Sunderland Theatres and Halls
Empire Theatre - Empire Theatre by Donald Auty - First Theatre Royal / Wear Music Hall - Second Theatre Royal - People's Palace / Palace Theatre of Varieties - Lyceum Theatre - Avenue Theatre - King's Theatre - Victoria Hall
Formerly - The Empire Palace - Later
-The Palace Cinema
Above - A Google Streetview image of the Sunderland Empire - Click to Interact
The Empire Theatre was originally constructed in 1906 and occupies a very large site fronting onto High Street West, in Sunderland, with rear and side elevations on the three other streets which surround it forming in effect a large square block.
Above - A notice for the Sundeland Empire under construction - From a large advertisement in the Stage on the 16th of August 1906 for Moss Empires LTD, (Moss, Thornton, and Stoll Theatres Amalgamated)
The foundation stone for the Theatre was laid by the well known Music Hall artiste Vesta Tilley on the 29th of September 1906 and she was back to perform on the Theatre's stage when it officially opened as the Empire Palace Theatre on the 1st of July the following year in 1907.
Right - A programme for 'Mercenary Mary' at the Empire Theatre, Sunderland on Monday October 11th 1926. In the cast were Hal Jasper, Yvonne Winifred, Hugh Reading, Elsie Arnold, Harry Pringle, Leedam Stanley, Stafford Moss, Sybil Woodruffe, Harry Cooke, Walter Dolphin, Murielle Storm, and Tom Fancourt.
The Empire Palace Theatre was a product of the Thornton Moss Partnership and was designed by the Milburn Brothers, William and T.R. Milburn, who were Thornton's architects for many of his later Theatres too. When it was built the domed tower over the main entrance originally had a revolving sphere with the figure of Terpischore, the Greek Goddess of dance, surmounting it.
Above - A programme for 'Mercenary Mary' at the Empire Theatre, Sunderland on Monday October 11th 1926.
The Stage Newspaper reported on the new Theatre in their June the 27th, 1907 edition saying: 'The site of this theatre is practically an island site, being surrounded almost on all sides by streets of varying widths and importance. The theatre being a block away from High Street West, it has been necessary to make an approach directly from this street, utilising the buildings intervening as waiting halls and spacious approach corridors.
The auditorium is exactly 80 feet square, and the theatre is what is known as a three-tier house.
Left - A sketch of the auditorium and entrance to the Sunderand Empire - From a programme for the Theatre's reopening in 1960 - Courtesy Roy Cross.
The stalls consist of twelve rows of tip-up chairs, and the pit behind, which is large enough to hold 1,000 people, is covered with wood-block flooring, and furnished with upholstered seats with arms. The grand circle is elliptical in Shape, and is roomy and well approached. There are six private boxes at the back of the circle, with a bioscope box in centre. The circle is provided with handsome lounges. The balcony, which is the next tier, is particularly large, and contains nine rows of upholstered seats. The gallery, above this again, has nine rows, and will hold about 450 people. The total accommodation of the theatre approaches 3,000. The house is constructed on what is known as the cantilever system, the modification only being that one column is placed at the back of the pit so as to obviate the use of very long girders. The whole of the girder work rests on turned steel columns, and the construction of the doors, and, in fact, the theatre through-out, is fire-proof, being all in concrete reinforced with expanded metal resting on iron girders.
The approach to the circle and stalls is from High Street West, the main entrance being under a circular tower rising to a height of about 100 feet. This tower is of massive stonework, freely embellished with columns with Ionic caps and moulded and enriched cornices, and the whole is surmounted by a copper dome, with stone lunettes. Above the dome, standing on eight columns, is a revolving ball, round which is the word "Empire," shown in gold letters by day and illuminated by electric lights at night.
Right - A contemporary postcard depicting the Empire Theatre, Sunderland.
This ball is worked by an electric motor, and makes a striking feature over the entrance. Above the revolving ball is a female figure in copper representing Prosperity. The circular tower and staircase at the entrance is lined with alabaster and marble bands up to a. height of 8 ft. In the tower the upper part is ornamented and panelled in rich fibrous work, and covered at a. height of 30 ft by a fibrous dome very richly decorated in gold and colours. The walls are panelled, and paintings of Shakespeare, Mozart, Garrick, and Sheridan are introduced. These figures are painted life-size, and form a striking feature in the entrance. The circle saloon and circle waiting hail are approached direct from the staircase, the ceiling being richly modelled in fibrous plaster in segmental form. The windows here are round bays, and advantage is taken of each of these to have upholstered seats for those waiting for the second house. Good provision is made off the circle waiting hall for cloakroom accommodation, and the crush rooms are handsomely decorated and treated in pine and fabricona panels. Special care has been taken to provide ample exits, each part of the house having at least two exits, and in some cases three and four: The whole of the exits are fireproof, and the flights of stairs are kept short with broken landings and half-paces. The auditorium is treated decoratively in a quiet way, the ceiling being crossed with moulded ribs and the dome over the centre being ornamented with Ionic columns and richly moulded cornices and brackets. The walls of the auditorium are all panelled with reeded pilasters and Ionic caps, the walls being panelled with enriched mouldings and the panels filled wits silk tecko.
The proscenium opening is filled in with an entire surround of Breche rose marble, and the space above the proscenium divided with marble pilasters into panells which are treated with painted figure subjects. The feature of the auditorium is the dispensing with the usual side boxes, the space being used to better advantage, it is thought, for the providing of about fifty additional seats which form part of the dress circle. The balcony boxes are surmounted by domes in fibrous plaster and divided by short columns with moulded consols and other fibrous ornament. The box fronts are richly modelled in fibrous work and ornamented in gold and colour. The prevailing tint of the decorations in the auditorium is cream and gold, but the panels in the ceiling are enriched in various other subdued tints.
Left - A programme for 'The Five O'clock Girl' at the Sunderland Empire on October 28th, 1929. The show was from the London Hippodrome and the cast included Margery Caldicott, Leslie Laurier, George Levoie, Bill Moran, Aimee Bebb, Sylvia Fayre, Gus McNaughton, Billie Hill, Reg. Palmer, Hilday Campbell-Russell, Ivy Nicholls, Denis Hogan, Alec Chentrens, William Huxley, the Nicholls Sisters, Sylvia Fayre, Harold Childs, and Charles Royce.
