The Opera House stood in Reform Street, Dunfermline from 1903 to 1983 and can be seen and enjoyed today in the Sunshine State of Florida, USA.
It opened in 1903 with an opera from the Dunfermline Amateur Operatic Society when the society`s vice-president, the industrialist Sir James Sivewright of Tulliallan, gave a speech of welcome. J. W. Turner's Grand English Opera Company appeared the following week and returned in other years. The Moody-Manners Opera came later. The theatre became a home for the long established Dunfermline Dramatic Club and for the Opera Society. Each year the Carnegie Dunfermline Trust Operatic class performed with their School of Music orchestra. The continuing diet was variety, plays, musical comedies, light opera, revues and pantomime.
Right - A sketch of the auditorium and stage of the Dunfermline Opera House in 1903 - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
During the 1920s and 30s, comedians and artistes included Sir Harry Lauder, George West, Jack Raymond, and Kitty Evelyn, Tommy Lorne, the Houston Sisters, Jack Anthony, Will Fyffe (whose father had run a portable theatre at nearby Cowdenbeath), Dave Willis and frequent seasons of Charlie Kemble`s Nu-Optimists, who appeared there in 1939/40 for some 44 weeks with his concert party including Jack Tennant, the Troy Sisters, Sydney Wilson and the Nu-Optimist Girls. In later years came Robert Wilson, Jack Radcliffe, Jimmy Logan and Jack Milroy.
The theatre was designed by architect Roy Jackson of Perth who had also become a theatrical manager and it was built by, and for, the brothers George and James Anderson. Initially it could seat some 1,300 patrons and had stalls, circle, balcony and boxes. Its act-drop of Loch Katrine was painted by the scenic artist Claude Broadbridge. The lessee was W E Potts (shown left) who had been manager of the Theatre Royal, Dumfries, and manager of touring companies from his early days in Sunderland.
Left - W E Potts, Lessee of the Dunfermline Opera House - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
The Anderson building firm soon became financially embarrassed and the Opera House was auctioned publicly, being bought in September 1904 by a private client of a law firm in the town who continued William Potts` lease. The only change to the house was to call it the Theatre Royal & Opera House. The private client is thought to be J R Russell, whose father David Russell, also a lawyer, was a director of St Margaret`s Hall.
W E Potts expanded his interests in 1908 by leasing the Gaiety Theatre, Dundee, and adding that City`s Empire Theatre for a time. At the end of 1909 Potts started the Pavilion Roller Skating Rink in North Station Road, Dunfermline. His drama actors in the Opera House in 1910 included Edward Compton; the same year he also started showing film in the Opera House.
Above - An audience changeover in Reform Street outside the Dunfermline Opera House - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
In early 1911 Potts gave up the lease to Mrs Lillie Moult or Williams with whom he had worked in Dundee. Her husband, and she, had operated the Gaiety Theatre Dundee before R A P Williams became manager of the new Savoy Theatre, Glasgow, founded by Alfred Moul who also opened the King's Theatre, Dundee. It is possible that Lillie Williams was a sister of Alfred Moul. She was an established pantomime producer in her theatres and had a touring pantomime company. She produced major pantomime over four seasons at the Kings Theatre, Edinburgh. At the Opera House, for over a year, she attracted large audiences for actors such as Edward Tearle and W Payne Seddon.
1911 would have a number of other personal dramas. That summer William Potts` Pavilion Roller Skating Rink (and adjoining stables) burned down, and he lost all his goods stored there, with no insurance in place, including household furniture, his effects from the Opera House including theatrical scenery and a cinematograph machine which was about to be installed. When in the Opera House everything was insured, and he was in the process of obtaining insurance. A Benefit concert night was later held at St Margaret`s Hall for W E Potts. A vintner based in Guildhall Street confessed to starting the fire and he was sent to jail. He was a shareholder in the rival roller rink managed by Henry John Hare.
The theatre`s owner J R Russell failed as a lawyer and absconded leaving a vast trail of debt. His assets were put up for sale including his own mansion and grounds of Craigdhu, North Queensferry, and the Opera House. His creditors were paid 6d in the £. The theatre closed for a number of months while the building was sold by auction in 1912 to John Henry Hare (shown left) who dropped the Theatre Royal from its name. He refurbished it in time for pantomime at the end of 1912 when Provost Hubbard was guest of honour. Mrs Lillie Williams moved on to manage the Tower, Portobello.
Left - John Henry Hare, owner of the Dunfermline Opera House in 1912 - Courtesy Brian Nobile and the Hare Family.
Henry Hare had a theatrical touring company background and a theatrical wife and had moved from Oldham to settle in Dunfermline. In December 1909 he had opened the Central Roller Skating Rink in Canmore Street, which had a balcony and tearoom and a gallery for the orchestra. It soon became a cine-variety hall known as the Olympia, still with Henry Hare, and holding about 1,350 people, with an additional access from the High Street. It finally closed in 1922. In 1930 its site became the Regal Cinema.
