Mind you, cutting up that customer’s credit card could have been rather awkward…
I was born in Ilford – as was my husband Graham: he was a scout and I was a guide, and we were very good friends for many years before we got married. We then lived in South Woodham Ferrers for nearly twenty years but, as the ‘new town’ developed there, we decided we wanted to move away. We needed to be near a station, because Graham was working in London, and we had both had a love of the Southend area from childhood days out, so we moved to Westcliff.
I have always had a love of theatre, and in South Woodham we helped form an amateur dramatic society, The South Woodham Players (with the accent on dramatics, not musicals). We performed in the old village hall – though I’m not sure how, bearing in mind the antiquated facilities – and successfully campaigned for a new hall. But later on we moved to the William de Ferrers Centre, where we could put on much larger productions, including pantos.
I really enjoyed all this, especially being involved in all aspects of the shows. I even appeared on stage at the Palace theatre, in March 1981, when the Players performed Night of the Dolls in one of the rounds of the All-England Theatre Festival, presented by SEEDA (the South East Essex Drama Association) – but I never dreamed I would be back there in a professional capacity!
But then, in spring 1988, after we had moved, Graham spotted an advert for a box office manager at the Palace. I applied, and was fortunate to get the job (though no doubt my previous experience of organising the health clinic in South Woodham helped!). The Box Office Assistants I first worked with were Paddi Cole, Jessie Parker and Angela Ellis, while Gwen Thorn, who had preferred not to take the ‘top job’, was my Deputy. My first ‘credit’ in a programme was in June, for Alan Ayckbourn’s Intimate Exchanges, but just before that we had Hinge and Bracket in one of their frequent appearances. This time they presented The Arkley Barnet Show, and I remember Patrick Fyffe (Dame Hilda Bracket) making fun of the steep rake on the stage, and leaning against their piano in case it rolled into the stalls!
It turned out it was a very old-fashioned box office, and my brief from the manager, Malcolm Clement, was to bring it up to date. There was a seating plan for each show on big A3 sheets, and the corresponding tickets were in pigeon holes – so human error was rife and it took some reorganising! (I learned – many years ago, long before my time – they used metal disks for admission to the Gallery, but this system was prone to fraud, with disks being resold and the money pocketed!)
The Dixon extension had been built a few years before, and the box office was where the present day concessions stand is, with the Footlights Bistro occupying the space used by the present day box office. My desk was at the back of this rather cramped box office.
I remember when credit cards came in. We had one of the ‘sliders’, then we acquired a ‘PDQ’ machine (I’m not sure what that stood for, but we used to call it ‘Pretty Damn Quick’!), which was connected to the bank, and they authorised the transaction. I recall one occasion when a card, presented by a customer about 10 minutes before curtain up, wasn’t accepted by the bank. The box office was really busy, so I was called over and I spoke to the bank. I was asked what car the customer was driving: having explained that we were a theatre box office, I was instructed, under no circumstances, to give the card back – and, indeed, I was to immediately cut it up! So I asked the customer, who was getting increasingly irate, if he had any other way of paying. He said no, and could he have his card back. I said no, I had been told to cut it up: fortunately he eventually stormed out. I was certainly grateful for the glass front to the box office that day! But thankfully we didn’t have too many customers like that!
I also helped reorganise the phone system, which helped reduce stress levels when the staff were faced with several phones ringing at the same time.
Then, after a year, the Marketing Officer, Karen Perry, who had only taken over from Deborah Dyke a short while ago, left and I was offered promotion into that job. My ‘new’ office was right at the top of the theatre, next to artistic director Chris Dunham’s office, just below Gallery level.
We used a designer, Malcolm McKee, for the programmes, posters and leaflets. He was based in the Stratford-on-Avon area, and was an actor, so he knew most of the plays and how to promote them. Chris and I would use the ‘play books’ to see what text to use and, at the actors’ ‘first call’, I would go along and meet them and ask for their biographies and photos. I would collate all this and send it to Proscenium Publications, based in Bristol, while John Good Holbrook Ltd, in Coventry, handled the advertising. We did the final proof-reading. We also published season booklets, which provided an opportunity to promote other activities at the theatre.
Putting on the shows was quite a juggling act for Chris, with our limited budget, so he would often put on a two or three-hander to go alongside a more elaborate show: I remember that people would comment that there were only a few actors in a particular play – well, sometimes we just couldn’t afford any more!
One thing we did really well with was our season ticket packages, because they encouraged people to come along and try something they might not otherwise see.
