“this courageous venture"
Bringing the theatre back to life - as told by Dilys Guite herself in 1958
Dilys Guite was an enterprising actress and drama teacher, and inspirational woman who first fell in love with the Lantern in the 1950s, and went on to beautifully restore it in 1957. This is her own story first told on the BBCs Woman’s Hour back in 1958:
"I suppose that everyone who has ever been a member of an amateur dramatic society must have had, at one time and in some degree, a desire to have a Little theatre in which to work. Occasional lettings at the local Shire Hall or Library Theatre are all very well, but when you have removed the scenery and properties on the last night of the run you are always conscious of a lack of security and an inability to build a theatrical tradition, however simple. Most keen members of amateur societies follow the activities of those people who have Barn and Loft Theatres in a vague way of “having a theatre” but there was a magical difference in the dream - it came true!"
"I first saw the old Chalet Theatre seven years ago, whilst I was wheeling my small son in a push-chair down a pleasant tree-lined road in one of the inner-ring suburbs of Sheffield. I saw it quite by chance, I stopped to pick up a fallen toy just at the gate of the theatre. I stood in a small tangled shrubbery, surrounded by tall trees, with the front door creasing on broken hinges, and a row of dust-bins across the porch. In spite of its forlorn and derelict appearance, I was quite enchanted by it; its half-timbered facade, with red pantile roof and large cupola, made me long to start to retrieve it from its dirt and neglect, and make it into a theatre again."
"Shakespeare has it that “there is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, lead on to fortune” and it would appear that sometimes men, (and women) know when their affairs are not “at the flood”, because in spite of the instant affection I felt for the Chalet, and my certainty that it could be given a new lease of life as a Little Theatre, I did not pursue my thoughts, made no enquiries about the theatre, and left it asleep in my subconscious mind, as the theatre slept in fact, amongst the tangled undergrowth of its garden."
"Six years went by; I left the City and went with my husband and son to live in a country village 10 miles away, but the tide again took a hand in my affairs, and we returned to Sheffield and to a house only 200 yards from the theatre. During all this time my amateur dramatic society continued its three casual bookings at the Library Theatre each year, and when in course of conversation with various people the Chalet Theatre was mentioned, I learned that it would never be used again as the owner wouldn’t sell, it was unsafe as a structure, no-one would get Town Planning permission to redevelop it, and it was haunted."
"However one morning, (May last year to be precise) - as I washed the breakfast dishes and gazed vaguely through my kitchen window at the tower of the theatre, quite without premeditation I decided that I would do something about it I left the dished in the sink, glanced at the clock and noticed that it was five minutes past nine, and ‘phoned out Rating Department to see if they could give me the name and address of the owner. This they very courteously did, and I ‘phoned a number in a village some eight miles away, to be given the surprising information that the owner had an office in another house of his only 50 yards from my house.
I only stopped to take off my apron and drag on a coat and almost ran out of the house. When I returned at 25 past 9 I had the key to the theatre, and a figure agreed for the rental of it. That evening at six o’clock, a dozen of my company stepped for the first time into the little building that was to be almost more than home for the next year."
"On that day the balance in hand of our Company was £33, and what restraining influence prevented us from turning round and leaving the theatre, closing the stage door firmly and regretfully behind us, I'll never know. Black dust lay everywhere, great sheets of sodden embossed paper hung from the ceiling making alternating festoons with enormous cobwebs, the floor had caved in completely, and walking from the stage end of the auditorium to the outer door was an extremely hazardous operation. All the windows were broken or completely missing, and roughly sealed by wooden battens nailed across them. Closer inspection revealed that the only system of lighting was a derelict gas supply and that there was no water and no sanitation. Curiously enough, one even suggested that we might be biting off more than we could chew, and plans were made to move in the next day, Saturday, with a varied assortment of home tools, buckets and brushes, to begin the reconstruction."
"For three weeks the smoke of a huge bonfire rose from the grounds of the Chalet Theatre as the old floorboards, (riddled with dry rot), the ancient wall-paper and most of the shrubbery were converted to ashes. The floor cavity yielded a great deal of interesting debris, including an old printing press, several hundred old shoes, newspapers advertising hand-feather-stitched nightdresses, an old car body and two gas stoves. Once this debris was cleared the real structure of our theatre began to emerge. The stage, (large in proportion to the auditorium), had a perfect rake and cat-walks, the proscenium arch, with its ornate plaster-work was quite perfect, and the tiny balcony gave the most flawless view of a stage I have ever seen."
"Our appeal was launched shortly afterwards, and very quickly wonderfully generous help began to flow in. It was this help which made the total reconstruction of the theatre possible. Sometimes it was in the form of financial help, and sometimes in the form of a loan of tools and building equipment, or gifts of building materials. Gradually as we worked, often all day, every evening and most of every weekend, a change began to appear on the face of the now re-named lantern Theatre. In early October the shrubbery had disappeared and a small garden and parking ground emerged, the whole exterior had been given a new coat of paint, a new cloakroom practically built, and the electrical rewiring in process.
Whilst we still had no seating or heating, no curtains or decorations, and only a crude emergency lighting system in operation, we decided to go ahead with arrangements for an official opening ceremony on November 2nd."
"During the last month of the reconstruction the interior decorations were frantically completed and a short play (“The Dark Lady of the Sonnets” by George Bernard Shaw) was put into rehearsal to be performed at the opening ceremony.
November 2nd 1957, was indeed a dream come true. As those of us most nearly concerned with the restoration of the Lantern Theatre sat on the stage on that crips November afternoon, with the clear wintry sunshine casting its beams through our sparkling windows, and bringing out the glowing colours of our contemporary wall-paper, lime green house-curtains, and deep blue velvet of our proscenium curtains, we knew that we had all been greatly privileged to work on the reconstruction of our Theatre. We all felt that our lives had been immeasurably enriched by what Mr Jack Hulbert, (our opening ceremony guest) described as, “this courageous venture”."
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