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The Grand Theatre Wolverhampton

Location: Wolverhampton

The Grand Theatre opened its doors on December 10th 1894. It was not Wolverhampton's first theatre but the Grand has outlived all of its rivals, including The Star Theatre in Bilston Street, The Empire Palace and later The Hippodrome.

The site chosen for the latest addition to theatrical life in Wolverhampton was ideal. The new building was to replace the decaying eyesore next to the Victoria Hotel in Lichfield Street, then as now, a major thoroughfare close to the centre of town.

The driving force behind the theatre in these early stages was Alderman C.T. Mander, who was at that time Mayor of Wolverhampton. Together, with about half a dozen other worthies he set about assembling a top class team of craftsmen and builders, using local talent wherever possible.

The theatre was designed by eminent theatre architect Charles J. Phipps and incorporated four shops, two on either side of the main entrance in its 123-foot frontage. Wolverhampton builder, Henry Gough, was appointed to carry out the construction work, which cost at that time an estimated £10,000. Astonishingly the theatre was completed in less than six months, from the laying of foundation stone by Mrs C.T. Mander on June 28th 1894 to the grand opening on 10th December 1894.

Even today the Grand is renowned as being one of Phipps' greatest achievements. The façade of the building has hardly altered at all during its two major refurbishments. Although capacity in 1894 was a staggering 2151, the architects had been "liberal in the matter of space" and even those in the cheapest seats were favourably impressed.

In the nineteenth century, seating in the auditorium was segregated by class, with the Dress Circle reserved for the gentry. For those "ordinary" people lucky enough to get in, they watched from the gallery where seats could not be booked in advance. The interior was overwhelming with its predominant colours of cream and claret and the ornate ceiling plasterwork. The decorations adorning the box and circle fronts and proscenium arch were painted gold. The theatre with the exception of the stage was lit by electricity.

On the grand opening night of December 10th 1894 the audience certainly had a night to remember with the magnificent décor of the building and with an outstanding performance from the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company performing Gilbert & Sullivan's Utopia Limited.

For the next few years, people enjoyed entertainment varying from large-scale musicals and Shakespeare's plays to "wholesome" dramas. Starring in such productions the Grand played host to both the famous and soon to be famous. These included Sir Henry Irving the renowned Lyceum actor and a young Charlie Chaplin who was recorded as being company call boy in 1902. He later starred at the Grand in one of his first acting debuts as Dr Watson's pageboy in Sherlock Holmes.

In 1909 the Grand was chosen for a spectacle of quite a different kind, when the president of the Board of Trade, Winston Churchill addressed the Budget League from the theatre's stage. Nine years later Prime Minister, David Lloyd George played to a full house when he opened the Government's General Election campaign.

Until the early 1920's, the Grand was a touring theatre. It had no resident corps of actors but rather played host to a huge number of visiting professional companies, and also to various local amateur groups. During the recession all this changed and the Grand became a repertory theatre, initially under the direction of Leon Salberg.

This shift in emphasis meant that the superb stage and remarkable backstage facilities became available to a whole new generation of aspiring professionals, many of who went on to become household names. During the thirties, forties and fifties, many future stars including Kenneth Moore, Peggy Mount, June Whitfield and Leonard Rossiter developed their talents in front of a discerning Black Country audience. Another famous daughter of Wolverhampton, and the Grand in particular, was Gwen Berryman, who later found nation wide fame playing Doris Archer in the well known BBC Radio series The Archers.

The Grand Theatre Wolverhampton
Lichfield Street

Box Office Number:
01902 429212

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