Hull New Theatre celebrates its 78th anniversary today, marking almost eight decades since opening at the start of the Second World War.
The milestone comes just weeks after the theatre re-opened with a special one-off performance by The Royal Ballet following a major £16m refurbishment.
How it all began
The original building dates back to the 1800s when it was in use as the city’s Assembly Rooms and was visited by great writers of the Victorian age, including Charles Dickens in 1859 and 1860.
Its transformation into a theatre began in 1924 with the launch of the Hull Repertory Theatre Company which performed next door in a venue known as the Little Theatre.
In 1933, the charismatic Peppino Santangelo joined the company and, having transformed its fortunes, set his sights on moving into the Assembly Rooms.
He knew that the Little Theatre’s other neighbour, Central Fire Station, needed an extension so he agreed a swap – the Little Theatre for the Assembly Rooms and the deal was done for £9,000.
Even the outbreak of the Second World War could not halt his dream and the first show, Noel Gay’s Me and My Girl, played to a packed house on Saturday, October 16 1939.
Surviving the War
Performances continued throughout the war with West End productions keen to tour to the perceived safety of the provincial theatres and although Hull was badly bombed, the theatre itself received only one direct hit during the blitz of May 1941.
It also survived declining audiences attributed to the advent of television and an attempt in the 1960s to turn it into a bingo hall when Hull City Council stepped into to ensure it remained a theatre.
Hull New Theatre is now known as one of the finest in the country and continues to attract the best touring productions, including West End hits, drama, opera and dance. The recent £16m refurbishment should ensure that this continues with improved facilities throughout to bring the top UK shows to Hull.
It has maintained founder Peppino’s dream of ‘playing for the people’ and has an exciting programme of forthcoming productions including National Theatre’s Hedda Gabler, the Carole King musical Beautiful and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet.
Writing a ‘swan song’ in a programme to sign-off his time at the theatre after a quarter of a century of service, founder Peppino said: “I end this, my song in the mode of a personal plea: a plea that you will always look upon this lovely theatre as your very own: that your pride in it will be commensurate with your support; that you will ever remain the jealous guardians of its integrity and the custodians of its welfare.”
Read More: What’s On at Hull New Theatre
78 Facts to mark 78 years
- The building where the theatre stands today was formerly the city’s Assembly Rooms.
- The Assembly Rooms opened in 1830.
- Charles Dickens visited in 1859 and 1860.
- The theatre actually began life in a building next door known as the Little Theatre.
- The Little Theatre was the home of Hull Repertory Theatre Company.
- Hull Repertory Theatre Company was set-up in 1924.
- Peppino Santangelo joined the company in 1933.
- Peppino was born in the Channel Islands.
- After turning around the company’s fortunes, Peppino set his sights on the Assembly Rooms where he wanted to set-up a ‘new’ theatre.
- He managed to secure the building for £9,000 after swapping the Little Theatre for the Assembly Rooms.
- The deal was agreed because the Little Theatre’s other neighbours, Central Fire Station, needed room to expand.
- Despite the outbreak of the Second World War, the theatre opened on October 16, 1939.
- The first production to be performed was Noel Gay’s Me and My Girl.
- Performances continued at the theatre throughout the war as provincial theatres were considered safer than those in London so West End shows were keen to visit.
- The theatre received one direct hit during the war during a heavy period of bombing of the city in May 1941.
- This claimed the lives of several fireman, destroyed the front row of stalls and all the props and costumes of the visiting Sadler’s Wells Opera Company, now English National Opera.
- It also survived declining audiences attributed to the advent of television and an attempt in the 1960s to turn it into a bingo hall when Hull City Council stepped into to ensure it remained a theatre.
- The £16m revamp of the theatre, which re-opened in September, is the biggest in its history.
- It was funded with £11m from Hull City Council and £5m from Arts Council England.
- A new entrance has been built on the site where Central Fire Station was extended as part of the original deal done by Peppino.
- A KCOM van was named after Peppino as part of a project to recognise the city’s cultural icons as part of Hull UK City of Culture 2017.
- 80 tonnes of water were used to hold-up the theatre walls during the revamp.
- The new fly tower, where scenery is ‘flown’ on and off the stage, is 27m tall.
- Each of the decorative plaster roses in the main auditorium was painted gold by hand as part of the £16m refurbishment.
- More than 486 lights were installed on the new dressing room mirrors.
- 19 tonnes of weights have been installed to operate the counterweight flying system above the stage.
- More than 1,500 litres of paint were used as part of the revamp.
- A total of 232 sheets of plywood were installed in the final covering of the stage.
- The theatre is a Grade II listed building.
- Audience capacity at the theatre has increased from around 1,150 to 1,330 following its refurbishment.
- The number of dressing rooms has increased from 13 to 16.
- On March 5, 1951, the New Theatre was bought by Whitehall Theatre LTD for £78,000 on the condition that founder Peppino Santengelo stayed on for not less than three years.
