The National Theatre was a public theatre used for performances, concerts and conferences that was situated at the corner of Clemenceau Avenue and River Valley Road. Built to commemorate Singapore's achievement of self-government in 1959, it was also known as the “People’s Theatre” as members of the public had contributed towards the theatre’s building fund through various fundraising activities.1 Despite being only partially completed, the National Theatre was used as the venue for the opening premiere of the first Southeast Asian Cultural Festival in 1963.2 The theatre closed in 1984 after being declared structurally unsafe and was eventually demolished in 1986 to make way for the construction of an expressway.3
Plans to build an open-air theatre for the cultural entertainment of mass audiences in Singapore were first announced in early November 1959 by then Minister for Culture S. Rajaratnam.4 Rajaratnam declared that the National Theatre would be an affirmation of the people's will to build a national monument based on their loyalty to Singapore.5 The theatre would also serve to dispel the then prevailing myth of Singapore as a culturally backward nation where people were only interested in making money.6
A committee was appointed on 10 January 1960 to oversee the planning of the National Theatre. Chaired by Rajaratnam, the committee comprised the following members: J. G. Dowsett (Institute of Architects, Malaya), Ong Eng Hung (Society of Malayan Architects), Kee Yeap (Singapore Polytechnic), Lionel de Rosario and Tsao Hsien Hwa (both Ministry of National Development), Frank Howard (Radio Singapore ), and Yap Yan Hong and G. Seow Kai Hean (both Ministry of Culture).7
The government eventually decided that the establishment of the National Theatre would be a joint endeavour involving the participation of every section of the local population.8 The campaign to raise funds for the building of the theatre was launched during National Loyalty Week, which was held between 3 and 10 December 1959. Funds were raised through the sale of concert tickets as well as half a million souvenir cards commemorating Loyalty Week.9
On 9 December 1959, a plaque was unveiled by then Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof bin Ishak at Kallang Park, which was the initial proposed site of the National Theatre. Engraved on the plague in Malay and Chinese were the words: "This is the site for the proposed National Theatre to be built in commemoration of National Loyalty Week".10 Donations for the National Theatre Fund came from people from all walks of life and were solicited through various donation drives, most notably the "a-dollar-a-brick" campaign.11 The theatre became known as the “Peoples' Theatre” as the majority of the fundraising work was carried out by public-spirited persons and voluntary organisations and the general public had responded by contributing generously to the fund.12 In April 1960, the government decided to move the site of the proposed National Theatre from Kallang Park to the King George V Park facing Clemenceau Avenue as the ground at the latter site was found to be firmer.13
National Theatre Trust
A bill to form a body known as the National Theatre Trust was published on 28 October 1960 and passed on 16 November 1960.14 The board was tasked with administering the theatre so as to stimulate the growth and appreciation of the arts and thereby foster a Malayan culture and identity among the people. It also took over management of the National Theatre Fund, which had until then been held by the government in trust for the public.15 On 18 January 1961, the Minister for Culture appointed the Board of Trustees for the National Theatre Trust. The board comprised chairman Lee Khoon Choy, who was then parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Culture, as well as members Zubir Said, K. P. Bhaskar, Liu Hsue Ying, Ng Aik Huan, Wee Kim Wee, P. Abisheganaden, Liao Sung-Yang, Liew Yung Ho, Othman Wok, and the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Culture.16 By then, the National Theatre Fund had collected about $626,000.17
The theatre, initially estimated to cost $500,000, was slated to be an architecturally distinctive cultural centre catering to local conditions and practical requirements. Through an architectural competition, the design by local architect Alfred H. K. Wong was eventually adopted.18 His design featured an open-air auditorium with a cantilever roof. The supporting wall for the roof had five vertical diamond-shaped bays that formed the distinctive frontage of the National Theatre. The theatre also featured a magnificent 150-tonne cantilevered steel roof overhanging an open-air auditorium with a seating capacity of 3,420.19 In addition, the theatre included a stage with a 50-ft (15.2 m) diameter revolving platform and ample provisions for dressing rooms and storage space.20
Opening and completion
