When things went sour for Britain's 'sweetest,' The Palace Theatre

Half a century ago the curtain came down for the final time at one of Halifax's best-loved theatres. Virginia Mason recalls its good old days

THE orchestra took its final bow and the curtain came slowly down before the audience rose to its feet and broke into a spontaneous rendition of Auld Lang Syne.

And you could probably safely bet your last theatre ticket that there was not a dry eye in the house.

It was on Saturday, May 31, 1959, that the final performance – Rodgers and

Hammerstein's musical The King And I, a joint production by Halifax Amateur Operatic and Halifax Light Opera Societies – was held at the Halifax Palace Theatre.

Just a few weeks later, during Wakes Week, demolition work began on the Ward's End building, now the site of the Pride of Whitby.

Half a century may have passed but there will still be many who remember this famous place of entertainment and the stars who performed there, including silent screen film legend Charlie Chaplin.

The theatre became known as "Britain's sweetest little theatre" because the winter of 1902 – the year it was built – was very severe and the mortar kept freezing.

To stop this someone suggested mixing in sugar – hence its name!

It came about when Frank MacNaghten, controller of the North of England Theatres Corporation, took over the old Oddfellow's Hall in Halifax, in 1900.

He was responsible for building the Palace. The foundation stone was laid on October 4, 1902.

The theatre cost 40,000 to build and was designed by architects Runtz and Co. The first performance was on August 3, 1903 with admission prices ranging from threepence to a shilling.

Top of the bill was Julie MacKay, the American comedienne. There was seating for 2,500 and the curtains alone were rumoured to have cost 300.

When it was officially opened on July 30, some 2,000 invitations had been issued and the building was packed with guests including the then Mayor of Halifax, Alderman Josiah Wade.

In its five decades, many stars trod its boards, including in 1906, a young Charlie Chaplin.

He was just 17 when he appeared as Billy the pageboy, in a production of Casey's Court on July 30, reveals long-time Chaplin fan, Ernest Jennings, of Halifax.

Ernest, president of Halifax Cine, Video and DVD Club, is a regular organiser of slapstick film evenings but maintains that Chaplin is his all-time favourite.

"I would have loved to have been around to see him. Of course this was before he made his name as a huge star. But nevertheless, he did come to Halifax," says Ernest who will be visiting Chaplin's former home in Switzerland this summer.

Other artists who appeared at the Palace included Issy Bonn, Charles Coburn, Big Bill Campbell, George Formby, Gracie Fields, Houdini and Halifax's own Wilfred Pickles.

It was included in the broadcast series, Famous Music Halls, aired in the 1930s.

But not all the theatre's stars were two-footed. In 1951, one of "Koringa's alligators" became "too lively" and fell into the orchestra pit.

As its popularity began to wane there were many attempts to save it from closure, but to no avail. And so, in May 1959, its final audience linked arms and said their last goodbyes.

There was one more "production" after that however, when its contents were auctioned off.

Just a month after the performance of The King And I, auctioneer Paul Laycock stood on an upturned beer crate and began to sell all kinds of artefacts and fittings, including eight electrically-lit music stands for two shillings and sixpence each, chairs from the orchestra and signs from the stalls and circle.

In all 340 lots went under the hammer and were bought by enthusiastic bidders – many no doubt, who had fond recollections of many happy hours of entertainment there.

Soon Britain's sweetest little theatre was to become just a memory as demolition workers moved in and reduced it to a pile of rubble. And so, in May 1959, its final audience linked arms and said their last goodbyes.

There was one more “production” after that however, when its contents were auctioned off.

Just a month after the performance of The King And I, auctioneer Paul Laycock stood on an upturned beer crate and began to sell all kinds of artefacts and fittings, including eight electrically-lit music stands for two shillings and sixpence each, chairs from the orchestra and signs from the stalls and circle.

In all 340 lots went under the hammer and were bought by enthusiastic bidders – many no doubt, who had fond recollections of many happy hours of entertainment there.

Soon Britain’s sweetest little theatre was to become just a memory as demolition workers moved in and reduced it to a pile of rubble.