Theatres and Halls in Wolverhampton, West Midlands
The Grand Theatre - The Empire Palace / The Hippodrome Theatre - The Theatre - Theatre Royal - Boot & Star Public House / Gaiety / Empire Music Hall - Star Theatre / Prince of Wales Theatre / Hippodrome Circus - The Agricultural Hall / Gaumont Palace / Gaumont Cinema - The Exchange Hall
Above - The Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton - From a postcard posted in 1910
The Grand Theatre was designed by Charles J. Phipps, being the 74th Theatre he had designed, and is thought to be one of Phipps greatest achievements. Costing £10,000 and completed in less than 6 months, it opened on the 10th December 1894 with the D'Olyle Carte Opera Company in 'Utopia Limited'.
Right - The Wolverhampton Grand in 2002 - Courtesy David Garratt.
The driving force in getting the new Theatre built was Alderman C. T. Mander (then Mayor of Wolverhampton) together with half a dozen other worthies. The foundation stone was laid by Mrs C. T. Mander on June 28th 1894.
The ERA of 8th December 1894 states 'The new Theatre stands with the principal frontage towards Litchfield street of 123 ft, a depth from Litchfield street to Berry street of 122ft; the frontage in Berry street is 114 ft. The building is practically isolated, being in main streets front and back, and having passage-ways 8 ft wide on either side between the Theatre and the adjoining buildings.'
Above - An early Act Drop at the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre - From a Souvenir Programme for the Theatre - Courtesy David Garratt.
On either side of the main entrance in Litchfield street two shops each side were incorporated into the building with basements underneath. Two entrances led off the main entrance to the Pit and Pit stalls with two separate exits into the passage-way adjoining the Victoria Hotel. The Pit stalls were seated with American bent wood seats manufactured by Platt of London and sat 200 people. The Pit itself held 800 people. Entrance to the Dress Circle on the first tier was through a grand vestibule level with Litchfield street, being 23 ft long by 21 ft wide, containing the box office and two grand staircases left and right which led up to a large crush room on the first floor, being 15 ft deep by 41 ft in length. From this upper foyer there was access to a balcony or loggia immediately over the front entrance. There was a refreshment Saloon on one side with offices and ladies cloakroom on the other side.
Above - The auditorium of the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton in 2002 - Courtesy David Garratt
The Dress Circle had 6 rows of seats, these being Phipps' registered Theatre chairs manufactured by Wadham of Bath, and accommodated 231 people. Behind the seating area was a 4 ft high barrier to accommodate standing room for 50 people.
Left -The Dress Circle Lounge at the Wolverhampton Grand - Courtesy David Garratt.
The Gallery and Amphitheatre had separate staircase entrances from the side passage-ways. The Amphitheatre consisted of 3 rows of seats at the front of the Gallery holding 150 seats, being separated from the Gallery by a barrier. The Gallery behind sat 700 people. At the back of the Gallery, opening out of French Windows, there was a balcony formed over the loggia of the Dress Circle, so that there was plenty of fresh air available to the Gallery audience. On each side of the proscenium arch was a large private box seating 10 people each. The total seating capacity of the house was 2,151 seats.
Above - Plasterwork detail in the auditorium of the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton in 2002 - Courtesy David Garratt
The stage door entrance was in the side passage-way approached from Berry street and the scenery doors were located in Berry street also.
Dimensions were as follows; Auditorium 70 feet wide; proscenium opening 35 feet in width; with the stage being 65 feet wide; the Pit 58 feet deep; dress circle to the curtain line 35 feet; amphitheatre to curtain line 39 feet 6 inches; stage floor to grid floor 55 feet high.
A brick wall separated the stage house from the auditorium, being carried up 18 feet above the roof of the auditorium There being a safety curtain of 4 inches in thickness which could be lowed in 30 seconds. There were also high pressure hydrants with hoses in all parts of the auditorium and stage.
Left - The stage right box in the auditorium of the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton in 2002 - Courtesy David Garratt.
Backstage at basement level were 2 dressing rooms and a property, and gas mans rooms. At stage level were 2 more dressing rooms, and 4 dressing rooms on the first floor and 4 more on the second floor.
Fresh air flowed via flues in the auditorium with a large extraction shaft in the centre of the auditorium ceiling, plus a skylight, and all illumination was by electricity.
