With the gradual, yet steady closing-down of local cinemas and theatres all over Britain, we thought it a good idea to use our platform to pay homage to one of the oldest theatres in South London that has survived this unfortunate decline in entertainment venues, and continues to showcase cutting edge theatre and events to this day....
The Broadway Theatre in Catford is a vast, grade II listed building that sits plump in the middle of Catford. Known instinctively to Lewisham residents, the building carries a reputation for being a staple feature of Lewisham’s intriguing architecture and history. It has been in business as an entertainment venue for over 80 years. So how did this legendary building come into existence?
Building of the theatre
The theatre started out as a concert hall extension to Lewisham Town Hall called unimaginatively “Town Hall Extension”. In 1926, Lewisham Metropolitan Council decided to develop the site of an old fire station next to Catford’s Town Hall to build “an auditoria for a variety of Civic, Social and Dramatic purposes”, according to “The Broadway Theatre – an Entertaining Past”.
In 1926, the Council decided to build on the site of an old, disused fire station next to Lewisham’s Town Hall to build “an auditoria for a variety of Civic, Social and Dramatic purposes” according to ‘The Broadway Theatre - and Entertaining Past’.
With these two vague yet instrumental title plans, work on the building began in 1930. The extension was built to reflect the design of the Town Hall next door, which was known for its Gothic Revival style. The design was always curve shaped, and the part that faces Rushey Green and Catford Broadway was called the Town Hall Chambers. It had shops, halls and offices. The ‘Town Hall Extension was officially opened on 22 June, 1932 by the Duke of York, was soon after became King George VI.
As soon as the building was ready, events started being hosted straight away. All throughout the 1930s, orchestral concerts and weekly dances were held.
Interesting fact: Councils had no legal power to organise or promote events back then, so all the events shown at the Broadway Theatre were organised by local organisations who hired out the venue.
When the 1930s drew to a close as the war began, the vast building was used as a ration book and a distribution centre, a telephone exchange, and, as soon as the auditorium floor was strengthened, an air raid shelter.
After the war, Lewisham Arts Council was founded and through an act of Parliament, the Council was able to start promoting events at the venue.
Lewisham Concert Hall
Throughout the 50s and 60s, the building started to assume greater importance in the borough as the main entertainment venue in Lewisham. With a change of name to ‘Lewisham Concert Hall’ in 1965, artists and stars from all over the country and the USA came and performed at the venue. (Taking a stroll through the corridors today will open your eyes to all the magnificent performers who graced its stage. From jazz stars like Dizzy Gillespie and Chick Corea, to motown and pop stars like Gladys Knight, and The Four Tops.
The Lewisham Theatre
The 1980s saw another name change and a remarkable developments for the building. The building was renamed ‘The Lewisham Theatre’ and technological developments such as computers used extensively throughout the building. In 1987, the old small hall area was developed into a 120 capacity cabaret and performance area complete with raked seating, sound and lighting systems. The space proved to be popular with a wide range of theatre groups.
Following this renovation and delve into the world of theatre, a number of fantastic events started up and theatre groups, including a successful initiative in 1991 which brought Black Theatre to Lewisham which brought a long run of sell out shows and a new audience to the venue.
Alongside this new development, comedy also became a popular feature of the venues schedule, with big name comedians such as Eddie Izzard, Paul Merton, and Alan Davies performing throughout the 1990s.
The Broadway Theatre
It actually wasn’t until 2001 that the theatre was given the title it has today. After a major refurbishment costing about £2.3 million, which helped restore many of the art deco features that had lasted so long, it was renamed the Broadway Theatre. Complete with a new sign and logo that matched the art deco design, the theatre was born anew, and continued providing great theatre all across the spectrum for another decade. Utilising underground space as well as the main auditorium, a range of productions took place during this period that saw a resurgence of the theatre’s popularity and reputation.
The building was given it’s Grade II listed status in 1993. It has remained a landmark feature of Lewisham’s architecture for over half a century and deserves praise as one of South London’s best theatre and entertainment venues.
Regrettably, in recent years the theatre has not been used as much as it should be due to various problems with the structure. Basic repairs are estimated to cost around £530,000 and could take upwards of two years to complete. Just last year, Lewisham Council held an open survey for Lewisham residents as to what they would like to be seen done with the building. Some new projects have started to get underway there, most notably the infamous Little Nan’s Bar has set up another new camp inside the theatre for people to use as a recreation spot for drinking and socialising. They have also brought in a new initiative called Shakespeare Festival called Catford Upon Avon Festival which started in March last year and will hopefully be an annual occurrence.
To keep up to date with the events at the Broadway Theatre, check out their website here.
To keep updated on Catford news and any news about the Broadway Theatre, follow the Catford Central blog.
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