175 Years - A Reflection
By Graham Ibbotson, Theatre Manager
As we have recently marked the 175th anniversary of the founding of the National YMCA movement, I thought it would be fitting for me to give a brief history of our YMCA, well to the best of my knowledge that is. I have been involved with YMCA Scarborough for a long time and perhaps look as though I’ve been here the full 173 years of its existence, however my time here is a brief 37 years in comparison, 1982 to the present day.
Scarborough Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) opened its doors in 1846 and is one of the oldest YMCA’s in the country, alongside, Manchester, Liverpool, Reading and Exeter whom were all founded in the same year.
Our branch has been based in many sites around the town of Scarborough over the years, the ones I know of are Valley Bridge Parade on the corner of Somerset Terrace, Westborough on the Corner of Alma Square, North Street, now the site of TK Maxx and our current premises here on St Thomas Street.
It is still possible to see YMCA up high in the stone work above Subway on Westborough on the corner of Alma Square.
YMCA Scarborough also operated a branch in Filey and owned the Central Hotel on the Crescent (now the derelict Beiderbeck’s Hotel.
The Filey Branch and The Central Hotel were sold in the 1970’s to enable the modernisation of North Street YMCA, which was basically three buildings joined together. It included a gym/training hall on the ground floor and on the other four floors lots of rooms of varying sizes, many of which were used as dormitories for visiting youth groups. The 70’s modernisation saw the knocking through of a lot of the rooms on the second floor creating a new multipurpose hall the same size as the gym below. This new space included a small stage. The space was mainly used for the legendary YMCA Discos, local youth bands performances, a large dining space for the hostelry guests and YMCA Productions review shows.
A new restaurant and commercial kitchen facilities were also created on the ground floor, the kitchens could serve up to 150 covers and included a dumb waiter to transfer meals from the kitchen to the new hall on the first floor, which was also the dinning space for hostel guests. The YMCA on North Street also had a rifle range in its basement, had a well-known football team, ran a sailing club, did swimming lessons, table tennis, etc. It was very youth orientated and very popular and had a great team of youth workers paid for mainly by North Yorkshire County Council. A lot happened in that tiny building.
I joined the YMCA in 1982 at the tender age of 13, as a cast member of YMCA Productions Magical Musical Time Machine staged at The Scarborough Open Air Theatre. This was a fantastic experience and one that ignited my love of the YMCA. The opening night of this production was attended by an audience in excess of 6000 people, it involved a cast of over 250, had horses, bands, vintage cars, acrobats, boats and even a shark in the lake! It ran for six weeks having one performance each week. At first, I was just part of the cast but then Chris Wilby noticed my interest in the other aspects of theatre and talked me into getting involved, helping with tech, publicity and anything else really, he is the one to blame! One of the memories I have of this time is being stood on the Open Air Theatre Stage at 1am in the morning putting on different costumes whilst the lighting was been set, my parents weren’t too pleased but I loved it and it set me on the right path (as it has done for countless young people before and since). Once I started helping there was no stopping me and my life changed direction completely.
I would be at the YMCA every minute I could be. We used to put many shows on in the hall upstairs and it was very popular. It was however, back to front and the audience used to enter across the stage which was on the flat and sit on portable rostra and the high raised stage at the far end of the hall. It proved so popular that the decision was taken to change the hall into a permanent 120-seat theatre with tiered seating. The tiering design and new control room was drawn up by a local architect. However, we were unable to afford builders, so the work was done mainly by Chris and myself. I even spent one of my work experience weeks from school helping build the theatre.
The new North Street theatre opened in 1984 with a summer run of a new musical called Smike, this was a huge success. This was the same year I started working full time for the YMCA as Assistant to the General Secretary and Theatre Manager. The Theatre Manager post was the secondary position back then, as the theatre was very much only a small part of the YMCA. Little did we know then that this was the just the start of things to come for the new YMCA Theatre! The income that was beginning to come in from this new venture went a long way to help support the rest of the activities.
YMCA Production Beginnings
Originally, Review shows were performed in the gymnasium in the old YMCA premises on North Street. These Review shows proved very popular and in 1971 & ‘72 they were performed in the 1600 seat Floral Hall Theatre (now the site of the Indoor Bowling Centre). 1962 saw the first YMCA pantomime (Cinderella) performed in the gymnasium at the old YMCA. Dick Whittington and Aladdin followed in 1963 & ‘64. In 1965 due to the increasing popularity of the YMCA’s annual pantomimes, both onstage and off, the decision was taken to move them to St Mary’s Parish House, which had a permanent stage and bigger seating area. The first pantomime presented there was Babes in the Wood. Pantomimes continued to be performed at St Marys Parish Hall until Humpty Dumpty in 1975.
1976 saw the now very popular pantomimes move from St Mary’s Parish House, to the newly reopened and refurbished 1000 seat Royal Opera House (now the site of the Opera House Casino) where they continued to be performed until 1988. Whilst we performed our shows at the Royal Opera House, we also pretty much ran the entire venue, providing volunteers for front of house, stage crew, lighting and sound control, pretty much the same as we do in our own venue now.
In 1984 whilst I was starting my career with the YMCA, my old school was also going through some major changes. These were the merger of Graham Lower School (Queen Street) with Graham Upper School (Woodlands Drive). Part of the premises were taken over by Scarborough Tech (Queen Street), the other part (St Thomas Street) was just left empty. A year or two passed and one day I was out with Chris, swimming if I remember rightly, we were taking about the empty Graham School buildings and saying what a great theatre the hall would make, this ignited an idea. After a lot of toing and froing, hard work and diplomacy put in by the board at the time, North Yorkshire County Council finally agreed to sell us the premises that they hadn’t even earmarked for sale. The YMCA on North Street was sold. I can still remember moving day vividly as the small staff team and volunteers moved the entire contents from the YMCA on North Street into the large hall in St Thomas Street (now the theatre). All done in a day with a Luton taillight van, various cars and the Youth Transport Minibus. Hard work I can tell you! We did get all get a much-needed KFC bargain bucket out of it though which we all enjoyed in the room that is now Krash Labs Office. Not sure why that memory is stuck in my head!
We were now in a cold building in December 1987 with no heating and electricity that would trip out everywhere as soon as a kettle was plugged in. Hard times during the early days down here, we were still operating throughout and had the pantomime to put on at the Royal Opera House, I honestly don’t know how we got through it all. But here we are, the rest is history.
The transformation of course into the YMCA we see today has taken years and has only been possibly through the generosity of businesses and millions of volunteer hours put in by many people. We also had many ups and downs over the years, the worst being when the Youth Service was been decimated in the 90’s and all the grants where been cut. Disaster however was avoided, and we survived thanks mainly to the massive sponsorship by McCain Food and their input into making us self-supporting and not reliant on grants. Many YMCA’s and youth clubs unfortunately didn’t survive the cull and are still sorely missed by many communities up and down the country.
Where do we go from here? Watch this space!
Here’s to the next 175 years.
Left: YMCA Theatre during renovations in 2007
Right: Chris Wilby and Graham Ibbotson during renovations in 2007