The box fronts, proscenium frame and ceiling all had fibrous plasterwork by Messrs Jackson & Sons of London. The circle fronts being richly decorated in delicate moulding and the main colour scheme being white and gold. Claret coloured embossed wallpaper hung on the walls and the plush for curtains and upholstery was in a light shade of plush. The decorative work was carried out by Mr Bell of London and the upholstery work by Mr Boddy of Wolverhampton.
The Act Drop was painted by Mr Walter Johnstone and Mr William Harford of London representing a Watteau scene in a medallion surrounded by drapery. The stage scenery was painted by the resident artist Mr Ernest Jones.
The general building contractor was Mr H Gough of Wolverhampton and the Clerk of Works Mr Heginbottom.
The first tenant was Mr E. H.Bull who had for many years been one of Mr D'Oyle Carte's ablest acting managers.
Above - An early Advertising Curtain across the stage of the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre - Courtesy David Garratt.
Over the first few years large scale musicals, and Shakespearian plays, together with dramas were presented. Henry Irving appeared. Charlie Chaplin is recorded as company call boy in 1902, later appearing as Dr Watson's pageboy in the play 'Sherlock Holmes'. In 1909 Winston Churchill addressed the Budget League from the stage, and 9 years later Prime Minister David Lloyd George played to a full house when he opened the government's General Election campaign.
Above - The proscenium and house tabs of the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton in 2002 - Courtesy David Garratt
In the 1920's the Theatre was still a touring house but during the recession became a Repertory Theatre under Leon Salberg. During the 30's and 40's artists who later became stars, who played as part of the repertory companies, were Kenneth Moore, Peggy Mount, June Whitfield and Leonard Rossiter.
By the 1950's the repertory days were numbered and the Grand Theatre celebrated its Diamond Jubilee by hosting the production of 'South Pacific' in which a young Sean Connery was part of the company. In 1959 touring shows returned with a memorable production of 'The Long and the Short and the Tall' starring Michael Caine and Terrance Stamp. In the late 50's and 60's Variety shows returned with stars such as David Whitfield who made his last appearance at the Theatre in 1977.
In 1969 the principal shareholders, the Myatt family, were forced to sell the Grand Theatre to the local authority for £74,000. The Theatre had been owned by the descendants of the original shareholders for 75 years. It was felt that the Theatre needed to attract public funding and subsequently a non profit making trust was set up called 'The Grand Theatre Wolverhampton Ltd'.
This allowed refurbishment work to commence in 1973. A new stage was laid, improvements made to the lighting, and the back wall in Berry street was strengthened. The Theatre was relaunched and throughout the 70's enjoyed further success with a mixed fare of touring shows, pantomimes, opera, ballet and plays, however again audiences declined and the Theatre again closed in 1980.
A public meeting was convened to reopen the Grand, and a 'Save the Grand Action Group' was set up, working closely with Wolverhampton Borough Council. More renovation work began with the council agreeing to an annual subsidy to allow the Theatre to operate successfully. A grant was obtained from the Department of the Environment and restoration work began.'Wolverhampton Grand Theatre (1982)' was set up as a charitable trust to operate the Theatre, who leased the Theatre from Wolverhampton Council. In 1982 the Theatre reopened with touring shows supported by a loyal audience. In 1984 the Theatre celebrated its 100th birthday with a gala performance of The D'Oyle Carte Opera Company. The Theatre was a success, and through marketing was able to increase it's attendance by 79 percent.
This led to a large thorough refurbishment by RHWL being an £8 million scheme. £6 million came from the National Lottery fund, and a further £2 million from the European Development fund.
Work started on the 9th February 1998 and took 10 month to complete, the contractors being Bovis.
New Air conditioning was installed, and a higher and stronger fly tower built to take bigger touring shows. A 100 metre high crane was erected through a hole in the stage to assemble the new fly tower. Upon completion it was decided to leave the base of this crane in situe, and it is still cemented into the sub basement under the stage. The depth of the stage was increased by building an exterior cross over.
Above - A programme for ' Mother Goose' at the Wolverhampton Grand in 1963 - Courtesy David Garratt.
The foyer was also vastly altered at this time to create a large open lobby. The previous green room was converted into the new box office and IT room. A new public lift was installed.
Right - A Bill for Little and Large in 'Dick Whittington' at the Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton in 1985 - Courtesy David Garratt.