Ventilation is amply provided for by means of fresh air inlet ventilators with due provision against draughts, and the outlet by means of a Blackman's fan placed at the back of each tier and at the top of the dome in the auditorium These fans are worked by electric motors, and will change the entire air in the auditorium two or three times in the hour. The whole of the theatre and approaches are efficiently heated by hot water apparatus on the low-pressure system.
The stage measures 70 feet by 40 feet, and the height from the floor of the stage to the gridiron is 62 feet. The stage is shut off from the auditorium by an asbestos fireproof screen, 36 feet by 30 feet, with all the latest arrangements for raising and lowering. The stage is also shut off from both the dressing-rooms and auditorium by fireproof automatic doors at all other openings. The scenery is fitted up on the latest lines, with ballast weights and fireproofing. The electric light installation is of the latest type, the mains being brought in from two points in case of failure, the number boxes, wiring resistances, stage effects, and other electric appliances being thoroughly up-to- date and of the latest type.
The sixteen dressing-rooms are all divided by fireproof partitions, and each room has a fireplace with gas stove, and is provided with hot and cold water. These rooms are very commodious, and provide accommodation, if necessary, for the largest companies on the road. The tableau curtain, valances, and draperies throughout are handsomely designed in red plush with sateen linings and borders, and are fitted up to drape all openings.
The sanitary arrangements are perfect, lavatories being provided in every section of the house.
Very extensive tests have been carried out under the supervision of the Borough Engineer, the tiers being loaded with cement equal to the full capacity of the various tiers, the greatest deflection registering 1 - 4,000th part of the span of the girders.
The building has also been inspected by the local Watch Committee, and the fun dramatic licence has been granted.
Mr. Duncan Straughen has acted as clerk of the works.
The building has been designed and carried out under the supervision of Messrs. W. and T. R. Millburn, F.R.I.B.A., Fawcett Street, Sunderland, Mr. J.W. White being the builder. As stated in a recent issue, the New Empire will be opened on Monday next, July 1, the bill being topped by Miss Vesta Tilley, who laid the foundation-stone on September 29 last. There will be an orchestra of twenty performers, directed by Mr Charles P. Loller, of the Empire, South Shields. Mr. Richard Thornton is managing director, and Mr. Harry Esden is resident manager.'
The Theatre opened as the Empire Palace on Monday the 1st of July 1907 and the Stage reported on it in detail, a little of which is reproduced here: '...The hall was Opened to the public on Monday, when at both shows the house was filled to its utmost capacity. The opening ceremony was very simple, there being no speaking, and consisted only of the singing of the National Anthem by Miss Lilian Lea, which, we understand, is the sixth time this artist has officiated for the same firm in a similar way. It is also a coincidence that this is the second time since December 24 last that Miss Lea has been a member of the opening company of two new theatres in Sunderland.
Right - An FOH Theatre Card of Vesta Tilley - Courtesy Tony Craig.
After a fine performance of the overture to William Tell the variety portion of the programme was then proceeded with. Vesta Tilley, who, of course, topped the bill, delighted the huge audience immensely, and was recalled repeatedly. The Soustoffs (cyclonic dancers), Will Van Allen (musical tramp), Thorpe and Coe in sketch, My Burglar, and also Lilian Lea, in her pretty pastoral seena, Primrose Farm, were heartily received. Included also were W. Fulbrook and company, Maudie Francis, Charles Kay, and a bioscopic picture representing Miss Tilley laying the foundation-stone of the theatre on September 29 last. An important and notable feature of the entertainment is the fine orchestra, consisting of twenty musicians, who are under the able baton of Mr. Charles P. Loller, recently musical director at the Empire, South Shields.'
The Empire continued with variety for many years although the 1920s depression saw its receipts falling off rather and it was often dark during the summer months, but by the 30s it began doing rep in the summer which helped to keep it running. In the war a bomb exploded near the Theatre and the globe and statue on top of the dome were removed as a precaution. This statue of Terpsichore can now be seen at the head of the Theatre's main staircase and a replica of it is back in place on the dome today.
Right - A Wartime programme for 'The Quaker Girl' at the Sunderland Empire in October 1945. In the cast were Dimitri Vetter, Gwen Harris, Will Henry, Peter Yardley, Lucille Dale, Rosamund Belmore, Carole Marr, Richard Lawrence, Elaine Garreau, Billy Milton, Hal Bryan, Celia Lipton, Peggy Walker, Sylvia Henry, Gladys Cowper, Bunty Barnett, John Stock, Harold Farrar, Marjorie Fieldhouse, Jack Mayer, and Frank Wignall.
In the 1940s the Theatre went from strength to strength and was very popular, but by the 50s, like so many others around the country, the Empire found itself struggling against the popularity of TV and Cinema, and even went over to Cinema use itself, as the Palace Cinema, for a while.
Left - A programme for 'And So To Bed' at the Sunderland Empire in November 1953. In the cast were Anne Ronaldson, Doreen Pope, June Mornay, Michael Earl, Leslie Henson, Stella Chapman, Anne Ziegler, James Davie, Ian Parsons, Richard Curnock, Lucille Michael, Hazel Jennings, David Sharpe, Barbara Shotter, and Webster Booth.
It eventually got so bad at the Empire that the owners decided to close the Theatre and for a while it looked as if it might even be demolished, but remarkably the Sunderland City Council stepped in and bought the Theatre in 1959 at a cost of £50,000 and reopened it as a number one touring venue under Civic Control.
(See information and opening programme for the Empire as a Civic Theatre below).
In the opening programme for the Theatre as a Civic Theatre in 1960 its Chairman, Councilor L. Harper, wrote a piece about the building and its future saying:- 'For nearly twenty years, Sunderland was without a Civic Theatre or Hall.
In 1959 the Empire was offered for sale and was purchased by the Council. The possibility of the Empire being sold for "site development" was very real, and public opinion was such that the people did not want our only "live" theatre to disappear - memories of past greatness, combined with the promise of it becoming a Civic Centre, added weight to the Council's decision to take it over.
Right - The opening programme for the Empire, Sunderland as a Civic Theatre in the 1960s - Courtesy Roy Cross.
