Scarborough’s Open Air Theatre is the largest in Europe (since Antiquity) and the original was built by Scarborough Corporation in the 1930s. The Lord Mayor of London opened the Open Air Theatre in Northstead Manor Gardens in 1932, and audiences flocked to see ‘Merrie England’, the first production to be staged at the outdoor venue.
The theatre itself was built on the site of Hodgson’s Slack, taking advantage of ground contours which created a natural amphitheatre. The stage was (and still is) set on an island in the middle of a lake with fixed seating for the audience opposite. It was set out in five blocks with 5,876 seats, and the balance was made up with deck chairs. Folding seats for 5,500 plus have now been added to the new theatre’s hard surfaced terracing.
Back in the 1930′s when English seaside resorts were at their peak, the amphitheatre drew thousands each night, offering theatrical productions and lavish musicals on a scale that few of today’s producers can even hope for. By 1952 the venue had attracted 1.5 million people, and the casts of performers alone could range up to 200.
The theatre enjoyed an amazing history with regular sell out events by Scarborough Operatic Society and musicals such as ‘The King and I’, ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ and ‘Hiawatha’, which saw native American warriors in canoes paddling on to the football pitch sized stage. During the summer season (a period of three months) two performances were held each week.
The much loved ‘It’s a Knockout’ was held at the theatre every Wednesday over a period of eleven years and set an (unofficial) audience record of 11,000 for a free recording of the show in the 1960s.
Musicals ceased in 1968 after ‘West Side Story’ apart from a YMCA production in 1982. In 1977 the dressing rooms and stage set building on the island were demolished and the seating removed.
The last concert to be held at the Open Air Theatre before it closed in 1986 was James Last and His Orchestra.
Since then, the theatre has undergone a major refurbishment and on 20 May 2010, the newly refurbished Scarborough Open Air Theatre (commonly abbreviated as SOAT or the OAT) was officially opened by The Queen of the United Kingdom accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh.
Since it’s official re-opening, the Scarborough OAT has played host to some of the music industry’s biggest stars, including Elton John, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Status Quo, Olly Murs, Jessie J, Boyzone and McFly to name a few.