Ever walked past an interesting building and thought you wouldn’t mind having a peek inside, getting behind an ornate front door, perhaps, or finding out where that staircase leads? That’s the beauty of Heritage Open Days, which will see a host of buildings across Tyne & Wear throwing open doors that usually remain tormentingly closed.
One participating building is the Tyne Theatre & Opera House – currently the Mill Volvo Tyne Theatre but previously known as the Stoll Picture Theatre and even the New Tyne Theatre – on Westgate Road, Newcastle.
It opened in 1867 as the Tyne Theatre and Opera House, the brainchild of Joseph Cowen, politician and industrialist, who saw it as a place for ordinary people to find entertainment and betterment via Sunday lectures.
That changed with the arrival of Augustus Harris, who ruled the roost from 1887 until 1896. Grand and expansive, he upped the ante, bringing in West End shows for which better-heeled North East theatre-goers willingly paid top dollar.
Under his management a grand saloon – in keeping with an age of grand plans – was created out of an adjacent building which had been a roller skating rink and hall of varieties.
Howard & Wyndham, which built up a theatre empire during the late 19th Century, ran the place from 1896 until 1917, when it was acquired by Oswald Stoll and turned into a cinema, which it remained for years and years, latterly keeping the wolf (and maybe the wrecking ball) from the door by showing seedy cinematic offerings from Scandinavia.
This, you’ll see, is a building with more history than you can easily absorb at a single sitting, as Jack Dixon can tell you.
It was my privilege recently to be led by Jack into many of this Grade I-listed building’s nooks and crannies, climbing steep and hidden staircases to reach ever more vertiginous vantage points beneath the old roof, now leak-proof thanks to recent painstaking work.
Jack’s history and this building’s extremely complicated recent history are inextricably linked. He initiated a Save the Stoll campaign when the building closed in 1974 and led a contingent of amateurs who paid a peppercorn rent to get the stage put back into use.
Credit to them for seeing potential where others would have beaten a hasty retreat. Mooching around, they found the theatre’s Victorian stage machinery still intact, along with the set from the last show to take place before the cinema screen was thrown across the stage during the First World War.
“Then, in about 1980, Stoll put the building up for sale and we bought it,” Jack recalls.
“We had no money but borrowed £60,000 from the Architectural Heritage Fund, paid back over five years at 5%. The other half came from the city council, paid back at 15%. We did the first alterations with unemployed kids from poor areas of the city. They formed a squad of joiners, painters and electricians.”
The theatre gradually returned to its original purpose, with Jack presiding over a succession of stage musicals, all performed by enthusiastic amateurs. Well over 100 shows were staged in what are described as the theatre’s “musical years” on the history boards displayed on the walls.
I saw a few of them. I saw Jack playing the lead role of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, shivering the theatre timbers with an immaculate rendition of If I Were a Rich Man. I also saw Topol, who won an Oscar for his performance in the film version, in the same role. In my view, each could have served perfectly adequately as the other’s understudy.
Modestly, Jack says: “I’m a good mimic, not a good actor.”
As a director and chairman of The New Tyne Theatre & Opera House, he was a passionate and galvanising force. He kept the audiences coming and can laugh now at the memory of averting oncoming financial crises by resorting to old box office favourites like The Pirates of Penzance.
On one memorable night – May 6, 1983 – the great Spanish tenor Placido Domingo starred in Tosca at the newly renovated theatre. Even now it seems extraordinary that he came. It wasn’t a money-spinner for the theatre – quite the opposite – but it certainly bought some headlines. “The tickets sold like wildfire,” recalls Jack. “A little old lady said, ‘Can I have two tickets for Placido Domingo, please?’ I said I was sorry but everything had sold out. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘can I have two for Sarah Bernhardt instead?’”
The “great and world-famed actress”, as she was described in the poster, had starred at the theatre – but in 1897.
Disaster struck on Christmas Day 1985, when fire broke out and destroyed the flytower. Some of the stage machinery was also damaged. Jack it was who pulled victory from the jaws of defeat, mustering his troops to repair the damage.
Less than a year later, the theatre was repaired and back in action – although high up in the building, following Jack who remains remarkably nimble at 78, you can still see the fire damage to some of the great old beams.
Jack is now a board member of the Tyne Theatre & Opera House Preservation Trust, which became the owner of the building in 2008 when Newcastle City Council, having bought it from a property developer, Adderstone Properties, handed over the freehold. The building is sound but there is still much work to be done.
Recently SMG, which has managed and programmed the theatre for the past 10 years, decided not to extend the arrangement. The Preservation Trust is now in charge of booking the shows and keeping the stage busy.
Another chapter begins for a theatre which has seen, along with countless triumphant curtain calls, many indignities and even tragedy – the death by cannonball (from a sound effect machine) of a stage hand in 1877.
Jack, whose love of the theatre began when he went to see musicals with his mother, will see little that is insurmountable.
Heritage Open Day tours of the theatre will take place on September 12 and 13 at 10am, 12 noon and 2pm.