The Gaiety Theatre was built in 1899 to the designs of architect Frank Matcham as an opera house and theatre. Along with neighbouring venue the Villa Marina, the Gaiety Theatre stands on land which was once part of a grand Regency estate.
A theatre was originally built in 1893 at the height of the Island's tourism boom to the design of John Rennison (architect of the Sefton Hotel in Douglas) and commissioned by Thomas Lightfoot (who was the originator of the Douglas Horse tramway) and C.F. Maley who owned the plot. It was then known as The Marina. Six months after opening, the aforementioned consortium was declared bankrupt and it was bought out of auction and renamed The Pavilion.
The Pavilion was owned by Richard Maltby Broadbent, who was the entrepreneur of Groudle Glen, the Groudle Glen Railway and later the Douglas Head Incline Railway. The idea was that The Pavilion would match the theatres and dance halls at other popular tourist resorts such as Blackpool and attract a similar level of tourists. However, the venture was not a success, and The Pavilion closed after just six seasons following which Broadbent sold the land to the Palace and Derby Castle Company Ltd.
On the 9th December 1899 a notice in the ERA Newspaper announced the construction of the newly named Gaiety Theatre by the Palace and Derby Castle Company Ltd. They commissioned renowned Theatre architect Frank Matcham to convert the narrow shell of The Pavilion into an Opera House and Theatre.
The Gaiety Theatre opened on the 16th of July 1900. It enjoyed considerable success, particularly in the Edwardian era until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Despite various attempts to make it a commercial success after that and particularly in the years following the Second World War there was a period of structural deterioration, to such an extent that by 1970 the theatre came close to being demolished. Fortunately, that was avoided when the Manx Government purchased the building in 1971.
In 1976 restoration began to return the building to as near to its original appearance as possible, choosing the original paint colours, wallpaper, and carpeting to replicate its 1900 opening condition. The stage machinery in the theatre is amongst the most complete and unusual in any theatre in the world. Built at the end of the Victorian era, one of the traps, known as a 'Corsican Trap’, is now unique in the world, being the only surviving example. The Theatre is today considered one of Frank Matcham's finest surviving Theatres.
In 2000, one hundred years after opening, on 16 July 2000, the centenary was celebrated with a performance of "The Telephone Girl" which opened the Gaiety in 1900.
It is said, however, that some of those who loved the theatre in their lifetime continue to return after their passing. It is not unusual for a theatre to claim that it is visited by ghosts and the Gaiety is no different. Home to at least four ghosts, there is the lone man who has been seen sitting in one of the boxes and then at some point gets up and disappears through the wall. There is a woman dressed in black who walks in the shadows of the stairways and corridors. Then there is an unseen ghost described by some as the 'helping hands'. Who waits in the wings to hand props to actors or gently guide them onto the stage. Probably the most famous is the 'Lady in seat B14'. Claimed to have been seen by many and described as an elderly lady who sits and watches the performances, or just appears for sections that she is interested in. Some say she lost her husband in the First World War and often the seat B14 is left vacant to accommodate her should she wish to visit.
The Villa Marina was built as a private residence called Marina Lodge in 1806. It has been used over the years as a school and a home for the island's lieutenant governor in 1861, Francis Piggot.
The Villa Marina Kursaal was first opened as an entertainment complex by the Lieutenant Governor, Lord Raglan in July 1913. In his opening speech the island's Lieutenant Governor, Lord Raglan said the building would "provide for a better class of holidaymaker". The facility was to cater for the Isle of Man's booming tourist industry, which during 1913, attracted more than 500,000 visitors. The initial entertainment line-up included some of the biggest stars of the day including Australian singer Dame Nellie Melba and English music hall comedian George Robey.
In 1914 after the declaration of war against Germany and her Allies, the Kursaal part of the Villa's name (which means health spa in German) was dropped after being deemed unpatriotic.
After the war, the building was used to welcome home the island's war heroes and in 1919 a reception was held for 100 officers and men from the island who had been decorated for bravery.
During the years between the wars the island regained its status as a popular tourist destination and dancing in the Villa Marina Royal Hall became a popular pastime for many and with the outbreak, World War II the centre became a venue for fundraising events aimed at helping Manx soldiers and their families.
The post-war period was a lucrative one for the Isle of Man which was soon, once again, welcoming hundreds of thousands of tourists but with the advent of cheap European travel, the centre was forced to reinvent itself.
It changed hands in 2000 when the complex was taken over by the Isle of Man government.
It was then restored and reopened in 2004.