Plaque honoured 70th anniversary of first ever production of 'The Pirates'

Torbay Weekly

Ian Handford, chairman of Torbay Civic Society, gives us the who and how each of Torbay’s Blue Plaques was chosen. This week: The Bijou Theatre

The fascinating story of the Bijou Theatre and its multiple plaques has to start with the incredible Arthur Hyde Dendy, a lawyer who moved to Paignton in the 1860s.

Arthur was to become one of Torbay's most amazing entrepreneurs and actually put Paignton on the UK visitor map.

The railway reached the town from Torre in 1871 - courtesy of I K Brunel - although Mr Dendy had already completed his first project - the Gerston Hotel now opposite the station.

He went on to construct other hotels on Paignton Esplanade before starting a bathing hut rental and then omnibus business, a local newspaper with tourist guides, a cycle track built behind the Esplanade Hotel - today Inn on the Green - and finally constructed Paignton Pier.

Meanwhile, his Gerston Hotel would later be renamed the Royal Bijou before in the 20th century being replaced by Woolworths departmental store.

It would be 143 years before Torbay Civic Society were approached to install a blue plaque on the north wall of Woolworths in Hyde Road, not to honour Mr Dendy but the Bijou Theatre Company, who were about to celebrate the fact their theatre was founded here, before relocating to its present venue in 1986 as part of the Palace Avenue Theatre in the town centre.

Bijou came from a Breton word meaning a jewelled ring, which was very appropriate for the small saloon in the upper lounge of Mr Dendy's Gerston Hotel.

Being a true entrepreneur, he was a risk taker and now decided to change the hotel's name to the Gerston Saloon and Bijou Theatre as the first ever production of that most famous Gilbert and Sullivan operetta 'Pirates of Penzance' was to be performed in his first floor saloon.

It was London's D'Oyly Carte' Company who arranged to have the operetta staged at the Bijou on December 30, 1879, and it would be a world premier, as the company wished to protect the G/S copyright, as a threat to the script being performed in America was about to become a reality.

Mr Dendy was a superb promoter but now risked everything when painting the name of his hotel as the Royal Bijou Theatre in 2ft-high letters when actually had no authority to use the word 'Royal'.

Fortunately for him, tradition later confirmed the Prince George - later King George V - and Prince Edward had visited the theatre once, when serving as naval cadets at the Britannia Royal Naval College Dartmouth.

It was to be Paignton Town Council who established a first plaque, being a brass plate celebrating the 70th anniversary of 'The Pirates' on November 23, 1949.

It then took 38 years before a Torbay Civic Society blue plaque would be sponsored by Woolworth Company, established in 1973.

Unveiled on Hyde Road on a side of Woolworths in 1987, the council produced a substantial hardback pamphlet for the event entitled 'The Bijou Theatre' researched by local historian Joyce Packe, of Torquay, with help of the library, museum and Paignton's Oldway Heritage Room. Sadly, today this is now out of print.

As one of the early plaques, the paint badly faded during the next decades and by 2014 - with the help of G&S Society - the society decided to get it restored and repainted being one of only three ever changed in the society's 45-year existence.

Now a special event was arranged on November 22, 2014, at the theatre, when the G&S Company staged a history about the theatre for us before unveiling the plaque on stage at Palace Avenue.

With the presentation over, everyone enjoyed refreshments in the theatre lounge before, finally, we all walked down Hyde Road to witness a formal 're-unveiling' of the renewed plaque at its original site of what had once been Woolworths.

Councillor Nicole Amil and the G&S Society fronted this event before finally the society presented everyone with a new Bijou Theatre publication.

The full-colour new Bijou Theatre pamphlet of 2014 can be obtained by sending two second class stamps plus a stamped addresed envelope to Torbay Civic Society, 4 Palace Avenue, Paignton TQ3 3HA.