Geoff Skelsey, former President and Senior Treasurer of the ADC, recalls the events leading up to the University of Cambridge taking over management of the theatre in 1974.
The 1970s were make-or-break time for the ADC. An aging building, high inflation and growing expectations of audience comfort combined to cast doubt on its future. Seating, toilets, heating and ventilation – all 35 or more years old – were increasingly unsatisfactory. Wiring needed to be replaced and the lighting board was coming to the end of its life. A property developer and a nearby college had both expressed interest in acquiring the site and for a time consideration was given to selling up and investing the capital in refurbishing the long-closed Festival Theatre in Newmarket Road.
Instead an enthusiastic group of old and current members, led by the late Charles Maude, set about revitalising the existing theatre with ad hoc funding from several sources including the University, the City and local business. Charles also designed the ‘ADC’ lettering on the front of the building and the lion motif. Productions grew in number from twenty or so in 1960 to over forty in 1974 and other ventures, such as a much-improved bar and classic film programmes each summer, stablised the finances. However there was a serious down side to such greatly increased activity, the burden it placed on a wholly volunteer staff. It was eventually possible to appoint a young resident stage-manager and later a theatre manager, working closely and successfully with student members.
Paradoxically it was this demonstration of successful activity which opened the way to the next phase of a long history. With the active support of the late Trevor Gardner, University Treasurer, and Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, later Master of St Catharines, the University were persuaded that a future association was not merely propping up a declining operation. After long negotiations the University leased the theatre premises in 1974, on advantageous terms which ensured its early refurbishment as well as long-term security. It also guaranteed the rights of the Amateur Dramatic Club, relieved from the constant burden of building management.
An exhibition marking the ADC’s 120th anniversary was held in the University Library in 1975 and its catalogue ended with encouraging words: “the Theatre can now lay to rest some of its anxieties and can look ahead with reasonable confidence”. In fact the ensuing forty years were to be packed with more developments than in the preceding century.
Geoff Skelsey read English at St Catharine’s 1962-65, during which time he was Junior Treasurer and later President of the ADC (1964-65). After working in the railway industry Geoff was appointed to the University administration, and served 1967-2003. He was latterly Principal Assistant Registrary and Chief of Staff to the Vice-Chancellor before being again involved with the ADC, as Senior Treasurer and Licensee. Geoff sat on the board of Directors for Cambridge Theatre Company 1974-79 and was Secretary to the University Theatre Syndicate 1999-2003. He is currently a Trustee.
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