A Contemporary Account
Written in the Early 1940s
In February 1941, Mr Maurice Keeley, with very definite ideas, particularly in connection with drama and the theatre, was appointed the Community Club Warden Secretary at the Centre provided for their workers (and the town as a whole) by Clarks of Retford, the dry cleaners.
He at once saw great possibilities in the Dance Hall (63 feet by 20 feet) as a potential home for plays to be produced – if necessary alterations could be introduced.
Consulting with Miss Vere Hodson, the Librarian at the County Branch in Retford, the ideas became almost at once a live project, she having fostered production of plays in the town from 1924.
So with Mr Keeley’s enthusiasm and his brilliant direction of mostly voluntary labour (coming from the boys and girls of the Club) and Miss Hodson’s long experience of stage work, a great transformation took place.
A third contributor was Mr Eric Salmon, the leader of a Youth Club on nearby Grove Street.
The band platform was taken down and a proper stage was built with the same wood and that from dismantled trestle tables. The stage measured 19 feet from side to side (including wings) and was 18 inches high.
The proscenium arch was 7 feet 3 inches above stage level with a further 8 feet 9 inches to the ceiling. Access to the stage was possible from one side and from the back. The hall walls were stripped, chipped, replastered and decorated.
Above the new stage, the ceiling was cut away and a narrow “bird walk” built along each side wall at the ceiling level, staircases built running up from the wings on either side to the remainder of the ceiling, which now formed a convenient balcony, out of sight of the audience, but looking directly down upon the stage.
On this balcony are two large switch boards, with a highly complex lay-out of meters, switches and wiring (230 volts with 25 amp fuses). From these boards, lighting throughout both house and stage was controlled by dimmers. Overhead were ropes and pulleys, all numbered, so that stage hands could raise and lower and change scenery, curtains, etc.
There was electrically controlled equipment for gramophones, turn-tables and amplifiers, and an apron stage, giving an extra depth of 3 feet 9 inches. The auditorium rose in three stages enabling the whole of the stage to be seen from every one of the 140 seats in the house – very smart chairs in scarlet tubular steel and black plastic.
The Theatre was officially opened on 6th October 1941 by Dr L. du Garde Peach, playwright and BBC Producer.
A Personal Account
It was on the 6th of October, 1941, at 7.30 o’clock in the evening, that Retford Little Theatre’s first audience saw the curtains slide across the tiny proscenium arch to reveal the miniature stage upon which, during the next thirteen years, no less than sixty-four productions were to be staged.
The members of the audience had made their way to the Community Centre through the blackout of the third wartime winter; and what a ramshackle pile it was that loomed out of the darkness around them, as they arrived!
They stumbled over the cracked and broken concrete strewn with brickbats and shone their well-shrouded torches upon the semi-derelict structure, surmounted by a tall factory chimney, which had once housed the Town’s famous dye-works.
Inside what they soon learned to call the ‘foyer’ it was bright if a trifle garish.
One mounted the steep concrete stairs and crossed the bare-boarded landing and wondered what on earth one was coming to.
But as one stepped across the threshold one realised quite suddenly that here – in these improbable surroundings, in a room no bigger than a church hall and little distinguishable from a barn, one had indeed a THEATRE.
The plastered walls were washed in pale colour, the tie-beams of the roof were dark. The stage curtains were apple-green with deep plum colour at the foot, while in front of them the little apron stage spread beyond the proscenium width to meet two round-topped archways set in curved wings reaching to the side walls.
It was both dignified and gay; very charming, complete and minute, like something seen through opera glasses the wrong way round, or in a diminishing mirror.
One was surprised and enchanted.
But one feeling dominated all others; one was conscious of an ATMOSPHERE.
This was a THEATRE, not a hall; a THEATRE, not just another dramatic society.
This was something of importance,