Posts Tagged ‘jazz’

Mary Quant, the Miniskirt and the Chelsea Palace on the King’s Road

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

Mary Quant, 1963

These days the King’s Road looks not unlike many other high-streets across the country, albeit a bit posher. If you stroll down the road you’ll see, just like anywhere else, Boots, McDonald’s and the ubiquitous coffee-shop chains.  In fact, always a trend-setter, the King’s Road was where Starbucks chose to open its first ever UK coffee-shop in 1998.

The Kings Road has earned its notoriety for setting rather more exciting trends than over-priced milky coffee of course and it was here that perhaps the most celebrated fashion-statement of the last century really took off – the mini-skirt.

Everybody knows that Mary Quant invented the mini-skirt. Except she didn’t. In reality nobody really knows for sure who produced the diminutive garment first. Some say it was John Bates, famous for dressing Diana Rigg in The Avengers so memorably. Others say it was the French designer Andre Courreges, although Quant would later write: “Maybe Courreges did do mini-skirts first, but if he did, no one wore them.”

There is no doubt that skirts were getting shorter each year in the early to mid-sixties but this was almost certainly to do with technological advances that enabled tights to be produced relatively cheaply than anything else.

It is, however, almost universally accepted that Quant invented the word ‘mini-skirt’ after naming her version of the short skirt she was designing after her favourite car – the Mini. Even this isn’t exactly true as the Daily Express and other papers used the term in the 1920s to describe the relatively short skirts of the era. It is interesting to note that in Quant’s first autobiography ‘Quant by Quant’, published in 1966, the word ‘mini-skirt’ isn’t even mentioned.

Although it was the first British Starbucks that opened at 128 King’s Road in 1998 it wasn’t the first coffee shop that opened on the premises. This was the Fantasie coffee bar which opened at the beginning of 1955, admittedly a year or so after Gina Lollobigida opened the Moka espresso cafe at 29 Frith Street, but still one of the first coffee bars in London and certainly outside Soho.

Fantasie coffee bar in 1955. A screen grab from the film Food for a Blush – released in 1959 but filmed in 1955/6

Starbucks on the King’s Road today

It was owned by an ex-solicitor called Archie McNair who lived above the cafe. He also had a photographic studio in the premises used by a young team of photographers one of whom included the young Anthony Armstrong-Jones later, of course, to become Lord Snowdon the husband of Princess Margaret.

It was at the Fantasie that McNair and his friends Mary Quant and her boyfriend Alexander Plunket Greene worked on a plan to open a boutique on the Kings Road. “It was to be a bouillabaisse of clothes and accessories…sweaters, scarves, shifts, hats, jewellery and peculiar odds and ends,” wrote Quant years later.

McNair initially had asked Quant and Plunket Greene to help him with starting up Fantasie but they declined both thinking that coffee bars were to be a flash in the pan. A decision they’d regret as it became crowded every night with a large group of young people who would become known as the Chelsea Set. In the evening vodka was occasionally and illegally added to the drinks and a local Chelsea-based band called the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group regularly played there. Both of which contributed to the big success of the cafe.

Chas McDevitt

Quant romantically wrote about the ‘Chelsea Set’ of the time describing a bohemian world of ‘painters, photographers, architects, writers, socialites, actors, con-men, and superior tarts’ although the author Len Deighton described the same people as ‘a nasty and roaring offshoot of the deb world’ (it seems they have never left). Deighton was upset how the new crowd ending up replacing ‘an amiable mixture of arty rich and bohemian poor’ who, rather horrifically, all had to move out of the best parts of Chelsea beyond World’s End and even to ‘cisalpine Fulham’.

In 1955 McNair and Plunket Greene managed to buy the basement and groundfloor of Markham House on the corner of Markham Square and next door to a grotty pub called the Markham Arms (now a Santander bank). They paid just £8000 for the freehold.

Bazaar

Bazaar in 1955

Bazaar and the Markham Arms (now a Santander bank) today

The King’s Road in 1958. The Bluebird Garage can be seen down the road at numbers 330-350. The garage was opened in 1923 and was the largest in Europe with room for 300 cars in the main garage.

The King’s Road today-ish. The garage is now a restaurant of course.

The shop, which they called Bazaar, opened in November 1955 and was an almost immediate success with the stock flying out of the door. Although initially this was partly to do with naively selling their clothes and accessories too cheaply thus not only losing money on everything they sold but also upsetting the local shops and their wholesalers by undercutting the fixed retail prices.

