A History of Amdram Wanganui

The Evening Herald – Saturday 22 August 1874.

“An Amateur Dramatic Club is being formed in Wanganui, and judging by the number of young men who  are willing to join, it is likely to be a success.  The Club will be under the management of a professional, and being entirely local, we hope to see it well supported.”

This was the birth of the Wanganui Amateur Dramatic Club, next to be known as the Wanganui Amateur Musical and Dramatic Association and in 1906 the Wanganui Amateur Musical and Dramatic Society Inc.  Little did they know then, that from these small beginnings,  Ámdram Musical Theatre’ (as it is often referred to these days) would become the oldest musical theatre in New Zealand, now Spanning 3 Centuries and still going strong.

The first production on 8th September 1874, in the Oddfellows Hall, in Ridgway Street, Wanganui (on a site that was later occupied by C.B. Stroud and Company,) was a melodrama in 3 acts “Don Caesar de Bazan” (with new and splendid scenery and Spanish Costumes) and followed after an interval and a sailor’s hornpipe and Irish jig by the screaming farce “Ä Kiss in the Dark”.   “The Producer was Mr Neville Thornton.  He was a professional in the world of musical and dramatic stage productions and also a stage scenic artist.  Mr Thornton’s daughter Amy was cast in the leading feminine roll.  The price of tickets were: Front seats 3 shillings, Back seats 2 shillings and Gallery 1 shilling.  From the Wanganui Herald of October 2, 1874.  “They formed the club, didn’t shilly-shally and got on with the job.”

On October 1st 1974 (in its Centennial year) Amdram again produced these two shows “Don Caesar De Bazan” Directed by Jim Pettigrew and “Ä Kiss in the Dark” Directed by Thelma Good.
It was on 14 August 1900 that Amdram lavishly staged “The Mikado” in the newly opened Wanganui Opera House with all electric stage lighting.  Keen to make it ‘a distinct success’ the Society ‘spared neither pains nor expense’ and the costumes and scenery were hired from Auckland.

 Amdram staged 1-2 shows every year in the Opera House even during the first two years of World War 1.  After the war Amdram staged its next show  “Ä Country Girl”  in 1920 and until the depression and the Second World War took its toll Amdram again produced one or two shows a year in the Opera House with 3 shows being staged in 1925.   In 1944 another great revival was undertaken and this was largely due to Bill Baxter, an advertising salesman-cum-linotype operator who was on the staff of the ‘Wanganui Chronicle’.  The show was “Our Miss Gibbs” and the leading role was played by Thelma Dandy (Good).  The joy and enthusiasm for life that possessed the City after the dark years of war were apparent on the stage and in the circle and stalls.  The Society flourished anew.  Shows produced in the Opera House continued nearly every year and as you know they still continue today with “Grease” being our latest successful production in 2010.
At a General Meeting early in 1950 the President of Amdram at the time, Sid Smith, announced “We must have a hall” as up till then Amdram did not have a permanent home and their scenery and costumes were stored in various places around Wanganui.  Rehearsals were largely held on the top floor of the building opposite the New Post Office in Ridgway Street or wherever a suitable space or hall could be found.  The productions themselves were staged in the Opera House.

The completion of the Churton’s Creek culverting work in the Guyton Street region created a suitable section which was made available to the Society, by the council, on lease.  On the 12th June 1954 the building of the hall commenced.  The Architect was Mr D.A Wilson who drew the plans and specifications for the 36ft x 50ft hall and also supervised the work.   Two full-time builders headed the building project – they were Jim Saunders (Amdram member) and Morrie Griffin his building partner.  Many members also assisted with this major task and many firms and members of the public donated goods and services.  The main hall floor was made the same size as the Opera House stage.  

The hall was available for use in February 1955 but not completed until later as there was still the finishing to be done.  With the hall available for use it was then a top priority to make money to pay for the mortgage as the profits from shows were needed to fund the next show.  Making money to pay the mortgage became such a high priority that there were times when the hall had to be let out in preference to rehearsals.  The rehearsals being shifted elsewhere.   

The first show to be staged in the hall was the ‘sparkling and spectacular review’ “Curtains Up” which was performed from 8 – 10 November 1955.  The Director was Mr Arthur J Vernon, Musical Director Mr E O Schnack and the Ballet work trained by Doreen Shaw.  The show was a ‘roaring success’.  By 1960 the hall was mainly used for rehearsals, a few shows and still being hired out. 

In 1972 Amdram obtained the New Zealand Amateur Production Rights to “Fiddler on the Roof”.  To make all the costumes, props and to build the set it meant “all hands on deck”.  The set also included building a large revolving stage.  Jim Ennis designed the revolve and was in charge of the building.  Jim Tait designed and built the electrical equipment to drive and control the revolve.  The quality of the set, costumes and revolve etc were made to a very high standard as to enable the entire lot to be hired out so it could travel all over New Zealand for several years. It was a highly successful project and by 1975 12 societies had used the “Fiddler” set. 

