Theatre lovers Dorset-wide are today appealing to all preservationists to "step in, step out and step up" and to join them in their campaign to save one of Dorset's most famous and best loved - but alas now derelict - theatres: The Cheselbourne Empire.
Once home to the famous Threadbone Follies - the spectacular revue which had the audiences "shaking the blues away" on a nightly basis from 1922-1958, the iconic theatre launched a thousand careers including those of Fernando Mediantepiezza, Roy Tongue and his talking tortoise, Wild Bobby Nuts, comedic ensemble SplitEndz and singalong pianist Winifred Attagirl. Later the theatre would witness occasional appearances by Dorset favourite Sid Sodd as well as the yet to be famous Ziggy Osmington. Even so to many, the Empire will simply be known as the place where the Follies girls plied their trade "twice nightly and three times on Saturdays" as the famous strap-line had it.
Former Follies beauty J Edith Hoofer recalls those times with both affection and remembered pain. "The attention was lovely but being up for it every night certainly wore you down", she said. "My mother was a stickler for cleanliness, so it was clean knickers every night whether you were expecting something or not". Friend Betty Standin agrees, "I remember when Sid Sodd came, there wasn't a dry pair in the house."
During the war the Theatre gave a sense of hope and normality to the many locals for whom a trip to The Follies was the highlight of the week; whilst many a romance (and several less than immaculate conceptions) owe their existence to the atmospheric darkness of the auditorium. After its heyday as a locus specialis for musical theatre and revue, the venue served briefly as a receiving house for touring theatre [including memorably Terence Rattaturk's "Separate Bibles"] before becoming a cinema, bingo hall, snooker club and finally a public house. It closed its doors in 1992 and has been unoccupied since.
The Campaign to restore both the fabric of the Theatre and the residency of The Follies has been underway almost since the theatre's closure but has been boosted recently by the decision by Cheselbourne District Council to apply for a demolition order. "Over our dead bodies", Fred and Eunice FitzZiegfeld (98 and 99) said yesterday as their grand-daughter put them on a one-way flight to Switzerland. "We'll fight them in the balconies, we'll fight them in the orchestra stalls, we'll fight them in the foyer and we will never...." [Yes we get the drift. [ed]]
Anyone wishing to support the Campaign is asked to contact Manny Lawste-Kausez at The Last Chance Saloon, Cheselbourne
Historical Note: Theatre Historian Archie Proscenium writes...
The Cheselbourne Empire opened in 1882 on the site of a former public house (The Nag's Bollocks) and was financed by a consortium led by Oscar Threadbone and his business partner Siegfried Oats. They employed up and coming theatre architect Frank Catchem to design a state-of-the-art venue. Frank would later go on to design more than 100 theatres across the West Country. According to theatre architect, Hugh Flyte-Ower the Empire was "perhaps his first but by no means his last or biggest mistake" [The Litton Cheney Criterion seats 1,500]. Originally designed to be a palace of varieties and revue, its deep but low stage proved an obstacle when Cedric Beane-Pole the world's tallest man could not achieve full upward extension, requiring what management euphemistically described as a "procrustean solution". Cedric never worked again. The highpoint in the Theatre's history was undoubtedly it's presentation of Threadbone's Follies between 1922 and 1958. The annual Miss Follies of ... competition drew crowds in their dozens. The popularity of The Follies waned, however, with the arrival of first the cinema and later television; whilst crowd trouble at a Ziggy Osmington concert in 1961 led to several pounds worth of damage and "chewing gum adhesion issues" that could never be successfully resolved. Thereafter the Theatre's history is a story of sad inexorable decline.
THE CHESELBOURNE EMPIRE 1882-1992
1882 Opens with a production of Gordon and Seagram's "The Pirates of Peacemarsh"
1901 Planned visit by Queen Victoria cancelled due to monarch's death
1914-1918 Theatre becomes a field hospital for those injured "entertaining our brave boys during their respite visits"
1921 Theatre refurbished (WCs installed)
1922 The first of the Annual Threadbone Follies staged
1939-1945 Theatre becomes a field hospital for those injured "entertaining our American friends during their respite visits"
1946 Theatre re-opens with The Threadbone Follies of 1945. First appearance on stage in any British theatre of a full sized replica Messerschmitt in the final tableau/pageant "German men are nice but I prefer a British helmet"
1958 Threadbone Follies performed for the last time
1959 Conversion into the Cheselbourne Roxy Cinema. Season opens with "How Mrs Miniver Will Win Us The War" [delayed premiere]
1968 Cinema closes after poor receipts for "Local Hero: The Life of Prof Brian"
1968 Conversion into a ThreadBingo Hall franchise
1980 Conversion into Willie Thornebone's Snooker Club
1988-9 Premises vacant
1989 Opens as The Nag's Bollocks public house and social club
1992 Closes for the last time