History & Heritage
In 1865 Henry Cornwall built Jersey a new theatre which he named Cornwall’s Royal Amphitheatre and Circus. This was located in Gloucester Street, St Helier where Jersey Opera House stands today. During his short ownership of the new theatre Cornwall employed actor William Wybert Rousby as its manager. In 1868 Mr Rousby bought the theatre re-naming it Theatre Royal.
William Rousby had many connections in the theatre world and managed to secure professional companies to perform from London and Paris. The programme offered was varied and included traditional harlequinade, comedy, drama, farce and grand and comic opera, as well as many local productions. After a period of some 30 years Mr Rousby sold the theatre to Sidney Cooper for a reported sum of £8.601.15 shillings. It was said at the time that Mr Cooper who came from the UK had a reputation for managerial enterprise and energy.
Sidney Cooper completely renovated the inside of the theatre including introducing an incline to the stalls. The theatre re- opened on Easter Monday 1898. Alas after only one year the theatre was destroyed by fire on the 28 March 1899. Sidney Cooper then employed Adolphus Curry a civil engineer to design a new theatre. Mr Curry had been educated at Victoria College and had then moved to the UK to complete his training.
On his return to the island Mr Curry had been employed on Peel Villas, St Paul’s Church and The Victoria Club in St Helier. Sidney Cooper with his new partners the Channel Island Entertainment company re named the new theatre Jersey Opera House. Jersey Opera House opened its doors on the 9th July 1900 and in spite of certain areas of the building not being completed the show went on. The grand re opening performance was Sydney Grundy’s ‘The Degenerates’ starring Jersey’s very own Lillie Langtry who had curtailed her holidays to have the honour of being the first performer to tread the new boards.
The people of Jersey loved their new theatre and the railways even put on two specials a week to run after the last performance. However only after a decade of live performances numbers began to diminish. The new ‘electric pictures’ as they were then known started to have an impact on theatre in general., Nevertheless in spite of the increase in cinemagraphic shows the opera house continued to present an excellent variety of live plays, shows and recitals for the next 30 years.
Ownership once again changed in 1911 when the theatre was acquired by the Jersey and Guernsey Amusement Company and was being run by a company called Albany Ward who was connected to the Gaumont cinema chain. Fire struck again in May 1921 when the auditorium was severely damaged. Once again the theatre underwent extensive reconstruction which included the re fashioning of the upper circle and the removal of side boxes. These alterations made the theatre more conducive to the watching of films.
The opera house re opened in august 1922 with the musical comedy What’s Next starring The Six Brothers Luck. Thereafter it continued to be used almost exclusively as a cinema showing the silent films of the day with traditional orchestral accompaniment.
The arrival of the talkie screened in other Jersey cinemas accelerated the decline in Jersey Opera House as a place of entertainment. However during the German Occupation an increase in live performances to one week in every fortnight and films on alternate weeks plus Sunday Charity events made Jersey Opera House once again the place to visit. Sadly this revival was only temporary and after the Occupation in 1945 the theatre became almost exclusively a cinema house with just two live summer shows each year. By the mid 1950s The Rank organisation who had taken over Gaumont British Theatres and also owned the Odeon Cinema in St Helier put Jersey Opera House up for sale for the grand sum of £70.000.00. The last movie ever to be shown at the venue was Strictly for Pleasure starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh.
In 1958 Tommy Swanson bought Jersey Opera House from The Rank Organisation. With determination and passion Mr Swanson set about transforming the Opera House back into a theatre. As part of the re furbishment 16 new boxes were created, the theatre re opened with the Jersey Green Room Club’s version of Sailor Beware. From that time professional and amateur companies alike took to the stage with performances, all to the delight of the Jersey audiences. Mr Swanson continued to refit and restore the theatre over many years in his attempts to bring it to its former glory. In 1989 Tommy Swanson sold the Opera house to Dick Ray who was no stranger to the theatre. He had managed and operated the venue for Mr Swanson since the mid 70s and had carried on in the tradition before him of pantomime variety and summer shows.
At the time of purchase Mr Ray had secured a loan to improve the building and facilities. Work finally commenced in 1993. The first phase of work was completed by 1994 but the true size of the undertaking had become apparent during the year before so Mr Ray approached the States of Jersey with a view to them taking on the project.
In 1995 the states of Jersey became the new owner of Jersey Opera House at a cost of £1.3 million. In January1997 the theatre closed for a major restoration project. A fund raising campaign was launched but it was clear after a year that it was taking too long and the people of Jersey wanted their theatre back. A proposition was presented to the States of Jersey for a loan of £5.5 million to add to the £1.5 million that had been raised by the good will of the people and businesses of Jersey. This was successful and this major programme of work started in August 1998. After an extensive programme of rebuilding and renovation the new theatre opened its door on the 9th July 2000 exactly 100 years to the day when the first Opera House had opened its doors to the public of Jersey.
The theatre is once again playing a large part in Island life. Jersey Opera House will continue to strive to provide the very best artistic entertainment to the people of Jersey for many more years to come.