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Architects: John D. Swanston (interior), James Davidson (exterior)
First Opened: 8th December 1906 (114 years ago)
Telephone: 0131 529 6000
Address: 2 Leven St, Edinburgh, EH3 9LQ
The 1906 King’s Theatre was designed by James Davidson (exterior) and John D. Swanston (interior), originally as a rival to the city’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, however in 1928 merged into the UK theatre empire managed by impresarios Howard & Wyndham. The theatre is locally known as “The Grand Old Lady of Leven Street”.
Building commenced in August 1905, and a year later Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie laid the memorial stone, which can still be seen on the landing of the central staircase leading from the main foyer to the Grand Circle bar.
The building’s red sandstone exterior presents a stern appearance typical of Scottish civic buildings and reflecting Davidson’s signature “Lanarkshire municipal” style. The style is a little out of place amongs Edinburgh’s refined grey sandstone classicism.
The interior design, by Swanston, leads from grand foyers/lobbies and staircases – with some superb examples of Edwardian stained glass, into an auditorium of opulence, executed in a luscious Viennese Baroque style and colored with delicate creams and gold. Voluptuous semi-nude caryatids, representing music and the arts, support the three levels of boxes on either side of the proscenium arch with numerous cornucopias, scrolls, trumpet-playing putti, masks, and cartouches completing the heavily-detailed plasterwork throughout the auditorium.
After a final bill of some £70,000, the theatre opened on 8th December 1906 with a lavish production of “Cinderella”. Mr Robert Courtneidge, a well-known theatre manager/producer and playwright of the time, and a native of Edinburgh, produced the spectacle. Local newspaper reports of the opening night were extremely favorable.
The King’s Theatre was built by the Edinburgh Construction Company (Limited), whose chairman Robert C. Buchanan managed the theatre from its opening, however by 1908 it became clear that Buchanan’s company could not pay the second half of the construction bill and so the theatre fell into the hands of William Stuart Cruikshank, the building’s contractor.
William Cruikshank’s son A. Stewart Cruikshank took on the role of theatre manager, and the theatre ran successfully for 20 years. In 1928 the King’s was merged with the Howard & Wyndham Ltd chain of theatres and A. Stewart Cruikshank became chairman of the group. Cruikshank was regarded as one of the most powerful people in UK theatre industry at the time.
The Cruikshank Room (at Grand Circle level) was A. Stewart Cruikshank’s office, and also the location of Howard & Wyndham Ltd annual meetings (AGMs), which were deliberately held on Christmas Eve to ensure minimal shareholder intervention.
The theatre was originally equipped with film projection facilities in the form of a “Bioscope Box”, built of concrete and placed behind the Grand Circle promenade. It was likely a late addition as it does not appear on the 1905 plans for the theatre. Two Simplex projectors (bioscopes) created a picture of 18ft by 12ft (5.5m by 3.7m) over an 80ft (24.4m) throw. A 120-horsepower 100-amp generator supplied 80V DC to the projectors and three 30-amp Flood Arcs.
The theatre was also originally fitted with a central vacuum cleaning plant, with taps to all areas of the auditorium, stage, offices, and even the grid above the stage!
Portobello-born Harry Lauder was a regular performer on the King’s stage in the 1920s and at the height of his fame when he was of the highest paid performers in the world. Lauder was knighted in 1919 for his tireless work organizing entertainment for the troops in the First World War. A plaque, presented by the British Music Hall Society and located in the foyer of the King’s, commemorates Lauder’s long association with the theatre.
The famous Half Past Eight variety shows played the summer season at the King’s from 1934 to capacity audiences with stars including Dave Willis, Harry Gordon, Stanley Baxter, Rikki Fulton, and Jimmy Logan.
The King’s auditorium currently has two balconies, however it was originally built with three and a total seating capacity of 2,500. In 1951 the Gallery, always uncomfortable but latterly also unsafe, was demolished and the Family/Upper Circle (middle balcony) was re-raked more steeply backwards and extended rear-ward to the upper level of the old Gallery, but set further back from it by knocking through the original rear auditorium wall at Gallery level. This created what is now called the Upper Circle and reduced the overall seating capacity to 1,530. The rear portion of the Upper Circle, behind a broad cross-aisle sweeping across the entire Upper Circle approximately midway, was initially called the Family Circle.
