Since finding her new career at the Kings, almost by mistake, back in 1984, Sandra Smith has, for many, become the face of the theatre.
She is known to many, not just in the theatre community but beyond, for the tireless work she has done in promoting the Albert Road venue.
I will miss it, just walking through in the morning, it’s a special place. It’s still got that very special atmosphere.Sandra Smith
But, at the age of 72, she has finally decided to retire.
And on Wednesday, at the end of the gala night of this year’s pantomime Jack and The Beanstalk, she was called on stage for a special presentation – Sandra was made the theatre’s first ambassador.
It would be hard to find a more worthy recipient.
By the time Sandra started working at the Kings, she had already had a successful career in her native Holland.
She had worked her way up from a retail assistant in a prestigious department store to the regional buyer for 10 stores across Amsterdam in what was then a very male-dominated industry.
‘I absolutely loved it,’ she says, ‘I had to go abroad to Paris and Italy – I had never even been on a plane before this.’
While she says she has ‘wonderful memories’ of that time, it was meeting her husband-to-be, Roy, on holiday in Majorca that ultimately brought her to the UK in 1967.
They settled on Hayling Island and she got a job at Landport Drapery Bazaar in Commercial Road – now Debenhams – and quickly began to learn the language beyond her ‘school English’ – ‘the language came because I had to use it every day’.
Again she quickly won promotions and was made group buyer. The couple spent some time in London, but when Sandra became pregnant for the first time she quit her job and they returned to Hayling Island, moving into the house in Hollow Lane where they remain today.
With no job, Sandra was looking for a hobby, and it was a friend who suggested that she try the Hayling Operatic Society, where she initially became one of the dancers.
Convinced that the company deserved a wider audience, she wrote to the manager/owner of the Kings, Commander Reggie Cooper, and invited him to see them perform Kiss Me Kate at Hayling Activity Centre.
To her surprise, he did come and was impressed enough to offer them a week, but as Sandra now admits: ‘I didn’t know that the start of September was dead, so I got the place for a week for nothing.’
However, with the bit between her teeth and determined to make a success of their week, she went all out on trying to promote the show in the local media.
At the end of the week she was called into the commander’s office where he offered her a six-week job of promoting that year’s pantomime, Mother Goose. ‘I told him I don’t know how to do that, and he said ‘‘what have you just been doing?’’’
On her first morning, Sandra arrived at 9am to find the place all locked up. ‘I didn’t even know that they didn’t open until 10am at the time.’
The star of the show was Bill Maynard, and to promote it, Sandra arranged a competition for audience members to win turkeys – with Bill handing them out on stage.
Except no-one had asked him an advance and he pulled Sandra to one side and said: ‘Well darling, I’m not doing that, I’m a vegetarian.’
Despite this unfortunate incident, Sandra was given a full-time job at the theatre where she took an office in what is now dressing room seven, and set about her new task as PR and group bookings manager.
However by 1997, the theatre was in financial trouble with the threat of closure and conversion into a pub looming. Sandra was laid off and worked for Portsmouth Football Club for three years, selling the club’s sponsorship and corporate hospitality packages.
‘I had a blast. The businesses I was dealing with, they were such smashing people.’
In 2001, after a successful campaign by AKTER (Action for Kings TheatrE Restoration) to keep the theatre open, the theatre was bought by Portsmouth City Council and leased to the Kings Theatre Trust Ltd.
But it was Simon Barry of New Pantomime Productions who convinced Sandra to make a permanent return to the theatre that year when he declared he would only produce the pantomime for the Kings if Sandra was there too. As he put it: ‘The Kings is a big theatre and it chooses who it wants, and it chose Sandra.’
‘It was only meant to be for six weeks again,’ laughs Sandra. ‘I have so many lovely memories – I’ve got to meet lots of top stars and I’ve got lots of memorabilia,’ and she reels off the names of some she remembers most fondly – Frank Findlay, Wendy Craig, John Altman, Colin Baker, John Inman (‘such a funny, nice man’), Frankie Vaughan (‘do you realise how short he was? But he was lovely’).
And of course there are the animals. Sandra became known for the various stunts she pulled to publicise shows, including flying celebrities by helicopter out to naval ships in the Solent to breakfast with the captain and all manner of stunts in classic cars, limousines, party buses and fire engines.
But it’s the animals they got in for some of the shows that she’s enjoyed most.
It all began with The Wizard of Oz in 1991 when they wanted a little dog to play Toto, and they found Benson. ‘He became the star of the show,’ recalls Sandra.
Ponies and eagles, among others, followed.
‘Holding the eagle was so heavy, I never thought I would hold it. I was a little bit scared inside, but I couldn’t show it!’
Once Sandra starts recalling her favourite shows, it’s hard to stop her as memories come tumbling out – Bazaar and Rummage with Lesley Joseph and Liza Tarbuck, the comic Jethro.
‘He would always come and say to me: “Sandra, this is going to be my last year”. He’s still going’.
Or the pantos, like Dick Whittington starring Barry Howard, Michael Elphick and Fern Britton. Or Lorraine Chase: ‘She was hilarious.’
Or the late Stephanie Lawrence, the West End musical star from Hayling Island who died in 2000,who Sandra remembers for fronting a charity night in 1987 and helping to raise nearly £2,000.
Asked to pick a favourite show though, she plumps for The Rocky Horror.
‘That has such a fantastic atmosphere, we’ve had that here a few times and the whole audience gets into it.’
Sandra will rarely be rude about anyone though – even though there are some ‘stars’ who have proved to be less than professional over the years. One actress who spoke rudely to Sandra in front of the press pack at a panto launch found herself cut out of all the coverage, such was the respect for Sandra.
She has held many business meetings in box E – carefully chosen to give her guests the best view of the auditorium.
And on opening night she has often been found standing at the back of the dress circle, watching the audience arrive.
She now has her own seat in the dress circle, C42, engraved with a plaque reading: ‘I’ll do you a deal.’
Over the years her job has changed, with more being done online and via computer. ‘I really miss the dealing with people directly,’ she adds.
‘It’s all changing and so much is done on the computers now. I know it saves time, but it’s not my favourite thing. I loved doing things with the animals, and the selling side of things, helping to promote the shows.
‘I will miss it, just walking through in the morning, it’s a special place. It’s still got that very special atmosphere.’