The exterior of the building had a new staircases built spiralling up to link up each level. Glass panels were installed in the balcony area running the whole length of the frontage, and the dress circle bar improved. Complete re-wiring took place and an hydraulic lift installed to raise the floor of the orchestra pit level with the stage to form an apron stage when required. Disabled access was improved and a new office suite built on top of the Dressing rooms. The whole of the Theatre was redecorated and re- carpeted. The auditorium decoration was returned to Phipps' original colours, and 1,200 new seats installed, with the dress circle steps raised to improve sight lines and leg room. The stalls rake was also improved. The one and a half ton chandelier was reinstated, and there were 3 new bars (one at each level).
All was completed on time and the Theatre reopened with the Christmas Pantomime 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' on 17th of December 1998. Since then the Theatre has gone from strength to strength, both in the latest touring shows visiting, and in audience attendances. The Grand Theatre is a huge asset to the city of Wolverhampton and its surrounding towns.
Above - A selection of programmes for the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre - Courtesy David Garratt.
Current dimensions for the Wolverhampton Grand are: Stage depth 11.9m (42feet); width Stage left 8.8m; Stage Right 9.4m; proscenium width 10.42m (35 feet); height to grid 19m.
The Wolverhampton Grand Theatre is a Grade II Listed building, you may like to visit the Theatre's own website here.
Later - The Hippodrome Theatre
Above - A period postcard depicting the Empire Palace Theatre, Wolverhampton as seen from Victoria Street
The Empire Palace Theatre was built in 1898, for the Empire Company Limited. The new Theatre stood with its frontage on Queen-Square extending through to Cheapside, taking in the site of the old Empire Palace Music Hall which formerly stood in Cheapside. The new Theatre opened with a full variety bill on the 5th December 1898.
The Managing Director was Mr. Charles Barnard, and acting manager Mr. E.C.Yeates, (who was identified with the previous old Empire Palace Music Hall). The architects were Owen and Ward of Birmingham. The building contractor was Mr. F Lindsay Jones of Wolverhampton and his acting foreman being Mr. Alfred Higgins. Mr. A. Humphreys was appointed conductor of the orchestra and Mr. Alberto was the stage manager.
The ERA edition of 10th December 1898 describes the Theatre's exterior as follows: 'The façade to Queen-Square is most picturesquely grouped, and is executed with red bricks and stone dressings, somewhat Moreque in character, the principal feature being a large central gable, surmounted with an octagonal turret with coloured glass, an electric arc lamp inside, and has a copper dome on the top thereof. On either side of this there are two smaller gables, having ornamental copper cupolas, terminating on clustered stone finials.'
There was an iron and glass verandah over the principal entrances and high above there was a large gilded statue of 'Triumph' situated between the windows on the second floor. The entrances to the Stalls, Circle and Pit were all from the main Queen-Square entrance, but the Gallery entrance was in Cheapside.
The style of the interior of the Theatre was Oriental. The main entrance having a mosaic tiled floor and tiled dado. This work had been executed by Maw & Co Limited. There were fibrous plaster oriental arches and all was richly papered with an Arabian designed wall paper. Leading off from this vestibule was the main staircase to the circle, having 'granalithic' steps by Winter and Lyne of Birmingham and a wrought iron handrail capped with copper. The passageway to the stalls also led off from the main entrance, of an elaborate character, similar in detail to the main staircase.
The auditorium was richly decorated, the ceiling being of fibrous plaster and the centre consisting of a dome with a large gaslight, surrounded by eight electric lights.
The stalls were fitted with 'old gold' coloured upholstered tip up chairs supplied by A. R. Dean Ltd of Birmingham who had also executed all the fibrous plasterwork decorations. On either side of the stalls were lounges for patrons.
The circle had a spacious saloon and lounge at the rear, and was seated with 'electric blue' coloured tip up chairs.
The Pit was divided from the stalls by a mahogany topped partition with upholstered seats. The Gallery seats being covered in linoleum. The Gallery also having a wrought iron rail running round it, 2 feet 4 inches in height.
Either side of the stage were 2 private boxes, with draperies of old gold silk plush with electric blue fringes.
The stage was lit by electricity (with gas lighting as a backup) and was fitted with three trap doors. The stage dimensions were 58 feet wide by 30 feet deep with a height to the grid of 50 feet. The Act drop was painted to represent curtained drapes with a blue background bordered by gold fringe, having a medallion centre representing a May Pole Dance. Underneath the stage were 5 dressing rooms which looked out onto an area cut out of solid rock.
The stalls, stalls entrance, and main staircases, were all covered with a rich crimson Wilton pile carpet. There were 4 refreshment saloons, one at each level of stalls, pit, circle and gallery. The Theatre also had 3 cloakrooms and all exits were fitted with panic bolts.
