Harrogate Theatre History
Built just before the turn of the century, Harrogate Theatre opened on 11 January 1900 with a charity gala in aid of British soldiers fighting the Boer War in South Africa. This was followed on 13 January 1900 by Mr J Tully’s pantomime, “Dick Whittington”.
Known as The Grand Opera House, the theatre was designed by architect, Frank Tugwell, who also designed the Futurist Theatre in Scarborough and the Savoy Theatre in London. The theatre incorporated many of the latest safety features, a fire-proof curtain which could be lowered between the stage and the auditorium, fire extinguishers and a sprinkler system. The stairs and corridors were constructed of stone, which made them fire proof.
The theatre was lavishly decorated with gilded plasterwork mouldings and boasted hot and cold running water in the dressing rooms and electric lighting. The carved frieze in the foyer was not part of the original décor, sculpted by Frances Darlington, it depicts themes from drama and literature and is thought to have been added shortly before 1911.
William Peacock was the Managing Director of the Grand Opera House from it’s opening in 1900 through to the mid 1930’s when his wife and daughter took over. The theatre operated as a touring venue up to the early 1930’s when the growing popularity of cinema and radio saw a decline in theatre audiences. As an answer to the problem, William Peacock formed a repertory company, The White Rose Players, (one of the first weekly rep companies in the country) and the theatre became a producing venue. The White Rose Players performed around forty-five plays a year and continued through to the mid 1950’s when once again the theatre experienced a decline in audience numbers, this time due to the growing popularity of television and in 1955 Harrogate Opera House closed.
In 1958 the theatre reopened, this time as Harrogate Theatre and soon after, a non profit making charitable trust was set up to run it. Harrogate Borough Council bought the building and became the theatre’s landlord, which they still are today. The theatre continued through the 1960’s and in th
e early 1970’s underwent a programme of refurbishment and alteration. At this time the seating capacity in the auditorium was reduced to 481 from 800 (the original capacity had been 1300) the balcony was reduced to the two rows we still have today, the apron and Juliet stages were added either side of the stage and the maze of corridors and small cafes and bars were opened out to form the current stalls and circle bars.
The theatre continued to run through the seventies and eighties despite a funding crisis in the mid eighties which resulted in it closing for a period of reorganisation, reopening in 1987.
Today the theatre continues to attract good audiences with a varied programme of produced and toured in work, it also hosts a number of amateur companies and has a thriving Youth Theatre.
On 26 October 2007 the Theatre revealed the culmination of thirteen weeks of intensive refurbishment and restoration with a grand unveiling of their Main Auditorium. This major facelift completed the first phase of a planned building wide refurbishment.
In Summer 2008 the second phase of refurbishment took place which saw the Stalls Bar, Box Office and remaining public stairwells completely transformed.
The Stalls Bar was completely refigured with the bar moving position, brand new seating and a performance space being installed.
The Box Office was also completely overhauled with many new features being added including the addition of specially designed lower counter to ensure that Harrogate Theatre continues to be accessible to all.
The remaining public stairwells were redecorated to match the colours of the lower foyer which was completed the year before to evoke the original colour scheme from the Theatre's opening in 1900. Alongside this new chandeliers were specially cast to match those in the main auditorium.
In Summer 2009, the third phase of refurbishment took place which saw the Circle Bar completely renovated and many of its original features restored.
Over the last one hundred and seven years many famous names of stage and screen have trod the boards at Harrogate Theatre; Trevor Howard, Charlie Chaplin, Sarah Bernhardt, Arnold Ridley, Brian Murphy, Kate O’Mara, Martin Shaw, John Noakes and Ben Kingsley to name a few.