The People of Gibraltar
1847 - The Theatre Royal - El Godsafedekin

Mr. Bambrilla and Messrs Benoliel - Diego Gomez and Temistocle Solera
Walter Tyler and Corporal McLeod - Sir Robert Wilson and Miss Wilson,
Mr. Bracebridge and David Benhaim - Lord Napier and Sir Arthur Hardinge
Messrs A. and L.M. Dotto and Joseph Cardona - Major Elkington
Mr. Bado and Mr. Montegriffo

Gunner's Parade with the old Theatre Royal building at the far end    ( Possibly late 19th century - Photo supplied by Josefa Fiol - with thanks )

The Theatre Royal or el Teatro Real as it was invariably known as - was a veritable institution in my day. In those televisionless days the cinema occupied a large chunk of my youthful free-time. 

Never known as the Royal Theatre and it's not Gunner's Parade. By the time this photo was taken it was called Governor's Parade - as shown on the street sign. 

For civilians there were three places in which one could view the latest offerings from Hollywood - the Naval Trust, the Rialto and the Theatre Royal. The Rialto was a rather dingy place when compared to the other two - specialising in rather dreadful Spanish films which were not to my liking. So when the Naval Trust went up in flames in 1948, I became an almost permanent patron of the Theatre Royal.  

The Naval Trust Cinema  - a glorified Nissen hut  ( Late 1940s  )

Part of its enormous popularity was that it hosted events other than cinema shows - visiting zarzuela and opera companies as well as amateur Gibraltarian and military drama groups would perform there regularly. When a large auditorium was requires it fitted the bill perfectly as it could hold about 1000 people in some comfort. I remember public meetings and important balls frequently being held there - not that I ever attended. For me the theatre Royal was synonymous with films.

Pythagoras and the Four Right Angles at the theatre Royal  ( 1966 - Photo supplied by  Ivan Vinales - with thanks )

The land on which the Theatre Royal was built had once been part of a War Department property in Cannon Lane known as Artillery House. Part of it had been leased out to the well-known local merchants Messrs Benoliel (see LINK) and a small theatre is known to have existed on the site for at least as far back as 1826.

In 1844, the owners complained about that the place was too small and managed to get the authorities to agree to allow them to build a "proper" theatre.  Work started in 1845 and when the new theatre finally opened for the first time on the 10th of May 1847 the inaugural show was Giuseppe Verdi's opera Nabucco. According to the Gibraltar Chronicle (see LINK) :
 . . the manager Mr. Bambrilla certainly deserves great credit . . .The house was splendidly lighted and expense was spared by the proprietors that could contribute to the public satisfaction and comfort.
My great grandfather, Diego Gomez (see LINK) was not only there but soon became a season ticket holder. For the local community this must have been one hell of an occasion. The Theatre Royal had been built on a northern corner of Gunner's Parade to a design by a resident architect called Bracebridge. It was not all that far from yet another Gibraltar institution - the Garrison Library. (See LINK

The only difference was, of course, that the Library was the exclusive domain of the officers of the Garrison and the odd British born civilian - the Theatre was an entirely civilian affair - a sophisticated addition built and run by people who were mostly considered to be almost beyond the pale by most of the British administration. 

The Garrison Library was on the right hand side of the Parade just out of sight in this photo (Unknown )

That this was indeed a grand occasion by any standards can be gleaned from the fact that the impresario who had organised the show - and conducted the orchestra was none other than Temistocle Solera a librettist and good friend of Verdi - although by all accounts he was not the easiest person to work with - according to Reg Reynolds he was never in any great hurry to complete any work for the composer and often disappeared on holiday when he was most needed. 

Temistocle Solera

Yet awkward as his relationship with Verdi may have been, the fact is that the opera that inaugurated the new Theatre Royal was conducted by the man who had written its libretto. Temistocle's opera singing wife whom he brought to Gibraltar with him - may have been one of the two leading female singers in Nabucco. 

The military muscle their way into the Theatre Royal   (1875)

This, incidentally, is how the Gibraltar Directory recorded the event:
Opening of new Theatre Royal with Verdi's opera "Nabucodonosor" in the presence of H.R.H. the Duke of Ostrogothia (see LINK) and Governor and his daughter Miss Wilson, and the Marchioness de Niza. When Corporal McLeod of the R.A. spoke the prologue written by the Governor and reached the "God Save Great Britain's Loved and Lovely Queen" the house rose and responded with heartfelt hurrahs. The architect was Mr. Bracebridge.
From then on the theatre functioned more or less as one would expect with the odd local productions, Spanish Zarzuelas and one or two amateur plays. In 1856 the well off merchants of Gibraltar went out of their way to further improve their relationship with the British authorities by giving a well attended ball for the Governor and the officers of the Garrison. The decorations of the Theatre Royal, enthused the Chronicle,
. . .  were unrivalled for beauty, elegance and simplicity . .  and nothing could surpass the attentive courtesy of the Gentlemen officiating as Stewards 
Those much mentioned merchants of the Rock could often be extraordinarily Bolshie when they felt that their God given rights on free trade were being eroded in any way - but when it came to brown-nosing their colonial masters they were in a class of their own. In fact, three years later they were at it again. Another Ball and again in the Theatre Royal, this time in honour of HRH the Prince of Wales who was visiting at the time. (See LINK

