Theatre’s long road to success

Todmorden U3A vice-chairman Jean Pearson with guest speaker Ray Riches
Todmorden U3A vice-chairman Jean Pearson with guest speaker Ray Riches

Speaker Ray Riches, on his third visit, brought the history of Hebden Bridge Little Theatre to life at Todmorden University of the Third Age, his stories producing much laughter from his audience.

Next year the Little Theatre will be in its 90th year, having its origins in Hebden Bridge Literary and Scientific Society, founded in 1905. Ray likened it to Todmorden U3A in that it was founded to offer self-help education and some of the groups mirrored those of today’s U3A. Ray did not use notes but had old programmes, minute books and various other documents around which he built his story.

Their first venue was the Co-op Hall and they played to full houses. A theme running through this story is the search for a permanent home. The Picture House also saw productions mounted but there was nowhere to rehearse. In 1927, the theatre struck a deal with Hebden Bridge Brass Band to share the band room at Calder Holmes.

Entrance was by membership only and a strict regime was in place. Each member was on a mailing list and attendance was by invitation. However, acceptance was almost mandatory and payment was made by donation at the door. Woe betide those whose contribution was deemed insufficient. They would find that no more invitations were forthcoming. Likewise if more than two invitations per year were met with no response. The death of a member was the other eventuality by which those waiting to go on the mailing list might find themselves in receipt of the coveted invitation.

Uproar in the town ensued when Hebden Bridge Urban District Council announced its intention to convert Calder Holmes into a recreational area, but with three months’ notice, the theatre was on the search for a home once again. They went on the road for a while, performing in mills, schools and churches. They next secured a seven year lease on the downstairs of the Trades Club, where they built a theatre complete with proscenium arch and 300 seats. The years between 1937 and 1977 were golden years. Houses were always full and the takings for a production ran into thousands of pounds. After the second world war, there were a thousand more applications for membership than seats available.

The theatre had a stroke of luck when the council set out to buy some land necessary to make a public right of way from Calder Holmes to the canal. The bid was dropped, leaving the land to be purchased by the theatre for what is now the patio and bar area.

By 1976, the theatre faced another crisis. Audiences had plummeted and the Trades Club had decided to become an entertainments centre and gave the theatre an ultimatum: pay more rent or leave. Lack of money forced a new search for a home and in 1977 the building next door to the Trades was bought and the theatre went into the red. A 70-seat theatre on the present site emerged from that building.

Before it was ready, the theatre went on the road again playing at the Picture House, the Birchcliffe Centre and Mytholmroyd Church among other venues. Once converted, “The Diary of Anne Frank” was produced and became the theatre’s most successful. But it was soon time to leave the building.

This process was facilitated by a firework finding its way through the letterbox in November 1986. As well as the building, valuable old props, costumes as well as sets were lost in the resulting fire and the subsequent £3,000 insurance payout prompted a fund-raising campaign to raise enough money to build a new theatre.

The public were very supportive of this and in 1993 the present building was opened. Now Ray reported, the theatre is more or less without debt.