Built in 1899, the Great Theater of Doncaster opened its doors in the golden age of the stage and attracted the big names of the time. From 1963 it entered a second chapter as a bingo hall, but since 1995 it has been derelict, the victim of unsympathetic urban redevelopment around it.
For more than 30 years there seemed little hope of it ever reopening, and it lay in limbo thanks to a Grade II listing, which meant it could not be demolished. The deteriorated facade was sandwiched with little dignity between a dual carriageway, a transport interchange and the Frenchgate Centre.
Yet suddenly a new dawn has dawned for the Grand, although it has only been a few years since another major cultural project – the construction of a new theater called Cast – was completed. Doncaster Council has received £25million from the government’s leveling fund, part of which will go towards regeneration of the town centre, and the restoration of The Grand has been identified as an opportunity to bring back pride and footfall. Funding from the Theaters Trust, which added the building to its ‘at risk’ register, increased the capital available.
A customer is asking for a refund at York Theater Royal because actors performed a play…
Arts consultant Murray Edwards’ company Theater Search has now been commissioned to carry out a feasibility study to gauge interest in the future of the Grand – and so far the response has exceeded expectations, with 4,000 surveys completed and 350 comments left.
Many respondents were in favor of making The Grand a bigger venue – it already has 400 more seats than Cast – capable of hosting pop concerts, music production tours and major events.
“It’s a different level of viability to Cast – if the stalls were removed it could accommodate 1,500 people. Commercial operators find there is a ‘hole’ in terms of suitable venues for large musicals. C It’s a significant building that could attract people from further afield,” Mr Edwards said.
“There has been an outcry in the past when demolition was considered, and it has been going on for 30 years. But there is a movement underway to improve the city, boost activity, business and the night economy. It’s easy to get to.”
Although listing requires its owners, the Frenchgate Centre, to undertake basic maintenance, the Grand would need a full restoration to restore it to its former glory.
“It needs considerable work, it is a fine Victorian theater but there are some alterations which should be removed.”
The consultation aims to determine if there is a “market” for productions likely to complete the programming proposed to the Cast.
“About 90% of people who attended want it back in service. They suggested talks, musicals, pop, comedy. It would enhance rather than replace Cast, and provide events that don’t are not economical for Cast. The Grand is likely to bring big names to Doncaster. Some of the comments also suggested uses such as an art gallery, craft displays and food stalls.
Mr Edwards is also optimistic that the current state of the building could be changed by the remodeling of the 1960s mall, as the owners of Frenchgate are supportive stakeholders.
“It doesn’t need to stay locked up – there is support to modify the mall to create spaces for theatre.”
An active group of friends who have been campaigning since 2004 for the theater to be saved are also involved.
“Their study had a positive response but was dropped due to Cast’s plans. Now it’s all coming back to the surface. With the effect that Covid has had much of the town center is run down. If Doncaster is to have a future, it needs to brighten up.”
Among the 160 Friends members is Margaret Herbert, who is now over 80 and remembers attending shows at the Grand in the 1940s, when her grandparents displayed promotional bills in their window in exchange for free tickets. She even performed once on her stage and remembers the vastness of the hall in all its glory.
“I probably know more about the Grand than anyone now! There used to be such a big stage; it’s not so obvious now because the bingo hall had desks in front of it, but its original capacity was 1,600 and you could still get over 1,000. Doncaster is aiming for city status and needs great theater and culture.
“A lot of shows in London will only consider venues that can hold over 1,000 people, so that’s a barrier. We want the shows that come to Leeds and Sheffield.”
The Friends hope their passion for the history of the Grand will enable them to run a small museum inside the site should it reopen, and member Ken Waight still wants to ‘play our part’ after campaigning for so long.
“Before Covid the Grand was a bit of a distraction for the Frenchgate Center but with the closures of Debenhams and other stores they are looking at other opportunities and they now see it as an asset.”
They are confident the building is structurally sound – the 6ft thick walls were built to support the weight of the circus elephants that once performed there – and would only need cosmetic upgrades, such as the removal of an extension dating from the bingo years that would open up the frontage area.
Ms Herbert has received constant phone calls from supporters since news that the Great could come back to life first broke, and the group even received a donation from Open All Hours actor David Jason.
Two retired police officers have expressed interest in operating one of the three original bar spaces as a gin bar, and there are hopes another could become a cafe.
Mr Waight added: “People are realizing that it can’t just reopen as a theater as if nothing has happened in the last 25 years. It needs a multitude of uses and local involvement We have to be optimistic after all these years nothingness In the past 18 months, everything has suddenly turned positive again.