Theatres mark the centenary of the death of the greatest theatre architect

When someone says ‘theatre’, the image which pops into your head is probably something like this, the Lyric, Hammersmith, pictured above, all red velvet and gilt curlicues. That’s because the Victorian / Edwardian theatre architect Frank Matcham designed so many of Britain’s theatres. Those that still exist – 26 out of the 100 – 150 which he either built himself or in which he played some part in the design – will be marking the centenary of his death next Sunday, (17 May) not in the way they would have liked, but at least by sharing pictures on social media.

I talked to Mark Fox, Chairman of the Frank Matcham Society, about this fascinating character, who designed both Richmond theatre and the Lyric, as well as the Chiswick Empire, sadly pulled down in the 1950s.

“He was an amazing man” says Mark, “the pre-eminent architect for Victorian and Edwardian theatres during a huge period of theatre building, he was totally untrained. He was a very clever man.”

You can hardly imagine that these days, when you virtually have to go to university to be an usherette, but Frank Matcham had no formal qualification in architecture. Instead, he learned from those he worked with and became a master of the art of fitting a large number of seats into small and awkward spaces, thus satisfying the theatre owners by packing in the punters.

Images above: Detail of the refurbished Proscenium arch at the Lyric, Hammersmith

“Actors love playing his theatres”

“If you think of the London Coliseum, it was designed to fit on a triangular piece of land, but it doesn’t feel like that when you go inside”.

The Coliseum was Oswald Stoll’s flagship theatre and office. Another of Matcham’s theatres in the heart of London’s West End was the Palladium, which he constructed within the existing walls of another building.

“The frontage was designed for the pre-existing building, the Corinthian Bazaar. The dressing rooms were a run of Georgian houses and where the bar is now was a warehouse”.

Matcham was also an expert at creating an intimate atmosphere between the actors and the audience.

“Actors love playing his theatres” says Mark, who gives tours of the London Palladium, one of the architect’s best known buildings. “They love the intimacy of them and the acoustics are always very good.

“That’s why people like Madonna want to be able to say that they have performed there. They want to have on their CV that they have performed at the same venue as Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra. The Palladium has 2,500 seats but it doesn’t feel that big. It feels intimate”.

Images above: Detail of a box and a light at the Lyric, Hammersmith

We have Frank Matcham to thank for some of the now standard safety features too.

“He introduced the standard panic bolt, the push bar is his patent. He also understood the need for aisles, and if you notice, in traditional London theatres all the exits lead on onto different streets. That’s because when the first performance finished, the street out front would have been packed with the next audience waiting to come in”.

I’ve often wondered why it is when you come out of a play you find yourself in some dingy back street, totally disorientated. In Victorian times the cheap seats were unreserved, so there would have been large queues for those too.

For the public, the most obvious thing about a Frank Matcham theatre is its opulence.

“His theatres are a delight to go into” says Mark. “He warmed up the audience before the show started with his heady, eclectic interiors, which might be French Rococco or Moorish in design.

Images above: Chiswick Empire; entry in the Frank Matcham theatre directory

Chiswick Empire

The Frank Matcham Society has published a directory of all his theatres to make the centenary of his death. The Chiswick Empire, which he built at the end of his career, was opened on 2 September 1912 and pulled down in 1959. While it lasted, it was a ‘statement’ piece of architecture on the High Rd. Built for Oswald Stoll, it was ‘a good example of the last development of variety theatre design’. The facade was neo-classical, the interior ‘restrained and Jacobean in feeling, with two balconies above a large stalls area with three boxes each side’.

Chiswick Empire was one of the last to be called officially a ‘Stoll theatre’ rather than as a ‘Moss Empire’, in the famous theatre partnership. The stage was 55 feet across, fronted by a 44 foot proscenium arch and the seating capacity was 1,950. Comedian Billy Mersin led the opening programme in 1912. Huge acts such as Laurel and Hardy and Max Miller went on to perform there.

Marie Lloyd, Vesta Tilley, George Formby, Arthur Aspley, Wee Georgie Wood, Tommy Hensley. Albert Whelan, Donald Peers, Kenn Dodd, Terry-Thomas and Dickie Valentine, Vera Lynn, Alma Cohan and Cliff Richard were amongst the Variety stars to headline at the Chiswick Empire.

It was on the tour schedule for Laurel and Hardy in 1947. Operas and plays were performed there: Carl Rosa Opera, musicals including Brigadoon, Glamorous Night and The Student Prince and plays such as Rookery Nook and A Streetcar Named Desire also played weeks, with Gladys Cooper, Sybil Thorndike and Anthony Quayle among the stars who performed in them. The final week in June 1959 was headlined by Liberace.

Victorian entertainment venues were either built for music hall, small venues meant for just one person on stage usually, or they were playhouses designed for putting on plays. Variety theatres, as the Chiswick Empire was, came a bit later and were built to accommodate animal acts, trapeze artists, big dance troupes, knife throwing, you name it. The Empire was a step up from a playhouse but not as big as an opera house.

Images above: Richmond theatre

Devon boy makes good in the big smoke

Frank Matcham came from Newton Abbot, where his father was a brewer. He moved the family to Torquay, supplying entertainment venues, so young Frank grew up in and around pubs and places of entertainment. The family also happened to live next door to George Soudon Bridgman, a leading architect who designed the Paignton theatre and also Oldway Mansion for the Singer family, who made their money in sewing machines. Oldway Mansion had its own private theatre.

Frank Matcham was apprenticed to Bridgman and went on to be articled to Jethro T Robinson, responsible for circus and entertainment venues, pubs and gin palaces. Robinson was the chief architectural adviser to the Lord Chamberlain, who in those days licensed every piece of entertainment, so for a young man interested in theatre design, Jethro T Robinson was the best person in the country from which to learn.

It didn’t hurt either that Frank married Robinson’s youngest daughter Hannah Maria. Two years after the marriage, Jethro T Robinson dropped dead of a heart attack, leaving the business to Frank, so he had to step up immediately, his first project being the Elephant and Castle theatre. In characteristic style he made best use of all the space available, putting the bars inside railway arches.

He went on to design the Blackpool Grand and the Tower Balalroom in Blackpool, the Buston Opera House and theatres in Aberdeen, Glasgow, Portmouth, Cheltenham and Southsea, to name but a few – all distinctive pearls of theatre design.

Chiswick Empire has his penultimate theatre; the Bristol Hippodrome his last, but even after he had retired to spend a happy few years touring on the continent with his sketch pad, his company continued and moved into the construction of cinemas.

There was to have been lunch and a show and the unveiling of a plaque to go inside the Palladium. Instead the remaining Frank Matcham theatres will be sharing photographs of his beautiful designs, and the plaque will be unveiled once the easing of the lockdown allows.

Mark Fox is a theatre historian and Chairman of the Frank Matchman Society.

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