Once again the Gleemen make an entrance, this time in Weston Super Mare showing the Mechanics was providing a source of theatre and entertainment for the whole GWR region not just Swindon. In this period the Mechanics was home to visits by the BBC and provided a working base for much of Swindon’s new musical and theatrical societies.
One of the most siginificant events in the history of the Mechanics Institute building during this period took place on Christmas Eve 1930. A fire took hold in the stage area of the theatre, causing extensive damage to the stage, wings and destroying the roof space immediately above the stage.
This picture taken a few days after the fire shows the extent of the damage. The original rectangular procenium arch has been lost and there is nothing left of the scenery supports above the stage. Before the fire there was no facility to fly in scenery. All the photographs of the time show backdrops and flats suspended from poles running the width of the stage and permanently fixed in place.
The building was repaired and the now dominant “fly tower” was put in place. Many have criticised the aesthetics of this addition saying it was a botched addition and pointing out that it is the tower which is now in the worst state of repair. However, documentation from the Theatre Trust clearly indicates that this design was cutting edge technology in its day.
The fact that the fly tower has deteriorated is more to do with the quality of materials available in the 1930’s world depression. However, Swindon now had a theatre capable of taking full sized stage sets which could be flown from the new tower. This was also the time at which the tunnel shaped procenium arch was added to the stage presumably being more in line with the fashion of the time.
However, the theatre was not the only area of major change. The library became open access for the first time. Readers were allowed to wander through the open shelving systems and select from the displays.
Once again with the onset of a World War the Mechanics Institute became a focus for news and Community. The Yeomanry which had mustered at the Mechanics during the lead up to the Great war also did the same in the 1930’s.
During the war the main hall which was reported to have had a sloping floor was refitted to cope with the demands of the dance band era. Local dance bands played extensively at the Mechanics’ Institute. A professional repretory theatre was based at the Theatre during the war and up to the mid 1950’s
Indeed, one of the stage managers in the 1950’s was one Charles Haughtry, better known for his roles within the Carry On series of films in the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Not all normal life ground to a halt however. The programme on the left shows one of the largest Juvenile Fetes to have taken place in Swindon. Upwards of 25,000 people attended. This was probably the last true fete as like so many things it seemed less real after the disturbance of World War II.
For those familiar with Swindon the Drill Hall mentioned in this poster is now the Territorial Army Centre in Park Lane Swindon.
Again, note the appearance of the towns own juggling act, “The Great Blondinis” appearing between the revolving ladder act and the laughter peddlers. More recently, a statue showing the Blondinis in mid balance was in Market Street at the junction with Canal Walk.
The Juvenile Fete was well known in the town and was a landmark during the year. Running without major interruption from 1866 to 1939 the format of the last fete still showed similarities with the events organised some 70 years earlier with the first fete. Many Swindonians past and present remember the park being packed with crowds and the arrival of the “cake” which was ceremonially cut into small pieces to be distributed to the children attending. The only restriction on the celebrations appears to be that each child was required to bring their own cup.