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Celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of the Assembly Hall. Tunbridge Wells

By This is Kent  |  Posted: March 29, 2009

  • COME ONE, COME ALL: Publicity for a masked ball in the Assembly Hall during the 1940s. The organisers pile into a vintage car to entice revellers, while the bold yellow poster offers a giant marionette and a famous wonder bar

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THE curtain goes up this year on celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of Tunbridge Wells Assembly Hall.

Squeezed between the work-a-day corridors of the town hall and the uniform solidity of the police station, the theatre has served up entertainment to generations of local people over the past seven decades.

Wartime romances blossomed on the super-sprung dance floor, later generations jived and bopped and disco-danced, and for many children, the annual Christmas shows offered their first glimpse of the magic of pantomime.

Now part of one of England's few remaining civic complexes, the theatre was an integral part of architect Percy Thomas' ground-breaking 1934 design and its opening, on May 24 1939, struck a bright, modern note as clouds of war gathered over Europe.

An enthusiastic Kent and Sussex Courier reporter declared: "No other town in the country has a more modern, more comfortable or more versatile building for public assembly."

The mayor, Alderman Westbrook, also grabbed the opportunity for celebration in a darkening world, stressing: "We are not a dead borough, but really alive."

The £60,000 building, all clean space and hightech systems, was the only part of the ambitious complex to be opened before hostilities began.

After praising the up-to-the- minute design of the theatre, a contemporary noted: "Below the stage are the boiler and machine rooms, which should make remarkably good air-raid shelters, for they had to be excavated out of sandstone."

The theatre was to prove its worth during those early years, laying on popular dances for troops, screening morale-boosting film shows for local people, including many schoolchildren, and also staging well-supported events to drum up money for the war effort.

In the late 1940s, the war finally over, it was time for the theatre to return to more traditional entertainments. Rising young actor Richard Attenborough was star guest at a film ball at Christmas 1948, and actress Christine Norden, described as "Britain's first postwar screen sex symbol", also came to mingle with the crowds and present prizes.

In January 1948, with rationing still imposing strict limits for consumers, the Courier reported on a masked fancy dress ball where hundreds of balloons, four containing vouchers for "pairs of fully-fashioned nylons specially flown in from America", floated down onto the dancers below.

Only days earlier, the town had been rocked by the murder of a young woman from High Brooms whose body was found in a yard off Crescent Road, close to the theatre. Phyllis Gorringe had spent the previous evening, New Year's Eve, dancing at the Assembly Hall. Her husband, Bob, was later convicted of her murder.

As the century moved on, while events such as collector's fairs and conferences expanded the role of the theatre, sheer entertainment has continued to be the lifeblood of the place, with drama and music, comedy and dance providing a colourful backdrop to local life.

In 2001, by now attracting 150,000 visitors a year, the Assembly Hall was closed for three months for the first stage of its multi-million pound makeover. Extra dressing rooms were built and the original bar remodelled, and the foyer and front of house were also revamped using the original ICI colours and paint schemes.

New sound systems and lighting followed two years later, plus air-conditioning and £630,000 worth of new seating, bars and other facilities, including a lift for disabled visitors.

This means the Assembly Hall is well-placed to continue to provide entertainment fit for the 21st century.

Special ticket offers and children's competitions will be run through the year, plus an anniversary tea party for older residents.

Tunbridge Wells Borough Council is hoping to produce a booklet and exhibition tracing the history of the Assembly Hall. PR and sponsorship officer Ginny Osborn said: "To create as full a picture as possible, we are asking people to send in their memories of the theatre, as well as lending any photos or cuttings."

She added: "Perhaps you saw your first-ever pantomime here, or met someone special at one of the balls held in the '40s and '50s. Was anyone at the opening on Empire Day, 1939? We would welcome any memories from the opening right through to the present."

Send details to Sarah Cunningham, Assembly Hall Theatre, Crescent Road, Tunbridge Wells TN1 2LU, drop them into the box office or email scun ningham.aht@tunbridgewells.gov.uk

Include contact details so that materials can be returned.

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