Toy Theatres – Part I

During a conversation with my colleague Lara – she of Sidd the travel gnome – I casually mentioned that during our trip to the Baltic I would finally get to see the Pantomine Theatre at Tivoli in Copenhagen.  And as an aside I mentioned that I had a working model of the theatre that I had made in the early 70s.  “Of course you do,” said she without the least trace of irony or surprise.  That’s what I love about working with Lara she assumed that if such a thing as a working model of an amusement park theatre in Denmark existed that I would have it.  Now I would expect my old friends Vicki and Charlie to make that assumption without a pause but after only 6 months Lara – rather frighteningly – knows me very (too?) well.

I’ve always had a fascination with the theatre and things theatrical – I was taken to my first play by my rather bemused mother at 5, my first ballet by my, equally bemused, brother and sister-in-law when I was 6 and my first opera, by my completely bemused father, at the same age.  All I might add at my own request.  And as a child I was in the habit of making my own theatres out of the cardboard that came with shirts from the laundry – lest you think we had money and my father sent his shirts out I should clarify that my uncle saved up the cardboard and brought it to me when he came to stay for the weekend.  Using books from the library and programmes from performances I attended,  I drew – rather badly as I recall – prosceniums, sets (poor Oliver Messel wouldn’t have recognized his Sleeping Beauty designs as reinterpreted by yours truly) and characters.  It was creative play that kept me out of everyone’s hair and was largely without incident. There was the unfortunately episode when I decided to use real fire for the burning of Saint Joan in my own particular take on her martyrdom but that is another story.

The Reddington – one of Pollock’s cut-out book sets of toy theatres based on regional British theatres and often designs from actual productions.  The books gave you everything you needed to present the plays including playbook and (for a few pence extra) wire sliders to move the characters around the stage.

As I got older I put childish things behind me and also discovered that there was a wonderful shop in London called Pollock’s.  Pollock’s had been making toy theatres since the mid-1800s and leapt to fame when Robert Louis Stephenson wrote admiringly about their stock of plays and theatres available for “one penny plain or two penny coloured”.  So on my first trip to London in 1969 I took myself over to 1 Scala Street and visited their wonderful toy museum.  The various dolls, toys and teddys were quite nice but it was those toy theatres that fascinated me.  They had a treasure trove of playhouses that brought to life the very vibrant theatre scene of the 1800s in England and elsewhere.  For a pound or less you could get sets of cut out theatres with scenery and characters in bright primary colours for all manner of wonderful plays and black and white books to colour yourself for deathless dramas like The Miller and his Men (with its spectacular explosion of the mill set) or Mr Kean’s Richard III.  Penny plain and two penny coloured filled a good deal of space in my luggage on the return trip.   And yes I cut them out and constructed them; carefully (far more carefully than I did as a child) coloured Mr Kean and the “ghost” set for The Corsican Brothers.   I didn’t perform any of the plays – well okay maybe one or two in the privacy of my own room – but they were displayed on various shelves around the apartment I lived in.

Alfred Jacobsen was a Danish printer who published all manner of cut-outs to amuse children including this charming set depicting the entrance to Tivoli featuring the famous Boy Band that played there every day.  But it was his model of the Pantomine Theatre that intrigued me when I saw the sheets at Pollack’s Toy Museum.

A year or two later another visit to the shop yielded a reprint of an antique Danish set – toy theatres were popular throughout Europe in the 1800s –  of the Pantomine Theatre in Copenhagen’s pleasure garden Tivoli.   It was on a smaller scale than its British counterparts, was meant to be assembled as a working model right down to the unfolding Peacock curtain and the moveable proscenium and came with illustrated instructions in Danish!  No matter I had to have it so I bought the four sheets (Alfred Jacobsen Danske Billeder no. 15, 16, 20 and 45) created by Alfred Jacobsen in his Copenhagen workshop.   Working in the late 1800s Jacobsen was a well-known Danish printer who produced all manner of cut-out sheets for children: World Flags, battle scenes, animals and toy theatres. 

Alfred Jacobsen’s sheet #45 for the Pantomine Theatre at Tivoli.  As well as the elements for the famous Peacock Curtain he included scenes of the Park under illumination with its beautiful fairy tale lights.

I didn’t get around to actually cutting out and building the theatre until several years later – as I recall I had to send away for the English instructions and go to Lee Valley Tools, a specialty shop, to get the tiny screws, nuts and bolts that were required to get the model working.  A sure hand, a fine cutting blade and a great deal of patience were needed to complete the theatre.  But completed it was and long after the other toy theatres disappeared from my inventory has traveled around the world with me from pillar to post and back again.  And often the question has arisen “why are you keeping that old thing?”   Why indeed?  Perhaps because it reminds me of my childhood passion, perhaps because it reminds me of trips and times past, perhaps because unlike the others I held on to the thought that I might see the real thing one day; but mostly because I enjoy every so often – as silly as it sounds – operating the ropes and having the peacock spread his tail and descend into the stage floor then rise again to close off the little Danish street scene.

While making this short video of the model in action two things became apparent – first that over the years things have become loose and are sagging on my little model and some readjustment is in order; and second that the auto-focus on my camera (as I realized on this trip) needs some sort of adjustment. 

As I had mentioned to Lara we were going to be stopping in Copenhagen and I’d have a chance to see the Chinese Theatre and watch the Peacock curtain in action and maybe even get to see one of the traditional pantomines.  I was in luck on both counts, but more about that in another post.

02 July – 1937: Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan are last heard from over the Pacific Ocean while attempting to make the first equatorial round-the-world flight.

Author: Willym

A senior with the heart of a young'un

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