The National Theatre opened on 8 August 1963, despite only being partially completed, for use as the venue for the opening ceremony of the first Southeast Asia Cultural Festival. This eight-day event was billed as "the greatest show in the East".21 Comprising 1,500 artists from 11 Asian countries, the festival included acts by Cambodian princesses and Hong Kong film stars, as well as an open-air show on the steps of City Hall where the crowd was so great that VIP seats were swept aside in the crush.22
Construction of the theatre was eventually completed in 1964 with the final cost estimated at $2.2 million. Total public contributions for the theatre came to around $856,000 with the government covering the shortfall.23 On 15 May 1964, the keys to the theatre were officially handed over to Minister for Culture S. Rajaratnam. In 1965, a fountain designed by the Public Works Department was built then opened by Deputy Prime Minister Dr Toh Chin Chye on 1 May 1966, Labour Day. This was part of a programme to beautify Singapore with fountains. The crescent-shaped bowl of the fountain in front of the five diamond frontage of the National Theatre led to it being seen as representing the National Flag’s crescent moon and five stars.24
During its years of operation between 1963 and 1984, the National Theatre was the venue of many important events and performances, including the annual National Day rallies (1966–1982) and university convocations.25 The theatre was also graced by the Russian Bolshoi Ballet, the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, the Louis Armstrong Jazz Band, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Woody Herman & His Thundering Herd, Johnny Mathis, Shirley Bassey, The Bee Gees, the Hollies, the Walker Brothers, the Yardbirds and Herman's Hermits, among other famous artistes and performing groups.26
The National Theatre closed on 16 January 1984 as it was deemed not to be structurally safe.27 The decision was made to demolish the building to make way for a flyover along Clemenceau Avenue that was to become part of the Central Expressway. The authorities came to the conclusion that the construction of the elevated eight-lane expressway would cause noise and pollution, thus rendering the theatre unsuitable for stage performances.28 Moreover, the theatre had been incurring substantial maintenance costs while at the same time experiencing declining usage as it lacked modern facilities such as air-conditioning and padded seats.29 In February 1986, the office of the National Theatre Trust moved to the Kallang Theatre, thus making way for demolition works at the National Theatre.30
Zhi Wei & Kartini Saparudin
1. Tommy Koh et al., eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Heritage Board, 2006), 374 (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS]); “National Theatre for S’pore,” Singapore Free Press, 9 November 1959, 1. (From NewspaperS)
2. Peter H. L. Lim, ed., Chronicle of Singapore: Fifty Years of Headline News 1959–2009 (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Library Board, 2009), 187. (Call no. RSING 959.5705 CHR-[HIS])
3. “National Theatre Will Be No More,” Straits Times, 28 January 1984, 19; “Curtains for a Dame: The National Theatre Will Be All Gone Within Weeks,” Straits Times, 21 July 1986, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
4. “National Theatre for S’pore.”
5. “Keep Up the Spirit of Loyalty and Unity – Mr. R,” Straits Times, 10 December 1959, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Peter de Cruz, “'Make Loyalty Week a Success',” Straits Times, 22 November 1959, 7; “'We Want to Explode This Myth' – Mr. R,” Straits Times, 21 January 1960, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
7. “National Theatre: Architects, Experts Invited to Help,” Singapore Free Press, 11 December 1959, 5; “National Theatre Planning Board Named,” Straits Times, 10 January 1960, 9; “National Theatre Committee,” Singapore Free Press, 14 January 1960, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Legislative Assembly, Singapore, Second Reading of the National Theatre Trust Bill, vol. 13 of Debates: Official Report, 16 November 1960, col. 855. (Call no. RCLOS 328.5957 SIN)
9. “Loyalty Week: National Theatre Fund Launched,” Straits Times, 21 November 1959, 16; “500,000 Souvenir Cards for L-Week,” Straits Times, 27 November 1959, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
10. “Keep Up the Spirit of Loyalty and Unity.”
11. “Theatre ‘Brick Sale’ Is On,” Straits Times, 21 February 1961, 4; “National Theatre: The First Step,” Straits Times, 21 March 1961, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Koh et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 374; “National Theatre Draft Plan Will Be Ready Soon: Public Is Praised,” Straits Times, 11 April 1960, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “A New Site for Singapore’s National Theatre,” Straits Times, 20 April 1960, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “Theatre Trust,” Straits Times, 29 October 1960, 5; “Theatre Bill,” Straits Times, 17 November 1960, 9 (From NewspaperSG); Legislative Assembly, Singapore, Second Reading of the National Theatre Trust Bill, col. 856.
