The Arcadians are so well-known in Letchworth and district, and so well supported, that it is difficult to imagine how frail and uncertain were their beginnings. Formed in 1952, the Society chose “The Arcadians” for their first show and looked forward to a bright and glistening future.
Rehearsals started enthusiastically enough, but before long the company lost its producer, treasurer, secretary, then its musical director!
The situation looked grim, but after these initial setbacks a new committee was formed and new officers appointed. Albert Cross became musical director and rehearsals continued.
Now new problems arose. The Arcadians had very little money and could hardly afford to hire rehearsal rooms. To raise money they organised draws, dances and jumble sales. To pay their first producer, they raised money by having a collection at every rehearsal!
The Arcadians weathered those early storms to begin the long haul to local public recognition. After “The Arcadians” came “The Gondoliers”. Early performances stimulated little interest, but on Saturday a packed house showed the promise of the big successes to come.
“A Country Girl”, “No No Nanette” and “Veronique” followed. Albert Cross, as musical director, had guided the company through the early shows, but after he left the district following “The Gondoliers”, Philip Wright took over to begin his successful association of fourteen years as musical director.
Horace Plinston succeeded F.W. Kellaway as president for “White Horse Inn”, and Joe Foster, taking over from William Black, began his term of four shows, as chairman with “Desert Song”, before handing over to Bernard Phillips. Kaete Behrens-Steinfield produced many of the early shows, but Nancy Taylor produced “The Gondoliers”, Winnie Stubbs (“A Country Girl”), John Manton (“Mikado”, “Desert Song” & “New Moon”) and Bill Paternall (“South Pacific” & “”Rose Marie”). Sybil Childe Warren master-minded the dancing right through until “New Moon” except for “The Gondoliers” (Nancy Taylor). Stella Land began her nine-show term as secretary, taking over from Patricia Coltman for “No No Nanette”, and Stanley Dutton, except for “The Gondoliers” was stage manager for the first thirteen shows.
Shows were getting bigger and bigger and more expensive. Musicals like “South Pacific”, “Rose Marie” and “Show Boat” continued to build the Arcadians’ reputation. “Goodnight Vienna” broke box office records and was followed by “Brigadoon”, “Oklahoma!” and “Gipsy Princess”.
Then came “My Fair Lady” with the company reaching new heights. There were packed houses for every performance.
Whilst financial success was important, box office appeal was not the only yardstick. Musicals which were less popular but gave more members of the cast more to do were considered as justifiable for inclusion, and whilst “La Belle Helene” in 1971 was not the most acclaimed of Arcadian shows, it was certainly rich in its standard of performance.
“The Vagabond King” and “Me & My Girl” preceded the outstandingly successful “Fiddler on the Roof”, after which came “Chu Chin Chow”, the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic “Carousel”, “Kiss Me Kate” and “Call Me Madam”.
House managers for the early shows were Henry Roberts, Cyril Wearmouth and Donald Griggs. Gerry Leonard and Jack Kellett were also included and Donald Griggs took over for ten shows in all. Pat Richardson was appointed business manager responsible for front-of-house in 1972.
Maurice Stretch was musical director for two shows before Graham Albone took over for “Fiddler on the Roof” in 1973.
A variety of producers during the first twenty-five years included Yvonne Claire, Denis Costello, Pam Galpin (who did “My Fair Lady”, “The Vagabond King”, “Me & My Girl” and “Fiddler on the Roof”), Reg Templar, Hector Ross, John Gardiner and Roger Scales.
Dr Tony Rodger became president for “Oklahoma!”, and Bernard Phillips became chairman for “Showboat”. Under Bernard’s astute leadership, the company made excellent progress and his death after he had steered the company through twelve shows was a severe blow. Freddie Walker stepped in temporarily to see the Arcadians through a difficult period, before handing over the chairmanship to Bob Smith.
For “Brigadoon” in 1966 Jack Aspinell became secretary and was to hold office for a period of seven shows. Mary Cuthbertson succeeded Jack, continuing as secretary for five shows. Jack’s untimely death after he had just taken over once more as secretary was a bitter blow and a great shock, for he was undoubtedly one of the most popular and hardworking members, both on stage and off. Norman Revill courageously took over as secretary at a particularly difficult time.
Until the late nineteen-seventies, all productions had been presented at St.Francis’ College in Letchworth Broadway. However, the better facilities at the recently opened Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage proved too great an attraction and the Arcadians became the first amateur society to perform there in 1978, presenting “Camelot”.
1979 proved to be a notable year in the history of the Arcadians. Peter Davies returned as producer for “Annie Get Your Gun”, since when he has been responsible for every major production, and also, the Young Arcadians first saw light of day with their production of “Variety is the Spice of Life!” directed by Kath Hull.
The 1980s were arguably when the Arcadians were at their strongest. Bob Smith continued as chairman, with Barbara Cole as secretary and Pat Richardson business manager. The production duo of Peter Davies and Graham Albone continued for more than twenty-five shows without a break, including “Half a sixpence”, “Oliver!”, “The King and I”, “Annie”, “The Sound of Music” and “Hello Dolly!”. Several productions had benefited from the choreography of Karel Bellringer. The Arcadians were fortunate to present sell-out after sell-out.
In 1986 Mary Driver took charge of the Young Arcadians for the first time with “The Wizard of Oz”. Subsequent successes included “Finians Rainbow” & “The Pirates of Penzance”.
In 1992, after twenty-five years continuous service, president Dr Tony Rodger retired and Bob Smith was “promoted” to take his place for “Anything goes”. Bob was succeeded in the role of chairman by Peter Cannell. During the nineties, new shows to be added to the Arcadians’ portfolio included “Waltzes from Vienna”, “Bitter Sweet” and “Mame”. In 1993, Graham Albone took a sabbatical, and was temporarily replaced by Glyn Evans for “Half a Sixpence”.
Barbara Cole and Pat Richardson both retired, and were replaced by Barbara Wright as secretary and Sally Albone as production secretary. For many productions during this time, Philip Sore was stage manager.
During the nineties, the Young Arcadians went from strength to strength with hits including “Bugsy Malone”, “Barnum” and “Little Shop of Horrors”.
In 1994, Peter Cannell stepped down as chairman, to be succeeded by Brian Seal for “Blitz!”.
Disaster struck just after Christmas 1996, when the Arcadians’ home and rehearsal premises, the North Avenue Methodist Church, was vandalised by arsonists. The show in production, “Singin’ in the Rain” was cancelled and replaced by a fund-raising review “Raise the Roof!”. From the proceeds, along with many other generous grants and donations, suitable reparations were made and the company was re-installed in time for rehearsals for the 1997 autumn production of “The Wizard of Oz”.
However, the fire proved a catalyst for even greater achievements, as the Arcadians won the NODA Eastern Area region 9 award for best production three times (“Annie” in 1998, “The Boyfriend” in 2000 and “Scrooge - the musical” in 2001) and in 2002 won the NODA Eastern Area Councillor’s Cup for best production in the entire Eastern Area for “Salad Days”. Most recently, in 2003, the Young Arcadians were inaugural winners of the Avery Shield for best junior production in NODA Eastern Area region 9 for their presentation of “Bugsy Malone”.
On stage, where the reputation of the Arcadians is ultimately made or lost, many “stars” have delighted audiences.
In lead roles and chorus many names from early years come to mind: James Golightly, Joyce Armiger, Winnie Stubbs, Fred Walker, Bill Pepper, Bob Boulton, Betty Mudd, Ken Briers, Edith Bristow, Jane Gifford, Maureen Chalkley, Peter and Dotty McIntosh, Michael Clarke, David Chamberlain, Sheila and Margaret Jones, Lynn Childerstone, Ismay Luckey, Peter Borrett, Gill Walker, Bill Simpson, June Huthert, Hilary Thomas, Lynn Webster, Derek Brookes, and many, many others.
In latter years, the Arcadians have been blessed with the talents of performers such as David Springate, Val Evans, Colin Clarke, Adele Walker and Stephanie Seal. Naomi Harvey, leading lady for “Showboat” and “Bitter Sweet” subsequently appeared on several occasions as a “star singer” on BBC Radio 2’s “Friday Night is Music Night” and also worked with the ENO.
In addition to those mentioned above, the Society has benefited from the enthusiasm and loyalty of many members including Chub Preston, Keith Driver, Diana Davis, Kathy Hull, Brenda Carrick, Babs Le Gros, Cynthia and John Cooper, Andy Wallis, Iain and Keryl Rutherford, Julie Chamberlain, Vicky Lockyer, Iris Talbot, Marshall Chalkley, John, Peter and Mary Cuthbertson, Ken Reader, Dennis Rusted, Peggy Beeching, Ernie Pharoah, Roger Newman Turner, Marion and Gerry Leonard, Sue Edwards, Sally Albone, Janet Fitzhardy, Norman Revill, Bob Smith, Rose Saunders and many, many more.
Back stage, “names familiar” include Graham Lyth, Tom Mealing, Tony Clark, Peter Comley, David Davis, Tim Rodger, Barbara Cole, Joan Walker, Jean Kellett, Edna Preston, Gill Noble, Douglas Haynes, Martin Ransford, Amy Phillips, Richard and Robin Gentle, Biddy Reed, Gill Mitchell, Geoffrey Mitchell, Norah Burgess, Susan Rusted, Gladys Pepper, Philip Sore, Mick Bonja, Gary Kifford and numerous others. Of particular note is the fact that Ken Hull had the remarkable record of being back stage for every main show during the first twenty-five years.
In 2002/3, the Arcadians celebrated their golden jubilee, and the fortunes of Letchworth Arcadians continue to thrive thanks to the dedication of the current membership - Bob Smith retired as President in 2003, to be succeeded by Roger Newman Turner; Bob is now a life member, along with Mrs Pat Richardson, Dr Tony Rodger and Norman Revill; More than two hundred members and patrons, and a thriving junior section of the Young Arcadians.
1953-1958 - F.W. Kellaway
1958-1966 - H. Plinston
1966-1991 - Dr. A. Rodger
1991-2003 - R. Smith
2003- 2017 R. Newman-Turner
2017 - Mrs Margaret Dinmore
1953-1954 - G.C. Williment
1954-1959 - W.C. Black
1959-1963 - J. Foster
1963-1975 - B. Phillips
1975-1977 - F. Walker
1977-1991 - R. Smith
1992-1995 - P. Cannell
1995- 2010 B.C. Seal
2010 - 2012 D Walker
2012 - 2013 W Hughes
2013 - Mary Driver
In 1979, Kath Hull formed The Junior Theatre Club. Since that date it has gone from strength to strength changing its name to Young Arcadians in 1990.
Karel Bellringer produced three shows but Mary Driver (nee Suggitt) was the producer for many years and put many youngsters through and on the road to theatrical training.
Starting out in 1979 as The Junior Theatre Club the youth group can boast many successes both with their productions as well as being the start of many careers ‘on stage’ for members.
Hot on the heels of Letchworth Arcadians celebrating their 50th anniversary their youth section, the Young Arcadians, are celebrating their 25th anniversary. And just like their elders the youngsters are now award winners in their own right.
Their 2003 production of ‘Bugsy Malone’ has just been named as the inaugural winners of the Avery Trophy, the National Operatic and Dramatic Association’s award for the best youth production in the region for 2002/2003 season.