Surrounded by Ayrshire farming and increasing numbers of coal mines, Kilmarnock prospered by its agricultural trades, tanning, mining, engineering, spinning and weaving, carpet manufacture, whisky distilling notably Johnnie Walker`s and shoe making, led by the Saxone Corporation.
One of the earliest theatrical venues in Kilmarnock was the wooden theatre in Langlands Brae, which was started by the circus promoter Mr Bostock, and followed by Edmund Glover & Company, who took seasons in the 1840s before he settled in Glasgow at the Prince`s Theatre, West Nile Street and the Theatre Royal, Dunlop Street. Then came a wooden theatre in a railway arch in Back Street developed by shoe-maker John Simpson, with the initial involvement of Mr Bostock. Actors here included Sir William Don, G. V. Brooke and pantomimist George Parry.
The George Assembly Rooms in Portland Street, at the corner of East George Street, near Kilmarnock station, held many concerts, recitals, exhibitions and lectures. Part of the George Inn & Hotel, the Assembly Rooms were the largest in town. Horatio Lloyd writes about an event at the George Assembly Rooms in his autobiography here.
Portable theatres also featured in the town in later decades, including the Queen`s Theatre who sought comedians in 1874 to apply c/o of a publican in King Street, comedians "used to Portable theatres preferred." And the Caledonian Theatre in the 1890s when John Lawson presented "first class companies."
The above article on Kilmarnock and its early venues was written for this site by Graeme Smith in October 2014.
If you have any more information or images for any of these Early Kilmarnock Venues that you are willing to share please Contact me.
The town Theatre, later known as the Theatre Royal, was active in the 1830s to 1860s, and possibly earlier. It was in Theatre Court in Back Causeway, with names of Theatre Lane and Theatre Close also applying. It was part of a property devoted to the town`s dairy business. The ground floor consisted of a dairy, byres, stable and office and above was the theatre loft hall and dwelling rooms. It`s not clear whether the performers or the animals were the loudest, but one actor in his memoirs records:- "that we found our Temple of Drama was located over a stable, which exhaled the most pungent perfumes, the most delectable odours. The horses too had a knack of interrupting our most pathetic scenes. Of course we soon got used to that."
Kilmarnock Theatre was run in conjunction with Ayr Theatre, with James Morris of Ayr who hailed from Kilmarnock - being a prominent joint owner and thespian, as were members of the Johnson family in Kilmarnock. Actors appearing in Kilmarnock included Edmund Kean, Macready, Gustavus V. Brooke and others.
James Morris was a friend of Horatio Lloyd, the father of Arthur Lloyd, and Horatio writes about Morris in his autobiography here. Horatio also writes about Gustavus V. Brooke here, and Macready here, and he also performed in Kilmarnock himself in the 1830s and writes about that here.
In 1831 while on his first tour of Scotland, violin virtuoso Paganini presenting 22 solo concerts in 36 days from east to west was booked to play at Ayr Theatre and Kilmarnock Theatre. On completing his two concerts at Ayr the lessee Frank Seymour told him he had no money to pay the full amount due, whereupon the violinist cancelled the other leg of the Seymour bookings which had been arranged for Kilmarnock at 1pm the following day, and announced he would not play there.
Left - Niccolo Paganini playing the violin - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
A local antiquary of the day records what happened next when Paganini travelled back to Glasgow:- "It was owing to an accident, the breaking down of Paganini`s carriage, that the inhabitants of Kilmarnock had the honour of hearing the great "modern Orpheus". Exactly opposite the George Hotel, the travelling carriage (always a black carriage and four black horses) broke down and compelled his remaining the night. Mr S. Johnson of the local theatre, immediately on hearing of the accident, called upon the Signor, and at once obtained his consent to give a performance for the benefit of the poor people of the town. A great audience crowded the theatre to hear the world-famed Paganini." Paganini returned to Kilmarnock`s theatre in his 1833 tour.
Public meetings also took place, notably those in the 1860s attended by hundreds of coal-miners demanding better working conditions and creating a trade union. Around this time a young David Buchan Young became a scenic artist, before moving on to larger theatres. Examples of his art can be seen here.
