88 Mount Pleasant Road,
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The Tunbridge Wells Opera House stands at the top end of Mount Pleasant Road and opened on 16th October 1902. The famous actor, Mr Beerbohm-Tree laid one of three foundation stones on 10th October 1901. The architect was John Priestly Briggs who at one time had been Clerk Of Works to the most prolific theatre builder of all time, Frank Matcham.
The Opera House has a fine brick and stone facade with three domes on the top, one in the centre and one on each corner. A statue of Mercury used to adorn the top of the central dome but this was removed for safety reasons in 1920. It was stored hidden in the basement until 1968, when it mysteriously disappeared. There is a parade of shops on each side of the central entrance and Sainsburys were one of the first traders to open one of these shops in 1903.
The auditorium is in fine fibrous decorative plaster with a large ceiling dome which had four paintings, with a fifth painting over the top of the square proscenium arch which was 27 feet wide. It is made up of stalls, dress circle, balcony and eight boxes, two on either side of the proscenium at circle level and two at balcony level.
The Opera House was an instant success and a varied programme of entertainment was presented. In 1925 John Christie, founder of the Glyndebourne Opera, took over the management of the Opera House and he installed a large five manual electropneumatic organ, which stood at the rear of the stage with the console in the orchestra pit, which he had enlarged to accommodate it. Further alterations and redecoration took place at this time. Even bigger shows visited the Opera House – Musical comedy, The D'Oyly Carte Opera, ballet, West End plays and comedies, variety with silent films being part of the variety programmes.
In 1929 a projection box was built onto the rear of the stage, allowing for rear projection, so talkie films could be shown. This neccessitated the removal of the organ which was shipped to New Zealand. In June 1931 the Opera House closed as a live theatre and was sub-let to a Mr L.H. Jackson who converted it into a ‘super cinema’. Redecoration was in delicate shades of rose pink with red and orange shadings picked out in gold and silver. A trellis work was erected over the orchestra pit with lighting added to illuminate the screen tabs when drawn. The Opera House reopened as a cinema on 3rd August 1931 with Charles Chaplin in “City Lights”. The local amateur operatic society were allowed to continue to present their two shows a year at the Opera House and returned in 1932 with a production of the recent Drury Lane success “The Desert Song” and apart from the war years, remained at the Opera House until 1966 when “The Song Of Norway” was the last musical to be performed on its stage.
In 1937 it was listed as being part of the Union Cinemas chain and operated a policy of films and variety. A cafe was also operated within the building. During the war a bomb fell through the roof and landed on one of the proscenium arch stanchions. Luckily it burnt itself out and the only damage was the hole in the roof and a few scorched seats. In 1949 the theatre was again redecorated and unfortuately the four paintings in the dome and the one over the proscenium arch were painted over.
The Essoldo cinema chain took over the Opera House in February 1954 and continued to operated the Opera House as a cinema. In 1966, Essoldo applied for a bingo licence but were refused. They threatened to demolish the building stating that if the local council wanted its retention, they would have to purchase it themselves. A further application in 1967 was successful and the final film – Paul Scofield in “A Man For All Seasons” was shown on Saturday 3rd February 1968.
On Tuesday 14th July 1968, crowds returned to the Opera House for the opening as an Essoldo Bingo & Social Club. In 1978 it became a Ladbrokes ‘Lucky Seven Bingo Club’. They were subsequently take over by the Rank Organisation and the Opera House became a Top Rank Club until 1993 when it was sold to Cascade Bingo. The last bingo session was held on Sunday June 18th 1995 and the Opera House was sold to J.D. Wetherspoon plc and re-opened on 11th April 1997 as a very successful pub in their chain.
Completely redecorated with all the original boxes, proscenium arch, circle and balcony still in situ. If you are ever in the area, pop in for a drink and a meal. It’s well worth the visit.
In February 2007, Alternative Opera staged four performances of Johann Strauss’s opera “Die Fledermaus” to packed houses at the Opera House, with promises of more in the future.
The Opera House is a Grade II* Listed building.
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