In 1873, the decision to build a new Catholic Church - the Sacred Heart of Jesus took place during a Public meeting held in the Theatre Royal but things apparently were not really going to plan. During the first Winter Season Ball the dress of a certain Mrs Armstrong caught fire. Although she later died of shock, a major catastrophe was avoided perhaps more through good luck than anything else. The Chronicle used the event to indulge in a spot of Theatre Royal bashing - the sanitation was awful, the stench unbearable and the place utterly unsuited for dancing.

The authorities may have taken note but nothing much was done from a health and safety point of view until 1881 when a report by a Mr Walter Tyler - a sanitary Inspector - compiled a report which in essence predicted that the next fire would almost certainly result in the total destruction of the place. What made it even scarier, as somebody else observed, was that although smoking was forbidden inside the Theatre the regulation was completely ignored - a regulation which continued to be ignored right up to the post-war years - and I can personally vouch for that one.

Relief for the poor in time of cholera  ( from L.A. Sawchuk - Deadly Visitations )

Eventually, but not before a whole raft of officials had their say, the Governor  - Lord Napier of Magdala ordered that the owners and the lessee - who happened to be David Benhaim at the time - should carry out the various safety measures suggested - otherwise it was good-by Theatre Royal.

Lord Napier

Time passed, people dragged their feet and very little changed. In 1882, Lord Napier lost patience with the problem and closed the Theatre - for a grand total of about seven months. In 1887 the new Governor - well newish anyway as Sir Arthur Hardinge took up his post in 1886 - asked his team - the people from the Sanitary Commission - to have another good look at the place.

Sir Arthur Hardinge

The net result was that both Mr Tudury - the Engineer of the Sanitary Commission - and Mr. Foulkes Cottrell the Superintendent of the local Fire Brigade more or less came to the conclusion that the whole building ought to be reconstructed. Meanwhile it ought to be shut down. And so it was in 1887 and so it remained for several years until in 1891, the owners were ordered by the War department to give up the land ceded to them originally.

The threat seems to have concentrated the minds of the new lessees - Messrs A. and L.M. Dotto - and slowly but surely by 1893 the innards had been considerably improved upon. The remodelling of the facade however, had converted a relatively non-descript building into an eyesore. An iron emergency exit now ran diagonally straight from the Dress Circle and then right down to the street from the stalls. The man probably responsible for the remodelling was a local architect, Joseph Cardona. The Gibraltar Chronicle was again quite fulsome in its praise.
The old theatre looks quite new, and the energetic management which has renovated and brought it to to its present state of completeness deserve . .  the ungrudging and liberal support of the public in general . . the means of access and exit are ample . . 

 A nice and safe - if ugly - new Theatre Royal, although this postcard persists in calling it the Royal Theatre

But there were limits to "energetic management in so far as the Dottos were concerned. Not even six years later Major Elington, Gibraltar's Health Officer reported that the place was absolutely filthy. A short while later he visited the place again and found a pool of urine in the corner of the main staircase, that the corner of the 2nd landing was habitually used as a urinal and that the floor of the upstairs W.C. was flooded with urine and that the one beneath the stage was even filthier if anything.

Dotto had now joined forces with two other locals, Bado and Montegriffo and the three lessees carried out the necessary improvements to allow the theatre to remain open. Once again the management's general lack of stamina took over and by 1906 the Sanitary Commissioners recommended that the license for performances should be withdrawn. Their advice was taken and the Theatre closed after on last cinema show in the summer of 1906.

In 1911 the theatre was reconstructed yet again - although not before the Colonial Secretary had more or less hinted that if the owners did not do something to improve the appearance of what had become a derelict site, he would razed the building to the ground. The owners, agents and lessees took the hint and the place was remodelled yet again. The unsightly fire escape was removed and the height of the building increased making it a much better fit in the square in which it stood. 

The "new" but apparently nameless Theatre Royal - it was only later that the name appeared on the facade

The opening of this new improved version of the building was celebrated on the 16th of March 1914 with a production of Aida yet another of Verdi’s operas. The choice of Aida with its massive scenery requirement must have put an enormous strain on the theatres back stage and scenery resources - but the show went on and to considerable acclaim.

