The Palace Theatre or Theatre of Varieties in Union Street, was designed by William Arber of Wimperis and Arber of Sackville Street, London.
It was owned jointly by the United Counties Theatres Limited and The Livermore Brothers, Horace and Lechmere. The building was erected at cost of £95,000.
The first public show was on 5 September 1898 and featured a variety of acts. These included the Princess Ladies’ Orchestra from the Promenade Pier, ‘Leopoldine’ who performed on parallel bars and flying rings, comedian Harry Comlin, the Levey Sisters and the acrobats the ‘Marvellous Craggs’. The show closed with roller skater Fred Darby.
Unfortunately three months later it was damaged by fire. The blaze was spotted by a passing policeman on the morning of 23 December. As well as various parts of the buildings, many of the decorative features were destroyed, including the domed ceiling and naval illustrations on the panels.
The fire had started as the result of a Battle of Trafalgar sketch in a show the previous evening, involving the firing of a stage canon. A spark had ignited a curtain and the fire had developed.
The theatre was rebuilt and opened on 22 May 1899 with a much plainer interior. The building incorporated the former Grand Western Hotel. English Heritage currently describes the theatre as being ‘in the Northern Renaissance style with Art Nouveau details’.
The theatre changed hands several times. At some point during the 1920s-1930s, it was managed by Jack Fitchett, a former professional footballer who had played for Bolton Wanderers, Manchester United and Plymouth Argyle.
The items featured in this post include pantomime programmes and a page from one of two account books that cover the periods 1907-1910 and 1914-1929.
One of the artists recorded in the book is Harry Houdini, the escapologist. Not only were the wages of the artists recorded, but also the takings for each day, how much the band was paid and various other expenses including payments to the local police forces. It also records the weather. Apparently it was ‘Hot’ on 21 August 1909.
Houdini was one of the highest paid people to appear at the time with a fee of £150 – the equivalent of about £18,000 today! As you can see from the book above, some performers were only paid £8 (although that does equate to about £960).
based on an original article by Debbie Watson, Archivist