Exactly 100 years ago, the Great Yarmouth Council invited tenders for what was then known as the Shelter Hall. It was going to be part of a general improvement and landscaping which, with an open air bandstand, would transform Gorleston from a fishing village to a seaside resort. But there were councillors who opposed the plans and wanted the money spent on housing improvements instead.
The Pavilion plan survived and the borough engineer, J.W. Cockrill, came up with an imposing Italian-style terracotta building, which opened a year later. Keith Prowse, later of ticket agency fame, was the first lessee, offering band concerts before George Gilbert - the horse-man and showman behind the Hippodrome Circuses in Yarmouth and Lowestoft - took over the running for five years. He showed films in a building which has proved its versatility down the years.
The Pavilion as a Theatre
After Army occupation during the First World War, it was cinema chain owner Frederick Cooper who took it on and added the ornate proscenium arch which remains a feature to this day. Between the wars the Theatre flourished. Local soprano Helen Hill - who was to go on to national fame as the singer in radio's 'Much Binding in the Marsh' - headed the concert party line-up before the legendary Elsie and Doris Waters, 'Gert and Daisy', took on the lease.
"In those days..." recalls one 90 year old local resident, "...it always seemed sunny and the auditorium's sliding roof was often open. There was usually a full house for the performances, locals and visitors alike, with the company numbering about ten."
After the Second World War, when the Theatre avoided damage despite being literally in the front line, the Council once again had doubts about summer shows but decided to press on. And that was just as well since, in the mid fifties, it provided the beginning and nearly the end of the career of Bill Pertwee. Having been persuaded to turn fully professional by his cousin Jon, 'Summertime', presented by Henry Lutman, marked his debut. Pertwee decided to impress the cast with an array of props. It did not work. He had very little material and failed to notice there were five complete changes of programme during the summer. Veteran comedian Clifford Hensley helped him out.
Other members of the cast, including Marion MacLeod, who was destined to become his wife, were not convinced and told Lutman he should be dismissed. Pertwee recalls the ultimatum they put to the producer: "We can't carry passengers, he'll have to go." Lutman replied he could not get anyone else at short notice and, besides all that, the costumes would not fit anyone else.
Pertwee, whose portrait looks down in the foyer today, stayed and the rest is history. Years later, when he was appearing in his first West End farce, he stood looking at his name in lights in Shaftesbury Avenue reflecting that if he had got the sack at Gorleston his career would have ended in 1955.
Joe Collins - the agent father of Joan and Jackie - was among those who continued to present the concert party style shows, which ended in 1962 with the northern based Frieda Hall and her family. The following year the Theatre turned to old time music hall which, with its table and chairs, was still presented up until a few years ago. Cavan O'Connor with his trade mark song "I'm Only A Strolling Vagabond" helped get it off to a good start.
The Pavilion twice became a radio comedy studio in the early sixties when both The Clithereoe Kid and the Harry Worth Show were recorded on Sundays for the Light Programme. Both stars were appearing in neighbouring Great Yarmouth. Producer James Casey, who also wrote The Clitheroe Kid, recalls having to pay the adjoining amusement park to stay shut during the recording to prevent the noise coming through. More recently the building was used as a TV studio to launch the BBC DIY programme Change That, with present Mark Curry coming under its spell. "It's exactly what an old Theatre should be like" he said.
The late Dick Gordon, who had been so successful with the Theatre Royal in Norwich and Cromer Pier's Seaside Special, took on the Gorleston venue for what proved to be the last Council-run show in the early eighties. The Council decided it was no longer going to subsidise the theatre and it looked like curtains after almost 80 years of summer shows. But the local community association stepped in and this led to local entertainer Carl Adams - who many years earlier had made his professional debut on the Pavilion's small stage - moving in.
He ran the Theatre for ten years, taking it over completely from the Council and expanding its use throughout the winter. When health problems forced him to withdraw, partners Stuart Durrant and Kevin Lynch took it on.
They have expanded its activities even more, attracting a wide range of amateur and professional performers who keep the theatre thriving throughout the year.
Written by Tony Mallion