On Thursday September 6th 1877 Leicester's new Royal Opera House opened with a grand concert, and this was to be followed by a month long season of Opera. The Theatre stood on the site of a doctor's house and grounds. The cellars and stable block of the house were retained and incorporated into the new Theatre.
The Opera House fronted onto Silver Street, going through to Cank street at the rear and was designed by C. J. Phipps. The frontage was in the style of Queen Ann, having seven arched entrance doors, leading into the entrance vestibule. The first arch on the right led to the box office, the second arch was the pit entrance leading into a large foyer area, from which one entered a large corridor running all around the pit, seating 1,000 people. Between the pit and the orchestra were 50 Pit Stalls entered by a separate entrance.
The pit floor could be raised by hydraulics, level with the stage, so that equestrian events, balls and bazaars could be staged. However this only seems to have happened once. The other archways led into a spacious foyer with a tessellated floor, handsome lamps, and a grand stone staircase. On the first floor was a corridor at the back of the Dress Circle with a a conservatory lounge with shrubs, ferns and a fountain, the corridor originally led to 12 private circle boxes. However, in later years there were only 6 boxes at this level, three either side of the proscenium arch. One entered the circle by a flight of steps, emerging half way up the circle. Downwards toward the front led to the Dress Circle seating 150 people, and upwards led to the Upper Circle seating 300 people. Above on the next level was the Gallery or Gods seating 1,000, entrance to which was by a separate staircase from Cank Street. The front row of the Gallery was named the Amphitheatre being 50 seats, with a separate staircase approached from the front of house. Total capacity at this time was 2,550 people.
Rails to carry curtains were situated on the under side or the Circle front and in the Upper Circle so that they could be curtained off for smaller audiences. The decoration was in renaissance style, cream and gold, with blue being the main colour in the circle and boxes, with blue velvet edging on the circle front. The plaster work was very elaborate, depicting Wedgewood style cameo's in red and gold with a cream background on the circle front.
The Theatre was built with fire safety in mind, there being three exits from the Pit and Gallery together with ample exits in all parts of the house, and it was reckoned the whole building could be emptied in less than 5 minutes. Up on the roof there were two 17,000 gallon water tanks ready to drench the building, and Merrywether's patent hydrants and hoses placed throughout the building. For extra safely the carpenters and property masters shops were situated in the old stables across a yard away from the main building.
The stage size was 63 feet wide by 43 feet deep and the proscenium arch was 35 feet wide, with a height to the grid of 54 feet 6 inches. The stage was fitted with bridges, sloats, and traps, to enable elaborate scenery changes. There were two fly floors. In the back wall of the stage, a pass door, both prompt and O.P. side, led into a corridor running the full width of the Theatre with staircases at each end leading to three floors of dressing rooms etc. Gas was the form of lighting both on stage and front of house.
Prices were: Private Boxes £3.3s, £2.2s £1.1s, Balcony Stalls (numbered and reserved) 4s. First Circle (numbered and reserved) 2s 6d. First circle (unnumbered) 2s. Pit Stalls 2s 6d. Amphitheatre 1s 6d. Pit 1s. Gallery 6d.
The first lessee was Mr Elliot Galer who was instrumental in the building of the Royal Opera House. He had previously been manager of Leicester's Theatre Royal, together with the banker Mr Thomas Tertius Paget, who put up most of the money and is listed as being the proprietor. Mrs Galer was the eminent opera singer Fanny Reeves.
The opening Opera season began on September 10th 1877 with a performance of Gounod s 'Faust' at 8.0pm. The Opera had new scenery and costumes specially made, and a 25 piece orchestra in the pit. It was a glittering occasion, the house brightly lit, and a fashionable audience with the rainbow colours of the ladies' evening gowns and gentlemens' dress suits making a striking impression. The Opera season continued with performances of Don Giovani, Il Travatore, La Traviata, Satanella and Lily of Killarney, all completely staged. After the opera season leading actors and actresses of the day appeared in plays. The first Christmas pantomime was 'The Invisible Prince' specially written by Charles Millward.
Early actors to visit were Mrs Rousby in 'Twixt Axe and Crown', J. B.Clayton in 'The Danischeffs', Mrs Hermann Vezin, Ada Cavendish and Leonard Boyne, the Bancrofts, and J. L.Toole. Soon D'oyle Carte, Moody Manners, and the Carl Rosa Opera Companies all visited. Frank Benson's Shakespearian company, and John Martin Harvey's company began to make regular visits too (See box below).
In 1888 Galer gave up his management to Colonel Winstanley. Galer continued to live locally in Anstey until the death of his wife in 1897 when he then settled in Surrey. Before leaving he completely redecorated and upholstered the Theatre in soft grey, apple green, dead yellow and gold. The Theatre went from strength to strength and Lily Langtry, Ellen Terry, Mr and Mrs Kendal, and the Compton Comedy company all appeared.
