Athenaeum Society

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Founding and early history

The Port Elizabeth Athenaeum Society was founded in April 1856. In 1859 the grant of land for the erection of a Town Hall stipulated that the building should also house a library and an Athenaeum. The Society was dissolved in 1886. The new Athenaeum was revived on May 8, 1894 and comprised of the Port Elizabeth Institute, School of Art, Naturalist Society and the Port Elizabeth Camera Club. The Athenaeum Musical and Choral Society was formed in 1896. The Society claimed its original right to space in the City Hall but because the building was not big enough to house all the organisations, the Port Elizabeth Town Council donated £3,000 and a piece of land to the Athenaeum Society in Belmont Terrace. The original plans, drawn up by E J Sherwood proved to be too costly and so the plans of architect G W Smith were used instead. On April 17, 1901, a new wing with a hall was opened and named after the President of the Port Elizabeth Institute, M M Loubser. The Athenaeum became a social club in 1916. The Loubser Hall was turned into the Little Theatre in 1946 and used for theatrical productions for many years by organisations such as Pemads.

Aims and function

The aims of the Athenaeum Society were to "promote the interests of science and literature" among its members and the public of Port Elizabeth.

Current status

Thanks to the incredible efforts by Harold Davidson, Pemads was allowed to use the Loubser Hall for their rehearsals and eventually as a venue for staging their productions as well. The hall was turned into the Little Theatre (founded 1945) in 1946 and is still used for theatrical productions by organisations such as Pemads.

In November 1977, a car truck backed into the side of the theatre and badly damaged the wall. The wall started bulging outwards towards Castle Hill, leading to fears that the building might collapse and cause serious injury. The City Engineer's Department then condemned the building as unsafe. A spokesman for the department said that any increase in the bulge could lead to the roof collapsing. The wall was then shored up with wooden beams. All productions there were cancelled until the building was repaired. Pemads started an appeal for funds which they called "Save Our Theatre". Repairs were expected to cost R75 000, of which the Ford Motor Company donated R25 000 and the Port Elizabeth Municipality donated R16 000. The balance was raised by selling the theatre's 255 seats to the public for R100 a seat. Ford's managing director, Brian Pitt, said that in addition to providing a permanent home for Pemads, it also would create a venue for other theatrical societies such as PEAAT.

In gratitude to Ford, the hall was renamed the Ford Little Theatre and reopened on Thursday, October 16, 1980, with Death Trap, directed by Noel Morgan.


Impact on SA theatre, film, media and/or performance

It is still in use today (2018) and is once again known as the Little Theatre. It is still used by Pemads and PEAAT, the Afrikaans theatre group and a host of other organisations.


Sources

Eastern Province Herald.

Family Post, Weekend Post magazine section, October 11, 1980.

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