Celebrating 100 years of children’s pantomimes

CARTOON: Five pupils from Elmslie School for Girls were expelled for taking part in the Blackpool Children's Pantomime
CARTOON: Five pupils from Elmslie School for Girls were expelled for taking part in the Blackpool Children's Pantomime
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EVERY panto needs a character to boo at, but for five schoolgirls back in the mid 1950s, the villain was definitely in a class of its own.

The young ladies found themselves expelled from fee-paying Elmslie School – where they were attending on local authority scholarships – because they wanted to be in the cast of Little Bo Peep, to be staged at the Grand Theatre by Blackpool Children’s Pantomime.

In previous years, this had not been a problem, but a change of headship and policy frowned upon the noble art of thigh slapping and such permission was withdrawn.

Their parents went through weeks of worry, but felt there was a principle at stake. Unhappy at the new schools provided for their daughters, the story quickly made national headlines.

The long running school saga is just one of the colourful moments unearthed by entertainment historian Kenneth Shenton, during research into Blackpool Children’s Pantomime which staged its inaugural production 100 years ago this week.

Kenneth says: “After a break of many years, the recent revival of Blackpool Children’s Pantomime is particularly fitting, coming as it does a century on from a modest production of the fairy play, Sunset Land.

“This set in motion an annual theatrical extravaganza that, over the years, would involve literally thousands of local school children raising much needed funds for local charities.

“Initial driving force behind the project, was local drama teacher John Fitzgerald, ably supported by his wife Edith. Such was the success of their first production that 12 months later, over 100 young performers were back on the Grand stage, this time with Rumpelstiltskin. By the time of the couple’s 1931 production of Puss in Boots, the shows had become the country’s longest running children’s panto.

“Dominating the scene, from the death of John Fitzgerald in 1933 until her retirement in 1978, was the autocratic, yet widely respected, Elsie Williamson, or Madame Elsie as she liked to be known. Granted free use of the Opera House, her stylish productions increasingly became an all-consuming passion. Highlights of her time in charge included the Golden Jubilee production of Cinderella in 1961, and the company’s appearance in January 1976, at the star studied Centenary Command Performance. Staged at the Opera House it commemorated the granting to Blackpool of its first Royal Charter in 1876.

“Of the many young performers successfully going on into show business, Audrey Hewitt, principal girl in Mother Goose in 1939, later married the famous ventriloquist, Arthur Worsley. Also appearing in that same production was Doreen McMartin who, seven years later, while a dancer at the Opera House, met the celebrated Irish tenor, Josef Locke. Famously married at Sacred Heart Church in February, 1947, tragedy struck when two of their three children died in infancy. The couple later separated when it was discovered Locke had married Doreen bigamously.

“Another young star, Bobby Bennett, subsequently appeared in the summer season revue, Happiness About at the Queen’s Theatre, Cleveleys. A winner on TV’s Opportunity Knocks, he also hosted the popular Junior Showtime on ITV.

“Elaine Smith later progressed to competing in beauty pageants. It was while winning the Gazette and Herald Miss Blackpool title in 1954 that she caught the eye of TV presenter and producer, Jess Yates. Her famous daughter, Paula, later married for a time to pop star Bob Geldof, tragically died of a heroin overdose in 2000.”

So what became of those five expelled schoolgirls? Even as they were putting on their make-up, fixing their costumes and being drilled by the producer at the dress rehearsal in February 1956, the plot was still thickening around them. The elected worthies on Blackpool Town Council agreed the pupils should have the right to continue their education at grammar school level instead of the secondary modern schools first earmarked for them.

But Kenneth reveals: “As in all the best pantomimes, a happy ending eventually ensued, Elmslie subsequently backed down, not only reinstating the pupils but also allowing them to take part in the show. The Gazette even marked the occasion with a pertinent cartoon featuring a Fairy Godmother!”