Scarborough Open Air Theatre: How venue went from 'best kept secret' to hosting world's biggest music stars

In its early heyday it was opera in the amphitheatre with Merrie England that drew a crowd of thousands to Yorkshire's "best kept secret" stage.

It doesn't seem so secret any more, as like a phoenix from the ashes the renaissance of Scarborough's Open Air Theatre has soared.

Now, with surprise hints, it seems musicals might, just maybe, make a return.

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This year marks 90 years since the theatre's build, and custodians reflect on its successes with Britney Spears, Kylie and Elton John among those to perform.

The Beach Boys at Scarborough Open Air Theatre

Music promoters Cuffe and Taylor, part of Live Nation, is charged with promoting the council-owned venue. Founder Peter Taylor has said he is talking to partners about potential for full-scale events.

He said: "One thing we are trying to do is open it up to more shows, even taking touring productions into the theatre. They do in Manchester, Liverpool, why can't they tour into Scarborough as well?

"One thing, as an avenue for the future, is to bring back musical theatre to the venue, and to bring back musicals," he added. "It's a big part of entertainment in our country, it's big business."

Built by the Scarborough Corporation, under borough engineer Harry Smith, the Open Air Theatre in Northstead Manor Gardens was opened by the Lord Mayor of London in 1932.

Kaiser Chiefs performing at Scarborough's Open Air Theatre

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Crowds had flocked to see its first production of Merrie England, with an 'island' stage that could carry a full cast some hundreds strong. Musicals, opera, and theatre prospered, but as fashioned changed its popularity waned.

In the 1960s the theatre was used to stage It's A Knockout. Musicals ceased in 1968 after ‘West Side Story’, bar a YMCA production in 1982.

In 1977 the dressing rooms and stage set building on the island were demolished and the seating removed.

Slowly the grand theatre fell into dereliction, and it's final show before it closed in 1986 was orchestra leader James Last.

Then, in 2010, Scarborough Council ploughed £3.5m into its refurbishment, with the Queen declaring it open once more.

In 2016 as Cuffe and Taylor came on scene, they brought a weighty contacts book with them. This summer will see Bryan Adams and Christina Aguilera among stars on the bill.

It was Britney Spears that broke the mould, reflected Mr Taylor, reshaping thinking about Scarborough as a resort and the theatre as an entertainment venue.

"She was playing the 02, but nobody cared about that," he said. "They wanted to know why Scarborough. My point was why not? One day I think we will have to give her the keys to the town."

Limits on summer shows for the venue were lifted last year, in hopes it could elevate the town's pandemic recovery. With a sold out show, added Mr Taylor, hotels are full.

As he looks to its future, he is optimistic. From Scarborough's "best kept secret", he added, its potential has grown.

The first time he set foot in the venue he had been "struck" by how nice it was.

"It was incredible," he said. "When you look at it's history, 90 years is incredible. What makes it special is its location. There's no sign of tickets slowing down in Scarborough for sure."

Stuart Clark, Scarborough council's head of venues and events, said the theatre's redevelopment had been "integral" to plans to regenerate the town's North Bay.

“The town and surrounding borough has always been a destination for entertainment and enjoyment for many generations of visitors and residents," he said. "The vision for the new theatre was to respect that tradition but transform it to meet the aspirations of today’s audiences and the requirements of artists and support teams.

“We are proud to play our part in ensuring Britain’s biggest outdoor concert arena and much loved venue is thriving and has a bright future ahead.

“Through our partnership with Cuffe and Taylor, as part of the Live Nation family, we look forward to seeing many more years of great acts taking to the stage at the Open Air Theatre and the next generation of music fans making wonderful memories.”