Nostalgia with Margaret Watson: Our ‘Las Vegas of the North’!

Batley Variety Club played host to huge stars

Thursday, 28th October 2021, 9:08 pm
Updated Thursday, 28th October 2021, 9:10 pm
SELL OUT: The hugely popular singer Shirley Bassey performing at the Batley Variety Club

Few people of my generation living in this locality will ever forget Batley Variety Club.

It was something which came into our lives at a time when the golden screen was losing its lustre and cinemas throughout the district were closing down.

A night in front of the telly and an occasional visit to the pub was becoming the main evening entertainment for many of us.

That was until the Batley Variety Club came along and suddenly we were swept up into a world of glamour most of us had never experienced before.

Famous names like Shirley Bassey, Louis Armstrong and Dusty Springfield were appearing weekly on our doorstep.

Not only were we entertained by famous stars in luxurious surroundings seated on plush chairs, but also able to enjoy chicken in a basket for the first time.

I remember seeing Frankie Vaughan there and coming home not only impressed by him but also a couple of unknown comedians appearing that night.

Before even mentioning how Frankie had gone down I told my husband to start looking out for the names ‘Little and Large’ because these young men were going places. And they did.

The club had been built in 1967 on the site of the old sewage works on Bradford Road, just over the border from Dewsbury.

Overnight this glamorous new club had put the small textile town of Batley on the map and was welcoming stars from all over the world.

True, Dewsbury in its heyday could boast the Empire Theatre which had once attracted major stars, but that had been many years before.

Dewsbury had also boasted that Cliff Richard appeared live at the Pioneer Cinema, and Englebert Humperdink had once serenaded members of Eastborough Working Men’s Club before he became famous.

The story of the rise and fall of the Batley Variety Club has been written many times and I don’t have space to write further on it this week, or to name all the famous stars who appeared there.

Suffice to say it was the dream of one man, James Corrigan, who had come from a fairground family, and had married a Batley girl, Betty Wimpenny, who shared his dream.

At the time James was in business leading windows, going round the district knocking on doors to drum up trade.

He knocked one day on the door of my mother-in-law’s house and asked if he could do hers. But he hadn’t the money to pay for the lead so could she please pay up front, which she did.

Who could have imagined that a few years later he would be a millionaire and live in a mansion in Soothill?

Or that among his house guests would be some of the biggest names in showbusiness, like Roy Orbison, Eartha Kitt and Jayne Mansfield?

The lives of many local people were touched by the stars who visited the club in various ways.

I remember a friend coming back to work after lunch and saying she’d just bumped into Shirley Bassey in Boots Chemist!

And who’d believe the Birkenshaw fish and chip shop staff when they said they’d served Shirley Bassey the night before with fish and chips twice! And she’d eaten the lot!

Nearer home, my sister-in-law Pauline got a job at the club as a waitress three nights a week and stayed there for nine years. It was hard work but she loved it and the £1 a night plus tips helped to pay off their mortgage.

Another waitress, Yvonne, from Thornhill Lees, was later to marry Maurice Gibb, one of The Bee Gees, after the couple met while he was appearing at the club. He had previously been married to Lulu.

It wasn’t unusual for Maurice to turn up at Yvonne’s home in his Rolls Royce and later join locals in a nearby pub in Thornhill Lees for a drink.

Yes, we all have a story to tell about the Variety Club but the one I love most concerns an old school pal of mine from Batley Carr called Alan Twohig.

Alan would later become a first-class musician and song writer whose professional name was Sammy King.

His most famous song - ‘Penny Arcade’ - was recorded by Roy Orbison in 1968 and is still going strong.

Sammy was doing a support act with Roy Orbison at the Variety Club when he plucked up courage to knock on the star’s dressing room door and ask if he’d listen to some of his songs.

Roy agreed to play them and asked for a copy to take back to Nashville, and months later Sammy got a tape through the post of Roy singing ‘Penny Arcade’ with a note saying it was going to be his next single.

Sammy had written ‘Penny Arcade’ with the Eurovision Song Contest in mind, having got the idea for it while on holiday in Anglesey watching the lights at night across the bay. He never dreamt it would hit the charts in such a big way and still be playing around the world 50 years later.

This week memories of the old Batley Variety Club will be recalled, I’m sure, when a new live music venue named Origin opens not too far from where the old club was.

Readers may recollect that the Variety Club closed in 1978 and some years later became The Frontier, also warmly remembered, but which also closed down.

It is interesting to note that the owner of this new club was once manager of The Frontier and that he intends to pay homage to both clubs by adding a few touches relating to them both. Happy days!

■ “Origin Live”, a new programme of live music and entertainment at Origin bar in Batley, is launching on Saturday, October 30 with a special performance from the R&B legend and Northern Soul star, Alexander O’Neal - the last act to play the iconic venue The Frontier before its closure in 2016. Billed as the “Batley Frontier Reunion”, O’Neal will be performing some of his biggest hits from the 80s and 90s, including “Criticize”, “If You Were Here Tonight” and “Fake”. “I can’t wait to be back on stage in Batley again,” he said. For tickets, visit http://ticketmaster.com.