The Opera House is the oldest theatre on the continent of Africa and the Southern Hemisphere. This special piece of World History is right here in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape Province. Built in 1892, it preceded the railway line by two years.
In its final form, the Opera House might have only been opened in December 1892 but Port Elizabeth was not deprived of entertainment as its predecessor, the “New Theatre” operated from 1862.
Main picture: Engraving of the Opera house soon after it was built in 1892
On 2nd June 1862, a theatre was opened in White’s Road by the P.E. Dramatic Society. Known as the “New Theatre” or sometimes as the “Theatre Royal”, probably tongue-in-cheek, performances were arranged by the lessee, Sefton Parry with scene painter, Richard Cooper, being responsible for decorating it.
This extemporised theatre serves the needs for culture in Port Elizabeth but did not satiate the need for a “proper theatre”. The prime mover in the bid to construct such a theatre was H.W. Pearson. To this end, a committee was formed in the middle of 1860, applying for a grant of land behind the Commercial Hall which was located where the current Public Library is situated.
Notwithstanding this interim solution of the 1860s, the need for a facility which would meet the requirements and standards of a proper theatre remained unmet until three decades later. The old Theatre Royal in spite of its pretentious name had long since been derided as outdated while its primitive facilities had earned it the derisory moniker of “the Barn.” In 1891, a group of Port Elizabeth businessmen met together to draft the articles of a company to be formed for the purpose of erecting a theatre to meet the needs of the rapidly growing city.
In January 1892, the Council sold the Theatre Royal and the proceeds of £3000 went towards the building of the final product: The Opera House.
The final product
The first meeting to discuss a new theatre for Port Elizabeth was held on 8th January 1890. The man who set the process in motion for the building of an Opera House, was a Mr. Melville Kennedy and he was appointed secretary of the new company. Some of the city’s most distinguished citizens were among the shareholders – James Brister, a former Mayor, Sir C.F. Blaine, Matthew Loubser, a cultural leader, John Holland and Robert Pettit. A company was formed, shares were sold and the site agreed upon by the City Council.
The scheme was put into effect forthwith. George William Smith, the City’s leasing architect and surveyor, was appointed as the architect while a local firm, Small & Morgan, were appointed as the contractors. Mr Felden of the Lyceum Theatre in London was brought out to design the stage and the interior in the plush and gilt style of the period was designed by a Mr Caffin.
Finally on the 1st December 1892, the Alexandra Theatre and Opera House was opened by the Mayor, John McIlwraith with full pomp and ceremony. McIlwraith even read out a dedicatory ode especially written for the occasion by Mr F. McDermott.
The opening performance was J.M. Barrie’s highly successful comedy, “Walker, London” presented by B. and W. The Wheeler Brothers, the first lessees of the premises, were entrepreneurs who used to bring out overseas companies to perform in South Africa. From then onwards, the theatre was well used by visiting companies and local societies. After the Wheeler Brothers’ season, the theatre was taken over by the Rand Opera Company which performed “Maritana” and other less well-known operas.
South Africa’s first outstanding actor-manager. Leonard Rayne, always included the Opera House on his tours. In 1896, the shape of things to come was foreshadowed by the American entertainer, Carl Hertz, who included Port Elizabeth’s first cinematographic show as part of his program.
The outbreak of the Anglo-Boer war did not stop the flow of entertainment at the Opera House. The P.E.A.O.D.S. put on Gilbert and Sullivan shows to raise money for various war funds, something which the Port Elizabeth Gilbert and Sullivan Society was to repeat during WW2.
It took 16 more years before artificial lighting – in the form of Gas – came to The Opera House. The building was run with candles and limelight during this period. When the theatre opened it was recognised as the finest theatre in all the World according to press reports. This is testament to the fact that we can still use the building today. In fact we are not only the oldest theatre in Africa, but also the only Victorian Theatre left on the continent.
In 1916, African Consolidated Theatres Organisation was formed and became the leading theatrical promoters. They acquired the Opera House which, being used as a cinema during the interwar period, became quite shabby. Meanwhile cinema shows became ever more frequent. “Wolfram’s Bioscope” paid visits at frequent intervals, and between the wars, the number increased until by the end of WW2, the theatre had become mainly a cinema with occasional live shows.
Some years after the Opera House was erected, the building was altered to allow backdrops and scenery to be “flown” as well as the rear of the building being altered to facilitate loading and unloading of scenery and “props”. In 1961 the Opera House was offered to the Municipality as a civic theatre, but this proposal was rejected in spite of the opinion of experienced actors that it was an ideal theatre.
