Inspiring the population

It seems that May Johnstone was a stickler for procedure and detail. She kept comprehensive lists of all donations, and any proposal for a fund-raising event in the name of the Theatre-Concert Hall had first to be approved by her and the Steering Committee. This would have amounted to reams of paperwork, for hundreds of community groups, individuals and organisations wrote in with proposals for hosting a variety of fund-raising events. The population was inspired: from Penal to Scarborough, everyone was holding some sort of event. The Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO) arranged concerts, full proceeds of which went to the fund. There were numerous dances at town halls, there were school concerts, flag days, music competitions, cinema shows and balls at the Governor’s residence.

It is clear that the Committee envisioned a quick fundraising drive. They were operating to a tight schedule – Government was only reserving the hangar at Piarco until April 1953. But soon, everyone had to face up to the sobering fact that despite their best efforts, meeting their targets would take far longer than anyone had imagined – there even began to emerge doubts about the probability of raising anything near the requisite amount.

At a meeting of the Steering Committee held in October 1952, one of the committee members, Mr. Burgess, told those gathered, that up to September 30th, they had only managed to collect about $14,500. “It seemed pretty obvious to me,” he said dejectedly, “that it is the small man in the main who is at the moment coming forth. The business community as a whole is definitely holding off for various reasons…If that is the case I feel we have no hope of getting $450,000. In fact at the rate we are going now, at the end of the year we shall have $18,000.”

Determined that the scheme should succeed, yet recognising that the figure of $450,000 was likely unreachable, May Johnstone pointed out that in the original “Memorandum on a Cultural Centre for Trinidad”, it was suggested that using the hangar and putting in the necessary equipment could cost as little as $150,000. As a result, a sub-committee was formed to explore the possibility of downscaling the project so that construction and fitting costs would be more in the region of $120,000.

Early in 1953, the sub-committee presented its findings to the Steering Committee.

“…our first main objective was to design a building at the lowest cost which would be used on the largest number of occasions by the largest number of people. It is regrettable that the new scheme does not take care of the requirements of pure drama, and it is realised that it will also not be suitable for some types of concerts. The special committee did in fact, at the beginning of its deliberations, give serious consideration to the possibility of erecting, as an alternative to the original scheme, a theatre seating 500 or 600 people, which would have been generally satisfactory to the dramatic, musical and dancing groups alike. The experts, however, advised that such a building, with proper stage fittings and lighting, sloping floor, etc would cost little less than the $450,000 originally aimed at, and that even a smaller theatre would cost far more than one could hope to raise, and in any case could not be made self-supporting.
“The committee therefore concentrated on planning a building the cost of which would be within reasonable limits and which could be used by the largest number of people on the largest number of occasions, in other words a Community Hall, suitable for as wide a variety of uses as possible. The activities for which such a hall could be used are:

  • Certain types of concerts
  • Certain types of dramatic presentations
  • Table tennis
  • Amateur Boxing
  • Dancing classes and displays
  • Keep-fit classes and displays
  • Roller skating
  • Netball
  • Basketball
  • Charity card games and bazaars
  • Flower shows
  • Art exhibitions
  • Carnival Ball and other similar large functions
  • Lectures, Debates and Conferences12

The Sub-Committee’s recommendations were not well received by members of the dramatic community (represented on the Steering Committee by Paul Butt). None-the-less, the Steering Committee voted to abandon the original plan in favour of this new proposal, which would cost – it was projected – the substantially lower figure of $150,000. The “Theatre Concert Hall” was now the “Community Centre and Concert Hall”. Paul Butt was furious. He wrote an irate letter to Johnstone saying that all the monies raised in the name of the Theatre Concert Hall ought to be refunded, since, given the changes that had just taken place, the public would have been donating money under false pretenses. He resigned his position on the Steering Committee, and, when invited to nominate a replacement, the Trinidad Dramatic Club said, “if it is the intention of your committee that the proposed building should have no theatrical function, they consider that no useful purpose would be served by our appointing a new representative.”13 In response, the Steering Committee tried its best to reassure the Dramatic Club: “…it is certainly not the intention of the Committee to exclude theatrical work. It is true that when the original plan was revised recently, certain modifications had to be made which would not permit the presentation of drama in quite the ideal conditions envisaged at first. At the same time however, it is still intended to make it possible for the rear portion of the hall to be cut off, leaving an auditorium of comfortable proportions for the production of plays…”14

Meanwhile, trouble was brewing elsewhere in the plan. Although the City Council seemed quite gung-ho about the plans to build a concert hall at King George V Park, voices of dissent were starting to rumble among the residents of St. Clair. One newspaper article pointed out that three members of the city council committee, “opposed the granting of the lease because they felt that the erection of a concert hall there would deprive nearby residents of recreational facilities.”15 Alderman Aubrey James said there were other sites that could be considered as the one proposed was, “too aristocratic”16 in his view! The City Council ignored comments such as these for several years, but by 1958, realising that the St. Clair community had still not come around to the idea of a Hall, and would, in all likelihood, continue to create problems for the Community Centre Concert Hall Board, Government provided land in St. Anns at the Government House playing field (formerly part of the Botanic Gardens) for the construction of Queen’s Hall.

The business community eventually came on board, contributing on average, $4,700 per company, but the overwhelming support for Queen’s Hall came from thousands of individuals in the society. By the time the Hall was built in 1958, increases in the price of materials and labour would mean that it would end up costing a whole lot more than $150,000. Government contributed an impressive $370,000 towards construction costs, but in her address at the sod-turning ceremony, May Johnstone gave the lion’s share of her praise to the public, saying Queen’s Hall would be, “a monument to the vision and courage of the people of Trinidad.”17

12 Report of the Special Sub-Committee of the Theatre Concert Hall, presented 14/1/1953
13 Extract of letter from the Trinidad Dramatic Club (23/5/1953)
14 Extract of letter from the Steering Committee (30/6/1953)
15 “Park Site Urged for Concert Hall”, Trinidad Guardian, (16/5/52)
16 “Council Approves George V Park for Concert Hall Lease”, Sunday Guardian (30/5/52)
17 “Concert Hall a Dream Come True: Mrs Johnstone Cuts First Sod”, The Trinidad Chronicle,(27/3/1958)