Just ten men sowed the seeds of the society’s foundation at a meeting on the afternoon of Tuesday February 12th 1918. There was a shortage of musical theatre in town and returning NZ service men had experienced some of the popular shows in London.
A publicly advertised meeting attracted 60 people to the council chambers and Blenheim Amateur Operatic Society was formed.
After a variety show was staged to raise funds, the first major production Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Gondoliers” took place in His Majesty’s Theatre, High St, on the 7th May 1918. Despite being a resounding success and receiving glowing reports the show was not a financial success because of the cost of production. So nothing changes!
Undaunted the society took the show to Nelson where it was a great success and this was the start of 11 years of interchanging visits with Nelson Operatic Society. It should be noted that cornetist Ern Rose and trombonist Norman Holdaway annoyed the dancers by firing peas at them with their instruments. Norman’s grandson Chris carries on the family tradition of involvement with the society, although to our knowledge has never been caught bombarding the cast with projectiles.
During the 1920s the society continued to flourish, finally finding a permanent rehearsal room in the Orange Hall (later the Blenheim Community Arts Theatre) in Main St. In 1924 the society staged “Miss Hook of Holland” and this show marked the first appearance of Ivy Mills on piano; she played in the orchestra until 1978.
By 1932 the Great Depression forced many societies to close their doors. Blenheim came close, as many men were away from town on work schemes, but we managed to hold the society together.
In 1937 “A Country Girl” was staged, directed and choreographed by Cecily Tabor-Gregory. She produced many shows during the next 12 years and was noted for appearing in a different evening dress to every rehearsal, making sure there was an animal in each show and sometimes joining in the chorus line in the middle of a scene, just to check how things were going. The company always addressed her as “madam”.
War clouds were again gathering. “Sally” was staged in 1941, a bubbly musical about a dishwasher who becomes a star. The society had to cope with a severe shortage of young men as many were being called up for service. In 1943 the production of “Fun Wagon” was well received but completed in a last minute rush. Committee members and stage crew painted the backcloth on the afternoon before opening night.
Making her debut in the 1945 production of “Going Crazy” was ballet mistress Betty Vercoe. She took over as ballet mistress permanently in 1954 and choreographed every show from then until 1976. The other notable from the 1945 show was the appearance of Noel Mangin, who at the age of 13 was already a talented soprano. He went on to achieve worldwide fame as an operatic bass singing all the great operatic roles in the best opera theatres around the world.
1946 saw “Our Miss Gibbs” produced over five performances. Musical Directors Len Coker and Bill Horrocks put in many hours re-writing scores for brass band members who could not read music in the bass clef.
The society bounced back in grand style after the problems of the war years securing the relatively new show “No, No, Nanette”. The show had first been aired in New York only ten years before. By now the society had regained the lease of the Orange Hall for rehearsals, having abandoned the Quiltex building that they had used for the past 9 years.
Cecily Tabor-Gregory returned as producer for the production of “A Country Girl” in 1947 .The show marked the first appearance of Hugh Duncan who became a long serving president and was one of the first members of Marlborough Repertory Society. One night on stage alongside Tom Glover the latter forgot his lines. Mr. Duncan launched into a lengthy ad-lib to prompt him. The director thought it so good that she told them to keep it in.
1949 saw the repeat staging of “The Belle of New York”, which drew packed houses. It marked the debut of many long serving members including a 19 year old trumpet player, Dave Beaumont, stage crew member Dick Musson and Merv Wisheart playing Baron Karl von Pumpernickel. The show suffered some misadventures including Keith Aberhart and Jean Simmons being hit by a length of falling timber just before the latter’s entry. The audience was none the wiser as she collected herself and performed her piece. A power blackout saw Peter Coleman’s motorcycle being attached to a generator to provide emergency power. The Aberhart brothers captured some pigeons and planted them in a suitcase on stage. When Ray Houlston opened it they escaped, flying madly around leaving many deposits in their wake.
In 1952 a building fund was started when it was realised that the Orange Hall would not last forever. A Marlborough Express review highlighted the perennial problem of small first night audiences at the production of “Desert Song”. “It is a pity Marlborough people fight shy of first night shows, waiting for them to be polished up. Last night’s performance was as smooth and efficient as if it had been running for months”. Other highlights of the show were George Sutherland splitting his robe in a dramatic scene. The audience cracked up as did the orchestra who were laughing so much they couldn’t play. Pianist Maisie Allport turned too many pages at once and lost her place causing the show to grind to a halt. She was a sympathetic musician who had an arrangement with nervous principals to play troublesome notes loudly to cover up any deficiencies.
By 1956 competition for performing rights had increased to the point that a show had to be booked two years in advance to be sure of securing it. In those days cast and crew had one chance to get it right with only one dress rehearsal on Sunday, the day before opening. It was not unusual for these rehearsals to go past midnight. Show budgets were stuck to religiously and for that reason the society never made a significant loss and never went into overdraft.
When television came in 1960 many thought it would spell the end of operatic societies but events proved them wrong. The decade started strongly with the first of the modern musicals, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma”. The show marked the first appearance of long standing member Viv Grigg, (then Viv Sideway) who played Laurey. In 1962 “South Pacific” was staged, the leads were Viv Grigg and Terence Burtenshaw. They were to repeat their roles some 21 years later.
