SPEND an hour or two roaming through the archives of most stage societies and you will uncover more than chapter and verse on their past shows. Much more.
What you will discover, as I did with members of Huddersfield Light Opera Company, is a treasure trove, a social history and perhaps more engaging still, a family history.
“It’s like looking through your own family history,” said Sylvia Collins, the company’s general manager who has been with the Light for 50 years.
“And when you look at some of the early material from the society, it gives you a real glimpse into the social history of the town.”
She’s right and recent work done by the society’s secretary Wendy Taylor to bring the Light’s archive up to date, couldn’t have been better timed.
For Wendy’s beautifully bound and presented albums of programmes, photographs and press cuttings will make the perfect gift to the company which this year marks its centenary.
It all began in 1911 when a group of young people spent four months rehearsing for “a week of successful and enjoyable performances of Messrs Woodhead and Lawton’s Chinese Opera.”
Those performances gave them a taste for more musical shows and after a summer picnic and a social gathering at Mr Wilkinson’s rooms in Trinity Street, Huddersfield, they decided to form a society. And that’s how the company we know today as Huddersfield Light Opera Company, was born.
Since then, the society has staged show after show. It has had many homes across the town including the Theatre royal, the ABC, the Palace theatre, the former Queen Street Arts Centre, Venn Street Arts Centre, a school hall at Salendine Nook and Huddersfield Town Hall.
The Light Opera has been settled at the Lawrence Batley Theatre since the venue opened and each spring stages a big scale musical in its main house. It entertains hundreds more with a traditional panto which is a must on many local families’ New Year wish list.
The society’s founders wanted it to produce works that other societies were unlikely to choose. And it also wanted the new company to produce and support the arts, particularly among young people.
The Light Opera has been doing all of that for 100 years and has no plans to change.
This year, it has already packed the LBT with its latest family friendly, fun-packed panto, Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs and is working hard on its spring show, the much-loved musical, Me And My Girl.
But the society’s centenary season plans also include a summer production of The Wizard of Oz which will feature its young members out on stage in the spotlight.
The more seasoned members of the team will put their skills to use in backstage and in technical areas letting the next generation takes its bow.
It is all part and parcel of what makes this society such a success story. Teamwork and a sense of community.
Look at the archives and you will see in the early days, many names associated with the businesses in the town. Blamires, Woodhead, Raynor.
These were businessmen who realised the personal and community value of encouraging the town’s musical and theatrical talent.
When the First World War broke out, programmes marked those company members away serving with the forces.
There were 13 named in the Roll of Honour for the show, A Runaway Girl and 23 by the time the society staged Dorothy the following year.
Shows were suspended for the years 1917 and 1918 but began again in 1919. And it is for two of those early years that there is the only gap in the archive.
Archive guardian Wendy, who has been busy putting the archives to rights and bringing them up to date, would like nothing more than for someone to provide the Light Opera with the only programmes missing from its collection, those for musical comedies, The Belle of Brittany in 1919 and Miss Hook of Holland in 1920.
Some of the most eye-catching and stylish programmes from the company’s collection all carry the same small monogram, that of the man who created them, Tom Denham.
Tom was in the first show and by the 1930s, was still playing parts. But as well as a performer, he was clearly also a skilled artist. All the covers pictured above were designed by him and there are many more.
Long service is pretty much the norm for the company with generations of families having been drawn into the community that is the Light Opera.
At a concert style show later this year, the society will welcome past and present members to celebrate 100 years. And on the programme will be a glimpse of the Light’s first ever show, Les Cloches De Correville which was staged at the Theatre Royal on April 6 in 1912.
“We shall start and finish the evening with our first and last shows to date,” said Sylvia.
So that’s Les Cloches to begin with and a taste of Me and My Girl to finish.
“We’ve had a fantastic response from people wanting to be in the show which will be in November. That’s two extra shows for us this year.
“We are a strong company, not just as performers but as a community,” said Sylvia.
“We have a very good team of members, a good back stage and front of house team.I think we are very lucky.”
Stage director Chris Brearley has been with the company for 35 years and is very much a member of the Light family. His mum is a long-standing member as was his late father.
“There’s great support for people among the company and a great atmosphere,” he said. “People don’t just come to us and stay for a year. They get involved, enjoy what they do and make friends.”
And as for how the people who founded the society back in 1912 would feel about the company today.
“I think they would be very proud of us and what they and we have achieved,” said Sylvia. There’s no doubt about that.
lCelebrate with the Light at its centenary production, Me And My Girl which is at the LBT from April23 to 30.