The seating capacity is quoted as being 150 seats in the Stalls, 250 seats in the Circle, and 500 seats in the Pit. The Gallery capacity is not quoted.
The Theatre also had a public bar 'The Empire Saloon' fronting on to Queen-Square, at the rear of which were public vaults, 'The Empire Vaults', together with a billiard room and living accommodation.
The opening performance of 'Variety' on 5th December 1898 states that first the National Anthem was sung and then top of the bill was Mr. John Lawson performing his famous sketch 'Humanity' in which he appeared as the Jew. Also on the bill were O'Connor and Brady comedians. The Phantos in 'White and Black', a clever and unique entertainment. Sisters Sprightly pleasing duettists. Sisters Winifred serio's and dancers. Drew and Alders in 'Silence and Fun'. Clark and Glenny in a comic sketch. Sisters Archer serio comics. Brothers Edgar comedians and patterers. De Voy, Hurst and Fredericks Negro entertainers presenting a comic sketch.
Early Music Hall artistes who appeared there were. Marie Lloyd, R. G.Knowles, T. E.Dunville, George Robey, Harriet Vernon, George Beauchamp, Eugene Stratton, Dutch Daly, The Seven Leopolds, Leslie's Dogs, and The Boisset Troupe.
In 1906 the Theatre became part of the Theatre circuit managed by Walter de Frece, and the 'twice nightly' system introduced with performances at 7.0pm and 9.0pm, continuing so until 1920 when the Theatre became part of the Variety Theatres Controlling Company Ltd, who's managing director was Charles Gulliver. During the Empire Palace's first 20 years, little had been done in updating the Theatre. Now that 'Revue' was the main fare with casts of 60 upwards, the old dressing rooms were struggling to cope. The new owners therefore drew up plans to modernise and improve the Theatre, both in audience facilities and back stage. Bertie Crewe was the Theatre architect employed to see this through. Wooden staircases were replaced by concrete ones, access and exits were improved, dressing room accommodation improved and additional ladies' toilets constructed, together with the stage reconstructed on a concrete foundation. In all £30,000 of improvements.
On the 21st February 1921 the Empire Palace changed it's name to the Hippodrome (the name most Wulfrunians will remember the Theatre by today) and carried on presenting Variety up until 19th September 1931 when it became briefly a cinema using equipment from the Agricultural Hall in Snow Hill, while the Gaumont Cinema was being built. Films shown during this period were 'Derelict' and 'No Lady' starring Lupino Lane. The last film shown was 'The Impatient Maiden' on 27th August 1932. The Hippodrome closed whilst the equipment was returned to the Agricultural Hall, and then re-opened as a Variety Theatre on the 5th September 1932 and continued to present Variety until it was destroyed by fire on the 19th February 1956.
The show which had been playing that week was Virgil and Julie's 'Magicana' a very big full evening, magic show starring the American illusionist Virgil. On the Saturday night after the last performance the 'strike and get out' took place (dismantling the scenery and packing up the entire show) with the Safety Curtain down, separating the auditorium from the stage. The next week the show was playing the Nottingham Empire.
The show was all packed and moved out by about 2.0am on the Sunday morning. The show was taken down to the railway goods yard and loaded onto the goods wagons ready to move out. All was completed by about 3.30am. It appears that the auditorium caught fire during this time, and was probably smouldering even as the 'get out' was taking place, but was not detected as the Safety Curtain was in place. The Theatre was destroyed and never re-opened.
A sad ending to the old Hippodrome after providing entertainment for the people of Wolverhampton for so many years. The Theatre is still missed even to this day, relived in the memories of the older generation who had the pleasure of attending, and sampling this box of delights.
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The first purpose built Theatre in Wolverhampton was a Hall built at the back of the Swan Inn just off High Green in 1779, remaining in use until 1841, although not in continuous use. It was open for 'the season' which was usually dictated by the duration of their granted theatrical licence.
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In 1845 the 'Wolverhampton New Theatre Company' was formed and a building found at Snow Hill at the junction with Cleveland Road and Garrick Street. It opened on Easter Monday, the 24th March 1845, with a performance of 'The Merchant of Venice' with James Bennett playing the part of Shylock. Bennett was an actor manager who established his reputation at the Swan. The Theatre Royal, as the building became known had a chequered history, suffering several periods of closure and changes of ownership and management. In the end it was put out of existence by the company which built 'The Grand Theatre' in Lichfield Street.. It was purchased by them with a view to removing competition with their new Theatre. The last performance was on December 1st 1894. It was demolished and the Wolverhampton's Central Library was built on the site.
