The Society was founded in 1929, and apart from a small break during the war years, has been consistently producing high quality shows ever since. We are a friendly, flourishing society, of some 45 Members, with usually between 30 and 45 performing for each show, depending upon individual commitments and taste. We try to pick as many of the leading roles as possible from within the Society, but also hold auditions for non-members who are thinking of joining the society for a small audition fee. In addition to our full members, we have a loyal group of supporters, some of whom take up paid Friends membership as a way of supporting the society financially. There is a small, but invaluable, group who help to make the show happen by taking care of costumes, props, scenery, and all sorts of behind the scenes tasks.
Since 1929, when the first rehearsals for the 1930 production of The Gondoliers began, Wimbledon Light Opera Society (WLOS) has entertained local audiences – until the mid-1960s almost exclusively with performances of all the Gilbert and Sullivan favourites with the occasional ‘light operetta’ thrown in to vary the programme.
WLOS was founded under the grand title ‘Wimbledon Conservatoire Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society’. During the War, stage productions ceased and concerts were arranged for the armed forces, ARP Centres and hospitals, and in 1946 the society took up where it had left off in 1939 – rehearsing The Gondoliers (again).
In February 1950, to mark 21 years of local entertainment of a very high standard and donations to local charities, the Mayor granted the Society permission to use the Borough Coat of Arms on its stationery – an honour which was held by few other organisations.
Forty years ago, when WLOS moved its rehearsals from Spencer Hall [now demolished] to Lingfield Hall, they were rehearsing The Mikado (for the 5th time in their then, 30-year history). This production was particularly important to WLOS, as they had just been offered the chance to be the first amateur society to stage a production at Wimbledon Theatre.
Roy Foulsham, WLOS’s former Chairman and leading man remembers the delight when he first walked into Lingfield Hall. “I well recall the feeling both of floor space, enabling full plotting of theatre stages to be marked out, and the resonance. Word was that Richard Tauber, the international operatic tenor, had used the Hall for his rehearsals; that was stimulus enough. The height of the roof, the hard finishes, and the sheer volume of air made singing in the body of the Hall a deceptive pleasure; anyone with half a good voice could sound OK. The problem was that the Hall, with its wonderful resonance, could also flatter to deceive; there were many singers of, perhaps, only average ability, who, sounding fine in the Lingfield Hall, suddenly discovered, when they were confronted with the Wimbledon Theatre auditorium – and this was in the days before reliance was placed on microphones for principals – that their voice projection, especially over a pit orchestra, was not up to scratch. In those early days the heating in the Hall was by limited radiant heaters mounted high on the walls, and on cold nights, or Sunday rehearsals in mid-winter, we had to rehearse with our overcoats and scarves on.”
WLOS had several brushes with national fame in its early years. Alan Titchmarsh performed in Waltzes from Vienna when he was a lowly gardener at Wisley. They appeared on television with excerpts from The Gypsy Baron and later on Hughie Greene’s Christmas Show, won the Kathleen Oyler Trophy (presented by NODA) and were declared “the finest chorus in London for singing, dancing and movement.”
From the mid 1950s, now calling itself the Wimbledon Light Opera Society, for the next 12 years WLOS performed at Wimbledon Theatre, but in 1967 Orpheus in the Underworld lost a great deal of money and the society was plunged into debt. Performances were transferred to the much cheaper Wimbledon Town Hall (now the Centre Court Shopping Centre) and company principals formed a small group of singers and offered to do a series of concerts for many of the local churches and for other organisations, in return for 50% of the takings. Most of the chorus joined in these concerts as well. To make themselves solvent again the entire Society ran jumble sales, bring-and-buys, social events, coffee mornings and many other activities until the debt was repaid.
In 1981, in another effort to raise funds, there was a new departure – a Victorian Music Hall. The formula proved enduringly successful: the audience was seated at a table with glass in hand to watch a Society-devised entertainment and eat a delicious fish and chip supper. Over the next 25 years WLOS presented about 10 original revues and variations on the music hall theme, 7 of them written and directed by Marilyn McPherson. Until 1984 they continued with their programme of operettas and G & S until the call to the ‘Wild West’ was heard, and for the first time they mounted a full production of a classic American musical – Oklahoma! As if this wasn’t significant enough, the show was also a first try out for the Company at a recently opened new theatre in Sutton – The Secombe Centre – where they continued to perform to this day.
From then on WLOS has presented a mixed programme of musicals, G & S, original revues, operettas and one opera, Carmen. When the Civic Centre closed to make way for the shopping centre, they performed their revues at the Merton Hall (their only local venue). When the Secombe closed (temporarily) they moved to the London Oratory School Arts Centre in Fulham. Wimbledon Theatre proved very expensive and it was almost impossible, even with WLOS’s high standards, to sell enough tickets to cover their costs in such a big theatre. Their continuing connection with Lingfield Hall and the Wimbledon Village Club sustained their Wimbledon roots – but, oh, for a small, local theatre!
In recent years Merton Council and the New Wimbledon Theatre (now owned by the Ambassadors Theatre Group) implemented a scheme to allow local arts companies to perform at the theatre at a subsidised fee. In 2010 WLOS were successful in their application to perform at the theatre and so began a week long run of My Fair Lady in June. With marvellous local support and the unusual addition of a Thursday matinee WLOS was performing in Wimbledon again and was able to add this glorious theatre to their list of performance venues. While it is still not viable to perform at the theatre every year, all at WLOS hope that the scheme will continue to allow local groups to tread those famous boards!
By Roy Foulsham, Peter Evans, Marion Stewart,
Neil Catton and Dianne Norton
Updates by Marion Barton