by William P Roe
Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 7 (1998)
Many of today’s entertainment stars were trained in Chiswick in a stage school, founded and run for over sixty years by Chiswick residents, Rona Knight and her family. William P Roe has comprehensively researched the history of the Corona Stage Academy and talked about it to the Brentford and Chiswick Local History Society in 1996. Below is an abbreviated version of his lecture.
The Knight family
Rona Knight was the daughter of draper, Leonard Knight, who ran a business in one of the then newly-developed shops on the north side of Chiswick High Road. His wife, the former Ellen Edith Speck, was one of a family of 20 children from a well-known horse racing family. The Knights lived at 537 Chiswick High Road, one of the late Victorian houses opposite what was then the Brentford Fruit and Vegetable Market (now the site of the Fountain Leisure Centre), and here their children, including three daughters, Rona, Hazel and Muriel, were born.
Rona was born on 22 June 1911, the day of the Coronation of King George V, an event which influenced the choice of her name – she was called after the middle section of the word “coronation”. She was educated at a private school, Oxford College, run by two sisters called the Misses Fowle in a large Victorian house on the corner of Marlborough Road, 367 Chiswick High Road (in more recent times the local headquarters of the Labour Party).
While a pupil at Oxford College Rona began dancing lessons. These lessons were mainly in ballet which Rona did not find so interesting as the more modern tap dancing which became so popular during the 1920s as a result of the film musicals coming out of Hollywood. Rona made her first stage appearance when, aged 11, she put on a show for the benefit of the Sunday School the children attended in Hindhead, Surrey where the family spent a few months every summer.
The Corona Stage School When Rona was just fourteen and a half she decided that, with her entertainment interests and her ability as a young modern dancer, she could earn sufficient money to travel to the great film Mecca of Hollywood by giving dancing lessons to other young girls. She invited a small number of girls to dance in the large room of her home. In view of her first name and its associations with the Coronation she gave her dancing classes the name of the Corona Dancing School. The School proved to be a remarkable success, so much so that she also held lessons in the tin hut beside Gunnersbury Railway station and the Church Hall of St James’s church in Brook Road.
Rona’s wish to go to Hollywood was thwarted by the world-wide economic slump in the early 1930s. With the backing of her mother, Rona organised a performance of Cinderella at the Chiswick Town Hall, with an all-girl cast, except for the Ugly Sisters who were played by two male friends of the family. Rona took the part of Cinderella herself. This was so well-liked that it was suggested to Rona that the girls should put on a show of their own. Their first show was at a cinema in Richmond (it was the usual practice for cinemas in the 1930s to supplement their programmes with a stage show). This was followed by a show at Chiswick Town Hall in aid of the new parish hall for St James’s church. ‘A remarkably good dancing display’, said the local paper, ‘half of the artists were under four feet in height and some could not have been more than three feet’.
The dancing and singing display group became known as the ‘Corona Babes’ and found themselves being asked to perform professionally all around the country. In 1934 Rona Knight explained to a newspaper reporter how she trained and looked after her young charges: ‘Each child has an average of six months’ training, dancing and singing, and then I pick out those who should specialise in one particular branch. All are advised to keep to a diet which excludes starchy foods, but otherwise to eat plenty of good food’.
The continued education of the children during their travelling had to be remembered and this was done in close co-operation with the various local education authorities in the individual towns. Rona did some teaching herself and in the 1950s some professional teachers were also employed. Children, however, do not remain small for very long so while the name ‘Corona Babes’ was retained for the younger children, it was changed to ‘Corona Juveniles’ and ‘Corona Kids’ as the dancers grew older.
In 1936 the Knight family and the school moved from 537 Chiswick High Road to 26 Wellesley Road, a large double-fronted house in the Gunnersbury area of Chiswick. When the Second World War broke out it quickly became apparent that this would severely disrupt the Corona School. First, there was the wholesale evacuation of children to the country and then the difficulties of travelling from place to place to give performances. Rona decided to leave the school in the hands of her mother and sisters, Hazel Malone and Muriel Knight, who managed to continue it throughout the War and to provide the world of entertainment with young singers and dancers. Rona herself joined the hospital section of ENSA. She chose the stage name of Rona Brandon (after a role in a firm played by her favourite film star, Gary Cooper). Rona became well known as a BBC and recording soprano and took part in many shows arranged by ENSA, and also sang a solo in front of the King of Norway.
After the War Rona decided it was necessary to widen her own abilities so as to provide more extensive tuition to the school’s pupils. She attended the Paris school of mime, dance and drama in 1950 and by the end of that year, the school in Wellesley Road was advertised as The Corona Academy of Stage Training. However, Rona soon realised that the premises in Wellesley Road did not have the facilities for stage practice and a search began to find new premises. One of the buildings considered was the old Cinema Royal behind Chiswick High Road, now an antique emporium, but the building was rejected as being in an advanced stage of dilapidation. The premises eventually selected were the buildings of the old Arlington Park School in the grounds of Arlington Park House. In 1955 the Corona Academy moved from Chiswick to Hammersmith. Rona acquired premises at 16 Ravenscourt Avenue, a large detached house adjacent to Ravenscourt Park (although the Arlington Park buildings were still used by the school).
By the 1980s the day-to-day running of the School was left mainly to Rona’s younger sister, Muriel and professional teachers, although Rona maintained overall control from No 26 Wellesley Road, her home and office since 1936. The Corona Academy supplied the young cast for Lionel Bart’s Oliver and consistently fed the Royal Shakespeare Company with new young talent.
Pupils from the Academy have appeared in countless major theatre, film and television dramas and still do today. Kathie Kay and Pearl Carr were two of the Corona School’s early pupils. Kathie went on to become the resident singer in Billy Cotton’s Band and Pearl joined Teddy Johnston to form a singing duo. Two young pupils who were also Chiswick residents were Richard 0’Sullivan, whose parents lived in Stonehill Road, a turning off Wellesley Road, now underneath the Chiswick flyover, and Frazer Hynes who lived with his mother in Grosvenor Road. Denis Waterman arrived at the school in the late 1950s; he was a ‘natural’ for the role of Just William.
Other famous pupils of the School include Jill Ireland, Carole White, Judy Geeson, Susan George, Francesa Annis, Michele Dotrice, Lynne Frederick, Jane Asher, Anna Quayle and Nicholas Lyndhurst. Muriel Knight died in 1984 and in 1990 it became clear to Rona that it was time to retire. The Academy’s premises in Ravenscourt Road, still with the small theatre Rona built in its grounds, became a preparatory school. Hazel Malone died in 1995 and Rona is now approaching 87, although she was still able to perform a lively dance at her 84th birthday party in June 1995, held in the small theatre at Ravenscourt Park. One branch of the theatrical business started all those years ago is still being carried on at 26 Wellesley Road. The theatrical agency started by Hazel Malone is now run by Rona’s nephew, Malcolm Knight, under the name of Malone and Knight Associates.
Sources used: Scrap books kept by Rona Knight, and conversations with Rona Knight and Hazel Malone. William P Roe was born in Chiswick. In 1934 he joined estate agents and surveyors, Tyser Greenwood, as an office boy. Apart from military service in the Second World War he remained with that firm for over 50 years, becoming a partner following qualification as a Chartered Surveyor. He is the author of two books, Glimpses of Chiswick’s Place in History, published in 1990 and Glimpses of World War II about his experiences during the 1939-1945 war, and is Vice-Chairman of the Brentford & Chiswick Local History Society.