The Open Air Theatre: A Chronology of Spectacular Shows

Stories From Scarborough has already introduced the history of Scarborough’s Open Air Theatre here, and discussed one of it’s productions – Carmen – in depth here. In response to requests from readers, here is a quick rundown of former productions, starting with Merrie England, the very first show to play at the theatre when it opened in 1932.
Merrie England 1930s
Above: Merrie England (Stories From Scarborough Image Archive)

Below: Illuminated for the opening night (Stories From Scarborough Image Archive)
Open Air Theatre
This was followed by Tom Jones in 1933 and Hiawatha in 1934.
Open Air Theatre
Above: Tom Jones, 1933 (Stories From Scarborough Image Archive)
Below: Hiawatha, 1934 (Stories From Scarborough Image Archive)
Open Air Theatre
Carmen was 1935’s crowd puller, while 1936 saw a return to an old favourite – Merrie England.
Open Air Theatre
Above: Merrie England, principal cast members (Stories From Scarborough Image Archive)
Below: Carmen’s principal cast members, 1935 (Stories From Scarborough Image Archive)
Carmen at the Open Air Theatre
In 1937 the theatre hosted The Pageant of Faust.
Faust (1937?)
Above: Faust (Stories From Scarborough Image Archive)
This was followed by Tannhauser in 1938...
Tannhauser 1938
Above: Priniciple cast members of Tannhauser, 1938 (Stories From Scarborough Image Archive)
…and Bohemian Girl in 1939.
Open Air Theatre
Above: Bohemian Girl, 1939 (Stories From Scarborough Image Archive)
You can read about Eileen Smith’s memories of participating in 1943‘s The Pay of the Pied Piper here, which was followed by A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1944, and yet another Merrie England in 1945. 1946 introduced a new production – Maritana, while Hiawatha was 1947’s highlight – another repeat of a former production.
Open Air Theatre
Above: Hiawatha, 1947 (Stories From Scarborough Image Archive)
1948, on the other hand, saw the return of Faust (The Pageant of).
Faust (1937?)
Above: The cast of Faust (Stories From Scarborough Image Archive)
Robin Hood starred in the 1949 programme, followed by The Vagabond King in 1950 and Song of Norway in 1951.
Song of Norway (1951)
Above: Song of Norway, 1951 (Stories From Scarborough Image Archive)
The Desert Song of 1952 was yet another spectacular affair:
Open Air Theatre
Above: The Desert Song, 1952 (Stores From Scarborough Image Archive)
As was Annie Get Your Gun in 1953.
Annie Get Your Gun 1953
Above: Stars of Annie Get Your Gun, 1953 (Stories From Scarborough Image Archive)
1954’s Chu Chin Chow was a production set in the Middle, rather than the Far, East…
Chu Chin Chow 1954
Above: Chu Chin Chow, 1954 (Stories From Scarborough Image Archive)
While 1955 transported audiences to America with Oklahoma, followed by the rather grand King’s Rhapsody in 1956.
Open Air Theatre
Above: King’s Rhapsody, 1956 (Stories From Scarborough Image Archive)
1957 brought White Horse Inn and Showboat starred in 1958.
Showboat (1958)
Above: Showboat, 1958 (Stories From Scarborough Image Archive)
1959’s The Merry Widow was another well received offering.
The Merry Widow 1959?

Above: The Merry Widow, 1959 (Stores From Scarborough Image Archive)
1960, 1961 and 1962 brought in further new productions – Summer Holiday, Carousel and Rose Marie respectively, while Desert Song returned for another run in 1963. After 1964’s South Pacific, The King and I ran for two years (1965-6) followed by Student Prince in 1967 and West Side Story in 1968. Although the 1961 film was a huge hit, West Side Story (the live musical) did not go down so well in Scarborough, and marked a period of gradual decline in popularity for the open air theatre.
There would be no further musicals performed there after West Side Story.

During the 1950s and 60s the theatre hosted It’s a Knockout on Wednesdays  over eleven years. In the 1970s much of the island theatre set-up was demolished, and the final concert in 1986 featured James Last and His Orchestra.
Redevelopment began in 2008 and today’s Open Air Theatre opened in 2010.

Are there any shows missing from this list? Please get in touch or leave a comment below.

Carmen at the Open Air Theatre

When Scarborough’s Open Air Theatre opened in 1932, in the heart of the new Northstead Manor Gardens, it was clear that this was to be no ordinary theatre. Actors occupied a stage in the middle of a lake, with an orchestra on floating barges, and performances faced constant threats of wind and rain, both of which could potentially jeopardise ambitious sets and carefully rehearsed musical numbers.

Open Air Theatre

Above: The Open Air Theatre (source)

Yet in spite of the many risks, open air theatre performances enjoyed nationwide popularity in Britain during the 1930s. On July 17th, 1934, the Manchester Guardian noted:

Dramatic performances in the open air seem to be coming into vogue…

(‘In the Open Air’, Manchester Guardian Jul 17 1934)

The article then goes on to list a whole host of ambitious projects at range of different locations, including Regents Park (London), a park in Salford (Greater Manchester), Abinger (Surrey), MacBeth in Morecambe and outdoor theatre performances in Cambridge.

Open Air Theatre

Above: Scarborough was not the only UK location experimenting with outdoor theatre (source)

Nonetheless, the outdoor theatre at Northstead Manor Gardens was surely one of the most unusual examples of this nationwide trend. One journalist at the Manchester Guardian was keen to note how impressed he was with Scarborough’s attempt to showcase Carmen in 1935.

…probably the first time a serious opera has been produced in the open air in England…

(‘“Carmen” in the open air: Scarborough experiment’, The Manchester Guardian, July 19, 1935 – all subsequent quotes are taken from this article)

The author, referred to only as G.A.H, had been invited to witness a rehearsal for the show on a unsettled grey day. His concerns lay mainly with how Carmen, a complex opera with many subtle and complicated musical moments, would fare in the open air, without a roof or walls to contain the acoustics and help the audience connect with the music.

The orchestra is placed in barges or rafts fronting the stage. The scenery is devised so that it may be sufficient for theatrical purposes while blending with natural surroundings…

However, he notes that:

…the music kept to a surprising degree its warmth and intensity…

He even names the key cast members: Miss Constance Willis as Carmen, as well as Mr Arthur Cox and Mr Redvers Llewellyn as male principles. There’s a postcard showing them below:

Carmen at the Open Air Theatre

Above: The Carmen cast (source)

The orchestra was directed by Mr A C Keeton, and included 43 ‘sufficiently skilled’ players.

Open Air Theatre

Above: Productions included not just acting and singing, but dancing too (source)

There was also a degree of West End glamour about the production, given that it was produced by a Mr Sumner Austin, who had worked at the Old Vic and Sadler’s Wells in London.

You can view Mr Austin’s directorial and producing credentials by clicking here.

Whilst complementary about the production, the Manchester Guardian journalist highlights the problems facing the cast and technical crew:

…alas that the rain came before it finished…

However, this was not the end of the world, and he notes that:

…a skilful company, good outdoor environment and favourable weather [means that] opera in the open can be artistically achieved…

One can’t help but admire the ambition of the Scarborough Amateur Operatic Society, who, year after year for over three decades embraced the unpredictable British weather to put on show after show of the highest quality.

Did you see any of their productions? Please comment or visit the Facebook Page.


The Manchester Guardian archive via Proquest Historical Newspapers

The Theatricalia website