The first Gaiety stood at the junction of Wellington Street and the Strand. A large part of the site was later swallowed up by the cutting of Aldwych, early in the twentieth century, a small patch remaining being absorbed into the site of the Morning Post building. Its immediate predecessor in that location was, in fact, not a theatre building but the Strand Musick Hall, which opened in 1864, approached by a long passage entrance from the Strand. The Strand Musick Hall Company made a surprising choice of architect: not (as might perhaps have been expected) a firm like Finch Hill & Paraire, well established pub, music hall and theatre architects, but E Bassett Keeling, who had no obvious relevant experience and who, in fact, is seen by architectural historians as one with eccentric, if not positively wilful, tendencies.
Bassett Keeling’s hall was, unsurprisingly, unlike any other of its time, rectangular, with a recessed concert stage set at the centre of its length, faced by two tiers of balconies, the upper one set back, the lower returned on the two shorter sides. Despite its elaborate ornamentation, described as eclectic gothic, surviving views make it look singularly lacking in warmth.
The Strand Musick Hall attempted a higher-toned musical entertainment than its contemporaries (the final ‘k’ was a clue to its genteel ambitions), a move that the West End music hall audience was not ready for. It restricted drinking and smoking to the buffets and bars and despite the introduction of comic singers from the less pretentious halls, failure was virtually built in to the project. The company went into liquidation in 1866.
Lional Lawson bought the old music(k) hall with some adjoining plots and engaged C J Phipps, then at the beginning of a highly productive career, to design a new theatre, said to be based on the Theatre Lyrique in Paris. Part of the old hall became entrance passages and staircases. John Hollingshead obtained the tenancy and opened the first Gaiety Theatre in 1868.
The Gaiety auditorium, like one or two of Phipps’s early theatres, was Gothic in character with three tiers of balconies constructed on iron frames, filled with concrete and carried on a ring of columns, from which sprang pointed arches supporting a circular ceiling. There was a line of private boxes at the rear of the dress circle. The plan form was regarded as novel, at least for London.
Hollingshead’s Gaiety enjoyed resounding and continuous success as a burlesque and extravaganza house. The first Gilbert & Sullivan opera (Thespis) and several Offenbach operas were staged there. Hollingshead’s partner George Edwardes succeeded to the management in 1886 and introduced the new form ‘musical comedy’ (often said to have been invented by Edwardes himself) in 1893. Musical comedy advanced in popularity and became the staple entertainment at the Gaiety for many years.
The London County Council’s Strand, Aldwych and Kingsway road improvements brought the career of the Gaiety, the Globe, the Olympic and the Opera Comique to a close. The Gaiety, which closed in the summer of 1893, was the only member of this little theatreland to be replaced. A new Gaiety (see Gaiety (ii), q.v.) rose on a nearby site later in the same year.
- 1864 Owner/Management: Maurice R Syers, owner
- 1864 Design/Construction: as a music hall.E Bassett Keeling (with H H Collins)- ArchitectDefries- Consultantgas installationWilliam W Phipson- Consultantventilating apparatus and liftsHart & Sons- Consultantornamental ironworkBrawn- Consultantcopper ornamentGeorge Foxley- Consultantdecorations (to Bassett Keeling designs)Tolmie- Consultantstone carving
- 1868 Owner/Management: Lionel Lawson, owner; New Theatre Company, lessees
- 1868 Design/Construction: new theatre incorporating some parts of old building.C J Phipps- ArchitectGeorge Gordon- Consultantscenic artistRobert Bell- ConsultantdecoratorMr Tasker- Consultantstage machinery (also clerk of works)W & T Phillips- Consultantstructural ironworkHart & Sons- Consultantornamental ironworkStrode & Co- ConsultantsunburnerH S Marks- Consultantpainted frieze over prosceniumWademan Bros- ConsultantarmchairsHampton’s- ConsultantdrapesTyler- ConsultantcarpetsJ Jones & Son- Consultantgas installation
- 1889 Alteration: interior redecoration in Indian style.Romaine Walker- Architect
- ListingNot listed