It wasn’t long, however, that the trio of entrepreneurs realised that by luck they were on to a huge thing:

We were in at the beginning of a tremendous renaissance in fashion. It was not happening because of us. It was simply that, as things turned out, we were a part of it.

Mary Quant and Alexander Plunket Green

Mary Quant and APG worked incredibly hard. They had also opened a restaurant in the basement of Markham House which soon became the place to come to in Chelsea. But if they worked hard they also played hard – incredibly they were still both only twentyone.

According to Quant the couple always found time to visit the music hall shows at the Chelsea Palace theatre down the road from Bazaar. At the time the shows were often slightly risqué in nature.  “We went once a week” said Mary. “the Chelsea Palace chorus girls wore very naughty fur bikini knickers.”

It must have been a very funny show…

Paul Raymond’s ‘Burlesque’ was performed at the Chelsea Palace in 1955

Burlesque by Paul Raymond – how kind of Jeye’s Fluid to sponsor the show (see the bottom of the bill)

Chelsea Palace of Varieties

The Chelsea Palace of Varieties had opened for business in 1903 at 232-42 King’s Road on the corner of Sydney Street opposite the Town Hall. It seated 2524 people. Marie Lloyd appeared there in 1909 and performed an act so vulgar that a complaint was made to the London County Council.

By 1923 it started to be used as a cinema as well as showing straight plays and ballets. In 1925 it was taken over by Variety Theatres Consolidated and from then until its closure in March 1957 it presented live theatre, often of a risque nature. One of the shows put on in 1955 called ‘Burlesque’ was produced by Paul Raymond at the beginning of his  career.

During the latter part of 1956 the Chelsea Palace ran a Radio Luxembourg talent competition  and it was won for four weeks in a row by the Fantasie coffee shop regulars – the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group. McDevitt described his flat in Chelsea at the time:

The flat I the King’s Road was an ideal pad in an ideal position. It provided a haven for many an itinerant jazzer, visiting American folkies and unsuspecting embryo groupies.

During the Chelsea Palace talent contests McDevitt met a twenty year old Glaswegian singer called Anne Wilson whose stage name was Nancy Whiskey.

Within six months Nancy Whiskey and McDevitt’s skiffle group had recorded a single called Freight Train. Amazingly, to most people concerned, it actually ended up in the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. They even appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in the US along side the Everly Brothers six years before the Beatles’ famous appearance.

The particularly British institution of skiffle only lasted two or three years perhaps but its influence was long-lasting. It was a do-it-yourself reaction to the bland mediocrity that many young people felt about the popular music of the time. This was echoed twenty years later in the mid-seventies with punk which had a lot of similarities with skiffle. The Kings Road played its part in that too.

With his new success Chas McDevitt opened his own coffee bar in Berwick Street in Soho which he called, of course, the Freight Train coffee bar.

The swinging sixties were a bit of a myth this is what the King’s Road really looked like.

The King’s Road: Sundays weren’t for shopping in the Sixties

In 1957 the Chelsea Palace was renamed the Chelsea Granada and was to become a cinema. Although almost immediately the building was leased to Granada Television, within the same company, and the stalls in the theatre were replaced by a studio floor and it became Granada Studio 10 for the next eight years to augment the specially built studio complex in Manchester.

Sidney Bernstein, who with his brother Cecil owned Granada and which had recently won the franchise license to broadcast commercial television in the north west of England, numbered their studios by just using even numbers. This was simply so as to appear they owned more studios than they did.

It was actually the last of the London theatre to TV studio conversions. The Shepherd’s Bush Empire was now a BBC studio and Associated Television had already converted the Hackney Empire and the Wood Green Empire.

Incidentally it was at the Wood Green theatre in 1918 that the American magician known as Chung Ling Soo, (or William Robinson as he was really called) was tragically shot and fatally injured while performing his infamous act which involved catching (or not) a bullet between his teeth.

His last words were “Oh my God. Something’s happened. Lower the curtain.” It shocked everyone. Not so much that he had been shot but that he wasn’t Chinese and spoke perfect English.

William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo, told almost no one that he wasn’t Chinese.

Boris Karloff wonders ‘Who Killed Chung Ling Soo’.

Studio 10 was used for the long running and extremely popular comedy series – the Army Game which ran for five years from 1957. An incredible 154 episodes were broadcast and the cast included many that would become household names for decades to come – Alfie Bass, Geoffrey Palmer, Bill Fraser, Dick Emery and Bernard Bresslaw and the writers included a young John Junkin, Marty Feldman and Barry Took.

