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Wednesday, 28 August 2013

University of 3rd AgeUniversity of the Third Age: Hebden Bridge Little Theatre, A Short History

The Todmorden U3A August general meeting started on a sombre note as Vice-Chairman Jean Pearson announced the very recent death of Chairman David Cross. She and others paid tribute to David before the meeting proceeded to its usual business.

The mood changed as guest speaker Ray Riches brought "The History of Hebden Bridge Little Theatre" alive for members attending. This was Ray's third speaking visit and he did not disappoint as his talk, as well as being interesting, drew much laughter from his audience.

Next year the Little Theatre will be in its ninetieth year, having its origins in Hebden Bridge Literary and Scientific Society, founded in 1905. Ray likened it to Todmorden U3A in that it was founded to offer self-help education and some of the groups mirrored those of today's U3A. The play reading group got fed up with just reading plays and decided that they wanted to start a Drama Society to perform them. Not for the last time, there were some naysayers but there were enough members ready to go ahead. They decided to begin by putting on one comedy a year, starting with "The Walls of Jericho", which, Ray recounted, never saw the light of day again. Ray did not use notes but had old programmes, minute books and various other documents around which he built his story.

Their first venue was the Co-op Hall and they played to full houses. A theme running through this story is the search for a permanent home. One of a number of travails that were to be faced. One lesson was learned when Gogol's "The Government Inspector" failed to draw the audience numbers the Theatre had become accustomed to. Hebden Bridge people clearly wanted plays that were a bit closer to home.

The Picture House also saw productions mounted but there was nowhere to rehearse. In 1927, the Theatre struck a deal with Hebden Bridge Brass Band to share the band room at Calder Holmes. However, the band room had no chairs, so 100 were borrowed from the Grammar School which the cast had to cart over before each performance and then, whilst high on the success of the evening, had to cart back again. Back down to earth! Later the number of chairs increased to 200, to accommodate all those wishing to attend. They would perform for 10-12 nights, playing to full houses.

Entrance was by membership only and a strict regime was in place. Each member was on a mailing list and attendance was by invitation. However, acceptance was almost mandatory and payment was made by donation at the door. Woe betide those whose contribution was deemed insufficient. They would find that no more invitations were forthcoming. Likewise if more than two invitations per year were met with no response. The death of a member was the other eventuality by which those waiting to go on the mailing list might find themselves in receipt of the coveted invitation.

After a time some tip-up seats were acquired and a stage was built, and also a hut for a changing room. They also installed some steam pipes, so before then the place must have been very cold in winter. Uproar in the town ensued when Hebden Bridge Urban District Council announced its intention to convert Calder Holmes into a recreational area. Uproar failed to halt the council and with three month's notice, the Theatre was on the search for a home once again. All they had left was their changing hut. They went on the road for a while, performing in mills, schools and churches. They next secured a seven year lease on the downstairs of the Trades Club, where they built a theatre complete with proscenium arch and 300 seats. The first production was "Hail Nero", another play, Ray commented, for which no other production has since been recorded.

The years between 1937 to 1977 were the golden years for The Little Theatre, in Ray's words. Houses were always full and the takings for a production ran into thousands of pounds. Plate collections were stopped and numbered envelopes for donations were included with each member's invitation. When opened, each donation was recorded along with the relevant number. During the war, though many members were called up, casts could still be assembled and it was business as usual, even after air raid warnings had been sounded. The first one during a performance, led to an abandonment but at the shows thereafter, the curtain was lowered for five minutes after the warning was sounded to allow anyone who wished to, to leave. Then the performance was resumed.

In September 1945 life for the Theatre was more or less back to normal and matinees were put on for soldiers in the area. There were a thousand more applications for membership than seats available. The Theatre had a stroke of luck when the Council set out to buy some land necessary to make a public right of way from Calder Holmes to the canal. The bid was dropped, leaving the land to be purchased by the Theatre for what is now the patio and bar area.

