The Greatest Little Model Theatre – Royal Opera House in Miniature

Love the idea of a model theatre? Me too. I’ve been fascinated with them since childhood. This post is about one very special one in particular.

Scale Theatre Model or Children’s Toy?

Miniature theatres tend to fall into two categories.

First, there’s the look-but-don’t-touch varieties. The intricate, scale models you find in museums and exhibitions around the world, assembled by professionals. Fascinating to study, these replica opera houses and theatres are often wonderfully detailed. They might even have stage lighting or actual draping curtains. If you’re anything like me, your fingers will itch to recreate the dramatic moments of history with miniature actors on their stages. But instead all you can do is look on in admiration, tinged with disappointment at not being able to take them home.

Victorian toy theater figures to cut out
Figures from a vintage toy theatre by Benjamin Pollock (credit: Wikimedia)

On the other hand, there are the cardboard model theatres, the ones you get to put together yourself. Maybe you had one as a kid.

Some are cute and colourful creations, some slightly more sophisticated. Many don’t worry too much about scale, especially those designed as self-assembly toys. Fun and educational, some let you change backdrops and move cut-out figures across the stage.

Others focus on the architecture. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London is a popular model kit for children (and interested adults to learn more about this unique, historic venue).

Even if you’re lucky enough to own a vintage wooden theatre model, such as children played with in the Victorian era, these were also often quite simple — it was part of their charm.

The cardboard theatres from the era, most famously those by Benjamin Pollock, haven’t survived as well as the wooden ones. You can see though from the illustration above that the miniature actors for these models were lively and detailed! Pollock’s Toy Theatre Shop was in Hoxton, London, and famously advertised its wares as ‘a penny plain, tuppence coloured’. (Here’s an excellent blog post on Pollock’s toy theatres from Spitalfields Life.)

Make your own World of the Theatre — a Cut Out and Assemble Model Book

Once upon a time, there was a different kind of model theatre. One that combined the best of both categories: the make-it-yourself fun of the cut-out toy with the detail and wonder of a real scale model. One that let you own and play with a replica of an actual opera house, with all of its details faithfully reproduced.

Make your own World of the Theatre book
The model theatre book from the 1980s

To rediscover it, we have to take a trip back through the decades to 1982. It was in this year that Make your own World of the Theatre was published.

Maybe you remember it, or maybe you weren’t even born then (there you go, making me feel old!). It was a paperback book, the same width and just under the height of an A4 piece of paper. On the glossy cover was a photo of the stage of a replica opera house, with the miniature singers and sets of a production La Bohème. The sturdy pages (thin card, not paper) together came to a satisfying 1.5 cm or 5/8″ thick, and 142 in number.

Flick past a few instructional pages and you had page after page of full-colour theatre pieces. All to scale and ready to cut out with a craft knife or scissors. All you needed then was some clear glue, and you could assemble an impressive replica of the stage of London’s historic Royal Opera House.

The completed model measured 25cm high (just under 10 inches), 27.5cm wide and 29cm deep. It included an orchestra pit and boxes printed with figures representing the audience in evening-wear.

I don’t know how old exactly I was when I came into possession of this wonderful book. A pre-teen, at any rate. Likely it mostly found its way into the hands of children of my age or a little older. But, while the illustrators behind it did create model books for children, you couldn’t call Make your own World of the Theatre a children’s book. And, though the resulting model could be (carefully) played with by changing out sets and backdrops, it wasn’t a toy.

I think this was what was so special about it, from my child’s point of view. There was nothing dumbed-down or simplified. Creative kids with plenty of patience and a passion for theatres or model-making could enjoy it, but so could adults.

Stage Your Own Opera (La Bohème) and Ballet (Sleeping Beauty)

Making the theatre model was only the beginning. The rest of Make your own World of Theatre contained the sets and performers to cut out and put together for an opera and for a ballet.

The opera was La Bohème. Four sections devoted to this gave you the scenery and performers for the four acts of the opera. The attic scene and street scenes of the Latin Quarter in Paris were all included.

For the ballet, we had The Sleeping Beauty. A prologue and four acts took you from Princess Aurora’s christening, complete with evil fairy Carabosse and her rat attendants, through to the Rose Adagio, then the forest scene, the Awakening, and finally the grand wedding scene complete with fairytale characters.

What made it so special was the loving detail put into everything. Each card figure is only an inch high, but you can see the embroidery on tutus, flower garlands on heads, and even a hint of expression on each tiny face.