The Army Game

Another very popular show that came from Granada’s King’s Road studio was the variety show called Chelsea at Nine. It ran for three series and purposely took advantage of the studio’s location in the capital to feature artists that were appearing in town. This meant that sometimes you would get one of the finest jazz musicians on earth playing after a comedian that would struggle to get on the end of a bill in Skegness.

Ella Fitzgerald once had to introduce an act who was appearing after her on the show as ‘the world’s greatest song and dance spoons man’. She laughed and laughed and simply couldn’t do it.

On the 23rd of February 1959 a very gaunt and very unsteady Billie Holiday was helped up on stage and performed three songs. Strange Fruit, Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone and I Loves You Porgy. Luckily for us the shows were by then being recorded but they proved to be the last she ever made and she died just five months later of cirrhosis of the liver in a New York hospital on 17th July. Only Strange Fruit and I Loves You Porgy still survive.

Billie Holiday – I Loves You Porgy

The Chelsea Palace was shamefully demolished by developers in 1966 after Granada vacated the premises. If one day you’re buying a sofa in Heals which is situated on the corner of the King’s Road and Sydney Street where the Chelsea Palace once stood, you might take a few moments to note that one of the world’s greatest ever singers sang a few songs maybe just where you’re standing.

Heals today and not the Chelsea Palace

King’s Road in 1967

By the time the Chelsea Palace was demolished the miniskirt was ubiquitous on the King’s Road and pretty well everywhere else. In the ten years since she and APK had opened Bazaar she had become an international success. Quant and her clothes were an integral part of the so-called Swinging London. At the age of 32, dressed of course in a miniskirt, she received an OBE from the Queen.

Brilliant Pathé footage of Mary Quant in 1967

Loudon Wainwright who wrote a column for Life magazine and was based in London

In 1967 Loudon Wainwright, father of Loudon Wainwright III and grandfather to Rufus and Martha was working in London for Life magazine. In his column called ‘The View From Here’ he wrote:

Until very recently one of my least crucial handicaps has been a sort of built-in propriety which, for example has forced me to avert my eyes whenever I say that a lady was going to have difficulty with her skirt. By difficulty I mean that the skirt was threatening to go up too high – in a chair, in the wind, as its owner disembarked from a taxi.

Loudon continues…

I’m not sure how this propriety has survived the miniskirt fashions…but a few days of lovely spring weather in London have abolished it forever. The balmy sunshine there brought out the miniskirts in mind-reeling profusion. The town was positively atwinkle with thighs…the training of years misspent in the useless protection of female modesty betrayed me, and I had to learn how to stare. Yet soon the delightful truth that I was supposed to notice -  burst upon me..

A few months later Mary Quant was interviewed in the Guardian

That’s the thing about today’s fashions – they’re sexy to look at but really more puritan than they’ve ever been. In European countries where they ban mini-skirts in the streets and say they’re an invitation to rape, they don’t understand about stocking tights underneath.

Miniskirts and men outside Bazaar in 1966/7

Mary Quant and APG in 1964

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The Cafe de Paris, the Trial of Elvira Barney and the death of Snakehips Johnson

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009
Elvira Barney after her trial in 1932

Elvira Barney arriving at her parents house at 6 Belgrave Square, 7th July 1932

Visiting England apparently on a whim and a year before she appeared in her first film late in 1925, Louise Brooks became a dancer at the Cafe de Paris in Coventry Street. She was just seventeen and it was here that she reputedly became the first person to dance the Charleston in London. The Piccadilly nightclub had quickly become fashionable with London society after it had opened in December 1924, not least because the Prince of Wales became a regular visitor.

Brooks later wrote about the so-called ‘Bright Young Things’ she had met during her time in London and waspishly described them as a ‘dreadful, moribund lot’. She added that when Evelyn Waugh wrote Vile Bodies about them, only a genius could have made a masterpiece out of such glum material.

The Cafe de Paris in 1932

The Cafe de Paris in 1932

Louise Brooks in 1924

Louise Brooks in 1924

Marion Harris in London in 1932

Marion Harris in London in 1932

In May 1932, and eight years after Brooks danced in front of the rich and famous at the Cafe de Paris, the celebrated American singer Marion Harris was in the middle of one of her long engagements at the night club. Harris was known to audiences at the time as the first white woman to sing the blues and after moving to England at the beginning of the thirties was performing to great success in London. The Prince of Wales was actually a big fan and often came to see her sing. One night after she had performed, the manager came into her dressing room excitedly announcing that the Prince had been so impressed that he would like her to have a drink at his table. Miss Harris coolly declined, telling him that “If your customers get to know you too well, they don’t come back and pay money to see you. The illusion is destroyed.”

