Hazel Vincent Wallace obituary

Hazel Vincent Wallace obituary

My friend and former employer Hazel Vincent Wallace, who has died aged 99, was the founder and managing director of the Thorndike theatre in Leatherhead, Surrey.

Hazel first arrived in Leatherhead with a group of friends in 1950 searching for a permanent home for the London-based Under Thirty Theatre Group. The vacant Victoria Hall in the High Street became their home and Leatherhead Theatre Club opened in 1951.

Early stars to join the family of actors appearing there included Sir Donald Wolfit, Vanessa Redgrave, Nyree Dawn Porter, Peter O’Toole, Peter Bowles, Alec McCowen, Penelope Keith, Hannah Gordon, Richard Briers and Donald Sinden. Alan Ayckbourn was a fledgling stage manager, and the choreographer Gillian Lynne started her career there.

By the mid-1960s performances consistently sold out, membership had grown to 14,000 and it was clear new premises were needed. A phone call out of the blue from the owners of the Crescent cinema in the town led to the building of the Thorndike. Capital funding was promised by national and local authorities. In addition, thanks to Hazel’s drive and spirit and the support of colleagues, theatre friends and loyal patrons, £220,000 was raised by public appeal in only two and half years.

Hazel collaborated with the architect Roderick Ham to build her vision for an arts and community centre, open all day every day and used by young and old, with a foyer coffee bar, mezzanine art gallery and thriving Green Room Club with bar and restaurant.

Hazel had always admired the actor Dame Sybil Thorndike and felt that a tribute to her was long overdue. Thorndike agreed to have the theatre named after her and appeared in an early production. The theatre was officially opened in 1969 by Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon.

Hazel was born and brought up in Walsall, Staffordshire, daughter of George Liddell Wallace, a railway administrator and music teacher, and his wife, Beatrice (nee Lazenbury). She attended Queen Mary’s grammar school, Walsall, and went on to study social and political sciences at Birmingham University. After graduating, in 1940 she took a job in industrial personnel in London, but every evening during the wartime blackout she would travel to the leftwing Unity theatre in Camden.

Once the war was over, she realised her ambition to become a professional singer and actor. She joined the Under Thirty Theatre Group – a Sunday-night society producing new plays in West End theatres. The group also ran the Buckstone Club – a meeting place for actors – behind the Haymarket theatre.

In 1971 she was appointed OBE for services to theatre.

Having presented more than 1,000 productions, Hazel retired as managing director in 1980 but remained on the board as a consultant. In her retirement she lived in Surrey and south London.

Her sister, Marjorie, predeceased her.