The money used for the sale was from the War Damage Reparation Fund allotted to the town to replace the Victoria Hall. Our object was to preserve the only "live" theatre in the town and develop it as a Civic Theatre...
We have received much help and co-operation from the Arts Council of Great Britain, who are full of praise for our enterprise and look upon it as a pilot scheme which could encourage major towns and cities to preserve existing theatres or build new Civic Theatres. A circuit of such theatres would revolutionise theatre in this country and develop taste - over and above commercial theatre, whose prime aim is profit making.
We will present as wide a variety of all that is best in creative theatre - already we are encouraged by a growing theatre consciousness in the town - our exciting and ambitious programme for the coming season will no doubt reach an even wider public. The people of Sunderland own the finest theatre in the North of England, offering facilities second to none in the country.... The Theatre's Policy, as dictated by the Council and Theatre Committee: (a) To endeavour to obtain the appearance at the Theatre of first-class " live " productions of all kinds, including Opera, Ballet, Musicals, Plays, Variety, etc., and Orchestras of International and National repute. (b) To encourage the promotion of Music, Drama, Opera, and other forms of entertainment at the Theatre by local organisations interested in the provision of cultural activities, representative of the best professional and amateur talent. The Theatre may also be used for holding meetings, conferences, etc., when not in use for other purposes.' - Councilor L. Harper.
Left - Councilor L. Harper - From the opening programme for the Empire, Sunderland as a Civic Theatre - Courtesy Roy Cross.
Right - Reginald Birks - From the opening programme for the Empire,
Sunderland as a Civic Theatre - Courtesy Roy Cross.
In the same programme the Theatre's Director, Reginald Birks said: 'It is the policy of the Empire to co-operate with theatre managements (Drama, Opera, Ballet, Musical Comedy, Variety and Modern Pop) throughout Britain, such as the Sadler's Wells, the Royal Ballet, the Old Vic, the Royal Stratford-on-Avon, the Royal Court Theatre, the Mermaid Theatre, the London Festival Ballet, Bernard Delfont, the D'Oyly Carte, Harold Davison, George Howes, also National and International Orchestras and Companies, with the intention of bringing to Sunderland the best of current entertainment. Discussions have already been held with the above managements, and they foresee in the Empire another link in a new national "grid" of theatres to be closely related for touring purposes. In addition to presenting the best of touring Companies, the Empire will also create its own productions, a Christmas Pantomime, a North-Eastern Festival of Drama and a Summer Show.
By being both a production and touring theatre, the Empire can bring to Sunderland presentations which are at present excluded because of the exclusivity of established monopolies and the lack of good repertory facilities.
It is the hope of the Empire to establish a close working liaison with the Educational Department in Sunderland and Durham so that pupils emerging from schools already encouraging drama and orchestral music and art will find a natural continuation (and at times, expression) of the interest already aroused in them. It is highly desirable that the presentation of Shakespearian drama, the classics and semi-classics should be organised in collaboration with the schools and the universities and colleges to the most immediate advantage of these institutions but without depriving the members of the public of entertainment as such.
Left - An advertisement for 'Joplins' - From the opening programme for the Empire, Sunderland as a Civic Theatre - Courtesy Roy Cross.
While the majority of the presentations in the theatre are professional, accommodation is guaranteed to the amateur drama and music clubs which, by virtue of their productions and audience following, require a large theatre. We are of the firm belief that the amateur has an important part to play in the cultural life of this country. This opinion is endorsed by the Arts Council of Great Britain... We further hope that in the Empire we can break down the barrier which appears to exist between amateur and professional audiences, and between amateur and professional performers.
In short, Empire policy is integrated into community requirements and conditions wherever that is possible. It is our firm belief that the isolation of theatre from audience is one of the reasons for the decline of theatre over the past few years. We also hope and believe we can break down the popular fallacy that quality and entertainment are almost autonomous in the theatre; we believe that the purpose of the Empire at all times should be "to entertain and educate" - the former obviously, the latter subtly. - Reginald Birks.
Right - The Theatre Restaurant - From the opening programme for the Empire, Sunderland as a Civic Theatre - Courtesy Roy Cross.
The programme also carried a piece on the Theatre's Amenities: - ' Morning Coffee in the Circle Lounge. The Connoisseurs' "Ham Grill" - Grill Lunches, High Teas and Suppers. Morning and Lunch-time Disc Concerts. Art Exhibitions. Modern theatres are buildings to be used, in constant use, not opened half an hour before the curtain rises and closed immediately after the show. The Theatre is a place where patrons of the Arts, with so many interests in common, can meet socially. Where you can spend time talking over morning coffee, lunch or tea in congenial surroundings. During the evening, leisurely meet your friends for a drink, meal or snack prior to the show, or after the show in the Restaurant lounge for a coffee or supper. If you do not want to eat or talk, you can just listen to the disc concerts. Morning and lunch-time concerts are relayed daily to the Theatre and Restaurant. These concerts will be announced weekly from September onwards, arranged in programmes of classical, semi-classical, and popular, to appeal to a wide variety of tastes. If you do not want to eat, talk or listen, just LOOK at the current exhibitions of paintings on the walls.
Whatever you wish to do at the Empire, no one will rush or interfere with your leisure and pleasure. The object is to use the theatre, not just to look at it from the outside most of the day.
Left - The Theatre's Strand Lighting Console - From the opening programme for the Empire, Sunderland as a Civic Theatre - Courtesy Roy Cross.
The shape of things to come. - The Sunderland Empire Theatre will be primarily a centre for first-class professional drama and music, and a centre for the very vital amateur movement of Sunderland and District. In the future, it is hoped it will develop into a more progressive and unconventional theatre, and become an Art Centre in Sunderland to include eventually under one roof - (a) A large modern theatre. (b) A smaller theatre for amateur use, Recitals, Chamber Music, Choral Concerts, etc. (c) Lecture and Rehearsal Rooms and Studios. (d) An Exhibition Art Gallery. (e) A Ballroom. (f) Club Rooms. (g) Public Dining Rooms. . . . with the intent that people drawn by one facet of the Centre will, sooner or later, be attracted to the stage productions, and that profits accruing from the more obviously lucrative parts of the Centre (Bars, Dining Rooms, Rentals, etc.) be ploughed into the presentation of Drama, Music and Art. In this way, the Centre, as a whole, will be able to subsidise itself and further develop the standard of its presentations and amenities.'