In 1866 and 1867
the actor John Wylsone was lessee of the Theatre Royal, and provided
a new act drop painted by D. B. Young. Wylsone went on to manage the
Theatre Royal, Carlisle, the Theatre Royal, Kirkcudbright and theatres
nearby while also having his own touring company, the London Dramatic
One of the later lessees of the Theatre Royal was George Parry who was also lessee of the Queen`s Theatre, Glasgow. Another was T. Cobham in 1857 who had taken over after an advertisement in the ERA:- "To LET, at very moderate rent, the KILMARNOCK THEATRE. Kilmarnock is a busy spirited town, containing about 24,000 inhabitants, and this is the only Theatre in the place." Another advert a year earlier was for an "ENTIRE COMPANY to open at the THEATRE ROYAL, KILMARNOCK, to include Leader of the Band, Property Man, and good quick Scene Painter."
The above article on the Theatre Royal, Kilmarnock was written for this site by Graeme Smith in October 2014.
If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.
From Chapter IV of 'Merely Players' by Harry Lindley, 1890
Upon some trifling slight one evening I hied me away to the great metropolis of art, London, and hovered around Bow street and what were technically termed "The Shambles," waiting an opportunity to be butchered by the dramatic agent, and to butcher Shakespeare and the poets in turn. I waited and waited, but at last I saw in a dramatic paper, "The Era," an advertisement for a singing low comedian. I answered it, received reply, "Come on at salary of thirty shillings per week." I reflected inwardly that the town (Kilmarnock, in Scotland,) was not exactly the nurturing font of genius, but it was a start. I embarked with a stock of six wigs and sundry properties, and arrived there in due course, after craning my neck for hours at the Border, to gain a glimpse of Gretna Green, and revelling in the diversified scenery between Carlisle and Dumfries and my destination.
On arrival I looked for lodgings, found them and then asked the locality of the Theatre Royal. I was directed there, and to my intense surprise the regal temple was a railway arch, sides built of wood, but duly furnished within with the necessary requirements. Its walls and roof were percolating with grimy moisture, but ambition overlooked these drawbacks, and with faltering footsteps I hastened to the abode of the manager, where I introduced myself. He had the appearance and manner of a gentleman having been educated for the bar, but his weakness was for the other bar, where whiskey and not Blackstone rules. With other faults he was somewhat light-headed. He informed me the I was cast for the first witch in "Macbeth," Glavis in "Lady of Lyons," Autolycus in "Winter's Tale," Blueskin in "Jack Sheppard," Cheap John in "Flowers of the Forest," and Polonius in "Hamlet," all in one week and all new. I did not confess my ignorance, but said give me the books and I would be all right. There was a farce in addition to nearly all, but proverbially he gave me my choice of them. I studied till parts, books and eyes were blurred, but managed to get through. The surroundings were awful - the property man was a woman - with a broad lowland accent, who also enacted utility; her second actress in "Hamlet" being a revelation, and her intonation of "But wae is me I am so seck o' late, " was a parody on the immortal bard. The heavy man was a confirmed sot, and his king in "Hamlet" was burlesque burlesqued. In fact all the actors out-Heroded Herod.
The next week was a repetition of the first, only more gloomy, as there was a stellar attraction, a Miss Goddard, who possessed talent of the highest order, and regaled the audience with nightmares of tragedy, such as Bertram, Fazio, etc., but which were a rest to me as I enacted the old men, second heavies, etc. Her "Winter's Tale" was a relief, as I revelled in the humors of Autolycus and received her special commendation. On the third week salaries were not forthcoming, but the manager came in on Thursday and handed each member four pounds of tea, and informed us that he had pawned certain articles but had to take tea instead of money. We grinned and bore it, as he had a monster night projected with "Rob Roy." I played the "Baillie," and to get some idea of the dialect, got my landlord (a tailor) to read the lines, and thus I gave a passable imitation of the tailor, if not of the Baillie. On the Sabbath my tailor friend invited me to kirk and dinner. I went, my stomach full of expectancy of dainties, but being a "guid mon" the luxuries consisted of boiled salt herrings and potatoes, mingled with a "guid" deal of Presbyterian doctrine. My termination of the engagement was peculiar. We had been invited out for a pleasant afternoon by a weaver, who insisted on regaling the company with Jock o' Hazeldean and mutchkins of whiskey. I am sorry to say that, with the others, the toddy was too much for me. I arrived at the theatre with head swimming. I dressed myself with one shoe and staggered on to my cue. Three of us looked blankly at each other and the leading lady scowled. A ghastly, idiotic smile was all the response; she prompted, we grinned. She threw down her regal sceptre and left us with one word "beasts." The audience hissed; I looked at them idiotically, clung convulsively to the proscenium wing, and during the interval of silence gulped out, "You are the intelligent Scottish public - damn the Scottish public " My spirited anathema gained me applause, and the next thing I saw was the leading gentleman, with drawn sword, stumbling over fiddles into the audience, an immense clamor, men seemed to be flying through the air, and the "rest was silence," - I was fast asleep.