She may have been on stage singing ‘the blues’ – the acts began their set at eleven – when just after midnight on 30th May 1932 an intoxicated couple (both of whom would have undoubtedly considered themself a Bright Young Thing), entered the famous West End night for a rather late supper.

The couple were Elvira Barney and her louche bisexual lover Michael Stephen and they had travelled by cab to Coventry Street after holding one of their numerous parties at the home they shared in Williams Mews just off Lowndes Square in Knightsbridge. After they had finished their meal at the Cafe de Paris and had further drinks at The Blue Angel in Dean Street they returned back home in the early hours of that morning.

It wasn’t long before the neighbours, not for the first time, started to hear screaming and yelling from the first floor and Elvira was reported to have shouted:

“Get out, get out! I will shoot you! I will shoot you!’

Almost immediately the street heard the report of a pistol shot echoing into the night and almost immediately a neighbour heard Barney crying

“Chicken, chicken, come back to me. I will do anything you want me to.”

At about 4.50am, after a frantic call to his house just ten minutes earlier, Doctor Thomas Durrant arrived at 21 Williams Mews and came across Barney continually repeating:

“He wanted to see you to tell you it was only an accident. He wanted to see you to tell you it was only an accident.”

On the stairs, shot in the chest at close range, lay a distinctly moribund Michael Stephen.

‘There was a terrible barney at no. 21′, a neighbour later told the police, apparently unconscious of the pun.

Michael Stephen

Michael Stephen

21 William Mews and a dead Michael Stephen

21 William Mews and a dead Michael Stephen

21 Williams Mews today, the name seems to have gained an 's' in it seventies development

21 William Mews today

Macdonald Hastings wrote about the fatal evening in his book The Other Mr Churchill, (this Mr Churchill was a forgotten about firearms expert and not the prestigious Prime Minister) and he described the police being incredibly shocked when they entered the mews house:

‘Over the cocktail bar in the corner of the sitting room there was a wall painting which would have been a sensation in a brothel in Pompeii. The library was furnished with publications which could never have passed through His Majesty’s Customs. The place was equipped with the implements of fetishism and perversion.’

Shocked or not, and despite Elvira at one point striking Inspector Campion in the face saying: “I will teach you to say you will put me in a cell, you vile swine,” after she had made her statement, the police, obviously knowing their place, simply allowed her to go back to her family home at nearby 6 Belgrave Square. She was accompanied by her parents, Sir John and Lady Mullens.

Four years previously, a twenty-three year old Elvira, despite her parents protestations, had married an American singer and entertainer called John Sterling Barney. When they met, at a society function held by Lady Mullens, he had been performing in a ‘top-hat, white-tie and tails’ trio called The Three New-Yorkers. They were relatively successful in the UK at the time and often played at the Cafe de Paris.

The Three New Yorkers at The Cafe de Paris - John Barney is on the left

The Three New Yorkers at The Cafe de Paris - John Barney is on the left

The Three New Yorkers and a couple of Bell-boys

The Three New Yorkers and a couple of Bell-boys

By many accounts the facile John Barney was a rather unpleasant man and a friend of Elvira’s once recalled:

“One day she held her arms in the air and the burns she displayed – there and elsewhere – were, she insisted, the work of her husband who had delighted in crushing his lighted cigarettes out from time to time on her bare skin.”

Violent rows started within weeks of the marriage and after a few months the American returned back to the United States never really to be heard of again. Elvira, according to her biographer Peter Cotes, went off the rails and ‘started sniffing the snow…and became the demanding but generous mistress of a number of disorientated and sexually odd lovers.’ Unfortunately he doesn’t really go into any more detail but the description goes someway to explain how, at the start of 1932, she ended up sharing her bed (and her bank account) with the drug-dealing ‘dress-designer’ Michael Scott Stephen.

Sir John Mullens, with his society connections managed to persuade the former Attorney-General Sir Patrick Hastings to defend his daughter. Hastings, in his early fifties, was at the height of his fame as a Kings Council and towards the end of the trial made a final address to the jury, that the judge – a Mr Justice Humphreys – later called the best he had ever heard.

The Honourable Mr Justice Humphreys on the way to court

The Honourable Mr Justice Humphreys picking up a London Metro on the way to court

Sir Patrick Hastings on the cover of Time in 1924

Sir Patrick Hastings on the cover of Time in 1924

The jury must have also been impressed with Sir Patrick’s speech and after two hours returned a not guilty verdict. On his way out of the court Mr Justice Humpheys exclaimed:

‘Most extraordinary! Apparently we should have given her a pat on the back!’