A figure from a cut-out Sleeping Beauty scene for a model theater
Detail on Carabosse (I added the glitter)

Model Theatre Artists Rosemary Lowndes and Claude Kaïler

 

Make Your own World of the Theatre - completed model theater
The completed model Royal Opera House

The artist-illustrators behind this project were Rosemary Lowndes and Claude Kaïler. Sadly these talented ladies are no longer with us.

 

Together, Lowndes and Kaïler created a number of cut out and assemble children’s books:

  • Make your own World of Christmas
  • Make your own Noah’s Ark
  • A World of Costumes in Cutout
  • Make your own Victorian House

Of these, the first three were more for younger children. The Victorian House one (which I also owned) was a much simpler project than the theatre, though still full of charming detail.

Cheshire-born artist Rosemary Lowndes was a familiar face to the dancers and the singers of the Royal Opera House prior to her death in 2001. Among others, she painted Dame Darcy Bussell. You can see some of Rosemary’s work here.

Claude Kaïler was (to the best of my knowledge) a Frenchwoman, and was an accomplished illustrator and cartoonist. She passed away in 2017.

Assembling the Replica Opera House Model

Though Make your own World of the Theatre seemed aimed at adults and capable teens, I suspect more youngsters than adults ended up with it. What with the association with the children’s titles from these authors, and the model-making concept, it was probably seen (wrongly) as a kids’ book.

Lucky us! And fortunately it wasn’t beyond the ability of a patient pre-teen to put it together. Actually, I suspect having small and nimble fingers was an asset.

It did need a lot of patience, the base theatre model was in places tricky to assemble. There’s a couple of sections where the thin card has to create a curve for the Proscenium Arch. This, I’d say, was the hardest part. Plus making the complete opera house involves lots of fiddly cutting, scoring and folding. One sloppy cut and off went someone’s head!

But what a feeling of achievement! After many afternoons of sitting in the sun, glue on my fingers, I had not only a full replica of Covent Garden’s famous opera house. I also had a complete four-act opera and five-act ballet.

 

Coming Full Circle (A Royal Opera House From the Royal Opera House)

This is where it gets a bit meta. You might be wondering how come, all these years on, I was able to photograph the Lowndes and Kailer model theatre. No, I didn’t manage to keep it perfectly preserved all those years. It was nothing more than a memory. Until last year.

It was only fitting that, after all these years, when I finally got to a ballet at the Royal Opera House in London it would be The Sleeping Beauty. Yes, the same one I’d recreated in paper as a child, though with its 2017 dancers, costumes and set design. At long last, I sat before — and stood on — that very same stage.

Sleeping Beauty Ballet set for model opera house
Assembling the Sleeping Beauty ballet set

The story gets more magical still. When talking to one of the Royal Ballet company members, I mentioned my childhood theatre. It turned out our dancer friend not only knew what I was talking about (and remembered its co-creator Rosemary) but had owned and created the same model.

A few weeks later, a surprise package arrived at the door, sent from the Royal Opera House. It was a copy of the long out of print Make your own World of the Theatre. Some 30 years old and still in great condition, every page intact, just waiting for me to put it together. So, of course, I did.

Now (with huge thanks to my kind benefactor) I once again have a miniature Royal Opera House that I can admire every day.

Know Someone Who’d Like to Make a Model of London’s Famous Theatre?

For so many years, I thought I’d never again find a copy of the book that contains the pieces for this beautiful model theatre. It turns out, as our friend at the ROH knew, there are still some used copies out there. You just need to know the book’s title and author names. But as those were the two things I’d forgotten, I hadn’t been able to find it. That’s why I wanted to share the information in this post, to let you track down your own copy of Make your own World of the Theatre.

I was impressed by the condition of mine, allowing for its age. I’m optimistic you’ll be as fortunate — any damage over time only affects the edges of pages, so with luck the theatre pieces and figures will be pristine. Just be sure before you begin it that you weren’t sent a version with any pages missing, as you will want them all.

Despite a couple of tricky parts and the need to be careful with your scissors (I recommend using a sharp craft knife), it’s a relaxing project. Definitely follow the book’s recommendation of clear glue, I experimented and that didn’t go so well. All’s well that end’s well though!

Depending on where you’re located, you might find abebooks.com a useful place to start, with the following search for Lowndes and Kailer.

If you get yourself a copy and make your own theatre, I’d love to know!

A PTQ of the Model Theatre Assembly

 

An animation showing the assembly of the model theatre