The above text in quotes is from the Opening programme for the new Empire Civic Theatre.
In the 1970s part of the former Music Hall was converted into a Cinema, although it is in use as a function room today, and in 1986 the Theatre's main auditorium was redecorated and new toilet facilities, stalls bar, and wheelchair access' were incorporated. A new lighting system was installed the following year.
Right - A 1970s poster for the Sunderland Empire - Courtesy Chris Woodward. On the Bill were The New Seekers, Dana, Joe Baker, and Pat Hatton and Gloria.
In 1989 more refurbishment was done at the Theatre with new carpeting and restructuring of the seating layout so that it could accommodate some 2,000 people.
In 1995 a new dressing room block was built for the Theatre which also housed a new dance studio, and several properties were bought on High Street West and converted into a new administration area for the Theatre. And in 2000 the Box Office was relocated so that a new Foyer Bar could be constructed in its place. In October the same year management of the Theatre was taken over by SFX, later Clear Channel Entertainment, who in 2004, set about a multi million pound refurbishment and redevelopment of the Theatre, funded by One NorthEast through the TyneWear Partnership, the City Councils Strategic Investment Fund, and Clear Channel Entertainment Ltd themselves. The refurbishment included a larger flat stage, a height extension of the fly tower, and backstage technological enhancements. Consequently the Empire is now capable of staging large West End productions.
In January 2010 the Theatre's management came under the control of the Ambassador Theatre Group LTD (ATG).
You may like to visit the Theatre's own website here.
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The Empire Theatre, Sunderland - By Donald Auty
This theatre along with the Bristol Hippodrome is one of my two favourite theatres in the country.It was built by Milburn Brothers who were also the architects as the flag ship Theatre of the Moss and Thornton circuit and is Magnificent. It was opened in 1907 by Vesta Tilley and has until now changed very little. Richard Thornton wanted the place to be superior to the other nearby Moss date Newcastle Empire so money was lavished on it. There is a magnificent auditorium with slipper boxes sloping down to a large stage. The auditorium is opulent on four levels and boasts the steepest gallery in the country and it seats 2250.
It was owned by a subsidiary of Moss Empires that had its own managing director Dickie Reed. He was also Northern circuit supervisor for Moss but there were touches at Sunderland that always made the nearby Newcastle Empire seem like the poorer sister even though that was the more profitable theatre. The band was larger and the usherettes looked very sexy dressed in short military jackets and skirts with forage caps. I had many a memorable night with them.
The manager was a formidable character Jessie Challons who came to Sunderland from the Palace Hull when it was sold and it was intended that he would only remain there for a month before going to the London Palladium. He stayed at the Empire for the rest of his days.
There was no standing on the front to greet the audience for Jessie he would sit in splendour in his office and leave that to Fred the sergeant commissionaire. In the fifties The Stage newspaper was called The Stage and Television Today for a short time and was in two sections. Every Thursday morning when Jessie's copy arrived in the mail he would carefully detach the Television today section and throw it into the waste paper basket.
He refused to see touring managers on a Monday morning, that was ludicrous. One Monday I had terrible problems with a second top of the bill, off I and went to see Jessie. His secretary barred me entrance to his office and said disdainfully Mr Challons does not see touring managers on Monday mornings. I pushed past her kicked his door open and amazingly we straightaway became firm friends and remained so for the rest of his life.
The theatre was closed in the late fifties and reopened a year later as Britain's first civic theatre. In fact it was a civic Moss Empire because Jessie was re engaged as Manager and nothing changed even though Tyne and Wear Corporation owned the theatre. Pete Davis was presenting a pantomime that had a fortnight's option on it and it was playing to capacity business. He fell out with Jessie and they refused to talk to each other even to the extent of not communicating about the option. Needless to say the pantomime came off two weeks sooner than need be and a lot of business was lost.
Jessie died very tragically he went into hospital for a routine operation that required a blood transfusion. He was given blood of the wrong group and died as a result.
He used to keep his cigars in the circle buffet bar and after his death the bar maid knowing that we had been good friends kept them for me when I visited with a tour. There were quite a lot of them and they grew dry, brittle and almost unsmokable but the bar maid thought she was giving me a special treat and as I choked I had to pretend to enjoy them.
The musical director was Fred Glover of the orchestra pit rail vaulting fame and a superb orchestra of fourteen was in the pit.
Even though the theatre was not profitable during most of the fifties it was kept open because of the power Dickie Reed had within the Moss Empires board. He was a director of that company too. It was not long after he died that the theatre was closed.The stage manager was a great drinking man called Johnny Grieve and there were lock ins most nights at the Dunn Cow Pub.
The theatre has its own exclusive ghost, Molly who was stage manager of a touring musical that visited the theatre in 1942. She went out to post a letter and has never been seen or heard of since. The case of the disappearance has never been solved but fingers have been pointed in various directions.ever since because it seems that our Molly had a very varied love life. Her Ghost can be seen in the theatre at postal collection times.
A visitor to the site, George Mccarthy, who worked at
the Empire as a Lime Boy, says: 'Molly
Mozelle didn't vanish in 1942 from the Empire, the year was 1949, when
The Dancing Years was showing, and in all the time I worked there as
a lime boy I never saw any ghosts.' - George Mccarthy.
Above - A lovely evocative photograph of the King's Theatre, Sunderland during a production of the Pantomime 'Cinderella' - Courtesy Steve Kilburn
The King's Theatre was built for Robbie Buchanan and Ernest Stevens and constructed in just 6 months. The Theatre had an auditorium built on the cantilever principal, with seating for some 2,500 people, and opened on the 24th of December 1906 with a production of the pantomime 'Little Red Riding Hood'.
The Theatre was designed as a variety Theatre and was very successful for its first half year but was quickly eclipsed by the opening of the Empire close by on July the 1st 1907. After this the Theatre became home to the Sunderland Amateur Operatic Society for a number of years until 1910, and was later the first in Sunderland to show early films. In 1915 it was the first to show Kinemacolour films, the Theatre went over to talkies in January 1930.
Sadly the Theatre was bombed during the Second World War on the 16th of May 1943 and never reopened, although the basement was apparently used as an indoor market for a number of years. The Theatre stood forlorn and derelict until it was finally demolished in 1953.
