The Royalty theatre, City Road was built on the site of another theatre called The Prince of Wales. The Royalty was built in less that a year and opened on Boxing Day 1882 with the pantomime Aladdin, written by John Banister.
On 2nd February 1957, after the last performance of Teddy Carlton’s pantomime Dick Whittington, the theatre closed until July for alterations. Builders Frank White installed new balconies. On 8th July it re-opened with the play Meet Mr Callaghan. On 15 May 1963 the Beatles appeared with Gerry and the Pacemakers for one night only.
In 1965 the Warren club opened beneath the theatre. Later, it became Maxwell’s, Blimpers and finally Alchemy. By 1965 shows weren’t staged on a regular basis and bingo and wrestling were introduced. On Boxing Day 1965 the last pantomime opened. Ironically it was Aladdin and stared singers Miki and Griff with the Black Abbots with comedian Russ Abbot, real name Russ Roberts.
On 31 October 1966 the theatre area became the Royalty Theatre Club. Cabaret with basket meals became the thing. The theatre went on to become The Celebrity Club. In 1978 skateboarding was introduced named Skateboard City. Eventually the theatre area was left empty with the Alchemy underneath still running. In January 2002 Roger Shone and a couple of friends salvaged the plaster proscenium and the plaster statues. The coat of arms crest pictured above, was removed from the top centre of the proscenium, restored and saved by Roger) .
Shortly after the building was demolished. I spoke to Ron Jones, who worked there as an electrician but also did other work at the theatre. Ron’s mother and father Sidney also worked at the popular Royalty.
The Royalty hosted many well-known stars of the day, but many will remember the Beatles performing there with another Liverpool group Gerry and the Pacemakers on 15th May 1963 for one night only. Ron said, we didn’t need to advertise; the tickets went like hot cakes. We had several sixties beat groups including The Merseybeats, The Swinging Blue Jeans and Johnny Kydd and the Pirates. Comedian Russ Abbot, who formed the group the Black Abbots, appeared with Johnny Kydd.
Manager for many years was Dennis Critchley, who Ron says was the youngest manager they ever had, being thirty-one when he started. Ron says I started work on the limes (spots). That is how my father started, he said. Ron was on the limes for six months then went on the stage learning the switchboard, the lights and the sound system. He says, it was all very condensed by the prompt corner. I was in the prompt corner doing the sound and the lights but if they were short staffed I’d be running around the back. It was one of those places where we all mucked in and I loved the hands on. I could see everything in the prompt corner and in a black out I could still see if something had been left on stage that was going to be a hazard. I would just rush out in the blackout and get it.
The prompt corner was stage left. It depends on the theatre, some are on the right. They called it the prompt corner at the Royalty but there was no room to have a prompter. When amateur groups performed we placed the prompter on the other side (right) because if they were on our side they would get in the way. The professional acts rarely needed to be prompted. For pantomime I had a script in the corner but it was mainly for cues and after the second or third show we discarded it.
We had touring West End shows including Salad Days, The Boyfriend and Things Aint What they used to Be. There was only one song it that. Many people came thinking it was a musical. It starred Barbara Winsor.
Ron goes on to say he has met many stars but adds that many are dead or long forgotten. Manager Dennis Chritchley produced many of the pantomimes. On one occasion he took over from an actor, who had fallen ill. The show was Puss in Boots, which starred Irish singer Ruby Murray. The last pantomime to be staged was Aladdin starring Russ Abbot.
The theatre had nine dressing rooms. The star dressing room was on stage level. Two flights up there were four more and above them was another four
The Royalty had two balconies and in 1957 the original balconies were removed and replaced by two cantilever balconies. Ron said over thirty five thousand pounds was spent.
Performances at the Royalty were 6.30 and 8.40. To stop artistes over running Ron said they had a time sheet. We had to be rigid on time because if everyone over ran the time of the show would be well out. There were ways of letting the artiste know when to wind it up. One of them was giving a nudge on the rising microphone. We would drop it slightly, which would let the artiste know there was, for example only a minute to go. Another method was a quick flash on the lights. If all else failed my dad always had a big bunch of keys, which he would rattle. One of the worst for running over was Canadian singer Lester Ferguson (pictured). He went on and on, he just wouldn’t come off. He tackled anything and kept asking for requests. The audience started to disappear because they had to get buses and trains. Even members of the band took their leave.
Ron remembers a circus performing on the stage with a number of animals, including elephants.
The theatre closed in 1966 and became a cabaret club with chicken in a basket. Under the theatre was a nightclub, which changed names several times. It was first known as The Warren club.
Eventually the theatre part was left empty and the interior became an eyesore with pigeons making a mess. The club underneath carried on. Before demolition in 2002 several items were saved. Among them were the plaster statues made in 1882 and a strand electric spotlight. A hotel now stands on the site.
