THE HISTORY OF
HALIFAX AMATEUR OPERATIC SOCIETy
"The First Fifty Years"
The following article is an excerpt from the programme of our Golden Jubilee production "The Girl Friend ' in 1951.
We cannot chronicle a history of the "Amateurs" without mentioning the pioneers who brought about the gathering in a Horton Street Coffee House in 1901, Mr J. D. Town, Mr Gibson Dixon, Mr and Mrs W. W. Burrell, Mrs Frobisher and several others brought the Society into being and nursed it through its early struggles.
Our first venture at the newly opened Grand Theatre was a courageous one. After rehearsals at the Mechanics' Institute (renamed Marlborough Hall and now the YMCA theatre), the show went on to not very crowded houses. The opera 'Maritana' was the initial effort.
1903 saw 'Bohemian Girl' produced under the choral direction of Mr J. D. Town. In the same year 'Il Trovatore' and 'Maritana' were staged, rehearsals started Wakes Week (August), many members foregoing their holiday. Such was the enthusiasm! Separate musical directors were employed for each production. 'Il Trovatore' was staged on Monday November 2nd 1903, 'Maritana' the night after and so on on alternate nights throughout the week. Just imagine rehearsals starting in August; result two Grand Operas in November.
Misses Cart, Collins and Wormald as the 'Three Little Maids'
Halifax Amateur Operatic Society - The Mikado 1905
Poster for our 1909 production of
Les Cloches de Cornville
It should be recorded that in 'Il Trovatore', Mr Albert Barnes, playing Count di Luna, lost his voice and Mr J. D. Town, the Choral Master, took his place. Mr. Charles Dennis, the Halifax composer, conducted 'Maritana', Mr. Charles Scott 'Il Trovatore'.
The Society gradually established itself, although the way was hard. Rehearsals were now held in rooms at the bottom of Horton Street.
After these excursions into the realms of grand opera it was decided that the more fashionable Gilbert and Sullivan should be tried. 1905 saw two 'G & S' operettas in production, 'The Gondoliers' and 'The Mikado'. The Amateurs had grown by this time and had 100 members, although times were not too good financially. The 1905 production of 'The Mikado' was the very first production at the newly renovated Theatre Royal
In 1906 came 'Dorothy'. 'The Sam Sings' in 1907, this was the turning point of our fortunes. This piece was written by a Huddersfield composer and was fairly successful considering it was unknown. Mr. Percy Eccles (who would go on to become a famous professional rugby league player for England) took the lead in this show which has a chorus of coolies and lusty sailors.
After 'The Sam Sings' came 'Yeoman of the Guard' and 'Les Cloches de Cornville' in 1909. The Victoria Hall (which would have several name changes over the years, including the New Victoria Theatre, The Civic Theatre and, as it is known to day, The Victoria Theatre) was now the established venue of all Amateur productions. The Guardian and the Courier gave abundant publicity to all our activities.
In 1910, the year of 'Iolanthe', Sir George and Lady Fisher-Smith became members of the society, Sir George later becoming President. (NOTE: Sir George's portrait can be seen in the entrance of The Victoria Theatre Halifax today still LINK) In June of 1910 the Society staged a picnic to Ogden. One hundred members boarded a private tram car in Waterhouse Street and were driven to the then far off Ogden.
Mrs. E. W. Mitton, who was accompanist for 35 years, took part in 'The Gondoliers' our 1911 show. 'Falka' and 'Haddon Hall' brought rapturous press reports. The "Daily Sketch" actually featured 'Haddon Hall'. Mr. Percy Eccles and Mr. A . Watts again played leads.
The first World War came and many Amateurs joined up. The long line of happy meetings at the Griffin were nearly at an end. They had been held monthly for fourteen years. A "Troops Fund" was started and Mr. Rupert D'oyle Carte donated ten guineas. 'Princess Ida' was staged on February 8th 1915 at the Victoria Hall. This production was marred by the death of the Secretary, Mr. G. T. Whitehead, soon afterward. Upcoming productions of 'Veronique and 'the Duchess of Dantzig' were now cancelled.
Reforming in 1921 saw another Gilbert and Sullivan era, and shows were now put on at the Theatre Royal (NOTE: It would be another forty four years before the Amateurs returned to the Victoria Theatre in 1965). 'Ruddigore' brought a severance with D'Oyle Carte due to the close proximity of the professional touring dates which affected 'Amateur' bookings. Here is the article in the Halifax Courier.
1926 was the new era, 'The Lilac Domino', 'The Last Waltz' and the ill-fated 'My Lady Frayle' came along. A disastrous fire at the Theatre Royal put paid to 'My Lady Frayle'. It had to be cancelled, involving the Society in a heavy financial loss.
Theatre Royal and The Palace Theatre, Halifax
The Victoria Theatre (Formally The Victoria Hall, The New Victoria and The Civic Theatre.
The cast of our 1957 production of Oklahoma!
The Amateurs kept pace with the changing trend of public taste and dancing shows were introduced. 'Mercenary Mary' and 'Hit The Deck' were well recieved and struck a new note in our productions. Frank Goodwin, Ernest Flecther, Dod Felming and several others had now taken over from the old team of stalwarts who had served the society so well. After 'Silver Wings' we produced 'The Girl Friend'. The final curtain of this show saw the closure of the Theatre Royal as a live theatre (March 18th 1933).
The amateurs had now moved 'Headquarters' to 21 King Cross Street, and had Mr. E. Blackburn as President and other long service officials in Mrs. E. W. Mitton, Mr. H. McGregor, Mr. J. E. Whitham, Mr. A. Watts, Mr. J. W. Feather and Mr. F. A. Taylor. The amateurs lost a good friend when Sir George Fisher-Smith died during the run of 'Hit The Deck'.
1934 saw the spectacular 'Desert Song' followed by 'Sunny' and 'The Belle of New York'. Thes shows opened the 'Palace Theatre' era. 'Mr Cinders' and Schubert's 'Blossom Time' led up to the Second World War and another temporary close down. Storm clouds gathered during 'Viktoria and Her Hussar' production and soon after many of the amateurs donned uniform.
Mr George Crowther led an 'Amateurs Concert Party' for over six years. This is mentioned in this article. This overworked body entertained thousand of troops in the North of England. The flag of the Amateurs was kept flying.
In the after-war chaos, the society produced 'Silver Wings', now at the Grand Theatre, as their Victory Production. 'The Belle of New York' followed, and then 'The Mikado' at the Palace Theatre. Membership trebled its pre-war figure, 'Rose Marie' and 'Wildflower' created new booking records for the Society.
'The Lilac Domino' and 'The Girl Friend' saw the enlarging of our headquarters on Kings Cross Street and the starting of our Green Room section, an offshoot of the Society presenting Plays and Concerts in the Society's rehearsal rooms.
In spite of two wars and subsequent inactivity we have donated nearly £8000 to local charities. The Amateurs are justly proud of 50 years of progress.
"The first 50 years" an article written in 1951.
The cast of our 1969 production of My Fair Lady
For more of an insight into life around Halifax at the time this article was written, watch the video shown here. Our 1959 production of "The King & I" staged at the then-doomed 'Palace Theatre' is mentioned near the end.
Are you interested in contributing to this page by writing another article about the 'Next fifty years'? If you are a keen local historian, or willing to use your personal time to hit the newspaper archives, we'd love for our community to contribute to the continually developing story of the society.
Another great way to visually enjoy the unfolding history of the society is to visit our previous productions digital memorabilia archive, which has newspaper articles, programmes and photos. Take a look at HAOS Previous productions and HATY Previous productions, where members can enjoy the full archive.