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Later - The Palace Theatre of Varieties / The Palace Theatre
The People's Palace Theatre was situated on High Street West in Sunderland and was constructed for the Livermore Brothers by John Irving of Newcastle-on-Tyne, at a cost of over £15,000. The Theatre was designed by the architects Thomos Angelo Moore and Sons and opened with a variety show on Monday the 3rd of August 1891. The Theatre's exterior was in the Renaissance style and its auditorium, consisting of Stalls and Pit, Circle, Upper Circle, Gallery, and twelve boxes, could accommodate around 3,000 people.
The ERA reported on the Theatre's opening in their 8th of August 1891 edition saying: 'Messrs Livermore Brothers' new venture, the People's Palace, Sunderland, was opened here on Monday, under the patronage of the Mayor (R. Shadforth, J.P.) and Corporation. The building is situated in a prominent position in the main thoroughfare of the town, and is undoubtedly an acquisition to its architectural beauties. The facade of the premises is of polished freestone, of au ornate character, treated in the Renaissance style, showing a frontage of 60ft., the premises having a depth of 130ft.
Right - A Poster for a Music Hall production at the People's Palace, Sunderland on September the 3rd 1900. On the Bill were The Novellos, The Dorrels, The Sisters Marshall, T. B. Fayme, The Mobile Comedy Quintette, The New Macs, Dosey and Dasey, Percy Meye, and Arthur Lloyd and his son Harry King Lloyd - Click to Enlarge and for more information.
There are three main entrances from the front, reaching every part of the house. The vestibule, or crush room, is elegantly fitted up, the floor being laid in Italian mosaic of pleasing design. From this vestibule the entrance to the pit and orchestra stalls is by way of a subteranneous passage, constructed of fireproof material. The pit, below the level of the street, is reached by an easy decline, and is so constructed as to afford every occupant a clear and uninterrupted view of the stage. It is fitted up in a most luxurious style, the seats being furnished with backs, and upholstered in electric blue tapestry. There is ample width between each row of seats. The pit is capable of seating 1,100 persons. The orchestra stalls, fitted with the patent folding chairs, handsomely furnished in electric blue and gold, are capable of seating 200. The circle is a commodious one. Furnished in the prevailing tone, blue, it is handsome in appearance, and has from every point a splendid view of the stage. From the circle to the stage is an open space of about 60ft. Above the circle or balcony is an upper circle, seating about 250 persons, and above this a gallery, with accommodation for 1,000. The building will hold about 3,000 persons.
The ventilation and lighting of the premises have been attended to with scrupulous care. There are three large sunburners, which, in addition to lighting the place, assist in carrying away the vitiated air. Polished brass pendants are placed at the back of the auditorium, and fitted with eight double candelabra. The staircases and subways are of concrete and guaranteed fireproof. The subway already mentioned as leading to the pit also leads to the private boxes, of which there are twelve - six in the balcony and six in the circle tiers - fitted up in the most elegant manner. They are draped with plush and silk hangings and artificial blowers are suspended from the top of each. The effect is pleasant and strictly in keeping with the decorative work in the rest of the house.
The dressing-rooms provided for the artists are excellent, and we are sure the profession will not be slow in acknowledging their indebtedness to the proprietors for the careful study they have given to their wants in this respect. The prevailing tone of decoration is cerulean blue and gold, and the general appearance of the hall, viewed from the stage by gaslight, is beautiful. Ample provision for refreshments has been made in every part of the house.
The proscenium is 30ft. wide and 34ft. high, of pleasing appearance, tinted in terra cotta and gold. The stage is 30ft. in depth, 60ft. wide, and 60ft. high to gridiron, thus enabling scenery to be taken out without the slightest difficulty. The drop curtain is of rich silk velvet, and has an imposing appearance. Scenery has been specially painted for the hall.
The budding has been erected by Mr John, Irving, contractor, Newcastle-on-Tyne. The lighting, including special stage gas fittings, &c., is by Messrs Vaughan and Brown, London, theatrical gasfitters. The building, which has cost considerably over £15,000, has been designed and the whole of the work carried out under the superintendence of Messrs Thos. Moore and Sons, the well-known theatrical architects. Messrs Livermore Bros. are to be congratulated on possessing one of the finest halls in the provinces, and, under the able management of Mr Ernest Sheldon, with Mr E. Martin (Birmingham) as stage-manager, success is secure.
On the occasion of the opening the huge building was packed from floor to ceiling. The ball was set rolling by Mr Fred Newby, character comedian, who at once gained the approbation of the house by his artistic performance. The M 'Connell family, a musical trio of exceptional ability, were well received. The Power combination evoked considerable laughter by their absurdity, A Wild Delusion. The feature of the entertainment, however, was Marinelli's extraordinary imitation of a reptile, a wonderful display by a clever contortionist. The remainder of the company were excellent artists. It included Geo. Duncan, Tyneside comedian; Leo Dryden, vocalist; Olrac and Taylor, coloured comedians; Wm. Jukes, harpist; and the Koroskos, Japanese jugglers. In the course of the evening Mr E. Sheldon addressed the audience, and said the fixed intention of the proprietors was to provide an entertainment which the most fastidious need have no scruple in attending, and which would at all times be free from vulgarity.'
The People's Palace opened in August 1891 but was later renamed the Palace Theatre of Varieties. By 1903 the Theatre was deemed in need of alteration and it was closed down for several months to allow the work to be carried out. The Building News and Engineering Journal reported on this in their 25th of September 1903 edition saying:- 'The Palace Theatre of Varieties at Sunderland was reopened last week, after having been closed for several months for alterations of an extensive character.
The stage, together with the proscenium, has been brought forward 10ft. The proscenium arch is supported at each side by two Corinthian pillars, with embellished pedestals, and consoles at the top of each, and the summit of the arch is panelled and enriched with mouldings, the whole being crowned with a Classic cornice, with medallion incidentals. The four boxes on either side are surmounted above the second circle level with balustrades, above which has been erected domes, to be illuminated with numerous red, white, and blue electric lights. The prevailing tints in the whole of the decorations are vermilion and gold.
