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. In January 1892, the Council sold the theatre 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. A company was formed, shares were sold and the site agreed upon by the City Council. George William Smith was appointed as the architect. Finally on the 1st December 1892, the Alexandra Theatre and Opera House was opened by the Mayor, John McIlwraith.
The opening performance was J.M. Barrie’s “Walker, London” presented by B. and W. Wheeler, the first lessees of the premises. In 1916, African Consolidated Theatres took over the theatre, being used as a cinema during which it became quite shabby.
In 1961 it 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. 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, declared a National Monument in 1980, and very successfully extended in 1985.
Port Elizabeth: A Social Chronicle to the end of 1945 by Margaret Harradine