Radio City Opera House

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Radio City Outside

The Radio City Opera House was inaugurated with a grand carnival dance just as the Second World War ended. It was built by Mr Charles Schembri with an investment of $100.000 on the Ħamrun main road, a few hundred yards west of Blata l-Bajda.

It was well suited for the staging of operas, especially after the Royal Opera House in Valletta was bombed, serving its purpose for around twenty years. From its stage many a Maltese singer launched an opera career. The first operatic presentation was Cavalleria Rusticana organized by an Maltese Amateur Theatrical Company on the 22nd February 1945.

After that came Lucia di Lamermoor, La Boheme, La Traviata and I Pagliacci. Next year, the repertoire consisted of 12 operas which were: Rigoletto, Tosca, Carmen, Fedora, Madame Butterfly, Werther, La Boheme, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, I Pagliacci, Il Matrimonio Segreto and L'Elisir d'Amore. The singers were all Maltese and were Mary La Rosa, Aida Sammut, Alice Tonna, Mary Grima, Gemma Fsadni, Jane Buttigieg de Piro, Joe Zammit Harrison, Arthur Galea, Lino Farrugia, Anthony Cini, Paul Asciak who progressed to international fame. Some others did the rounds of Maltese festas both inside and outside the parish churches. Joe Bezzina, George Ross, Anthony Vella, Walter Cachia, Emanuel Zammit Ross and Frank Bonello.

The theatre very soon became a popular venue for opera, operetta, variety concerts, drama and carnival balls. The 1946 - 1947 season saw the amalgamation of the three Maltese opera companies giving 17 operas among which La Sonnambula, Faust, Don Pasquale, Andrea Chenier, L'Amico Fritz, Manon Lescaut, and La Favorita being new for the theatre.

Radio City Ball in 1990

The 1947 - 1948 season saw no operas performed by Maltese amateur singers and in a way this was better for many of them went overseas to try their luck.

1948 was the year of the Operetta with the Italian Operetta Company Citta di Milano coming to Malta presenting Madame di Tebe, Primrosa, La danza delle Libellule, Il paese dei Campanelli, Scugnizza, and La Donna Perduta. The next year, the Italian impresario Luigi Cantoni was given permitted to bring over an Italian Opera Company to perform at the Radio City and during the next ten years there were various opera seasons by Italian Opera Companies and some 37 different operas were performed.

Here one must consider the many famous singers who performed at the theatre, among whom were Anselmo Colzani, Gino Bechi , Elena Rizzieri, Afro Poli, Gino Mattera and Angelo Lo Forese. With these we must also mention the debuts of some Maltese singers like Paul Asciak, Oreste Kirkop, John Lopez and Giuseppe Satariano who were later to make names for themselves in Italy, England and the United States.

In 1953, Mr Joseph Schembri was again the owner of the theatre, but in 1955 the theatre became the property of Baldacchino Brothers. In 1974 it became the property of Mr.Sunny Baldacchino. During this time, the theatre served as a cinema and as time went on, activities held there became fewer and fewer. The name was also changed to Radio City Hall when operas were no longer performed.

In 1955 Passion Pageants were held there by the Malta Drama League with actor George Portelli performing the part of Jesus Christ for many years.

In 1957, the theatre became the venue for the comedy It-Tieġ ta’ Karmena Abdilla (Karmena Abdilla’s wedding), a Charles Clews comedy performed for an unbeatable record number of times.

In 1959, the Ħamrun Choir in its peak days, presented its first Oratorio in this theatre. The production of the Oratorio Messiah by G F Handel was directed by the founder of the choir Dun Ġużepp Cachia, making the Ħamrun choir the first all Maltese group to present the Oratorio.

Radio City interior

On 5 November 1960 the final of the first edition of the Malta Song Festival organized by the Maltese section of Żgħażagħ Ħaddiema Insara (Young Christian Workers) was held in the theatre. It was transmitted on Rediffusion and won by singer Joe Grech with his song Vola Uccellino. In this edition the only song in Maltese was L-Għada tal-Festa with lyrics and music by Joseph Ciappara but this song, did not reach with the finals.

On the 14, 15 and 16 December 1961, the same Żgħażagħ Ħaddiema Nsara organized the first Festival Ta’ Kanzunetti Maltin (Festival Of Maltese Songs) at the Radio City. The contest was won by Terry L. Bencini together with the Four Links with the song Madonnina Omm Ġesu lyrics and music by John B. Cassar

Around 1974 when interest in Opera began to wane, the theatre became the property of Mr. Sunny Baldacchino who turned it into a cinema. It was even used for wrestling and boxing matches for a while and as time went on, activities held there became fewer and fewer.

Nowadays the Radio City Opera House exists only as an old facade on the main road and in the memory of many who were entertained or took part in celebrations within its walls. The Labour Party headquarters now takes its place after being demolished in 1992. Its old front door has become the entrance to the headquarters' main auditorium.