The Palace Theatre, Oxford Street, Manchester
Formerly - The Manchester Palace of Varieties
Above - The Palace Theatre, Manchester during the run of 'The Producers' - Courtesy George Richmond.
The Palace Theatre, Manchester was originally designed by Alfred Darbyshire & F B Smith, and constructed by William Brown and Son of Salford at a cost of £40,000. The Theatre opened as the Manchester Palace of Varieties on Monday the 18th of May 1891 with a spectacular ballet production of 'Cleopatra' with Signorina Lucia Cormani as Antony and Carlotta Brianza as Cleopatra, this was followed by a variety show.
Right - An early Programme for the Palace Theatre, Manchester showing its original frontage - Courtesy Peter Charlton.
The ERA were invited to a private view of the Theatre shortly before it opened, and reported on the building in their 16th of May 1891 edition saying:- 'The Palace Theatre of Varieties, the licence for which was opposed by certain sections of the Manchester public, but which was recently granted by a full bench of the city justices, has been completed this week, and forms a handsome addition to the places of amusement in Manchester.
The building is situated in Oxford-street, at the corner of Whitworth-street, near the centre of the city, and occupies a large area. It presents an imposing and attractive appearance, the principal elevations being after the Italian Renaissance style of architecture, and the coloured decorations giving it a distinctive feature compared with the neighbouring buildings.
The main entrance, which is in Oxford-street, leads into a spacious hall, and a wide Sicilian marble staircase gives access to the interior of the building and to the balcony and promenade. To the balcony the entrance is by a beautiful old marble doorway elaborately carved, secured from a dismantled palazzo in Italy, and, as seen from this point, the interior, with its tasteful and artistic scheme of colour and its handsome upholstery, is pretty and picturesque.
The auditorium is 90ft. wide and 66f t. deep; the stage is 66ft. by 40ft. deep; and the proscenium opening is 36ft. wide by 32ft. 10in. in height.
The principle of isolation is carried out in every detail. There is no opening of any description, except the stage opening, in the proscenium wall, and this opening can be closed by a fire and smoke-proof curtain, The arrangement of the auditorium is on the most approved principle. There are only two galleries - the balcony or dress-circle and the gallery proper, the latter being set back from the tier below.
There are no columns in the circle, and from all parts of the house a free and uninterrupted view of the stage is obtained. An important and novel feature of the balcony section of the building is that any person in the grand foyer and winter garden can see the stage without going into the auditorium. This is achieved by the promenaders being placed at a higher level than the circle promenade and the amphitheatre being raised somewhat higher than usual. The building, which is lighted throughout with electric light as well as with gas, has been erected from plans prepared by Messrs Darbyshire and Smith, architects, at a cost of £40,000, the contractors for the work being Messrs Wm. Brown and Son, Salford.
Last night (Friday), in view of the opening of the theatre on Monday evening, a private entertainment was given on the invitation of the directors to the shareholders and their friends, the programme including the performances of the corps de ballet, some 200 strong, in Cleopatra, and of the orchestra of fifty musicians.'
The Building news and Engineering Journal reported on the construction of the Manchester Palace of Varieties in their 24th of January 1890 edition saying:- 'This building (a double-page illustration of which we give, (shown above and below) is now in course of erection at the corner of Oxford-street and Whitworth-street, Manchester.
The theatre will have a frontage of 103ft. 6in. to Oxford-street and 139ft. 6in. to Whitworth-street. The auditorium will be 90ft. by 66ft., and the height from the pit floor to the spring of the dome will be 60ft. A novel feature in the planning of the auditorium is that it is placed parallel with the stage, and not in prolongation of it. The block of buildings will stand isolated from the surrounding property.
Right - A Watercolour showing the Manchester Palace Theatre's original Auditorium after it had just opened in 1891 - By George Richmond, June 2016. The painting has been created from a photograph in the book 'Red Plush and Gilt' by Joyce Knowlson, and the colour scheme is from articles in contemporary archive newspaper reports.
