The Grand Theatre
The Grand Theatre opened on 10 December 1894. It was not Wolverhampton's first theatre but has outlasted its rivals, including The Star Theatre, later known as the Theatre Royal, also Clifton Cinema in Bilston Street, The Empire Palace, and later The Hippodrome in Queen Square which was destroyed by fire in the 1950s.
The site chosen for the new building was to replace the decaying eyesore next to the Victoria Hotel, later the Britannia Hotel, in Lichfield Street, then as now, a major thoroughfare close to the city centre. The driving force behind the theatre in these early stages was Alderman Charles Tertius Mander, Mayor of Wolverhampton.
The theatre was designed by eminent theatre architect Charles J. Phipps and incorporated four shops, two on either side of the main entrance, on 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 28 June 1894 to the grand opening on 10 December 1894. The Wolverhampton Grand Theatre is renowned as being one of Phipps' greatest achievements. The façade of the building has hardly altered during its two major refurbishments.
The seating capacity in 1894 was a staggering 2151. 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.
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. Chaplain 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 1920s, 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 More, 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 nationwide fame playing Doris Archer in the well known BBC Radio series The Archers.