Bradford - Star / Palace Theatre

A Brief History of the Bradford Palace
by Kenneth A. Webster.

The Palace Theatre, Bradford, was opened on or about the 25th August, 1875, when it was known as the Star. On the first night, Mr William Morgan, the manager, warned that the "very objectionable" custom of whistling and shouting would be "firmly and rigorously put down". The theatre was at this time in competition with Pullan's Music Hall in Brunswick Place, which opened in 1869. (This was not the stone and brick type destined to survive, but was mostly of wood, and in 1889 a fire closed the place down. It eventually reopened in 1891 as the Royal Jolity and lasted until 1897.)

Meanwhile, the Star changed its name to the Folly in 1881 (it is not clear why), was managed for a time from 1886 by Henry Pullan himself, and in 1894 Andrew Roberton and Walter Holmes changed it to the People's Palace. Another change of lessee in 1896, and finally on the 2nd January 1899 it was taken over by MacNaghten Enterprises Ltd, who held the tenancy until the theatre's closure. (The Empire opened in the same year - 1899.)

It is believed that the Palace was one of the oldest theatres in the provinces, and must surely have been unique in that it had another complete theatre built on top of it - the Prince's, opened on the 17th April, 1876 as a rival to the Royal Alexandra in Manningham Lane, later the Theatre Royal. The Theatre Royal of this time was the oldest (and still is) permanent theatre in Bradford, opened on Boxing Day, 1864, and subsequently bought by Francis Laidler, the "King of Pantomime" in 1920; the Empire also passed to Laidler until he sold it to Moss Empires. In 1914, Laidler built, owned and opened the Prince's sister theatre, the Alhambra in Great Horton Road. There is no evidence to hand that he was ever interested in the Palace.

The Palace was able to accommodate 2,100 people. The early wooden forms were eventually replaced by tip-up seats, price sixpence, and in 1894 further such renovations included the railing off of the pit, and the installation of electric light. On the 6th April 1896, the Palace gave the first showing of the then "cinematograph" In 1899, performances were being held twice nightly; ginger been in bottles was available as refreshment. Further improvements, though it is not clear what these were, were carried out in 1921, and in 1938, the very year in which it was to close, electric heating was installed.

At the turn of the century, and during the 1920s and '30s, when the Palace really enjoyed its heyday, the famous names of vaudeville were to appear - Vesta Tilly, Wee Georgie Wood, Dan Leno, Florrie Forde and Hetty King among them.

The Palace was closed on May 28th, 1938, by order of the Watch Committee of Bradford City Council due, it was said, to "structural defects", though it is not known what these were. Advance news of the closure attracted a petition of some 2,000 names by April 29th, which had grown to 13,500 by May 11th, but without success, as was a later attempt to get the theatre re-opened in 1947.

By all accounts the final night was the saddest in the history of Bradford's Theatreland (and probably still is to this day). Just a month after the theatre closed the equipment and effects were auctioned. The safety curtain, which had cost over £600, fetched only £3.5.0d. The £200 electric sign outside the main entrance, 12/6d.; 209 tip-up seats realised £8.2.9d., and a further 167, £5.50d. Two spotlights went for 37/6 and the footlights for 22/-. Even when all was gone, the story does not end, for the wood, brick and metal - the very bones of the theatre - were to have scrap value in years to come. One estimate in 1964 placed the iron pillars, each said to weigh two tons, at £2,000.

The theatre was finally demolished early in 1964 - the end on an era! But who knows what some future generation bent on digging up the main arterial road and ornamental gardens which now cover the site of the Palace and Prince's theatres, might dig up the remains of the Palace stage and proscenium, which having been demolished to that level, were then simply filled in.

Of all the history of the Palace, perhaps the strangest thing about it is that another theatre should be built directly above it. A spokesman of the theatre company is quoted as follows:
"The Prince's Theatre was built over the old Palace Theatre which was virtually underground. Simultaneous performances did go on at both theatres since they were, in effect, separate buildings with their own stages. Patrons leaving the Prince's Theatre would pass the door to the Palace Dress Circle on their way to the exit."

At this distance in time, it would be difficult to say exactly on whose commission this was done.

The door mentioned by the theatre spokesman, would appear to have merely been a fire exit from the rear of the Palace dress circle, and was a stout iron door, inches thick. It opened on to a staircase which led down from the Prince's balcony, and the suggestion seem to be that it may have been built in at the time of the construction of the Prince's; indeed to have been built otherwise would seem to have been an architectural impossibility. In turn, this would appear to have been the only common staircase linking the two theatres. Legend - for so it has become, and never more so that the Palace no longer exists - has it that an artist appearing at the Prince's on one occasion came down from his dressing-room to find himself, on arrival at the foot of the stairs, in the Palace Theatre. It was apparently some time before he could be convinced that he was not the victim of a strange hallucination. However, during demolition in 1964, it could be observed that the dressing-rooms in question were on the opposite side of the theatre from the staircase which linked the two theatres. Similarly, the story that there was a massive water tank between the two theatres, that is to say, under the floor of the Prince's and above the ceiling of the Palace, would seem to have been disproved by the lack of evidence for it in the process of demolition. It is, however, not impossible that the Palace may have been fitted with some kind of sprinkler system.

The stages were directly in line, although the Prince's stage extended further back than the Palace. Even the understage of the Prince's was above the outside ground level and was built over the Palace's dressing rooms, which were behind its stage. The two theatres had quite separate entrances, the Prince's in Little Horton Lane and St John's Street; the Palace only in St John's Court, the courtyard of a mill adjoining the theatres, but in reality to their rear, although adjacent to (though not sharing a dividing wall with) the entrance and foyer of the Prince's. In addition, the Palace had further exits, from the rear of the stall into St John's Court, and from the rear of the circle promenade, coming out into St John's Street, next to the stage door and stalls and balcony doors of the Prince's, and quite close to the door of the flat above the Prince's, at one time occupied by Mrs Gwladys Stanley Laidler. Access could also be gained from this point to the Manager's office in the Prince's.

The Prince's had flies over the stage area, extending upwards some eighty-five feet; the Safety Curtain used to be raised up its full length by turning a hand winch. The Palace whose stage could not extend upwards because its ceiling was virtually under the floor of the Prince's, used to haul its scenery up from the stage, rather than lower it from flies in the usual way.

Built over an impressive main staircase to the Palace stalls was the Manager's office, giving access also to a circle box, and to the stage area itself; in fact, this was the only means of entry to the stage area. This, combined with the obvious fire risk, could quite feasibly have been one of the "structural defects" which led the theatre to close, the advent of tighter safety precautions in more modern times outdating the building's previous apparent soundness. The circle was built almost entirely of wood, the ceiling frescoed and carved, and supported by some twenty or so iron pillars reaching from ground floor (internal) level. It is estimated that the floor of the Palace must have been some thirty or so feet underground, although the circle promenade certainly reached above the then outside ground level by something like ten or twelve feet.

The whole conception of the architecture is something of a mystery - how and why it was built that way might never now be known; it is as far back in the past as the Palace itself in that they are now both memories.


Telegraph & Argus archives.
Yorkshire Observer archives.

January -April, 1964.
Revised March 1969.

Copyright ©1964/1969, Kenneth A. Webster.
May not be copied or reproduced without permission.


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