By 1976, the Theatre faced another crisis. Audiences had plummeted and the Trades Club had decided to become an entertainments centre and gave the Theatre an ultimatum: pay more rent or leave. Lack of money forced a new search for a home upon the Theatre. Once again, some members had cold feet and counselled calling it a day. Those for carrying on prevailed and in 1977 the building next door to the Trades Club was bought and the Theatre went into the red. A 70-seat theatre on the present site emerged from that building.

Before it was ready, the Theatre went on the road again playing at the Picture House, the Birchcliffe Centre, Mytholmroyd Church amongst other venues. Once converted, "The Diary of Anne Frank" was produced and according to Ray, it is the Theatre's the most successful production. Alongside the canal, with ducks, a barge serving as a bar, audiences could believe they were in Amsterdam. But it was time to leave the building. This process was facilitated by a firework finding its way through the letterbox in November 1986. As well as the building, valuable old props, costumes as well as sets were lost in the resulting fire and the subsequent £3,000 insurance payout prompted a fund-raising campaign to raise enough money to build a new theatre.

The public were very supportive of this and the Theatre kept on mounting productions and did a church tour with "Ten Times Table". In 1993 the present building was opened and a series of events under the banner, "A Month in Spring" took place. These included music hall, a film night, Folk and Blues music and the artistic luminaries of Opera North and Northern Ballet also taking part. The new theatre opened with "Habeas Corpus". And now Ray reported, the theatre is more or less without debt.

Ray signed off with the touching story of 90 year-old Edna Hill, now resident in a Huddersfield care home. Edna was the secretary at the first meeting in Croft Street and was still active in the 30s when the Little Theatre logo was designed by James Henderson. Ray and his wife decided to visit Edna and took along a cloth version of this logo. On arrival at the home they were told by the staff that they hoped that Ray and his wife had not had a fruitless journey, as Edna rarely ventures downstairs, is virtually blind and is very deaf. Venture downstairs Edna did, and Ray held the logo in front of her. Ray said she uttered two words: "James Henderson".

The University of the Third Age meets in Todmorden on the third Thursday of every month. Find out all of its activities at www.u3atod.org.uk or phone 01706 814623.


Many thanks to John Bouttell for this report



Previous U3A reports on the HebWeb

HebWeb News: John Sheard, retired land agent to the Duke of Devonshire, gave his third talk to members of the U3A, this time on Sir Joseph Paxton, Knighted Gardener (26 July 2013)

HebWeb News: Off Stage Choices: Andrew Rawlinson recounts his theatre experience from Tod Operatic to General Manager of a leading Theatre Group. (18 July 2013)

HebWeb News: The Story of the Hebden Bridge Calendar (April 2013)

HebWeb News: Changing Times in the Press (March 2013)

HebWeb News: Cancer from Both Sides (Nov 2012)

HebWeb News: Steve Halliwell outlined the history of the Woodland Trust (Sept 2012)

HebWeb News: Ray Riches talks on Walking the Pacific Crest Trail (Aug 2012)

HebWeb News: Pitch and Pythagoras - Pulse and Prison (July 2012)

HebWeb News - Lord Shutt explains the workings of the House of Lords (May 2012)

HebWeb News - Claire Benedict talks acting to Todmorden U3A (April 2012)

HebWeb News - Kate Moreton-Deakin spoke about her day job as Associate Director - Corporate Social Responsibility with Calderdale and Huddersfield NHS Foundation Trust. (Feb 2012)

HebWeb News - Fair Trade Movement (Feb 2012)

HebWeb News - Fancy a cruise to the Antarctic? (Feb 2012)

HebWeb News - Gail Allaby, U3A's Queen of the Underworld (Dec 2011)

HebWeb News - September meeting report - Report of meeting about Walking the Pacific Crest Trail

HebWeb News - August meeting report - Bolton Abbey

HebWeb News - May and June meeting report - Keep Learning: Live long and prosper and the role of the Lord-Lieutenant

HebWeb News - April meeting report - Belt and Braces - An Everyday Guide to Risk and Chance

HebWeb News - March meeting report - Growing Old in the Twenty-First Century

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