Additional dressing-rooms have been made, and among other improvements are additional lighting facilities on the stage, electric lighting for the whole building, increased accommodation for the orchestra, and the reseating of the building. A great change has been made in the modes of exit from the pit, pit stalls, second circle and gallery. The alterations were designed by Messrs. W. and T. R. Milburn, Sunderland, and the contractor for building was Mr. T. P. Shafto.'
The above text in quotes was first published in the Building News and Engineering Journal, 25th of September 1903.
The Palace Theatre reopened after the above mentioned alterations in September 1903 but was soon to find itself in direct competition with the new Empire Theatre almost opposite, which opened in 1907. By 1909 the Palace Theatre had closed down but was then reopened later that year with variety shows featuring Hamiltons Flickerless Pictures. Film would later become a full time feature in the building.
In March 1928 the Theatre was taken over by the General Theatre Corporation who were in turn taken over by Gaumont British in May the same year. 1930 saw the installation of an RCA sound system for the Theatre's film presentations. The first 'Talkies' being 'Their Own Desire' and 'Navy Blues'.
Later taken over by the Circuit Management Association, the predecessor of the Rank Organisation, the Theatre was closed down completely by CMA after the last showing of the film 'The Eddie Duchin Story' on the 1st of December 1956. It then remained closed until 1965 when it was taken over by the Council and leased to a company who wanted to run a model car racing track in the Theatre's Foyer and part of the Circle. The Foyer was later converted into an amusement arcade in 1970 but this didn't last long and the building was finally demolished in October 1973. The Crowtree Leisure Centre was built on the site, which also incorporates the site of the former Kings Theatre.
If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.
Later - The Wear Music Hall
The first Theatre Royal in Sunderland was built in Drury Lane in the 1760s and was redesigned in 1840. The Theatre was generally open for short seasons only and closed altogether in the 1850s. In the late 1840s it was being run by Mrs Beverly and her husband and also Samuel Roxby, who would later go on to build the new Theatre Royal in Bedford Street, Sunderland. One report in the ERA of February 1849 gives us a clue as to why a new Theatre Royal would eventually be built when they say: '...if some description of light were introduced into the gallery, it would remedy an important desideratum, and tend considerably to the comfort of the frequenters of this part of the theatre, as at present the entrance to the gallery is absolutely dangerous.'
After the new Theatre Royal was built on Bedford Street the original one was converted into a Music Hall, called the Wear Music Hall, for its proprietor Stuart H. Bill. This Hall was designed by Thomas Moore and Sons, who also designed the later People's Palace in Sunderland.
The Wear Music Hall opened in 1863 and the ERA carried an advertisement for it in their 19th of July 1863 edition saying: 'This Establishment, having been entirely rebuilt from the plan of' Messrs Thomas Moore and Sons, Architects, will open for the Season on Monday, August 3rd, 1863, with the following powerful Company: - Miss Ruth Stanley (Serio-Comic Vocalist, the star of the North), Mr. Elijah Taylor (the Versatile), Mr. John Blanchard (the Comique of the day), Messrs. Laurence and Ray (the acknowledged great Negro Delineators), Mr. George Ridgway, Mr. Thomas Ridgway, Mr. Charles Samwell (in their Drawing-room Entertainment); extensive Orchestra of Ten Musicians. Costly Decorations, Magnificent Scenery. All Engagements concinded up to December 7th.' - The ERA, 19th July 1863.
The Wear Music Hall was running up to at least 1879 and George Leybourne is known to have performed there in 1875 when he is reported to have driven round the town in a carriage and pair for publicity, and was earning £60 a week. Apparently the Hall had to put on two shows a day to accomodate the eager patrons.
In 1885 the Music Hall was adapted to serve as a Salvation Army barracks for 1,800 people at a cost of £3,700 provided by a lady benefactor in Leamington, and that seems to have been the end for this Theatre.
Construction work began for the Theatre Royal, in Bedford Street, Sunderland in 1854 when the site of an old engineering works was demolished and cleared for the building of the new Theatre. This Theatre Royal replaced an earlier Theatre of the same name which had been open on a different site on Drury Lane, Sunderland since the 1760s and had been running off and on into the 1850s. The new Theatre was designed for Samuel Roxby, who had performed in the old Theatre many times, and was designed by the architect G. A. Middlemiss, taking several years to complete.
The Newcastle Courant carried a notice about the construction of the new Theatre Royal in their 20th of January 1854 edition saying: 'The site of the intended new theatre in Sunderland is now being cleared, preparatory to the commencement of the building, under the direction of Mr Middlemiss, the architect for the proprietor, Mr S. Roxby.
The spot selected for this purpose is the ground lately occupied by the engineering works of Messrs J. Barnwell and Co., in Bedford-street, which, in every respect, is the most advantageous presented in the borough.
The greater portion of the buildings having been previously removed, Mr Middlemiss, on Saturday week, completed the most difficult portion of his task up to that time, by levelling with the earth, at one stroke, the tall chimney of the works. Its height was a little over 70 feet; and Mr. Middlemiss, in order to confine its fall within the premises, resolved to bring it down in an oblique direction. It was first properly secured by shores in all directions, and then weakened, in the line of fall, by the removal of one-third of its base. The front shores were removed by a trigger arrangement, and tripped out at the proper moment.
A rope having been attached round the chimney at the highest attainable elevation, it was drawn over by a few hands, and fell, through the tenacity of the mortar, its entire length on the ground in the desired direction. A large concourse of spectators assembled, and gave three hearty cheers when the chimney reached the ground.'
The Newcastle Courant, 20 Jan 1854.
The Theatre Royal was finally opened by Samuel Roxby in January 1856. This Theatre actually replaced an earlier Theatre of the same name which had been open on a different site on Drury Lane, Sunderland since the 1760s and had been running off and on into the 1850s.
Left - A Poster for a Benefit for Fred Lloyd, the son of Horatio Lloyd, and brother of Arthur Lloyd, and Fred's wife Eliza Newton, later Mrs Frederick Lloyd, at the Theatre Royal, Sunderland on May the 14th 1858 - Click to Enlarge.
The poster left is from a large collection of original Posters collected since the mid 1800s by members of the family and found recently after being lost for 50 years. To see all these posters click the Poster Index here.
The Theatre was converted into a boxing stadium in 1933.
In 1940 the Theatre was converted again, this time to a Cinema.