The structural alterations, designed by architects Rowand Anderson, Kininmonth and Paul, lasted 10 months with the theatre being closed from the end of the 1950-51 pantomime “Cinderella” to the start of the 1951-52 pantomime “Puss In Boots”. The theatre was committed to be open for the 1951 International Festival (staged annually in August), however in May 1951 it was regretfully announced that the works would not be completed in time for the Festival and as such the Upper Circle seating area would be unavailable for Festival audiences. The theatre later reopened on 14th December 1951 with the 1951-52 pantomime “Puss In Boots”.
The King’s had undergone some improvements the previous year. In June 1950 the theatre’s original canopy/marquee was removed, to be replaced with a more modern design in time for the 1950 International Festival. It was noted that the new canopy, replacing the original which had been in place since the theatre’s opening in 1906, would have no stanchions on the street which impeded pedestrians alighting from cabs or taxis, as it would be designed on the “cantilever principle”. The 1950 canopy remains in place to this day although it has been adapted over the years as required.
During the 1950-51 revamp, which included redecoration of the auditorium dome, the auditorium’s grand chandelier was taken down. It mysteriously disappeared, never to be seen again. The replacement, which was in situ until the completion of the repainted dome in 2013, was a poor reflection of the original chandelier.
A spotlight booth (followspot box) was added at the rear of the new Upper Circle as part of the 1950-51 revamp, accessed from the attic space above the old Upper Billiard Room. The Dress Circle (lower balcony) was renamed the Grand Circle. The reduction in balconies from three to two explains the large swathes of plain plaster wall that are seen on either side of the auditorium flanking the Upper Circle.
The upper Billiard Room, in the front section of the building, became redundant with the removal of the Gallery; this was used as office space for some time but is now a rehearsal room. The lower Billiard Room is now the Upper Circle Bar.
In 1958 the original hemp scenery flying system was upgraded to a counterweight system from Hall Stage. The installation was overseen by Rowand Anderson, Kininmonth & Paul, architects for the 1950-51 renovation.
An enclosed box for stage lights was added to the front of the Upper Circle (a feature commonly known as “auto bins”), extremely sympathetic to the theatre’s Viennese Baroque design, and at a later unknown date but prior to 1973, a similar box was added to the front of the Grand Circle.
Sir Sean Connery used to work backstage at the King’s Theatre. In 1951, Sean (then known as Tam) worked as a stagehand and it is alleged that his time at the King’s kindled an interest in the profession. He auditioned for a touring production of South Pacific in 1954 and, now calling himself Sean, landed a small part – and the rest is history. In 1959 Connery returned to the stage of the King’s Theatre, although this time in front of the lights, in a production of “The Seashell”.
By the late 1960s variety theatre was being eclipsed by television across the United Kingdom and so in a bid to secure the venue’s future, the Howard & Wyndham Company came up with a plan in 1968 to sell the King’s to Edinburgh City Council. The plan was not without precedent; the City Council had previously taken on the Lyceum Theatre from Howard & Wyndham in 1964.
In 1985 the City Council invested in the theatre by renovating and restoring soft furnishings, woodwork, glass, and marblework. An orchestra pit lift was installed yielding a seldom-used extended capacity pit, and cinema-style seating replaced the traditional theatre seats reducing overall capacity to 1,336. At this time a trompe l’oeil painting by William McLaren, harmonious with the auditorium’s decoration and color scheme, was added to the auditorium ceiling’s dome, replacing the 1950s incarnation, which in turn had been painted over the original dome painting.
During the 1985 renovation it was found that a well had been sunk into the ground when the land the theatre is built upon had served as a brewery. The well’s presence necessitated reinforcement works underneath the theatre’s auditorium boxes to prevent foundations from shifting over time – one of the side-walls of the auditorium had been balancing precariously on the edge of the well for 80 years!
In 1998 management of the King’s Theatre was handed-over to the Festival City Theatres Trust (FCTT), a charitable trust established in 1991 as the Empire Theatre Trust to transform the city’s shuttered Empire Theatre into the renovated and improved Festival Theatre, in order to run the two theatres in harmony and to cut costs by sharing resources.
