THE audience settles down as the house lights dim, the music begins, the heavy curtains swish open and the stage or screen is illuminated to herald the start of the programme that aims to transport the viewer to the escapist realms of entertainment.
THE audience settles down as the house lights dim, the music begins, the heavy curtains swish open and the stage or screen is illuminated to herald the start of the programme that aims to transport the viewer to the escapist realms of entertainment. We all know that delicious thrill of anticipation, be it in theatre, cinema, music hall or concert venue.
That same emotion applies to circus even if the scenario differs because of the ring.
Great Yarmouth and Gorleston was well provided for many a long decade with a range of venues for entertainment although many have now disappeared. All of them, past and present, are subjected to fascinating scrutiny by Caister-based author and historian Colin Tooke in his latest book, That's Entertainment (£13.99), adding to the range of local facets he has previously tackled.
Exhaustive research by the author, augmented by hitherto unpublished comprehensive notes compiled by his friend, the late Ted Goate, a local theatrical historian, are the main sources of the plethora of names, dates and facts that have been woven into more than a hundred pages of words and pictures re-creating a dominant and pleasurable aspect of our yesteryears.
Never again will some of the biggest variety stars in Britain top variety bills in our theatres in summer-long productions, establishing breathtaking box-office records and giving us temporary relief from our everyday worries by presenting the glitz and glamour, humour and spectacle, melody and artistry guaranteed to bring prolonged ovations from audiences comprising holidaymakers and locals alike.
Simply, times have changed and, with them, public tastes in entertainment provision.
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Colin Tooke believes: “As far as I am aware this is the first time the story of the town's many places of entertainment have been committed to print.”
The concept developed into a Herculanean task. The result has certainly justified the effort, and the book will be enjoyed by Yarmouthians old and new, and anybody who handed over the price of an admission ticket to any of the 20 venues - many of them long gone - whose histories are recalled. The brightly-written text is embellished by about 100 photographs old and new of faces and places, plus over 40 programme front pages, cast lists and playbills. Also, there is a year-by-year guide to the stars at the main theatres.
The Tooke book? Let me echo the catchphrase of Irish comic Frank Carson, no stranger to the Yarmouth showbiz scene: “It's a cracker!”
The word “theatre” was first used for a public entertainment building in 1576 in London, but Yarmouth had the first documented “theatre” in England - the Game Place House - 84 years before that, part of the Priory garden. In the mid-18th century there was a theatre on South Quay, followed by Theatre Royal in 1778 - more or less the site of the Regal on Theatre Plain. Even the Royal Naval Hospital had a small theatre.
Cinema? The first “living photographs” screening was in 1897 in the Liberal Club Assembly Rooms where Woolworths now stands on the Market Place, and films continued to be shown in the Bijou Hall there until 1914; it was replaced by the new Central Cinema, the first use of the word “cinema” for a picture house in the borough. Later the empty building was used by Palmers department store to accommodate furniture damaged in the 1953 floods.
Early on, there was even a small cinema was at the base of the Revolving Tower on the seafront, films being screened all summer.
To whet readers' appetites, let me relay some of the wealth of interesting snippets sprinkled liberally around the histories.
For example, the wooden Regent (Road) Hall was visited three times in one week in 1872 by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), a London theatre company being hired to entertain him. In 1874 it was demolished to make way for a more permanent theatre...that never materialised.
The Aquarium incorporated over one million bricks, 500 tons of cement and 150 tons or ironwork in 1875. Shortage of cash meant a modified structure, and the flat roof above the aquarium itself was used for roller-skating! An electric light demonstration took place in 1878, said to be the first in Norfolk. Some fish tanks were removed to increase the capacity of its Grand Hall restaurant...to accommodate 1000 diners!
Outside the Little Theatre, part of the Aquarium, stood “an ornate cast-iron lamp standard provided by the management for the convenience of their patrons at a time when street lamps in the town were almost non-existent. Originally a gas lamp, later converted to electricity, this was one of the very few privately owned lamp standards on a public footpath in the town.” But in 2005 a car knocked it down, causing damage beyond repair.
Dick Barton Special Agent, who drew millions of listeners to the nightly radio serial postwar, made a stage appearance at the Britannia Pier in 1947. I vaguely recall as a devoted fan being in the audience as a 12-year-old but being disappointed - perhaps the familiar voice of Noel Johnson was missing.
At the Hippodrome in 1904 Poole's Myriorama was staged, large painted panoramas of landscapes, adventure stories or national events being wound on rollers to scroll past audiences, while cut-out figures moved across the scenes by stage hands were accompanied by music and narration. Some shows employed dozens of people to operate them.
Top of the bill at the Hippodrome in 1919 was Dr Walford Bodie who claimed 30,000 volts of electricity could pass through his body to light a string of lamps and operate machinery.
When the Gem opened in 1908, 17,000 paid for admission in its first four days “despite a local by-law that prevented men and women sitting together - it was considered at the time to be immoral for men and women to sit together in a darkened public place, therefore men sat one side of the central aisle and women the other.”
Afternoon tea was served free to patrons in dearer seats (the cheapest cost 3d, about a penny in decimal terms) at the Empire, Regent and Filmland (Beach Road, Gorleston) cinemas. Filmland changed its name to Louis Quatorze, dubbed “lousy quarters” by Gorlestonians . In 1928 the ornate Regent, now an officially protected building, based its interior design on the French style of Louis XV, and pioneered talking pictures.
Gorleston Pavilion was renamed the Gorleston Palace in 1908 by a new lessee but reverted to the original name five years later when Henry Clay took over. His concert parties were a great success but when he returned to Gorleston to resume them after the Pavilion's wartime closure, he was stunned that the council had let the building for ten years.
Determined to stay in Gorleston, he leased a small meadow off Beach Road owned by Miss Mary Baumgartner, of Cliff Hill, and erected a marquee (replaced by a wooden building) in which his Pops shows flourished until 1934 when the council said its singing and dancing licence would be refused on fire hazard grounds unless a permanent brick structure was erected.
The site is still called Pops Meadow.
During silent films audiences chatted during screenings but when the Gorleston Coliseum turned to talkies in 1930 and patrons could not hear the soundtrack for the babble, signs were erected saying “Complete silence is essential for the full enjoyment of talking pictures”.
That's Entertainment is obtainable from local bookshops, or from Colin Tooke (01493 720391).