The Festival Theatre, 13 - 29 Nicolson Street, Edinburgh, Scotland
Formerly - Ducrow's Circus/ Newsome's Circus / Dunedin Hall / Queen's Theatre / Alhambra Music Hall / Hippodrome / Empire Palace / Moss's Varieties
Above - The Festival Theatre, Edinburgh in 2003 - Photo M. L.
The Festival Theatre which stands in Nicolson Street, Edinburgh today took on its present form in 1994 when the facade of the Theatre, originally built in 1928, was demolished and a new curved glass fronted facade was constructed in its place. At the same time the stage house and backstage areas were completely demolished and then rebuilt on more modern lines, with a huge new stage of 25 by 18 metres or 82 by 50 feet, and large wing space, and a rear scene dock, which could be opened up to enlarge the stage even further.
Right - The Auditorium of the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh in 1999 - Courtesy Ted Bottle.
The 1994 refurbishment also saw W. and T. R. Milburn's original auditorium restored to its former glory so that the Theatre today has a 1920s auditorium inside one of Britain's most modern Theatres.
The Theatre, now called the Festival Theatre, had originally
opened as the Empire Theatre in 1928, it was
designed by W. and T. R.
Milburn and was built on the site of an earlier Frank
Matcham Theatre called the Empire Palace of Varieties,
which had opened in 1892
and was rebuilt, again by Matcham,
after a fire in 1911.
There is more on this fire below.
Matcham's Empire Palace was itself built on the site of a series of early Music Halls and Circus Venues, the first of which, Ducrow's, opened in the 1820s. This was replaced in 1862 by the Alhambra Music Hall, designed by Mr Charles M'Gibbon, and later renamed the Queen's and then the Hippodrome.
There now follows a history of the site of the Festival Theatre and its various incarnations gleaned from a number of different archive newspaper reports.
When the Alhambra Music Hall first opened the ERA were there to report on the building in their 27th of September 1862 edition saying:- 'A frequent subject of complaint among old players is the decline of the Edinburgh stage since the time of Murray. No one who remembers those times or who has heard of them by tradition can doubt that the stage was a much greater institution in Edinburgh an entertainment much more frequented by the intellectual portion of the community - a power for greater good, and a profession much more worthy of respect and appreciation than it is now; at the same time, no one can hesitate to say that in proportion as public taste has apparently declined the number of theatre-goers has increased. The audience which can listen for an evening to the splendid wit of Mr Byron and his followers, and select for special approbation the lady who displays most the contour of her person, is at least a more numerous one than that which displayed its taste and judgment in the days of "Bailie Nicol Jarvie.''
Right - A Bill Advertising Arthur Lloyd, his father Horatio Lloyd, Arthur's wife Katty King, and Nelly Dyoll, AKA Ellinor Lloyd, Arthur's sister, performing together at the Music Hall, Edinburgh on the 12th of October 1872, with Arthur's 'Two Hours Genuine Fun' Concert Party - Courtesy Peter Charlton - Click for more information on this production.
No fact in proof of this can be more striking than that the Queen's Theatre and the Operetta-House have been found insufficient to supply Edinburgh with amusement. Not only so; the style of drama hitherto carried on at these houses has apparently not given satisfaction to all our theatre-goers. There is a class which, it would seem, cannot sufficiently appreciate the "legitimate drama," so far as it is to be obtained at the Queen's, nor the burlesque which Mr Howard serves up as a "toujours perdrix" at his Operetta-House. For this class, our enterprising townsman, Mr Paterson, has just built a beautiful little theatre in Nicolson Street, intending to carry on in it the same style of entertainment which proved so successful under his management at the old Alhambra. If success attended his efforts in an old, ugly, dirty, and inconvenient house, there can be no doubt that it will accompany him to the elegant and convenient theatre to be opened on Monday night. There is to be an excellent orchestra of twelve performers, under the leadership of Mr M'Cann.
The ground on which the New Alhambra is built was formerly a stable-yard at the back of Nicolson Street. A passage between No. 48 and 50 Nicolson Street leads down to it. It was, in this stable-yard that Ducro erected a temporary circus about thirty years ago. The bottom of the passage has been roofed in and converted into a lobby, which is, however, intended to be merely temporary. From this lobby are the means of approach to the three parts of the house - boxes, pit, and gallery. The boxes are approached by a flight of steps at the south side of the lobby, and the gallery and pit by entrances under 48 Nicolson Street and at the north side.
The house is of a horse-shoe form in the interior, and in general appearance is much like the Queen's Theatre, except that it is smaller, and has one gallery less. The boxes and gallery are supported by two rows of light iron pillars, one in front, and one behind - six pillars in each. The following figures give the principal dimensions of the building: The height from the floor of the pit to the roof is about 56 feet; the length from east to west (which includes the stage), 80 feet; and the breadth from side to side, about 60 feet. The stage is about 4½ feet from the pit: its depth from the lights back is 30 feet; the breadth, about 27 feet; and the entire height of the proscenium, 29 feet.
There will, in accordance with the general plan, be only three prices in the house, and these appear to be as low as they can possibly he made. The pit is seated for about 500 persons, and the price of admission will he 6d. The seats are very Comfortable, for they are not too close together, and are well cushioned. A passage of convenient width runs round the whole. In front of it is the orchestra. The prices of admission to the boxes will be 1s. This part of the house will hold about 400, there being four rows of seats at each side, and six in front. A broad passage (leading at one side by a flight of steps to the stage) surrounds the whole range of boxes. Too much cannot be said in commendation of the roominess and comfort of the gallery, the admission to which is only 3d. Of course, it is in rather close proximity to the roof; but the width of the space between the seats, the breadth of the passage round it, and the short-ness and openness of the stair leading to it must, we should think, give a feeling of comfort and security (so far as fire is concerned) to its frequenters.
The decorations are quiet but tasteful. The ceiling consists of a series of pannels radiating from the centre with a radius of 24 feet. These panels are painted of a blue ground with gilt stars. From the front of the gallery depend nine chandeliers; while a large chandelier will hang from the centre of the ceiling. The front of the boxes is ornamented with mouldings of gilt and papier-mache. Two large mirrors are to be erected, one at each end of the tier of boxes. There are three boxes at each side of the stage, which are fitted up very elegantly with crimson hangings.
We had a private view of the drop scene, which is not yet completed. It represents apparently an Italian scene a castle on the banks of a lake; and, so far as we could judge, will form an effective part of the decorations. The architect for this theatre is Mr Charles M'Gibbon, of George Street; the builders, Sanderson and Muirhead, New Broughton; and the decorations have been executed under the superintendance of Mr Paterson himself. The drop scene is being painted by Mr Edmund Yarnold, of Covent Garden; and the scenery is being prepared under the direction of Mr Arthur Henderson, of the Haymarket Theatre.'
Above - A sketch of the Edinburgh Empire Palace Theatre - From the Moss Empires Jubilee Brochure 1949
The Alhambra Theatre opened on Monday the 29th of September 1862 and would later be renamed the Queen's Theatre, and later still the Hippodrome, but this Theatre would not have a very long life as just 30 years later it would be replaced by a new Theatre, called the Empire Palace. This was designed by the renowned Theatre Architect, Frank Matcham, and was the very first of the Moss Empire Theatres. It opened on Monday the 7th of November 1892 and the ERA reported on the soon to be opened Theatre in their 5th of November 1892 edition saying:- 'This magnificent theatre, to which the finishing decorative touches are now being given, will be opened on Monday. It has long been felt that the accommodation afforded by the little Gaiety was altogether insufficient for the demands made on it by the public, and the merging of this section of Mr Moss's great business into a limited concern was taken advantage of to provide Edinburgh with a recreative resort adequate for its yearly increasing wants.
