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
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.
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.
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 which, according to a review of the day, had the audience “Rocking with laughter from the time they made their appearance until their exit”. An up-and-coming entertainer called Max Bygraves also appeared in a revue called For the Fun of It (Max lived in Sandbourne Road, Canford Cliffs for thirty years before emigrating to Australia in 2003 where he died in 2012). Other unknowns who cut their teeth at the Hippodrome 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.
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’.
The Bill Collins Band consisted of four saxophone players, three trumpeters, a keyboard player, guitarist, bass player, a drummer and over the years, a number of vocalists including Pam Dawson and Johnnie Michelle. Incredibly the band were a mainstay at the Royal Ballrooms from 1963 through to the early seventies, appearing six nights week with only Sunday’s off for a well earned rest. Bill claimed business improved by sixty per cent a matter of months after his band took over the residency, which he put down to the special scores he had written up specially for his musicians.
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.
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’. 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. 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.
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 of 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, in the guise of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, 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, 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.
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
Bands of note that played the Royal Ballrooms. Have I missed any ? Please contact me using the box below.
The Alan Bown (Mel Collins of King Crimson, Robert Palmer and Jess Roden plus John Helliwell and Dougie Thomson of Supertramp were all members)
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”)
Dave Dee and the Bostons (Salisbury band, became Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich)
Deep Purple (Crowned the loudest band in the world in 1972 when they hit 117 decibels at London’s Rainbow Theatre)
Duke D’Mond and the Baron Knights (Jokey Beat Boomers)
The Edgar Broughton Band (Counterculture rabble-rousers)
Eire Apparent (A quartet from Northern Ireland who released one album produced by Jimi Hendrix)
The Faces (Rod and the boys could always be relied on for a riotous party)
Fleetwood Mac (Peter Green and the boys, say no more)
Free (Superior blues quartet, had a huge hit with “All Right Now”)
The Groundhogs (Tony McPhee’s grungy blues trio)
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 before becoming a Travelling Wilbury)
Keef Hartley Band (Drummer Keef Hartley came through the ranks of John Mayall’s Bluebreakers)
Joe Brown and the Bruvvers (Joe undertook a farewell tour in 2021 after completing over 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)
The Kinks (An incredible fifteen top twenty hits for the Muswell Hillbillies)
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 (Manfred Mann’s band after Manfred Mann, if you see what I mean)
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 David Bowie’s “All the Young Dudes”)
The Move (Roy Wood’s quintet, nine top twenty singles)
Nero and the Gladiators (Instrumental group from the early sixties)
Pink Floyd (Early gig for the Floyd, Syd Barrett on guitar)
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 Troggs (Early sighting of Andover’s finest)
Thin Lizzy (The boys are back in town)
Uriah Heep (Drummer Lee Kerslake came from Winton)
Van Der Graaf Generator (Proggy noiseniks)
Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (David Bowie brings his alter ego to Boscombe)