By 1928 Spanish productions were getting a regular airing - note "secciones" which ought to be "sessiones" - as somebody once pointed out it is these kinds of mistakes that produced many of the words that make up the local Llanito vocabulary (see LINK)  ( Photo supplied by Yolanda Pilkington - with thanks )

Throughout WW I and the early 20th century, the silent films would have been as popular as the talkies would become in the 1930s. My father and mother - both keen cinema goers were not all that impressed when the "talkies" came to town in the 1930's. and indeed the first "talking movie" in Gibraltar was screened in the Theatre Royal in 1931 - it was a Spanish film. Considering the abysmal quality of many of these early attempts this is hardly surprising. I suspect that the Theatre Royal took a while before it became a fully fledged film house. The two most popular in those days went by the unlikely names of the Petit and the Salon Venus

Local variety shows were probably the most popular events at the Theatre Royal during the inter-war years. In 1933, two locals, L. Bruzon and J. Noguera - for example - put on their musical "Villa Diego" which was produced by the enthusiastic Agrupación Artística Calpense

The changing facades of the Theatre Royal in chronological order - I think

During WWII the evacuation of the civilian population meant that the place was taken over by the military. Actors and actress of the Entertainments National Services Association (ENSA) came to Gibraltar periodically to entertain the troops and raise moral - people like Noel Coward, and Beatrice Lillie among them. Many a gig was done al fresco but the Theatre Royal also had the privilege of hosting some really well-kent faces. One who must have paced the stage more than once was Anthony Quayle. He went on to become a well-known actor in the 1960s but his war-time job was Military Adjutant to the Governor.

Unknown ENSA actors on stage 

Vivian Leigh strutting her stuff in Gibraltar - almost certainly in the Theatre Royal   ( 1940s - All these photo supplied by Tito Vallejo - with thanks )

When the civilian population began to return after all those years away from home, they came back to a rather battered and mostly out of bounds garrison, a chronic lack of proper housing, and strict rationing in just about everything. Little wonder then that "vamos a ver la pelicula en el teatro" was one of the commonest phrases to be heard among friends who probably didn't know and cared even less as to what "pelicula" was actually on at the time. In fact as with all other local cinema's the Theatre Royal showed an eclectic mix of Hollywood musicals, comedies and dramas. For the more sophisticated there was more - much more.

The first post-war concert by the Gibraltar Symphony Orchestra with Willie Edwards conducting   ( 1940s - Photo from Hector Cortes - with thanks )

Possibly refers to the 1940s concert  ( Date unknown - Photo from Hector Cortes - with thanks )

The foyer was a gloomy place and the bit just outside covered by the exit steps was not much better. But it did have one redeeming feature - the eternal presence of a Spanish vendor just outside the entrance. Among the goodies on sale were avellanas, altamuces, and alcatufas. The first were peanuts - the proper Spanish word which is cacahuates being unheard of in Gibraltar. Avellanas is actually the Spanish word for hazlenuts. In Gibraltar these were called avellana de palo.

Altamuces - known elsewhere in the Spanish speaking world as altramuces - were boiled, oval, yellow pulses of some sort which were naturally salty and completely indigestible. They were also called salaitos because of their very salty taste. The alcatufas - chufas in Spanish - were sweet and probably equally disastrous from a digestion point of view. Needless to say the vendor always made a roaring trade. Popcorn - and indeed Coca-Cola - was not available in those days.

Salaitos and alcatufas

In the 1950s the "palcos de preferencia" or the galleries, cost 2s/6d, the "butaca" or stalls were 1s/6d and the "gallinero", the gods - were 9d. Matinees were common and usually less expensive. God Save the King - pronounced "godsafedekin" - was played at the end of every film and everybody was supposed to stand up for it. In fact most of the younger folk would rush out through the exit at the back to try and avoid this. 

Showing the way and showing what's on - corner of Church Lane - renamed Bishop Rapallo's Lane and Main Street   ( Unknown )

Local talent on display at the Theatre Royal with new prices and new names for the various available seats  ( 1960 - Photo supplied by Rosie Peach - with thanks )

Theatre Royal bill and the competition - Plan 9 from Outer Space has often been voted as one of the worst films ever made - but we didn't care and I am sure they had full houses almost every night   ( Photo supplied by Eliott Cocklen - with thanks )

The decades, however, took their toll. Television decimated cinemas throughout the world and Gibraltar was no exception. The closing of the frontier from 1969 to the mid 1980s may have given the theatre a new lease of life - but the writing was on the proverbial wall.

Theatre about to be demolished but still looking more or less as I remember it  ( Date unknow - Photo supplied by Marcial Hanglin - with thanks )

The theatre closed down, the owners were apparently loath to sell and the place became a derelict eyesore. In the early 21st century the local government pulled the place down and replaced it with a rather attractive park. All that was left was plenty of nostalgia and the remains of an old brick wall.

With acknowledgements to Tommy Finlayson from whose Stories of the Rock much of the older section is based on. Thank you Tommy, I am sure you and I visited the old place with equal frequency when we were young.