The Grand Theatre first opened its doors in 1894. Designed by prestigious theatre architect Charles J. Phipps and Wolverhampton native builder Henry Gough, the ten thousand pound construction began June 28th 1894 when Mayoress C.T. Mander unveiled 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.
In those days, seating in the auditorium was segregated by class, with the Dress Circle set aside for members of the gentry. People like you and I waited for hours to grab a place in the ‘sixpenny gallery,’ where there was no advance booking and queues reaching around the building. 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!
The great Victorian actor Sir Henry Irving appeared in four plays during 1903, and future Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed a male-only audience as president of the Board of Trade in 1909, though his speech was interrupted by an enthusiastic group of suffragettes who threw stink bombs and damaged seating before being ejected by the police.
Nine years 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 throughout the Twenties and Thirties.
Grand Repertory Years
During the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, the Grand’s resident Repertory Company flourished under theatre moguls Leon and Derek Salberg, running two full companies in tandem both here and at the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham. Here in Wolverhampton, the company was managed by Derek’s cousin and aspiring playwright Basil Thomas.
Each week, a core company of twenty actors and crew would present a new play to the packed masses. Future stars of stage and screen such as Kenneth More, Peggy Mount, June Whitfield and Leonard Rossiter honed their craft under the watchful eyes of the discerning Black Country audiences.
Grand Changing Times
Despite a post-war boom in ticket sales and general theatre interest, the introduction of television to British households in the late Fifties led to a decline in audience numbers across the country’s regional theatres. The rep companies were far from immune - the television industry promised more money and national exposure for far fewer hours, and so many of its stars were lured to London’s streets to discover if they really were still paved with gold. When beloved General Manager Peter Marwoode passed away in 1959, it was the end of an era for the Grand in more ways than one.
The Derek Salberg Repertory Company were no more, and the Grand’s programme shifted towards high-profile touring dramas and star-studded variety shows.
Memorable moments included visits from Agatha Christie for the premiere of ‘Verdict,’ the Queen’s Coronation in 1953, a young Sean Connery in the Grand’s Diamond Jubilee performance of ‘South Pacific,’ and even a concert by international singing star Marlene Dietrich in 1966.
By the close of the Sixties, the antiquated auditorium was in dire need of refurbishment and modernisation if it was to stand any chance of attracting the audiences it so desperately needed. Major shareholders the Myatt family sold the theatre to the local authority for seventy-four thousand pounds, shortly before the appointment of Humphrey Stanbury as the new Chief Executive, fresh from a star turn at the Birmingham Rep.
A Grand Theatre Club was hastily formed by supporters and patrons of the Grand, and over the course of one incredible weekend in 1973, the weary auditorium, dilapidated dressing rooms and even backstage areas were renovated, repainted and updated.
At the close of the decade, the Grand was opening its doors to nearly a quarter of a million customers, thanks to its fresh, modern facilities and contemporary, crowd-pleasing programming. Rapturous applause greeted legends such as the Sadlers Wells Opera, Sir Ian McKellen before the ‘Sir,’ Spike Milligan and Margot Fonteyn. Theatregoers, staff and stars alike all look back on this era with a great sense of admiration and fondness - it was truly the perfect time to be a part of the Grand Theatre. Dark times lay ahead for the last few years of the 1970s, however.
Save The Grand! The Fall and Rise of the Grand in the 80s
On February 23rd 1980, the Grand Theatre closed its doors faced with financial difficulties and a very real prospect of permanent closure.
There was a not unexpected 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. For the next ten years the Grand enjoyed success after success, attracting top touring companies and packing houses full of loyal, cheering audiences.
Today's Grand: 1990s and beyond
Fast forward to December 1994, and against all odds the Grand celebrated it centenary with a special, one-off performance from the very same D’Oyly Carte Opera Company who appeared there on its opening night! This well-received special occasion kick started another decade of success for the Grand, during which time audiences rose annually by almost eighty per cent. Another major refurbishment in 1998 cemented the Grand’s reputation as one of the country’s leading regional theatres.
The arrival of a new Chief Executive 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. Here’s to the next hundred years!