In The Beginning
Southend Operatic and Dramatic Society (SODS) was founded in 1890 and research concludes that probably only six societies in the whole of the country came into existence before that year and still survive. These are based in Brighton, Evesham, Paignton, Settle, Spalding and Tunbridge Wells and it can be no coincidence that these cover virtually the entire country, from Devon to Lincolnshire, from Kent to Worcestershire and from Sussex to North Yorkshire, probably as the result of mergers and amalgamations with other Societies.
The first production opened on Wednesday 19th April 1893 and was entitled Robin Hood. This was produced by Mr. Arthur J. Hadrill, directed, and subsidised, by Mr. William Boyce and was preceded on the opening night by a comedietta called A Happy Pair. SODS’ opening performance took place in Alexandra Street in the Public Hall which was soon to become known as the Alexandra Theatre.
Forced to seek a change of venue after only one production, the Society moved to the 450-seater Pier Pavilion, which had cost £6,000 to build when it opened in 1889. SODS presented Rip Van Winkle there, a three-act French operetta written by Robert Planquette based on the character created by Washington Irving in 1819.
SODS performed it only twice, on the evenings of Monday 13th and Wednesday 15th November 1893, and the Council records show that the hire charge levied by them was three guineas per evening which implies that the Society only had to sell 31 seats for each performance to pay for the theatre hire – oh happy days!
After this, for the autumn 1899 production of H.M.S. Pinafore, the Society returned to their original base, but the Public Hall had by now been rebuilt and renamed and the SODS availed themselves of the splendour of the 1,500-seater Empire Theatre. The Society’s funds were in a parlous state at this stage and it was decided to present what was considered to be a “money spinner” in an attempt to restore the coffers. This ploy has been used on several occasions in similar circumstances with varying degrees of success but on this occasion the move failed totally. This show, Les Cloches de Corneville, also by Robert Planquette, was the first presentation of the 20th century and pushed the Society to the brink of extinction after only thirteen productions: it was decided that it was impractical even to present an autumn show that year. However, four gentlemen of the Society were determined not to see the Society go under and they agreed to underwrite the next presentation, the three act comedy opera Doris, written by the English organist, conductor and composer Alfred Cellier.SODS’ production proved to be a financial success and ensured its survival. It is a great shame that we are unable to trace the names of these gentlemen because our gratitude to them is enormous. Without their efforts, the flourishing organisation which the Society now is would have faded more than a century ago and we would most certainly not now be celebrating more than 200 productions.
There has probably always been as much passion and melodrama off-stage as on it and the decision to present Leslie Stuart’s musical comedy Florodora in 1906 did not meet with the approval of some members who considered this tale set in the Philippines too low-brow and frivolous! This group broke away and as a direct consequence were responsible for the formation of Westcliff.O.D.S. two years later.
SODS presented 23 shows at the Empire Theatre before a further change of venue became necessary in 1912 when they moved 500 yards up the High Street to perform at the Hippodrome Variety Theatre which stood in Southchurch Road approximately where the Slug and Lettuce pub is now. This venue hosted some of the best variety acts in the country and the previous year, on Friday 31st March 1911, had witnessed a successful attempt by the greatest escapologist of them all, Harry Houdini, when he managed to release himself from a wooden box as the result of a challenge by four local carpenters. The Society’s first production at their new home was The Cingalee, a somewhat bizarre 1904 musical by Lionel Monckton.Productions continued at the Hippodrome for a further two years until war interrupted.
By the time hostilities had ceased in 1918 there was enough support, both of members and audiences, for Leigh ODS also to be formed to complete a trio of local Societies out of only five in the whole of Essex. Loughton and Brentwood operatic societies were founded in 1894 and 1905 respectively. The Society ended its association with the Hippodrome in 1921 by presenting another show by Monkton, this time the far more successful 1910 three-act musical The Quaker Girl and the following year they transferred their affections to the Palace Theatre which always had a rather beleaguered history and several different guises, finally closing on 22nd October 2005.
The venue now proved ideal for Southend Operatic Society’s purposes and a long and happy relationship began with 35 shows being presented consecutively there until just before the second World War. The final production before the enforced break was, however, presented at the Regal Variety Theatre in Tylers Avenue, which had previously been known as the Ambassadors and where the popular Vivian Ellis musical Jill Darling in the spring of 1939 proved to be the SODS’ last production for seven years.
The Society’s activities resumed in 1946; after WWI and WWII, by which time the Palace Theatre had been acquired by Southend Corporation and it was there that, appropriately, Edward German’s comic opera Merrie England was performed as the first post-war production. Spring and autumn shows were to be produced there for twenty-three more years including the Society’s 100th production, Show Boat, in the spring of 1954. The SODS’ membership, reputation and audience grew so steadily that it became necessary to move to a larger venue and in 1970 Annie Get Your Gun was presented at the magnificent Cliffs Pavilion, overlooking the Thames estuary and the famous pier. They returned to the “Palace” for the spring 1971 presentation of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, Ruddigore, but in the autumn, for Sigmund Romberg’s The Student Prince, they were back at the “Cliffs” and were destined to stay there for 40 consecutive shows. Work on an original 500-seater Cliffs Pavilion had begun during the 1930’s.
Written by Dick Davis: 2014
Edited by Declan Wright: 2017