The Society is now in a position to look back over eighty years and consider its place in Newark’s theatrical life. Frequently, the basics of the Society’s history have been expounded – the foundation at the Annual Dinner of the Newark Choral and Orchestral Society at the Clinton Arms Hotel in the Spring of 1935; the days of Gilbert and Sullivan productions until 1952; the operetta years until 1961; the era of the American musical until 1970 when the Society was refused the use of a second theatre in four years; and the years ‘back home’ at the Palace since it was bought by public subscription in 1973 - but the Society has had a much greater impact on Newark life than an annual production.
During the second world war, when annual shows were suspended, an enthusiastic concert party was formed which visited nearby airfields and army camps. In 1951, when the Borough Council fronted an open air production of Edward German’s ‘Merrie England’ in the Castle Grounds the basis of the 190 cast came from the Society. Jill All Alone was played by Gerda Pinkney and she was supported by many of the society’s current principals including Mildred Blockley, Freda Randall, Dick Bradbury and George Bennett.
In October of 1961 the society’s new musical director, Adam Harasowski, arranged a concert of the works of Polish composer Moniusko, and the Society joined the Nottingham Symphony Orchestra in a performance that was recorded and broadcast. Incidentally, our President, Mavis Ackroyd, had a solo part in the concert, as an Angel!
1964 saw the Society’s first involvement with Old Time Music Hall; an evening of food, drink and conviviality in the Robin Hood Theatre. A riotous evening ensued and set the Society on a twenty year involvement in such ventures. In Newark it involved joint efforts with the Tradesmens’ Association, which was enthusiastically led by the late Bill Drury. The Town Hall was hired, laid out with long tables, candle lit, pie and peas on sale and a well stocked bar available. For at least three nights performances were held and on the last evening (always a Saturday) the audience was urged to attend in costume – and did!
In 1972, after prompting from the Musical Director, Hugh Casterton, the music hall was taken to the Little Theatre in Sheringham over Whit weekend and capacity audiences attended annual visits until 1977. On one occasion over 100 members and their families descended on the Norfolk resort staying in every conceivable form of accommodation. At lunch time ‘The Two Lifeboats’ hostelry was packed ; the box office of the theatre was manned by members on a rota; and high powered games were played on the beach. After a performance in the evening members returned first to the ‘Robin Hood & Little John’ across the road from the theatre and then moved on to the ‘Burlington Hotel’ where in the early hours there was often an impromptu cabaret for the residents!
In 1969 and 1971 the Society was the mainstay in the Town’s open air productions of ‘The Yeomen of the Guard’ and ‘The Mikado’ in the castle grounds when a chorus of a hundred backed the principals of Gilbert and Sullivan For All including such stars as Thomas Round, Donald Adams and Valerie Masterson. The performances produced audiences of 10,000 and 9,000 respectively , and Newark had a real ‘buzz’ for the week with restaurants offering special menus, pubs with late night suppers and extensions, and to complement ‘The Mikado’, a Japanese market with rickshaws in the market square. Twenty years later the Society immersed itself in a second open air ‘Yeomen’ and two years later a week’s run of ‘Iolanthe’ with King John’s tower as Big Ben.
The Society’s activities did not end here! Over the years there have been numerous ‘Songs from the Shows’ and support at ‘The Palace’ for artists like Leslie Crowther, Rosemary Squires and the Gilbert & Sullivan For All principals. In 1978 and 1979 the Society also was also responsible for the first two pantomimes in the new Palace era. – 1978 ‘Mother Goose’ and 1979 ‘Cinderella’.
From 1961 until a decade ago the Society ran a concert party during the Autumn, Winter and early Spring to encourage Women’s Institutes and other organisations to support the annual production. Sometimes there were two concerts a week (in 1963-64 there were 59 between September and March!). The programme for the concert was decided when the party gathered for departure. In the Autumn of 1963 the Society lost a stalwart member, John Woodall, who was killed when crossing the A1 at Long Bennington following a concert.
Since Newark twinned with Emmendingen in 1984 the Society has performed four times to capacity audiences in the town, and on three occasions performed costumed excerpts from musicals backed by our own musicians.
In addition to all of this, the Society played a large part in the acquisition and opening of ‘the Palace’ as an Arts and Leisure centre. There was fund raising, and much physical work after the acquisition – painting, decorating, restoration, cleaning and scrubbing – you name it, the Society members did it!!
So here we are in the Society’s 80th year. Today society life is difficult – audiences more difficult to attract, soaring financial costs meaning losses are more common than profit but members still exude an air of optimism. May ‘The King and I’ in 2015 be as successful as the two previous productions – in 1961 when it was the first American musical to be produced by the Society, and there was just one empty seat in the Palace all week and in 1972 when the Grove Sports Centre’s main hall was turned into a theatre as there was no home available in Newark!
Acting Member 1957-2008