I got an immense amount of advertising in the local newspapers, also my discharge without salary, and a firm determination never to get drunk again. The management struggled on for a few nights further, and then, as I was waiting replies to letters, and none came, I was solicited by a Scotch actor to join him and three others and tour the shire, which we did, taking towns like Dairy, Ardrossan, Salt-coats, Irvine, Ayr, etc., as starters...
The first modern and purpose-built theatre in Kilmarnock was the Opera House, opening on to the newly formed John Finnie Street. Designed for a limited liability company of local shareholders by a distinguished family of architects of Kilmarnock and Glasgow James Ingram and his son Robert Samson Ingram, designers of the Corn Exchange - it was a two storey building on a declivity which saved excavations for understage traps and equipment. Italianate in style and finished in red sandstone, it accommodated some 1,200. The foundation stone was laid in 1874 by coal-master John Gilmour of Elmbank, chairman of the Kilmarnock Operetta House Company Ltd.
The new theatre had private boxes, dress circle, stalls, upper boxes, pit, amphitheatre and a gallery - a total seating of 934 and space for standing amounted to about 200 people. The drop scene painted by William Glover was the Banks and Braes of Bonnie Doon, with a view of the Burns Monument and the River Doon in the foreground. The house was 55 feet wide, proscenium gap was 22 feet, and the stage was 40 feet deep. The dressing rooms were under the stage. The central entrance was in John Finnie Street and a rear entrance was in the Strand. The building also contained shops, a restaurant, and a billiards room. It opened for business in March 1875.
The lessees, William Glover (son of the late Edmund Glover) and George Francis, were also lessees of the Theatre Royal, Hope Street, Glasgow from 1869 onwards; and of the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, for seven years from 1871 to 1878. Most productions would come to Kilmarnock from their Theatre Royal, Glasgow after the runs there. At its official opening, with a production of the musical drama 'Guy Mannering' and the farce 'Box and Cox', William Glover outlined the fare to come, to include opera bouffe, drama, the Royal Italian Opera, and a pantomime based on Tam o` Shanter. (Horatio Lloyd mentions Edmund Glover many times in his autobiography.)
However, Glover & Francis ran out of cash in spite of high quality
productions in Newcastle and
Glasgow; and the fire which largely destroyed
the Theatre Royal, Glasgow in 1879
brought an end to any possibility of William Glover continuing. The
main losses were in Newcastle
and Kilmarnock, the Glasgow theatre had stood well financially, and
paid into the bank. In 1880 the
new lessee was Geo. Goddard Whyte whose comedy drama company had toured
England until he became lessee of Sunderland
Theatre Royal, followed by the Globe,
Glasgow. By 1882 Thomas
C Howitt had taken over. He also staged shows in Perth, Stirling and
Theatre. His wife produced the Opera House`s pantomime 'Cinderella'
in 1883 and its final pantomime
'Little Bo Peep' in January 1884.
Subsequent uses have included an auction saleroom, public house and night club. It was largely destroyed in a fire in 1989; but, after many years, and the facade being made secure, the site has been developed as suites of offices for East Ayrshire Council, completed in October 2012. Its new appearance, retention of its facade and new accommodations can be seen here.
Above - The Opera House building in John Finnie Street,
Kilmarnock photographed in 2014 by Graeme
If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.
Formed from The Corn Exchange
Also formerly known as - The Exchange Theatre
Above - A google StreetView Image of the Palace Theatre and Corn Exchange, Kilmarnock - Click to Interact
The Palace Theatre, seating 500, is part of the two-storey Corn Exchange buildings developed on the town`s Green at the corner of London Road by a company headed by wealthy coal master Archibald Finnie, who was also Provost of Kilmarnock, with its accommodation planned in association with Kilmarnock Corporation.
