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Public Entertainment in Amersham 1907-1955
This article was written by Michael Brooks for the Amersham Society/Amersham Museum newsletter and is reproduced here with permission.
The Bijou Hall was built in 1905/7 on part of a site previously occupied by William James Sumner’s Domestic Stores at 4/5 Station Parade, the later postal address being 125 Station Road. It was designed for use for dances, concerts and lectures, and opened on the 7th March 1907. The Bijou Hall Choral Society performed W.H. Birch’s cantata “The wreck of the Argosy” there on the 7th May 1908.
The Hall never came up to the expectations of William Sumner and the 1914-1918 War contributed to its demise. By 1920, it was used by Horace Felce, who had acquired the store, as a warehouse. He sold it in 1922 to Walter Collins, a pianist and composer. He renamed it ‘The Pavilion’ and opened on the 18th November 1922 with a concert party and a play, followed on the 23rd November with the first silent film shown in Amersham, “Forbidden Fruit” with Walter himself on the piano. Children’s performances were introduced on the 10th January 1923 with “Rin-Tin-Tin” at 3d. a seat with a free bag of sweets.
The Pavilion Picture House initially had 120 seats, later increased to 150 tipping seats, with Mr. Morris as Commissionaire in blue uniform and a basement café run by Mrs. Collins. Among the films shown were Charlie Chaplin, Felix the Cat and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. For a few years, poor children were treated to a free Christmas performance.
Though initially a success, interest began to wain. Films ceased in 1926 though it was used as an amateur theatre by the Mid-Bucks. Players. The last performance was on the 1st December 1928. The Hall was used by the Post Office that year as a sorting office for heavy Christmas mail.
The demise of the Pavilion was hastened by the fact that in 1926 Wallter Collins had teamed up with Alfred Woodley of Lexham Gardens to form Colwood Pictures and Theatres Ltd. to build the Regent Cinema on Sycamore Road. The Regent cinema opened with seating for 700 on the 3rd November 1928 with Harry Lauder’s “The Hunting Tower”. In 1930, the Cestreham Players produced “Iolanthe” there. Jack Warner was among the stars who appeared. Shipman & King purchased it in 1931 and introduced a new sound system, and in 1935 a wide screen, but competition from a Chesham cinema and increasing popularity of television forced closure on the 10th March 1962.
The Pavilion remained closed from 1929 to 1931 when the Mid-Bucks. Players took a long lease on it. Under the supervision of J.W. Drake, it was reconstructed by Messrs. Humphrey Bros. of Lee Common to provide 220 seats, central heating and a trapdoor. It was renamed ‘The Playbox Theatre’ and opened on the 28th December 1931 with “The Ghost Train”. Not proving a commercial success, it closed in 1934. Cavan Lambert re-opened it in January 1935, re-christening it “The Playhouse” but was soon forced to be closed yet again.
[For the period between 1936 and 1949 under the direction of Sally Latimer and Caryl Jenner, see a separate page]
John Ferris, a local toymaker, and his wife Rosa de Leon sold their house to buy the theatre but, despite great efforts by the Supporters’ Club, local amateurs, the Chiltern Players and some professionals agreeing to appear without wages, audiences continued to dwindle. The Playhouse was finally closed after the last performance of “Babes in the Wood” in January 1956. Auctioneers Pretty and Ellis bought the building and after they had kindly offered three months’ grace in case the theatre could be revived, the Bijou Hall became an auction room which it remains to this day. Sally Latimer died in 1977 at the age of 66 years.
All the World’s a Stage
This was first published in the Amersham Society Newsletter of September 1986 and was written by David Smith. There is a follow-up article below it entitled ‘The Bijou Hall’ written by Nicholas Salmon.
The Hetherington, Pretty & Ellis Auction Room started life as the Bijou Hall at least as long ago as 1907. It had a stage and was used for a variety of entertainment, including dancing. It started to show films regularly, however, in 1922 when it was renamed The Pavilion and became the local cinema. The proprietor, a Mr Walter Collins, was a pianist and composer who lived in a house in Sycamore Road, roughly where Carpenter’s, the ironmongers stood. The silent films did, of course, call for accompaniment on the piano with drums thrown in when called for by more dramatic action! Mr Morris, the imposing commissionaire, was resplendent in a blue uniform and in the basement below the hall Mrs Collins ran an attractive café. The writer well remembers ‘going to the pictures’ at The Pavilion, although quite why his 2d only entitled him to a seat on the floor he cannot now recall. However, the films of Charlie Chaplin and the cartoon, Felix the Cat, are well remembered. He also remembers the whole family going to see the first firm version of the famous stage hit ‘Chu Chin Chow’ and the sense of disappointment that it proved to be little more than a re-hash of ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’. Incidentally, the seating of the cinema then was about 150. Another activity was an annual Christmas Party in the café given for the poor children of the district.
In 1926 Mr Collins and Alfred Woodley, the builder, teamed up to form the company incorporating parts of each of their names – Colwood Pictures Limited – to build the Regent Cinema in Sycamore Road near Mr Collins’ house. Thereupon The Pavilion stopped showing films, but it remained open as a theatre and when the talented local amateur group, the Mid-Bucks Players, led by Derek Barnes and his wife Geta Buffham, rented the property it was re-named ‘The Playbox’. There must still be many in the district who remember their polished productions such as ‘The Ghost Train’ and ‘The Middle Watch’ in which George Boyce, later to become a distinguished Chairman of the Local Authority, stamped his name on our memories as Marine Ogg. Live theatre, albeit amateur, was so exciting in those days before ‘the box’ invaded our homes and as we think of May Gilbert, Winifred Barter, Larry Harding and others of that delightful company we sometimes wish we could turn the clock back.
On Boxing Day 1936 the professional theatre entered Amersham when the old building became ‘The Playhouse’ and Sally Latimer and her company opened with ‘Hay Fever’ to start her first repertory season in partnership with John Penrose. Somehow the seating capacity was increased by about 90 and the wartime evacuation swelling Amersham’s population helped to ensure a period of prosperity for the theatre. At that time it was the only one in Bucks, but sadly once the war ended and TV returned and its coverage increased, theatre attendances declined and the Company faced crisis after crisis. Sally had for many years had a wonderful partner in Caryl Jenner but eventually they were forced to give up the struggle and Rosa de Leon and her husband, John Ferris (a marvellous set designer) took over. They too had their struggles but for several years achieved a high standard of production, until sadly they too had to close. There were spasmodic productions by other companies for a while but the theatre virtually came to an end in 1955. The sale of the property was handled by Hetherington’s predecessors, Swannell & Sly and in view of their subsequent merger it is interesting to note that they sold the property to Pretty & Ellis.
Some of us who had been regular first-nighters throughout the life of our beloved ‘Rep’ viewed this event with sorrow, but at P&E’s opening sale one of our number, Mr Benyon from Longfield Drive, made a gracious little speech welcoming the auctioneer to the boards and the auctioneers – or some of them – have been playing to the gallery ever since!
Newcomers to the Sale Room always hear the name of Dirk Bogarde bandied about as if the fact that he started his acting career here is the only reason why its life as a theatre should be remembered, but those of us who enjoyed many happy hours there watching outstanding productions like to think that there are many, many actors had actresses whose experience in the hard routine of ‘Rep’ at Amersham made them highly proficient in their craft. We still like to spot them, mainly in TV and films.
Peter Howell, well-known on TV, used to come with the Guildford Rep. when Amersham had a series of exchange visits with that Company. Richard Waring, who excelled in revues, later became a well-known TV script writer, starting with ‘Marriage Lines’. His brother, Derek, who later married Dorothy Tutin and whose daughter starred in the West End in the revival of ‘Gigi’, has been seen in many TV sitcoms and other plays. We remember his first appearance at Amersham as a very raw beginner and were fascinated to watch his development into a very polished performer. One can still switch on the radio and recognise instantly John Westbrook’s striking diction and recall the early Sally Latimer days when his commanding presence and golden voice graced our stage. Others one still sees are John Rutland, Barbara New and Margery Mason, to name but a few.
An interesting sidelight on the history of the building, more prosaically known as No. 125 Station Road, is the fact that the first meetings of what was to become the Free Church were held there in its Bijou Hall days. Led by Mr Alfred Ellis, a distinguished solicitor who lived at ‘Fulbeck’, The Avenue, adjoining the property, the Fellowship eventually built the first Free Church in Sycamore Road. Mr Ellis (no connection with Pretty & Ellis) subsequently became the National President of The Baptist Union. The original Free Church was demolished when the shop development at Sycamore Road took place and the present building was erected on the opposite corner. Funnily enough, the first of the present series of furniture auctions were held by Pretty & Ellis in the old St Michael’s Hall, next to the old Free Church.
However, to return to the present Auction Room, we must give the lie to Dirk Bogarde’s auto-biographical ‘A Postillion Struck by Lightning’ in which he says “The Amersham Rep was based in a converted grocer’s shop near the station”. No, sir! The International Stores was next door. Our building always had a stage and we hope we shall always have one.
The Bijou Hall
The building which was later converted into the Bijou Hall was at first part of Mr William James Sumner’s Domestic Stores, an upmarket grocery shop that had started in a single shop further up the parade. Prior to 1911 Mr Sumner closed his Domestic Stores and converted Nos 4 & 5 Station Parade into the Bijou Hall which was used for a number of years for dances and entertainment.
After the First World War, Mr Sumner sold his property in Station Parade to Horace Felce who used it as a warehouse for beds, carpets, china, glass and ironmongery. He in turn sold it to Walter Collins, who re-opened the old Bijou Hall in 1922 as ‘The Pavilion’.
The Pavilion had closed by 1930 (most probably forced out of business by the opening of the Regent Cinema), for in this year a firm trading under the name of Payne’s Repositories was in residence. For a few years after this date the building was known as ‘The Playbox’, but this in turn closed in the later part of 1934. After a few months disuse, the building was re-opened on 28th January 1935 under the management of Mr Cavan Lambert who re-christened the theatre ‘The Playhouse’.