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A night at the Opera House

One of Dorset’s most historic entertainment venues is the former Grand Pavilion Theatre in Boscombe. John Walker tells its story.

Opera House Interior
The Grand Pavilion Theatre in its original form, soon after its opening

The story of the Grand Pavilion Theatre begins in 1890, when developer Archibald Beckett started to create the impressive terrace of fine buildings in Christchurch Road, Boscombe, that today stands within the pedestrian precinct. The 1890 Salisbury Hotel (McDonald’s is on the site today) was followed by the Grand Continental (now Royal) Arcade in 1892 and the Grand Pavilion Theatre in 1895.

Christchurch Road, Boscombe, in 1909
Christchurch Road, Boscombe, in 1909. The glass canopy of the Hippodrome can be seen projecting over the pavement on the right-hand side.
The higher-gabled building beyond is the Royal (then the Grand Continental) Arcade.

No expense was spared in the design and construction of the Grand Pavilion Theatre, which could accommodate 4200, with 2800 seated and 1400 standing. It was designed by local architects Lawson and Donkin and decorated in Pompeiian style. Style details were planned in accordance with advice from C J Phipps, a London theatrical agent.

It was always intended that the theatre would have a dual use as a circus and George Coleman Sanger of the famous circus family is said to have assisted in the building’s design. The original tiered seating is still in evidence today – the theatre is in fact grade II listed. One unusual original feature was the grand organ that Beckett had mounted on a high balcony in the south-west corner of his L-shaped Grand Continental Arcade; it had a keyboard that could be used to entertain shoppers during the day and then swivel to play in the theatre.

The front of the refurbished Opera House today
The front of the refurbished Opera House today

The early years of the theatre, under Beckett’s personal direction, provided a complete mix of fare from simple entertainment and silent films to serious plays and opera. Beckett relinquished ownership of the theatre in 1898 due to problems which included difficulty in obtaining bar licences. In 1900 the theatre was taken over by nationwide theatre impresarios Messrs Morell and Mouillot, who offered serious drama performed by the leading acting troupes of the day. Star performers to appear included Sarah Bernhardt, Dame Ellen Terry and Sir Henry Irving.

Effigy
The effigy erected in protest opposite the Boscombe Hippodrome

In 1903-4 Lillie Langtry, by then a very rich lady but never at peace, crossing and re-crossing the Atlantic and touring with her theatre troupes, appeared at the Grand Theatre in Crossways, an adaptation of Diana of the Crossways. In the case of the ‘Jersey Lily’ this was over 25 years on, and only about half a mile away, from the Red House, the love-nest built for her in 1877 by the future King Edward VII. One wonders if she thought of those heady days while performing at the Grand – maybe she even took a nostalgic walk to the junction of Knyveton and Derby Roads.

Lillie Langtry in about 1900
Lillie Langtry in about 1900, some three years before she appeared at the Grand Theatre

After a while it became clear that the future of the venue lay in popular entertainment – by February 1905 Frederick Mouillot had converted it into the Boscombe Hippodrome, seating 2000 people. This was the start of twice-nightly music hall variety which, for most of the next fifty years, was the staple diet of the theatre. Many would argue that this was its heyday, being on the major variety circuit and attracting the top variety performers in the country each week.

The 1905 changeover did not take place without controversy. On top of the building on the other side of Christchurch Road, opposite the original theatre entrance, is a stone effigy of Old Nick. It is believed to have been erected either by an outraged clergyman or by a member of the Plymouth Brethren who kept a shop on the site.
The effigy was a protest about the lowering of the town’s tone by the artistes involved – protesters would sink to their knees outside the theatre to pray for their spiritual welfare. No longer visible, the effigy’s original inscription read: ‘The Devil comes into his own’.

Over the years all the country’s famous variety performers appeared at the Hippodrome, from Marie Lloyd, Harry Lauder and Vesta Tilley to ‘Old Mother Riley’, Max Miller and George Formby. An iconic visit in 1953 saw the famous comedy duo, Laurel and Hardy, perform at the theatre during their farewell tour of Britain. Another artiste appearing in 1947, in a revue entitled ‘For the Fun of It’, was the then relatively unknown Max Bygraves, just out of the Forces. He later became a long-term Bournemouth resident. Earlier, in 1941, local boy Tony Hancock compered a concert party there before being called up into the Forces.

Local boy Tony Hancock appeared at the Hippodrome during the War
Local boy Tony Hancock appeared at the Hippodrome during the War

Many of the acts would stay at the Chine Hotel in Boscombe. The hotel and the venue were by then owned by the Butterworth family, which has retained ownership of both to the present day. A visit to the lower ground floor of the hotel today provides ample evidence of this time, with signed photographs of many of the stars to have graced the Hippodrome stage.

The Hippodrome had a change of emphasis for much of the World War 2 years with the popularity of so-called American-style glamour revues comprising comedy acts and tableaux of nude ladies, often behind translucent screens, who were required by law to pose absolutely still on stage. One such artiste who appeared at the Boscombe Hippodrome at least twice during 1944 was ‘Jane of the Daily Mirror’, real name Chrystabel Leighton-Porter. Chrystabel was an artist’s model with a perfect pocket Venus figure (35-22-34) who posed for a famous wartime newspaper cartoon. From this distance it is hard to realise just how popular she was throughout the country. While appearing at the Hippodrome early in June 1944, she was asked to entertain American troops in the New Forest whose departure for the beaches of Northern France had been delayed by bad weather. I recall meeting her at Beaulieu in July 2000, a few months before her death at the age of 87; she still retained perfect looks with fine facial bone structure.

With the increased popularity of television, the lure of variety faded and the Hippodrome finally closed its doors in 1956. Continuing to follow the trend, the venue next became a dance hall, the Royal Ballrooms, a popular palais-de-dance with a resident band that also often attracted visits from the big-name bands of the day. It then set out to appeal to a younger generation, becoming a disco named Tiffany’s in the 1970s. Tiffany’s was followed by The Academy, a night club and disco, in 1982. The Academy was voted Best Club in the UK in 1986, 1987 and 1988 but went out of business in 1993. It later re-opened as Academy 2 before becoming the Opera House night club in 1997.

The Opera House years (1997-2006) were a very busy, high-profile and mostly highly profitable time for all concerned with the club as it met the music demands of the moment and customers flocked in from miles around, particularly at weekends. It is said to have become a super-club with the advent of weekly Slinky nights, offering a wide range of music. Slinky became the longest-running weekly night in the country and at its peak was a global brand, touring the world and playing to audiences in excess of 30,000.

All this came to an end in 2006 when owner John Butterworth regained personal control of the venue and ousted Slinky and similar nights. He considered that the dance scene was dying and that a live music venue offering a larger range of evening entertainment to a wider public was the future. With this in mind, he undertook a multi-million pound refurbishment of the building, not only restoring the fabric but upgrading the facilities and installing a sprinkler system for the first time. Damaged and missing features were restored and the second floor has been re-opened after being closed to the public for decades. One of the prominent features of the new-look Opera House is the impressive LED lighting system, comprising 16 million colour permutations. The venue can now be used for banquets, weddings, live music and theatrical productions, as it starts on the next phase of its long and distinguished history.

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