150 years of panto season – oh yes it is!

HECKMONDWIKE'S United Reformed Church celebrates a milestone anniversary this year.

The foundation stone of the Upper Chapel Sunday School – now the home to the URC – was laid on May 5, 1858, and until 1911 the building also served as a day school until the school opposite in High Street (now Cawley Lane School) was opened.

During the last century and a half the building has been the focus of many of the youth activities associated with the church, including the production of pantomimes.

Throughout this 150th year many of these activities will be celebrated with special services, events and displays including the pantomime, Robin Hood, on the nights of February 9, 12, 13, 15 and 16.

Pantomimes were started in the 1940s, but the earliest photograph is that of Cinderella, which was performed in the early 1950s.

In our photograph, kindly loaned by the church, Winnie Rhodes (nee Sykes) plays Cinderella, Helen Shackleton (nee Ineson) is Dandini, Geoffrey Aspinall is an Ugly Sister and Billy Atkin is Buttons.

John Walker played the second Ugly Sister but is not on the photograph, and Prince Charming was played by a lady named Nancy whose surname is not known.

Pantomimes were performed throughout the Fifties, with Little Miss Muffet being the 1958 production – marking the 100th year anniversary of the building.

Elaine Housecroft (nee Crawshaw), who is still involved in pantomime productions today, played the part of Little Miss Muffet. The pantomime was produced by Eric Halstead and assisted by Isa Sykes, the current church secretary.

There were then a number of years that followed when no pantomimes were performed.

However they were resurrected in the early Seventies, when Aladdin was performed. A different generation took the principal parts - Janet Pearson (nee Atkin) and Susan Cooper (nee Aspinall) following in their fathers' footsteps.

The people who had performed in the Forties and Fifties took on organisational rolls, with Isa Sykes producing a number of the pantomimes and Helen Shackleton, along with her husband Geoff, writing a number of the scripts. Charlotte Sykes, who was the pianist during the Forties and Fifties, continued to play throughout the Seventies and Eighties.

Snow White was performed in February 1989, then rehearsals started later that year for Hansel and Gretel, which was due to be performed the following February.

Unfortunately the pantomime had to be cancelled due to major problems with the roof and Hansel and Gretel was never performed.

It was a number of years before enough money was raised, through the sale of land, to repair the roof.

Finally six years later in 1996 Dick Whittington was performed. Pantomimes carried on in the same way until Robinson Crusoe in the year 2000.

At this stage the older generation, who had been involved in pantomimes for over 50 years, decided to call it a day.Charlotte Sykes had played the piano for almost every pantomime spanning over half a century.

In 2001 it was the turn of the next generation to take charge of the organisation of the pantomime.

Since then only one other pantomime has been performed called Stramash - A Highland Fantasy in 2003.

Now in 2008, with many of the same families still being involved, it is the turn of the next generation to take the principal parts and be a part of the chorus. Some of them are the grandchildren of the original cast members of the 1950s.

There have been pantomimes spanning over the last 60 years, all performed in the same hall and on the same stage. The jokes are probably the same as well – oh yes they are!