The jury had acquitted her but Fleet Street weren’t going to let her off that easily and they gleefully reported that Elvira Mullens (the name she had reverted to) had shouted on the dance floor of the Cafe de Paris soon after the court case,

‘I am the one who shot her lover – so take a good look at me.’

Sir Patrick Hastings described Elvira during the trial as ‘a young woman with the rest of her life before her’. Unfortunately the rest of her life lasted a only four short years and she was found dead in a Parisian hotel room. After a typical long night of drinking and taking cocaine she had decided to return back to her room complaining that she felt cold and unwell. She was discovered later that night half on her bed, half off, with signs of haemorrhage around her mouth. The years of drinking and drug-taking had finally taken their toll.

The police holding back the crowd at the Old Bailey during the trial of Elvira Barney

The police holding back the crowd at the Old Bailey during the trial of Elvira Barney

Marion Harris in New York

Marion Harris in New York

Not long after Elvira Barney’s death in Paris, Marion Harris retired from showbusiness and married a successful English theatrical agent called Leonard Urry. In early 1944 their home in Rutland Street (just a few hundred yards west of Williams Mews) was razed to the ground by a V1 flying bomb.

Harris returned to America completely traumatised and never really recovered from seeing her home completely destroyed. On Sunday, April 23, 1944, alone in a New York hotel room she fell asleep while smoking a cigarette. It set the room alight and it was never disclosed whether she died of burns or suffocation from the smoke.

The Cafe de Paris, unlike the majority of theatres and nightclubs in the West End, remained open at the start of the second world war. This was probably because of the rich and famous patrons having a slight influence on the wartime licensing regulations, however it was said that the dance-floor was so far underground that it would be completely safe when the air-raid sirens sounded.

Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson

Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson

On Saturday 8th March 1941 Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson and the West Indian Orchestra were playing at the Cafe de Paris as usual. While carefully not mentioning the actual club or the band leader (due to wartime censorship) Time magazine reported what happened subsequently:

The orchestra at London’s Cafe de Paris gaily played Oh, Johnny, Oh Johnny, How You Can Love! At the tables handsome flying Johnnies, naval Jacks in full dress, guardsmen, territorials, and just plain civics sat making conversational love. The service men were making the most of leave; the civilians were making the most of the lull in bombings of London.

Sirens had sounded. Most of London had descended into shelters, but to those in the cabaret, time seemed too dear to squander underground. Bombs began to fall near by: it was London’s worst night raid in weeks. The orchestra played Oh, Johnny a little louder.

Then the hit came. What had been a nightclub became a nightmare: heaps of wreckage crushing the heaps of dead and maimed, a shambles of silver slippers, broken magnums, torn sheet music, dented saxophones, smashed discs.

A special constable with the rather splendid name Ballard Berkeley was one of the first on the scene. He saw Snakehips Johnson decapitated and elegantly dressed people still sitting at tables seemingly almost in conversation, but stone dead. He was shocked to see looters, mingling with the firemen and the police, cutting the fingers from the dead to get at their expensive rings. Ballard Berkeley many years later became famous as the actor who played the major in Fawlty Towers.

Cafe de Paris, 9th March 1941

Cafe de Paris, 9th March 1941

cafe-de-paris-with-guitar1

In 1929 British International Pictures released Piccadilly starring the beautiful Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong. The scene where Wong’s character Shosho performs her exotic dance in front of an adoring nightclub crowd was filmed in location at the Cafe de Paris. The film also includes a brief appearance from Charles Laughton playing a gluttonous diner – his first feature film performance.

In 1948, the Cafe de Paris was refurbished and seven years after the tragic death of Snakehips Johnson the doors reopened. Although it was again graced by royalty, notably Princess Margaret, the club never really regained its sophisticated aura it had before the war.

The only evening of note I can find was on 29th September 1965 when Lionel Blair introduced, to an extremely grateful public no doubt, his new dance called ‘The Kick’.I’m not sure but I don’t think it was a storming success.

Lionel Blair accompanied by Cilla Black, Joe Loss and Billy J Kramer dance 'The Kick'

Lionel Blair accompanied by Cilla Black, Joe Loss and Billy J Kramer dance 'The Kick' at the Cafe de Paris in 1965

Billie Holiday – These Foolish Things

Al Bowlly – Dinner For One Please, James

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