The staircases, corridors, and all portions of the house used by the public will be fireproof. The dressing-rooms and stage are so arranged that each portion can be detached in case of fire. An interesting feature connected with the building is that access can be had from the main tier to the winter garden and foyer on the first floor, the dimensions of which are 66ft. by 27ft., and an outside loggia, connected therewith, fronts Oxford-street. It has been so designed that the stage will be viewed from both the foyer and winter garden.
The fireproof staircases, circle tiers, doors, partitions, and auditorium and stage ceilings will be executed by the Titancrete Co., with their patent fireproof materials. The decorations will be carried out by Messrs. Heighway and Depree, of London. The building is being erected by Messrs. W. Brown and Son, contractors, from the designs of Messrs. Alfred Darbyshire, F.R.I.B.A., and F. Bennett Smith, the architects.'
The above text in quotes, and its accompanying 4 images, (see others below) was first published in the Building news and Engineering Journal, 24th of January 1890.
The ERA were on hand to report on the official opening of the Theatre to the public in their 23rd of May 1891 edition saying:- 'The New Palace of Varieties in Manchester, a description of which we published last week, was opened on Monday evening, when the large and handsome building was filled with an immense audience. An attractive programme was provided, and the success of the entertainment was recognised by deafening applause. The chief feature of the entertainment was, of course, the spectacular ballet of Cleopatra, which is conceived and carried out on a scale of great magnificence, and displays much beauty in every detail. It is performed in three tableaux, so arranged by Madame Katti Lanner as to produce in every change the most effective results...
Right - The auditorium of the Palace Theatre, Manchester in 1978 - Photo Courtesy Ted Bottle.
Mr George Edwardes, the managing-director, then came forward, and said that during the last two years they had had a most anxious time, but the most anxious time of all had been that night. Have we (he continued) succeeded in pleasing you? I thank you for this most favourable verdict, and I can assure you, on behalf of the directors and myself, that we shall do all we possibly can to give the people of Manchester the best possible entertainments. Mr Geo. Scott, the manager, was also called before the curtain, and acknowledged the compliment. The ballet was certainly a brilliant production, and no small part of its success was due to the performances of an efficient band of fifty musicians under the able conductorship of Mr Cuthbert Clark.
The other part of the programme was of a varied character. Madame Macart appeared with her performing dogs, and Mdlle. Leodiska with her performing cockatoos. Mdlle. Jessica gave her wire act, and Madame Annie Albu, the well-known opera vocalist, sang a couple of songs with refinement and taste. Messrs Kelly and Ashby were very amusing with their clever Chinese eccentricities, while the daring trapeze performances of the Sisters Ongar were loudly applauded. Mr G. H. Macdermott sang some of his latest comic songs, and Mr Curtis D'Alton displayed his vocal ability. An acrobatic performance was given by Messrs Abachi and Massande.'
Above - Alfred Darbyshire & F B Smith's Transverse Section through the Auditorium looking towards the Stage of the Manchester Palace of Varieties - From the Building News and Engineering Journal of January the 24th 1890.
Above - A sketch of the auditorium of the Palace Theatre, Manchester - From the reopening brochure for the Palace Theatre, Manchester in March 1981.
The Palace Theatre was redecorated and altered in 1896 to the designs of the renowned Theatre Architect Frank Matcham, and he again worked on some improvements to the Theatre in 1899 when he was commissioned to put in a pass door so that the Manager did not have to go outside in the rain and snow to reach backstage, and at the same time he also proposed to carry out some minor alterations and to redecorate the Theatre. A letter from Frank Matcham to the Manchester Council regarding these changes has recently been discovered and can be seen here, I have transcribed the letter below. Sadly the plan mentioned in the letter is missing but an undated plan of Matcham's proposed addition of a Cinematograph Room for the Theatre can be seen below.
De Courcy Meade Esqr, Re Palace Theatre. 9 Warwick Court, Holborn, W.C. 29th April 1899.
