By Jeremy Miles
American bluesman Catfish Keith tips back his hat and surveys the scene. We are standing in the slightly careworn foyer of a small English theatre. A couple of volunteers who look as though they could have strayed from the set of the Vicar of Dibley are preparing to lock up for the night.
Catfish nods appreciatively as he loads a bundle of merchandise into his bag. “Man, I love this place,” he proclaims in a deep southern drawl.
This is a common reaction from performers discovering the rare delights of The Tivoli Theatre in Wimborne. Tucked away in an ancient market town in Dorset, it is perhaps an unlikely success story. But over the past decade The Tivoli has found its way onto the must-play lists of some surprisingly big names.
People like R&B veteran Chris Farlowe is a regular. The Manfreds, The Blues Band, Maggie Bell and The British Blues Quartet with Bournemouth-born local hero Zoot Money at the helm are also Tivoli stalwarts. Last month Rolling Stone Charlie Watts, hugely impressed when he first visited last year, came back for a second gig with his jazz band.
While in June American folk legend Judy Collins will return for a third visit. There are many more, and not just musicians. Comedian Al Murray rarely starts a British tour without road-testing it at The Tivoli first. While Eddie Izzard chose to do a late-night special there after a sell out arena gig at the Bournemouth International Centre last year.
But what is that makes this extraordinary theatre - originally fashioned from a grand old Georgian townhouse back in the 1930s - so compelling? Ask the performers and promoters who return again and again and one name keeps cropping up, that of Charlie North Lewis, the inspirational manager who over the past nine years has changed the theatre’s fortunes completely.
With a background that encompasses everything from drama to cabaret and rock ‘n’ roll - he was exactly what the Tivoli needed. Yet when he was first recruited back in 2002. There were those who were less than impressed by the arrival of this know-it-all upstart from London.
Sitting in the theatre’s coffee house, he laughs as he tells me: “I had a horrible time when I first came here. There were people who were determined that I should fail. No one said anything to my face, it was all behind my back, but they’d do anything they could to find fault.”
Happily for Charlie, as success followed success, his critics melted away and he points out,with justifiable pride, that audience figures have soared and turnover has more than doubled since his arrival. He knew that taking over the 500 seat Tivoli was never going to be easy. It has a fascinating history. It started life as a cinema created by a local builder and film buff who had made something of a name for himself screening big movies at local pubs and community halls.
In 1936 he decided that Wimborne deserved its own dedicated picture-house. The original Tivoli Cinema opened in August that year screening two films - Father O'Flynn starring Jean Adrienne and Kid in Hollywood with child-star Shirley Temple in the title role. Miss Adrienne even appeared in person for the gala opening night. The original Georgian town houses that were used to house the Tivoli are pictured (left - with steps) soon after the turn of the 20th century
Such heritage had to be preserved but the Tivoli also needed to move forward. Its past had been decidedly chequered. It closed in 1980 after being threatened with demolition to make way for a soon-to-be abandoned road scheme.
The final screening was another double feature - Convoy and Sweeney 2 - a far cry from the golden days of Hollywood. The Tivoli lay derelict until the early 1990s when a team volunteers banded together to restore it as a working theatre. It reopened in 1993 and though it enjoyed a number of notable successes, it was effectively run by committee. It badly needed a full-time professional general manager to maximise its potential as both a theatre and a cinema. Charlie North Lewis, who had been working for BAFTA but was desperate to get back into mainstream theatre management, was probably the perfect man for the job.
Certainly the acts that sing his praises think so. Many thank him publicly from the stage. Others incorporate him into there act “North Lewis? It sounds more like an address than a name,” quipped Gyles Brandreth recently.
“A real nice guy. He really looks after you,” was Catfish Keith’s verdict, While Gilly Tarrant who handles bookings for The Blues Band and The British Blues Quartet told me: Charlie is one of the most charming, helpful and innovative promoters we work with - everyone likes and respects him very much.”
Charlie himself argues that making acts feel comfortable pays dividends. “It doesn’t matter how professional you are if you’re comfortable you’ll be far more likely to do a good show.”
As a result he’s made some great friends in the business. As we speak veteran rocker Joe Brown is rehearsing in the theatre having specifically requested an afternoon at the Tivoli to prepare for his latest tour. Other mates include former Dr Hook vocalist Dennis Locorriere, sixties pop survivor and onetime Eric Clapton Band musician Andy Fairweather Low and the guitar hero Albert Lee.
Charlie says he hardly ever encounters the rock monsters of popular myth and the bigger the name the more grounded the artist tends to be. “Charlie Watts is an absolutely lovely bloke and Judy Collins was just so pleasant and normal, it was great,” he tells me.
Just occasionally though an out of control ego struts the door. Charlie remembers one former rock god - “a quite well known musicians who played with some of those big-haired bands in the 1980s” - throwing a hissy-fit because the right kind of nuts and crisps weren’t available backstage. “It was unbelievable, he’d only sold about 60 tickets.”
With just five paid members of staff and no funding for its core operating costs, the Tivoli has to rely on donations and the goodwill of a network of 100 volunteers to keep developing.
“The volunteers do an amazing job but I would really like at least one other paid production person on board just to help us compete with all the subsidised venues and bring in bigger and better shows,” says Charlie.
Getting financial assistance, he says, has never been tougher. Only last autumn he was invited to approach East Dorset District Council for funding.
Charlie shakes his head in incredulity as he tells me: “I duly applied and was interviewed only to be told that I wasn’t going to receive anything because the Tivoli was too well managed and too commercially minded.”
*The Tivoli Theatre is at West Borough, Wimborne Minster, Dorset BH21 1LT. Details of forthcoming shows can be found at www.tivoliwimborne.co.uk For box office call 01202 885566