At the end of the war, cinema appeared to be paramount but then several promoters arose to resuscitate live theatre – Taubie Kushlick, Brian Brooks, Pieter Toerien, Leonard Schack and the Brickhills. For a while it seemed as though the Opera House might regain its proper role.
By the 1950s, the character of African Consolidated Theatres Organisation had evolved. The focus was now more on the cinema side of the business. In line with this narrow focus, they decided to dispose of the Opera House. This sparked a flurry of activity as theatre aficionadas promoted the idea that the Opera House be purchased by the Council as a civic theatre. The main protagonists in this campaign were Mr E.D. Hill Councillor J. Graham Young and Bruce and Helen Mann. The support of other theatrical societies was enlisted, meeting were held, and many letters for and against appeared in the local press. Finally it was decided to put the matter to the test at a meeting of ratepayers on the 4th February, 1963. The anti-civic theatre lobby carried the day.
Notwithstanding this, the Opera House survived. In 1965, the Theatre Gild organised a production of “Much Ado About Nothing” directed by Margaret Inglis as part of the University of Port Elizabeth inaugural celebrations. At this juncture, the more benevolent Provincial Administration stepped into the breach. Its chief motive was to use the venue for performances by the recently established Cape Performing Arts Board – CAPAB but as an ancillary activity, it would make the facility available for professional and amateur companies.
In 1966, the Cape Provincial Administration purchased it and then renovating it, thereby creating a perfect example of a Victorian theatre, one of few remaining. It was reopened on the 14th November 1967 by the Administrator of the Cape, Dr. J.N. Malan with a performance of “Swan Lake” by the CAPAB ballet.
Since then the Opera House has been regarded as the main cultural centre in the city. Once again Port Elizabethans have been afforded the opportunity of seeing eminent overseas actors – Leslie French, Bernard Brown, Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge, Ursala Jeans, Robertson Hare, Leslie Phillips, David Tomlinson, Nigel Patrick and Richard Todd.
Finally the Opera House received its ultimate accolade by being declared a National Monument in 1980. This will ensure its survival in spite of the economic climate in Port Elizabeth and South Africa. In 1985, it was very successfully extended.
This very special place – the home of John Kani, Athol Fugard, Winston Ntshona, Nomsa Nkonyeni, Thoko Ntshinga, and Elizabeth Connell (international soprano), and many, many other famous people. In terms of history, culture and the contribution to the Arts during the struggle, no other theatre can claim the role that The Opera House has played.
Another interesting fact about the history is that The Opera House is built on the site of an old gallows. Public hangings took place on this ground before the theatre was erected. Perhaps as a consequence, many sightings of ghosts and spooks have been reported. Generally no one wishes to be the last person to leave at night. There have been two deaths and two murders in the building. Ghost tours are done on request at 20h00 with only torch light.
Remembering Frank Rogaly (1909-1987)
Public relations consultant. Director of Bookings company in Port Elizabeth. Theatre impresario and booking agent. Frank had his theatrical debut in 1915 (at the age of 7 years) in this actual Port Elizabeth Opera House. With the outbreak of war, he became a founder member of the Union Defence Force Entertainment Unit under Major Myles Bourke, where he was responsible for a large number of productions in South Africa and in North Africa.
He opened a booking facility in Port Elizabeth in the 1960s known as Bookings and Theatre Consultants (Pty) Ltd. and became the person every management consulted about touring a show to that city. In this capacity he hosted numerous shows and personalities in Port Elizabeth over the years. But the one thing he must most certainly be remembered for is that he was the man instrumental in saving the old Port Elizabeth Opera House from the demolishes, which then led to it being declared a national monument in 1987 to everybody’s delight.
As an honour to Frank and to show the appreciation of the public of Port Elizabeth for what he had done in saving the Opera House from the demolishers, a portrait of Frank Rogaly (painted by the late Neil Rogers) was then commissioned and hung in full view of all on the main staircase landing of the old building.
In 1987 he becomes one of the first five recipients of the SACPAC Honours Award for his contribution to the entertainment industry in South Africa.
Later sadly due to the usual political interference, the portrait of the man who had saved the building from certain demolition, was quietly removed and replaced by a simple framed hanging mirror.
The hanging mirror has now been replaced with a stained-glass window, honouring three well known and living Eastern Cape actors and playwrights.
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine (1996, E H Walton Packaging Pty Ltd, Port Elizabeth)
A Short Historical Sketch of the Opera House, Port Elizabeth by A. Porter (Looking Back, March 1978, Vol 18, No 1)