On the 17th December 1894 'Arms and the Man' was performed, the company selected and rehearsed by George Bernard Shaw himself.
The latest early musical comedies from Daly's and the Gaiety in London came to the Opera House, productions of 'San Toy,' 'The Cingalee,' 'Belle of New York,' 'The Toreador,' 'Dorothy,' 'The Greek Slave,' ' Floradora,' 'Miss Hook of Holland,' 'The Dollar Princess,' 'The Arcadians,' 'The Merry Widow,' and many more were all performed here.
Left - A poster for 'Floradora' at the Opera House, Leicester in October 1952 - Courtesy David Garratt. The cast were Albert Grant, Valerie Lawson, Rita Garnsey, Edwin Hill, Stephanie Speller, Jefrey Choyce, Arthur Clarke, Hilda Campbell-Russell, and Warwick Ashton.
In 1903 two rows of chairs were added to the front of the Pit, the apron in front of the proscenium was removed, and the orchestra placed further back. The footlights were changed to electric, and the stalls were reseated and upholstered in pale blue, with new hangings in the boxes of turquoise and gold.
In October 1904 Sir Henry Irving appeared in his farewell engagement. On Monday 17th, he performed 'Waterloo' and 'the Bells', on Tuesday, 18th 'The Merchant of Venice', and on Wednesday, 19th 'Becket'.
In 1906 Milton Bode, in partnership with Edward Compton, had taken over the management. Edward Compton was a well known comedy actor running his own company and was the father of Fay Compton, and Compton Mackenzie the author. On the 16th of July 1918 Edward Compton died and Milton Bode continued to run the Opera House alone.
In 1920 'Chu Chin Chow' arrived and played to packed houses. By 1927 Cicely Courtneidge and her husband Jack Hulbert, Mrs Patrick Campbell, Fred Terry and Julia Neilson, Violet Vanburgh, Phyllis and Zena Dare, Sir Gerald du Maurier and Sybil Thorndike all appeared.
During my research on the Opera House I had some long chats with Cyril Dawkins, who was Stage Manager at the Theatre for many years, having started out there as a young electrician when aged 16 in 1921, his father being head flyman before him. Cyril told me of the visit of 'White Horse Inn' direct from the London Coliseum.
Right - A programme for 'White Horse Inn' whilst at The London Coliseum in 1931 - Click to see Programme.
It arrived in Leicester by special train on 4th December 1932. There were 12 large scene trucks containing 100 tons of scenery, and a portable revolving stage. The cast and company totalled 175 persons, together with birds and animals. The Tyrolean set was built out into the auditorium in front of the stage boxes, and a feature of the production was a steamer trip on the lake. The steamer was on the revolving stage, and as it revolved around the scenery went past , thus giving the impression of the steamer travelling. It took several days to fit the whole production into the Theatre, and the production ran for three weeks.
Another spectacular production was Ivor Novello's 'Glamorous Night' where the ocean liner sank beneath the waves. As the ship hit the rocks there was a series of explosions and steam relayed by pipes under the stage bellowed forth as the liner sank beneath the stage.
Above - A programme for 'In Town Tonight' at the Royal Opera House, Leicester on the 28th of February 1938 - Courtesy David Garratt - On the Bill were Tommy Trinder, Mady & Cord, Gypsy Nina, Larry Adler, The Swing Girls, Swan & Leigh, Max Wall, and Sid & Max Harrison.
Artists who played the Royal Opera House in the thirties were; Carl Brisson, Dante (Magician), Yvonne Arnaud, Marie Tempest, Angela Baddeley, and Jessie Mathews. Seasons of variety also took place each year with Tommy Trinder, George Formby, Lucan and McShane (Old Mother Riley), Randolph Sutton, and dance bands such as Henry Hall.
Right - An advertisement for 'Lilac Time' at the Royal Opera House, Leicester for November 1931 - Courtesy David Garratt.
On the 26th of April 1940 the Vic Wells Ballet visited, with Margot Fonteyn, Michael Somes, and Frederick Ashton dancing. Plays with Ivor Novello, Noel Coward, Vic Oliver and Beatrice Lille, Robert Donat. Vivien Leigh, and Richard Tauber in 'Old Chelsea' were all performed here too.
The Christmas Pantomime in 1949 was 'Red Riding Hood' starring Freddie Frinton as the Dame, and a young Morecambe and Wise. I remember this panto well. There was a woodland scene where the wolf was chasing the Dame. The Dame stepped onto a trap door and shot down through the stage just as the wolf went to grab her, then immediately the Dame came up through the stage floor on another trap door on the other side of the stage and ran off leaving the wolf thwarted.
