[From Chrononhotonthologos, Phantasmagoria. Cotillions and Supper Entertainment in the Isle of Man 1793-1820 ]


In the 1950s Douglas was still a vibrant seaside resort and boasted 5 cinemas; namely the Picture House, the Strand, the Royalty, the Crescent and the Regal. (The Regal was originally built as the Grand Theatre.) There were 4 theatres; the Gaiety, the Palace, the Derby Castle and the Crescent Pavilion. There were also 4 dance halls; the Palais de Danse, the Villa Marina, the Palace Ballroom, and the Derby Castle Ballroom. These centres of entertainment were built in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods to entertain the middle classes and the factory workers that came to the Isle of Man from northern England, Scotland and Ireland for their annual seaside holiday. During the summer season the promenades, foreshores and streets were so packed with the crowds of men, women and children that walking was reduced to a leisurely stroll. Those crowds now fill the promenades, shopping centres and beaches of the warmer Mediterranean resorts and the only reminder of this once busy Island resort is the T. T. Motorcycle Races held in June each year and even that event seems to be desperately clinging on by the oily dirt under its fingernails. Theatres, cinemas and dance halls have been demolished and replaced by apartments and office blocks as the Island has moved from relying on tourism as its main source of income to being an off-shore financial investment facility. The Gaiety Theatre and the Villa Marina have survived but the rest of those palaces of entertainment are only in the memories of those now aged 60 years and over. One of the old theatre buildings has survived un-noticed; the shell of the Empire Theatre is in Regent Street, Douglas, opposite the Post Office. Since closing as a theatre it has had a checked history and at present operates as a restaurant. A repertory theatre was still playing there in the 1930s.

The Theatre Royal Public House which used to be in Wellington Street, Douglas, suggests that there must have been a theatre located nearby. The pub was run by Mr. Eric Groom and later, after his death, by his wife. The pub was reputed to be haunted by the Victorian actor, Sir Henry Irving, who made an appearance from time to time on the staircase. He was clothed in a large theatrical hat and cloak which does conjures up shadows of the Phantom of the Opera. The public house stood next to the ladies' shop of T. E. (Tossie) Cowin. Between the pub and the shop was a doorway which I was informed as a youngster was an entrance to the theatre built in 1858 and called Theatre Royal. The poor Sir Henry, if he still makes appearances, must be somewhat confused since the pub and Cowin's have both been demolished and replaced by the Marks and Spencer's store. I am not aware of sightings of a Victorian gentleman roaming the aisles of the men's department of M & S. The Theatre Royal was not the first theatre in this street as there is reference to the Waterloo Theatre in 1820, in the Wellington Hall which was built as an indoor market.

The book "With a Song in Their Heart" by Robert Kelly relates the origins of the amateur musical society, the Choral Union and records the site of the Victoria Theatre on Prospect Hill and near the junction to Finch Road. On the corner of Athol Street and Prospect Hill now occupied by the Isle of Man Bank stood an even older theatre. The oldest theatre I found reference to was called the Playhouse and stood on the North Quay at the junction of Queen's Street and Laurence's Place. Later theatre productions in Douglas were often held at the Assembly Rooms which were situated on the Quay near Old St. Matthew's Chapel. Later still performances were advertised in buildings in Fort Street and Wellington Street. Outside Douglas, in Castletown the theatre venue was the George Inn whilst Ramsey and Peel used a variety of Assembly Rooms. At the turn of the 19th century such entertainments were not for the middle or working classes but for the nobility and gentry.

My research is gleaned mainly from the newspapers of the period; the Manx Advertiser, the Manx Mercury with some earlier references taken from the Cumberland Pacquet news-sheet. There were no local newspapers prior to 1793.


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