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History of the Alexandra Palace theatre

The theatre was opened in 1875 as part of the Palace complex. Rivalling in size the Drury Lane Theatre, with an original capacity of around 3,000, many leading Victorian actors, including Beerbohm Tree and Ellen Terry, appeared on the stage.

Productions were intermittent, because the Palace was intermittently open during its first 25 years. The theatre was most successful with grand Victorian pantomimes, melodramas and spectacles, using its extraordinary stage machinery to create dramatic visual effects. The survival of this system of trapdoors and flys, operated by wheels and counterweights, is now almost certainly unique in Europe. One aim is to restore the stage to working order, for heritage and educational purposes - with the prospect that some of the original spectacular productions can be reproduced.

After a consortium of local authorities took over the Palace in 1900 in perpetual trust for the people of London, the theatre had its period of greatest success - as an early cinema, with a kinematograph (the projection box still survives). However, for safety reasons the original upper balcony was removed. In 200? the Cinemas Exhibition Association held a showing of early films in the theatre.

Gracie Fields
The theatre was restored after the First World War, using reparations for the Palace's wartime use as a refugee reception centre and alien internment camp. Capacity was further reduced by the building of two new exit passages at either side of the auditorium. But though it was leased by Archie Pitt, then husband of the famous singer and actress Gracie Fields (left), to try out West End shows, mostly it was used by local dramatic groups. Then in 1936, the BBC took over the east end of the Palace for the world's first television service, the theatre being used as a storage area for props until the BBC finally left after the end of the 1970s.

Recent developments

In 1980 fire devastated much of the Palace, but fortunately the east end of the Palace, where the theatre and the original BBC television studios are located, escaped. There were plans to turn the theatre into a recording studio, because of its fine acoustics. Sadly, during rebuilding and restoration of the Palace, money ran out, leaving much of the east side still unused and derelict (the BBC having departed). By the time the the Palace was listed in 1996 - the theatre being an important reason for that - the structure was in a very bad condition. Since then the trust has implemented a steady recovery programme, with the help of grants from English Heritage. A new roof was put over the structure to make it wind and watertight; the ceiling was pinned to save it as the theatre began to dry out; the auditorium and stage was cleared and cleaned up; and the asbestos safety curtain replaced.

The most important step was the restoration and reopening of the foyer, which had been left completely derelict after the floor was ripped out to stop widespread rot. This restored full access to the theatre, and the launch of Friends allowed the first performance in the auditorium - a short song recital - for more than 65 years.

Work has continued - adding extra exits, which means it can be licensed for up to 500 people - with the support of the Friends and its first patrons, who included local actors such as Juliet Stevenson, Maureen Lipman and Bill Paterson. But much more work and support is still needed.

 

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