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When the local palais was the place to be dancing
NOBODY needed dating agencies back then, said the jazzman turned broadcaster Benny Green, talking about the 1940s and 50s. “We had dance halls.”
From the Twenties to the Sixties, dance halls like the one at the Kursaal, in Southend, were king. If you were a teenager, a twentysomething, or just looking for a date or mate, then the local palais dominated your horizons.
Nationwide, a far larger number of people found their way to Saturday dances than to cinemas or football matches. Countless couples met for the first time across a crowded hall.
Yet after dominating so many lives for so many years, they suddenly fell away. The halls converted to bingo, or were simply boarded up. By the early Seventies the dance hall era was little more than a memory. Historian James Nott, of St Andrew’s University, has set out to collect as much information as possible about the dance hall era.
The Echo joined this survey. Under the headline Did you meet love of your life in a dance hall? we requested personal reminiscences. Our thanks to readers who took the trouble to reply.
The great dance hall era can be dated to the post First World War period. It began with the first of Mecca’s giant ballrooms, opened in 1919. Mecca’s bosses recognised a new mass market had been created by the war. Women, in particular, had benefited. They no longer had to be chaperoned when they went out.
Mecca and other owners also imported a new element – glamour. It constructed purpose-built, lavishly-decorated caverns, capable of holding thousands. Instead of an upright piano, music was provided by slick professional bands.
One of Mecca’s proudest venues was an Essex dance-hall, the legendary Ilford Palais, which attracted young people from all over East London and Essex. Yet despite coming to symbolise the era of sequins and smoochy music, Mecca never gained a foothold in the dance scene in Southend. Here the era was dominated by a privately owned ballroom that also became nationally famous, the Southend Kursaal.
The Kursaal amusement park was originally designed as a place of white knuckle rides, but that changed with the construction of the Dome Ballroom in 1920.
The Kursaal’s owner, C J Morehouse, took a leaf from Mecca’s book and carved out a giant modern ballroom in the seafront building.
His key selling-point was a luxury that Mecca ballrooms had failed to offer, an American-style sprung ballroom floor.
Morehouse pushed this in his advertising until the phrase sprung dancefloor became a Southend catchword. It helped attract the country’s leading bands to play beneath the dome.
Alongside the visiting bands, the Kursaal also boasted its own resident musicians, the Howard Baker Band. Baker first appeared at the Kursaal in 1925, and rapidly took over running musical events. He finally retired in 1967.
A soloist who sang regularly with the band and whose Kursaal appearances are well remembered, was Vera Lynn.
Dances covered all styles and eras. Old Time Dancing took place on Mondays. Wednesdays, by contrast, were devoted to the latest dance crazes. Thursdays were usually given over to private functions, such as factory or police balls.
Friday and Saturday nights belonged to star guest bands, with all the most famous names in dance music visiting.
Decades of dancing eventually took their toll on the sprung dance-floor. Its final demise was blamed on the energetic early 60s dance craze, the Twist. In 1962, the floor had to be wholly replaced, using oak from Woburn, the Duke of Bedford’s estate. But by now the ballroom era was fading.
Even as the new Kursaal dance floor was being laid, the sound that would blow it away was being beaten out by four mop-topped Liverpool lads. Regular dancing petered out at the Kursaal in 1972.
The ballroom, long derelict, was finally demolished in 1987. Mrs Jackie Collings, of Stowmarket, who met her husband at the Kursaal in 1960 wistfully says: “Maybe Strictly Come Dancing will encourage more couples to take to the floor. Much more enjoyable than jigging about at a nightclub.”