First close shave was 57 years ago

Joan Bennett
Joan Bennett

CROFT House Theatre Company are busy rehearsing at Park Library for Sweeney Todd, their show at the Lyceum next week.

The company made it their base last year but chair Joan Bennett points to the date carved in stone on the building – 1902 - coincidentally the year Croft House Operatic Society was formed.

It is soon evident that Joan is a journalist’s dream interviewee, seemingly able to come up with an anecdote for every subject under discussion, starting with Park Library and going on to evocative tales of dancing for Peter Stringfellow and rubbing shoulders with showbiz stars such as Ken Dodd and Cliff Richard.

“My connection to the library goes back to 1954 when I was seven and persuaded my mum to let me go with two other girls to apply for a library card,” she recalls.

“We had to cross City Road (or Duke Street) and were told to be very careful of the main road which had a tram route. On the way back we looked left and saw a tram was stationary at the stop at the top of the hill and we looked right where a coal lorry was coming up the hill very slowly.

“As soon as the lorry passed two of us ran across the road into the path of the tram car. Both me and the friend were knocked down by the tram right outside the Park Library. I remember being right under the tram seeing the wheels turning as my foot was caught in the safety rack dragging me down the road. I was told years later that the driver never drove a tram again.

“I related the story to a stall holder a few years ago who was selling paintings of Sheffield trams. He told me he had got off the tram from school at the previous stop and had run down the road to meet his friend who told him two little girls had been killed. This was something that had stayed with him for years and he looked flabbergasted to realise that I was indeed alive and telling him the tale.”

Joan clearly made a rapid recovery because only five years later she began a career as a professional dancer. Aged 12 she was one of six girls chosen out of 500 who auditioned to join the ranks of principal performer in the Children’s Tower Ballroom. With the group she took part in the Royal Command Performance at Manchester Palace Theatre in front of the Queen Mother and alongside such established stars as Arthur Askey and Liberace and emerging talents Cliff Richard and Marty Wilde.

It required her at a tender age to live away from home in Blackpool for 10 months and she admits to being lonely at first, though her parents travelled over from Sheffield as often as they could.

She was encouraged in her stage career by her mother, Edith, who was pianist at a dance school which paid for Joan to have free lessons from the age of three.

“Mum used to take in lodgers from the theatre world so our house was sometimes filled with colourful characters,” contines Joan. “Ken Dodd used to lodge at a neighbours and would have us kids in hysterics. He once told my brother to sell the jokes to his pals at school for 3d and then pay him commission.”

As a professional dancer in her teens Joan was once a magician’s assistant – being entombed and having knives thrown at her - and the first dancer to be employed by Peter Stringfellow at his first nightclub, the Black Cat.

“I went there with a friend and won a dance competition. I told him afterwards that I was probably cheating because I was a professional dancer and he said he wasn’t bothered and asked me if I would like a job doing demonstration dances,” she reports. “So for a while I was a solo dancer in the club either dancing to records or live music. The first band I remember dancing to were The Drumbeats. Peter was just beginning to book big groups like Shane Fenton and the Fentones and, of course, the Beatles, but sadly not when I was around. He paid me £1 which doesn’t sound much now but back then was quite good for half an hour’s work.” And it was all pretty innocent, she insists, long before Stringfellow’s became associated with lap dancing.

Joan gave up her dancing career after she married and had a daughter, but her first marriage ended in divorce and left her at a low ebb until she joined Croft House in 1975 which introduced her to new friends and gave her a new life. Remarkably she only got to hear of the company through a chance conversation between her mother and a stranger in a park.

Over 36 years as a performer Joan has played numerous roles, including being the first to perform on a high wire at the City Hall in Fiddler on the Roof. She has also served as treasurer for 15 years and as a member of the management committee organised social events, acted as publicity officer, designed programmes, painted scenery and sewed costumes.

She credits her facility with balance sheets to her late father, a universal grinder who was his union’s branch secretary, treasurer and bookkeeper for 40 years. “He also brought laughter into our house,” she adds. Joan is now in her second year as chair and sees her biggest challenge as generating audiences, especially for something like Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd which is by no means a safe choice as a show.

“Sweeney Todd is very different from our last production, The Full Monty. It has a cast of 40 and involves three styles of acting – melodrama, Greek tragedy and natural acting – and the director has been working to get them to the same level of performance. It’s different musically too and some of the singers come from an operatic background.

“From my point of view, it’s the fact it’s an £80,000 production so we need to fill the theatre.’’ Sweeney Todd is at the Lyceum from Tuesday to Saturday.