The Palace of Varieties and the later Princes Theatre
The grand building in Princes Street that was home to the Princes Street Constitutional Club, the Assembly Rooms, was built in 1888 and opened the following year. The large Assembly Room itself, measuring 40 feet (12.2m) across by 65 feet (19.8m) deep, could accommodate a thousand people. Additionally, for the use of members, there was a billiards room, a cards room and a reading room.
In 1895 a permanent stage was built, complete with a proscenium arch and three dressing rooms, reducing the overall capacity of the venue to about 700. The Assembly Rooms was the first venue in Yeovil to show films - black and white one-reelers - from 1896 when Yeovil's first film license was granted. This was also the year that the very first public screening of a film in the UK took place in London. In 1903 the Honorary Secretary of the Assembly Rooms was listed as Raymond Oliver Jourdain.
By around 1905 it was known as the Palace of Varieties (see second photograph below) although this title was assumed by the new purpose-built cinema, later the Palace Theatre, on the corner of Stars Lane and South Street.
The Princes Street Constitutional Club went into liquidation in 1939 and became known as the Princes Theatre.
As well as showing films, the Assembly Rooms were also hired out for private functions and other theatrical productions. For instance in 1906 the Western Gazette reported "The Hockey Club's annual dance in aid of club funds was held in the Princes Street Assembly Rooms in Yeovil, where more than 100 revellers danced the Wednesday night away to the sounds of Mr Ring's Orchestral Band."
In January 1951 the Western Gazette reported: "Yeovil audiences have been enjoying 'Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood', presented by the Wessex Social and Sports Club, in the Assembly Rooms, and there were over 2,000 advance bookings. More ambitious in its scope and lavishness than any of their previous pantomimes, 'Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood', reflects the greatest credit on an enterprising amateur company. Before the doors of the Assembly Rooms opened for the first night on Monday, more than 2,000 people had booked in advance the full floor seating capacity for the seven performances this week. A limited number of tickets for accommodation on the secondary stage, on sale at the door, have been eagerly claimed each evening."
The Yeovil & District Amateur Operatic Society, formed in 1902, put on their annual productions in January or February for many years at the Assembly Rooms; for instance in 1958 it was their production of 'Bitter Sweet', in 1959 they produced Gilbert & Sullivan's 'The Yeoman of the Guard' followed by 'The Merry Widow' in 1960 and 'The Student Prince' in 1962. The 1965 production of 'The Desert Song' was in the newly-named Princes Theatre.
Their final production at the Assembly Rooms, before moving to the newly built Johnson Hall (now the Octagon Theatre) was Rogers & Hammerstein's 'South Pacific' in February 1972.
Many thanks to Carolyn Osborn for the following memories - "My mum took me to see 'South Pacific' at the Princes Theatre when I was thirteen. It was on a Tuesday evening and I was so excited because it was a school night. Dad dropped us off and picked us up afterwards and mum and I had orange juice and biscuits during the intermission. The production was lovely - I still remember it so well - it was a special evening I'll never forget."
The Assembly Rooms are now converted to shops on the ground floor and offices above.
A photograph of the southern end of Princes Street, looking towards High Street, and dating to around 1900. The Assembly Rooms are at extreme left.
A photograph of the northern end of Princes Street dating to around 1905. At this time the Assembly Rooms were known as the 'Palace of Varieties' as indicated by the vertical sign attached to it.
Now known as the Constitutional Club. This photograph was taken by Yeovil Photographer Jarratt Beckett and published in his 1897 book "Somerset viewed through a Camera".
A photograph of the imposing frontage of the Assembly Rooms in Princes Street of about 1910.
From my collection
An advertisement for the Holy Trinity Scouts production placed in the 14 January 1938 edition of the Western Gazette. Note the impressive list of patrons attending.
From my collection
An entry form for the 'Win a Boat' competition at the 1960 Yeovil Boat Show, held in the Assembly Rooms. So, seriously, how on earth did they get boats into the building?
Now, sadly, far less imposing in 2013. The roofline pediment and balustrade have gone, together with many of the decorative elements and the garish shop fronts further degrade the building almost to anonymity.
The central datestone of 1888 above an ornately-carved 'Green Man' survives beneath the ornate cast iron pseudo-balcony.
A matching carved 'Green Beast' - the only one in Yeovil - to the right of the datestone.
The ornate rear of the Assembly Rooms seen from St John's churchyard (the building at extreme left is the Chantry).
A detail of the rear of the building - considering this would rarely get a second glance even when built, let alone today, the extravagant detailing of the building is a true sign of the times in which it was created.