WE THANK Raymond Franks of Stourport-on- Severn for once again sending in some items from his collection of Black Country memorabilia.
In the past he has shared with us several items related to local theatres and cinemas and these latest offerings date from the early 20th century. They are picture postcards promoting shows at Black Country theatres and date from around the time of the First World War.
Firstly, we shall look at Raymond’s postcard from the Dudley Opera House.
On the front is a drawing of a shepherdess, somewhat romantically, if impractically, dressed; she is clearly Little Bo-Peep looking for her lost sheep.
This is confirmed on the reverse side of the postcard, as the Opera House was staging Little Bo-Peep as its Christmas pantomime.
Sadly, there is no date to the card and we can find no additional information as to who A.E. Smith was.
The postcard was produced by David Allen and Son Ltd., Belfast, one of the biggest printers of postcards and posters of their day; they were responsible for many of the most famous railway posters of the 1920s and ’30s.
The foundation stone of the Dudley Opera House was laid by the Mayor of Dudley, Alderman George Henry Dunn, on 27th June, 1898. The impressive building, with a frontage on Castle Hill 350ft long and 66ft at its highest point, was designed by Abraham Ramsell in the Italian Renaissance style and built in brick with terracotta dressings by Whittaker and Co. The sumptuous interior design was the work of local firm H. Whytes and Son and could accommodate 2,000 people.
The Opera House opened on 4th September, 1899, with the world-famous D’Oyly Carte Opera Company taking up a week’s residency and performing a different Gilbert and Sullivan opera every night, beginning with The Mikado.
Both Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel performed at Dudley Opera House early in their careers, in 1906 and 1908 respectively.
The final performance there was a show named Pleasures of the Night, on 31st October, 1936. Unfortunately, Hallowe’en proved to be an ominous night for the Opera House. All seemed well when the theatre was locked up at 2.30am but at 5.30am on Sunday, 1st November, a passerby noticed smoke coming from the theatre and when the fire brigade arrived a fierce fire had taken hold. The theatre was doomed but the firemen fought valiantly to stop the flames spreading to the rest of Castle Hill.
Demolition of the remains began on the Monday morning but in August 1937 construction of the Dudley Hippodrome began on the site.
Raymond’s second postcard shows the American silent film star Pearl White (1889- 1938) while the reverse has been stamped “Fatal Ring – Palace Theatre, Brierley Hill”.
Pearl White was dubbed the “Queen of the Serials” and she made her name in a pioneering series of film serials famous for the “cliffhanger” endings to each instalment.
She began making films in 1910 and shot to stardom as the lead in The Perils of Pauline, a 20- part serial released in 1914. It was a huge success and Pearl White then appeared in three more serials made in quick succession, The Exploits of Elaine (1914), The New Exploits of Elaine (1915) and The Romance of Elaine (1915). She made further films and serials, including The Fatal Ring in 1917.
There were 19 episodes to The Fatal Ring, none of which are known to have survived, and Pearl White appeared in it with Earle Foxe and Warner Oland, later famous for playing the detective Charlie Chan.
After the First World War Pearl White moved to France, investing the money made from her films in Parisian nightclubs. She was famous for performing her own stunts in her serials and the pain from the numerous injuries she suffered may have been a contributing factor to her later alcoholism.
She died of cirrhosis, aged 49, in 1938.
The postcard of Pearl White was produced by Pathé Frères Cinema Ltd., the producers of her serials.
No trace of the Palace Theatre, Brierley Hill, survives, but it stood on the site of today’s Moor Street Centre. This plot of land had been an old market place, known as the “old boiler yard”, and the theatre was built there, a wooden framed, corrugated iron structure, behind the Horseshoes Hotel and accessed from the High Street, via an archway with a pay box in the parade of shops.
The opening was on 2nd March, 1914, and melodramas and variety were the mainstays in its early days but a cinema licence was taken out in 1917. From 1920 it only presented films but sound equipment was never installed. The Palace Theatre was damaged by fire in the mid 1920s and it was rebuilt in brick. Its later history is obscure and probably one of gradual decline; it may have reverted to being a variety theatre before it closed down some time in the late 1930s.