Right - A programme for 'Topsy in Toyland' at the Empire Palace Theatre, Edinburgh in 1894, just 2 years after it was built. See more of this programme below.
Everything in connection with the New Empire is on the grandest possible scale, and architecturally it will be a credit to the city. The contractors, Messrs Drysdale and Gilmour, have, with characteristic energy, got the structure ready in good time for the winter season, and the directors, by a lavish and well-directed expenditure, have given to the northern metropolis a temple of amusement of a character hitherto unknown in Scotland, and in point of beauty, luxury, and commodiousness not to be surpassed by in other edifice of the kind in the country. Situated in Nicolson-street, with convenient access from all parts, it stands on a site that has been continuously devoted to amusements for the best part of the century. Equestrian and musical entertainments alternated here for many a year. Here Paterson reared his Alhambra Theatre, which led to the building of the Princess's Theatre, now the property of the Salvation Army; here Henry Levy led the van with his Southminster Music Hall and Theatre; and here Price, Hengler, Newsome, and other managers had brilliant equestrian seasons, Newsome being the last occupant of the ground.
Above - A programme for 'Topsy in Toyland' at the Empire Palace Theatre, Edinburgh on Monday, 31st of December, 1894, just 2 years after the Theatre had been built. In the cast for this variety production were Marjorie Stewart, Messrs Kuin & Loreno, The Avringy Trio, The Bandurria Troubadours, J. H. Hartley, Barello & Millay, and 100 'carefully trained children'. The producton was directed by the Theatre's owner H. E. Moss.
Mr Moss purchased the property about three years ago, and only recently promoted the company that both acquired the site and took over his business at Chambers-street as a going concern. How prosperous the latter has been for the past decade our readers well know. The old building that cumbered the ground, being a simple hippodrome, was entirely demolished, and fresh foundations laid for the new structure. To provide ample exits and otherwise improve the main approaches, several adjacent properties, both back and front, were purchased, the whole forming a position of unequalled suitability and security. Upon this excellent vantage ground has been erected, from the designs of the eminent theatrical architect Mr Frank Matcham, of London, an edifice of magnificent proportions, perfect and unique in its general arrangements; and in its structural elegance and decorative grandeur one in which the dream of the ingenious designer must have reached its happiest consummation.
Through the courtesy of the managing director, Mr H. E. Moss, our representative had an early opportunity this week of going over the building, the various details of which were freely explained by Mr R. A. Briggs, the able clerk of works, under whose supervision the architect's plans have been so effectively carried through. The fabric is fireproof. All the promenades, passages, and staircases are wide and numerous, exits are duplicated and triplicated all over the house, and the outside walks that lead from the popular parts to the street are broad, roomy, and well lighted. Fire appliances are met with at every turn, and there are two sets of hydrants, with all the latest improvements, on every level, both before and behind the curtain.
The principal entrance, a finely-proportioned vestibule, sparkling with gold and colour, strikes one at once with its ornate beauty, and here the elaborate scheme of decoration, which is entirely Indian throughout, begins with a richness and opulence that is continued only in brighter and more profuse variety as we proceed to the interior of the building itself. A mosaic floorage of characteristic device, panellings and mouldings of costly woods, and a stately marble staircase lead up to a spacious landing, where handsome mahogany double swing doors, glazed with bevelled plate glass and leaded panes, admit to a second hall, where the circle pay box is situated, and a crush landing, also floored with mosaics and superbly decorated. The centre of this sumptuous room is embellished with a greenery of Indian palms, with a waterfall behind, the cascades of spray falling into marble shell basins, the whole affording a delicious sense of coolness. The electric light is introduced here from a number of exquisitely-designed lustres and brackets.
Two staircases, each with marble balustrades and brazen handrails, lead right and left to the grand saloon, a most magnificent apartment, with inlaid floor, elegantly carved woodwork, costly furnishings, and decorated in the highest style of art, a gorgeous design of Lucastra Walton forming an imposing feature. Both ceiling and frieze are brilliantly treated, and the whole enhanced by the introduction of several beautiful hand-painted subjects by Ballard.
Diverging from this floor are three manager's rooms, commodious offices for secretary, cashier, and clerks, and other suitable business accommodation. Another spacious crush-room leads to two luxuriously appointed lounges, which in turn lead to the promenade, grand circle, and adjacent private and proscenium boxes, of which there are a number, all superbly furnished.
Two wide and roomy corridors lead to the stalls, which are provided with separate exits leading directly to the street. The upper circle is certain to be popular. The seats here are agreeably roomy, and are upholstered in terra cotta plush with padded backs. A spacious promenade runs round the whole extent of the circle, every point commanding an unbroken view of the stage. The gallery, which forms the third tier of the building, is substantially seated and comfortable to a degree.
The orchestra has room for about forty instrumentalists, and this, we understand, will be about the strength of the band which Mr E. Bosanquet will direct. Looking round the interior, one is struck at once with its graceful and elegant appearance, and with the splendour and prodigality of the decorations. An elaborate and characteristic foundation is given for an imposing scheme of ornamentation by the fibrous plaster-work of the Carton Pierre Company, which is largely used throughout the building. Elephants' heads are introduced at various parts of the structure, and trophies of Indian armour and weapons ranged at intervals round the circle hold globes of electric light, which are thus intended to represent large Indian pearls. Of all the novelties introduced by the architect, none is more striking than the sliding roof over the centre of the auditorium.
The house is heated throughout by hot water, and ventilation is well cared for. The large and lofty stage has been constructed to admit of the most elaborate and comprehensive ballet and spectacular effects, while, by an arrangement of folding screens, the proscenium opening can be enlarged or reduced at will. Also by an ingenious and simple adjustment, the orchestra, footlights, and whole woodwork of the stage can be removed, and a perfect circus ring disclosed, so that equestrian performances can be given in the afternoon, and the usual variety entertainment at night, Room for stabling and caravans is provided in the ample surrounding ground outside the theatre, and sloping pathways have been designed by the architect by which horses, elephants, camels, and other menagerie attractions can be conveyed to the stage or into the arena without any trouble.
The dressingrooms for the artistes are quite in keeping with the sumptuous character of the house. In conclusion, it may be said that Mr Moss has determined that the class of entertainment to be provided in this theatre will be in strict unison with the building; it shall be as refined as it is excellent. A conspicuous feature will be the prohibition of all that can be possibly construed into vulgarity, the fixed determination of the management being to raise, as much as possible, a class of entertainment which has made such rapid strides in public favour during the last few years. Mr Moss trusts that in the endeavour made to improve the tone of variety entertainments, the good wishes and support of all classes of society will be obtained.'
The Empire Palace Theatre opened on Monday the 7th of November 1892 and was home to variety productions and Hippodrome style Circus productions. Sadly the Theatre was not to last long though as just 19 years later it was severely damaged by a fire on the 9th of May 1911 which killed 9 people backstage, although the audience itself was saved. The Times Newspaper reported on the fire in their 11th of May edition saying:- 'The outbreak took place towards the end of the second "house," at a time when the theatre was crowded in every part. Lafayette, the principle attraction of the week, had the last " turn," which came on about a quarter to 11 o'clock. For the purpose of his entertainment Lafayette used elaborate scenery, and the performance at the moment of the disaster was an illusion called "The Lion's Bride." It was nearing its close when suddenly a great mass of flame burst out. So rapidly did the scenery burn that the flymen were driven from their positions before they were able to use the large knives kept as part of the equipment for cutting the ropes holding the scenery in case of fire, so as to cause it to fall on to the floor of the stage, to be stamped out.
For a moment the audience imagined that the outbreak of fire was part of the performance, for Lafayette made great use of lights in his various acts, but they soon realized that the stage was on fire. A rush was made for the doors, and while there was crushing and some danger of being trampled for the weaker members of the audience, the ample exits enabled the building to be emptied in about three minutes, and no member of the audience was much the worse. All concerned behaved splendidly.
On becoming aware of the stampede the manager directed the orchestra to play "God save the King," and this they did with a sheet of flame pouring into the auditorium above their heads. Immediately after the outbreak occurred the fireproof curtain was lowered, but the opening of the exits had caused a very strong draught from the stage towards the public part of the theatre, and the pressure of the air against the curtain caused it to become jammed three or four feet from the bottom. Prepared for emergencies by monthly fire drills, the employe's of the theatre, after the audience had left, brought the fire extinguishing appliances into use and poured water on the curtain and on the flames belching from underneath. To this, and, to some extent, to the easterly wind which was blowing, was probably due the escape of the front part of the theatre from anything worse than scorching and damage by smoke and water.
Above - A photograph from the Illustrated London News of the 20th of May 1911, showing the devastation at the Empire Palace, Edinburgh, after the fire on the 9th of May 1911. Caption reads: 'Behind the fireproof curtain, a holocaust, in front, an undamaged auditorium.'
As to the cause of the fire nothing can with certainty be ascertained. For the sketch, `The Lion's Bride," Lafayette had the stage set with Eastern magnificence with incense burning, numerous electric lights, and gorgeous hangings. When the performance was all but concluded what was described as a ball of fire was noticed to fall, and immediately one of the hangings became ignited. A negro, one of Lafayette's servants, endeavors to crush out the fire, but it quickly mastered him, and the extreme rapidity with which the fire enveloped the stage compelled most of the stage hands to run for their lives. Not all, however, were able to make their escape.
What course was followed by those who fell victims to the fire will probably never be definitely ascertained, but from the position in which their bodies were found and from the statements of the firemen it may be surmised that some of them were unable to escape from the stage and that others had managed to reach their dressing rooms, where they succumbed to the suffocating smoke.
Right - A Scottish Screen Archive film showing the burnt out wreckage of the Empire Palace Theatre, May 9, 1911 - Click to see the film.
The fire brigade of the city arrived on the scene in full force shortly after the outbreak was reported. To overcome the flames on the stage was seen to be be impossible, and the efforts of the firemen were directed to confining the fire to its original seat. In this they were successful, but the stage was gutted and the scenery, "flies," and bridge were destroyed, while some of the dressing rooms suffered from smoke and water. The part of the auditorium nearest the stage was scorched and blackened by the heat and smoke, and part of the roof was damaged.
About half an hour after the fire started the iron curtain fell inwards on the stage. Unable to reach the flames on the stage, the firemen attacked the dressing rooms, bursting open the doors as they went along the corridor. When they got to the end of the passage they found he bodies of two men lying side by side on a landing with their heads on the stairs. They had apparently been suffocated within a few set of safety. In another dressing room on a lower floor they found three bodies, two of them being those of Alice Dale and Joseph Coats. They had evidently lost their lives while waiting, after their part of the performance was over.'
Above - The Rebuilt Empire Palace Theatre, Edinburgh - From the Moss Empires Jubilee Brochure 1949
Although the fire had killed 9 people, and the stage and backstage areas had been destroyed, it wasn't long before Moss Empires had had the Theatre rebuilt again, and again to the designs of its original architect Frank Matcham.
Right - A programme for the Edinburgh Empire Theatre in September 1925 - Click for details.
The Empire then continued in this form as a variety Theatre, for the next 17 years but was replaced by a completely new Theatre, designed by W. and T. R. Milburn, which opened in 1928.
This Theatre's auditorium is the one which is still extant today within the current Festival Theatre's modern exterior and backstage of 1994.
You may like to visit the Festival Theatre's own website here.
Archive newspaper reports on this page were kindly collated and sent in for inclusion by B.F.
Above - A Google StreetView Image of the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh today - Click to Interact
You may find the following pages from this site of interest: