MUSIC HALL ~ History

 

The Music Hall was built by Abbot Simon on a former cemetery and became the ancient Chapel of St Nicholas. It passed into the possession of the mayor and citizens in 1488 when it became the Common Hall. Little use was made of the building until 1545 when it was considerably altered. The ground floor became a storehouse, which included  wool, corn and cloth. The upper part was a port mote for the pleas of the crown, for the port mote of common pleas and pentice court. After the alterations were complete the city authorities removed from the old Common Hall in Common Hall lane. It is evident that it was used as a place of amusement even at that time.

On the 2nd December 1606 William Earl of Derby applied to the mayor and assembly for permission to use the hall for a dramatic performance. Ten years later during the time Thomas Thorpe was mayor, an order of assembly was made. This was on the 20th October 1616 and said that no players to be allowed to use the Common Hall, and further that for avoiding several inconveniences, ordered that they shall not act in any place within the liberties of the city after six in the evening. The mayor and the corporation often feasted and royalty were among the distinguished people entertained. When Chester Town Hall was built in 1698 The premises were deserted again by the city authorities, although the ground floor continued to be used for storage, chiefly for such goods commonly sold at the city’s fairs. It then became the wool hall.  In 1773 when the fairs started to go out of favour a group of gentlemen opened it as a theatre for dramatic purposes called The New Theatre. The puritans were determined to put down all such amusements. Actors at that time were arrested as rogues and vagabonds. The city authorities made an application to parliament for a licence and a patent from the crown dated May 16th 1777, and it was granted to John Townshend. It became the Theatre Royal. Many celebrated actors of the time appeared, including Joe Grimaldi and John Kemble. Many actors built their reputation at the Theatre Royal. On the 5th May 1794 a play  called ‘The Mountaineers’ was presented during Chester race week. Seats could be booked at Mr E. Monk’s printers and Mrs Poole and Mr Bulkeley, booksellers. Boxes were 3 shillings, pit 2 shillings and gallery 1 shilling.

In 1855 the building was altered by Chester architect James Harrison. He was responsible for the Gothic front. THE CHESTER COURANT DATED 1st MARCH 1884 SAYS: The want of a commodious Hall in Chester for public purposes having long been regretted, a building now presents itself. A long lessee of the Theatre and the adjacent premises having been offered by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, on advantageous terms, a Committee desirous of entering into the necessary arrangements has been formed, with a view of promoting the conversion of the Theatre into a spacious and handsome Hall, which shall be available for musical and other public purposes.

Plans have been submitted by Mr James Harrison to the Committee, by whom they have been examined and generally approved. It is proposed to raise the necessary sum in shares of £5 each; the amount required for the requisite alterations including Fittings, Furniture and the purchase of an Organ being £3000. (The organ was provided and installed by a Mr Jackson for £700.) The Hall when completed according to the plans will be 110 feet long, 40 feet wide, and 50ft high; it will be capable of seating an audience of 1400 persons,  and also of according room for an orchestra of 300 performers; there will be Cloak and Refreshment Rooms, with other convenient apartments;  and there will be two principal Entrances, one From St Werburgh Street and the other from Northgate Street.

The facilities which will be obtained by the erection of the proposed Hall will not only afford opportunities for Musical Festivals and Concerts on a large scale, but also for Public Celebrations, Religious Meetings, Lectures, and other enjoyment of social and intellectual character. It is anticipated that the rent will realise a fair rate of interest on the outlay, although the primary object of the promoters is to secure the possession of a building which has so long been wanted in Chester. Applications for Shares may be made at the several Banks in Chester; at the shop of Messrs. PRICHARD, ROBERTS & Co Booksellers, Bridge Street Row; or to Mr JOHN HICKLIN, Honorary Secretary to the Committee.

The contract for converting The Theatre into a Music Hall was given to a company by the name of Bellis and Williams. Three tenders were sent in. It was reported by the press that the work will commence as soon as The Ecclesiastical Commissioners, who are very slow at business have executed the lease.

The building opened as The New Music Hall on the 26th November 1855 run by CHESTER MUSIC HALL COMPANY. Performers at the Grand Evening Concert included Arthur Napoleon, Signor Sivori and Madame Clara Novello. On the opening night police regulations stated: Carriages driving to the St Werburgh Street entrance must pass from Northgate Street by Abbey buildings to the hall. After setting down company, drive off to St Werburgh Street. The same route must be observed in taking up company. Carriages at the Northgate Street entrance must set down with horses heads towards Eastgate Street and take up with the horses heads towards Northgate. These regulations will be strictly enforced by police in attendance.

After the original Theatre Royal became The Music Hall, the Theatre Royal name still lived on in the city. There was a run-down building in Frodsham Street called the Theatre Royal and later one in City Road.

On Wednesday January the 2nd 1856 The organ  known as the grand organ was played for the first time at the Music Hall. It was billed as The Opening of the Organ. ‘Oratorio of the Messiah’ was the first production to make use of the instrument. The organist was a Mr Gunton. A Mr Charles Halle played the piano. Halle was also a conductor. From 1884 until 1914 The concerts of the Chester Musical Society were performed.

Chester Music Hall Company was wound up in 1859 and a new company called Chester New Music Hall Company Ltd was formed.

The building was used for lectures and concerts with occasional screenings in the early 20th Century of animated films. The North American Animated Picture Company screened animated pictures of the Boer war in 1901. The advertisement said Sensation of the New Century  500 animated pictures of the Boer and China wars. In 1908 the London Animated Company made an appearance.

Many famous people lectured at the Music Hall. Charles Dickens first gave a talk on Friday the 13th August 1858. The reading was taken from  A Christmas Carol. On the 19th  December 1861 Dickens was booked to appear again. However on December the 14th Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert passed away. Dickens visit was postponed as a mark of respect until after the Christmas period. The new date was Thursday the 30th January 1862. On this occasion he read from The Trial from Pickwick and Nicholas Nickleby at Mr Squeers School.

Dickens last appearance in Chester was on January the 22nd 1867 when he read from Dr Marigold and Bardell vs Pickwick. The Chester Chronicle dated the 26th January said, The Music Hall on Tuesday evening was accordingly well filled on the whole, though a few seats set apart as reserved were vacant and this is the more gratifying as the high prices charged and the exceptional severity of the weather must have been keen dissuasive with all but the most anxious to see and hear him. He was booked to give another reading from the hall on Thursday the 29th April 1869 but it had to be cancelled due to his ill health. He had suffered a slight stroke. A statement was given to the Chester Chronicle dated the 24th April 1869 by a Mr F. Carr Beard. He said that he was satisfied Dickens would not get through his reading if he appeared. Dickens recovered enough to carry on  giving readings, but no more In Chester. His last was on the 15th March 1870 at St James’s Hall in London.

The talk Dickens would have given was advertised in the Chester Chronicle on the 17 of April 1869 as One Farewell Reading (the last Mr Dickens will ever give in Chester). He would have read from Boots at the Holly Tree Inn, Sikes and Nancy and Mr Bob Sawyers party from Pickwick.

Winston Churchill gave a lecture in March 1901 called ‘The War as I saw it’. On April the 15th 1915 Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lectured on great battles of the war. The advertising said, Told in detail for the first time.

Films were screened full time from 1915 and the hall was known as Music Hall Pictures. The first film screened was ‘The Corsican Brothers’ from the 20th December. At this time the screen was at the St Werburgh Street end of the building. Bobby Williams added the musical accompaniment to the films by playing the piano. The last films screened as Music Hall Pictures were ‘What Would You Do’, ‘Fatal Failure’ and ‘Apartment Wanted’. This was on the 17th of September 1921. The Freehold was sold by the Chester Cathedral to the new company. After closing, work began on altering the hall. Edward John Muspratt and G E Tonge converted it. The screen was moved from the St Werburgh side to the Northgate side.

Tip-up seats, which were a luxury at the time were fitted. The cinema was installed with a new specially built Orchestrelle pipe organ, said to have cost around £3000. it was stated that the Organ would ensure beautiful and effective musical settings to the pictures. The Music Hall was advertised as the oldest cinema in the world. This should have read. Probably the oldest building in the world to show films, as films were screened before the Music Hall in newer buildings. At the time it was said that the site is admittedly the best in Chester for a picture house. It is only a few yards from the Cathedral, Town Hall, and Market Hall, and has the still further advantage of being in the very best of the chief shopping area in the city.

