IT has been described as Bournemouth’s “lost theatre”.

It’s quite likely that most people in the town are unaware that there used to be a theatre off Richmond Hill.

Opened 135 years ago this month, the Theatre Royal had Oscar Wilde on its stage twice.

Later owned by the founder of horror studio Hammer Films, it hosted such hugely popular entertainers as Frankie Howerd, the Goons and Morecambe and Wise.

Hugh Ashley, author of Bournemouth Entertains, notes that when it was launched in 1882, the Theatre Royal was described in publicity as “the prettiest and most comfortable theatre in the South of England”.

“In the last half of the 19th century, Bournemouth was growing fast as a leading seaside town, and it desperately needed a formal commercial place of entertainment,” Hugh said.

“The Shelley Theatre in Boscombe had been operating as a small but non-commercial venue for some years, but was very limited in what it offered.”

The Theatre Royal was built on Albert Road, running all the way through to Yelverton Road at its back.

It was designed by Kemp Welch and Pinder of Bournemouth and Swanage, and it replaced Albert House – a boarding house in the style of a grand Elizabeth villa, which was commemorated in the road name.

The theatre cost £10,000 to build and seated around 800 in stalls, dress circle, upper circle, pit, gallery and private boxes.

“The theatre was not an instant success and struggled to get audiences, although there were no empty seats when the playwright, Oscar Wilde appeared on two occasions, and also popular were the D'Oyly Carte Gilbert and Sullivan Operas,” Hugh notes.

“The upper circle, like many London theatres, had a separate entrance and long, steep staircase.”

In 1887, the theatre was converted to become Bournemouth’s second Town Hall, and Hugh notes that people said it had had “the heart ripped out of it”.

But the venue was refurbished as a theatre in 1892, after the formation of Bournemouth council. In 1907, a new wing was added, including a large foyer for theatre-goers to enjoy food and drink before the show.

During the Second World War, the theatre served as a club for the army and navy. There was at least one serious fire in 1943.

In 1949, it reopened as the New Theatre Royal, mostly showing twice-nightly variety.

Morecambe and Wise, the Goons, David Whitfield and Frankie Howerd were all among the visitors. Hugh notes that the latter two were both so popular that the box office queues stretched down Richmond Hill, in one case as far as the National Provincial (now NatWest) bank in the Square.

The Theatre Royal also hosted long-running summer seasons and pantomimes with star names, as well as touring shows and amateur productions.

By now, it was owned by Will Hammer – who had founded Hammer Films and the jeweller WH Hinds – and by the big band leader Jack Payne.

But it was losing money and when Hammer died after falling off his bike in 1957, it ceased to be a full-time theatre.

The final summer season had starred Canadian singer Edmund Hockridge and the ventriloquist Daisy May with Saveen and a talking dog.

Its final show that November was The Tales of Hoffman performed by the Wessex Opera Company.

Hugh was there for those last days.

“The theatre was a very warm and friendly building, decorated in its new form in a gentle smokey pink,” he recalls.

“For me, it was like a friend, where I got paid – first-ever wage – for working backstage during the school summer holidays in 1957. I was there at the final performance of The Tales of Hoffman, and went home and cried all night, because 'my friend' had gone for good. It was certainly the foundation of my continuing love of theatre for over 60 years.

“The large foyer was sold to the proprietors of the Daily Echo, who used the space to store large reels of newsprint.

“During another period of doubt, the theatre had a short-lived attempt to reopen as an opera house. This was ironic, because the theatre had also been known as the Opera House round about 1900. In July 1962, it became the Curzon cinema and bingo club, showing re-runs of popular films.”

The Theatre Royal was used as a bingo hall before, in 1971, the Upper Circle became a sex cinema known as the Tatler Club.

Today, the stalls are home to the Genting Casino on Yelverton Road, while the circle is the venue’s restaurant.

As Hugh notes, it is instantly recognisable as a former theatre, and a blue plaque records its former lives – as town hall, cinema, casino and the town’s not quite forgotten theatre.

Hugh Ashley is the author of Bournemouth Entertains: A Short History 1840-2015 , and of Westbourne Exclusively, coming in 2018.