The story of the Art Theatre is remarkable to say the least. It begins when the first sod was cut for the foundations of the New Mills Empire and Hippodrome in March 1911 and the grand opening was on Saturday June 24th 1911.
The entertainment arranged for the opening afternoon included two films, Into the Jaws of Death and The Cleaning of Scroggins House plus songs by Little Ivy Francis, Miss Hilda Newsome, Miss Marie Francis and Mr Matt Ray and that was only in the afternoon!
David Macintosh Taylor was the first lessee/manager. He was a flamboyant character and great showman. Some of the acts he booked for the Theatre were both unusual and entertaining, for example two young ladies who performed many feats such as knitting, eating bananas and blowing a post horn whilst submerged in a tank of water on the stage. As far as we know, this has not been tried at the Art Theatre since.
David Taylor finally bought the theatre after nine years as manager, but two days later he sold it to Messrs. Walters and Law on November 22nd 1920.
Messrs Walters and Law closed the theatre on Saturday April 9th 1921, for “entire reconstruction, decoration and general improvements”. These alterations resulted in the upper story being built with a lounge, which is now the theatre licensed bar, and originally this had an exquisite marble fireplace which can still be seen to this day in the foyer. A new circle was also erected with a box at either side. Many more alterations were made and this formed the basis of the theatre we see to this day.
The doors were opened once more on August 29th 1921, the first night of the life of The Art Picture Playhouse.
Again a mixture of cine and live performance were produced and The Art Picture Playhouse went from strength to strength showing films, plays, pantomimes and even grand opera.
A further change of ownership came about on April 4th 1922, and with it a change of management and policy – more stage shows.
This continued with huge success until Sailor Beware in 1959 when disaster struck! On March 21st 1959, the Sheffield Theatre Cinema Company closed the doors of the Art Theatre and left the Operatics homeless.
From now onwards, the story of the Art Theatre is also the story of the Amateurs, and although they have always been closely connected, the remainder of this story proves the dedication of a group of people with one aim. This dedication has never disappeared.
A Special General Meeting was held on April 7th 1959 to explore the possibilities of leasing or even buying the theatre, which remained closed all summer.
On September 26th 1959 the Art Theatre re-opened. The Society had taken a two year tenancy, worked solidly seven days a week for ten weeks, then opened a spick and span theatre once again to entertain. The main problem, as always, was finance but thanks to the regular hard workers and individual fund raising efforts, in April 1961 the Art Theatre was leased for a further two years.
In 1966 the memorable decision to buy the Art Theatre was taken and the “Buy a Brick” scheme was launched. Buy a brick for £1.00, and the bricks at the front of the Theatre were painted out to show the progress. By the end of the last night of the November show Perchance to Dream, the target of £1000.00 was short by £20.00.
The President made a speech from the stage and as he was speaking, members of the audience called out “here’s a pound”, “here’s another”, the atmosphere was electric and when the President announced “we’ve done it” the place erupted.
Since then, with the inevitable ups and downs of any organisation, the Society has gone from strength to strength. Improvements and alterations have been made to both front of house and backstage. Glasses of sherry replaced cups of tea and eventually a full bar was installed which proved both a social and financial asset.
Damp proofing, rewiring, re-organised seating and a new heating system have all benefited the fabric of the building and the comfort of our audiences.
In 1980 Miss Claire Ferraby, a designer from London, was commissioned to present a set of designs for the re-decoration of the theatre in keeping with its lovely Edwardian character. The Executive Committee decided not to do a Spring Show in 1984 but to concentrate on damp proofing the walls and altering the seating arrangements prior to starting on the redecoration scheme. The latter was completed in the summer of 1985 by John Pearce & Sons (Decorators) of Ashton-Under-Lyne.
This short history was written in 1985 and, of course the main scheme to refurbish the Theatre Auditorium was completed to the standard we see today.
Since then several major schemes have been carried out not least the battle to beat dry rot which meant replacing the whole of the auditorium floor.