Sunderland’s Lost Stage: The Kings Theatre of Crowtree Road, and its Connection to Laurel and Hardy

Once upon a time, Sunderland had two large theatres.

While we revere the Empire Theatre as being one of the best in the North East, as well as appreciating the smaller Sunderland Royalty Theatre, there was once a time where Sunderland in fact had many theatres. This is because in the early 20th century, when there was no television and no internet, it was much more common to go to a theatre or cinema for entertainment. As a result, the 1920s and 30s in particular brought a boom in venues.

As a result, there were many such venues in Sunderland which did not survive to the present day. In this article, we explore the Kings Theatre, which was based on Crowtree Road on what is now the site of the former Leisure Centre (Bring Back Crowtree, says Neil).

Opening in the year 1906, the Kings Theatre was owned and created by two Scotsmen, Robbie Buchanan and Ernest Stevens. With a capacity of 2300 seats, it was designed to be a variety theatre, hosting a variety of different performances, acts, as well as screening films. Its first performance was on Christmas Eve, with a pantomime showing of “Little Red Riding Hood”.

In 1915, the Kings Theatre became famous as one of the first venues in the world to show Kinemacolor films, which were some of the earliest pictures in colour ever produced. But not only that, it became a stomping ground for one of the most famous early on screen characters of all time, Stan Laurel from Laurel and Hardy.

Born as Arthur Stanley Jefferson, it may be easy to “assume” he was American given such is where is mostly associated with, but he was in fact English. Originally from Lancashire, his father was from Bishop Auckland and as such he went to school in County Durham. With his father an actor, he followed him into theatre and as such performed in local venues, chiefly the Kings Theatre in Sunderland. His sister reportedly lived in Roker.

Of course, Laurel eventually moved on to America, but what happened to the Kings Theatre? The answer is the same one which happened to many glorious pre-war buildings and structures in Sunderland, death by Nazi Germany. In 1943, the theatre was bombed and after the war in a changing world, ultimately demolished by 1954. 23 years later, Crowtree Leisure Centre was built on the site.