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Memories of Wimbledon Theatre

New Wimbledon Theatre has recently launched a campaign to encourage locals and visitors to share their memories of the esteemed venue and celebrate the performing arts space that has hosted the likes of Gracie Fields and Ivor Novello. We spoke to the theatre’s Jack Dryder about the project…

What is the aim of the Old Wimbledon Theatre campaign?
We came up with our Old Wimbledon Theatre campaign to start to explore and celebrate the often untold stories of the people and the events that shaped our local theatre into what it is today and the role that our building has played in the Wimbledon community.

On one level it is about remembering all the big amazing things that have happened, the famous names who have walked on our stage, and the glittering shows that have been performed here. But more importantly for us, it is about listening to and sharing the smaller personal stories of what our theatre means to local people, and the memories they have from time spent in the venue watching, working or even performing here in the past.

We may be called New Wimbledon Theatre, but we have a rich history. Our Old Wimbledon Theatre campaign is about sharing that as a community.

What is the theatre’s history?
Built by theatre entrepreneur J.B. Mulholland to a design by Cecil Massey and Roy Young, our building opened on Boxing Day 1910. Mulholland was a passionate advocate of regional theatre who believed that everyone should have access to quality shows wherever they may live. Under his leadership it was not long before all the best producers and managers of the day were bringing their productions to the venue, with big names like Julia Neilson, Gracie Fields and Ivor Novello all performing on our stage.

Throughout the 1930s, the growing popularity from new cinemas and the arrival of the Blitz made it a difficult period for the theatre, but by 1955, legendary actor manager Peter Haddon took over the theatre, introducing a new age of repertory theatre. His model saved the theatre, presenting hundreds of shows with the same pool of actors, performing one show whilst rehearsing and preparing the next in a relentless weekly cycle. By 1960 his company had produced over 300 shows at the theatre, building new audiences who came time and again to enjoy each new production.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, Wimbledon became a popular venue for producers to preview new West End shows, before transferring them into town. We hosted the world premieres of many famous productions including Oliver starring a young Barry Humphries as Mr Sowerberry and Half A Sixpence with Tommy Steele. Morecambe & Wise hosted performances here too.

Sadly in the early 2000’s the theatre fell on hard times and was forced to close in 2003. Thanks to a long campaign by local people a rescue deal was reached with ATG taking over the running of the venue. In February 2004 we reopened as New Wimbledon Theatre with Matthew Bourne’s production of The Nutcracker.

Who are some of the big names who have performed in this space?
In the early years Wimbledon Theatre became a popular haunt for British stars including Gracie Fields, Sybil Thorndike, Ivor Novello and Noel Coward who each performed in multiple productions on our stage. Off stage dancers Fred Astaire and his sister Adele are thought to have used the former ballroom (now the Time & Leisure Studio) as a rehearsal space prior to performing at the London Palladium in the 1920s.

International acts also came from far and wide to perform at the venue with world famous comedy duo Laurel & Hardy visiting for a week in 1945. Rather fittingly, our theatre was recently used to shoot Stan & Ollie, the new biopic about the double act’s ventures in the UK, out in cinemas this October.

In 1975 we also famously hosted the last ever UK performance by revered German actress and singer Marlene Dietrich. Interviewed by BBC Radio Two she said ‘I’ve been to the theatre before, but I came back because I had the best time ever in Wimbledon.’.

More recently in 2008, New Wimbledon Theatre was even chosen to host HRH the Prince of Wales’ 60th Birthday Gala which saw a host of stars including Robin Williams, John Cleese and Joan Rivers take to our stage in aid of The Prince’s Trust.

What is the theatre’s history as a venue for pantomimes?
We are very proud of our reputation for pantomime at Wimbledon Theatre. In our 108-year history, we have played host to no less than 105 pantomimes! A number soon to rise to 106 this Christmas when Paul Merton & Pete Firman take to the stage in Aladdin.

Our theatre opened with a pantomime as our very first ever show on Boxing Day 1910. Since then we have only ever missed two years of panto in our history - one in 1940, thought to be due to a bombing at the theatre. And again in 2003, when the venue was threatened with closure, later to be saved by ATG.

This April we also played host to the Great British Pantomime Awards, recognising and celebrating the great effort which has goes into the pantomime season across the country.

What is an interesting anecdote you have stumbled upon during the campaign?
This month we have been sharing the story of our angel, the Goddess of Gaiety, which sits on the dome over the entrance of the theatre. The current statue was commissioned by Merton Council and erected in 1991, replacing the original which had to be removed many years before during the Second World War.

The new statue was designed to be an exact replica of the original. However, rumour has it that our new angel is different in one important respect. She’s married!

Cast by a local artist using a real life model, the story goes that the model forgot to remove her engagement ring before the mould was made. As a result, it is said that our angel has a ring on her finger. We wonder who the lucky fellow is!

How can people get involved with their own stories?
If you have a memory about Wimbledon Theatre that you would like to share, there are three easy ways that you can get involved:
1.On social media: using #OldWimbTheatre on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
2.By email: send us an email to OldWimbTheatre@TheAmbassadors.com
3.By post: feel free to send letters, copies of photos or anything else you would like to share with us to Old Wimbledon Theatre, 93 The Broadway, Wimbledon, SW19 1QG.

Every week we are sharing regular short posts on our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles with key anniversary dates, historical photos and the stories behind them. Just search #OldWimbTheatre to see our latest updates from the campaign.

We will also be curating interesting stories to turn into original videos, articles on our blog or to pass on to local publications like this magazine. For example, you may have seen our Brief History of New Wimbledon Theatre video which we recorded with staff at the theatre. As the campaign continues, we hope to make lots more engaging videos and articles like that which delve a little deeper into particular stories.