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.

Sources

The Manchester Guardian archive via Proquest Historical Newspapers

The Theatricalia website

 

The North Bay Miniature Railway

Scarborough’s North Bay Railway is one of the town’s most enduring and well-loved attractions.  Passengers can board the train at either Northstead Manor Gardens (the stop, however is called ‘Peasholm‘, after nearby Peasholm Park) or Scalby Mills, and take a scenic ride through park, along the seafront and back again.

North Bay Railway

Above: The North Bay Railway (source)

The railway opened in 1931, as part of the brand new Northstead Manor Gardens (Pleasure Gardens), which would eventually include a water chute, open air theatre and boating lake. The gardens were the brainchild of Harry W Smith, a prolific engineer who designed many of the town’s most successful tourist attractions. However, the miniature railway proposals met with a mixed reception from locals, gaining the nickname ‘the Borough Engineer’s Toy’.

Northstead Manor Gardens

Above: From the early development of Northstead Manor Gardens at Hodgson’s Slack (source)

At 2pm, Saturday May 23, 1931, the railway began taking passengers. As with all of Scarborough’s opening ceremonies of this era, the occasion was a grand one, with the presentation of artefacts to the driver (see below). Neptune was the name of the original locomotive, and Alderman Whitehead, presiding over the occasion, made the following solemn decree:

“On behalf of the National Union of Drivers, Engineers and others, I have to present you, the first driver of the North Bay Railway Engine, with your insignia of office, your oil can and your ‘sweat rag’.”

Neptune is the oldest engine, having begun its service in 1931. Triton and Robin Hood followed only a year after, and in 1933, Poseidon. The first two locomotives are still owned by Scarborough Council (then the Scarborough Corporation), with the remaining two owned by the operators (North Bay Railway Company), to whom Triton and Neptune are leased.

North Bay Railway

Above: The train setting off from Peasholm station (source)

A number of companies were involved with the construction of the trains and carriages, including Robert Hudson Ltd (Leeds), Hudswell Clark, Slingsby and Armstrong and subsequent additions and restorative work completed by Rail Restorations North East Limited, of Shildon. The original carriages have undergone much restoration to ensure their survival to the present day. Furthermore, the Patent Enamel Company provided the station boards whilst advertising boards and posters were provided by LNER (London and North Eastern Railway).

North Bay Railway

Above: Passengers enjoy the picturesque Manor Gardens (source)

However, after only a year of operation disaster struck. In 1932, 10 July, a collision occurred at the now disused Beach station, overlooking the North Bay.

Driver Herbert Carr, only 25, lost his life, and numerous passengers were injured. Thankfully when a similar accident occurred in 1948, everyone survived and injuries were minimal.

On July 6, 1940, the attraction closed until Easter 1945. WWII no doubt led many to fear a repeat of the bombardment that occurred during WWI, and securing coastal defences took priority over the running of the railway. Interestingly enough, the small tunnel in Manor Gardens gained a new function – as a place for the Royal Naval School of Music to store their musical instruments whilst operating from the nearby Norbreck Hotel.

North Bay Railway

Above: The tunnel at Northstead Manor Gardens (source)

The railway was acquired from Scarborough Council in 2007 by the North Bay Railway Company, who also now operate the Water Chute, Boating Lake, Sky Trail and more. Thanks to their continuing hard work, the miniature railway still delights passengers today, and aspiring train drivers can even book a session at the controls.

North Bay Railway

Above: The train and the water chute in the background (source)

There are plenty of stories to be told about the railway – any memories are very welcome, as are corrections, additional details and so on.

Please comment below or get in touch via the Facebook Page.

Sources

North Bay Railway’s website

A short history of the North Bay Railway

In-depth history of the attraction here

Scarborough Civic Society

Materials held at the Scarborough Room at Scarborough Library

 

Before The North Bay Bathing Pool: The Northstead Estate

When the North Bay Bathing Pool opened in the summer of 1938, Scarborough’s North Bay was rapidly becoming a haven for holidaymakers.

Above: The North Bay Pool was also known as Scarborough Children’s Lake (source)

Across the road was the relatively new Peasholm Park, initially developed in 1912. Around the corner was a miniature railway, water chute and open air theatre, all part of the new Northstead Manor Gardens, or Pleasure Park, as it was then otherwise known.

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Above: The early days of Northstead Manor Gardens (from the author’s collection)

However, only a few decades earlier, this patch of land had looked very different indeed, nor was it even ‘officially’ part of Scarborough. Part of it was purchased by the Scarborough Corporation in 1911 for the development of Peasholm Park, and the remainder of the estate was bought by the same organisation in 1921. Prior to these transactions, Scarborough legally ‘ended’ at Peasholm Beck.

Above: Bridge over Peasholm Beck, now part of Peasholm Park (source)

There were no adventure playgrounds or water slides here – the land was used for more practical matters before the twentieth century arrived. Piggeries, allotments, farming – thick boggy mud and hard work. All of this seems an antithesis for what was to follow.

DSCF7773

Above: 1913 Northstead, in blue, before it became part of Scarborough, in pink (source)

The area in which the North Bay Bathing Pool later stood was known as Rawling’s Field. Located next to Tucker’s Field (which later became Peasholm Park), the site belonged to a Mr Rawling. A reader kindly contacted Stories From Scarborough to clarify this further:

This was a piece of land owned by my great grandfather’s brother – George Blackett Rawling (1853-1916) – who owned and managed the bathing machines on the North Bay in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  He sold the land to the then Scarborough Corporation for a few shillings (I understand).

Many thanks to Phil for getting in touch with this information, and also for sending an old newspaper article outlining the origins of the pool.

Rawling’s Field and Tucker’s Field once formed part of the sprawling Northstead Estate.

Above: Tucker’s Field, shortly before being developed into Peasholm Park began (source)

The origins of the estate are somewhat murky – some sources suggest that the area was originally named Hatterboard; the Northstead moniker emerging much later. Local friars gained permission to build a priory in the area in 1245, and the land was bestowed upon a series of noblemen before being purchased by King Richard III in the fifteenth century.King Richard reputedly favoured Scarborough and was the last known monarch to stay in the town’s castle.

Above: The earliest known portrait of Richard III (source)

At the centre of the Northstead estate stood a manor house, although few accounts describe it in any great detail:

At the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign ‘the Northstead’ had a ‘parliour,’ an old chamber reached by wooden stairs, and ‘a lowe house under it’ unfit for habitation; Sir Richard Cholmley’s shepherd dwelt in it until it fell down. Adjoining were an old decayed barn and the walls of other houses, which shortly afterwards fell, and an old chapel. Sir Richard Cholmley, lessee of Edward VI, used the timber of these decayed buildings to build ‘an hall house, adjoining it to the said parliour.’

(source)

A survey in 1650 did not record a manor house, with earlier reports suggesting that it may have fallen into disrepair. However, in spite of the lack of historical records, the construction of Peasholm Park in 1911 did reveal the remains of medieval buildings of a domestic nature, although little conclusive information could be deducted about their purpose or significance. These ruins were found in the centre of today’s Peasholm Lake.

Above: The lake at Peasholm Park (source)

Although the manor house disappeared long ago, the accompanying position – Stewardship of the Manor (of Northstead) remains an official one, bestowed upon MPs to relieve them of their duties.

Above: A plaque in Peasholm Park acknowledges the stewardship (source)

Northstead has indeed witnessed many transformations; from its early days as a medieval estate to its later manifestations as a magnet for seaside holidaymakers. Peasholm Park in particular is a lasting legacy of the latter, although its early neighbours – the North Bay Bathing Pool and the attractions located in and around the Northstead Manor Gardens, have endured mixed fortunes.

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Above: The North Bay Bathing Pool at night (source)

The opening of the North Bay Bathing Pool in 1938, for instance,  was reputedly a grand affair – with a band and underwater lighting. Likewise its transformation into Waterscene in 1984, featured a visit from holiday camp legend Fred Pontin. The succession of glitzy rebrandings was followed by closure in 2007. As the site fell into disrepair, and the bright blue slides faded, a return to the boggy fields of old was no longer so unlikely. However, the birth of the Military Adventure Park continued the evolution of the area, and new investment (including the redevelopment of the old outdoor theatre, and the updating carried out by the North Bay Railway company) is preserving what was once little more than a muddy field for generations of holidaymakers to come.

It has been difficult to verify some of the information in this post – if you know anything more about Northstead’s history, or have any thoughts or corrections, please comment below.

Sources

English Heritage

British History Online

Pastscape

Scarborough Book of Days

The National Archives

 

The Historic Water Chute

One of Kinderland’s best loved features was the Water Chute.

DSC_0033

Above: The Kinderland Water Chute (from the author’s personal collection)

Passengers boarded this boat-shaped vessel and were swiftly transported, via tracks, down to the nearby boating lake in Northstead Manor Gardens.

Manor Gardens

Above: The former Kinderland boating lake – the Water Chute tracks are just on the left behind the trees (source)

The descent ended with a huge splash, and the ride was completely free for Kinderland ticket holders.

Kinderland

Above: Another view of the Water Chute (source)

Although the Water Chute was acquired by Kinderland when the activity park opened in 1985 – the chute itself had existed since 1932, operating independently for over 50 years.

The Historic Water Chute

Above: An early postcard featuring the Water Chute (source)

The earliest water chutes were developed during the early twentieth century, and by the 1920s were making their way into fairs and parks across the UK.

southport water chute

Above: An early Water Chute in Southport (from the author’s collection)

Blackpool, Southport, Southend-on-Sea all had one, and North Yorkshire was no exception, with chutes opening in both Hull and Scarborough. The design is often attributed to Charles Wicksteed, who founded Wicksteed Park in Kettering. This park also, unsurprisingly, features a Water Chute – one of the first to be built and one of only a few still in operation today.

Wicksteed

Above: The Water Chute at Wicksteed Park – very similar to the one in Scarborough (source)

Below: Charles Wicksteed (source)

Wicksteed

In 1928 construction of the Water Chute in Northstead Manor Gardens (also known as Scarborough Pleasure Park) began, taking four years to complete and eventually opening alongside the nearby Open Air Theatre in 1932.

Pleasure Park

Above: Water Chute (centre), Open Air Theatre (background) and the miniature railway on the left (source)

One year earlier, the miniature railway had transported its first passengers past the Water Chute site, then under construction.

BBC

Above: The early days of the North Bay Railway (source)

Northstead Manor Gardens, which also featured a boating lake, was built on Hobson’s Slack – the geography of the area was ideal for an amphitheatre. The Open Air Theatre has been recently redeveloped following its closure between 1986 and 2010. It has since hosted a range of big name acts including Status Quo and JLS.

Theatre

Above: The new Open Air Theatre (source)

The Water Chute has also benefited from recent regeneration in the Manor Gardens area. Having suffered vandalism and disrepair following the closure of former operator Kinderland in 2007, the attraction was restored and reopened in 2008 with funding from The Sands redevelopment project. It is now owned by North Bay Railway.

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Above: North Bay Railway logo (source)

Whilst advances in engineering and design have since produced ever more complex and thrilling water rides, there is still something to be said for the simple pleasure of the original Water Chute experience. Indeed, its endurance as an attraction (for over 80 years!) is testament to this fact.

Have you taken a ride on the Water Chute? Do you remember it being part of Kinderland? Are there any mistakes in this post? Please comment below.

Sources

North Bay Railway

UK Rides Info

National Fairground Archive

Wicksteed Park