Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The lost Pleasure Palaces

I've been trying to find information and photos about The Theatre Royal in Hanley for my dressing room project. This collaborative work with Stoke Pottieries Museum and Art Gallery has been interesting for so many reasons; One of my favourite things has been finding out about the history of Stoke, a place one half of my family came from and partly still live.

I've been specifically looking up information about The Theatre Royal as the dressing room set will be focused around it's 'Grand Re-opening' which occured on 14th August 1951. The museum has an original programme from the night which is very impressive, all expensive cream card and gold embossing on it's cover. You can imagine just how exciting and important this night would have been to the people of Stoke. At a time when entertainment was so popular that it wasn't unusual for towns to have several cinemas and theatres, this grand re-opening would have been a social event not to be missed!

The term 're-opening' is important to remember. Only three years earlier a tragic fire destroyed the entire auditorium of the original theatre leaving only the perimeter walls standing. It is said that the Sadler's Wells Ballet Company who were performing there at the time lost almost the entire production; costumes, scenery, props and the whole collection of musical instruments. Whilst the flames consumed backstage the theatre manager, fearing the loss of important documents, dived into the burning building in his pyjamas and overcoat to save them!

It seems it wasn't just the manager who valued the Royal and what it held. In 1950 the people of Stoke handed a petition with over 50,000 signitures to the Minister of Works asking for permission to build a new theatre. This was post war Britian and building of any kind had to be essential to go ahead. However perhaps out of a sense of public feeling, permission was granted and, like the old legend, a new version of the theatre rose from the ashes.

It re-opened with much pomp and circumstance, the residents of Stoke donning their best outfits and evening wear to enjoy the opening ceremony performed by the The Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire. This was followed by a rousing production of 'Annie Get Your Gun' performed by Newcastle's Operatic Society. There were also several messages of good luck from well known stars of the time including Stoke on Trent's own Gertie Gitana, a music hall entertainer and  peoples favourite who was dubbed the Force's sweetheart during the first world war.

A press clipping for the night shows a group including officials and their wives and children standing next to a smiling cowgirl and cowboy holding huge bouquets. With such auspicious celebrations and so much support for the new venture it shocked and confused me to find out that by 1954 audiences had declined to such an extant that the building was sold off to Moss Empires. Perhaps the growing popularity of Television was to blame for this lack of interest?

Like many small town theatres and cinemas the Royal became a bingo hall for a number years. Evidence of simliar fates can be spotted in many locations if you look for them. In my home town for instance, the bingo hall by the bus station was once one of eight cinemas dotted about the little market town in the 1950's, but more of that later.

What I'm after now is a sense of the grandeur of the re-built Theatre Royal. The character, Mrs Brown, whose dressing room I am to construct and who 'attended' the re-opening event will have been caught up in the excitement and would have revelled in the newness of the building. But what was it like?
If you look for the Theatre Royal on the internet you will find a few outside photos of the frontage. I personally like this flyer from the museum archives which has a great sense of glamour and bustle, I imagine if they could have added huge Hollywood style floodlights pointing to the sky they would! I think this may have been before the re-opening as the building now does not have the pointed top just a flat roof, or it could be that during the theatre's varied history the facade changed as much as the place's purpose.


There is a wonderfully helpful facebook group page called 'I loved the Theatre Royal Hanley Stoke on Trent' where I have found several interior shots showing stage productions and backstage areas which have a certain amount of poignancy to them now. The best shots  I've seen for giving an idea of what it was like to be a visitor to the theatre show typical tiered red plush seating, stalls and cirlces and decorated relief work around the stage.

Photo copyright of Ian Grundy
 Photo copyright of Ian Grundy

After all this you might be wondering what happened to the Theatre Royal. Well it's fair to say it  has had a turbulant history what with fires re-openings and bingo, it then lay empty for a year before theatre enthusiasts re-opened it again in 1982. But that wasn't the happy ending the theatre deserved; The building closed again after going into liquidation in 1996 and most of it's original fittings and contents were auctioned off. Then just when it seemed there couldn't be any hope for the Royal in 1997 a millionnaire businessman, Mike Lloyd, bought the theatre and began a 1.2 million refurbishment completely rewiring the venue and replacing the seats in the stalls so that they could be removed for stand up rock and pop concerts. A new crest was even placed over the stage in full glory. The theatre held yet another re-opening that year with comedian Ken Dodd doing the honours. Hooray I hear you cry! But hold on, there's more...

Just when it seemd the Theatre Royal was well and truely back, Mike Lloyds' business empire collapsed along with his ownership of the building. In 2001 the council of Stoke on Trent gave planning permission for the building to be turned into a nightclub. The circle and stage have been destroyed, the seating ripped out and the theatre now functions as a bar for 'Jumpin Jaks'. I feel this is a sorry end for a place which inspired so much hope and promise in it's first reincarnation. What would Mrs Brown think?

Gone but not forgotten: 

During my research into Stoke on Trent's theatre, I couldn't help but be reminded about the rich history of cinemas and theatres around the places I live. As mentioned before these palaces still exist if you only look for them, their ghosts still haunt our towns;

This is Hulme Hippodrome in Manchester which opened in 1901, a theatre set in the square,  similar in design to the Theare Royal in Hanley. It also served it's time as a bingo hall during the 60's and although this magnificent building still stands it now largely unused, lost amongst the redevelopment and new houses of the area. It is on Manchester City Council's 'At Risk' Register.

This is another Theatre Royal, this time situated in Hyde Greater Manchester. This building holds particular personal interest to me as I remember seeing films there when I was little, even then it was mostly empty, but I loved sitting in the circle looking over it's velvet padded edge and feeling the vastness of the place. There is a painting by Harry Rutherford in Hyde Library's Rutherford Gallery which shows the building in it's glory days; chorus girls dancing on the stage and lime lights twinkling. (Is it suprising this my favourite painting in the gallery?).

In 2007 I attended an open day and along with a group of other intrigued people I took a stroll around the theatre's dark empty interior, a very affecting experience for many reasons I think you'll understand. You can take a virtual tour around the building HERE.

The theatre is now listed with plans for surveys towards restoration thanks to the efforts of  The Theatre Royal Onwards Team 

Another  theatre/cinema masquerading as something else. This Quality Save in Hyde used to be The Hippodrome. I've never seen it as anything but a supermarket but it's tell tale shape is a giveaway to a more glamorous past.

You can find out about the history of the building and the family behind it HERE.
It would seem  from looking at these photos that no-one appreciates the pleasure palaces of old these days, but that is where I can give this post a happy ending at last! 
Last year some of you may remember I visited the Plaza in Stockport. A classic example of an entertainment palace from a bygone era, but in this instance, it is a fully working cinema and theatre, showing vintage films and a variety of plays, pantomimes and music events. It is beautiful inside down to the last detail and a real pleasure to be inside. It proves that sometimes the old styles are the best, and sometimes there's nothing we need more then a break from the modern world.

1 comment:

Adam Standler said...

Hi, the reopening wasn't a production of Annie Get your Gun by the newcastle amateurs, it was a proper west end run. Theres loads of information next door to the museum in the archives department of the library, including the records that were saved from the fire, programmes, photographs, and a book about the history of the Theatre Royal, which is actually accurate compared to thepotteries.org, which is almost totally incorrent.