The Royal Ballrooms

The Grand Pavilion Theatre / Boscombe Grand Theatre / Boscombe Hippodrome / Royal Boscombe Ballrooms / Starkers / Tiffany’s’ / The Academy / The Opera House / Slinky / O2 Academy, 568 – 578 Christchurch Road, Bournemouth

The all seated Grand Pavilion Theatre not long after it first opened its doors in May 1895
The Boscombe Hippodrome packed to the rafters, photograph possibly taken on Boxing Day 1908

Opened on 27th May 1895, the Grand Pavilion Theatre was designed by local architects Lawson and Donkin for the Wiltshire brewer Archibald Beckett. Beckett erected the theatre at a cost of £16,000, on the site of his former home after moving to new premises in Boscombe Spa Road. It was part of a larger development that included a terrace of grand buildings including the adjacent Royal Arcade and the imposing Salisbury Hotel (demolished in 1965) on the corner of Christchurch Road and Palmerston Road. The auditorium could accommodate 4,200 people, with 3,000 seated and 1,200 standing. From the outset the theatre had a dual purpose as a circus and some say there was a tunnel that ran from the basement to nearby Kings Park where the trainers kept the lions, tigers and bears in cages. However, that can be taken with a pinch of salt along with the rumours of a ghostly floating clown and a mysterious apparition that haunts the balconies.

The circus comes to Boscombe, the elephants are just passing the entrance to the Salisbury Hotel

Beckett relinquished ownership of the Grand Pavilion to Aidra Hall and Robert Ayrton in 1898 after he failed to obtain an alcohol licence, which resulted in the new proprietors renaming the venue the Boscombe Grand Theatre. In 1900 it was all change again as the theatrical impresarios Morell and Mouillot took over and staged operas, revues, silent films and plays starring big stars of the day including Sarah Bernhardt, Sir Henry Irving and Lillie Langtry amongst a host of others. In 1905 a further re-branding to the Boscombe Hippodrome occurred and over the next fifty years top stars of music hall such as Marie Lloyd, Harry Lauder the comedians Max Miller, Billy Bennett, Rob Wilton, Charles Hawtrey of Carry On fame, a young Tony Hancock who acted as a compere for the Bournemouth War Services Organisation and the ever popular George Formby graced its stage. However, at the outset not everybody was happy, as some of the more puritanical residents deemed the shows immoral and that the theatre lowered the tone of the town. One shop owner was so incensed that the Hippodrome opened on Sundays, that he erected a statue of Old Nick on his roof opposite with the inscription, “The Devil Comes into His Own”. If the same gentlemen had been around during the war years, he would have been totally scandalised by the bawdy American style glamour revues starring comedians and tableaux’s of stationary naked women that were lapped up by the troops stationed in town prior to D-Day.

Old Nick still looks down on the entrance to the O2 Academy (Photograph John Cherry)

At the cessation of hostilities, the owner of the Chine Hotel in Boscombe Spa Road, Frederick Butterworth, bought the premises and persevered with the traditional variety shows. In 1947 Laurel and Hardy appeared for a twice nightly, week-long engagement and an up-and-coming entertainer called Max Bygraves appeared in the revue For the Fun of It, (Max lived for thirty years in Sandbourne Road, Canford Cliffs before emigrating to Australia in 2003 where he died in 2012). Other unknowns who cut their teeth at the Hippodrome in the years just after the war now reads like a who’s who of British comic talent and include Arthur Askey, Tommy Cooper, Norman Wisdom, Morecambe and Wise, Frankie Howerd and Peter Sellers. 

The Royal Ballrooms in the sixties, before Christchurch Road was pedestrianised

In 1956 Butterworth closed the theatre for a refit and reopened the venue as a dance hall called the Royal Ballrooms, hosting dances, beauty competitions and big band nights with the Hayden Powell Orchestra (signature tune “The Way You Look Tonight”). In March 1962 the manager recognised the changing musical tastes of the younger members of the audience and introduced a ‘Teenbeat Night’ every Tuesday in the disused snooker hall upstairs. Over the next eight months he booked a combination of local and established groups such as Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, Joe Brown and the Bruvvers and Nero and the Gladiators, plus a handful of new bands at the vanguard of the beat boom including Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers and Duke D’Mond and the Baron Knights. In December 1962 a Saturday night was added with the Hayden Powell Orchestra entertaining the mature clientele in the large ballroom downstairs, while local groups whipped up a storm for the youngsters upstairs in what was now renamed the Beat Room. In June 1963 it was all change as the Bill Collins Band took over from Hayden Powell and the format was extended to Tuesday, Thursday and Friday nights with Saturdays becoming ‘Rave Beat Nights’.  