The Theatre was demolished in 1994 after a fire.
Also known as the Avenue Theatre and Opera House
The Avenue Theatre was built for John Watson and designed and constructed by C. Dunn of Sunderland, and opened on Monday the 30th of October 1882 with a production of the comedy 'The Guv'nor '
The ERA carried a report on the new Theatre in their 4th of November 1882 edition saying:- 'The Avenue Theatre, Sunderland, for which the public are indebted to the enterprise of Mr John Watson, was successfully opened on Monday evening last. The building stands in the centre of the large open space known as Gill-bridge Avenue, and faces the top of High-street West, a position which, all things considered, could not easily be improved upon.
Mr C. Dunn, of Chester-road, himself provided the plans, from which he has built what is undoubtedly a capital people's theatre, handsome as well as commodious and comfortable, and his skill and assiduity deserve warm commendation. Indeed, Mr James Hartley, J. P., one of the largest employers of labour in the town, remarked, when the licence was granted, that not the slightest objection could be raised to the theatre as a building. For its conduct Mr Frank Sephton, of the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh, will be responsible, and his arrangements already made give promise that in this respect there will be nothing left to be desired.
The length of the building is 155ft., and the breadth 56ft. It is of superior red brick, faced with stone in the Gothic style of architecture, the name and date of the house being appropriately introduced. The grand entrance affords access upon ordinary occasions to the dress circle and private boxes only, the entrances to the pit and orchestra stalls and the gallery being on either side. Special attention, however, has been paid to the means of egress, which the borough surveyor (Mr Rounthwaite) has reported will be ample in case of any emergency. It is computed that the theatre, which when full will contain 2,500 people, could be cleared in less than five minutes. The accommodation in specific parts of the house is as follows, viz., dress circle, 350 ; pit and stalls, 800 ; gallery, 1,000. Behind the dress circle is a promenade, 27ft. by 15ft., and from this some steps descend to the "circle " proper, which, of course, is really of extended horseshoe shape. The front measures 86ft., and under the rester, which is of rich crimson velvet, there is a shelf for the reception of fans, opera glasses, &c. The seats are in four open divisions, and each is separated from the next by an arm, the covering being a crimson material. The two front rows of seats, which will be reserved, and the private boxes upon this level are approached by means of covered corridors on either side of the "circle." Upon the landing is a refreshment saloon and a ladies' retiring room. The gallery is a splendid one. The distance from the footlights to the back of the pit is 62ft.
Refreshment bars are also fitted up in connection with pit and gallery. There are five private boxes on either side of the stage - four on the gallery and four on the "circle" levels, and two on the stage. The interior of the house presents a very elegant appearance. The decorations, which are the work of Mr Edward Bell, of Lisson-grove, London, are in the Italian style, with coloured Renaissance ornament. The ceiling, which attains a height of 40ft., is of oblong form, and is beautifully adorned. Its shape is traced in coloured foliated scroll work, introducing cameo heads. In the corners over the stage are representations of Comedy and Tragedy, while at the extreme gallery end, in corresponding spaces, are groups of musical instruments. The ceiling rests upon a magnificent freize, decorated in blue, brown, and gold, supported by a cornice, with richly-worked panels, bearing the monogram of the house, "A. T." The gallery and circle fronts are chastely ornamented. Over the stage, forming the proscenium arch, is an exquisitely-painted figure group, surrounding a shield inscribed with the appropriate motto--
All the world's a stage,
The private box curtains are of amber satin, and the walls of the principal parts of the house are adorned with crimson dewdrop paper, the general effect being one of warmth and harmoniousness. The theatre is mainly illuminated by a sunlight, supplied by Messrs Strode and Co., of London. The lighting of each section of the house is supplied by a separate service. Special attention has been paid to the ventilation.
The stage is 33ft. in depth by 56ft., and if it be found necessary an enlargement can, without much difficulty, be effected. The distance from the well to the roof is 60ft. The proscenium is 26ft, by 24ft.
The staff connected with the theatre includes Mr G. Small, scenic artist ; Mr Batchelor, musical conductor ; Mr Robert Taylor, stage carpenter ; Mr Moon, property master ; and Mr Sherwood, gas engineer.
The opening of the theatre on Monday evening attracted considerable notice, and the building was soon filled in. every part, the general effect then being very gratifying. The National Anthem having been sung by the Guv'nor company, who were accompanied on the stage by Mr and Mrs Sephton, Miss Cora Stuart rendering the solo part with pleasing effect, Mr Sephton delivered the inaugural address, first remarking upon the pride he felt at having become the manager of a grand theatre, his theatrical apprenticeship having been served at South Shields. He made several important announcements respecting future engagements, and retired amidst hearty applause. The Guv'nor was then presented by Messrs Robertson and Bruce's company, the audience being aroused to much enthusiasm. The Boatman of Mr Young was indeed a study. The staging of the comedy was very effective, the scenery and adjuncts having been specially prepared for the occasion by Messrs Small and A. Henderson. The act-drop is a magnificently painted view from the Lake district. When first exhibited it elicited loud cheers, and in reply to repeated calls the artist, Mr Lionel Hawkes, appeared upon the stage and bowed his acknowledgments. The ensuing pantomime season will be under the direction of Mr H. Cecil Beryl, of the Royal Princess's, Glasgow. The subject will be Aladdin.' - The ERA, 4th November 1882.
The Avenue Theatre, Sunderland opened on the 30th of October 1882 with a production of the comedy 'The Guv'nor ' and then went on to stage a production of the Pantomime 'Aladdin' for the Christmas period. The Theatre eventually had electricity installed, both on stage and front of house, and reopened to show it off on the evening of the 12th of October 1896.
Right - A Bill for a production of the pantomime 'Cinderella' at the Avenue Theatre, Sunderland in December 1899 with Chummie La Maria, Semita Marsden, Lily B. Sinclair, Irene Verona, Edith Stuart, Roth Grosvenor, Edie Haytor, Arthur Haytor, Frank Haytor, Grell and Grey, Walter Wastson - From the Sunderland Daily Echo 26th of December 1899 edition - Courtesy Steve Kilburn whose Great Uncle Harry Kilburn was married to Ruth Gosvenor featured in this production. Note: The Fred Lloyd mentioned in this Bill does not appear to be a relation of Arthur Lloyd as his brother Fred Lloyd died some years earlier than this event.