A newspaper report said: The Chester Music Hall cinema has been for many years an exceptionally good paying proposition and has a deservedly high reputation for its music and pictures.  This success has been achieved in spite of the fact that the Music Hall does not compare favourably with the modern cinemas for comfort and attractiveness and the directors realising the need in Chester of an up-to-date picture house on refined lines have decided to transform the Music Hall in its unrivalled position and with its wonderful possibilities of development and improvement into a super cinema that will be worthy of the city.

It is proposed entirely to re-construct and re-decorate the building to embrace the erection of a circular balcony with lounges, foyer and every modern convenience, the provision of improved seating accommodation with tip-up seats. Further the existing structures will be improved upon to provide every facility for entrances and exits to the benefit of the public.

The above alterations will only require the hall to be closed for two or three weeks. Under the new scheme the Chester Music Hall will lend itself in a more befitting manor to the periodical  concerts, which have been such a distinctive feature in the past, and which will still be continued under the supervision of Messer’s Philipson and Golder.

AGREEMENTS.

An agreement dated 22nd April 1921 made between Harold Lipson of the one part and the said Harry Kennedy (one-half of the Chester Music Hall syndicate) of the other part, whereby consideration of the sum of £27,500, the said Chester Music Hall and premises including goodwill and the furniture, fixtures and fittings and all the acquired rights and interests of the said Harold Lipson were agreed to be sold to the said Chester Music Hall syndicate. An agreement dated the 24th April 1921 made between the said Henry Kennedy acting as agent for the said Chester Music Hall syndicate of the one part and the said James Rylance (as Trusted for the company) of the other part, whereby the said syndicate agreed to sell to the company all the said premises at the price of £30,000, such price as £27,500 in cash and the balance of £2500 by allotment to the members of the said syndicate or nominees of £2500 fully paid shares of £1 each.

The Cheshire Observer dated 26/11/21 said: On entering the body of the hall, one is impressed by the splendid improvements introduced. The floor has been raised and an extremely good slope towards the screen enables all patrons to view the pictures without strain or discomfort. The seats in the body of the hall are all in the luxurious tip-up style, and the floor is covered with a fine Wilton carpet in black and gold.

THE FIRST ATTRACTION.

The first attraction shown in the converted cinema was ‘The Kid’ starring Charlie Chaplin. The company running the new Music Hall was Chester Music Hall (1921) Ltd. The directors, who were involved with other cinemas were James Rylance, Hugh Bicket, Henry Kennedy, John Davies and William Costigan.

‘The Kid’ was shown from the 28th November 1921. The second feature was ‘Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’. On Wednesday the 21st March 1928 The cinema screened a film called ‘Chang’. The entire proceeds of the performance went to the Chester maternity hospital.

The orchestra under the leadership of Edgar Patchett was placed in a sunken platform at the foot of the screen. The screen had a gilt moulded surround. Projection at that time was provided by two Kalee indomitable projectors with large diameter Dallmayer lenses.

On Monday September 23rd 1929 Chester’s first sound film took place at the hall. It was Al Jolson in ‘The Singing Fool’. There were four separate performances daily, except Sunday.  The performances were at 2, 4.10, 6.20 and 8.30.  The programme could be booked from 12.30- 1.30, 2.30- 3.30 and 7 to 8. The local press said: The public will appreciate the enterprise of the Chester Music Hall proprietors in installing the plant to provide the exhibition of ‘Talkie’ films.

Chester has been in the fore in the matter of the silent films, and the Music Hall has become noted for the excellence of the fare produced and the early booking of all the outstanding photo plays. Another report says: To ensure a successful screening of the films the interior of the Music Hall has been a hive of industry during the erection of the necessary equipment. It will be readily understood that considerable difficulty is experienced to get an even distribution of the sound, or talking, from the operating, to all parts of the auditorium. The Music Hall is noted for its wonderful acoustic properties, but this is not enough to ensure a clear and even dissemination of dialogue throughout the hall. Special apparatus had therefore to be installed and during the last few weeks the latest type of distribution schemes has been added to the interior of the hall under the supervision of the expert Mr Gamoner.

