BY RICHARD CORNWELL, Felixstowe editor
Monday, January 7, 2013
ONE of the region’s biggest theatres is facing an uncertain future today – with supporters praying that it hasn’t shut its doors for the last time.
AT the turn of the 20th century, the site of the Spa Pavilion was occupied by a wooden shed from which was sold the medicinal spa waters which flowed from the cliffs.
By 1907, it was a place of entertainment and home to a wrought iron covered bandstand with room for 30 musicians and surrounded by open-air seating for several hundred spectators.
Two years later the first theatre opened – known as the Floral Hall, and based on a similar venue at Bridlington, it cost £7,000, incorporated the bandstand and provided an indoor theatre seating 700 people, opening on June 25, 1909.
The Floral Hall stayed until it was replaced by the new Spa Pavilion in 1939 – though the new building only lasted two years when the cliff was struck by a German bomb which blew its roof off.
It was rebuilt after the war to create the building which exists today – the lounge restaurant was added in the 1970s and toilets and lift in the 1990s – and opened in 1950.
Over the years, it has played host to a rich variety of entertainment – from big bands to rock and roll, musicals to comedy, quality drama to dance spectaculars, opera to ballet, household names to local amateur performers, traditional seaside shows to panto, a wide range of community events and more.
Many of the nation’s top TV stars of the day came to Felixstowe – such as Les Dawson, Mike Yarwood, Tommy Cooper, Bob Monkhouse, Larry Grayson, Lenny Henry, Jim Davidson and Jimmy Tarbuck – and it would host a six-week summer season.
More recently, the line-up has been more low-key and tribute bands as it has struggled to attract top shows.
As another fantastic panto run came to an end, the emotion and reality of the occasion hit home and there were tears on stage and off as the Spa Pavilion was formally closed after 103 years as a venue for seafront entertainment.
People had known for almost a year that closure was coming – with 12 months nowhere near long enough for either the council or campaigners to find a way to keep it open.
Mayor of Felixstowe Mike Deacon said he was “very disappointed”.
“I think it’s a great shame for the town and I think it is very short-sighted of the people at the district council to lose something as big and important as that to our town,” he said.
“To have the Spa sitting boarded up in the midst of the newly-renovated gardens will be awful. I am quite upset by it all.
“I think the council should have recognised the problems and taken action much sooner – even the consultants said twice as much money a year should have been put into it.”
Sylvia Lowe, director of the Dennis Lowe Theatre Company, said: “It is just so sad – I am devastated. We never believed this could happen.
“All through the run people have been coming up to us and telling us how sad they feel, how terrible it is, and asking what will happen and what are we going to do. I just cannot answer those questions because I don’t know the answers.
“I think the council acted too late and should have looked at the situation several years ago. They should have see that it was not working and agreed to do something, to explore what was going on, and they would have had much longer to find a solution and sorted it out. If they had done that, it might have been different situation now.”
Her daughter Suzie Lowe, director of Aladdin, the last show at the Spa, and part of the SPA (Spa Pavilion Associates) campaign group trying to form a trust to take over the venue, was more upbeat.
“Never say never,” she said.
“There hasn’t been a year gone by where I haven’t done a show at the theatre. I’m positive something will happen. The council want to see it survive, they want to see it as a theatre. I can see where they’re coming from in terms of ‘financially this isn’t working, we need to re-think it’.
“I can’t say too much but it’s the most positive I’ve heard them speak. If they can figure out a way it’s going to be financially viable they will go with it 100 per cent. Fingers crossed.”