Sandra Smith, who has been the mainstay of the Kings Theatre Portsmouth for the past 30 years, is retiring, but continuing her involvement with the Edwardian playhouse in a new role as the theatre’s first ever Ambassador.
It was with the Hayling Operatic Society in July 1984 that Sandra first came into contact with the Kings Theatre. Persuaded by a friend to join the Society as a dancer and chorus line singer in their production of Kiss Me Kate, Sandra was amazed at the talent within the society and that of their principal dancers.
Believing they had a show ‘fit for the Kings’, Sandra wrote to the then-owner/manager of the theatre, Commander Cooper, and invited him to see the show at Hayling’s Community Centre.
To Sandra’s surprise and delight, Commander Cooper accepted the invitation and arrived on Hayling Island like royalty in his expensive car to see the performance. The next day, the Commander called and offered the Society a date at the Kings in early September, a few months later.
Slightly daunted at the prospect of filling a 1,600-seat venue, Sandra did all she could to promote the show, getting everyone talking about it. After the show proved a success, Commander Cooper asked Sandra to help promote their pantomime for that year, Mother Goose, and thus, she found herself in the role she filled for the past three decades.
Taking office in what is now Dressing Room 7, Sandra set about her task as PR and Group Bookings Manager. Complete with sofa, old-fashioned mirror, and drinks cabinet, Sandra has fond memories of this room and the secrets it holds.
She recalls local newsman Fred Dinenage interviewing comedian Jasper Carrott about ghosts and paranormal activity when, right on cue, a large calendar fell off the wall causing all to jump!
Sandra did it all over the years to keep the theatre in the public eye. She would target sailors coming into the dockyard, fly 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. The use of animals would also cause a stir, with ponies, donkeys, eagles, and dogs all being auditioned over the years.
Sandra recalls some of her favourite celebrities she has had the pleasure to work with, including Ross Davidson, Mike Nolan, Kim Hartman, Lisa Riley, Anita Harris, and Ken Dodd. Although nervous when meeting her first celebrities in the cast of Mother Goose in 1984, Sandra soon learnt to relax and be herself.
She laughs as she remembers asking Bill Maynard, star of the pantomime that year, to present competition prizes of live turkeys to the audience before being curtly told: “No way — I’m a vegetarian!”
Sad times came in 1997 when Sandra was the last member of staff to be made redundant when the theatre looked set to close. Quickly snapped up by Portsmouth Football Club, Sandra successfully sold the club’s sponsorship and corporate hospitality packages for three years before she saw her old job at the Kings Theatre being advertised following the successful AKTER campaign.
It was Simon Barry of New Pantomime Productions who convinced Sandra to make a permanent return to the theatre in 2001, when he declared he would only produce the pantomime for the Kings if Sandra was there too. It was Simon who said, “The Kings is a big theatre and it chooses who it wants, and it chose Sandra.”
Sandra has many favourite places in the theatre beside her Dressing Room 7 office. Box E is known to all the staff as Sandra’s meeting room where she carefully sits her guests to have the best view of the auditorium. Sandra would often stand at the top of the Dress Circle to watch the opening of a show, and it is here she has a plaque on a seat with her catchphrase of “I’ll do you a deal.”
She recalls the night she was presented with her seat — the lights went up in the middle of a show and an announcement made before champagne corks were popped — and abruptly sprayed everywhere, soaking Sandra, the seat, her husband, friends, and a poor lady sat in the row in front!
Widely known as the face of the Kings throughout Portsmouth, the region, and the theatre world, Sandra has built a wide network of colleagues and friends who respect her open, honest, and direct approach.
Many are also familiar with her unmistakable Dutch accent, which she doesn’t realise she still has after living in this country for 47 years!
In a statement, the Kings Theatre wrote: “Above all, her love and dedication to the Kings is clear to see, and in her retirement she will continue her involvement as the theatre’s first ambassador. This is a new role created in recognition of Sandra’s many years of service, without which the Kings would not be the place it is today.
“She represents a significant chapter in the theatre’s history. Sandra will always be associated with the theatre and a welcome part of the Kings family.”