The first British ‘Talkie’ ‘Blackmail’, directed by Alfred Hitchcock was shown at the cinema from the 4th November 1929. This again was was using the sound on disc system. This was a shot lived system before optical sound tracks were printed on the film. The Music Hall was advertised as ‘The Talkie Theatre’, ‘ Chester’s Talkie Theatre Select’, ‘Chester’s Select Talkie Theatre’ and ‘Chester’s Super Talkie Theatre’.

General Theatres, a part of Gaumont British, took control in 1928. They also took control of the Majestic and Glynn in Chester. A mat with the words Gaumont British was placed at the front of the Music Hall. An advertisement from 1931 describes the hall as having a delightful entertainment, a homely atmosphere and comfort and relaxation. There were separate performances at 2.30, 6.30 and 8.40. Eventually there were continuous performances. At one point continuous shows took place Monday to Friday with separate shows on Saturday.

On the 29 August 1936  The kiddies club was introduced. Films were screened on a Saturday mornings at 10.30. The first one to be shown at the hall was Shirley Temple In ‘Bright Eyes’. She was president of the Gaumont British kiddies club. The club was formed at the Music Hall on the suggestion of a Mr V.P. Powell, divisional publicity manager. Admission was 4d and 6d. In 1939 seating capacity was reduced From 870 to. 844.

From 1948 the Hall was run by Circuits Management Association. Gaumont and Rank cinemas had merged. The Odeon, Majestic, Gaumont and Music Hall all came under Circuits Management Association. There was no neon sign stating it was the Music Hall. There were two still frames at the St Werburgh and Northgate entrances and above them was the name Music Hall.

When war broke out the films advertised from the 4th September were not shown all week due to Closure. The cinemas in Chester didn’t open again until the 18th September 1939. The films that were due to be shown from the 4th were ‘Tailspin’ and ‘Renegade Trail’. From the 18th the cinema ran ‘Sergeant Madden’. The first films after the war ended were ‘Cynara’ and ‘Dead Man’s Eyes’.

The manager for many years was a Mr William Mulvey. He joined the Music Hall in 1915 at the age of 28. He had previously been the manager of the Empire, Flint, North Wales. He retired from the cinema in 1949, being the longest serving manager. A Mr F. Bird took over as manager.  William Mulvey passed away in 1972 at the age of 85.  He was a Freeman of The city of Chester. He summed up his cinema career by saying, “Cinema management is always full of unexpected experiences, but taken as a whole it has been a grand profession, which I would not have exchanged for any other.”

The last person to manage the hall was a Mr Alfred Newton. He moved to Rhyl after the closure of the Music Hall.

One of the projectionists’ in the 1940s was a Mr Vincent Dunning. He had been transferred from the Gaumont cinema. The projection room was small and a very small rewind room was on the right, after entering . The projectors at the time of closing were  Gaumont Kalee 20 with Gaumont Kalee President carbon arcs. The projection room was still there in 2022, when this article was written and used as a store room by Superdrug. The old projection ports and fire shutters are still in situ at the time of writing. The NO SMOKING signs painted on the walls of the projection and rewind rooms are also still there.

The Music Hall cinema was closed on the 29th April 1961 with the film ‘Never on Sunday’. A good film to end on because the cinema never opened on Sunday. The last manager Alfred Newton said: “The people of Chester only have themselves to blame for its closure, they should have patronised it better. Attendances at the theatre had gradually fallen away.”

During the last week of the Music Hall the Gaumont was screening ‘Flaming Star’ plus ‘The Secrets of the Purple Reef’. The Royalty Theatre was staging ‘A Girl called Sadie’ , the ABC was showing ‘The Long and the Short and the Tall’. At the Odeon was ‘The Wackiest Ship in the Army’ plus ‘The Trunk’. The Classic, formally the Tatler had ‘The Last Days of Pompeii’ and ‘The Great St Louis Bank Robbery’ from Sunday to Wednesday. From the Thursday they screened ‘The Time Machine’.

The Northgate Street view of the Music Hall cinema & then the conversion into a supermarket.

The building was converted into a Lipton supermarket. This opened a year after the cinema’s closure. Later it became a Foster’s menswear shop, a reject shop and today houses a Superdrug store.

David A Elliscopyright whitechestercinemas.co.uk