History of the Arts Centre Part 4: A Phoenix From the Ashes

Part 4: A Phoenix From the Ashes

In the early hours of Thursday 24th June 1965 a catastrophic fire broke out in the next-door premises occupied by a builders merchants and an electricians shop.

“Despite the best efforts of the Fire Brigade the fire spread, causing extensive damage.  Luckily the front and stage areas were saved apart from smoke and water damage but the theatre roof had gone as well as the entire wardrobe and the control room. We lost all our theatre seats in the fire.Incidentally if you go past the ladies toilets in our current building and turn right through the door you will see a fire damaged beam over the emergency exit doors as a reminder of the fire.”

The day after the disaster the Management Committee managed to recall the plans from the planning authority for re-consideration.  The shows continued in the Guildhall whilst a vacant property in Bimport served as storage for items salvaged from the premises and also hosted meetings and rehearsals.  “Fortunately we were well insured and requested a cash payment towards the re-construction.  Members sorted through the debris, salvaging where possible and I remember we held a sausage and mash evening amongst all the debris one evening!”

The Club Room had a ceiling added with “The Phoenix Room” above “rising out of the ashes”, with an area for serving refreshments.  A new passage led to the control room with a new lighting console from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.  A greatly enlarged wardrobe was housed behind fire-proofed doors as well as a sizable workshop where sets are built and painted.

The opening ceremony took place on the afternoon of 3rd June 1967 with an evening concert presented by the Wessex Sinfonia.  Meanwhile ‘Phoenix Bonds’ were introduced to help the Centre finances.

The Drama Group presented its first Christmas production, “Toad of Toad Hall” by A.A. Milne, produced and directed by Harold Ingram, formerly musical director of the Stratford-on-Avon Theatre, with beautiful sets by his daughter Pamela Ingram, Scenic Designer at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford.  She also ran scenery workshops creating stage trees and river banks: “At an extremely late rehearsal on New Year’s Eve, Harold Keeping, who was playing Badger, fell backwards putting an end to rehearsals and possibly our New Year festivities.  Fortunately Badger was wearing a thick jacket and belt so suffered no more than stiffness and bruising!  The show was so successful we had to put on an extra performance on the second Saturday.”  More than fifty Christmas shows and pantomimes have taken place since.

Since its opening the Centre was run on a club basis with Concert and Playgoers’ membership at 5p per annum.  This type of membership grew to a little under 3,000, which meant quite a sizeable card index system!  In 1978 it was decided to do away with this membership and apply for a public performance licence.  By 1981 all necessary health and safety work was completed and a full Theatre Licence was issued.  Another big step forward.

Meanwhile, totally out of character with its surroundings, the Savoy Cinema was eventually demolished in the 1980s making way for some flats and meaning that the Arts Centre now housed the only big screen in Shaftesbury.

Read Part 5: Into the 21st Century

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