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The Exeter Musical Society - a short history

Formerly the Exeter Amateur Operatic Society

Based on Dick Passmore's One Hundred Glorious Years - The Exeter Amateur Operatic Society - Page added 5th March 2011

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In 2004, the Exeter Amateur Operatic Society celebrated its first hundred years of ordinary, enthusiastic folk, putting in thousands of hours to stage an annual show for the delectation of the citizens of Exeter and beyond.

Originally the idea of a group of theatre-loving local businessmen, the Society was first mooted in 1904 at a meeting held in the music and piano shop of Billy Crabb, situated in Southernhay. Apart from Crabb, the inaugural group was composed of Mr A Norman Kendall, and Mr F J Wise; they were later joined by Mr C Bartlett. Mr Kendall was appointed chairman and treasurer with Mr Crabb and Mr Wise acting as joint secretaries.

The first production was the Pirates of Penzance, the first of many Gilbert and Sullivan operettas to be performed. Just two performances were given to private audiences at the Royal Public Rooms in London Inn Square. The reception was enthusiastic enough for the fledgeling company to give further performances to capacity audiences in Tavistock, Tiverton and Exminster later in the year. The theatrical buzz must have been considerable for the young company for in December 1905 they presented HMS Pinafore, another Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, this time at the much larger, and more professional Theatre Royal. The general public could buy tickets for the first time, but a loss of £25 was made which the members had to fund themselves.

Undeterred by the financial loss, the Theatre Royal was again the venue for their third production of Iolanthe for a week, from the 4th February 1907. Many records from these early shows were lost, but it is known that Mr Kendall conducted the orchestra, Miss W Maud Balchin the lead and Charles Bartlett was the Lord Chancellor. The show was a tremendous success and £70 was donated to the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital from the profits. The show was performed in Tiverton, and another sum donated to the local hospital.

The company was in its stride, and in 1908 The Mikado was selected as the fourth production, a familiar choice as Gilbert and Sullivan gave the first performance of the music from The Mikado at Exeter's Half Moon Hotel twenty five years earlier. Although a satire on British politics and institutions, the opera is set in Japan; in 1907, the Lord Chamberlain had banned the work from being performed in London for a period of six weeks, lest it offend Prince Fushimi Sadanaru who was on an official state visit; the Prince expressed his profound disappointment, as he was looking forward to seeing the operetta. The Exeter production benefitted the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital to the tune of £75 and an additional £25 was given to the West of England Eye Infirmary.

In 1908, Mr Richard Weathersby joined the company as the stage manager – this was quite a coup, as he had previously spent 25 years with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company in the same role. It was under his influence that the acting and staging by the company improved considerably. Norman Kendall stood down as the musical director to be replaced by Allan Allen. In 1909, Mr A Wyatt-Edgell, deputy lieutenant of Devon became the first president.

1909 was the year of The Gondoliers, and the first souvenir programme - this was a weighty affair of forty-eight pages and twenty-one photographs, plus a number of advertisements. By this time the society could boast 141 patrons including the Lord Lieutenant of Devon, Lord Fortescue, The Duke and Duchess of Bedford, two Lord Bishops, fifteen clergymen, three earls, three lords, two mayors, two sheriffs, one admiral and a commander, one major-general, a general, four colonels, two lieutenant colonels, four majors and three captains, enough to run a small war. There were also one MP, three Companions of the Order of the Bath and fifteen JPs. The company was fast becoming an honourable fixture in Exeter's social scene.

Gilbert and Sullivan's the Yeoman of the Guard was the production for 1910 – Richard Weathersby, the stage manager, had also stage managed the D'Oyly Carte 1889 production of the same work, when it opened the newly built Theatre Royal after the disastrous fire of 1887.

It was about time for a change from Gilbert and Sullivan, and in the Coronation Year of 1911 Basil Hood's Merrie England was performed, along with a regal souvenir programme containing photographs of the King and Queen and a purple cover. Mr Wyatt-Edgell died in 1912 and Sir John H Shelley agreed to accept the position of president. There was a return to one half of the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire, when Haddon Hall was produced with music by Arthur Sullivan and a libretto by Sydney Grundy. The last production before the years of war was Utopia Ltd in 1913 production.

The Great War

The Mikado was presented in the heady months before the outbreak of war on the 1st August 1914. The years of the war were a bleak time for all, including the Operatic Society; Dorothy, a comic opera of three acts was the February 1915 presentation. The story revolves around a rake who falls in love with his disguised fiancée, and involves mistaken identity and many plot absurdities.

Gilbert and Sullivan's two act, Patience, a satire on the aesthetic movement that had swept English arts during the 1870's and 80s was the 1916 presentation. We could do with a little satire on the arts scene of the 21st Century – anyone for a song about a dead shark in an unmade bed! The news from the front was often grim during these years, and the German blockade led to food and fuel shortages. There was no time left for putting on musical shows and it was not until 1920 that the society next presented Exeter with and adaptation by Edward German of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, a rather racy comic opera that had fallen out of favour in the professional theatre.

Each year of the nineteen-twenties saw an Exeter Amateur Operatic Society production, most well attended, but some not financially successful. A rather unfortunate loss of £400 was made on the 1935 production of comic opera The Duchess of Dantzic. First performed in London during 1903, it was staged in New York and around the world, before returning to London. However, provincially it was not well known and that is perhaps why it lost money. Nevertheless, the success of previous productions allowed the society to weather the financial loss.

Another War

Ironically, the show chosen for an April 1939 run was a repeat of Dorothy, the last show to be presented before the outbreak of the Great War. During the years 1940 to 1945, the war effort prevented the society from staging a production. In the offices of Leonard Smale, one of the society's officers, were stored many of the society's records from 1904 onwards. Located in Bedford Circus, they were burnt out during the blitz of the 4th May 1942, resulting in their total loss.