During the mid-sixties the venue hosted the ‘Bandbox Ball’, a biannual event featuring a dozen or more big bands and beat groups playing from 8.00pm to 2.00am in aid of the Musicians Union Benevolent Fund. Back in the day, if a group wanted to play prestigious venues such as the Royal Ballrooms, the Pavilion or one of the larger hotels, they had to be members of the powerful Musicians Union. As the Beat Boom took hold, there was a surge in young pop musicians joining up and becoming fully paid up card carrying members. Later in the decade an active ‘Keep Music Live’ campaign was launched in response to the perceived threat of an embryonic European discothèque scene muscling in on the action. At the time it seemed inconceivable that a bloke spinning a few discs could threaten a musician’s livelihood, but by the seventies that threat had become all too real as live music venues closed and reopened as discos. Since then musicians have had a number of issues to contend with including the loss of earnings from free streaming platforms and although the MU’s influence has gradually been eroded over the years, it still has an important role to play in an ever changing and challenging environment. 

Local group The Impacts playing upstairs in the ‘Beat Room’ at the Royal Ballrooms circa 1964

In 1966 the ballroom managers, Gene and Peggy Rio, rejigged the evenings once again with Mondays becoming ‘Bargain Introduction Night’, Wednesdays, ‘Young at Heart Night’, Fridays, ‘All Ages’ Night’ and Saturdays ‘Palais Night’. By the early seventies it was all change again as the outdated Bill Collins Band was dropped from the Saturday night roster and a ‘Noise 71’ evening was introduced with a live group downstairs, sometimes a name band sometimes local, and a disco upstairs in the Beat Room. Weekends at the ballrooms became a notorious cattle market and pick up joint as pimply, oversexed lads knocked back copious pints of Dutch courage while eyeing the talent dancing around their handbags. Over the years hundreds of long-term relationships were forged in the drink fuelled, smoky atmosphere.

The advent of big name bands appearing at the ballrooms began in 1968 with the utilisation of the facilities by the local Technical and Arts College for their Valentine’s and Christmas dances. The students’ union had their fingers on the musical pulse and contracted up-and-coming bands such as Fleetwood Mac, The Move, Pink Floyd and Status Quo to come down from London. Seeing that bigger names attracted bigger audiences, the management brought in local promoter Mel Bush who introduced ‘Starkers’ club nights on 22nd July 1971 with a gig by The Edgar Broughton Band supported by The Alan Bown. Mel booked internationally known names that were not only familiar with the locals, but also with the large foreign student population in the hope of attracting bigger crowds and his theory paid off, with a number shows selling out within days of being announced. Momentarily, in September, Mel toyed with a name change to ‘Jump’ nights, but reverted back to the ‘Starkers’ brand after a month.

For the next two years a succession of bands such as T. Rex, Chicken Shack, Fleetwood Mac, Deep Purple, Colosseum, Uriah Heep, Free and Hawkwind all made the journey to the coast. In October 1971 Rod Stewart and The Faces came to town for a memorable night of high jinks, frivolity and drunken singalongs. Much the same occurred the following year with the visit of Slade. They may have been a glam pop band and seen by the hairy hoards as too teenybopperish to attract any attention, but they were hot, coming in on the back of three number one records. Whatever misgivings anyone might have had before the show, they were certainly forgotten by the end, as the band took no prisoners with their rousing anthems and nobody could doubt that Noddy Holder was the consummate frontman.

On paper Canned Heat was another gig not to be missed, but unfortunately by the time they arrived in Boscombe, the heart had been ripped out of the band with the recent death of their talisman guitarist, vocalist, chief songwriter and harmonica player Al Wilson. They did their best with guitarist Joel Scott Hill stepping into Wilson’s large shoes, but the magic had gone. Support on several nights came from an unknown trio from Ireland called Thin Lizzy. The band was constantly on the road as they attempted to raise their profile, consequently, for a year or so, they cropped up second on the bill on several occasions in the Bournemouth area. In 1972 they finally achieved a breakthrough chartwise with the traditional Irish ballad “Whiskey in the Jar” and the rest, as they, is history.

The final two gigs that must be mentioned were by probably the biggest bands that ever played the venue. David Bowie and the Spiders from Mars, in the guise of Ziggy Stardust, made their third of four visits to Bournemouth (the other three being at the Winter Gardens and Chelsea Village) and most memorably on 2nd December 1971, Led Zeppelin pulled into town with tickets costing a princely £1. An intimate gig for a band of their stature was a tremendous coup for Mel Bush, as they were at a stage in their career where they were easily selling out large arenas and stadiums across America, but nevertheless, they delivered a stonking sixteen song set stuffed with tracks from their latest release, Led Zep Four. 

