. E. Turner and Sons, of Cardiff, were the building contractors.'
The above (edited) text in quotes was first published
in the Western Mail, 29th September 1900.
The new Cardiff Empire Theatre opened on Saturday the 30th of September 1900, 11 years to the day since the first Empire had opened, in September 1889, which had been a renaming of the former Levino's Hall. The new Empire opened to a crowded house in the presence of the Mayor and Mayoress of Cardiff, Mr. and Mrs. S. A. Brain, and after an opening overture by the orchestra, the curtains were drawn aside and the National Anthem was sung by the Canton Male Voice Party accompanied by the orchestra and the Cardiff Military Band. A song and dance by Marie Reeve followed this and then Rosie Lloyd, the sister of Marie Lloyd, sung a melody accompanied by a chorus from her son who was sitting in the balcony. Then the Oetzmann Comic Pantomime Troup performed their act followed by a speech by Oswald Stoll, who also introduced Moss and Matcham to the audience. The speech was followed by Cissie Loftus who headed the Bill, whose mother by the way, Marie Loftus, had headlined the opening productions at the two previous Empire Theatres on the site. Other performers at the opening of the new Empire were the Crawford Brothers, the Florenz Troupe, Ida Heath, and the Brothers Onda.
The Empire Theatre then went on to be the home of Variety in Cardiff for the next three decades with all the biggest music hall and variety names appearing there, including, in its opening year of 1900, Arthur Lloyd.
In 1915 the Theatre was altered by the architects W. & T.R. Milburn and in 1931 the Theatre was converted for Cinema use by its new owners Gaumont British Theatres Corporation. Gaumont retained the stage however, and the Empire name, and the Theatre ran with live shows and film shows until June 1933 when it was closed for further alterations including the installation of a Compton 3Manual/10Ranks Theatre organ. The Theatre reopened in August the same year, still under the Empire name, and carried on as such until it was renamed Gaumont in 1954, although programmed by Rank until its eventual closure on the 30th of December 1961.
Sadly this was the end for this historic Theatre and the building was demolished in 1962 to make way for a C & A clothing store, although entertainment did carry on in the form of a ballroom which was built underneath the store with the Top Rank name. Even this building has now been demolished however and at the time of writing in December 2011 the site is occupied by a branch of the budget clothing company Primark.
This article on the history of the Cardiff Empire was first compiled and written by Matthew Lloyd in December 2011. Archive newspaper reports for this Theatre were kindly sent in by B.F. Some information on the Theatre's later days as the Gaumont Cinema were gleaned from the excellent Cinema Treasures Website.
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