Wolverhampton Grand Theatre is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year and the celebrations will continue right up until the 10th December. The theatre first opened its doors on 10th December 1894 and was designed by prestigious theatre architect Charles J. Phipps and Wolverhampton native builder Henry Gough. The £10,000 construction began June 28th 1894 when Mayoress C.T. Mander unveiled the foundation stone.
Even today, the Grand remains held in high regard as one of Phipps’ crowning achievements, so much so that the facade of the building has remained virtually unchanged during both of its major refurbishments. Many would agree that it is one of the finest examples of Victorian architecture in the city of Wolverhampton today.
Its debut production was Utopia Limited by the world-renowned D’Oyly Carte Opera company, performed to the staggering two thousand, one hundred and fifty-one capacity of the original auditorium layout. This year, on 26 November, D’Oyly Carte Opera Company return to the Grand Theatre to mark the milestone anniversary with GILBERT & SULLIVAN A LA CARTE.
In the original days, seating in the auditorium was segregated by class, with the Dress Circle set aside for members of the gentry. People waited for hours to grab a place in the ‘sixpenny gallery’ … one such lucky theatregoer on the opening night was nine-year-old Tom Latham, so impressed by the grandiose beauty and elegance of the building, that he would later go on to become the Grand’s stage manager for thirty-five years.
During the opening years of the twentieth century, the Grand played host to icons of stage, screen and the political arena, both established and yet to leave their mark on the world. One such character was Charlie Chaplin, who made the most of his role as a pageboy in the 1902 production of ‘Sherlock Holmes’ through a series of elaborate practical jokes at the expense of the cast and crew!
Future Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed a male-only audience as president of the Board of Trade in 1909 and 9 later at the end of World War One, the victorious PM David Lloyd George launched his election campaign to a packed auditorium, famously declaring ‘homes fit for heroes’. The Grand continued to pack in the audiences from the 1920’s – 1950’s and the Grand’s resident Repertory Company flourished but despite a post-war boom in ticket sales and general theatre interest, the introduction of television to British households in the late 50s led to a decline in audience numbers across the country’s regional theatres. The Repertory Company were no more, and the Grand’s programme shifted towards high-profile touring dramas and star-studded variety shows. Memorable moments included a concert by international singing star Marlene Dietrich in 1966!
Theatregoers, staff and stars alike all look back on this era with a great sense of admiration and fondness – dark times lay ahead for the last few years of the 1970s, however.
On February 23rd 1980, the Grand Theatre closed its doors faced with financial difficulties and a very real prospect of permanent closure. There was an expected level of public outcry at the decision, with many loyal Wulfrunians refusing to give up on their love of live theatre in the town. A ‘Save The Grand’ action group was hastily assembled, with the objective of raising both funds and awareness to resurrect the Grand from its black hole.
Following several rounds of tense negotiation with the City Council, a compromise was reached. The theatre would re-open, but only after a massive renovation and restoration scheme had been
completed, alongside the establishment of an annual grant from the Council to ensure its continued successful operation.
When the Grand re-opened its doors on Wednesday 31st August 1983, it was arguably one of the best-equipped theatres in the country. The Grand enjoyed success after success, attracting top touring companies and packing houses full of loyal, cheering audiences. Another major refurbishment in 1998 cemented the Grand’s reputation as one of the country’s leading regional theatres.
The latest refurbishment in 2016 came shortly after the arrival of a new Chief Executive & Artistic Director, Adrian Jackson which coincided with vast improvements to the theatre’s education, access and marketing departments, as well as further refurbishments and developments in the building’s technology. The Grand is now poised to continue into the 21st century with the assured stride of having survived its darkest days thanks to the loyalty, affection and support of its many patrons, staff and performers. It has returned to its producing days, with the theatre’s own productions making it to the stage and planning permission for an extension to the building has been granted for a second theatre space next door.