The ‘Starkers’ club nights ended when Butterworth leased the ballrooms to Mecca in December 1972, who turned the venue into a discothèque called Tiffany’s, later it was taken over by Rank. In 1982 it became the Academy and then in 1997 the Opera House. In the nineties, dance DJ’s took over, as trance and house music became de rigueur and the club operated under the Slinky brand until Frederick’s son, John Butterworth, took back the lease in 2006 with a plan to revert the ballrooms back to a theatre and live music venue.

The £3.5 million renovation work to restore the ballroom near’s completion in 2007

After a wonderfully anarchic gig by the reformed Bonzo Dog Band the following year, the Grade 2 listed building closed for a £3.5 million refurbishment that included reinstating an upper balcony that had been closed for years and restoring the ornate Victorian plaster work. Six months later it opened under the auspices of the O2 franchise and is back hosting live music again for the foreseeable future.

If you have any memories you would like to share of the Royal Ballrooms, please use the contact box at the bottom of this page

The Royal Ballrooms, has been the O2 Academy since 2006 (Photograph John Cherry)
Back to its glorious best, inside the revamped O2 Academy in 2018 (Photographs John Cherry)

Bands of note that played the Royal Ballrooms:

Blossom Toes (Jim Cregan on guitar who attended Poole Grammar school and went on to play with Steve Harley’s Cockney Rebel and Rod Stewart. He now lives in Christchurch)

Brian Poole and the Tremeloes (Had a number one with “Do You Love Me”)

Canned Heat (American blues band. Unfortunately by the time the Heat came to the Ballrooms their talisman, Al Wilson, had committed suicide)

Chicken Shack (Stan Webb and an ever-changing line-up)

Cliff Bennett and the Rebel Rousers (Hit big with The Beatles “Got to Get You into My Life”)

David Bowie and the Spiders From Mars (Ziggy Stardust lands in Boscombe)

Dave Dee and the Bostons (Salisbury band, became Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich)

Deep Purple (Bloody loud and bloody good)

Duke D’Mond and the Baron Knights (Jokey Beat Boomers)

Eire Apparent (A quartet from Northern Ireland who released one album produced by Jimi Hendrix)

Fleetwood Mac (Peter Green and the boys, say no more)

Free (Superior blues quartet, had a huge hit with “All Right Now”)

Hawkwind (Counterculture space rockers, Lemmy on bass)

Heads Hands and Feet (Albert Lee on guitar, Chas Hodges on bass)

Idle Race (Jeff Lynne on guitar went on to form ELO with Roy Wood and became a Travelling Wilbury)

Keef Hartley Band (Drummer Keef Hartley came through the ranks of John Mayall’s Bluebreakers)

Joe Brown and the Bruvvers (Remarkably, Joe is still going today and celebrating sixty years on the road)

Johnny Kidd and the Pirates (Recorded “Shaking All Over”, one of the best British rock ‘n’ roll records)

Jon Hiseman’s Colosseum (Excellent jazz rock band)

Led Zeppelin (Rock behemoth descends on Boscombe)

Love Affair (Remembered for “Everlasting Love” which the band admitted they didn’t play on except for singer Steve Ellis. The admission caused much controversy in the tabloids)

Love Sculpture (One hit wonders with “Sabre Dance”, Dave Edmunds on guitar)

Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (Still on the road just like Davy)

Mick Abrahams Band (Original Jethro Tull guitarist strikes out on his own after leaving Blodwyn Pig)

Mike Berry and the Outlaws (More known for his acting than his singing, Mike was Mr Spooner in Are You Being Served)

Mott the Hoople (Cult favourites, best known for their version of Bowie’s “All the Young Dudes”)

Nero and the Gladiators (Instrumental group from the early sixties)

Pink Floyd (Early gig for the Floyd)

Rory Gallagher (The Ballyshannon guitar slinger)

Slade (Noddy and the gang, terrific live band)

Status Quo (Still boogieing after all these years with Francis Rossi the only original member)

T Rex (The bopping elf comes to town)

The Alan Bown (Mel Collins of King Crimson, Robert Palmer and Jess Roden plus John Helliwell and Dougie Thomson of Supertramp were all members)

The Edgar Broughton Band (Counterculture rabble-rousers)

The Faces (Rod and the boys could always be relied on for a riotous party)

The Groundhogs (Tony McPhee’s grungy blues trio)

The Kinks (An incredible fifteen top twenty hits for the Muswell Hillbillies)

The Move (Roy Wood’s quintet, nine top twenty singles)

The Troggs (Early sighting of Andover’s finest)

Thin Lizzy (The boys are back in town)

Uriah Heep (Lee Kerslake hometown gig)

Van Der Graaf Generator (Proggy noiseniks)

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