South Shields amateur operatic society was ‘one of best in country’

South Shields Amateur Operatic Society in action.
South Shields Amateur Operatic Society in action.

Today Maurice Powell continues his colourful lookback at the South Shields Amateur Operatic Society.

He says, in its early days, when the society played at the Regent cinema, it was known as amateur week, such was the popularity of the shows.

Maurice Powell.

Maurice Powell.

“It was a big social event in town,” he explains.

Big, too, were the shows that the society staged throughout its time in Shields and Sunderland.

“Members of the society would be delegated to do various roles; one would do costumes, while another would organise the props that were required.

“Scenery was hired from a firm in London, called Stage Sets. The costumes came from WA Hamberg, in Leeds, and Mutries, in Edinburgh.”

Mr Powell said there were between 50 and 60 people involved in each production.

“We couldn’t wait for the Monday night for rehearsals (in Mortimer Road infants school). It was fantastic, such great fun.

“Six weeks prior to the production, the society engaged a producer from London.

Past producers include Roy D’Arcy Richards, Joyce Bradfield, Ann Balantyne, Tony Cundell and Fred Wharton.

“When the society played the Regent, in order to convert it from a cinema into a theatre, we would go there on a Saturday night.

“Some of the stage hands, Harry Halliday senior and Harry Halliday junior, and his son, John (who became a successful film cameraman) along with Regent employees Jimmy Marrington and Jimmy Allan, would go along at 10.30pm, strip the stage and store all the equipment (in a garage close by, that was owned by Pratts off-licence) ready for Sunday morning.

“On Sunday morning, the scenery would arrive, and it was set up ready for dress rehearsal.

“We used to do a matinee on the Saturday, and all the cast, and everybody involved, instead of going home, went to Hedworth Hall (in costume) for tea. They were magical days.

“After the final performance on the Saturday, we used to rush home and get ready to go to La Strada for an after-show party.

“They used to get the act that was appearing that week to do a cabaret for the party.

“One year, the act that had been appearing at La Strada that week was Dennis Spicer, who was a very well-known ventriloquist. He had a dummy called Jimmy Green.

“He performed the cabaret for the after-show party, and then, in the early hours of the morning, left to go to the next venue. Sadly, on the way he was killed in a car crash.”

Maurice said in the society’s heyday “we were one of the finest societies in England”.

He said the society was so popular that it formed a junior section, and “from that came a lot of up-and-coming people”.

“It was the brainchild of musical director Stewart Blenkinsop, who was also the headteacher at Stanhope Road Junior School.

“Its first production was the Wizard of Oz in 1979. They performed it in South Shields Modern and Technical College theatre.”

There will be more theatrical memories tomorrow.