I enclose you a plan showing certain alterations to the above, for which I shall be pleased to receive the sanction of your Council. The first is a slight alteration to the entrance Lobby, increasing slightly the size, & substituting Mahogany doors & screens for deal, also the removal of the Pay Box at the side & forming a new Box opposite the exit.
The formation of a small fireproof Managers office off the Grand Staircase.
It is proposed to cover in the present large well hole over the top landing of the Marble staircase, so as to prevent the fearful draughts that occur, immediately the entrance doors are open.
There is a want of a Gents Lavatory on the Balcony level, & it is intended to utilize some waste ground as shown by knocking out a doorway, & putting in a concrete floor, & fitting up with Lavatory basins &c.
The next alteration is the alterations at the sides of the Gallery, cutting back same, & setting the Box fronts back about 18" to improve the sight lines, which at present are very unsatisfactory.
The last alteration proposed is a very important one to the management, it is in the formation of a new doorway in the Proscenium wall, fitted with an iron door, & this is solely for the use of the Management, at present as the Manager is in the front of the House he has to pass through a staircase & doorway & through another door & passage to the stage. The inconvenience & trouble this incurs is really great, & the fact of a gentleman in evening dress having to pass several times out of a hot Theatre into the wind & rain & snow even for a short time is most dangerous to his health. I therefore hope your Council will see the advisability of sanctioning this small alteration.
The door shall be iron & hung to close of itself & be fitted with a lock of which the Manager alone shall possess a key. I may add that none of the above alterations interfere in any way with the present exits of the Building. It is proposed to carry out a large scheme of decorations & upholstery, so as to bring the Theatre completely up to date.
I await the favour of your early reply.
Yours Truly, Frank Matcham.
The above letter from Frank Matcham to the Manchester Council in April 1899 was very kindly sent in for inclusion on the site by Mike Hall, the former Resident Stage Manager at The Manchester Palace Theatre, and Roger Fox.
Above - Frank Matcham's design for the addition of a Cinematograph Room for the Palace Theatre, Manchester - Courtesy Mike Hall and Roger Fox.
Above - The 'Refaced' exterior of the Palace Theatre in April 2015 - Photo M.L.
In 1913 the auditorium was reconstructed by Bertie Crewe although apparently it is still possible to see some of the plasterwork from the earlier Matcham interior above that of the current Bertie Crewe auditorium.
Further alterations were carried out to the Theatre in 1953 when the exterior was also refaced and modernised, and, as the Theatres Trust puts it bluntly, 'Darbyshire's splendidly opulent façe was obliterated by unprepossessing faience tiles'.
In 1979 the Theatre was threatened with closure, along with the Opera House but the Palace was instead chosen as Manchester's touring house of the future and extensively refurbished. Raymond Slater bought the Theatre from Moss Empires, and formed the Manchester Palace Theatre Trust who also bought some land and office buildings to the rear of the Theatre which enabled them to enlarge the stage by some twenty feet.
Right - Part of the reopening brochure for the Palace Theatre, Manchester in March 1981.
The Fly tower was raised by 12 feet at the same time, and the orchestra pit was enlarged so that it could now accommodate 110 musicians. The dressing rooms were also enlarged and modernised at the same time and the first computerised box office system in Europe was installed in the Theatre. The refurbishment work was carried out by Smith & Way.
Left - The Reopening programme for 'Jesus Christ Superstar' at the Palace Theatre, Manchester in March 1981.
The Theatre reopened on the 18th of March 1981 with the new touring production of 'Jesus Christ Superstar' which had first opened at the Palace Theatre in London on the 9th of August 1972 and had run at that Theatre with great success until the final performance on the 23rd of August 1980. It was at the time Britain's longest running musical with a total of 3,357 performances.
Reopening the Palace Theatre, Manchester in March 1981 and running for six weeks, the show would then go on to tour the rest of Great Britain.
Above - Pages from the reopening brochure for the Palace Theatre, Manchester in March 1981.
The Palace Theatre is currently run by the Ambassador Theatre Group, you may like to visit the Theatre's own Website here.
Right - A Google StreetView Image of the Palace Theatre, Manchester during the run of 'Mama Mia' - Click to Interact.