Above - A programme for 'Red Riding Hood' at the Royal Opera House, Leicester at Christmas 1949 - Courtesy David Garratt - In the cast were Carole Marr, Paula Marshall, Morecambe & Wise, Bert Platt, Freddie Frinton, Greta Fayne, Bill Burke, Martin Benson, Doreen Lavender, and Anna Marinova.
The panto in 1951 was 'Babes in the Wood' starring Nita Croft and Eddie Childs, with Eugene's Flying Ballet.
The flying ballet flew out on wires through the proscenium arch above the heads of the audience. However, one evening a wire caught on the top of the proscenium arch bringing down some of the decorative plaster work onto the heads of the orchestra and the audience in the first few rows of stall seats. The panto had to temporarily close whilst repairs were made.
Right - A programme for 'Babes in the Wood' at the Opera House, Leicester in 1951 - Courtesy David Garratt.
By 1953 the last play of the season before the summer recess was 'Murder Mistaken' starring Hermione Baddeley and Raymond Young. During the summer closure a new box office was built and installed by Cyril Dawkins. However, just before the new season was due to open it was announced that the Opera House would close down for good, and so the new box office was never used. Shows would continue down the road at the Palace Theatre in Belgrave Gate. Cyril Dawkins transferred to the Palace as Stage Manager until its demise on 21st February 1959.
Left - A poster for 'Murder Mistaken' at the Opera House, Leicester in 1953 - Courtesy David Garratt.
The Opera House was put up for sale, but stood empty for seven years until bought by Samuel Locker, Managing Director of Deritend Investments (Tysely) Ltd. Samuel Locker had owned the Theatre Royal in Leicester until its closure and demolition.
It was announced that the Opera House would re-open with the Christmas Pantomime 1959 of 'Sinbad the Sailor' starring David Galbraith, a Canadian singer from TV's 'Lunchbox' programme, and Joan Hurley as Dame. It was a good panto. I remember there was a ghost cabin scene where there were two sets of drawers each side of the stage. As one drawer was shut in one set of drawers another drawer would open in the other set on the opposite side of the stage. This led to drawers hitting the Dame and Sinbad in the backside and on the head to great peels of laughter. Water kept sloshing through the port hole also drenching the cast members. The song sheet I remember was 'Ali Ba ba's Camel'. More details of this Pantomime can be found here.
Right - A programme for 'Sinbad the Sailor' at the Royal Opera House, Leicester in 1959 - Courtesy David Garratt.
The Theatre continued to offer a mixed fare, 'Thanks for the Memory' (old time variety), Joan Rice in 'A View From The Bridge', a musical called 'Pretty As Paint', 'Ballet Rambert' with 'Giselle', and a mixed programme of plays of comedies, thrillers, and drama's. However it was reported that audiences were dropping off as the summer months approached, and by mid May closure was announced.
Left - A poster for 'Thanks for the Memory' at the Royal Opera House, Leicester in 1960 - Courtesy David Garratt. On the Bill were Randolph Sutton, Billy Danvers, Albert Whelan, Sally Barnes, Arthur English, Allen and the Albee Sisters, the Magyar Ballet Group, Ron Rowlands, Guy Holloway & Pat, and the Coppernobs.
The final performance on the 11th of June 1960 was 'Five Finger Exercise' with a young Peter McEnery in the cast. (See programme below). Thus this well loved Theatre came to its final ending after 83 years. It is still fondly remembered with local people's memories often appearing in the local press 50 years after its demise.
Above - A programme for 'Five Finger Exercise' in June 1960, the last production at the Royal Opera House, Leicester before it was closed and subsequently demolished - Courtesy David Garratt.
The Royal Opera House was demolished the same year as its closure, 1960, and in its place Samuel Locker built the 'Malcolm Arcade' of shops, being named after his son Malcolm who died in the war.
Above - The frontage of the Malcolm Arcade on Silver Street in 2011 which replaced Phipp's original frontage of the Royal Opera House, Silver Street, Leicester in 1960 - Courtesy David Garratt.
Above - The rear of the Malcolm Arcade of Shops in Cank Street Leicester, the site of the back of the Leicester Royal Opera House and it's Stage Door - Courtesy David Garratt.
Some signed photographs of Artistes who played the Royal Opera House, Leicester over the years
Above - G.H. Elliott and Robb Wilton - Courtesy David
Above - Ram Gopal and Duggie Wakefield - Courtesy David Garratt
Above - Dermot Walsh and Stan Little with Little Jack as Blotto the dog - Courtesy David Garratt
Above - Wendy Hiller and Gert & Daisy (Elsie & Doris Waters) - Courtesy David Garratt
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