It was some relief, when in 1946 thoughts turned towards the next Operatic Society's production; Merrie England was chosen, perhaps as a reminder of what the years of war had been about. This was the fourth time the society had presented the opera about the love and rivalries in the Tudor court of Queen Elizabeth. Many older members were joined by some new for this production with Gordon Kerslake, Leonard Crump, Stanley Whitburn, Austin Alderton and Walter Daw, along with Mae Gregory, Margery Eastmond, Edythe Crump and Gwendoline Spray. The post war years were frugal for many, including the society, which had to contend with rationing and shortages of material for sets and costumes.

Coronation Year, 1953 and the chosen presentation was, you've guessed it, Merrie England, to welcome in the new Elizabethan Age. The Theatre Royal was the chosen venue, which had been under the management of Cliff Gwilliam since 1945. The society had often used the theatre's own, in house, orchestra for the music. However, finances were still tight, and the theatre management had instructed Gwilliam to reduce the orchestra from nine to five. The musicians were understandably not happy and they decided to strike – suddenly there was no orchestra to accompany the production. A cinema organ that had been installed in the orchestra pit, was offered for use. Reluctantly, the society took up the offer, otherwise it would have been necessary to cancel the show, and the show must go on. Such an unsatisfactory solution could not be accepted again, and in the future, the society would organise its own orchestra.

The Golden Jubilee of the society followed in 1954 when the Rebel Maid was staged – a romantic light opera in three acts, the story follows Lady Mary Trefusis as she secretly helps the Prince of Orange after he lands in Torbay during 1688. Ronnie Brixey, Fred Woodall, Eric Naish, Roy Moir, Babs Mason, Sheila Sims and Myra Roberts played the leading parts, along with a talented chorus to carry the story along. Despite the popularity of cinema and the new upstart in the corner of the living room, the TV, the nineteen-fifties proved to be a financial success for the society. Clouds appeared in 1959 when rumours were abound that the Theatre Royal was about to close as more people stayed at home to watch the flickery box in the corner. Nothing happened, and the society staged The Dancing Years in 1960 and Summer Song in 1961.

The Theatre Royal was again the venue for the 1962 production of The Desert Song, an operetta with music by Sigmund Romberg and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, Otto Harbach and Frank Mandel. Set in Morocco, the dashing leader of an Arab rebellion is really the son of the local French General Birabeau – of course he is in love with a beautiful French Margot Bonvalet, who is betrothed to Captain Fontaine. The Moroccan setting must have been very enticing to an Exeter audience that had not yet taken to holidaying in Spain, never mind North Africa, and had probably seen the 1953 Warner Brothers version at the local cinema. The Desert Song was the last production by the society at the Theatre Royal as it was closed on 22nd September 1962.

For the next two years, the society staged Patience and Merrie England respectively, at St George's Hall (now the Corn Exchange). The hall was not a huge success with access onto the stage for the cast from the wings rather difficult, and poor acoustics. The society's officers considered the venue for the next production and settled on the ABC or former Savoy Cinema at London Inn Square.

Oklahoma! was big enough for the first production at the ABC, and although the dressing room and back stage facilities were rather cramped, the large auditorium of 2,000 seats and generous stage were ideal for this most popular of musicals. The popularity of American musicals at the cinema offered the society a change from the earlier fare of Gilbert and Sullivan, with Kismet, Annie Get Your Gun, Kings Rhapsody and My Fair Lady being produced in the 1960s. The old favourite, The Gondoliers was a second show for 1969, but this time, staged at the Northcott Theatre. The Song of Norway, (filmed in the same year), and The Sound of Music were both produced in 1970. The Sound of Music was the Devon premiere of what has since become a popular, sing-a-long classic. The last show at the ABC was an adaptation of H G Wells' Kipps renamed Half a Sixpence which had originally starred Tommy Steele in the West End production. James Whiteside, a dependable member since the Second War died in the same year, and he was remembered in the souvenir programme. Two long-standing officers of the society stood down after Half a Sixpence – Ronnie Brixey and 'Bunny' Alderton. Bunny had both appeared on stage and had acted as publicity officer while a member, and had caught the 'theatre bug' from his mother who was a founding member from its Edwardian beginnings.

The Northcott became the permanent home of the society when it staged Pink Champagne for the 1973 season. Another film favourite was chosen for the 1974 show with Fiddler on the Roof – this was another success for the society, despite the wheel almost coming off the cart in the end scene of one performance – from my own experience, the rule is, if the audience doesn't notice, you've got away with it! The run of La Belle Helene in 1977 was saddened by the announcement of the death of Peggy McQueen the long standing wardrobe mistress.

Through to the centenary of the society, more popular shows that had recent runs in London were staged including Summer Song and Salad Days (1981), My Fair Lady (1989), Hello Dolly (1995), Me and My Girl (1997), Mack and Mabel (2001) and 42nd Street (2003). In 2011 Jesus Christ, Superstar is to be the April production. During the years, the society has said goodbye to many who have passed away, but new members, young and old join up to work hard, have fun and make live music!

Source:Thanks to Dick Passmore for allowing me to use his One Hundred Glorious Years - The Exeter Amateur Operatic Society as a basis for this history. Wikipedia supplied further details of some of the shows.

The Gondoliers 1909The first souvenir programme was for The Gondoliers in 1909. Click to enlarge.Theatre RoyalThe Theatre Royal about the time that the Exeter Amateur Operatic Society first perfomed on its stage.
Interested in joining, or seeing their next show?
See the Exeter Musical Society website.

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