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David and Bigbird
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David Kelland, Dartmouth Thespian
It was a Theatrical Life for Me - David Kelland
David Kelland is a man who loves life, revelling in travel, socialising and with a playful sense of fun. He seems the perfect fit for the hectic laugh-a-minute lifestyle the theatre offers – and after a lifetime of taking part in amateur theatrical performances he got the chance to be involved with it professionally - working at the Festival Theatre Paignton.
In 1986 David was working for free backstage at a special event for Children in Need at the Festival Theatre.
David was a long-time fundraiser and supporter of the annual event, and was there to do some good. At this event he got chatting to Jill Dando, who was there because she was a star on BBC South West. David got star struck to start with but was soon chatting away to the TV personality.
‘What you saw was what you got with Jill,’ he said, ‘she was just brilliant and so friendly.’
At the same event he got chatting to the stage manager – Derek Smith from Brixham – who offered him work for the summer season if he came through a ‘trial’.
‘Cannon and Ball and the Three Degrees was the first season,’ said David. ‘Derek told me that Cannon and Ball were rubbish but the Three Degrees would be brilliant - which they were. I had to come through a trial with the local amateur theatrical group doing the Sound of Music. We had the first hilarious problem I encountered during that show – the portcullis came down during the Nun’s Chorus and trapped half the Nuns on stage for the next scene!’
During his first season David and his colleagues got in trouble because the ‘old pros’ Cannon and Ball got through their set ten minutes early, and the whole crew were in the bar! ‘We were never allowed to have a drink during the show after that,’ chuckled David.
Other notable events from the first season included a woman who brought her mother’s ashes to a charity show in which she was performing – in a Tesco carrier bag. The bag was thrown out by one of the stage hands.
‘We only realised something was wrong when this old dear came up to me and asked where her mother was. I didn’t understand as her mother was dead – and then she told me that she was in a carrier bag! We had to go into the skip to find her!’
The years that David spent working at the theatre were during the end of the great variety era – but there was still a chance to relive former glories and for international stars to visit.
One of these shows gave David the chance to sing with the legend that was Howard Keel. Keel was the star of such musical greats as ‘Seven Wives for Seven Brothers’, Calamity Jane and the first stage version of Oklahoma! He then found international TV stardom in ‘Dallas’. He took his tour to Paignton in the late 1990s.
‘He had a little break halfway through,’ said David, ‘when the band did a medley of songs, and finished up with ‘America’ from West Side Story. He called me over and in this deep American accent he said – I need you to sing along with me – do ‘La’s’. So I started singing the medley…’ here David breaks into a quick-paced rendition of the most famous song from that show ‘la la la la’ ‘…then he started jumping up and down while singing and I started dancing with him. We were grinning and trying not to laugh!
‘Just before he went on he turned to me and said – ‘Now you can say you sang with Howard Keel’. It was a dream come true.’
Other stars who graced the theatre included Joe Longthorne, Wayne Dobson, Engelbert Humperdinck (who demanded the stage was cleared when he had to don a corset) Wayne Sleep, Louise Redknapp (before her marriage to footballer Jamie), David Essex, Harry Secombe, Chas and Dave, Danny La Rue, Jimmy Cricket and even Norman Wisdom.
‘Norman was a quiet, unassuming man,’ said David. ‘He was a perfectionist, but so lovely to work with. We were always besieged at the end of the show, but he saw every single fan that came in to see him.’
David became close to Les Dawson and his family over a summer season, and even helped Les to have a crafty cigar after he had promised his wife he had given up.
‘I had to leave the cigar in the toilet next to some matches, and you could see Les’ really large hands appear out of the back window to open it –and then puffs of smoke emerge! Then his wife would ask loudly ‘Where’s Les?’ and the window would carefully close and the toilet would flush – and he’d appear, trying to hide the smell! They were an amazing family and I am honoured to have known them,’ said David.
Before the theatre closed in 1998 David had gone through 16 summer seasons. As well as stars he helped out with ballet tours – dressing up as a rat for a version of Cinderella with the Ice Russian All Stars – as well as the famous and notorious Chippendales, a male stripper group.
‘They were so strong,’ said David, ‘and such lovely guys. They had to be, with the way the women who came to watch screamed and shouted. I had to retrieve a bungy tab during the show and some of the ladies got hold of me – I was actually scared!’
Throughout his time there he also worked fulltime in other jobs, but said the long hours did not in any way discourage him from working there.
‘I loved it! It was like a dream come true. Working with all these people you saw on television – I even got to work with the Muppets and Big Bird! We got to know them because they did a 12 week season. It was the last days of variety really, and they were mostly an absolute dream to work with.
The theatre was closed at the end of the 1998 season and converted into the Apollo Cinema which still stands there. ‘When it came to the end of the very last show, we all had a glass of champagne and said to each other – ‘that’s it’. We all agreed we didn’t want to work anywhere else in the theatre – it was a glorious, golden time for me and I could never recreate it,’ said David.
First published May 2011 By the Dart