History of Petts Wood Operatic Society
So, how did it all begin? Strange though it may seem, the Society was born on a summer evening in 1935, in the pavilion of a local sports club. The club house was a popular meeting place for local residents, and a group of these hit on the idea of starting a local operatic society in what was, then, a new community.
A public meeting was held, and the chair was taken by Mr S.W. Cook. His chief supporter was Mr L.V.H. Gingell, who subsequently became the Society’s first Chairman and Musical Director. A committee was elected, rules discussed and at a later meeting, it was announced that the Society would give two performances of “The Street Singer” at the Village Hall, Chislehurst, early the following year.
Rehearsal accommodation was a major problem, and whilst principals could easily meet in members’ houses, the early full rehearsals were held at the clubhouse with merely a curtain dividing the bar and billiard table from the performers. With a new venture of this type, it was essential to keep all costs down to a minimum, and existing scenery at the village hall was utilised. Costumes in the main were made by the cast, under the expert eye of Mrs Edith Cook, who remained as Wardrobe Mistress to the Society for many years. About five hundred people attended the first two performances and the critic of the local paper wrote; “The Society made a brilliant debut and this production sets it off on a bright career”. What he didn’t know was that the load on the electrical circuits in the village hall were somewhat high, to put it mildly, and disaster was only just averted. It should be pointed out that the comedy duo in this production were Hector Perrin and Millie Ramsay.
The December 1936 production was “The Quaker Girl” again at the Village Hall. This time for three nights! It was during this production that the show was interrupted, so that the audience could listen to King Edward VIII’s abdication speech, after which the audience sang the National Anthem, after which the show resumed.
In 1937, the Society presented “The Mousme” and this was the first show where members constructed the scenery and properties, a practice that was to be repeated with “The Rebel Maid”, but then lapsed until the late 1960s.
Following “The Rebel Maid”, the Society announced that they were going to produce their first Gilbert & Sullivan Opera. “The Gondoliers” was the one chosen. But fate ordained differently, for without warning, the Society was deprived of the use of the Village Hall, and it looked as though the final curtain on the Society was about to descend. However, with a view to keeping performers together, Mr Walter Dossett offered to stage a revue at The Daylight Inn, Petts Wood and “These Foolish Things” was presented in the ballroom – the first show where dances were arranged by Miss Rita Emmerson, who subsequently choreographed many shows for the Society after the Second World War.
The problems over the Village Hall having been resolved, the Society returned there in 1939 with “The Arcadians”. This was the last production before the 1939 – 1945 war, and indeed, the last production at the Village Hall, Chislehurst!
During the war, all activities ceased and the only thing of note to record was that all the scenery and props were destroyed by enemy action. With Peace came the desire, once again, to restart the Society. The Society was ‘reborn’ with Mrs Norman Phelps as Chairman, Arthur Willis as Secretary and Percival Jakes as Treasurer with £20 in the bank! The Musical Direction was in the hands of Peter Wright, for the first time for many shows, and Walter Dossett was Producer, a post he held with distinction – and few interruptions – until he retired in 1965.
The first post-war show was “The Geisha”, which was performed for three nights at a new venue; The Civic Hall, Orpington, which became the ‘home’ theatre for the Society until the Spring 1993 production of “Oliver!”, which took place at the Stag Theatre, Sevenoaks. The Society then decided to transfer to that Theatre permanently.
In 1949, the production was “Merrie England” and this saw the arrival of Madge and Reg Fox. Although Madge tragically died in 1954, Reg remained with the Society for many shows and was Chairman for a record 24 consecutive years.
1950 saw the long delayed first venture into Gilbert & Sullivan with “The Gondoliers”, followed in 1951 with “Katinka”. Back to G&S again in 1952 with “Iolanthe”, when for the first time the men’s chorus earned an enviable reputation, equal to that already bestowed on the ladies. This very high standard still pertains to this day and the excellent quality of the singing of the Society is the envy of many other groups in the area.
And so the list goes on with memories of jokes, mishaps and innovations. Memories flood back when one views the list of shows presented by the Society. 1972 was another milestone in our History, being the first year when we produced two full-length shows.
Petts Wood Operatic Society receives no subsidy of any kind and is a registered Charity, and continues to flourish through its own hard work, a continued influx of new young members and the support it receives from the Honorary Members and the local businesses and people of Petts Wood, Orpington and now Sevenoaks and many other areas of Kent.