The Grand Theatre, Wilfred Street, Byker, Newcastle
Above - The Grand Theatre, Byker, Newcastle - Courtesy Maurice Friedman, British Music hall Society
The Grand Theatre was built by Samuel. F. Davidson and designed by William Hope, opening on the 27th of July 1896 with a production of 'The Taming of The Shrew' by the J. R. Benson's Shakespearean Players Company. The Theatre could seat 2,500 people and had a marble staircase leading to the Circle with separate entrances for the Pit and Gallery. The Stage was 58 feet wide by 44 feet deep and is said to have been able to accommodate the largest of productions. Dressing rooms were situated on either side of the Theatre which had its main entrance on Wilfred Street, topped by an imposing Turret. Inside the main entrance was a spacious vestibule, and the seating in the auditorium was fitted with tip up chairs upholstered in Terra-cotta Plush.
Decorations and Furnishings for the Theatre were by Mr Dean of Birmingham, Electric Lighting was fitted by Messrs Tweddle, and the Heating was installed by Messrs Dinning and Cooke.
The ERA reported on the opening of the Theatre in their 1st of August 1896 edition saying:- 'This handsome and commodious theatre was, under most auspicious and gratifying circumstances, opened to the public for the first time on Monday night (July 27th) by Mr F. R. Benson's company, who produced Shakespeare's well-known comedy Taming of the Shrew.
The brilliantly lighted and decorated auditorium presented a truly magnificent appearance, every available part of the comfortable building being crowded to its utmost capacity. So great was the desire to witness the inauguration of the "Grand" that, notwithstanding its ample seating capacity (2,500), numbers had to be refused admission.
Newcastle could not well furnish a more representative gathering of its prominent citizens than that assembled on Monday night. The Mayor and Mayoress honoured the occasion by their presence, and, in addition to many town councillors, we noticed a number of clergyman. Loud were the praises, heard on all sides, of the beauty of the interior, the excellent arrangements made for the comfort and safety of the audience, and the ease with which the stage could be seen from any part of the house.
In these important respects the Grand, having all the most recent improvements, may be regarded as one of the best equipped places of amusement in the provinces. It must be most gratifying to the energetic and courteous managing-director, Mr Weldon Watts, to find his efforts to please so thoroughly appreciated, and if the enthusiasm of Monday night may be regarded as a sign, it will be safe to predict for this gentlemen a long and prosperous career of management.
The lessees may congratulate themselves upon being fortunate in securing Mr Benson and his capable company to launch the new venture. A better selection could not have been made. The Taming of the Shrew was produced in the perfect manner which we expect from this master of his art. Mr Benson's Petruchio was in every way a fine portrayal of this exacting role, and, needless to say, Mrs Benson's rendition of the shrewish Katherine was as near perfection as needs be. Mr G. Fitzgerald as Baptista, Mr Quatermain. as Vincentio, Mr Frank Rodney as Lucentio, Mr A. Glanville as Gremio, Mr Hignett as Hortensio were each and all excellent in their respective characters. We cannot praise too highly the most enjoyable low comedy given with so much unction by that genuine comedian, Mr G. R. Weir, in the part of Grumio. Misses Dalton, E. Kirby, O'Kelly, and Osborne were very satisfactory. Miss O'Kelly deserves special commendation for the very charming manner in which she gave some songs.
At the close of the second act Mr Weldon Watts came on the stage and made a neat little speech. He said he hoped all were pleased with the theatre. A number of theatrical managers had visited the theatre, and all had said : "Of course you have had a London architect here." It had been a Newcastle architect, however, and the result of his work had been that the line of sight from every part of the theatre was perfect. He wished particularly to say that it was intended to run the theatre on popular lines at popular prices. It did not at all follow that at popular prices first-rate performances could not be given. The large size of the theatre would enable the same excellent entertainments to be given as at higher priced theatres.
They were glad to have been able to bring Mr Benson for the opening. Mr Benson was delighted with the theatre. Among the prospective engagements were The Shop Girl, The Geisha, A Trip to Chinatown, and many others. All that was wanted was a little public support, and on behalf of himself and his partner (Mr James Bacon) he could promise that they would continue well. He wished publicly to thank the architect, the builder, and other contractors, and in conclusion said the theatre would, on any Sunday, or every Sunday, be willingly placed at the disposal of charitable object free of any cost.
The audience, at the conclusion of Mr Watts's remarks, vigorously sang "He's a jolly good fellow," after which there were calls for Mr Benson, but that gentleman did not appear until after the third act, when be came forward and made a brief speech, in the course of which he said : This is a very important event in the theatrical history of Newcastle. I am not going to detain you by any words of mine, but allow me to say that we welcome the presence here of such a large and distinguished audience - an audience that includes so many distinguished in the industrial, commercial, social, and ecclesiastical life of this great town. We take their presence here to-night as a recognition not only of the very fine work that Messrs Weldon Watts and Company have done for you in erecting this handsome theatre - that speaks for itself - but also as a recognition of what they believe the influence of the drama at its best is capable of. We consider it a very great honour to have this opportunity of playing before you to-night in this magnificent theatre, because we believe that the drama is capable of amusing, of instructing and ennobling mankind. We claim for it, at its best, that it shows you how men do live, how they have lived, and is capable of showing you also how they ought to live. In a word, we ask you to believe that the drama is capable of largely increasing in the community the loyalty of man to his fellow men and his reverence for his God.
The Mayor of Newcastle (Mr Riley Lord) also made a short speech from the stage, commending the enterprise of the lessees in erecting that handsome theatre, and wishing them all success in their efforts to provide wholesome amusement and instruction for the public.'
The above text in quotes was first published in the ERA, 1st of
Above - A Programme for the Pantomime 'Babes in the Wood' at the Grand Theatre, Byker Bridge, Newcastle in December 1943 - Courtesy Keith Nichol.
Donald Auty, writing on the Grand Theatre, said: - 'The Grand Theatre, Byker, Newcastle, which was just across the bridge in Byker, is long gone. It put on basic touring pantomimes presented by Teddy Hinge, a local producer who also owned a chain of suburban cinemas, and the Hippodrome ( now Civic Theatre ) in Darlington. The Theatre was looked down upon by many people as a flea pit. It did however put on strong local fare that was well affordable by the good people of the district. One of the more unusual offerings was "Little Bo Peep and Her Live Sheep" and as the title suggests, the animals were allowed to wander around the stage - Donald Auty.
Right - The listing from the Kinematograph Year Book of 1929 shows that at that time the Theatre was owned by Gaumont British Pictures and was putting on two shows nightly with two changes weekly. - Courtesy Maurice Friedman, British Music hall Society
The Grand Theatre was closed in August 1954, its builder Samuel. F. Davidson was at the last performance at the Theatre, attended by just 300 people, and said 'It's very sad that the Grand must close but it will have its ghosts in the memories of those of us who knew it for so long'. The last Lessee of the Theatre, E. J. Hinge, said at the last performance that he had kept the Theatre going for a long time even though he was losing money. He had run the Grand for the previous 18 years but its owners, the Rank Organisation, planned to demolish the building for the construction of a Store. One final insult came when during the demolition of the Theatre a fire broke out in the Balcony Staircase and had to be put out by the fire brigade, it was extinguished after an hour and didn't halt the demolition for long.
There is a nice tribute to the Grand Theatre, Byker, with many images, here.
This Grand Theatre, Byker should not be confused with the larger Grand Theatre, Newcastle.
If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.
Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.
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