David A Ellischestercinemas.co.uk
Chester Royalty Theatre, 20-24 City Road first opened its doors in 1882. It was built on the site of an earlier, wooden building that was used as a makeshift theatre. It was used to put on plays and circus shows of little artistic merit by groups such as Madame Beatrice’s Frou Frou Company. Originally called, for unknown reasons, The Oxford Music Hall, it soon changed its name to The Prince of Wales.
Eventually, the wooden structure was replaced with a purpose built brick, building called The New Royalty Theatre which was built by Bleakley and Son of Birkenhead.
City Road itself, linking the new railway station with Foregate Street, had itself only been laid out just over 20 years earlier.
The first show to be given on the 27-foot stage was a version of Aladdin written by the first stage manager, John Bannister. The pantomime was advertised to open on December 23rd but the building was not ready- it finally opened to the public on Boxing Day, December 26th 1882.
The interior was designed in the Elizabethan and Queen Anne styles and had two ornate wooden balconies shaped in swan’s neck curves. Two statues graced the side walls.
The partnership of Walker, Charlton and Carter were the first owners; in later years, James Carter became the sole owner. He was running the place when films were first shown in February 1898- these were described at the time as “the greatest living pictures ever seen”.
In 1905, Mr Carter sold out to the great promoter and impresario Milton Bode (1860-1938), together with partners Edward Compton and Chester businessman Lawrence Booth.
Bode purchased the adjoining site on which to build a vast Hippodrome capable of accommodating 4000 people. The project received great opposition, principally from parsons & publicans so he erected the Grosvenor Skating Rink instead and one of his managers, Mr H Norcott became manager of this. By 1922 Bode had become sole owner of the Royalty. Ten years later, in 1932, he sold it outright to Mr Edmund Keyes, who was born and brought up in Chester and was a well known businessman, active in city life who became Sheriff, Alderman and later Lord Mayor. In 1961, following her father’s death, Miss Ursula Keyes took over. Miss Keyes was was not just interested in the theatre for, during her lifetime she supported innumerable charities.
In 1957, builder Frank White undertook extensive structural alterations to the theatre; cantilever-type balconies replaced the older designs with their ornate plasterwork and pillars were removed to improve visibility. Boxes at each side of the stage were also done away with at this time. Meet Mr Callaghan was the first production to be performed in the refurbished hall. This was opened on 8th July, 1957 by the theatre historian W. McQueen Pope.
The declining audience numbers, due to the rising popularity of television, the old theatre was forced to close in 1966 after a continuous run of 84 years. The problem was that the Royalty had always operated without subsidy. Ironically, the last pantomime to show there was Aladdin– which had been its first, back in 1882. It starred the then-famous duo of Miki and Griff.
Memories of the Royalty Theatre c1915
Emlyn Williams (George Emlyn Williams) 1905 – 1987, Writer, Dramatist, Actor.
He was born nr Holywell and in his early autobiography “George”, published in 1961, he provides a delightful account of his visit to the Royalty Theatre, one of several Boxing Day Matinée visits that surely influenced him and contributed to his future life as a dramatist and actor:
“—On Boxing Day Dad got on his bowler-hatted best and we all went by train to Chester: the matinée performance of Dick Whittington. Dad had assured me that the Cat was six feet high. We were first in the Early-Doors queue for the gallery: no stools, but mufflers and sandwiches. We boys were to go ahead and grab the first seats; racing up the endless steps, I heard the blithe clang of the tallies through the cubby-hole, tumbling out for us. We settled in the middle of the front row, on old newspapers Mam had brought; for thirty seconds, as I bit the cold rail and looked down on the glowing emptiness, we possessed a theatre, licensed by the Lord Chamberlain to the Welsh Family Williams. We even owned the great sign behind us, ‘Beware of Pickpockets’.
This was special: the steady clamour as the gallery filled, the smell of dust and soap and gas-jets, the taste of the apple and orange passed along by my mother …… Then beyond, the murmur of the milling auditorium far below – fairy-story children in the boxes, with rows of chocolate before them- a weird miaowing which for a second I took to be the Cat stretching himself; when I realised that is was the orchestra tuning up, I leant back, rapt, against a strange pair of knobbly knees. The overture, my first – ‘Give me a Cosy Little Corner’, ‘Let the Great Big World keep turning’, ‘Goodbye-ee!’- and then the curtain superbly rose on the glitter of colour, the sheen of silk tights, and the shrill babble of voices — The Williamses had been swallowed up into the great family Gallery, a constellation of eyes sharper than Dick’s cat’s eyes – the Royalty had cast a spell which was still over me as we drank tea in the pie-shop under the Rows before catching the train home. For several years the Boxing Day Matinée was to be our treat.”
Researched item, with our thanks to GEOFF TAYLOR