History of the Arts Centre Part 1: Arrival of Moving Pictures and Creation of the Arts Club

Part 1: Arrival of Moving Pictures and Creation of the Arts Club

High Street c 1920. The pillars of the Picture Palace can be seen where Bargains is now.

The Talking Pictures had arrived early in the 20th century and with them a cinema.  Initially The Palace Picture House stood at the bottom of the High Street, with an ornate frontage of four large pillars, but it was demolished in 1925.  The Savoy Cinema opened on Bimport in 1933 and seated 380 people.  The owners of the house adjacent to the Savoy managed to prevent their metal railings being melted down for the war effort by claiming they stopped people queuing for the cinema from falling into their front garden.

Savoy Cinema c 1940

By austerity ridden post-war 1940’s Britain, entertainment was at a premium, largely enjoyed whilst huddled round ‘the wireless’ or limited offerings on a crackly black and white TV.  Live entertainment was well nigh out of reach, often involving an expensive excursion to a nearby town on a precious day off.  With this in mind, in 1947 the local committee of the Arts Council began to arrange the occasional concert and touring show in the Town Hall and elsewhere around town.

By 1949 it was clear that Thomas Hardy’s Shaston needed a permanent organisation of its own to encourage people to take part in the cultural life of the town.  So it was that the Shaftesbury and District Arts Club was formed, with the grand sum of £5 0s 0d bequeathed by the old committee.

They were ambitious in their first offering: Music from Grand Opera began “at 3pm prompt” on Sunday 9th October in the (much lamented) Savoy Cinema.  Performers included the wonderfully named Zuilmah Hopkins (soprano), Sybil Willey (contralto) and Sydney Snape (baritone).  The audience were invited to join the Club by obtaining details from a Miss K Drake of Bell Street.  Membership rose to 140.

Later the same month the Drama and Music Groups were formed.  In February 1950 the Drama Group presented its first three-act play “Knight’s Move” at the Grammar School Hall.  Meanwhile, the Drama Group held its monthly meetings and rehearsals free of charge in the Grosvenor Hotel Ballroom “by kind permission of Col & Mrs Evans”, the latter being the first leader of the Drama Group.  Later that year the Arts Club became affiliated to the British and Dorset Drama Leagues.

In June 1950, the club arranged its first Art Exhibition at The Town Hall including contributions from local schools.  Two further Groups were formed in the next two years: the Camera Group in May 1950 and the Art Group early in 1951.

As the Arts Club became larger and their offerings more ambitious, they needed a home.  Venues weren’t always available and whilst the Drama Group initially borrowed scenery, props and costumes, they began to make their own, which caused storage problems…

Read Part 2: The Purchase and Conversion of the Upper Market Hall

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