It’s been the heartbeat of Wolverhampton since Victorian times and Wolverhampton Grand Theatre is today celebrating 120 years.
It’s been the heartbeat of Wolverhampton since Victorian times.
Beginning on December 10, 1894, when a packed house watched opera Utopia Limited, the Grand Theatre has gone on to become one of the most popular theatres in the country. And now it is turning 120 years old.
To mark the occasion we’ve looked back on the Grand’s rich history to pick out the highs and lows from the famous old venue.
The place has seen it all – the very best shows that theatre has to offer, huge stars of stage and screen, a serving Prime Minister and even some live lions on stage.
It survived closure, which Wolverhampton rallying round to revive the Grand when a dire financial situation forced it to shut its doors during the early 1980s.
It’s hosted a long list of greats – Charlie Chaplin, Michael Caine, Marlene Dietrich, Sean Connery, Norman Wisdom, Dionne Warwick, Bob Monkhouse, Spike Milligan, Tommy Cooper, Cilla Black, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles and even Winston Churchill.
Millions have gone through its doors flocking to see plays, pantos, operas, concerts and comedy.
And it undeniably holds a place in millions of people’s hearts.
Current chief executive Peter Cutchie said it was its audience that made the Grand so unique.
He said: “People who settle in Wolverhampton do so for life and there’s something about that settled population in the Black Country which gives this its atmosphere.
“The Wolverhampton people are a loving audience.
“I’ve worked at eight theatres and these are the warmest people I’ve ever worked with or presented to.
“This place is special.”
Crowds swarmed to Lichfield Street to see the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company perform Gilbert and Sullivan’s Utopia Limited, and history was made.
It had taken just six months to build but, remarkably, the theatre has stood for 120 years.
It has seen off other theatres, trends and recessions and is more popular now than ever.
Not bad for something which was only expected to last 20 or 30 years. And equally not bad for a building which, quite literally, didn’t have any foundations.
“Back then, the lifespan of a theatre was just 20 or 30 years,” said current chief executive of the Grand, Pete Cutchie.
“They thought it wouldn’t last, or would maybe be moved elsewhere, but it’s stood the test of time.
“There are foundations at the back of the building now, but there are no foundations under the front part of the building.
“It was built on demolished farm buildings – it’s amazing that we’re still here.”
Prolific and well-respected architect Charles J Phipps designed the famous old building, which was constructed by Wolverhampton’s Henry Gough. The cost? Just £10,000.
And the theatre began life as it meant to go on, with Utopia Limited a roaring success.
Not everything remained intact that night though. A pair of opera glasses – which reappeared after being donated to the theatre five years ago for a 115-year anniversary celebration – were stolen.
Nine-year-old Tom Latham pocketed the glasses as a lasting memory of the first curtain-up at the theatre where he would later work as stage manager for 35 years.
Mr Latham’s granddaughter, Elaine Mullett, said of the cheeky theft: “He was a bit naughty and wanted a little piece of history to keep because he fell in love with the place on that opening night.
“He queued on his own for hours and hours. He was just mesmerised by it – the noise and the colour.”
Nowadays, the Grand is very much Wolverhampton’s primary theatre but in its early days it had strong competition.
The Empire Palace Theatre, later known as The Hippodrome, was built in 1898 in Queen Square and there was the Prince of Wales Theatre in Bilston Street.
The Theatre Royal had previously been Wolverhampton’s main theatre, but closed in the same month the Grand opened.
Despite so many changes around it, the Grand itself hasn’t changed a huge amount in 120 years.
Mr Cutchie said: “If Phipps came back now he’d recognise the frontage, apart from the fact the shops are missing and he’d vaguely recognise the foyer.
“And as for the auditorium itself – nothing has changed.”
The theatre held up to 2,400 people, double its capacity in 2014.
As Louise Walker, the Grand’s creative learning manager and also unofficial historian, explains, people were crammed in – and segregated accordingly.
“The Grand was brought about by a need for high-class, civilised theatre for the folk of Wolverhampton,” she said.
“It was more highbrow than others in the town and duly opened with an opera.
“It was segregated in the same way as the social structure at the time. You had your working class people at the top and the whole thing was double the capacity it is now.
“Of course there was no TV or radio so this was a main form on entertainment and probably quite affordable for most people.”
Today the executive boxes on the side of the theatre hold just four people each. Back then it was between 10 and 20.
And with wooden benches instead of formal seats, as many people as possible were crammed in to enjoy a variety of musicals, shows and comedies.
The theatre quickly established itself and soon attracted star names.
Sir Henry Irving, the greatest Victorian actor of his day, appeared in four plays in the early 20th century – The Merchant of Venice, Louis XI, Waterloo and The Bells.
Some Grand Theatre actors who later became huge names were relative unknowns at the time, including a certain Charlie Chaplin, who in 1903 played Dr Watson’s pageboy Billy in Sherlock Holmes.
And even Winston Churchill made an appearance, addressing a male-only audience as president of the Board of Trade, only to be heckled by a group of suffragettes who threw stink bombs and damaged seating before being arrested.
Times may have changed but Mr Cutchie said the Grand had retained its charm over the years.
“Yes all theatres go through difficult periods of time and have ups and downs,” he said. “You can blame the invention of talking film, TV – even bingo threatened the life of theatres.
“But the Grand has survived all that.”
The theatre quickly established itself and soon attracted star names. Check out some of the biggest stars who have taken to the stage in our Famous Faces Gallery:
By Tim Spiers