Victorian Special Effects: Stage Machinery at Alexandra Palace

Underneath the Theatre at Alexandra Palace is a maze of pulleys, levers, traps and lifts. A time capsule of invention, this complicated mass of stage machinery created dangerous spectacle that stunned Victorian audiences. A remarkable survivor, it demonstrates the technical prowess of stage special effects.

Collage of Scenes at Alexandra Palace (1875) by Illustrated London NewsAlexandra Palace

Alexandra Palace is an entertainment complex on a grand scale. Numerous attractions and sideshows delighted visitors each day. The Theatre had to compete with the other spaces.

Against elaborate fireworks, circus acrobatics, and mind blowing scientific demonstrations, the Theatre had to create something truly spectacular.

Alexandra Palace Stage (2014-09-08)Alexandra Palace

The Theatre was large, holding audiences of up to 3,000 and had a varied programme that included pantomime, opera, dance, ballet, music hall and later cinema.

Stage Weight (2014-09-08)Alexandra Palace

In typical Victorian spirit, the latest technological innovations were employed. Now exceptionally rare, the original stage machinery survives at Alexandra Palace.

Illustrations de Trucs et Decors Le vol de la Mouche d'orOriginal Source: Internet Archive

Victorian audiences expected visually elaborate productions with numerous scenes and settings which seamlessly changed onstage.

The unusual layout of the Theatre meant that the scenery had to be brought through the proscenium. So stage designers Thomas Grieve and Son had to find innovative ways of incorporating equipment needed to mount spectacular shows like the popular annual pantomime.

Illustrations de Trucs et Decors Equipe d'un rideau sur un tambour du grilOriginal Source: Internet Archive

Two tiers of flys could hold up to 48 backdrops and scenery. Scenery was designed for specific productions but the Grieves also designed a standard set for regular use.

Illustrations de Trucs et Decors Vue d'ensemble des dessousOriginal Source: Internet Archive

Below the stage multiple levels were excavated to install the infrastructure to move large props and scenery to build the impression of depth on the stage. A new lock mechanism designed by Grieves stopped scenery from crashing down through the stage and injuring the stagehands below.

Illustrations de Trucs et Decors Ferme montant des dessous equipee sure quatre cassettes a ame A, B, C, DOriginal Source: Internet Archive

The levels allowed for scenery to drop out of view but also to track across the stage via weights, pulleys and gears. It enabled magical quick transformations like the Harlequinade in pantomime.

Illustrations de Trucs et Decors Premier corridor de serviceOriginal Source: Internet Archive

In the Harlequinade, a glitter curtain fell over the stage and all the scenery would change within two minutes.

The Pant HarlequinLIFE Photo Collection

The performers changed into stock characters: Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon and Pierrot. The comedic scene became the slapstick chase in modern pantomime.

Illustrations de Trucs et Decors Trappe ascendante en etoile, dite trappe anglaiseOriginal Source: Internet Archive

Stage machinery made magical characters appear and disappear through traps in the floor, and rigging allowed them to fly. These were very dangerous and the first pantomime at Alexandra Palace, 'The Yellow Dwarf' had to be delayed when acrobatic star George Conquest twisted his spine and sprained muscles in his back in preparation for the role.

Stage Machinery (2014-09-08)Alexandra Palace

In most Theatres this equipment was periodically updated and replaced. Due to the changing fortunes of Alexandra Palace it is unusual to find so much infrastructure surviving.

Stage Machinery (2014-09-08)Alexandra Palace

Larger traps could move larger or more elaborate props.

Illustrations de Trucs et Decors Le bati du cygne de LohengrinOriginal Source: Internet Archive

Early performances at Alexandra Palace included a fully functioning fountain and a menagerie of animals.

Illustrations de Trucs et Decors Le troisieme corridor de service, cote jardin, a l'OperaOriginal Source: Internet Archive

The manual equipment required large teams of stage hands, making the stage a dangerous place to work.

Illustrations de Trucs et Decors Les coulissesOriginal Source: Internet Archive

In addition the performances involved large numbers of cast and performers. The opening show had 150 dancers in the ballet alone.

Lighting Control Panel (2014-09-08)Alexandra Palace

Although few changes were made to the under stage machinery, early electric lighting was installed on stage.

Early Cinema Projection Box (2014-09-08)Alexandra Palace

Cinema arrived at Alexandra Palace in 1896 and in 1906 a permanent projection box was installed on the Theatre balcony. The Theatre closed for performances in 1935, preserving it from further changes.

Stage Machinery (2014-05-21)Alexandra Palace

Restoration reopened the Theatre in 2018 and although the machinery cannot be used, the latest technology has captured the intricate network of equipment to uncover the secrets of how it worked.

3D Scan of Alexandra Palace Theatre Stage Machinery (2018)Original Source: Theatre

Alexandra Palace Theatre Restoration (2018-11-23) by Lloyd WintersAlexandra Palace

Lincoln Conservation captured the under stage machinery in 3D as part of the Hidden Heritage project. On 1 December 2018 the Theatre reopened with new technologies installed to allow for modern productions, bringing the Theatre into the 21st Century, whilst preserving its precious and unique heritage.

Credits: Story

Curated by James White

With thanks to:
Lincoln Conservation

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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