Yorkshire entertainment: The Batley Variety Club
It all started with two Yorkshiremen, James Corrigan and Peter Fleming. Both were from fairground families so they knew a thing or two about entertaining the public. James was married to a girl from Batley in Yorkshire and his new wife Betty and his friend Peter joined him in their dream – to bring Las Vegas-style entertainment to the sleepy Yorkshire town of Batley.
Batley was not an exciting place. Its similarity to Las Vegas was, well, non-existent.
Nevertheless our heroes wanted to start a club there providing the sort of entertainment that the town had never seen before.
You’d think it was a crazy dream. You’d think it would be a spectacular failure. You’d be wrong. Batley Variety Club became an enormous success and today, stories about the club in its heyday are legendary.
Performers were tempted not just from all over Britain but from the States too. It appealed to them, and it appealed to the general public. People would arrive from far flung places in the UK to experience an evening of Batley entertainment. It was a whole new concept.
What sort of stars? Oh, people like Louis Armstrong, Neil Sedaka, Jayne Mansfield….
Not all the people who entertained at Batley are still with us but those who are invariably speak fondly of their time there. Corrigan was an excellent host – to both his stars and his customers – and his wealth grew. Before long he had a luxury home and both he and his wife drove Rolls Royces.
In his new luxury residence, he personally entertained the singers and musicians. He made sure that the house had every luxury. It’s funny to think of people like Diana Ross relaxing with a drink sitting relaxing on a bearskin rug in Batley!
From the outside, the club looked less than magnificent. You can imagine that the performers, who were used to Vegas, were a little nonplussed to say the least when they arrived there. It looked like a crummy industrial warehouse. But even today, those performers recount how they loved the Yorkshire audiences and James Corrigan with his natural manner and his humour.
People came from miles around. They would have no chance of ever going to Las Vegas, or even a top London club but thanks to Corrigan, the stars came to them.
Here are a few stories from those days.
The Shirley Bassey ‘car park story’.
Shirley was an enormous star at the time and she performed regularly at Batley Variety Club. They used to call her ‘the goddess of Batley’ back in those days.
She had a special clause written into her contract insisting that the bars be closed when she was on stage. She wanted the audience to concentrate on her, not on beer.
So before she performed, the bar was crazy – as people bought half a dozen drinks to enjoy when the bar was shut.
There’s a famous story told about her. That is that one evening, after her performance, she chased a trumpet player from the band across the parking lot.
Some said that this was because she’d heard him playing some bum notes during her act. Other sources say that her interest in the handsome and charming trumpet player was of a much more interesting reason. Shirley always said that she didn’t recall ever chasing a trumpet player – at Batley or anywhere else.
Were you there? Do you know? Are you that trumpet player??? Tell all.
If you remember Jayne Mansfield, you’ll know that she was what was then called a blonde bombshell.She was American and definitely cast in the Monroe mould. In fact, she apparently had an affair with John Kennedy in his pre-Monroe days
As you can see in the photograph here, she had two huge assets that made her very popular indeed. Jayne loved the UK – she’d first been there when promoting some of her earlier films – and in return, the audiences at the Batley Variety Club loved her.
When she performed at Batley, she would not just confine herself to the club. She was popular in the area because she would perform for the inmates at Armley Jail in nearby Leeds, she’d attend local events and even turn up at the local chippie.
One of her publicity releases was careful to tell the world that she never wore underwear when she was on stage – I’m sure that the Yorkshiremen in the audience appreciated this.
Two months after she’d been on stage in Batley, Jayne Mansfield was killed in an accident. She was only thirty four. But her legend is still alive in Batley to this day.
Tiny Tim was a curious act. He too was American and he was an unappealing looking chap who ‘sang’ in a weird falsetto voice. He was popular in the USA so he was invited to play at the Variety Club. This was a mistake.
We will never know what he thought about Batley Variety Club but we know what they audience thought of him.
Because he was well known in America, the management of the club presumably thought he would be a success in Yorkshire too but they were sadly mistaken.
The audience were simply baffled by the strange looking man plonking on a ukulele with no evident musical skills. But when he began to sing Land of Hope and Glory in his unmusical screech, the audience could take no more.
One man, an ex member of the Coldstream Guards acted for them all when he took offence at this strange person massacring a British patriotic song and jumped on the stage to tell him so. The club’s bouncers were obliged to restrain him. But we know that Tiny Tim was rather affronted by this as he promptly cancelled his UK tour and fled home to the States – to the relief of all.
The ex-Coldstream Guard was rather disappointed too. He said that he’s been looking forward to shoving the microphone down Tiny Tim’s warbling throat.
Chicken in a basket – the height of sophistication
Yes, food was served at the Batley Variety Club, all included in the price. To get into the club and to enjoy the acts and your chicken in a basket meal, you’d pay five shillings. That was what is now 25 pence – one quarter of a British pound. The club did not only provide the best in entertainment. For the price of admission, you also received a meal. Admission prices depended on the act but it ranged from five bob (a quarter of a GB pound) to double that if a really top entertainer was performing.
What was chicken in a basket? Well, to save on staff, this was a thin plastic disposable dish, lined with greaseproof paper containing pieces of fried chicken and surrounded with a load of chips. Soon, this gourmet delight was joined by cod and chips in a basket and then the true height of sophistication, scampi and chips. By gum, we didn’t half live.
- American Eartha Kitt enjoyed Batley. She would go to the local market and chat (and sing) with locals
- Fellow American Gene Pitney said that Batley had a certain atmosphere that he had never come across before in his career. (I bet)
- Often, the performers would stay with the Corrigans in their home. Lulu recalls their huge kitchen. Dame Vera Lynn pleased James Corrigan with her cooking but he found Eartha Kitt’s culinary creations too spicy.
- James was known as a practical joker. He told Shirley Bassey that he was going to take her out to dinner. She dressed in her finest gown and most expensive jewellery and he took her to a fish and chip shop
Of course, it was almost inevitable that others would try to replicate the Batley Variety Club. So other clubs cropped up nearby – the Wakefield Theatre Club for example and the Fiesta in Sheffield. So now there were three local clubs all trying to outdo each other and get the best performers. Price wars began. Some artistes were loyal to Batley – Shirley Bassey was, and refused to play for the competition. But others did.
Admission prices had to be put up as the stars demanded more money for appearing. This was the beginning of the end for the club.
Batley Variety Club opened its doors in 1966 and closed in 1978.
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