A Brief History
Overture and Beginners Please -the traditional cry backstage in ‘the theatre’ to call everyone to their places for the performance to begin.
Our own overture was a concert, under the baton and direction of Mr Fred Trussell, a local professor of music. He arranged for some of his pupils to put on what proved to be a successful curtain raiser to our long history. This was given at the original Hove Town Hall on Monday 20th December 1886.
Our beginners were headed by our first leading lady, a soprano, Edith Welling and our first Hon.Secretary and leading actor Argyle Galloway. (They were later married, thus starting a tradition which continues to this day, through several generations of families).
The group chose to call themselves ‘The Brighton and Hove Operatic Society’ following a precedent of a few similar groups in the North and thus became the first of many in the South.
On Thursday 28th April the following year (1887) our first full length show, ‘HMS Pinafore’ was given, also at the Hove Town Hall, which was to become our home until the end of the century.
With such an inspiring name, for the next few years ‘real opera’ was introduced with a performance of ‘Carmen’ followed by the lesser known ‘ Fra Diavola’, ‘Madame Favart’, ‘La Mascotte’, and ‘Olivette’ all sung in English!
With such ambitious works behind us, we reverted to the British comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan (G & S), which remained our standard trusty fare for some years and carried us into the next (and future) eras.
In the latter years of the 1890’s there was a gap in productions until our finances were boosted by recruiting new members, and the name Drury, Ward and Donovan came into the picture, they and their families taking lead roles in our subsequent history in various ways.
In the 1900 we entered into real theatre at the Theatre Royal, where we gave (as a charity performance) the double bill of ‘HMS Pinafore’ and ‘Trial By Jury’ in aid of the Mafeking Relief Fund for soldiers, widows and orphans of the Boar War in far of South Africa.
This was our first full week booking and we reprised this programme there the following year.
We then gave annual performances at the Theatre Royal, sometimes two whole works in one week; firstly G & S works and then introducing other light opera pieces popular in London until 1914, where our production of ‘Ruddigore’ was prophetically the last before the outbreak of the Great War (now known as World War I).
With peace declared in 1918 we re-formed ourselves and welcomed many more talented actors and in February 1920 moved to the West Pier Theatre appropriately performing ‘Merrie England’, more G & S and other popular pieces such as ‘The Geisha’ and ‘Floradora’.
Having refreshed ourselves with the sea breezes we returned to the Theatre Royal in 1923 where we remained, giving a selection of works popular at the time, including ‘The Vagabond King’, ‘Rose Marie’, ‘The Student Prince’ and ‘Bitter Sweet’.
But in 1939 World War II put a temporary end to our public performances, though some members gave concerts to entertain the troops.
Change Of scene
During World War II the centre sections of the two piers were removed to prevent and enemy landing. At the end of hostilities they were repaired and re-opened and by happy chance the ceremony was conducted by the daughter of the two original leading players.
This gave us the opportunity to savour the ozone once more and we took up residence at the Palace Pier Theatre where we performed almost every September until 1964.
In 1972 we returned with ‘Half a Sixpence’ which turned out to be one of the last ever shows performed there as sadly this theatre was damaged in a storm and demolished later that year.
Programmes – we have a varied selection of programme styles from the ornate black and white 3 fold in the early years and luxury souvenir books (with costumed photographs) of the 1930’s, the tiny austerity ones after World War II, to the elaborate glossy type of recent years. All give examples of social history in their many advertisements.
Refreshments – As a rest from performing we have held after show parties, various social events, dinner dances, and for both our Golden Jubilee and the Centenary we held very special reunions at the Royal Pavilion and to mark our earliest years, The Hove Town Hall.
Other Activities – To show our versatility, we have also delved into the realms of entertainment, with revues, plays and over 30 pantomimes (for some years ours was the only one in Brighton at a public theatre).
Scene 1 – For this section we returned to dry land and four venues new to us; The Hippodrome, The Grand, Her Majesty’s and the Essoldo. Where are these lovely theatres now you may ask? Gone but not forgotten, though the Hippodrome is still standing but sadly empty.
Here we enjoyed the shows of Ivor Novello, Irving Berlin, and the newly released musicals of Rogers and Hammerstein until 1964 before returning to the Theatre Royal in 1965.
Scene 2 –We were privileged to perform many of the classics of musical theatre here, ‘The Merry Widow’, ‘Die Fledermaus’, ’My Fair lady’, ‘Kismet’, ‘Camelot’ and the first of many ‘Olivers’. During that time we booked the theatre for a two week run of ‘The Sound Of Music’ and gave repeat performances of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’.
Scene 3 – After ten spectacular years of these wonderful shows we again fell on hard times and de-camped to another new venue – The Gardner Arts Centre, where we experimented with two unusual shows, ‘Oh What A Lovely War’ and ‘Lock Up Your Daughters’.
Scene 4 – We were soon able to return to the Theatre Royal where we ventured into film (literally) with ‘Mack and Mabel’ and other shows, culminating with our Centenary show ‘Guys and Dolls’ in 1986.
After the euphoria of our celebrations we came down to earth and had to re-coop our finances once again. But we kept going and in 1990/91 gave three separate weeks performances of ‘La Cage Aux Folles’ and a two week booking of ‘Barnum’ (when the cast attended circus school and the stage was strengthened to withstand the specialised equipment!).
Coffers replenished we performed many popular Broadway and West End shows, including ‘42nd Street’, ‘Anything Goes’, ‘Crazy for You’, ‘Me and My Girl’ and ‘Copacabana’ in 2002.
We then alternated between the Gardner Arts Centre and the Theatre Royal and moving out to the Southwick Barn in2006.
Much heart searching went on for a couple of years during which we took the bold step of abandoning our original name (though keeping this for administration and legal reasons) and rebranding our performing name to City Theatre Company in 2008.
To launch our new image we gave a gala performance at the Theatre Royal on the 9th March 2008, thereafter performing at Southwick Barn, the Sallis Benny Theatre, The Komedia and the newly refurbished The Old Market.
There can be no such thing! The show goes on from strength to strength and with increasing optimism for the future.
One cause of our optimism is our thriving youth section which made its appearance briefly in 1986 and is now a successful addition to the adult company. They have had huge successes, able to obtain rights to show that the adults would give their lives for, shows such as ‘Les Miserables’ and ‘Billy Elliot’, ‘Oliver’ and in 2013 the hugely successful ‘Cats’.
Step forward ALL who have taken part in our long history, both on and off the stage. Where would we have been without the producers, directors, choreographers, chorus masters, conductors, pianist, stage managers, crew, lighting and sound, scenery, make up, costumiers, officers and committee members, chaperones, friends and supporters.
Some names however do merit a special mention for the huge contribution they have made in various ways to our story.
Trussell, Welling, Galloway, Drury, Hogarth, Ward, Donovan, Dixon, Siese, Hyman, Paling, Ramsey, Aldous, Rose, Shaw, Godwin, Saint, Caddy, Campbell….. and so many more.
Also to all the recent and present day active members, organisers and supporters ‘without whom’….…as the saying goes.