Early Cinema films began to be shown at the Theatre by 1907 but by the time the 'talkies' had arrived the Theatre was on its last legs and was closed down on the 27th of February 1932. The site was then used for the construction of a building for the Vaux Brewery.
Formerly - The Lyceum Public Hall / The Royal Lyceum Theatre / The Theatre Royal Lyceum
The Lyceum on Lambton Street, Sunderland first opened on the 25th of August 1852 as the Lyceum Public Hall with 18 rooms, including a Machanics Institute room, lecture rooms, and the main Hall itself, called The Lyceum. This was a large room some 90 foot long by 48 foot wide with a gallery, and could accommodate some 1,800 people. The Hall was later purchased for £2,700 and converted into a Theatre by Edward D. Davis from Newcastle, and opened on the 11th of September 1854 as the Lyceum Theatre with a production of 'Giralda'. Sadly the Theatre was not to last long though as it was destroyed by fire just a year later on the 23rd of December 1855.
The Newcastle Courant reported on the fire in their 28th of December 1855 edition saying: 'This theatre, which was recently purchased by Mr E. D. Davis, of Newcastle, and entirely remodelled by Mr P. G. Brown, of Sunderland, with much taste, and at an outlay above the purchase of £900, was discovered about 6 o'clock on Sunday morning, to be on fire. The theatre had been closed for a few days for the production of the Christmas pantomime; and all the scenery, effects, and new dresses had been completed; and the workmen, at a quarter to twelve on Saturday night, left the building all safe. From that time the policemen and several other parties had passed and repassed the building up to the discovering of the fire, without observing anything indicative of danger; but, strange to say, the flames suddenly burst out without any previous warning, so that the building was enveloped in a short time in a complete mass of fire - the progress of which was so very rapid that the roof, in a short time, fell in with a tremendous crash. Mr Alfred Davis, at considerable risk, broke open his father's office, and succeeded in saving his books and papers, which is all that could be saved from the wreck. Mr Alfred Davis, however, lost his collection of manuscript plays, many of them being his own translation. The entire wardrobe belonging the theatre is all lost. The leader of the band (Mr Froggett), has also lost a collection of music, which cost him a lifetime to collect. Mr. Davis, it is stated, is only partially insured, so that his actual loss will be over £2000. No clue to the origin of the fire has been got, but it is suspected to be the work of an incendiary, in as much as it is stated that a strange man had been observed loitering about the building at a late tour on the Saturday evening previous to the fire. The public, pretty generally, express their sympathy for Mr Davis; and Mr Samuel Roxby (lessee of the new theatre), has offered the actors a benefit on the ninth of next month. An influential committee has been formed in Sunderland, for the purpose or raising a subscription, to present Mr Davis with a purse of money, in. mitigation of the very severe loss he sustains by the fire. Probably his friends in Newcastle will materially contribute to the fund.' - The Newcastle Courant, 28th December 1855.
Above - The Opening Bill for the New Royal Lyceum
Theatre, Sunderland on September 29th 1856
with a young Henry Irving in his first public
appearance playing the part of the Duke of Orleans in 'Richelieu' -
From The Theatre Magazine, December 1905,
originally published in The Tatler.
Although the fire was so devastating the Theatre was soon rebuilt by E. D. Davis and reopened as the new Royal Lyceum Theatre by Samuel Roxby the following year, on the 29th of September 1856. Roxby, by the way, had only recently opened his new Theatre Royal on Bedford Street in the town the previous January. The newly built Lyceum Theatre is especially interesting to readers today as its opening production of 'Richelieu' (Bill shown Above) featured a young man called John Henry Brodribb in his first performance in any Theatre, his more familiar stage name being Henry Irving, and the rest, as they say, is history. Irving remained at the Lyceum until the close of the season there and then moved on to the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh, in January 1857 with an engagement for 'first walking gentlemen' under the stage leadership and headquarters of R. H. Wyndham. His first experience on that stage was with the eminent actor Mr Barry Sullivan in 'Richelieu'.
The Lyceum Theatre was destroyed by another fire in August 1880 and then remained closed and derelict for ten years until it was eventually purchased by the Salvation Army for £2,000 in 1890. After demolition of the Theatre's remains the site became home to a new Salvation Army Hall, designed by J. Williams Dunford, Architect. This is a fate which also befell the first Theatre Royal in the town too, although by that time it had been known as the Wear Music Hall.
Above - A Google StreetView Image of Toward Road and Mowbray Park, Sunderland, the site of the former Victoria Hall - Click to Interact.
The Victoria Hall was situated at the junction of Toward Road and Laura Street, opposite Mowbray Park in Sunderland, and was constructed in 1872. Built as a Concert Hall the building was home to concerts, plays, variety, musical evenings and the like for a great many years.
Right - A programme for a production of 'The Co-Optimists' at the Victoria Hall, Sunderland in January 1929. In the cast were Phylis Monkman, Bertah Riccardo, Virginia Perry, Sylvia Nicholls, Stanley Holloway, Melville Gideon, Charles Heslop, Teddy Fox, Hay Plumb, and Bobby Alderson.
In 1883 the Victoria Hall was the scene of a much publicised disaster which took place on the 16th of June after a variety show in which it was announced that children with certain tickets would be given a prize when they exited the building. Unfortunately this caused a stampede when the children left the gallery, and when they got to the bottom of the stairs there was only room at the partly locked door for one child to pass at a time. The first children to reach the exit were soon trampled down by the ones behind. Despite adults trying to free the door to make a bigger exit by the time it was all over 183 children had died. A memorial depicting a grieving mother and her dead child was later erected in Mowbray Park opposite the Hall. This was later moved to Bishopwearmouth Cemetery but in 2002 it was restored and erected back in Mowbray Park where it still stands today.
The Tragedy prompted a new law in Britain that all places of entertainment would have to have exit doors which opened outwards and led to the design of the Panic Bolts still in use today. A major manufacturer of these was Robert Alexander Briggs.
The Victoria Hall was in use right up to the second World War but was destroyed by enemy action in 1941.
There is a great deal of information on the Victoria Hall with archive images here.
Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in by B.F.
You may find the following pages from this site of interest: