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Cabaret Mechanical Theatre: A Short History

Sue Jackson


Starting in Cornwall before moving to London and subsequently touring widely, for years Cabaret Mechanical Theatre provided a focus and an outlet for the 'Falmouth automata makers'. Sue Jackson describes the history of 'CMT'


How did CMT begin?

CMT started life as a slightly odd crafts shop called 'Cabaret' in Falmouth, Cornwall.

It was opened in 1979 by myself and sold Peter Markey's simple wooden toys alongside knitwear and ceramics. With the arrival of Paul Spooner, it wasn't long before the mechanical pieces started displacing the other crafts. I began collecting and the work I kept remained in the shop. I could see how much pleasure they gave to customers - even though they were often told that they could turn the handles but they couldn't buy!

When Paul Spooner made a large coin-operated skeleton (The Last Judgment) for the shop window it was clear that people would pay to bring automata to life and so in May 1983, still in Falmouth, Cabaret Mechanical Theatre began and the customers now paid to turn handles and press buttons.


The Falmouth Shop


What did the collection look like at that time? The photos (above) suggest it was a real Aladdin's cave...

The collection was largely made up of small hand-cranked pieces by Peter Markey and Paul Spooner. For protection most of them were encased and motorised so that they could be operated by push button. I commissioned and bought larger one-off machines like Spooner's 'The Dream'. I also added work by Ron Fuller and Richard Windley.


Kissing Couple by Peter Markey


When did you move to London and what happened then?

It was soon realised that in order to continue expanding the exhibition it would have to move from Cornwall. CMT opened in Covent Garden, London in 1985, with new work by Tim Hunkin and a little later, Michael Howard.

Over the following decade the world of Cabaret Mechanical Theatre has continued expanding. The shop has a large range of handmade automata which cannot be bought anywhere else, it also sells kits, card cut-outs and videos.

The collection continues to grow organically without any preconceived idea in mind, yet the pieces tend to share an eccentricity, a wry sense of humour and a slightly shrewd way of looking at the world. Perhaps what ultimately unifies the collection are my own personal tastes and preferences.


I remember Gundestrup by Paul Spooner

During Summer 2000, the main collection was on display at The Kursaal, Southend-on-Sea. Since then there have been exhibitions across the world: including Korea, Thailand and the US. In 2007 Falmouth Art Gallery mounted 'Peter Markey and friends' and there was a large and well received exhibition at Kinetica: the new museum of interactive art in London.

Cabaret continues to occupy the strange, shifting ground between art, craft and business. CMT was never conceived as a way of making money. For me it is always a labour of love. It receives no subsidies or sponsorship, yet it helps to support a number of crafts people. CMT endeavours to remain a haven of wit, intelligence and individuality in an increasingly homogenous and mass-produced world.




youtube video of CMT at Kinetica in London:


Sue Jackson speaking on BBC News: