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Theatres in Bilston, West Midlands

The Theatre Royal, Bilston

The Theatre Royal, Mount Pleasant and Mountford Lane, Bilston

Later - The Royal Hippodrome and Picture House

A Poster for the Theatre Royal Bilston during its later years - Courtesy David Garratt.T he Theatre Royal was situated on Mount Pleasant at the corner of Mountford Lane, Bilston, which lies southeast of Wolverhampton in the West Midlands, and was in the centre of the coal mining and iron making Black country district. This was the second Theatre Royal on the same site, the first had been in existence since the mid 1850s. Arthur Lloyd brought his play Ballyvogan to this Theatre Royal in August 1891.

In 1902 the early Theatre was rebuilt. The ERA Newspaper dated Saturday 31st May 1902 states:- 'After the performance of 'Two Little Vagabonds' at the Theatre Royal, Bilston, on Saturday last, the Theatre was closed for the purposes of enlargement and general improvement. It is proposed to widen the building several feet, orchestra stalls are to be constructed, and the balcony and circle entirely re-arranged and upholstered.'

Right - A Poster for the Theatre Royal Bilston during its later years as a home for so called 'girly shows' in the 1950s - Courtesy David Garratt.

The new Theatre Royal was designed by architect James Tomkinson of Liverpool. Its exterior facade was cinematic in it's appearance with a rendered facade containing entrance doors and five windows all at first floor level. The central window was the largest window with a curved top and either side two narrow tall slit like windows were situated. The name Theatre Royal appeared above these windows and a curved central pediment at roof level with the year 1902 emblazoned on it.

The Theatre opened on the 13th October 1902, with a production of the play 'The World's Desire,' presented by Mr William Giffard's Company, playing the Theatre for the whole week.

The new Theatre was 12 feet wider than the previous one, fronting onto the main road to Willenhall. The ERA newspaper dated Saturday 11th October 1902 states:- 'The building 'now comprises a width of 48 feet by 60 feet long. With such dimensions as these accommodation for at least 1400 persons will be found inside the walls. The pit will comprise fourteen rows of seats for, say, 250, the dress circle 230 seats (tip up); the balcony 300 seats; and there are four handsomely decorated private boxes, to which access will be gained by corridors leading from the dress circle. In order to prevent noise from the feet a linoleum floor has had full attention. The style of the erection may be termed 'Italian,' and whilst the frontage, with it's verandah constructed of iron and glass, and its lofty appearance, bearing the name of the theatre, together with the Royal coat of arms and a charming south view, standing out so prominently, a public improvement to the town is hereby assured. At the main entrance there are two booking-offices, besides the 'early door' entrances; and two double- door exits are to be seen in the front of the house, in addition to a couple of exits from the pit proper, and two from the stalls proper. Capital accommodation for the artists has been looked after, from the fact that a wing has been erected on the east side of the building, which contains six comfortable dressing rooms close to the stage. The stage itself is worthy of special notice, in as much as it can be viewed distinctly from every seat and every part of the house. It's dimensions are 34 feet by 48 feet, with an opening of 24 feet for the proscenium. From the stage floor to the fly floor is 20 feet, and from the fly floor to the grid another 20 feet. The stage is situated at the north end of the building, whilst a capital doorway for the access and egress of scenery and the like has been constructed on the west side leading from Mountford lane, a thoroughfare most useful as regards access to and from the Theatre at all times when the front entrances may be closed. There are two refreshment rooms – one for the circle and one for the pit. These are well fitted and lighted. Both electricity and gas are laid throughout the entire building. All the latest improvements have been devised, even in the decoration of the interior. The cream-coloured fibrous plaster artistically designed around the dress circle, proscenium, and private boxes, is relieved by tasteful panelling of crimson and pale green. All the balustrades are braided and embellished with crimson plush velvet.' - The ERA, 11th October 1902.

Harry Battersby also ran the Wednesbury Hippodrome, and booked the same shows for both Theatres. Melodrama was popular with such productions as 'The Wicked city,' 'Queen of the Night,' and 'The Scarlet Woman.' Pantomimes, and occasional Variety shows played the Theatre.

