FROM Penny Arcadia To Pocklington Arts Centre, the story behind the historic Market Place venue, will be told by magician and performer Jon Marshall in a Zoom event this evening (May 4).
Pocklington Arts Centre (PAC) has been staging events for more than 20 years, but should you be wondering what the Grade II listed building was once used for and how it came to be the arts hub it is today, Jon has the answers.
Tales of fire-eaters, magicians and amusements all will feature in the 7.30pm illustrated talk as Jon, director and performer with Hull company Magic Carpet Theatre, takes his audience on a trip down memory lane, delving into the origins of the building formerly known as Oak House, dating back to the 1700s.
“The talk promises to be a fascinating and entertaining online event unveiling the story behind the building, from doctor’s house, cinema and museum housing Europe’s largest collection of amusement machines, to East Yorkshire’s premier arts venue,” says PAC director Janet Farmer.
Marshall, a member of the Inner Magic Circle with Gold Star, promises a fascinating and entertaining evening, replete with tales of former owners of the building Jon and Pat Gresham.
“They were larger-than-life local characters, cinema proprietors and museum curators,” he says. “All will be revealed about the exploits and colourful adventures of Jon, who was once a magician, fire-eater, pantomime promoter and sideshow showman.
“The audience will also hear about Pat, who was determined that when the Penny Arcadia closed, the building should not become yet another retail unit but instead should provide entertainment and a service to the people of Pocklington and the surrounding area.
“I had the privilege of knowing the Gresham family for over 50 years from the mid-1960s, so participants will be able to see many previously unpublished photographs and images from over the years.”
Marshall’s company Magic Carpet Theatre are regular performers at PAC and last October they recorded two shows there for streaming for free on PAC’s YouTube channel: Magic Circus from January 7 to 21 and The Wizard Of Castle Magic from February 18 to March 4, both with financial assistance from the I Am Fund and Smile Foundation.
Now comes From Penny Arcadia To Pocklington Arts Centre. “When I moved into area, I’d already met Jon, and then got to know Jon and Pat really well. They became great family friends,” says Marshall.
“The Pocklington Arts Centre building goes back to the 1700s, and it opened as a cinema in the 1930s. Jon bought the Ritz Cinema in 1981 and that’s when he started putting his collection of amusement machines in there.
“They lived in Westwood House, North Dalton, a big old house and grounds that Jon and Pat did up and lived there for some time. After Jon died, Pat continued to run the building, and she was determined it should not be turned into shops despite receiving various offers.”
Encouraged by Pocklington Town Council, Pat ran Penny Arcadia until 1996, when the last event was a September display of Jon Gresham’s magical props.
“It was a totally unique enterprise, collecting arcade music machines, which is a huge part of our culture,” says Marshall. “Jon’s interest had been sparked by being given a music box by Pat and he went on to become president of the British Music Box Society.
“At that time, the country was going into decimalisation and that meant many, many penny-operated music machines became redundant overnight, and that was perfect for Jon, who drove around the country as pier arcades were throwing them off the piers.
“Some were acquired for free, some he paid for, and he amassed one of Europe’s largest collections. Much of it is still together in a collection, and no, not in America.”
After Jon died, Pat kept them in the outbuildings of Westwood House, for use at the Penny Arcadia. “She was a very astute businesswoman, continuing to run Penny Arcadia very well and Beverley Playhouse too, putting on such live shows as children’s theatre and plays,” says Marshall.
Tonight’s Zoom show will tap into the nostalgia emanating from the Gresham story. “Jon and Pat were huge characters in their own right with big personalities. He was a public schoolboy, who went to Oundle School, and his father ran a timber importers’ business in Hull with sawmills in Brough and Sheffield,” he says.
“Jon was destined to go into the family business, and though he didn’t do National Service for medical reasons, he said he wouldn’t be able to work for the family for at least two years as he should have been doing National Service, and so instead he trained as Europe’s youngest fire-eater, calling himself ‘Jon Gresham from Copenhagen’, as he thought being Scandinavian would add something to the act – and he was blond.
“He toured Europe but then his father said it was ‘now or never’ for him to join the timber business. He did so, but he’d made many great friends touring Europe, and so he also started to promote pantomimes in Harrogate, Scarborough and on the coast, such as Cinderella and Aladdin, appearing as a fire-eating genie in the shows, while working for the family.”