Right - A Playbill for the Palace Theatre, Kilmarnock in the 1930s for the Meltonian Revue Troupe, who toured for four years led by Tommy Loman (who replaced Jack Radcliffe), Lex McLean and Roy Allan - Courtesy Colin Calder.
The Corn Exchange opened in September 1863 to the design of the respected architect James Ingram and is of Italian style, completed in red sandstone. Above the main entrance is the Albert Tower paid for by public subscription as the town`s memorial to the late Prince Consort. Above the shops on the ground floor were the Kilmarnock Library, Athenaeum and reading-room, and offices. Attached was the Butter Market. The Corn Exchange`s galleried main Hall was soon used for meetings, soirees, balls, plays and concerts including those by the Kilmarnock Philharmonic Society, and opera by the Kilmarnock Society of Musicians. An extension in 1885 designed by architect Robert Ingram, son of architect James Ingram, added an art gallery and additional bays along London Road. Alterations to the suite of halls and reception rooms continued throughout the 20th century including restoration work after a major fire in 1979.
In October 1875 Arthur Lloyd and Company performed at the Corn Exchange, the ERA mentioned it in their 3rd of October 1875 edition saying:- 'Arthur Lloyd and his concert company gave an entertainment to a numerous and highly delighted audience in the Corn Exchange Hall on Monday.'
In the 1890s the main Exchange Hall contained major theatre productions including Rob Roy and Lady of the Lake, courtesy of Howard & Wyndham Ltd, with scene painting and direction by William Glover January 1897. This hall, holding 1,400 and with a stage 20 feet by 30 feet, with fly facility of 18 feet, was renamed as the Palace Theatre in 1903 when it was leased to John Cummings and music hall entertainment was added. The renaming was to prepare for competition to come from the new King`s Theatre.
Artistes included Florrie Forde, Harry Lauder, Fred Karno, Will Fyfe and later the sisters Renee & Billie Houston. In 1915 the Harry Lauder Pipe Band, mainly comprising police officers, paraded in the town for an afternoon to help raise funds for the Harry Lauder Fund for Soldiers and Sailors and then joined Harry himself in an evening show in the Palace.
Left - A Wills's cigarette card featuring the Houston Sisters - Courtesy Graeme Smith.
In 1920 the Kilmarnock Corn Exchange Company received an offer to buy the Corn Exchange but turned it down. Mindful in the aftermath of the Great War of discussion in the town for a war memorial, possibly a new town hall, the company instead invited the Corporation to buy the premises as a place of community for the townsfolk. The invitation was accepted, and with it the offer by Alexander Walker of John Walker Distillers to meet the whole costs of engaging an architect to prepare plans for its reconstruction. Architect James Millar, a favoured designer of Walker`s, was appointed for both tasks - designing the Kilmarnock War Memorial which was unveiled in 1927 opposite the nearby Dick Institute, and in 1927 he remodelled the Exchange premises, including the Corn Exchange Agricultural Hall becoming the Grand Hall, which today seats 900.
Cine-variety had developed from 1908 and by the late 1930s the Palace was a full time cinema till it closed in 1949.
Above - The Palace Theatre as viewed along Duke Street from Kilmarnock Cross in the 1950s - Courtesy Graeme Smith
Undeterred the council, seeing the example of the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow and especially its pantomime 'The Tintock Cup', planned ahead and opened in June 1951 Scotland`s first professional civic theatre owned by a council, naming it as the Exchange Theatre seating 625 - with its enthusiastic director Kurt Lewenhak (who went on to become a TV producer and communicator.) This was for repertory weeks, new playwrights, revues, and the Kilmarnock Opera Society. Its summer revue, with much of the music composed by James Gilbert of the Citizens, attracted each week when available Molly Urquhart, Duncan Macrae, Rikki Fulton and George West. But attendances were variable. The next year variety was added, repertory continued and pantomime started, and in 1953 William Cummings returned as lessee reintroducing the Palace Theatre name, and ensuring it remained a place of entertainment, including drama festivals.
Right - A Palace Theatre, Kilmarnock pantomime playbill of 1993-94 for 'Cinderella' directed by and starring Anne Fields, with Johnny Beattie - Courtesy Colin Calder.
