The quietly charming life of an 'old theatre cat'

After seven decades in amateur theatre, Peter Simmonds says earning the applause of an audience is priceless.
ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ

After seven decades in amateur theatre, Peter Simmonds says earning the applause of an audience is priceless.


There's a moment when Peter Simmonds' 88-year-old face becomes briefly wistful.
 
Peter Simmonds' first performance was in 1950. He is pictured here playing Gus, the Theatre Cat, in Cats at the Isaac ...
ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ

Peter Simmonds' first performance was in 1950. He is pictured here playing Gus, the Theatre Cat, in Cats at the Isaac Theatre Royal in 2007. He was 77 and it was his last acting role "to date".

"70 years in the theatre," he says, grasping one wrinkled hand with the other. "And my parents never came to see me on stage once. To them theatre was not something our family did, but I've loved every minute of theatre life with my theatre family."
 
For his service to Christchurch theatre, Simmonds recently received a Queen's Service Medal.
Peter Simmonds and Marjorie Marshall starred in the Showbiz Christchurch production of Hello Dolly in 1972.
Showbiz Christchurch

Peter Simmonds and Marjorie Marshall starred in the Showbiz Christchurch production of Hello Dolly in 1972.

He's "quite chuffed" about it. So is his wife, Jill. They consider it a "shared" honour.

An engineer at Air New Zealand for 40 years, the father of two was offered professional acting opportunities on Broadway and in America, but instead chose to remain in amateur theatre in Christchurch.

"Acting is a fickle thing. It's too hit and miss when you have young children, and I really loved my job at Air New Zealand."

Peter Simmonds played the lead role of Mack in the Christchurch production of Mack and Mabel in 1988.
Showbiz Christchurch

Peter Simmonds played the lead role of Mack in the Christchurch production of Mack and Mabel in 1988.

Simmonds first trod the boards in 1950 in a production of Chu Chin Chow.

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"I used to do vocals with the dance bands. Then I met a lady and she was in the Christchurch Operatic Society as it was called then, now it's Showbiz Christchurch. She said they were looking for baritones for the chorus. I went along and auditioned and that's how it all started."

​He's a life member of Showbiz Christchurch now.

Michael Bayly, general manager of Showbiz Christchurch, is "delighted" that Simmonds' efforts have been recognised.

"Peter has been a major part of our organisation for seven decades, both onstage as a leading performer since 1950, and behind the scenes as part of the board and trust that drive and manage our society," he says.

"Both Peter and his wife Jill, who herself first appeared in one of our productions in 1948, are still very active with us to this day, and it is a delight to see them at every opening night. Their passion for theatre is still undiminished today, and they both bring an added sparkle to every event they attend."

​A Mobil Song Quest finalist, Simmonds was first elected to the Christchurch Music Education Trust in 1997 as a trustee and remains as one today. He was appointed chairman in 1989, a role he held until last year.

Simmonds, who had a stroke two years ago, shuffles in his seat and laughs as he recalls one unexpected performance at his beloved Isaac Theatre Royal.

"After one show, the stage hand suggested we have a beer.  I said, 'What's that noise?' The stage hand replied 'Oh that's the theatre's ghost'."

Telling the story several decades on, Simmonds' expression still changes to disbelief.

"I said, 'What are you talking about?' Well, he said if we took the fire curtain up we'd see the ghost playing with the seats in the Gods. He put the curtains up and the seats were going flick, flick, flick, along the row as they went up and there was nobody there."

Local legend has it that the ghost was a stage hand by the name of Charlie, who fell from the fly floor, a narrow raised platform at the side of a stage in a theatre where stagehands can work the ropes controlling equipment, and died on the stage.

It is why, Simmonds says, French actor Marcel Marceau vowed to never return to Christchurch.

"Marcel Marceau, the mime artist, got locked in his dressing room at the theatre. There were no locks on the door. He tried to open it but it wouldn't open and the room went very cold. He swore black and blue it was the ghost that locked him in. He had to get someone to help him get out of the dressing room.

"He said 'I'll never come back to Christchurch again, I'm petrified of this bloody theatre."

In 1974, Simmonds and a group of other theatre lovers started a campaign to "Save the Royal". 

Developers wanted to pave the theatrical paradise and had already put in plans to put up a parking lot.

"We got a call from a land agent we knew. He said, 'Did you know the Theatre Royal is to be sold, negotiations are underway for the theatre to be demolished and turned into a shopping complex'. They'd already bought the lot next door for a carpark," recalls Simmonds.

"I started a citizen's awareness committee with a group of people. There was a lot of publicity and it became so unpopular they dropped it. The developer did the shopping complex in Sydenham instead."

Neil Cox, chief executive of the Isaac Theatre Royal, describes Simmonds as a "wonderful gent".

"He's been an absolute treasure to musical theatre industry in Christchurch over the years and a great friend to the Theatre Royal," he says. "Peter also has a tremendously wicked sense of humour and all accolades to this recognition are richly deserved."

As for the theatre ghost, Cox says that there have been "absolutely no sightings post the backstage redevelopment in 2005 and not a sniff since the major rebuild."

Simminds' favourite role was as Tevye the milkman in a Christchurch production of Fiddler on the Roof in 1974.

"I played the Jewish father," Simmonds says. "It is the show that I got the most satisfaction from. We got to know the local rabbi very well, that was a high point.

"He became convinced I had Jewish ancestry and when I told him my mother's maiden name was Pick he became more convinced. He said Rabbi Pick's sayings were well known."

Simmonds smiles at his wife lovingly and, closing his eyes, he recites: "Be very cautious if you make a lady cry, because God counts her tears. The lady was built from the body of man, not from his head to be overruled, not from his feet to be kicked about and assaulted but from his rib, under his arm to be protected and close to his heart to be loved."

In April, 88-year-old Simmonds was invited to help a Nelson theatre crew with their production of Fiddler on the Roof.

"I went to help them with the dialogue," he says. "More than 40 years later, I still remembered my lines."

He credits his friend, Vladimir, a Russian Jew, for this.

"He did that Russian dance where he sits on his pants and dances with his legs out. He helped me with my dialogue and I've never forgotten it."

Vladimir – "known to everyone as Bob" – had "really lived the Fiddler story", Simmonds says.

"He was arrested by the Germans, his wife Ida is still alive, she's 97 now. During the war they lost a daughter. Ida couldn't feed her because she was starving herself, the daughter died of starvation on the train."

His last role "to date" was in Cats in 2007. He was 77. 

"I hadn't done much for a while and I felt a bit awkward auditioning for the role of Gus among all the kittens, but director Stephen Robertson said "not at all, you are the old theatre cat."

The sun drifts in lazily through Simmonds' lounge window and he rocks a little in his chair as, just for a minute, he flicks back to 10 years ago when he was Gus.

"And I say now these kittens, they do not get trained, as we did in the days when Victoria reigned. They never get drilled in a regular troupe, and they think, they are smart just to jump through a hoop."

Having observed Christchurch theatre trends for seven decades, Simmonds believes theatre is experiencing a "rebirth".

"I think we went through a dull spot immediately after the second world war for a while but theatre has picked up remarkably now. Christchurch audiences are remarkably good audiences, they know good theatre and they respond well."

He's eagerly looking forward to seeing how Christchurch audiences respond to Sister Act in September.

"I think it will go down well."

Some stars seek fame and fortune in Hollywood, others prefer to quietly shine in their own backyards.

"I love the theatre, I love the theatre people. Theatre people... money doesn't rule them because they don't have any of course."

Simmonds pauses to laugh at the idea of pursuing amateur theatre for financial gain. His laughter fills every space in the room.

"Theatre people have a different set of values, friendship... theatre does a lot for people, it gives them self discipline and teaches you how to work with others. I think it's a great teaching vehicle."

His friend, director Stan Lawson, taught Simmonds how to make a good entrance.

"Check your doors, make sure they open smoothly, make sure you've got everything before you go on stage," he says.

But Simmonds has mastered the art of a great exit too.

In the front row of the dress circle at the Isaac Theatre Royal, Peter and Jill's names are inscribed on the back of two seats.

If Charlie the ghost ever returns, it'll be their seats that will be flipped.

There's a symmetry to this which pleases him.

"It's been a wonderful time, a wonderful life," he declares. The statement hangs in the air for a moment.

"To me amateur theatre is the best of both worlds. They talk about remuneration, but the remuneration you can't buy is the audience's applause. When you have truly earned that, it's a wonderful feeling."

 

 - Stuff

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