For decades, Alan Shaw was synonymous with Timaru’s Theatre Royal, until ill health forced him to take a step back. He shared a lifetime of theatre memories with reporter Chris Tobin.
Rumour has it Timaru’s Theatre Royal has a ghost.
A story that has circulated over the years is that a “lad” fell to his death from the theatre’s fly floor many years ago and his spirit lives on at the theatre.
“Former theatre manager Alan Ellis reckoned he felt a presence and in the early days I did, too,” Alan Shaw says.
Mr Shaw’s name has become synonymous with the theatre.
Until ill health and open heart surgery forced him to step back five years ago, for decades he was the theatre’s go-to man maintenance work such as winching down the chandeliers to change light bulbs, meeting touring shows and helping them unload, organising ancillary help, and setting up props and lighting.
Just before a curtain call, he would step into a small front office to change into a suit, white shirt and tie.
From there he would emerge in his other role theatre manager, before dashing off to work the lighting.
He even had a brief spell on the boards as a Cossack dancer in a local production of Fiddler On The Roof
“Multitasking, they call it,” he says, smiling.
Mr Shaw’s links to the theatre go back to the early 1960s. He even wooed his wife, Aileen, in the theatre. They had their first and second dates there.
Aileen’s father, Clarrie Blackwood, worked just over the road at the Majestic Theatre and looked after the Theatre Royal, which was then owned by Gunn brothers in Dunedin, who leased it to movie company Kerridge Odeon.
Clarrie was 2IC to Harry Kennedy.
“He arranged accommodation for artists, the transportation and for a carrier to pick up shows’ equipment from the railway.”
Through the 1950s, movies were screened at the Theatre Royal, and it was dubbed “Bug House”.
“It was a derogatory term more in line with the fact they screened a lot of B-grade movies, low-budget films when Timaru already had the Majestic, State and Regent theatres. The Theatre Royal was also a bit run down.”
In 1958, the then Timaru Borough Council acquired the theatre. Clarrie Blackwood’s involvement ended and Rex Underhill was appointed as manager.
Four years later, a young, fresh-faced Mr Shaw, an electrician with the MED (Municipal Electricity Department) did maintenance work in the theatre, joined the local drama league and developed his forte – lighting.
Alan Ellis became manager. Then Mr Shaw assumed the position, thereafter becoming the virtual “Mr Theatre Royal”.
He has seen all sorts of shows come and go over the years: professional wrestling and boxing, wool sales, church conferences, dance competitions, numerous drama league productions.
There were also plenty of stars, especially in the early years: Gene Pitney, The Seekers, Acker Bilk, Howard Morrison, the Irish Rovers, Jimmy Shand, Coronation St star Pat Phoenix, Dick Emery, the Russian Ballet and Reg Varney from TV show On The Buses, who loved the theatre’s Bosendorfer piano and said his New Zealand tour was ruined because he couldn’t take it with him.
Some years the theatre was busy, other years business dried up.
Barbara Windsor, of Carry On films and EastEnders TV fame, left a big impression on one stage hand particularly.
“She was well endowed and did a quick change on the side of the stage. Everything fell out. The stage hand couldn’t believe it.
“That’s one of the things about theatre people: they’re less inhibited about nudity.”
Timaru found this out when What Now Bangkok, starring Robin Asquith, came to town. The show had full frontal nudity and opened its New Zealand tour in Timaru. Protests were expected. The show’s lawyer flew out from London to counter any backlash.
“The police vice squad came down from Christchurch, three of them, and sat through a rehearsal. They gave it approval and the show went ahead.
“It was reasonably well attended. The people who came in were very sheepish.”
The Shaws put on a party for the cast at their home afterwards.
“They were very grateful; theatre people were never asked to people’s homes,” Mrs Shaw says.
New Zealand rock band Dragon brought another first when it played at the theatre.
“It’s the first time I smelt cannabis in the theatre. I wondered what it was,” Mr Shaw says.
“They were smoking cannabis while performing.”
One pleasant memory is a smooth Irish whiskey he shared with Dave Allen during the interval of the Irish comedian’s show.
“It was wonderful. He was a very charming person. He’s one of the few who had only a couple of props stool, a little table to lean on and his sound system and he held the audience in the palm of his hand.
“It was traditional with Dave to grab the theatre manager and whoever else was around at the interval and say, ‘we’ll have a whiskey’.”
Then there were the pranks – always in a show’s final matinee. A performer could find that the normally empty suitcase they had to carry off in act two was suddenly full of bricks.
Mr Shaw has some concerns about the future Theatre Royal development and heritage facility, worried it could lead to a conflict of interest between shows and exhibitions and the traditional theatre layout could be compromised.
“You see it with school halls, where they store things under the stage, so the stage is elevated; it’s important for the audience to be able to see people’s feet, especially in ballet and dance.”
He misses not being involved with the theatre.
“I was passionately fond of that place. I loved it.”
As for that ghost, almost from the outset, it became like Casper – friendly.
“After a while I was accepted. If there was something there, I wasn’t seen as being a hostile threat.”