Cummings was succeeded a few years later by the Kilmarnock Arts Guild until a fire in 1979 caused considerable damage. Fortunately major work was carried out and in 1982 the Palace again reopened, with a charity show topped by Johnny Beattie, Joe Gordon and Sally Logan whose harmonising can still be enjoyed on YouTube, see here and here.
Visiting companies have included Scottish Ballet, the Scottish Theatre Company, the 7:84 Theatre Company, the Wildcat Theatre Company, and Scottish Opera.
At another re-opening, this time August 1985 after more work to the Palace and the Grand Hall, Billy Connolly topping the Grand Hall said "I love the way you change the theatre everytime I come here, I`ve never seen this place the same twice."
Left - A Cartoon by Malky for the 1 reopening of the Palace Theatre & Grand Hall, Kilmarnock in 1985 with Billy Connolly and Andy Cameron - Courtesy the cartoonist Malky McCormick.
A 1986 programme of events and other memorabilia - can be viewed here.
Today the Palace Theatre and Grand Hall comprises a 503 seat theatre, a 900 seat concert hall, rehearsal rooms, exhibition rooms, art halls, a cafe-bar and reception meeting rooms.
The Palace theatre`s comfortable auditorium can be viewed here.
An extensive range of aerial and internal photos of the Corn Exchange complex can be seen here.
And the Palace Theatre (and Grand Hall) website's pages and future productions are available here.
Right - The Palace Theatre, Kilmarnock viewed from the Green - Courtesy Theatres Online.
The above article on the Palace Theatre, Kilmarnock was written for this site by Graeme Smith in October 2014.
If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.
Later - The Regal / ABC Cinema
Above - A sketch showing the King's Theatre, Kilmarnock - From the Academy Architecture and Architectural Review of 1905
The King`s Theatre opened in Tichfield Street in October 1904, and cost a mighty £19,000. Planning permission had been given to R. C. Buchanan of Glasgow, who with accountant George McCulloch, were jointly emerging as theatre developers and managers. The first chairman of Kilmarnock Theatre Co Ltd was Ernest Stevens, quickly succeeded by R. Howard of Glasgow, and local shareholders in Kilmarnock were enlisted to buy the theatre as it neared completion. Howard had conceived the idea of the New Century Theatre, Motherwell, but required Buchanan and McCulloch to see the plans through. In Kilmarnock, the same architect for the New Century Theatre, Motherwell was employed, namely the talented Alex Cullen of Hamilton. R. C. Buchanan was appointed managing director and programmed melodrama, light opera, musicals and variety which came through other venues in the Buchanan federation of theatres.
Designed for 2,200 people it announced it could hold 2,400. Completed in red sandstone with a fine Baroque exterior, with a shop on each side of the main entrance, the theatre contained stalls, pit, two galleries, eight proscenium boxes, and six private boxes behind the circle. It was based on the modern cantilevered principle and had a proscenium opening of 28 feet. The first manager was the experienced W. Major Ward.
However, the productions failed to maximise revenue and in March 1908 the company went into liquidation. The next lessee was John Cummings who also operated the Corn Exchange. Around 1910 Edmund Tearle became the theatre owner. An established actor-manager and owner of touring companies, his Shakespearian skills were admired on both sides of the Atlantic. After his death in 1913 the theatre changed to cinema and was bought in 1916 by R. C. Buchanan on his own account, for one quarter of the price, as he now expanded as a picture house operator. The King`s retained its stage and provided cine-variety. A poster for Edmund Tearle as Richard III can be seen on the National Library of Scotland website here.
Above - An early postcard showing the King`s Theatre, Kilmarnock - Courtesy Graeme Smith
In 1920 John Maxwell bought it and many other venues as a start of his future national ABC chain of cinemas. The Kilmarnock Amateur Operatic & Dramatic Society had productions in the 1920s. Cine-variety ceased in 1934 when the interior was gutted and rebuilt as the Regal super-cinema, with later name changes including ABC. The building has lain empty since 1999.
External and internal images of the King`s in its later years as a cinema, and partly bingo, can be seen on the Scottish Cinemas website here.
Left - A Google StreetView Image of the former King's Theatre, Kilmarnock - Click to Interact.
The above article on the King's Theatre, Kilmarnock was written for this site by Graeme Smith in October 2014.
It is thought that the Empire started as cine-variety
but very soon became a cinema until its demolition in the 1960s. A coloured
photograph of it can be seen here.
You may find the following pages from this site of interest: