The following article was taken from the Rowntree company magazine on the occasion of the Centenary of the Haxby Road factory and looking back to the 50th anniversary of the theatre.
1935 was a busy year for celebration, creation and building. King George V celebrated his silver jubilee, Kit Kat was created, and the Joseph Rowntree Hall was built. Today Kit Kat is the Company's top selling product — but in 1935 it was the Joseph Rowntree Hall that made the national news.
"It would make the West End green with envy" ran the headline in the Daily Mirror on 19th November 1935. This was quite an acolade for the new hall which had been opened the day before by Seebohm Rowntree, Chairman of Rowntree & Company.
"The aim has been to build a hall which may be a fitting centre of those recreational and educational activities which make for a full and happy life," said Seebohm Rowntree in his forward to the Opening Programme. In the Cocoa Works Magazine that Christmas he added, "the Trustees feel that the benefits resulting from its use will not be confined to the Cocoa Works but will flow over into the larger community outside."
The hall (renamed the Joseph Rowntree Theatre in 1946) was built at a total cost of £12,000, which was provided by the Joseph Rowntree Village Trustees. Their ideal was to make the design and equipment of the hall as perfect as possible. To this end, one of the Trustees, Mr. Peter Rowntree, a leading inspiration in the establishment of the hall, and son of Seebohm Rowntree, visited all the famous festival theatres in England — and his efforts were not wasted. "Perfect theatre … wonderful stage … magnificent cyclorama" are just some of the praises from the Daily Mirror in 1935.
Simple architectural features, combined with a warm colour scheme and hidden lighting, were designed to give and intimate and cost atmosphere in the 450 seat hall. Even in 1935, modern technology was important, and the hall was equipped with the most up to date acoustics, lighting, air conditioning and heating system. It also had a projector room and rewinding room with the latest Gaumont British Superlux Talkie apparatus, plus facilities for "reproducing gramophone records through the loud speaker situated at the back of the orchestra well!"
The wide use for which the hall was intended was reflected in the opening performance. It began with an overture by the Rowntree orchestra, followed by the formal opening of the hall by Seebohm Rowntree. The audience was then treated to "Dawn" - a symbolic dance, followed by Gems from Wagner performed by Rowntree's Cocoa Works Prize Band. A gymnastic display and a demonstration of lighting effects on the stage concluded the first half.
After the interval, the audience was entertained by "Beau of Bath" a cameo play, followed by a "film display" in which everyone could see the visit of HRH the Prince of Wales (the next king, Edward VIII) to the Cocoa Works, and shots of boys and girls from the factory at camp. The climax of the evening was the presentation of the stage play "Hassan" by the Rowntree Players - a topical choice about a confectioner.
Today, the theatre can still boast the most modern equipment. Sophisticated sound equipment was installed only seven years ago, followed a year later by a computerised lighting board &emdash; a far cry from the switchboard of 1935 with its "special selector control".
In 1985, the Joseph Rowntree Theatre celebrated its 50th Anniversary with a magnificent celebration show staged by Clive Hailstone. "Fifty Glorious Years" featured the theatre's two resident companies — the Rowntree Youth Theatre and the Ronwtree Players — together with the Rowntree Mackintosh Band. The audience was captivated from start to finish.
The show opened with a "Tribute to Judy Garland" by the Rowntree Youth Theatre, who also presented excerpts from their other shows, "The Wiz" and "Fame". The Rowntree Players presented "Streuth", "Chestnut Corner" and "Talk in the Park" together with a couple of delightful little cameos. In the repertoire of Rowntree Mackintosh Band, Elgar's "Triumphal Fanfare" and Dvorak's "Resulka's Song to the Moon", performed by the senior players, contrasted nicely with Siebert's "Montana Moonlight" and Mancini's "Pink Panther Theme" performed by the Junior Players.
Today the success of the Joseph Rowntree Theatre speaks for itself. A modern well equipped theatre, over fifty years and thousands of performances later, it is still in constant use. A number of theatrical and dance companies from the local community complement productions by the Rowntree Youth Theatre, the Rowntree Players and the Rowntree Mackintosh Band.
As Rowntree celebrates 100 years at Haxby Road, the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, expertly managed by David Bushby, is once more the venue for a celebration show. Clive Hailstone is again in the director's chair, and promises the audience a show that will no doubt provide a climax to the centenary celebrations.
Over its 55 year history, the Joseph Rowntree Theatre has provided many hours of pleasure for performers and audiences alike, and looks set to continue providing the people of York with affordable live theatre for at least another 55 years!