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Saturday, 01 November 2014

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‘The amateurs have been my life and I have made many friends’

“The society were like nomads looking for rehearsal rooms for many years until we raised enough money to fund our headquarters in 1992,” says Florence Ellwood, one of the remaining original members of Workington and District Amateur Musical Society.

The society, which celebrates its 60th birthday this year, spent 40 years rehearsing in different venues.

They included the St John Ambulance rooms in Fox Lane, the Hippodrome and Princess Street Ballrooms, Workington Technical College, Victoria School Hall and Princess Street Centre Room.

In 1992 members raised enough money from social functions, raffles, rummage sales and garden parties to build its current headquarters in Gordon Street, on the former site of the Church of the Nazarene.

Set up in 1952 by Ronnie Hunt and his wife Rosa, the group has been going strong ever since.

Members Florence and Ruby Stockdale, who joined the society when it started, were last year awarded medals for 60 years service by Ed McGee, area representative for NODA.

The third original member Alwynne Conaway died three weeks ago.

Outgoing president Margaret McIntyre and members Alan Carruthers, Robert and Brenda Holliday will all receive gold awards later this year.

Florence says: “I can honestly say that the amateurs have been my life all these years and I have made many good friends.

“There only seems to be two founding members who are still active members.

“The other members of my family who were also members have sadly passed away.

“I am proud to be one of the existing members to be celebrating this diamond jubilee and to have received my 60-year medal.”

The society has faced many battles, including attracting more male performers, which saw them recruit members from the Marsh Boys’ Club.

The cost of hiring professional producers also became a burden and saw members Robert Holliday and Reg Jenkinson start to produce and direct shows.

And the collapse of the ceiling in the Carnegie Theatre in 1975 saw the pantomime Dick Whittington postponed for a few months.

One issue which sparks a lot of memories for outgoing president Margaret was when the Opera House closed in 1962 and the group was unable to do its show that year.

Instead, they pushed on and toured all the village halls in West Cumbria.

She says: “The members were in make-up and costume standing in Central Square waiting for transport to pick them up in all weather, including snow.

“And there was the time when King Rat, having answered the call of nature before he went on, was saved from going on stage with his tail caught in the flies at the front of his costume.

“During the same run, the dame went outside for a smoke. Unfortunately the door closed behind him and there he was locked outside in his underclothes in the freezing temperatures, knocking on the hall windows to be let in.”

The society has moved with the times, introducing modern performances such as Boogie Nights, and has tried to attract younger members with fresh ideas.

It now has around 40 junior members involved with lighting, sound and staging, and they produce a show every two years.

A younger group, Stage Stars, was started this year to give five to eight-year-olds the chance to learn singing, dancing and acting skills.

Margaret explains: “The introduction of a junior section has led to many people becoming senior members and taking over activities to ensure the society moves forward.”

The group attracted many families over the years, including Florence’s husband Bob, her mother Prudence Fishwick and brother Len Conaway with his wife Alwynne, Charlie Parsons and his daughter Margaret Underwood and son Charles, Eleanor Jenkinson and her brother Colin Easterbrook and parents Margaret and Robert, the Uhrig family, Brenda and Robert Holliday and daughter Catherine, and Margaret and Alan Jackson and their son David.

“The society becomes a way of life for the members and their families,” adds Margaret.

“It has a family atmosphere and, although there is a lot of hard work, there are social activities to help members relax.

“One has to have a love of theatre and be willing to work together to bring live performance to the local area.

“It is a fantastic achievement and testimony to the people who have worked so hard over the years to ensure the society goes from strength to strength.

“In these days, when there are so many other attractions, it is great to know the membership is holding its own and junior membership is going from strength to strength to ensure its future, which we hope will go on for a further 60 years.”

For its jubilee year, the society reinvented and performed a pantomime version of Cinderella in December last year.

The group had originally performed it in the early 1960s.

To mark the anniversary, members will hold a celebration ball at Workington’s Washington Central Hotel tomorrow.

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