Published: 15:47, 28 January 2021
| Updated: 13:10, 30 January 2021
Concern that the future of Maidstone's Hazlitt Theatre lies in the balance after Covid-enforced closure has stopped all income has prompted many people to reflect on the good times they have had there.
For many decades the County Towners Variety Club was almost synonymous with the theatre in Earl Street, having been associated with the venue when it was still known as the Maidstone Municipal Theatre.
Formed in 1961 and eventually folding in 1998, the County Towners put on two shows a year, in May and November, that easily rivalled the popularity of the Christmas panto.
Each show was mixture of song, dance and sketches, introduced by a compere.
A great many performers grew up with the group, among them Chrissie Sandell, or Christine Medhurst as she was then.
She said: "I started in 1972 in the chorus and by the time I left in 1998, I had become the producer or seven or eight of the shows.
"We had about 10 men and 30 to 40 ladies. At every show we raised money for the Multiple Sclerosis Society, which is a bit ironic really, as I later developed MS myself."
She said: "The County Towners and the theatre were so important to the town.
"Each show ran for a week and many groups would make block bookings. The soldiers from Invicta Barracks would come one night, staff from Reeds Paper Mill - which was then still a huge employer in the town - on another.
"It was the hub of the community and many performers grew in confidence through appearing on the stage there.
"We were like big family, with people who didn't want to perform themselves doing things like costumes and props - my husband for example became the stage manager!"
An early feature of the County Towners was their annual challenge trophy, when they invited variety groups from other parts of the county to compete with them at the Municipal Theatre with independent judges marking the best performance.
The week-long event was held in support of the Old Folks Coal Fund which helped the elderly with their heating costs.
The very first contest in 1961 contest was won by an amateur-dramatics group from Ramsgate.
The Kentainers from Tunbridge Wells won in 1962, and the County Towners had to wait until 1963 to celebrate their first victory with The Platt Amateur Dramatic Society coming in second place that year.
The Mayor of Maidstone, Captain John Evans, presented the cup to the County Towners producer and founder Basil Yates.
Among those present at the shows was Richard Hearne, who was then a hugely popular children's television star, where he performed as Mr Pastry. He lived at Abbeygate Place in Tovil.
The shows were supported by the Kent Messenger newspaper, with the newspaper office selling admission tickets, and Edwin Boorman, the son of the paper's then proprietor Henry Roy Pratt Boorman (and later himself the company chairman) introducing the acts on stage each night.
County Towner John Kingdon said: "Mr Boorman was heavily involved from the start, when the County Towners were set up by Basil Yates, Derek Lloyd and John Sparrowhawk, and he continued to support us throughout."
Mr Kingdon, from West Park Road, Maidstone, said: "I joined in the early '80s as a singer, but I ended up being the producer in the last two or three years."
Mr Kingdon was a cabinet maker and ran a joinery business - Kingdon Lock - from his premises at The Boatyard in Tovil.
His skills were an added bonus for the group's prop department.
He said: "For one show that featured a sad princess, we made a fantastic castle that filled the whole stage - it was quite a fine scene!"
"But," he added, "It was hard work. I was spending 15 hours or so a week for several months before each show, which is a lot when you are also trying to run a business."
He said: "It was worth it because the shows were very much appreciated with big audiences and good write-ups."
Mr Kingdon was there for the County Towners' last show, but he didn't leave show business.
He said: "I went on to found the Harmony Variety Group in Mangravat, and quite a few of the County Towners came with me. I think of it as a bit of an extension of the County Towners."
"The only difference is that we pride ourselves on being inclusive - at Harmony I like to give children with special needs or underprivileged kids the chance to appear on stage."
The Harmony Variety Group has also performed many times at the Hazlitt Singers has won several awards and was still going strong before Covid lockdown ended all activity for the present. Mr Kingdon, now aged 80, is still the group's leader.