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a brief history of theatre in bristol

2 - the first theatres

    
Nineteenth century playbill from the Theatre Royal, Bristol - University of Bristol Theatre Collection 
Bristol's first purpose built theatre was erected by John Hippisley in 1729 at Jacob's Wells, just outside the city limits, near to the spa at Hotwells, which at that time was a fashionable resort. This theatre was quite small and cramped. Actors and audience could buy drinks during the show from a hatchway knocked into an adjoining pub!
But wealthy local merchants desired a place of entertainment nearer to their homes in the old city, so in 1765 49 people subscribed £50 each to build a new theatre just off the newly laid out King Street. The silver tokens which the initial subscribers received entitled the bearer to "a view of the performance" and they are still honoured today, although they do not guarantee a seat! The architect was Thomas Paty and the plans were based on the theatre at Drury Lane in London.
Theatre Royal entrance, as it was until 1970 
The new theatre opened in 1766 with a "concert and specimen of rhetoric". This was a device to evade the ban on plays which was still on the city statute books. Eventually the theatre was granted a royal patent and became the Theatre Royal. Many famous actors graced its stage during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including Sarah Siddons, Jenny Lind, Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, Edmund and Charles Kean, and William Macready, whose widow Sarah reputedly haunts the theatre to this day!
Bristol Hippodrome today
Many other theatres were built in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some specialising in Music Hall, others in plays and spectacles. These included the Athaneum, The Palace of Varieties Music Hall at Stokes Croft, The Alhambra, the City Concert Hall, the Bristol Empire, and the Princes Theatre in Park Row, which was destroyed by incendiaries during the blitzes of World War II.
The Hippodrome at St Augustine's Parade was built by Oswald Stoll in 1912 and it survives as one of the largest stages in England outside the West End, regularly hosting big musicals, opera and ballet. Cary Grant worked there, and at the Empire, as a stage hand before he joined a travelling troupe and went to America to seek his fortune.
The advent of cinema proved a serious threat to theatre, but it was countered by ever more elaborate special effects and musical extravanganzas.
more history:
1 - beginnings : 3 - twentieth century