In 1915 newspapers reported Hare had secured a central site in the town for the building of a new theatre which would have one of the largest stages in the country, and hold over 2000 people. This would be the Alhambra.
But Hare would not be its funder nor builder, and instead from 1915 promoted the Reform Street venue as the New Opera House with Pictures & Varieties. Seat prices were from 9d to 2d.
After the Great War, the newly formed Scottish Provincial Theatres Ltd, based in Dunfermline but not including Hare on its board, bought the building and decided to rebuild the Opera House to be a variety theatre (with occasional plays and repertory including the future John Corrie and the Fife Players).
Theatre architect John D Swanston of Kirkcaldy was appointed and the auditorium was lengthened, restyled and finished in rich plasterwork. It reopened in 1921 with a Fred Collins Revue complete with young Harry Gordon. Fred Collins founded the Collins Variety Agency, Glasgow, which became the largest entertainment agency in Scotland.
Right - A programme for the Dunfermline Opera House in 1939 - Courtesy
After the new Alhambra was opened in August 1922 under the ownership of a local syndicate Henry Hare jointly managed the Opera House and the Alhambra for a short time, the intention being that the Opera House, now accommodating 800, would be used for smaller shows such as comedies, variety etc and the Alhambra seating 1,700 for the larger productions. At the end of 1923 there was talk of the Opera House, and some thought the Alhambra, changing to a Palais de Danse.
Left - A programme for the Dunfermline Opera House for January the 10th 1955 - Courtesy Colin Calder.
In 1931 Hare added talking films to the Opera House but was unsuccessful. The following year he met a tragic death on a railway line. For two years it was dark with a few companies taking occasional leases until new owners emerged in 1935, being a local licensed trade syndicate The Opera House Dunfermline Ltd. By 1955 film and television had reduced audiences coming to it and the theatre closed down.
For about 25 years the building was occupied by James Bell & Sons, a firm of cabinet makers and French polishers, but fortunately not too much altered in its structure. A Visitor to this site, Tom McIntosh, says ' I served my apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker on the stage of the opera house. I worked for James Bell & Sons from 1968 until 1973. The Opera house was in reality a very distressed building. The roof leaked and it was extremely damp and difficult to heat. My work bench was located on the original stage. The stage curtain was apparently dropped for the last time in 1955 and never lifted again. My bench was against the curtain. The area where the orchestra would play was made into a cutting room, the bar was the French polishing shop and the God's was the upholstery shop. The building was heated from the furnace in the basement area but we also need electric heat as it was not enough. Our lunchroom was an old dressing room at the side of the stage. It was a cold eerie building and as a young lad quite frightening to be in it especially when few were around.' - Tom McIntosh.
In 1982 and despite public opposition the Dunfermline Council gave permission for the demolition of the theatre and many other buildings to make way for the Kingsgate Shopping Centre. Local enthusiasts in the Dunfermline Cine Club were able to film its interior and conservation bodies became interested in a possible theatrical future, but Dunfermline Council had no appetite. Architect Professor (Sir) James Dunbar Naismith engaged his architectural students at Heriot Watt University to measure and record the auditorium and stage, and its contents, fittings, details and colouring. Parts of the interior were dismantled and numbered for possible reconstruction, including the fine plasterwork fronting circles and boxes. All this was put in containers and stored at a specialist plasterer`s premises in Peebles.
Four years later in 1986 the Asolo Theatre of the Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts in Sarasota, Florida, was looking for a new main stage, perhaps a Scottish Victorian theatre. In Florida the town of Sarasota was founded Americans say platted by a group of Scottish businessmen at the start of the 20th century. Connections were made and the containers were duly bought for $500,000 and the Opera House resurrected in Sarasota as the Mertz Theatre with modern facilities added for customer benefit and stage productions.
Right - The Dunfermline Opera House now as the Mertz Theatre, Sarasota, Florida, with inset showing how it was before shipment - Courtesy Bill Gourlay and Talisman Films Scotland.
Architects from Scotland assisted, as did the plaster restoration company of Grandison & Son from Peebles. The reincarnation opened in January 1990 at a total cost of some $15,000,000.
Today, in recognition of the historic connections of Florida and Scotland, Royal Dunfermline and Sarasota are twinned cities.
Left - The Dunfermline Opera House - Detail of plasterwork as reconstructed in the Mertz Theatre - Courtesy Bill Gourlay and Talisman Films Scotland.
Talisman Films Scotland, started by the cine enthusiasts, have produced a DVD named From Fife to Florida which shows more of the life of the Opera House and its new home. Further details of it can be seen here.
The above information on the Dunfermline Opera House was written for this site by Graeme Smith in April 2013.
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