Sandra is queen of the Kings Theatre

STAR OF THE SHOW Sandra Smith on stage at the Kings Theatre. Picture: Allan Hutchings (123085-403)
STAR OF THE SHOW Sandra Smith on stage at the Kings Theatre. Picture: Allan Hutchings (123085-403)

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Wearing a broad grin she whispers: ‘Let’s talk in my office, shall we?’

You suspect there should be virtual inverted commas around the word ‘office’. There aren’t. She’s serious.

ALL ABOARD Sandra Smith (far left) and others from the theatre on board the Royal Yacht Britannia

ALL ABOARD Sandra Smith (far left) and others from the theatre on board the Royal Yacht Britannia

Sandra Smith pushes open the door and invites me inside. It’s a box, stage right of the Kings Theatre. It has one of the best views in the house of the magnificently-restored Edwardian theatre.

‘All the staff here call it my second office. I absolutely love it in here.’ She waves her arms expansively. ‘Just look at this beautiful theatre. It takes your breath away, doesn’t it?’

Sandra Smith is Queen of the Kings. She has devoted 25 years of her life to the building which is her second home. She is one of the most well-known faces and has possibly the most instantly recognisable voice in Portsmouth.

For that quarter-of-a-century her job has been to sell the theatre that has become part of her soul – through the good times and very bad. Times when the Kings was on the verge of becoming another quaint but important part of the city’s colourful history.

And selling is what she does best; she’s devoted her life to it.

Who would have guessed that at one time she worked on the shop floor at the Landport Drapery Bazaar in Commercial Road selling handbags and women’s fashion before going on to become the main buyer for the Allders chain of department stores?

‘I love selling. I think I’m good at it – I should be, I started in my teens.’

Those teenage years were in Holland, a country about which she is still passionate. Anyone acquainted with Sandra will know how she brings out Holland’s colours whenever the Dutch football team is doing well.

She certainly feels she is of Dutch origin, but she was born in France, a Second World War war baby of the 1944 vintage. This explains her distinctive accent which she says she can no longer hear.

‘My mother was French, my father Dutch. They met in France during the war, but what my father was doing there I have no idea,’ she says.

‘They were married in Strasbourg, but my mother died from TB when she was 23 and I was 18 months old and I have no memory of her at all.

‘So, my father took me to Holland where I was brought up in The Hague by his parents. I called my grandmother ‘mum’.’

Taught at a Catholic school by nuns, Sandra was teased about having the oldest mother at the school gates. And she was bullied.

‘I remember going home to my grandfather in tears because a big girl was picking on me. He told me he didn’t want to see tears, to stand up for myself and fight back. If I did he said he would buy me an ice cream.

‘I was very small, but the next time she went for me I fought her and pulled her long hair so hard I came away with a handful, took it home and my grandfather took me for that ice cream. That was the end of the bullying.’

That feisty instinct for survival was to stand her in good stead after she moved to Amsterdam at 13 to live with another, younger, female relative.

‘When I was 16 I knocked on the door of the city’s most fashionable department store asking for a job. A man came and after I told him what I wanted he gave me his card.’ He turned out to be a director and Sandra used his name to land a job as a sales assistant.

The store was part of a large chain and Sandra rose through the ranks to become the main buyer. ‘I was flying all over Europe buying everything from leather handbags to diamonds. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing half the time, but it was a wonderful job.’

In 1966 during a holiday to Palma Nova, Mallorca with a girlfriend, they started talking to two men sitting behind them on the beach. One of them, Roy, from Hayling Island, became her husband two years later and she moved to Hayling where she still lives.

On the back of her work in Amsterdam she got the job at Landport Drapery Bazaar and suddenly had to get to grips with the Portsmouth accent.

‘Many times I sent customers to the wrong department through misunderstanding what they wanted.

‘If somebody asked for ‘‘toiz’’, for instance, I would send them to the toys section rather than the ties area.’

Then came the move to Allders’ Croydon headquarters and her promotion to central buyer for the 10 stores in the group. She and Roy had moved to London and it was there they had their two sons.

But Roy moved back to Havant as the manager of the newly-opened Leeds Permanent Building Society and they returned to Hayling.

And it was here that Sandra’s association with the theatre started. ‘I joined Hayling Island Operatic Society. I’m an alto and can hold a tune, just.’

In 1984 it put on a production of Kiss Me Kate and Sandra invited the owner of the Kings, Commander Reggie Cooper, to the show. ‘My intention was to persuade him to let us put it on at the Kings.’

He liked what he saw and the show transferred to Southsea for three nights. Cdr Cooper obviously also admired Sandra’s verve and nerve. ‘He asked if I could do the same thing for that year’s panto at the Kings, Mother Goose with Bill Maynard.

‘I worked for 12 weeks on it and he asked me to stay.’

And that’s where she’s been ever since apart from three years at Fratton Park from 1997-2000 where she was matchday sales manager, a period when the Kings’ future looked dark and she was the last of the staff to be made redundant.

It was those connections which enabled her to persuade players Jon Gittens and Kit Symons to drop their trousers with former Page 3 girl Linda Lusardi who was appearing at the theatre in When Did You Last See Your Trousers?

And she regularly used her sales pitch to persuade the Royal Navy to allow the cast of Kings shows on board the Royal Yacht Britannia.

At a fighting fit 68, Sandra has no intention of retiring. ‘Why should I? I go to the gym three times a week and I can still run up all the stairs in this place to the gods and not be out of breath. Why would I want to leave this marvellous place which has given me so much pleasure?’