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.

An Open Air Theatre

Scarborough was once a treasure trove of theatrical venues. Scarborough Opera House opened on St. Thomas Street in 1876, the Spa Theatre in 1879 and there was also live entertainment at the Aquarium, which opened in 1877.

Scarborough’s oldest theatre was the Theatre Royal, which opened in 1771, and there were many more not mentioned here, since demolished and/or redeveloped.

Some, like the Futurist (1920) and the Palladium Picture House (1912) served first as cinemas before accommodating live entertainment, and the outdoor performance space in Alexandra Gardens (1908) proved so popular that a roof was added, later becoming a full-blown theatre that could accommodate visitors during all weather conditions.

You can read more about Scarborough’s many former theatres by visiting this link.

The Open Air Theatre in Northstead Manor Gardens, however, was a little different. Once described as ‘The Drury Lane of the open air’, there was no protection here from the unpredictable British weather. It opened in 1932, and performances took place on a stage that was in fact located on an island in the middle of the lake at the centre of the gardens. This was truly an ambitious and exciting project for Scarborough…

Open Air Theatre

Above: The Open Air Theatre (source)

The site in question was purchased by the Scarborough Corporation in 1926, to be developed into pleasure gardens, which would include a water chute, boating lake and miniature railway line. Known locally as Hodgson’s Slack, this natural ampitheatre offered an ideal setting for live entertainment, and would eventually accommodate as many as eight thousand audience members. For sell-out performances some would even sit on the nearby grassy banks, when seating proved insufficient to meet demand.

Open Air Theatre

Above: From the opening night (source)

The first performance was a grand affair, opened by the Lord Mayor of London in the summer of 1932. He reportedly said:

The setting is ideal and constitutes a wonderful tribute to the imagination of whoever realised the possibilities to be derived from this particular park of the park, and also to the engineers who carried out the necessary embellishments and alterations which provide such a picturesque stage and background and also such splendid accommodation.

 
Merrie England, a well-known light opera penned by Sir Edward German, was the first production to be performed at the theatre, and one of many ambitious performances by Scarborough Amateur Operatic Society over the following decades. First performed in London, in 1902, the story is set during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Open Air Theatre

Above: Cast members from Merrie England at Scarborough’s Open Air Theatre (source)

Many productions enjoyed success here – West Side Story, Annie Get Your Gun, Carmen, Bohemian Girl, Hiawatha….

Open Air Theatre

Above: Annie Get Your Gun (source)

Below: King’s Rhapsody (source)

Open Air Theatre

In the 1950s It’s a Knockout became a popular addition to the theatre’s repertoire, continuing well after the last musical – West Side Story – was staged in 1968. The latter featured Hi-di-Hi actress Ruth Madoc in a starring role. Nine years later the dressing rooms and much of the scenery buildings on the island were removed, as was the seating, and, following the complete closure of the venue in 1986, the remaining structures fell into gradual decay.

Open Air Theatre

Above: The theatre during its heyday (source)

In 2008, the go-ahead was received for a major redevelopment, and in 2010 the rejuvinated theatre was re-opened by the Queen. With a slightly reduced seating capacity of 6, 500, the venue has hosted, to date, a range of different acts, including Boyzone, Tom Jones and Elaine Paige in 2015, as well as community events in the past and even televised showings of England World Cup Matches in 2010, via a large screen.

You can see a list of upcoming events here.

Have you ever been to the Open Air Theatre? How do old and new compare? See any mistakes in the history above? If so please comment or get in touch. For more pictures and memories see the Facebook Page.

Sources

A brief history of the theatre

Scarborough theatre history

Scarborough News

Scarborough Civic Society

Materials held at the Scarborough Room at Scarborough Library