AS the Mayflower Theatre prepares to draw back the curtains on its first live show in15 months, the Echo looks back at how the playhouse wound itself into the fabric of modern-day local society.

The doors originally opened to a new theatre on Commercial Road almost a century ago, and with it an entrance to a new world of entertainment for Southampton and the South was unearthed.

The Empire Theatre opened on December 22, 1928, and a venue on that spot has entertained the masses ever since Despite having the same name, the theatre is not known to have been connected to the Empire Theatre on French Street – a cinema that burnt down in the early 1920s.

The first show was the musical play Winona starring Derek Oldham and Winnie Melville. The show wasn’t particularly well received and was quickly replaced by The Vagabond King, a play that proved to be far more popular.

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Cinema super-star Gracie Fields appeared in the revue The Show’s The Thing early in the theatre’s existence. The cast included her husband Archie Pitt, brother Tommy Fields and brother-in-law, Dougie Wakefield.

Major disruption to train travel during the Second World War made it difficult for theatrical companies to travel and transport equipment across the country. Consequently, the war-weary public was instead entertained by films and variety shows.

While Southampton lay ravaged by bombing in 1942, the Empire Theatre, which had been acquired by the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation but still kept its original name, presented entertainment to maximum capacity audiences.

The shows undoubtedly offered a form of escapism to an audience that was fraught with worry during those dark days. It was, in its own way, a saviour to the people.

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In 1945, a young Julie Andrews was introduced to the stage by her parents Ted and Barbara Andrews. She was just 10 years old at the time and had to stand on a box in order to join her father at the microphone. She was said to have sung beautifully.

In 1950 the theatre was renamed the Gaumont and they held their first full-scale musical show, Annie Get Your Gun with Peggy Powell starring in the title role. Performances ran for a fortnight - selling out every night.

The queues were so big the cash taken for tickets had to be loaded into sacks and locked in one of the cells at the Civic Centre police station.

Many other big names performed in the fifties, including Laurel and Hardy, Ella Fitzgerald, Margot Fonteyn and Tony Hancock.

Daily Echo: Heritage. Gaumont Theatre, Southampton. (The Mayflower 1950-1986).

The laughter echoed around the auditorium as audiences watched big names in comedy such as Larry Grayson, Frankie Howard, Bruce Forsyth, Harry Secombe and Morecambe and Wise.

Then came pop music, as the venue played host to some of the biggest acts around the world. These included The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Rod Stewart, The Beach Boys, Buddy Holly and Queen. Then there was Jimi Hendrix, Genesis, Cliff Richard, Roy Orbison, Led Zeppelin and many, many more.

The Gaumont also hosted the biggest band of all time – The Beatles.

Beatlemania gripped the venue on three separate occasions – twice in 1963 and once in 1964.

Daily Echo: Fans of Bob Dylan get comfortable outside the Gaumont Theatre (now the Mayflower) so that they can net themselves some tickets for the show. 6th May 1978. THE SOUTHERN DAILY ECHO ARCHIVES. HAMPSHIRE HERITAGE SUPPLEMENT. Ref: 50g.

Big names in sport also played a large role in the Gaumont’s popularity, with satellite relays of world championship boxing matches and wrestling bouts.

Even a week-long squash tournament was held on the stage.

The Rank Organisation put forward a proposal to Southampton Council in 1982 to turn the theatre into a bingo hall. This application was rejected and the Department of Environment awarded a Grade II listing.

The last performance at the Gaumont was Southern Theatre Productions’ amateur production of Carousel.

The Gaumont closed for major redevelopment in January 1986, reopening as The Mayflower in February 1987 with a fun production of Peter Pan.

Daily Echo: Mayflower Theatre.

Shortly after the grand opening, on March 15, 1987, The Pogues played a concert that went on to shape the future of the venue.

As concertgoers were told they couldn’t dance in the isles they began to dance on the new seats, breaking many of them off their hinges.

This forced organisers to think twice about booking any music acts that could potentially lead to excited fans dancing and causing damage.

The Mayflower underwent refurbishment in 2003 to improve the stage and disabled access. In 2013 the foyer underwent a massive overhaul.

Daily Echo: General shot of the inside of Mayflower Theatre. August 25, 1988. THE SOUTHERN DAILY ECHO ARCHIVES. HAMPSHIRE HERITAGE SUPPLEMENT..

Another redevelopment took place in 2018, this time to improve seating and to bring a new colour scheme to the auditorium. The front of house sections was also repainted to blend seamlessly with the change from green to royal red and gold.

Some say the theatre is haunted by the ghost of an old man sitting backstage in a wicker chair – rather apt considering the Ghost The Musical is returning to the stage this September.

And from one apparition to another – The Phantom of the Opera enjoys the all-time record attendance at the venue when 185,000 attendees visited in 2000, while the most popular pantomime was in 1994 when 126,256 people descended upon the theatre to watch Dick Whittington.

Made so much money that cash needed to be stored in the civic centre.