DID YOU KNOW that the Mayflower, built in 1928, has one of the largest auditoriums in England with over 2,300 seats and used to have a tea garden on the roof?

Built on shallow foundations because the land was barely above water level, the stalls are on the natural slope of the land. The location near the station was convenient as touring productions came by train.

When the Empire Theatre, Southampton opened in December 1928 ’talkies’ had just replaced silent cinema and they were what audiences wanted.

In 1930, the famous ballet dancer Anna Pavlova performed as did Gracie Fields. On 14 May 1933, the first film was shown.

In 1945, Ted and Barbara Andrews introduced their ten year old daughter Julie Andrews to the stage. She stood on a box to sing.

In 1950 the name was changed to The Gaumont. Entertainment in 1952 included the Sadlers Wells Ballet Company with Margot Fonteyn, comic Max Miller and the comedy act Laurel and Hardy.

Being part of the Rank Organisation’s touring circuit, Bill Haley And The Comets of ‘Rock Around The Clock’ fame came in February 1957 with Buddy Holly in March 1958. Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry also appeared.

The Beatles first came on May 20, 1963 and returned on December 13. The Rolling Stones visited four years running starting on September 29, 1963. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cat Stevens and the Walker Brothers shared the same bill in April 1967.

Queen appeared in 1974, 1975 and finally in May 1977.

Christmas Shows starred some of the most popular entertainers of the day including Ken Dodd, Dick Emery and Lulu. The Roy Castle Christmas Show played for three weeks from Christmas Eve 1975, as did Jimmy Tarbuck in 1979.

The big music names continued in the eighties with Black Sabbath featuring Ozzy Osbourne (June 1980); Duran Duran (July 1981), Ultravox (May 1984), and Iron Maiden (1983 and 1984).

The great comedians of the day also toured regularly with Morecambe And Wise and The Two Ronnies as two high points.

In 1982, the Rank Organisation submitted a proposal to Southampton Council to change the theatre to a bingo hall.

In 1983 the Council refused the application and the Department of Environment awarded a Grade II listing.

The Council bought the building from Rank for £650,000, with Hampshire County Council and the Arts Council of Great Britain contributing to the cost.

An independent charitable trust was created in 1989 and given a lease on the building of more than a hundred years.

The last Gaumont performance was Southern Theatre Productions’ amateur production of Carousel in January 1986.

The new name of the Mayflower had the virtue of referring to Southampton’s historic role as the starting point for the Pilgrim Fathers’ voyage to America in 1620.

It re-opened with a production of Peter Pan in February 1987.

Christmas 1987 saw Babes in the Wood with comic Les Dawson attracting 65,000 people. Les described Southampton as being “like Liverpool but with ‘O’ levels”.

The highest ever attendance at a Mayflower pantomime was when 126,256 people saw Dick Whittington in 1994.

In 1990, the producers of the musical 42nd Street decided to tour the full London production, doing away with the previous practice of touring a cut-down version and it was a success. The Phantom of The Opera has the all time record attendance of 185,000.

A new foyer was added in 2013 and in 2018 a major refurbishment project meant all of the seats in the stalls and circle were replaced with 1,659 new, wider ones. The refreshed Mayflower Theatre was opened on September 26, 2018.

Then in 2020 the Covid 19 virus changed everything for the entertainment industry with shows now suspended for at least the rest of the year.

Martin Brisland is a tour guide with SeeSouthampton.co.uk .