ROYALTY THEATRE. City Road, Chester.
Date opened: 26th December 1882 Date Closed as a theatre: 1966
The exception to cinemas on this site is the much lamented ROYALTY THEATRE, City Road. Having hosted early cinematograph films, it earns a rightful place in the line up of Chester cinemas. The exterior was plain, painted brick, two storeys with windows of domestic scale on first floor. There was originally a long canopy along the entrance frontage. The theatre was entered at the side, through an ante-building containing foyer, stairs, bars, refreshment areas. The theatre lay length ways behind this, with a fly tower, and good access to scene dock from City Road. Stage dimensions: Depth: 10.36m (34ft), Width: 16.45m (54ft), Proscenium width: 1912: 7.62m (25ft), Height to grid: 1912: 13.1m (43ft).
It had until the mid 1950s a well designed interior, with two curving balconies, both supported on six columns, with matching deep con vexed fronted boxes at circle level on each side of the proscenium. After the 1957 alterations it had a plain interior with two ribbed flat-fronted balconies. Fortunately, the original proscenium front of house was left intact. The ornate boxes were now removed and covered over. Two niches either side of the proscenium were formed to accommodate the two famous statues that were now the focal point, helping to divert the audience’s attention away from the vulgar flock wallpaper that adorned the walls. Apart from removing the supporting balcony pillars, thanks to the installation of cantilever support girders, you are left wondering what other advantage was there, and whatever the owner was thinking of to pursue these foolish alterations, particularly as theatre design favors curved balconies which allows audiences to embrace and absorb the action on the stage below.
At this time, it is true that the majority of Chester locals didn’t notice the change! However, Chester’s discerning audience would have been more than delighted to have had a theatre of this quality today. The support that the Lyceum in Crewe receives is but an indicator as to what would have been likely if the ROYALTY had been treated with more respect, being left intact which might have been it’s salvation.
Peter Davies recalls~Nothing could be better than going to the Royalty! Even the three Chester “super” cinemas took second place. Having a father who was a well known local singer and who loved the theatre, it was my weekly treat to go with him to the Royalty. In the early 50s, variety was still pulling the crowds. with many famous names treading the boards. Intermingled in the Royalty’s weekly schedules were plays, opera and ballet, etc.
It was of a time that theatre was available to everyone, no matter how much they earned. If money was scarce, then it was the steep upper circle (known as the gods). If you had money to spare you had the choice of several price ranges in the dress circle or stalls. In the rear stalls you would avoid the seats near the pillars that supported the circle as they really got in the way. To show off as a birthday treat, etc, then you could even have a private box overlooking the stage. Only once can I remember watching a show in such a privileged position, and I was not impressed as you could not see all of the stage because of the restricted sight lines. The majority of the scenery was brought in by the various touring companies, with additional cloths hired. The Royalty employed Ron Lancaster, a talented scenery painter. He produced the most stunning paintings on flats, backcloths, and gauze. Many of his paintings could be seen in other local businesses, including Chester scenes wall hangings at the ABC’s Gingham/Concourse cafe
Entering this cosy auditorium, bathed in a warm glow of houselights together with the excited buzz of anticipation of a good show by a packed audience can still be remembered. The proscenium was high, with a stage width of only twenty seven foot. The stage sloped down towards the audience, so that patrons seated in the front stalls had a perfect view. The walls with hung paintings of the Chester bridges and gates, together with a safety curtain decorated with adverts for local businesses gave you plenty to look at before the slow drawing up of the safety curtain to reveal the rich velvet house drapes. The orchestra, always smartly dressed in dinner jackets and bow ties began to tune up signalled that the start of the performance was imminent. Once the orchestra burst into tune, the curtains parted usually revealing a vibrantly lit stage. I recall that some of these musicians seemed to have bright red noses, perhaps seeing them in the theatre’s Oyster bar during the intervals had something to do with it. No matter, as these guys were proper theatre musicians, and professionally accompanied the performers and singers.
The demise of the Royalty as a theatre was in the mid 1960s. The drop in audiences started the floundering management to try bingo and other side lines, but these drove even more theatre goers away! Even the pop groups source dried up thanks to the massive 2000 seater ABC becoming a pop concert venue. The final time I visited the Royalty was on a Sunday rummage sale. It was my opportunity to take a last look at this iconic theatre. I remember standing on the stage with my wife, Pat, who had worked there in final years. The auditorium now clearly smashed by the different ideas that were tried to keep the business operating, was ghostly to say the least. It had clearly gone past the point of no return, and looked tired and broken.
The two statues, one depicting drama, the other music were still gazing down forlornly. Who could count the numerous star acts they had witnessed, together with the thousands of appreciative locals who had flock there in the past? I thought back to the pantomime dames who would always make a point of including the statues in their act by throwing either their hats, bags or bloomers up to them, bring roars of laughter as the items usually landed on the statues heads.
Roger Shone moved quickly to save these figures, together with the full theatre facing proscenium aperture and other items of interests before the very slow process of demolition began.
Many blame the bland alterations in the 1950’s, sealing the fate of this gem of a traditional provincial theatre, eventually denying any hope of a listing protection. Together with an unconcerned council who sat back and watched this theatre decay whilst grant money was lavished elsewhere. Customers requirements have changed with the times too. The Royalty, once patronized by locals who arrived on local transport, or even walked. It is unlikely that the logistics of the Royalty would have kept it in business today, as the most important ingredient to success of a theatre or cinema is good parking facilities.
If you enjoyed going to the ROYALTY, or worked there at anytime, then we will be pleased to hear from you to share your thoughts.