John Henry Saville ~ Perth Theatre and Opera House

John Henry Saville (real name Sparrow) was born into an East Anglian family of landowners and bankers. His father was a Norwich solicitor who he followed into the law profession. However, this career was short-lived and Saville soon became involved in the theatrical world. He became manager of the Theatre Royal in Sheffield, later manager of the Compton Comedy Company and eventually the owner of Paisley Theatre.

On 6 September 1900, he took over the lease (14 years) on the new Perth Theatre and Opera House (an opera house that had been opened at the corner of Tay Street and Canal Street had proved a short-lived enterprise) that had opened off the High Street, opposite the general post office. The first performance at the new theatre was Wallace’s evergreen Opera Maritana by J.W. Turner’s world-renowned opera company. Tickets were priced from 2/6 to 6d. The theatre was packed that night. Perth Theatre was designed by William Alexander of Dundee and the foundation stone laid by the famous actor, George Alexander. After the first night’s performance, Saville addressed the audience:

“Support your own Theatre”

“Let them remember that a good play was like taking a wholesome draught from a golden cup embossed with gems”

Amongst the plays performed at the theatre over the years are included a notable performance of George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman. (This play contains an explicit articulation of a major Shavian theme: man is the spiritual creator, whereas woman is the biological “life force” that must always triumph over him. A hilarious cocktail of Victorian farce and Nietzschean philosophy, Man and Superman inverts the myth of Don Juan to portray “the tragi-comic love chase of the man by the woman.” John Tanner, an earnest young revolutionary, flees to the Sierra Nevada when he discovers that his beautiful ward has plans to marry him. Captured by a band of international brigands, Tanner eventually falls asleep, and dreams up a sparkling Shavian debate between Don Juan, the Devil, and a rather talkative statue. With a fairytale ending and a cast fresh from hell, Man and Superman is one of Shaw’s finest and most devilishly witty comedies.)

And, amongst the actors that performed at the theatre are included: Mrs Patrick Campbell; Iris Hoey; Bromley Challonor; Edna Best; Ena Grossmith; Connie Ediss; Gerald Ames; E. Terry and, Esme Percy. During his time in Perth, John Henry Saville and his family resided in a villa near the city centre: 3 Graham’s Place, King Street.

On 28 April 1924, fire destroyed the upper sections of the theatre (the Dress circle and Upper Circle were completely gutted, as was the flooring of the Gallery). The first person to spot the fire was a Mr. Halvor Boyd of 181 High Street who raised the alarm. At the same time, George Cushnie a well-known local footballer passing by saw the flames and ran to the Fire Station to call out the Brigade. The subsequent performances (The Yellow Ticket with R. Gill-McLeay and Peggy Taber was playing at the time) were transferred to the Perth City Hall. The fire most likely caused by a cigarette caused around £5,000 worth of damage. Saville nearly died in the fire trying to rescue papers from his office. The theatre was restored and reopened on 22 September 1924. It reopened with a classic performance of When Knights Were Bold starring Bromley Challoner and Enid Cooper.

The fire had affected Saville’s health and he passed away in his sleep at Bournemouth Hydro on Wednesday 19 July 1924, aged 67. His health had been failing for the last three years but had been compounded by the partial destruction of his beloved theatre in Perth. His wife and daughter Winifred took over the theatre, the former as proprietor and the latter as manager. Winifred ran the theatre until 1935 when she put it up for sale and retired to Torquay. Despite lucrative offers, she was determined to hold out until a suitable theatrical owner was found. It re-opened as a theatre on 23 September 1935.