Looking back at 60 years of fun packed entertainment at Chorley Theatre

It’s 60 years since Chorley Amateur Dramatic and Operatic Society bought what is now Chorley Little Theatre and as the venue enters a new era chairman Ian Robinson looks back on the history of the building

By Mike Hill
Friday, 13th September 2019, 11:47 am
Updated Friday, 13th September 2019, 12:47 pm
Sir Ken Dodd prepares to perform at the Chorley Little Theatre in 1999
Sir Ken Dodd prepares to perform at the Chorley Little Theatre in 1999

Situated on the corner of Dole Lane and Peter Street in Chorley, the Electric Empire Picture House opened on September 3,1910.

Run by the Perfecto Filmographic Co. Ltd, it was built in just three months after their previous cinema on Mealhouse Lane became unsafe.

“Devoted specially to the to the entertainment of people by means of animated pictures,” the site boasted much of the latest technology, including electricity to power the lights and projection.

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French Without Tears, the first play performed by CADOS at Chorley Little Theatre when it re-opened in spring 1961

It was designed and built by William Collinson of 39 St Thomas’s Road, with furnishings from suppliers on Market Street. Using a projector made by the Edison Swann Company, the venue sat 700 people, including eight rows in the balcony, and showed a mixture of films and music hall acts.

The opening night included a violinist, opera singer, a documentary about harvests in Canada and a film starring Tilly The Tomboy, the British film industry’s leading screen comedian.

In the following years Chorley got several more cinemas, including the Plaza on Bolton Road, and the Odeon on Market Street. Despite the competition, the Empire was a pioneer, leading the way in 3-D technology and being the only place in Chorley to see teenage film Rock Around The Clock, which ran for three weeks in 1956.

But competition from other cinemas and television became too much and in January 1958 the Empire closed, with a showing of Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. The building was used for tea dances and wrestling but in 1959 the future looked bleak as plans were announced to convert it into a car showroom. This is when Chorley Amateur Dramatic and Operatic Society (CADOS) stepped in.

TV star Jodie Prenger, centre, with Zoe Duffin and Liz Ritson in Shakers in 1999

CADOS had formed at Shepherd’s Hall, Chapel Street, on March 2, 1933 by a group of like-minded individuals wanting to perform plays and similar entertainments.

Over the next few years they developed a good reputation but had no regular home. Among other venues, they performed at Chorley’s Town Hall, at the St John Ambulance Hall on Fleet Street (recently demolished), and then in a room on St Georges Street, where the Chorley Evangelical Free Church is now. This venue was the original Chorley Little Theatre.

Looking for a bigger and better venue the CADOS committee entered negotiations with owner Selwyn Hooley for the Empire Cinema. Chorley Council was keen to keep the building as an entertainment hall and helped with the purchase, as did Chorley Chamber of Trade. With their help, CADOS bought the building for £2,000 in 1959. Much of 1960 was spent fundraising for repairs and refurbishment, and then carrying out the work. The Society’s President Sir Leonard Fairclough was Chairman of the construction company which helped build the M6 and bridges across the UK and he supplied materials to help convert the Empire Cinema into the new Little Theatre.

Under designs by Peter Ainsworth, the building was divided in two. Whereas the original screen had been at the back of the building (from entry on Dole Lane), the new stage was placed halfway down. This meant a smaller capacity, more suitable for 1960s demand, and space behind the stage for dressing rooms and a bar.

CADOS staging of Cabaret in 1982

An extension added by the owners in the 1920s could be adapted into the ‘stage door’ and helped create a backstage area. By this time the balcony seating had gone and this area (above the entrance) was converted into a technical area.

The building re-opened as Chorley Little Theatre in spring 1961 with the play French Without Tears, written by Terrance Rattigan. Other productions in the early days included Sailor Beware, Time And The Conways, Arsenic and Old Lace and Salad Days.

Leading members, on stage and off, from the time included Kay and Gerald Brown, Cecily Ainsworth, Derek and Audrey Shelton, Frank and Eileen Churchward, Harry Blundell, Stanley Cross, and Lesley Duckworth, who is now the CADOS President.

Leading actors included Roy Brooks, who went on to be chairman in the 1990s, Caty Cross, and Wyn Tootell, who was a regular presence at Chorley Little Theatre for more than five decades. Wyn retired from the stage just a few years ago, having won numerous awards for her acting and directing.

CADOS' performance of Anne Frank at Chorley Little Theatre in 1983 featuring TV star Steve Pemberton

The society staged six full productions a year, a schedule that is still kept today. As the name suggests, the building can be quite cramped and so there is constant activity, with several shows rehearsing and prepping at the same time. Because of the lack of space, sets have to be built on the stage itself so actors are usually rehearsing as the scenery is built around them.

With a new play every five or six weeks it takes an army of volunteers to turn it around, with tireless work from the backstage crews. The set builders are currently led by Mike Taylor and Shaun McManus with sound and lights led by Paul Carr. Costumes are overseen by Sandra Dickinson, who has worked on virtually every show for the last 25 years while it’s the job of artistic director Mark Jones to work with directors and their crews to bring the plays to the stage.

In 1986 CADOS created a Youth Theatre to develop younger talents, and the ethos has always been to let the kids (aged 11-19) run it themselves as much as possible.

Films are still shown at the venue and have been shown almost continuously since opening night, making it one of the longest-running purpose-built cinemas in the UK. A recent screening was the Michael Caine documentary, My Generation, made by former CADOS member Ben Hilton.

Many former members have gone on to have careers in the film and theatre industry. Technician Andrew Stagles is an acclaimed lighting designer, working on The Royle Family and Mastermind, while Mark Littlewood has toured the world with Westlife as sound engineer, a role he learned at Chorley Little Theatre.

Actors have gone on to perform in the West End, for Disney, and on stages all around the world. Chris Norris was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Gordon Langford-Rowe was a TV regular, popping up in Coronation Street among other credits. Dean Taylor has gone on to run a successful theatre company of his own, and Don Webb has become a successful writer of plays and TV shows like Byker Grove and The Bill.

Comedian Jimmy Cricket at Chorley Little Theatre in 2009

Originally spun off from Chorley Youth Theatre, the improvised comedy group ComedySportz have performed all over the world, including to royalty at the Edinburgh Fringe. Run by Brainne Edge, they still return to their spiritual Chorley home every November.

Perhaps the best-known former members are Jodie Prenger, who won BBC One’s “I’d Do Anything”, and Steve Pemberton, from Benidorm. Prenger appeared in the CADOS production of Shakers and was also the support act for Sir Ken Dodd when he did a fundraising concert for the theatre in 1999.

Steve Pemberton starred as Anne Frank’s brother in 1983 and was in that year’s pantomime, Alice In Wonderland, before leaving for higher education and forming the League Of Gentlemen.

Acts to have played there in the past decade include John Bishop, Jason Manford, Al Murray, Russell Howard, Cannon and Ball, and Romesh Ranganathan. Chris Ramsey and Jenny Éclair have been several times, while Dave Spikey and Steve Royle are regular faces.

Firmly established as part of Lancashire’s entertainment scene the plans are now for expansion. Just like 60 years ago, Chorley Council is helping CADOS grow and the society is moving into the former Indian restaurant next door. Currently in the process of being converted, this new room will initially provide extra rehearsal space but then will open up for music, comedy and talks.

With two stages across two buildings, the venue is being renamed simply Chorley Theatre. After 60 years, it’s time to stop being shy, drop the little and big ourselves up. To be bold and clear, and bring in new and old audiences.