Jon Gresham was a “real dynamo”, in Marshall’s appraisal. “As well as all this going on, he’d do his fire-eating at music halls and on variety bills, and he could appear at fairgrounds, blowing fire in air outside the fairground to attract people inside to see the shows,” he says.
“He really got a taste for it and decided to open his own sideshow in 1956, The Robot Show, staged in one of the Corrigans’ buildings, as he knew the fairground family well and had become a friend.”
Jon Gresham continued to run the family business as managing director, Monday to Friday, but at weekends he was a sideshow showman and proprietor, spreading his time between 12 sites, among them Rhyl, Porthcawl, Great Yarmouth, Dreamland at Margate and Hull Fair.
From the Smallest Ironing Lady in the Country to the Girl in the Goldfish Bowl, Gresham’s sideshows were often elaborate, as well as curious. Annual accounts show he would have at least two girls, a manager and box-office manager per site.
Before marrying Jon Gresham, Pat had been an interior designer and colour consultant. “He used her skills for decorating the sideshows and the Penny Arcadia,” says Marshall.
“Pat also designed and decorated the captain and crew’s quarters for trawlers at Hull, when it was unheard of for a woman to do that.
“If a girl in the shows was suddenly taken away by the police, somebody had to take her place, so Pat always kept alert. ‘I never knew if I was going to be legless in Margate or headless in Scarborough,’ she once said.”
The Greshams travelled by pantechnicon van, an old vehicle painted purple and known affectionately as “Gertrude”. “The season would run from Whitsun to September, and they would tour their live illusion sideshows throughout that period,” says Marshall.
“The sideshows ran until 1969, when the problem was the resistance to prices going up from six pence and a shilling, but there was another problem too: the crowds going to the seaside resorts were declining in the face of the rise in package holidays, so you now had to rely on footfall on the day.
“It was all by chance, if people were walking by in the daytime or in the evening after the meal at the digs. He would send out the Headless Lady to pique their interest. By then two thirds of the business was on Sundays; Saturday was change-over day, and Sunday was the peak day, running from 10am to 10pm.”
Showman Marshall has since restored some of the sideshows to take them out to festivals to entertain new audiences. “Normally I’d be doing it from April/May to September, but alas we’ve not been out since Derby Feste in September 2019, though we’re hoping we may be able to go out again in 2022,” he says.
Marshall’s decision to revive sideshows began with a conversation at a dinner with Pat Gresham. “We thought, ‘wouldn’t it be fun to restore a sideshow for a Magic Circle dinner?’,” he recalls.
“We found the gaudy frontispiece to The Flash with slogans and the picture to entice people in: ‘It’s not the show that gets the dough. It’s The Flash that gets the cash’, it said, and we were off and running.”
Jon Gresham’s sideshows had been in storage from 1969 to 2004 in outbuildings at Westwood House. “They’d been moved around, there’d been pigeons and rats, and nothing was in any order or visible, frankly.
“So, it was out with the rubber gloves to start a detective hunt, and that’s when we found The Flash frontispiece and, by a stroke of luck, the goldfish bowl, alas with cracks in it, from the Girl in the Goldfish Bowl.
“They’re like the ones you see in cartons, and they’re hard to find now, but luckily with some acrylic we’ve been able to mend it and make it watertight.”
Marshall has restored seven shows in all now, comparing the experience of finding the Gresham show stock to British archaeologist Howard Carter locating King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. “Because they had been painted in the 1950s with layers of varnish to protect against the sea salt, we had very little restoration to do,” he says.
“Pat was an enormous help to us in our research, as the Greshams never threw anything away in terms of records. Jon left his memoirs and there’s a biography with a chapter by Pat [who died in 2019] and a contribution by Professor Eddie Dawes, the Yorkshire magician and biochemist [who founded the University of Hull’s biochemistry department].
“I’ve written a chapter on the Penny Arcadia and on Jon’s straitjacket, which went to an escapologist called Danny Hunt, and his fire-eating equipment, which is still being used by Tom Cockerill, who has re-created the act for the International Brotherhood of Magicians Convention, performing the original acts with that original equipment.”
The biography, Jon Gresham: The Life And Adventures Of A Sideshow Showman, is available on Amazon and eBay and from Pocklington Arts Centre too, and more information on the revived sideshows can be found at sideshowillusions.com, with details soon to be added on the 2022 season.
Tickets for tonight’s Zoom illustrated talk cost £5 at: ticketing.eu.veezi.com/sessions/?siteToken=5c398sshg8x6xjr7k9mw32dvr8