Obituary: Derek Salberg

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The Independent Online
The Salbergs, Derek and his father Leon (1875-1937) whom he succeeded, had a proud and unique record as theatre proprietors. They ran their Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham for 66 years from 1911 to 1977 and through their Christmas pantomimes introduced countless Brummies to the magic of the theatre.

The critic J. C. Trewin acknowledged that he had never known better pantomimes than those staged by Derek Salberg. He proclaimed them as annual miracles.

In his time Salberg faced intense competition from the major circuits of Ross Empires and Howard and Wyndham. Even so, he diligently sought out established artists well versed in the art of pantomime. His principal boys ranged from the thigh-slapping Dorothy Ward to the most charming of all Prince Charmings, Adele Dixon. Jack Tripp and George Lacy, whom he described as a genius, were his favourite dames. Among his principal comedians were Wee Georgie Wood and the loquacious George Doonan.

They and their like provided a sure framework for the telling of a pantomime story that allowed for the inclusion, but not the intrusion, of speciality turns such as the much-loved Wilson-Keppel and Betty and for the introduction and instruction of less experienced performers. Although modesty prevented Salberg from claiming to be a maker of stars, nevertheless he did further the early careers of Norman Wisdom, Noele Gordon, Morecambe and Wise, Frank Ifield and Jim Davidson by featuring them in his pantomimes.

In spite of his success as a "King of Pantomime" (how he hated that title), his greatest satisfaction derived from the plays presented by the resident Alexandra Theatre Repertory Company founded by his father in 1927 and inherited by him in 1937. He presided over the company's annual season for 37 years. Kenneth More, Brenda Bruce, Joan Miller and Alec McCowen are just a few of the names which can be found in the lists of his repertory players.

He was a gracious host to the members of the many touring productions which from 1941 onwards visited his theatre. The first were dancers of the Ballet Rambert Company but, reflecting his theatrical tastes, most were actors appearing in straight plays. Opera was regularly seen under the aegis of the Welsh National, Sadler's Wells and D'Oyly Carte companies. There were, however, few musical comedies - Salberg confessed he was not a lover of them.

He was fair and firm in his dealings. He was prepared to offer (and accept) criticism. When he ticked you off you felt admonished but later he let you know you had been forgiven. When he gave praise he did so privately and it was to be prized. Those who sought compliments from him were rebuffed.

In Birmingham his activities extended well beyond the theatre. He was appointed a city magistrate in 1961, and in the same year received the gold medal of the Birmingham Civic Society for outstanding services to the city. He was a lifelong supporter of the Warwickshire County Cricket Club, and served on the club's General Committee of the club for 26 years; he was appointed a Vice-President in 1984. Nationally he served on the Drama Panel of the Arts Council of Great Britain and on the boards of the Sadler's Wells Theatre Trust, the National Theatre and the Birmingham Repertory Theatre; he was also a consultant to the Old Vic Theatre Trust.

In retirement Derek Salberg wrote five entertaining books, four of them theatrical in their content. The fifth, Much Ado About Cricket (1987), has a foreword by Brian Johnston, who describes it as "a labour of love . . . the satisfaction of putting on paper one's pent-up memories, simply a way of recording gratitude and appreciation to the greatest of all games".

Derek Salberg was devoted to his grandchildren, to his daughters and to his wife, Joan. Not only did she design the costumes for his pantomimes but she sustained him through times of financial crisis and supported him when he suffered a mild and fortunately short-lived nervous illness. She was an inspirational cook, a knowledgeable gardener and a proficient decorator, all skills he lacked.

In addition to his own family, there was his theatre family which comprised all the people who worked for him at the Alex. "DS" greeted them individually every morning - he was always the first to arrive. His audiences, too, he welcomed in the foyer and there bade them farewell after each performance.

In 1994 one Brummie, then aged 84, recalling her childhood of abject poverty and her first job in a mop factory, said, "Do you know the best thing I ever saw? It was a pantomime at the Alex and the girls in the mop factory took me. I'd never seen fairies before."

Derek Salberg, theatre director: born Birmingham 10 July 1912; Director, Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham 1936-77; OBE 1965, CBE 1978; married 1939 Joan Horstead (died 1972; two daughters); died Birmingham 29 June 1997.