- The deal netted shareholders more than £8 for each £1 share.
- The refurbishment uncovered signatures left by those who built the theatre’s iron safety curtain, dated August 31, 1939.
- The other side of the curtain is heavily graffitied by the many visiting companies and stars who have performed at the theatre as part of an enduring tradition in receiving houses.
- Wartime theatre programmes contained the encouraging words ‘the theatre is a safer place than your own home’.
- In 1989 the theatre celebrated its 50th anniversary with a special week-long production of the Secret of Sherlock Holmes, starring Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke from the ITV series.
- The theatre shares its birthday with playwright Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900) and has staged many of his greatest works, the first of which was Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1947.
- The theatre is reputed to have its own ghost who is called Charlie.
- During the floods in Hull in 2007, the dressing rooms at basement level were flooded and four performances of Starlight Express had to be cancelled until the performers could replace their damaged specialist roller skates
- In the 80s the musical comedy version of A Christmas Carol was interrupted by fire alarm and the performance was completed in Kingston Square. Luckily, it was a false alarm.
- David Whitfield, whose statue is outside the theatre in Kingston Square, performed at Hull New Theatre twice during his illustrious career.
- Lost property found over the years includes false teeth, hearing aids, underwear and numerous pairs of glasses.
- The most common lost item is umbrellas.
- One of the last public performances by Laurel and Hardy was at Hull New Theatre.
- In 1989 Russ Abbot came with his show. The set was designed for TV so wouldn’t fit into the theatre. Crew were forced to call a welder early one Sunday morning and cut the set in half in the middle of Jarratt Street
- Hull New Theatre’s official Twitter account is @newtheatrehull.
- It’s Facebook page is www.facebook.com/hullnewtheatre.
- Both social media accounts offer all the latest news on forthcoming shows and often run competitions for free tickets.
- A Royal Gala attended by Princess Anne took place at the theatre in 1985 to mark the end of a refurbishment project.
- The theatre offers premium seats in the centre stalls on rows K and L.
- There are two boxes, one to the right of the stage and one to the left.
- Margot Fonteyn performed with the Vic Wells Ballet Company shortly after the theatre’s opening in December 1939 and again in February 1940, returning in February 1976 with a one woman show.
- This year’s pantomime is the high-flying adventure, Peter Pan.
- It features an unmissable 3D underwater sequence.
- Northern Ballet’s The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas from October 18 to 21 will star Hull dancer Ashley Dixon as Shmuel.
- The production is the first telling through dance of the heart-breaking story written by John Boyne and turned into a film in 2008.
- Opera North are bringing a festival of short operas to the theatre from October 26 to 28 following their sell-out production of Puccini’s Turandot at the theatre’s sister venue, Hull City Hall, earlier this year.
- One of the most performed productions is Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat which has appeared at least 20 times since 1978.
- The show, starring X Factor winner Joe McElderry, returns to the theatre on October 31.
- Hull comedian and actress Debra Stephenson stars in new musical Son of a Preacher Man from November 7 to 11.
- The first touring production to be performed at the theatre following its recent major refurbishment was the National Theatre’s Jane Eyre.
- The acclaimed company returns to the theatre in November with a new version of the Ibsen classic, Hedda Gabler.
- The theatre offers an Extras membership scheme which includes benefits such as priority booking, discounts on selected shows and complimentary programmes.
- The theatre has a Changing Places fully-accessible toilet which was installed as part of the recent revamp.
- Access performances including captioned and signed performances, relaxed performances, audio description and touch tours are available.
- The official re-opening on September 16 to celebrate the £16m revamp was curated by The Royal Ballet’s Hull-born director, Kevin O’Hare.
- More than 5,000 tickets were sold for a live screening of this special event which took place in nearby Queens Gardens.
- At the end of the performance, the dancers got on a double-decker bus to go to the gardens and surprise the audience there.
- The theatre hosted the world premiere of a new comedy by John Godber, The Kings of Hull, which was written for Hull UK City of Culture 2017, in September.
- The fastest-selling show since re-opening so far has been Jersey Boys which arrives in February.
- Amateur groups such as Hessle Theatre Company perform at the theatre as well as professional companies.
- A blue plaque on the outside of the theatre commemorates the visits by Charles Dickens to the building when it was the Assembly Rooms.
- Birmingham Stage Company performed Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain on the theatre’s 75th birthday.
- Comedian Ken Dodd’s show on November 5 is a sell-out.
- The final performances of this year’s pantomime, Peter Tan, coincide with the last day of Hull UK City of Culture 2017 on Sunday, December 31.
- The theatre’s Stage Door on Jarratt Street is where cast and crew enter the building and is often where autograph hunters can be found waiting to see their favourite stars.
- Theatre tickets can be booked online at www.hulltheatres.co.uk, over the phone by calling 01482 300 306 or in person at the theatre box office or the box office at Hull City Hall