Preserving Our Old Theatres

Last December 19th some 76 people were reported injured, seven of them seriously, when the ceiling collapsed at London’s Apollo Theatre.

There was a full house that night as 720 patrons gathered for a performance of the award winning The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

According to reports, eight fire engines, with more than 50 firefighters, 25 ambulance crews and an air ambulance attended the scene.

The Society of London Theatre praised the emergency services in the British capital “for their calm and rapid response and all the theater staff on Shaftesbury Avenue for their professional and compassionate handling of the situation.”

The Apollo’s nearest theatrical neighbour, Queen’s Theatre, was established as a makeshift sanctuary, taking care of the wounded. Indeed, everyone in the theatre community rallied round, helping any way they could.

The Telegraph said, “Messages of love and support poured in from all over London’s Theatreland with many praising the brave emergency services and theatre staff who had helped evacuate and treat the wounded.

Staff from the nearby Gielgud, Lyric and Queens Theatres also helped in the rescue operation.”

Theatre staff, that is to say, front of house theatre staff, often get some stick from patrons mostly for ‘letting’ a variety of minor infractions occur: people who won’t turn off their phones or are noisy, but most of them do an excellent job.

I spent four years of my early career working front of house in a variety of Dublin theatres as well as for the Dublin Theatre Festival. It’s been my experience that, for a business often castigated for its self-absorption, theatre folk have warmer hearts than those in many other professions and always step up when faced with an emergency.

In 1974 I was working in Dublin’s Olympia Theatre when the Proscenium Arch collapsed. I wasn’t on duty at the time. Fortunately the incident occurred during the afternoon when the theatre was closed to the public and so there were no injuries.

The Olympia was closed until March, 1977, but Dublin’s theatrical community rallied round and found work for all of us in the intervening years.  As soon as a temporary position ended in one location, I was moved on somewhere else. Over the next two and a half years, I spent time as an usherette in the Gaiety, and as a box office clerk for the Shelbourne Hotel’s dinner theatre, and the Gresham Hotel, and many other places.

Those of us who had worked for the Olympia did our part too. We sold badges designed by Micheál MacLiammóir and shook our collection boxes all over the streets of Dublin.  I like to think we contributed to the restoration of that grand old building on Dame Street.

It’s dreadful to think of a night out being scarred by such a terrifying event as a structural collapse. That no one was killed outright at the Apollo seems incredible. There are, of course, investigations. There are questions being asked about the security of old buildings and about their maintenance. There will undoubtedly be some finger-pointing. But if we’ve learned anything from the past it’s that the incident will be all too swiftly forgotten by all but those who were there or who continue to work in beautiful, elegant, decrepit theatres.

I hope I’m wrong and theatre owners will do justice to the heritage of these old buildings. I hope their efforts will be supported by governments – and I’m speaking not only of London’s West End, but Dublin and Paris and any other city that has old buildings that serve as entertainment venues. I hope the public will be vocal and demand our theatres are served with the same care the theatrical community shows its peers.  Isn’t that the least we can do?


About Geri Schear

Geri Schear is an award-winning novelist, author of three Sherlock Holmes and Lady Beatrice books published by MX Publishing. Her short stories have appeared in a number of journals. For further information, see her page at Amazon:
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One Response to Preserving Our Old Theatres

  1. Jane E says:

    Such a shocking thing to happen but it’s heart-warming to know how the theatre community rallied around.


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