Ray Riches of Hebden Bridge made a welcome return to Todmorden Antiquarian Society last week.
We heard his humourous account of Little Theatre’s 90-year journey as it grew “bigger, bolder and better”, whilst continuously searching for a permanent home.
The group originated through Hebden Bridge Literary and Scientific Society founded in 1905.
The play-readers wanted to initiate a performing Drama Society and decided to stage an annual comedy, starting with “The Walls of Jericho”.
Ray showed memorabilia documents around which he built this tale.
Little Theatres were private societies with tickets only available by member’s invitations.
Thus Ray told of past strident committee meetings, detailed accounting, envelope donations systems.
The first venue was the Co-operative Hall. Hebden Bridge Picture House was used but with nowhere to rehearse!
In 1927 the Little Theatre group arranged use of the Brass Band Room cornering Calder Holmes.
However, the band room had no chairs, so 100 were borrowed from the Grammar School which the cast carted forwards and backwards each performance!
In 1937 Hebden Bridge District Council pledged to turn all Calder Holmes into a recreational park.
Reluctantly a two-year search for another home began.
They went on the road performing in mills, schools, Churches and Chapels.
Eventually, Ray said a lease was negotiated for the ground floor of the Trades Club.
Here they built a 300-seat theatre and remained there for 40 years.
Despite grave anxiety, productions continued during WW2 allowing a five minute interlude after air-raid warnings for any persons wishing to leave.
Ray commented that those were the golden years!
Post-war productions received over 1000 applications for theatre seats.
The Little Theatre purchased a piece of canal-side land after a failed council bid to create a pathway from the Memorial Gardens to Holme Street.
The 1970s attendances dropped from television competition and increased car outings.
In 1977 the Trades Club wanted higher rents, consequently lack of money forced yet another move.
At an emergency meeting member’s pledged to create their own 70-seat premises from an asbestos garage.
“The Diary of Anne Frank” was this theatre’s first production.
The atmosphere alongside the canal, with ducks and barges was incredible.
This building became dilapidated within 10 years, but further fund-raising determined another 120-seat theatre.
In November 1986 a firework put through the letterbox caused havoc.
Besides the building, valuable old props, costumes and sets were lost in the resulting fire.
The £3,000 insurance payout prompted another fund-raising campaign to build a brand new theatre.
Ray had joined the Little Theatre group in 1968 and was involved throughout these trials and tribulations. More fund raising, more nomadic performances, and even trench digging towards the new-build!
In 1993 the present building was opened with celebratory events entitled “A Month in Spring”.
These included music halls, a film night, Folk and Blues music, Opera North and Northern Ballet.
Ray said that five plays are produced annually by the Little Theatre team and they eagerly anticipate their centenary.