Measles hit the 1963 cast of the show of “Carousel”, including the musical director Bert Ham who had to conduct from memory as his eyes were badly affected by the disease and he couldn’t read the score.
Blenheim Operatic’s 50th anniversary in 1968 was celebrated with a weekend of festivities organised by an events committee chaired by Merv Wisheart. The society finished its first half century with the enviable record of 49 major productions in 50 years.
1969 and “Oklahoma” marked the first appearance of Duncan Whiting as director, a person who had a major impact on the society over many years. He sang side stage one night when leading man Robin Sutherland came down with laryngitis.
In 1970 “Brigadoon” was performed. Little did everyone know it was to be the last show at His Majesty’s Theatre. Preparations for the 1971 show of “The Sound of Music” were well underway when the bombshell was dropped on February 25th that the theatre was to be demolished as an earthquake risk. An alternative venue was hastily found at the Marlborough Boys College Hall and during the next 12 years the society managed to stage some great shows in appalling conditions. The hall’s shortcomings meant that the society could not charge proper prices for shows and there was less money available for show budgets.
The staging of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicoloured Dreamcoat”, directed by Duncan Whiting in 1979, injected new life into the society by bringing in an influx of young people to theatre. It was also the first show to use microphones, an amplified sound system and lighting, controlled from the back of the hall. The following year was “Jesus Christ Superstar”, which was seen by more than 7000 people. Duncan Whiting returned to direct the 1982 production of “The King and I”. Leading lady Ruth Mercier and Colin Jones did an excellent ad-lib one night when leading man Graeme Holland was injured back stage and couldn’t come on.
The new theatre at The Marlborough Centre was finally opened in 1985 and christened by the society with a production of “My Fair Lady”.
The society achieved a major coup in 1988 by securing the first amateur rights in New Zealand for “Evita”. The plum role of Eva Peron was advertised nationally and three recalls were held before the part was awarded to Heather-Anne Pratt, daughter of longtime choreographer of the society’s shows Betty Campbell. Nelson professional Bruce Martin played Che Guevara and Robin Sutherland was Peron. More than 200 people were involved with the show and it was promoted with a massive pre-selling campaign. 74% of tickets were sold before opening night and the occupancy rate was 99.3%.
History was again made in 1990 with an idea formulated by Duncan Whiting to join forces with Repertory to perform back to back shows of “Romeo and Juliet” and “Westside Story”.
As the society progressed through the nineties one of the notable highlights was the 1995 production of “Les Miserables” directed by Duncan Whiting assisted by local Anglican vicar Richard Ellena as musical director. The barricade was a work of art and was rotated by an unseen team inside the construction. One night as the heavy set turned displaying the dramatic spectacle of the dead and dying revolutionaries there was a scream of pain from inside the barricade as it ran over a stagehand’s foot. No doubt the audience thought it was part of the script. The season was a sellout with the cast enjoying standing ovations throughout and many members of the audience comparing the production favourably with professional shows around the world. The show was followed by the successful 1996 production of “Chess”, a spectacular inclined chessboard formed the stage and black and white costumes completed the ensemble.
“Hello Dolly” was performed in 2001 directed by Simon Coleman and this was followed in 2002 by “ShowBoat” with the irrepressible Joe Kingi in one of the principal roles. Sadly Joe died suddenly in March 2003 and his presence in the society is sorely missed.
The policy of the society has been to follow each well-known show with a less well-known production in the following year. In line with this, “Aspects of Love” was produced for 2003. Often these shows are more difficult to sell but it is felt that the policy is good for the growth of the members of the society. It proved impossible to stage a major show in 2006 so two theatre restaurants were performed in the Lakings Road premises. They were “Beyond Rawhide” directed by Darryl Cribb and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, directed by Duncan Whiting.
In the same year the society’s name was changed to Blenheim Musical Theatre, to reflect more accurately the activities of the organisation.
“Chicago” was a spectacular success in 2007 and this was followed by the rock musical “Grease” in 2008, which again introduced a more youthful cast to the society.
In 2010 “The Sound of Music” was staged and technology took another major leap with a powerful projector being used to portray the backdrops during the different scenes.
During the past 30 years the society has staged a series of theatre restaurants used as fundraisers, but also as a means of giving fresh actors and backstage personnel a chance to gain the experience of staging a production. A large number of members are required to run these events, including people to staff the kitchens, wait on tables, man the bar and look after front of house. They have proved popular with the public, often as a company staff Christmas event, and the intimate atmosphere of the society’s theatre in Lakings Road adds to the pleasure of the evening.
The society has had quite a few rehearsal venues over the years, including The Orange Hall in Main St (approximately on the police station site) and also The National Party rooms above Centrepoint in High St. But the highlight for the society was the purchase of the Regal Bakery property in Lakings Rd in the early seventies.
The second oldest musical theatre society in New Zealand, Blenheim Musical Theatre is proud to have brought so much musical pleasure to the Marlborough Community over many years. With their own milestone centenary fast approaching, the society looks forward to continuing to produce fantastic musicals for another hundred years.
Blenheim Musical Theatre Inc.
PO Box 383
Premises: 03 578-4110
After Hours: 03 579-4122
Secretary: 021 142-5736
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