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Formerly - The Boot and Star Public House
A Music Hall was built in the 1860's at the rear of 'The Boot & Star' public house. It prospered for many years known as 'The Gaiety', later changing it's name to 'The Empire Music Hall. By the 1890's it was in a run down state and the town council agreed to demolish the Music Hall and public house together with several neighbouring properties and replace it with a new Theatre which became the 'Empire Palace of Varieties' opening in 1898.
Formerly - The Star Theatre - Later - The Hippodrome Circus
Above - An Entrance Token for the Prince of Wales Concert Hall, Wolverhampton - Courtesy Paul Withers
The Prince of Wales Theatre in Bilston Street, Wolverhampton originally opened in 1853 as a concert hall, but in 1885 it was totally refurbished and re-opened as 'The Star Theatre'. The Theatre then presented melodramas and pantomimes. In 1902 it was renamed 'The Prince of Wales' again, but in December 1904 became the home of circus being renamed 'The Hippodrome' until the night of February 5th 1905 when it caught fire and was destroyed.
The Hippodrome Circus should not be confused with the Hippodrome Theatre which was originally the Empire Palace Theatre.
Later - The Gaumont Palace / Gaumont Cinema
Situated on Snow Hill, 'The Agricultural Hall' was built in 1863 and presented concerts, recitals, minstrel shows and later films from 1910. The Hall was demolished in 1931 and a new Gaumont Theatre called the Gaumont Palace was built on the site. The Gaumont Palace opened on the 5th of September 1932 with the film 'A Night Like This'.
The Theatre was built on two levels, stalls and one circle, with an elaborate proscenium with moulded plasterwork and concealed lighting behind. Equipped with a 23 foot deep stage and eight dressing rooms the Theatre was able to put on live shows as well as film, and was also equipped with a Compton 3Manual / 7Rank Organ on a lift which could rise out of the orchestra pit.
The Theatre was renamed the Gaumont Cinema in 1937 and was home to film and then later in the 60s many pop concerts although the last live show at the Theatre was on the 11th of October 1973 when Cliff Richard played there. The final film showing was on the 10th of November 1973 with Mario Lanza in 'The Great Caruso' and Gene Kelly in 'Singing in the Rain.'
The Theatre was demolished in March 1974 and an Allied Carpet store
was constructed on the site.
A visitor to the site has sent in some memories of the Gaumont gleaned from his father who remembers it well from his childhood, Tony writes: 'Father says he remembers walking past the site of the Gaumont Cinema when it was being built, daily on his way to school at Wolverhampton Intermediate in Old Hall Street in 1933-35. He walked from Church road Pennfields up St Phillips Ave, Lea Road, Penn Road, Temple St, Dudley Rd and Garrick Rd into Old Hall St. His recollection is that the great interchange there was known to him as Snow Hill and had five roads intersecting. Cleveland St, 2 Dudleys St & Rd, Garrick St and Stafford Rd (Now Georges Parade??).
He would have been 11 in 1933 which shows how safe the roads must have been in those days. And he used to go home for lunch! He describes the Wolverhampton Public library being on the north east side of the interchange extending up the east side of Garrick with the public reading room on the corner with Old Hall St. On the west side of Garrick he remembers a Ford dealership on the corner with Dudley St. On the southeast corner of that interchange on the corners of Dudley Rd and Stafford Rd was the site of the Gaumont with its unusual deep crimson/maroon brickwork and this his mother told him was the previous site of the Agricultural hall.
Looking at the maps of today if you walk up Temple St with St Johns Square on the right he remembers a convent also just off Temple St to the right (?down Convent Close).What is now shown as Snow Hill he remembers as the continuation of Dudley St into Dudley Rd. He remembers also if you continued up Garrick St and right into Bilston St there was the low level railway station and a mysterious 'Adult shop' selling items for married couples!!
Dad is now 88 and harvesting these details from him took some patience, mostly because I have absolutely no knowledge of Wolverhampton and he is anxious not to mislead anyone. Dad says there was a cattle market just past Bilston St and I believe the Agricultural Hall may have been further up that way but Dad doesn't remember seeing the actual building, only his mother telling him she used to go there sometimes for dances it was where the Gaumont was built.' Tony 2011.
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The Exchange Hall presented concerts, and recitals, with the occasional Variety Show. In 1896 it opened as a circus with performances being presented for two years until 1898, when it reverted to performances of Variety Shows. However the Hall closed down in April 1899 and was demolished.