If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me
The Palace Theatre, Manchester
From Moss Empires' Theatres in the Fifties by Donald Auty, 2005
Above - The Palace Theatre, Oxford Street, Manchester - From an early Postcard.
This is a magnificent 2000 seater theatre again a Matcham house. When it opened in the early years of the twentieth century there was a problem getting a liquor licence for the bars for a number of years and it was a dry variety theatre. This affected the business quite a bit until a licence was eventually obtained.
Right - The Palace Theatre, Manchester - From a period Postcard.
It was independently owned until Moss Empires took it over in the early fifties although they had booked it for many years. It was the second important theatre after the London Palladium and in addition to variety bills and musicals it staged spectacular Spring and Autumn revues presented by Sam Newsome who owned the Coventry Hippodrome (Shown Right) and was also a director of Moss Empires. I had the privilege of managing a number of these.
It was the only theatre on the circuit that had a stage director Bert Traylor who came down from the Edinburgh Empire after it closed and a stage manager Geoff Milne. The electrician in the early sixties was Gill Binks who only died a short time ago. He operated one of the first strand consul switch boards to be manufactured and it was situated on a perch above the prompt corner. It was well past its prime in the early sixties and spare parts were difficult to obtain. Gill used to make it work when it was playing up by giving it hefty kicks.
Tim Tillson was transferred from Nottingham when Moss took over as manager. The years at Manchester mellowed him and he became quite pleasant before he retired.
Left - The Palace Theatre, Manchester - From a postcard.
Bert Trayler the stage director and myself did not have the happiest of relationships with the equine species at this theatre. Any Cinderella pantomime that I was connected with at this theatre had ponies in it that crapped all over this stage, more than any other in the country.
I went in with a tour of Chu Chin Chow in 1958 and decided that a donkey on stage would give extra panache to the market scene. Teddy Tingling who was on the stage staff also provided ponies for the Tom Arnold pantomimes so I hired a donkey from him for the week. There used to be double doors on the side of the stage where the dressing rooms now are that led into a passage. Teddy brought the Donkey down to the theatre on the Monday night and we put a ramp by the double doors to bring him down on stage. He got half way down splayed his feet and refused to move, he-hawing at the top of his voice. One of the quiet musical numbers from the show was being performed at the time. It is needless to say that I was not at the top of the popularity league with the cast that night.
In one of the Spring Shows starring Beryl Read and Jimmy Edwards they both did a sketch that featured Tunis the horse. Tunis used to get sexually excited when he was standing next to Beryl and showed it. Whilst Wally his trainer and myself bellowed put it away Tunis from the wings. Beryl would then come off stage at the end of the sketch and say to me I am not going on again if that f****** horse does that . The horse sketch was in the early second half of the show and Curries Waltzing Water Fountains closed the first half of the show. These were struck during the interval and Tunis was brought in on the opposite side of the stage through the double doors and led over to the other side of the of the stage to the prompt corner whilst this was happening. I kept a box of lump sugar for him in the prompt corner. One night he decided he could not wait for his sugar and galloped across the stage to me, sending stage hands scenery and water pipes flying. We had to lengthen the interval by ten minutes in order to mop up the ensuing flood. I was again not top of the popularity stakes.
Right - A Programme for 'Autumn Crocus' at the Palace Theatre, Manchester.
There were a number of musical directors at the Palace during the fifties who presided over an excellent 16-piece orchestra. One of them had a peculiar time beat with his baton and we used to say he looked as though he was knitting fog. If an act came along with difficult music he would always retire to his sick bed with what we all called diplomatic influenza.
The Palace is one of the most successful theatres in the country and now owned by Clear Channel Television. It went through a period in the seventies when it looked as though it was going to go but it survived. Long may it do so.
The above text was kindly written for this site by Donald Auty in 2005.
The Palace Theatre is currently run by the Ambassador Theatre Group, you may like to visit the Theatre's own Website here.
If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.
Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.
You may find the following pages from this site of interest: