OLT - The Early Years

1939 - 1946

This is the story of how Otley Lttle Theatre came into being over 50 years ago! As we approach our 250th production we look back at those early years, and the determination of a group of enterprising local thespians to set up a new theatre club in the town!

Research by Mike Waring

Click here to read the story!

The Early Years
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At eight in the evening on Tuesday 23rd May 1939 members of local amateur dramatic societies in Otley met in Edson's Cafe on Bridge Street for the purpose of a "feeler" meeting to consider the establishment of a permanent Little Theatre.

Mr D. Clapham, then secretary of the Otley Charity Players Dramatic Society introduced Mr JW Sutcliffe, chairman of the British Drama League (West Riding Division) who had kindly consented to act as the meeting's Chairman.

Mr Sutcliffe outlined the view that with the gradual disappearance of touring theatre companies, Repertory and Little Theatres were springing up all over the country (quoting Ilkley Playhouse as an example) and that Otley had a disused theatre with adequate staging and scope for drama right in the centre of town.

The minutes of the meeting record that "Mr Sutcliffe finally stated that he personally would be only too pleased to render any assistance he could - then he went to America"! (right in the middle of the meeting?)

Much discussion took place regarding the difficulties which the Otley Charity Players and others experienced in putting on their shows at the Mechanic's Institute (now the Civic Centre), and Mr Clapham thought that the old Recreation Hall could be purchased for between £400 - £500 with a similar sum being required for alterations and renovations.

As well as drama, it was envisaged that dances, varieties, Sunday night concerts and even pantomimes could all help to minimise expense provided that sufficient support was forthcoming.

The meeting finally resolved "that a committee be formed to investigate the possibility of reconstructing the Recreation Hall for the purpose of a Playhouse.

Mr Sutcliffe (presumably having delayed his trans-Atlantic trip!) suggested that at least two members from each interested society be present at another meeting to be held on Tuesday 13th June 1939 to further the matter.

That meeting (held again in Edson's Cafe) had in its presence representatives from the Otlensians Dramatic Society, Charles Reyner's Dramatic Society, the Otley Charity Players, The British Legion (who by all accounts were somewhat doubtful of the scheme's merits) and Messrs Veall and Margerison representing local amateur orchestral players.

Mr H McDonnel had previously been appointed as legal advisor and was instructed to approach the owners of the Recreation Hall with an offer to purchase for a sum not exceeding £400 whilst estimates would be obtained to bring the building into a suitable condition for use as a theatre.

Thereafter meetings were held regularly with the scheme progressing towards fruition, and on Tuesday 25th July fourteen individuals were appointed as members of the Little Theatre Committee with Mr Guy Dawson as Chairman, Mr Dixon Clapham as Secretary (Mr D Foulds being his assistant) and Mr TS Owston (Manager of Barclays Bank, Otley) as Treasurer. Arrangements were made for a public appeal towards the cost of acquiring the premises both through the press and by individual letters.

With progress seeming swift and favourable matters were slowed somewhat abruptly by the growing prospect of war. The minutes of the meeting of Wednesday August 30th state that "owing to the crisis business will be held over until October 4th."

This meeting (subsequently held on October 5th in a room over Altham's Shop, Kirkgate, by kind permission of Mr Rayner) was, by necessity, short, the minutes stating that "owing to wartime social distortion, business was of a contracted nature, it being resolved that the committee remain inoperative during the course of the war" and "...that a sub committee be formed with the object of keeping the name of the Little Theatre before the public during this time."

It must have been very disheartening for the fledgling Little Theatre to have such a violent and major world event disrupt the so far enthusiastic progress of the plans for a local forum for amateur thespians. Nevertheless, they soldiered on (if that is the right word) and set up the first ever OLT function - a dance at the Mechanic's Institute on Wednesday 25th October 1939 , just five months after the first meeting, with Cliffe's Rhythm Band providing the music.

During the remainder of that year and into 1940, the disruption of daily life by the war did not deter the OLT pioneers - they held several dances for troops stationed in the town, as well as "Holidays at Home" weeks.

The first OLT production was staged in 1940 - "Turns and Twists", which featured songs and monologues.

In October 1943 OLT at last staged its first full length play. This was "The Blue Goose", the cast taking part by invitation. Some idea of the problems of wartime life may be gained by the fact that rehearsals had extended over a period of a year before public performance was possible!

Six months later in Aril 1944 the second play was performed - "The Man From Toronto", with a further play towards the year end ("Burning Gold")

In 1945 three more plays were staged, and four in 1946 when things returned to normal after the war. This set the precedent of four shows per year, which has lasted to the present day.

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OLT - The Early Years