The Batley Variety Club
The Batley Variety Club
James Corrigan was from a Yorkshire fairground family. His friend, Peter Fleming, has a similar background. And they loved the entertainment business. When James married a Batley girl called Betty and settled down there, the three of them had an unlikely dream - to bring Las Vegas to Batley.
The two men developed a plan to bring the best in entertainment to this tiny and insignificant locality. Batley, if you don’t know it, is a small and not very exciting industrial town in West Yorkshire.
It is about as different from Las Vegas as you could possibly imagine. But Corrigan and Fleming wanted to open a Vegas-type club there. You’d imagine that this would be doomed to failure. But in fact the venue they created, Batley Variety Club, was a phenomenal success and has now passed into legend.
Batley Variety Club showed acts from the highest echelons of entertainment from Britain and from the United States. It was a new concept in entertainment and people would arrive from all over Britain to experience it.
Starting with the best performers of the day from Britain, Corrigan soon recruited the stars of America - the likes of Louis Armstrong, Neil Sedaka and Jayne Mansfield to bring glamour and entertainment to the North of England.
Those entertainers who remain today still speak fondly and with great affection of their gigs at the Batley Variety Club. Corrigan was an expansive host and as his business grew, he surrounded himself with suitable trappings; a pair of Rolls Royces for him and his wife and a luxury home.
Here he would entertain the stars who performed at his club. With every amenity and furnishings such bearskin rugs on which the likes of Eartha Kitt, Lulu and Diana Ross would relax after performing at the club.
The club, from the outside,looked like a cheaply-constructed warehouse. Many of the huge stars were horrified when they first saw it. But they were overwhelmed by the warmth of the audience - and James Corrigan’s practical jokes and Yorkshire humour.
As for the audience, the club was the night out for celebrations and special occasions for people from miles around. For these folk who could never dream of going to the London Palladium, let alone Las Vegas, the fact that the stars came to them was little short of miraculous.
I only have the space here for a few stories but they’ll give you a flavour of this then-unique entertainment venue.
What’s the truth about the Shirley Bassey ‘car park story’?
A huge star at the time, Shirley was known as the ‘goddess of Batley’. It was written into her contract that the bars should be closed during her performances - she didn’t want the audience to be distracted. What happened in fact was that the customers would line up their pints of beer before her set.
It’s almost a legend in Yorkshire that one evening after a performance, Shirley Bassey chased a trumpet player across the club’s car park. Shirley herself says she has no recollection of the incident.
Some people report that during her act, she had heard that the trumpet player was playing off key so was determined to berate him. The story I heard (from a relatively respectable source) is very different and claims that her intentions were quite different towards the handsome and charming musician.
Do you know? Tell me in the comments section below.
Jayne was an American entertainer and the absolute epitome of the blonde bombshell., very much in the mold of Marilyn Monroe. (Indeed, it’s said that she had a relationship with JFK prior to Marilyn’s.)
As you can see from the image, she had two huge assets. Truly huge. And the audiences at Batley loved her. Jayne had loved England since she’d first been over in the fifties to promote her films.
She played a six-night gig at the variety club and to fill in her days, performed for prisoners in Armley Jail, turned up at fish and chip shops and even attended local country fetes. Rumours spread that she performed wearing no underwear, which presumably added an extra titilation for the men in the audience.
Sadly, just two months after her Batley appearances she was killed in a tragic car accident. She was thirty four. But there are people in Yorkshire today who will never forget her.
Tim was an American novelty act of not inconsiderable oddity. He was a strangely dressed man with long hair who played a ukulele and sang in an ear-splitting falsetto voice,
I assume that he was a star in the States as the Batley Variety Club’s policy was to present only the best but on this occasion, it seems that the booking policy went awry.
I can imagine that the audience were slightly baffled by this act but when he began to sing Land of Hope and Glory in his high, vibrato voice, one member of the audience, a patriotic ex-Coldstream Guard, took umbrage. He decided that the entertainer was mocking England and leapt onto the stage.
In order to maintain the show, the club’s bouncers (who were ‘very jolly’ according to my sister) dragged the intruder from the stage. But now it was Tiny Tim’s turn to be offended as he cancelled the rest of his UK tour in high dudgeon.
The ex-soldier later remarked that he should have shoved the microphone down Tiny Tim’s throat whilst he had the chance.
Chicken in a basket - classy stuff
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.
Included was your dinner. This was originally ‘chicken in a basket’, a ‘sophisticated’ dish of ‘chicken in a basket’. This gourmet delight was a (red) plastic bowl lined with greaseproof paper and containing a piece of fried chicken and a load of chips. (Fries).
This range was enlarged to include fried cod and chips (in a basket, naturally) and ultimately the super-sophisticated ‘scampi in a basket’. This trend was emulated by thousands of pubs.
Eartha Kitt was an American performer who enjoyed Batley so much that she would visit the local market, joining in the the locals in a rendition of On Ilkley Moor Baht At
American singer Gene Pitney described how the club had a certain sort of electricity in the atmosphere that he’d never encountered before.
Many stars would stay at the Corrigan home. Singer Lulu remembers their huge kitchen. James himself loved Vera Lynn’s cooking but Eartha Kitt’s was ‘too spicy and she liked meat too raw’.
When Shirley Bassey was staying with the couple, they told her they were taking her out to dinner. She dolled herself up in all her finery - to find herself at a fish & chip shop.
When other entrepreneurs saw what James Corrigan was achieving, they felt that they could duplicate his success. This meant that other similar clubs were created - all in the radius of about twenty miles, for example, the Wakefield Theatre Club and Sheffield’s Fiesta.
This meant that there were three clubs all bidding for the great artistes.If one club offered a certain sum to an entertainer, another would exceed it. Many of the stars (Shirley Bassey was one) refused to play at any other local venue because of their loyalty to the Corrigans.
Others were not so scrupulous. But these price wars meant that admission prices were raised which led to disatisfied patrons. There was also discontent and squabbling between the owners and managers of the club. Batley Variety Club, which had first opened in 1966, closed in 1978
Watch the video of Shirley Bassey on the right - can you imagine this international superstar at a club in the middle of nowhere in deepest, darkest Yorkshire?
Naturally, the audiences loved her but what is so very wonderful is that she loved the club and the Yorkshire people.
Jayne Mansfield inYorkshire
It's even more difficult to imagine this American bombshell in Yorkshire. Jayne Mansfield looks as though she was made for Hollywood and Las Vegas.
But she and Yorkshire were a perfect match. See the video on the right to find out more.
Old documentary about Batley Variety Club
Have you been to the Batley Variety Club? Do you have information to add to this page? How many of the stars do you recognise from the image at the top of the page?
Let me know!
© 2014 Jackie Jackson