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How being booted out for bingo helped South Shields Gilbert & Sullivan Society hit the big time

A scene from The Mikado, presented by South Shields Gilbert & Sullivan Society, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary.
A scene from The Mikado, presented by South Shields Gilbert & Sullivan Society, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary.

Today we tell how the South Shields Gilbert & Sullivan Society, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary, hit the ‘big time’ with a move to one of the town’s most popular cinemas.

The exciting development was recalled by then-chairman Mr Michael L. Baker in 1998.

He said: “In 1958 the G7S moved into the ‘big time’ when, after successful negotiations with the Rank Organisation, who were the owners, we leased the Odeon, in King Street, to present The Arcadian.

“The Odeon was in every respect a wonderful 1,300-1,400-seat theatre, offering the audiences all they wanted in comfort and facilities.

“The stage was well-equipped for that time, with excellent scenery-handling space.

“The dressing rooms were numerous, and washing facilities and the like were such as we had not previously enjoyed.

“It felt like a theatre wherever one stood. It was in every sense a number one theatre, which had seen a multitude of stars playing there.

“We enjoyed playing and doing good business at the Odeon for five years and would have continued to do so.

“But in 1963 the Odeon management, by this time firmly into the business of bingo, was no longer inclined to risk interrupting the bingo-going routine of their clients.

“So we had no option but to find a new home.

“Because we had become used to the high quality of the facilities at the Odeon, we felt we had outgrown St Aidan’s Hall (their previous home) and would have to look elsewhere.”

The society’s new home was another cinema, The Regent.

“After discussion with the South Shields Amateur Operatic Society, who were now back in business presenting their shows at the Regent Cinema, at Westoe, negotiations were concluded with the cinema’s management, resulting in our 1963 production of The Gondoliers being presented there,” documents Mr Baker.

“It was a great experience to be playing in a big theatre again but it was not a patch on the Odeon which was built as a theatre and not a cinema.

“We were, however, grateful at that particular time for a very good co-operation from the Regent’s management.”

However, even then, the society had eyes on a new venue – the soon-to-be-opened Marine School.

“I watched with particular interest,” explained Mr Baker in his foreword to This World Of Music, “the growth of what appeared to be a theatre rather than just an assembly hall.

“It was the right shape, it had a stage and dressing rooms and the auditorium a circle (they called it the balcony).

“When it was completed it really did look good, with its 560-seating capacity - comfortable seats at that. 

“Discussions with the College Principal, the late Dr James Hargreaves, were extremely friendly. He was ever so helpful and prepared to accept us into his new theatre.

“Unfortunately the architects had failed to recognise the potential of the college theatre for public performances, and had not provided a fire curtain for the proscenium or in fact any other on-stage fire precautions.

“However, with marvellous help from Dr Hargreaves and the local authority all was put right, and in 1964 our production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore opened our long innings at the College Theatre.

“This was to be our home for 30 years, only ending in 1994.”

In the autumn of that year, the decision was taken to move to the Customs House for the 1995 production of Cabaret.

“Teething troubles inevitably compounded some of the theatre’s faults, but on the whole, the move - a calculated risk - was a success which was appreciated by our society members and audiences,” added Mr Baker.

* We will bring you more memories from the G&S Society’s past in the coming weeks.