Back in 1903 a group of musical enthusiasts formed a Choral Society under the baton of Mr. T. Appleby Matthews. They presented such choral works as “St. Cecilia’s Day”, “The Rose Maiden” and “The May Queen”, principal singers being Vera Yeomans and Harry Guise, a former editor of the old Redditch Indicator. One performance introduced a young solo violinist, Paul Beard, who eventually became leader of the London Symphony Orchestra.
In 1906 it was proposed that the choral work would be “The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest”, but opinion of the members was divided as to whether it should be a concert version or presented as an operetta. Voting for the latter was carried. Thus the formation of Studley Operatic Society took place. This the first operetta was a huge success. The singing and elocution mistress was Miss May Oakley, and Musical Director Mr. T. Appleby Matthews, who transferred his able talent to the City of Birmingham orchestra and the city police band in 1907 .
Miss Fanny Stephens of Pershore took over as musical director in 1908. The Studley Amateur Operatic Society was affiliated to the ‘National Amateur Operatic & Dramatic Society’ at a cost of one guinea. Like most societies Gilbert & Sullivan took pride of place for many years, a highlight being the 1923 presentation, in the open, of “Yeoman of the Guard” at Coughton Court, by kind permission of the Throckmorton family. After this many favourite operettas followed, and the Society grew in strength. It went into hibernation in 1934 and was re kindled in 1948 by Mr. Len Parkes (who was in the original 1906 show). For year after year Len produced and organised every aspect of the Society. He decided which show would be performed, who would be M.D., who would have the leading roles and other parts, and of course the venue, it worked like a dream! It should be mentioned that Len was also the prompt. One amusing story regarding ‘lolanthe’ 1950 — he was having trouble getting all the Peers to kneel down at the same time. He assured them that, on the night, he would give a signal so that all would kneel as one. It came —a whisper audible to at least the first six rows of the audience —“Down Yuh Buggers”. Peers knelt with a precision unsurpassed.
In 1955 five weeks before the production of ‘Country Girl’ one of the leading men fell ill and a young man Joe Brennan, well known for his comedy drama roles was invited to take the part of ‘Billy’ he was not at all keen on operetta but reluctantly agreed to give it a go to help the society out. Thus Len Parks and Joe Brennan worked with each other for the next six years.
Humorous happenings have always stood out with most Operatic Societies and Studley has had more than its fair share. One such instance occurred during our 1956 production of ‘Veronique’ The venue, Needle Industries Ltd, canteen hall. Readers may recall this old operetta with the leading lady seated on a donkey singing that lovely solo “Trot Here, Trot There”. We were fortunate in obtaining a beautiful light grey donkey for this scene. Of course, the ladies’ chorus were besotted and fed it scrubbed carrots every evening. Needless to say the inevitable happened. During Wednesday evening performance our leading lady, giving her all, was joined by the donkey leaving his all. The aroma was killing. Then some bright stage-hand decided to open a back window but unfortunately the wind was blowing due south. The audience sat throughout with handkerchiefs covering their faces. There was a 15 minute interval which wasn’t shown in the programme.
The President at this time (1956) was the Dowager Lady Throckmorton of Coughton Court (Of Gunpowder Plot fame). She was a great enthusiast of the Society and invited many of her titled friends to become Vice Presidents. The list read like a “Who’s Who” Royalty, Rt. Hons. (Anthony Eden later Prime Minister) Lords, Ladies, Admirals, MPs -they were indeed unforgettable times.
The years rolled by and like most Societies they endeavored to entertain both themselves and public alike, presenting all the popular musicals of the period. Then disaster struck. In 1961 Len Parks died after a short illness. This left the Society like a ship without a rudder. However the members rallied, called a meeting and decided they must continue as a Society. A committee was formed — the first in many years — a Chairman selected, Producer (Joe Brennan) and Musical Director appointed, and off they went producing ‘Country Girl’ the only show Joe knew well enough to produce.
Joe ran the Society in much the same way as Len before him and many memorable shows were produced by him. His ability to squeeze humor from almost any situation was wonderful the ‘Can Can’ in the ‘Merry Widow’ was a fine example, no fine young dancers were available so he sent up the dance with four rotund ladies, the finale of the dance saw them on the floor with their legs in the air, showing brightly coloured bloomers with their names on. Joe was an exceptionally talented producer he could have the audience spell bound as he did in the finale of his penultimate show ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ in 1999.
The Society has had its highs and lows over the first 100 years, readers may recall the problem faced with Redditch Council who banned the Society from performing the great musical ‘Showboat’ at the local Palace Theatre. They disagreed with white actors and actresses “blacking-up”. It was never decided if it was a ‘high’ or a ‘low’, but what it did do was to give a little Society worldwide publicity - a village Society making history. They were able to overcome this set-back by performing to full houses at the Norbury Theatre, Droitwich. Everyone there made them feel so welcome.
Another proud moment in the Society’s history was when they won NODA’s No. 10 Region award “Best Show in 2004” for ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’. A tremendous achievement as it was only the seventh amateur performance in the country.
So many devoted people have contributed to the Success of the society over the years, none more so than Mr. Leonard J. Parkes and Mr Joe Brennan. Len was a performer at the beginning in 1906, worked with them through two world wars, and held the Society together through good and bad times, until his untimely death in 1961, Fifty–five loyal years performing or producing 35 shows. Joe joined in 1955 and has been connected either as performer, producer or president for 48 shows over Fifty-one year period retiring as president in 2006.