Treading the boards: entertainment in the 1930s

Rita Denman spent her childhood in Elm Grove in the 1930s. This is one in a series of memoirs she has sent to My Brighton and Hove titled ‘Life up the Grove’.

The entertainment scene in Brighton was second to none. When I was a child there were half a dozen or so theatres ranging from variety at the Hippodrome to plays at the prestigious Theatre Royal where there were presentations prior to the West End opening. There were numerous cinemas, from the up market Savoy to the Arcadia, or Scratch as it was known, in Lewes Road. It was no wonder that many young Brightonians had the urge to perform.

Schools show at the Dome
From time to time the schools combined in putting on a show at the Dome. Whilst a pupil at Elm Grove Junior School I remember being a caterpillar bound up tightly in a sheet. The massed presentation of caterpillars on the Dome stage then shed their sheets to emerge as butterflies in their prettiest frocks to perform a sort of hula dance. Some sheets took so long to shed that the butterflies lost their moment of glory. At the end of the autumn term a show was given at Elm Grove Junior School in which every class contributed an item of singing, recitation, dancing, pantomime, or anything that could be mustered. The moment when the temporary stage was installed was one of high excitement with the end of term and Christmas in sight.

Brighton Music Festival
Brighton Music Festival was one of the highlights of the year. This was eagerly awaited and worked towards by youngsters who played and sang and danced. The week end papers carried the Class results and many pictures. There was always an exhibition of photographs taken by the Brighton and Hove Herald photographers in the window of their offices, which were near to the South Gate of the Pavilion.

A tap dancing craze
In the 1930s there were a number of dancing troupes in Brighton at the time when Shirley Temple and Fred Astaire made tap dancing a craze. Each troupe put on at least one show a year and some had particularly good singers and dancers who had their own following. When I was about nine years old I was enrolled into Madame Abott’s dancing class, which met on Saturdays at St Wilfrid’s Hall just off the Elm Grove. We also met at Madame’s home in Rose Hill Terrace. This was destroyed by a wartime bomb and was the site where the pre-fabs were placed. Our main venue for shows was at St Wilfrid’s Hall. The programmes consisted of tap, ballet, singing and acrobatics and at Christmas a pantomime. I was very proud when I was promoted to the Seven Diamonds Tap Line. The war and blackout curtailed many of these interests.

St Wilfrid’s Players
St Wilfrid’s Players was inaugurated in 1947 as a youth organisation connected to St Wilfrid’s Church and was under the direction of Mr Sidney Wills. From then until 1953 when I left Brighton the ‘Players’ satisfied my acting ambitions touring St Dunstan’s and local hospitals. We all became adept at performing around beds and unexpected pillars. The ‘Players’ were fortunate to have their own stage at St Wilfrid’s Hall and went from strength to strength achieving a very high standard. The St Wilfrid’s Players survived for twenty years when the name was changed to The Alpha Players. There were many other drama groups in the Brighton area and competing in the Brighton, Hove and District Drama Festival was a way of proving ourselves and receiving advice and gaining confidence. The amateur theatre critic Thalia from the Brighton and Hove Gazette reported on all the Brighton drama groups.

Comments about this page

  • Rita, thank you for your memories. As a current resident of Elm Grove I find them charming and fascinating.

    By Jon (13/11/2004)
  • Memories . . . memories, Rita. I took some of those photographs in the ‘Herald’ windows when I was a photographer there from 1947-53 (minus National Service) and lived in Lewes Road. Please see my website for memories of the Hippodrome and other entertainment venues in Brighton.

    Regards, Arthur.

    By Arthur Loosley (26/01/2005)

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