1974 was the Centennial year of the Society and to celebrate 100 years there was a special Centennial Committee set up to plan and organize the various Centennial celebrations and this was headed by Mr Austin Brassell.   The Society produced “My Fair Lady” Directed by David Smiles and as Musical Director  Jennifer Corin.   Dennis Brown who was the President at that time was cast in the role of Doolittle.  Dennis had joined our society in 1958 and is a current Life Member and Amdram’s Hon. Solicitor.  Shirley London who had taken a major part in productions since 1946 was chosen to play the role of Eliza Doolittle.  The role of Professor Higgins was given to James Baxter (a school teacher with the Wanganui Boys College) who was a newcomer to our Society.  “My Fair Lady” was an outstanding show and well suited for a Centenary show.     

A New Century of Amdram had begun and the challenges and successes continued to unfold along with exciting events and new shows.

The 70s proved to be busy years with there sometimes being two major productions in the Opera House as well as a smaller production in the new hall.  In 1976 Amdram planned a spectacular show which was the first of the highly technical productions.  The show chosen was “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat” and it was Directed by David Smiles.   The show featured rapid lighting cues and special lighting effects on the set as well as against a black back cloth.  Lighting and effects at times changing in time with the beat of the music.  A large sound system was installed for sound reinforcement to allow the entire sound level of the production to be controlled.  Approximately 40 microphones were used to pick up the orchestra, a large children’s chorus and the various cast members.  BUT, one of the most exciting things was it had a Professional lead – Rob Guest.    When the show opened and the audience witnessed it many of them returned several times.  Rob Guest went on to do two more shows with Wanganui Amdram.  He played the role of Arthur Kipps in “Half a Sixpence” in 1978 and in 1986 Rob undertook the demanding role of  Phineas Taylor Barnum in “Barnum” which  was another New Zealand premiere.   “Barnum” was directed and choreographed by Robert Young and financially and technically was Amdram’s most ambitious project to date.  It was a marathon task to design and build the set, make the properties and costumes and tutor the performers to ‘Broadway’ standards.

After the death In the mid 90’s of our long serving Patron Garry Craig, Rob Guest was invited to be Amdram’s Patron.  This was an honour that Rod was delighted to accept and did so until his sudden death in October 2008.

Over the years following the building of the Amdram Hall space started to become limited.  There were more and more shows being produced in the theatre and space for the properties, sets and costumes was beginning to run out.  In June 1978 Amdram purchased the property adjourning the Amdram hall in Guyton Street. The house on the property became a most valuable workshop facility.  Sets and costumes were being constructed in the house which was a huge benefit to the society.  At the same time progress was also being made in completing the additions to the theatre.   Under the enthusiastic leadership of Noel Kidson this included a comfortable upstairs lounge and the establishment of the Secretary’s office to be named after Mr Eric Lind who had been secretary to Amdram for 45 years.  The “Ëric Lind Memorial Office” and lounge extension were completed in 1981. 

By July 1983 the re-roofing of the main theatre building had been completed.  A huge benefit to cast and crew  occurred in 1984 when a stairway was installed from backstage to the dock obviating the necessity to go outdoors to get from one to another.  In 1990 the house had been demolished to make way for the Railway Hall which was transferred to the site and negotiations to freehold the site were underway.  Thanks to the tireless efforts of Ray and Marion Campbell, along with their family and Steven Frederick, the hall renovations were almost complete by 1992.

On 13th February 1994 the new wardrobe was officially opened and this became a fine new home for wardrobe hireage.   The wardrobe has been a very valuable asset to Amdram and much thanks must go to Janice Hird in the 1980’s and Marion & Ray Campbell over the last 20 years along with other loyal helpers such as Pam Kitson and Viv Smith who have developed and run wardrobe making it such a  valuable asset  for Amdram. 

Over the next few years much discussion and planning took place as to the joining of the hall to the theatre.  As well as this renovations to the bar and the incorporation of a new entrance way were planned.  The 125th Anniversary of Amdram was celebrated in 1999.  It was thoroughly enjoyed by all who attended.   By 2002 the hall and theatre had been joined together and this incorporated an area between the two where the chairs and trestles could be stored to leave the theatre empty until seating was required for shows etc.   With the finishing of the bar and the entrance way there was a much better flow for patrons entering the theatre.

 Whilst the kitchen Amdram was using had served the theatre well over the years Amdram had now outgrown it and needed more space to allow catering to flow smoother.  The extension is due to start March / April once approval by the Council has been given.  There are also plans to extend the area behind the theatre to give more space for set and properties along with a mezzanine floor above the extended area to increase wardrobe space.   Amdram gives its special thanks to Powerco Trust who has been a major supporter of Amdram over the years. 

Without the courage and determination, the creativeness and the talent and the loyalty and commitment of those who had the vision and inspiration to bring Amdram to life and to carry it on over these last 137 years, Wanganui and Amdram members would not have a heritage to be proud of.   Without the support of the people and businesses of Wanganui we would not have had the ability to achieve what has been achieved.   We thank you one and all and look forward to the 150th Reunion in 2024.  I’m sure there will be more changes by the time that comes around. 

Researched and Compiled by Edwyna McDonald (Immediate Past President of Amdram).