HOW did a secret plan to convert a chapel into a cinema lead to the founding of the Salisbury Playhouse theatre? The answer is contained in a new book detailing the story of how Salisbury’s most famous theatre came to be.
Written by Playhouse archivist Arthur Millie, Twice Upon a Salisbury Stage details how the theatre came to be, as well as documenting some of the notable performers who have trod its boards.
Mr Millie explained: “In 1869, the Primitive Methodists built a new chapel in Fisherton Street. They worshipped there until 1915, when they realised that the building was suffering extensive damage due to flooding.
“They sold the building to Albany Ward, a local cinema entrepreneur, who told the Methodists that he was going to convert it into a garage.”
But what Mr Ward did not reveal was his true plan – to convert the building into a cinema.
“The Methodists did not approve of this new form of entertainment,” Mr Millie said.
“So, in 1916, The Picture House opened and the building remained a cinema until 1937, when the popularity of the many other cinemas in the town forced it to close.
“It remained empty for a while until it became a drill hall and a recruiting centre for the Army, then after a while it remained empty again.”
The military played another important part in the building’s life when, during the second world war Basil Dean, who was in charge of ENSA (Entertainment and National Services Association), was on the lookout for premises he could convert into a garrison theatre to hold shows for the troops stationed around Salisbury.
“This opened in 1943 and many famous people appeared there at the beginning of their careers including Peter Ustinov, Edith Evans, James Mason and Flora Robson,” Mr Millie went on.
“At the end of the war, ENSA moved out but fortunately the Arts Council realised this old building could remain as a theatre, this time for the people of Salisbury and they turned it into the Arts Theatre.
“Once again many famous people at the beginning of their careers trod these boards including Timothy West, Kenneth Williams, Leslie Phillips, Prunella Scales, Stephanie Cole and Christopher Biggins.
“And under the astute management of Reggie Salberg, this little theatre gained a national reputation.”
In 1953, the name was changed to the Salisbury Playhouse and in the 1970s, it was decided it should move to more fitting premises.
“Eventually the old building, that was never initially built as a theatre, was deemed unfit to carry on,” Mr Millie said.
“And after a huge fund-raising campaign, the new Playhouse was opened in November 1976 by Sir Alec Guinness.
“So from a tiny chapel in Fisherton Street to a large theatre in Malthouse Lane – it’s quite an amazing story.”
Twice Upon a Salisbury Stage details the story of the Playhouse and has a fitting author in Mr Millie.
“I have been one of the archivists at the Playhouse since 1996 and wrote this story during lockdown,” he said.
The book is available to purchase at the Rocketship Bookshop and the History Bookshop, as well as online.