Most recently in 2012 further renovations improved the seating (Stalls and Grand Circle only) with a return to traditional theatre-style seating replacing the cinema-style seating installed in 1985, fixed antiquated ventilation systems and leaks in the roof, the latter necessitating the re-painting of the auditorium dome. As the 1985 painting was not original, the Festival City Theatres Trust commissioned Scottish artist John Byrne to design a completely new painting for the dome.
The safety/fire curtain dates back to at least 1930 and is likely original. Tradition has seen past productions record their time at the King’s on the rear of the safety curtain.
Another detail not visible to the public is the original paint frame at the rear of the theatre, immediately downstage of the rear fly floor. This allowed scenic artists to paint full-size backdrops without impacting theatre operations, even during performances. The area was originally lit through large open windows on the east-facing sloping roof above, however these were covered-up likely during the war years. There is evidence of a second paint frame on the rear of the stagehouse wall with vertical runners still intact. The paint frame is not regularly used however it has been used for painting backdrops as recently as 2018. According to the Association of British Theatre Technicians Historical Committee , it is one of only six working paint frames in Scotland.
Other original stage machinery includes a seldom-used Corner Trap, which can be positioned at either Downstage Left or Downstage Right, and a Transformation Drum (more commonly known as a “drum and shaft” mechanism or a “Chinaman”) above the grid which was used to control scene changes of flown wings, borders, and backdrops in a coordinated fashion thus achieving a complete change of scene by operating a single mechanism.
In 2018, Festival City Theatres Trust, by this time Scotland’s largest independent theatre organization, was renamed as Capital Theatres, and announced an ambitious £20-25 million redevelopment project to secure the theatre’s future for the next 50-100 years. It was announced in the January 2019 edition of Light and Sound International that theatre consultants Theatreplan had been chosen to work alongside architects Bennetts Associates on the redevelopment of the theatre.
The redevelopment project plans to transform the theatre into an accessible, all-day arts venue with new spaces created for learning and heritage activities as well as hospitality. Backstage, the raked stage will be leveled, the fly tower extended in height, and new scenic flying systems installed. The theatre’s bars and foyers will be overhauled, new dressing rooms and wardrobe facilities created, a new street-level cafe-bar opened up, and a new education studio built. The project aims to increase the theatre’s annual visitor count by 50%. Scottish actors Brian Cox, Bill Paterson, playwright John Byrne, author Ian Rankin, and pantomime stars Grant Stott, Andy Gray, and Allan Stewart have all been supportive of the project.
In March 2020, Capital Theatres announced that the redevelopment of the King’s, due to break ground in September 2021, would go on hold due to the impact of the novel coronavirus. Dame Joan Stringer, chair of the board of Capital Theatres, noted “What is absolutely clear is that we all remain committed to delivering on our plans to redevelop the King’s into a modern venue, celebrating its rich heritage whilst sustaining it for future generations of enjoyment. We are, however, realistic and recognise that the current situation will affect our ability to deliver the project in our current timescales. The redevelopment works were due to start in September 2021, completing in summer 2023. We have therefore taken the difficult decision to pause the project, and are exploring the potential of starting the project 12 months later, in September 2022”.
In early October 2020 the planning application for the redevelopment project was approved by the City of Edinburgh, moving the project into “shovel ready” status.
In late October 2020 Capital Theatres was awarded £500,000 by the Scottish government, on top of £250,000 from Creative Scotland awarded through the Performing Arts Venue Relief Fund. Capital Theatres’ gradual building of funds over the years, planned to finance the King’s refurbishment project, put them into a “double jeopardy” situation which meant they were initially ineligible for emergency funding due to the Covid-19 pandemic given their save-up cash reserves.
To find out more about the King’s Redevelopment Project, check out the King’s Theatre Redevelopment Video hosted by Edinburgh native Grant Stott.
As of 2018 tours are available roughly once per month. The full schedule is available on the theatre’s website . Tours cost £10 per person (£8 for Friends) and run for around 90 minutes.
After reminding yourself of the public areas you’ll get to see Backstage and, if you’re lucky, the Understage and Dressing Room areas of the theatre normally closed-off to the public! Note: Backstage access is dependent on the visiting company’s theatre operations on the day of your tour and is not guaranteed. Information correct as of March 2017.
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Text copyright © 2017-2021 Mike Hume/historictheatrephotos.com.
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