Unfortunately on Monday October 8th 1906 Frank Bateman whose play 'No Wedding Bells for her' was playing the Theatre suddenly collapsed and died of a heart attack whilst talking to members of the cast.

In 1910 Edwin C. Jazon, who also ran the Theatre Royal at West Bromwich, took over as lessee from Harry Battersby and in March the Theatre was granted a Cinematograph Licence, and films began to be shown as part of Variety programmes. In 1912 the Theatre was advertised as the 'Royal Hippodrome and Picture Theatre.'

In 1924 the Theatre was taken over by Woods Picture Halls, owned by the Woods family, for the sum of £3,000, who continued to run the Theatre as a Variety house, but by 1932 the Theatre was modified to become a full time cinema, being equipped with a British Thomson Houston sound system. It was then operated as a full time cinema until 1934, when full time live Variety shows returned.

The Theatre was taken over by Astel Pictures in 1936, but by 1938 'The Astel Repertory Company' presented a season of dramatic plays there.

During World War 2 the Theatre closed for a period, re-opening in October staging Variety shows. The Theatre closed for redecoration during a week in August 1944 with Jack Riskett in charge. This saw a period of Revues presented.

In the 1950s the Theatre often became home to so called 'girly shows' and nude reviews. The Birmingham Daily Post reported on this and the Theatre Manager's departure in their 11th of November 1955 edition saying:- 'Bilston Manager Leaving Business - Mr. Gilbert Suddaby, who is soon to relinquish the management of the Theatre Royal, Bilston, after 30 years' association with the theatrical profession, said last night that he did not think there was any future in the variety theatre because of the competition of television and radio. He held no brief for nude shows, he said, but there were not enough "clean" ones to go round. I had a variety bill last week without a nude in it, and we lost a packet, and so did the company," he said. He was convinced that if Bilston departed from nude shows and, for instance, tried repertory the theatre would close its doors.'

In Donald Auty's 'Twilight of the Touring Revue' he writes about touring to the Theatre Royal Bilston during this period saying :- 'The two weeks at Keighley came to end and we moved on to the Theatre Royal Bilston. There were two railway stations there and the truck containing the costumes props and what little scenery we had was put into the station where we did not expect it. The local stage staff and myself spent most of Monday morning tramping around the Railway sidings at Bilston Central looking for it whilst it sat in Bilston Ettingshall Road waiting for us. Bilston [Theatre Royal] was reaching the end of its life and the theatre was filthy dirty, it closed six months later with Frank Randle topping the final bill. This was also one of the last appearances of Frank. We opened on the Monday night to around 100 people in the audience. The theatre ran on a once nightly basis whilst all the others were twice nightly. We also had two nudes that week. Dave did not want to put them into the show but unless he did there were no bookings so he had to bow to the march of time. The band sounded terrible and although I am first to speak up in favour of a pit orchestra I wondered if the arrangement at Keighley had not sounded better. After the show on Monday night Dave handed me a white fiver to give to the resident stage manager who I was to meet the following morning. He showed me into a scene dock that was full of scenery, props, and costumes of shows that had gone bust there. I took my pick so at least the show was now decently mounted. A producer was sending out a tour of the musical Good Night Vienna and he phoned Jack Riskett the manager at Bilston to try and book it. His first sentence was, 'Jack how do you think Good Night Vienna will go in Bilston?' Jack replied, 'about as well as Good Night Bilston would go in Vienna. We staggered through the week and played to terrible business.'

The Theatre Royal, Bilston finally closed on the 18th of May 1957 and was put up for sale, but it failed to meet it's auction price and then remained closed until May 1961 when the local Council purchased it for £5,000 and demolished it between September and December that same year. It was a well loved Theatre and is sadly missed by all those who graced it's doors for a great nights entertainment through all those years.

A few very nice photographs of the Theatre Royal, Bilston can be seen on the Cinema Treasures Website here.

The above article on the Theatre Royal Bilston was kindly written for this site by David Garratt in June 2019.

If you have any more information or Images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.

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