15. Legislative Assembly, Singapore, Second Reading of the National Theatre Trust Bill, 856.
16. “Board for National Theatre,” Straits Times, 19 January 1961, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
17. “Theatre Fund Donations Now Total $626,053,” Straits Times, 14 January 1961, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
18. “To Decide Theatre Shape Soon,” Straits Times, 1 February 1960, 4; “National Theatre: This Is How It Looks,” Straits Times, 11 September 1960, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
19. “Curtains for a Dame: The National Theatre Will Be All Gone Within Weeks, Straits Times, 21 July 1986, 9; “The Early 1960s,” Straits Times, 9 August 1984, 12 (From NewspaperSG); Koh et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 374; Alfred Wong Hong Kwok, Recollections of Life in an Accidental Nation (Singapore: Select Publishing, 2016), 35. (Call no. RSING 720.92 WON)
20. “National Theatre Is under Way,” Straits Times, 9 January 1961, 4 (From NewspaperSG); “This Is How It Looks.”
21. “‘Greatest Show in the East’ Opens in Singapore Today,” Straits Times, 8 August 1963, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Lim, Chronicle of Singapore, 187.
23. “$393,720 Approved Towards Theatre Cost,” Straits Times, 4 November 1964, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
24. “Keys of National Theatre,” Straits Times, 14 May 1964, 4; “National Theatre a Success: Raja,” Straits Times, 16 May 1964, 6; “A Third Fountain to Beautify Singapore,” Straits Times, 18 October 1995, 11; “A $140,000 Fountain to Be Opened By Toh on May Day,” Straits Times, 20 April 1966, 6 (From NewspaperSG); “Curtains for a Dame.”
25. Koh et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 374.
26. Shen Swee Yong, “The Tired Swan Will Pirouette to Life Tonight,” Straits Times, 23 July 1970, 1; “Sadler's Wells,” Straits Times, 10 September 1980, 8; “Satchmo Breezes In-Grin and All,” Straits Times, 3 December 1964, 20; “The King of Jazz Packed the Theatre,” Straits Times, 5 February 1972, 9; Rita Loong, “The Thundering Herd Stampedes into Town,” Straits Times, 13 October 1970, 24; Shen Swee Yong, “Johnny Mathis in With Twin Surprise,” Straits Times, 27 April 1970, 9; Cheong Yip Seng, “Teenagers' Pop Idol Bassey in Singapore to Sing and to Sleep,” Straits Times, 13 April 1965, 5; Gerry de Silva, “Turning On 3000 Fans,” Straits Times, 8 April 1972, 19; Gerry de Silva, “This Is Rock,” Straits Times, 20 February 1971, 4; “Walker Bros., Yardbirds Take Mob Precautions,” Straits Times, 11 January 1967, 4; “Teenagers Go Crazy as the Hermits Fly In,” Straits Times, 13 May 1966, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
27. Lim, Chronicle of Singapore, 187; “Curtains for a Dame.”
28. Chan Eng Cheng, “Curtains to Fall on National Theatre Soon,” Straits Times, 4 January 1984, 1 (From NewspaperSG); “National Theatre Will Be No More”; Straits Times, 28 January 1985, 19; “Part of Theatre May Be Preserved,” Straits Times, 17 March 1984, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
29. “A 'Cultural Gateway' on the Water Edge,” Straits Times, 22 January 1984, 19; Irene Hoe, “All That's Left of a Grand Old Dame,” Straits Times, 6 June 1986, 25. (From NewspaperSG)
30. “New Home for Theatre Trust,” Straits Times, 1 March 1986, 15; “Theatre for Demolition,” Straits Times, 21 March 1986, 15; “Curtains for a Dame.”
Norman Edwards and Peter Keys, Singapore: A Guide to Buildings, Streets, Places (Singapore: Times Books International, 1988), 235. (Call no. RSING 915.957 EDW-[TRA])
Ray Tyers and Siow Jin Hua, Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then & Now (Singapore: Landmark Books, 1993), 155. (Call no. RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS])
Yeo Gim Lay, “Theatre for the People, By the People,” Straits Times, 30 April 2005, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
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