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Keith Rawlings
Takes a light hearted canter through his memories
of Bournemouth Little Theatre

In the late 1940s, I holidayed in Bournemouth and saw three different plays in one week at what was then The Palace Court Theatre (now the Wessex Christian Centre) in Hinton Road. They were School for Scandal, Getting Married by Bernard Shaw; I can't remember the third, but I think Alec Clunes was the star. I went down to the gents' in an interval and, on the way up, I said to a chap, "What a marvellous theatre". He told me it was built and owned by Bournemouth Little Theatre Club. I resolved to get a job in Bournemouth as soon as I could.

Fifteen years later, I got a job here, wrote to the BLTC and told them the joyous news that I was coming to Bournemouth. There were 1,500 members and a waiting list in those halcyon days. I came from Potters Bar to audition for a part, got it and, fortunately for me, it was a Wiseman production. They were the gods of the Club. They chose their plays, picked their casts, and everyone trembled in their presence. But Herbert and Kathleen were fine actors and had been members since the theatre in Hinton Road had opened in 1931. You can see their names in the history of the Club as you queue for admission to the present plays.

Rehearsals were taken seriously and I can't remember producers as directors were known in those days having to call for order. If you missed a rehearsal without a good excuse, you were replaced by another member to play your part. At the final rehearsal, the Club stage manager would read out, in solemn silence, rules for the show: no presentation to be made to anybody in view of the audience or backstage. No gesture to be made to anybody, (this always produced suppressed giggles), and the curtain call to be taken collectively by all the cast at the same time.

The stage manager's job was a doddle. His only duties were to signal for the rise and fall of the curtain to the professional backstage staff and to give a signal for a sound or. lighting effect. No Club member was allowed to shift a prop or change scenery else there would be trouble from the backstage professionals. And, unlike today, the scenery was built and painted by Bob Toop and his son at the workshop in Windham Road. Nicky saw to all the props and Roy did the lighting. It was a very close knit, professional affair, and technically minded members never had anything to do.

The Play Selection Committee members were bowed to. Hopeful acting members would anxiously wait for a properly printed postcard to arrive reading: You have been selected to play the part of the Maid in "Hotel Paradiso" to be performed 4-9 April. First rehearsal: 27 March. RSVP by January 26. That was it. Two refusals and you were never asked to play again! The Directors of the Board were spoken of in awed tones, if one knew who they were. And Dorothy Rowe, founder of the Club, cycled to rehearsals and meetings from Boscombe until she was nearly ninety. She was pedantry personified.

"Dawks" was the props mistress for each of the nine plays performed during the season. No one was allowed to take her place and assistants were terrified of her. So were the actors. "Please, Dawks, do you think I could possibly have a book given to me at the beginning of Act Two?" "It will be on the table. Pick it up."

After-Show Parties were held after the last performance on a Saturday night in the club room. They were so popular that all the 120 tickets were snapped up by the Monday of that week. No wonder. The Club provided free admission, free coffee and a live, three-piece band. Members had to bring their own food, drink, glasses and plates. The men wore dinner jackets and the ladies full evening dress, and without this dress code entry was forbidden. This rule was rigorously enforced. Traditionally, these parties ended at 1.30 a.m. on the dot with the Hokey Cokie, Auld Lang Syne and the singing of the National Anthem, all standing rigidly to attention.

Amongst all these rules and customs were eccentrics. Rex Hunter was regarded as a fine director of farce, but all I can remember of him was his walking backwards and forwards along the front of the rehearsal room, jangling money deep in his trouser pocket and shouting, "Faster, faster". Douggie Chappell could turn his false teeth completely over inside his mouth, yet none of us would dare comment. John Forest Reed, Chairman of the Selection Committee for years, was famous for saying constantly, "I don't think that's his forte" (pronounced "fort"). There was an actor who would count the number of his lines he had to say before he accepted the part; if he didn't have the most in the play, he would refuse the part.

What were the differences between 50 years ago and today? Members are impatient now if they don't know the exact position of every piece of furniture early on in the rehearsals, and they insist on having the measurements and the position of the doors and the scenery up for at least a couple of weeks before opening night. Then, we would see the set for the first time at the dress rehearsal.(Because other companies were using the theatre. Ed) You had to "walk it" before the dress rehearsal began, and many didn't bother. If it wasn't as you had rehearsed it, tough!

But the BLTC was regarded as the best amateur club in the country. Not adventurous in its choice of plays, perhaps, because it had to attempt to fill 565 seats for seven performances in the week nine times a year. And sometimes "House Full" boards were put outside. I remember All For Mary played to capacity audiences for every performance. Thankfully, that happens now, but - best of all - I met my wife there!


PS Keith asked me to point out that the Club still have their own Little Theatre, although these days it has a more modest 95 seats in a raked auditorium.
When the Theatre was situated in Hinton Road, it was run as a commercial venture. Although the Club performed for a total of nine weeks in a year, the remaining 43 weeks were devoted to visiting professional companies, in the same way as the Pavilion accommodates touring theatrical companies. These companies were of a very high standard, as were the Club's own productions.
The allure of television and in consequence the decline in the theatre-going public meant that the Club could no longer fill enough of the 565 seats in the Palace Court Theatre each night, which meant the theatre became a liability rather then an asset.
After Hinton Road the Bournemouth Little Theatre Club scratched around for suitable premises. They moved for a while to the first floor, a part of what had been Beales temporary war-time shop in Old Christchurch Road, after their main store was bombed in 1943, before eventually converting their present theatre in Jameson Road, Winton.
Television has a lot to answer for! RS

This article first appeared in issue 54 of the Bournemouth Little Theatre News and I am indebted to Keith Rawlings and to Tony Orman, Editor of the BLT News, for allowing it to be reproduced here. RS
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