I worked very well with Chris, although there were a few times when I had arranged something with the press (and had checked it with him beforehand) but it ended up clashing with rehearsals, and I couldn’t go ahead. This was very unfortunate, especially as money was so tight, and free publicity was like gold dust.
We started audio-described performances, using a Tardis-like booth at the rear right of the stalls, and we also had one signed performance for each play. These were sponsored (see the credit to British Telecom in the 1990 Spring and Summer brochure below). We also allowed guide dogs in. These initiatives, aimed at making the theatre accessible to all, were quite innovative at the time.
I also started ‘Palace Partners’ which sought sponsorship from local businesses, providing, at various levels, complimentary seats, invitations to special events and other benefits.
The Palace used to have a float in the Southend Carnival parade (Daisy Pulls it Off is one I remember from September 1988, just after I had started in the box office). I did one the following year for The Wind in the Willows, for which I managed to get a genuine old car for Mr Toad, and for which I think I was dressed as a dormouse! But we couldn’t continue with these as I just didn’t have the budget for them.
I also organised press launches to announce each season. These were quite elaborate, with Chris using actors in the current plays to act out short scenes from the forthcoming shows. I also remember promoting A Bedfull of Foreigners (September 1994), for which we had a bed in the foyer, and we set up a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party for the press for Alice in Wonderland (December 1990). We also used to go out and about as much as we could – anything to promote the theatre! For that Alice in Wonderland panto we participated in the opening of Bramblebrook Nursery, at Southend Hospital, while, to launch our Autumn 1991 season, we had three of the actors playing charades (guessing the show titles!) with shoppers in the Food Court at the Royals Shopping Centre!
For one of the Christmas shows (possibly Cinderella in December 1996) I decided to try adverts on the back of buses. They cost quite a bit, but when we asked patrons whether they had seen them we were amazed at how many had, and how it significantly increased our sales. Soon after, I remember a couple of council officials came to see us, saying they were reviewing our budget, and, in particular, didn’t think it worth spending money on the bus adverts. When I asked what they based that conclusion on, they could only bluster, and not provide a straight answer. So I told them how our box office monitoring system had proved that these ads had, in fact, easily paid for themselves – and I would be using them again! So that day the officials left rather sheepishly!
I particularly enjoyed the community plays A Right Hearty Welcome in June 1996 and By the Dome It’s Known in July 1998, partly because, as these were amateur shows, I got the chance to go on stage! For the Kursaal show (By the Dome…) we had sponsorship from BP, and I put together a photo call with a lovely shiny tanker in the background!
I was having a wonderful time, so it was really sad when, on 13th March 1999, we were all made redundant and the theatre closed (the day before my birthday!). Chris had given his life to the theatre, but the funding battles were all too much for him in the end. Still, we had given the Palace a right good sending off at the Fond Farewell Party on Sunday 19th January!
I was promptly offered a temporary job with the press office at the Civic Theatre in Chelmsford, where, to our mutual surprise, I bumped into John Newman. He ran Newpalm Productions, with Daphne Palmer, and I knew him well from the ‘Classic Thrillers’ seasons they had presented at the Palace. He had the contract to present seasons at the Civic, and he asked me if I would like to work with him, promoting his shows, conducting back stage tours, etc. Of course, I jumped at the chance (my official title was Marketing & Group Bookings!) – and one of the shows I was eventually involved with was The Wizard of Oz in December 2006 – back at the Palace!
By then, having survived further turbulent times, the Palace was being run by HQ Theatres. John knew what I had gone through in 1999, and he very kindly asked me to go with him to see the (beautifully made) cloths being flown in. So we sat together to watch this, and my mind went back to the wonderful years I had worked there. It was really nice to be back at the Palace, in much more pleasant circumstances.
But then, as it happened, also in December 2006, after 37 years presenting rep seasons and a Christmas show, Newpalm bid farewell to the Civic with Aladdin. Here’s a lovely photo of us all on stage, waving a sad goodbye (I’m second from the left in the back row)!
As I approached retirement I gradually reduced my work with John, and eventually I finished altogether. However, not one to put my feet up, I’m now involved with The Orpheus Singers, based in Hadleigh, where I’m Concert Manager. It’s a lovely hobby – and my husband Graham is a member of Leigh Orpheus Male Voice Choir!
So it’s not time for us to fully relax – just yet!
Archivist David Simpson adds: I had the pleasure of speaking to Marion at her lovely home in Chalkwell in February 2020. In addition to her wonderful reminiscences, she kindly provided the images from Babes in the Wood, the Palace in 1996, the office staff circa 1998, The Wizard of Oz cast and Newpalm’s farewell to the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford