IT IS always showtime at the Cliffs Pavilion, but this week, for once, it is the building itself that is the star of the show.
The Westcliff theatre complex opened for business for the first time 50 years ago. The subsequent half century has seen some of the world’s biggest stars pass through its stage door.
The story of the Cliffs actually began 100 years ago, on a July day in 1914 – the last month of peace before the outbreak of the First World War.
A temporary stage had been erected on the cliffs at Shorefields. Entertaining the holiday crowds was the great variety performer Clarkson Rose.
A small boy was enticed to go on stage and sing a song to the crowd. His name was Everard Morris.
“I sang my song and received a bar of chocolate as a reward,” he later recalled. “I think it was at that stage the notion of a permanent theatre was first implanted in my mind.”
Twenty years later, Everard Morris was a Southend councillor, pursuing his dream through endless committees and ranks of doubters.
Despite resistance, however, the idea gathered momentum. Councillors recognised the need for a “winter garden”, a big, spacious facility for year-round concerts and shows. Benchmark resorts (otherwise known as bitter rivals), such as Great Yarmouth and Brighton, enjoyed such venues. They kept the visitors coming through the twilight months. By contrast, the only winter visitors Southend tended to receive were London drunkards on an over-extended pub crawl.
The Cliffs Pavilion site was compulsorily purchased in 1935. The desirable spot, with its sweeping views over the estuary, was previously occupied by two private dwellings. In 1939, work began on the new theatre. By now, the ambitious plans for a soaring winter garden had been abandoned in favour of a more modest art deco theatre, seating 500 people. The original site planned for this theatre now forms the sunken garden in front of the Cliffs Pavilion – a winter garden, if you like, without a roof.
Builders got as far as constructing the foundations when the Second World War broke out, and all work was suspended. After the end of hostilities in 1945, the construction site lingered on as Southend’s favourite white elephant until 1963.
By now the plans had changed once again. Southend Council’s own architects’ department, led by Pat Burridge, was briefed to produce a building that could serve equally well for shows and concerts, and for private functions like weddings and company jollies.
John Wilson Marshall, the first general manager, envisaged it as a place that would be “all things to all people”.
He said: “The Pavilion should be used by lovers of the opera, ballet, revues, orchestral concerts, summer shows – even wrestling and boxing.”
The celebrity chosen to open the Cliffs was the actor and director Sir Bernard Miles, a man who knew a thing or two about new theatre projects. He had turned a derelict London Thameside warehouse into a thriving theatre, the Mermaid.
Sir Bernard cut the ribbon on July 4, 1964. The following day, comedian Norman Vaughan arrived with his troupe of dancers, the Swinging Lovelies, to start the town’s summer season rolling. The company arrived on the pleasure steamer Royal Sovereign, and headed in procession up the cliffs that had given the new theatre its name.
Speaking at the opening ceremony, Everard Morris, now Mayor of Southend, gave his verdict on the 50-year-old dream.
“The stage I mounted in fear and trepidation all those years ago was made of canvas and wood,” he said.
“Now, at last, it has been replaced by bricks and mortar.”
FORMER MANAGERS SHARE THEIR MEMORIES
In a positively unique joint appearance, three of the Cliffs’s former general managers joined Ellen McPhillips, the current manager, to cut cake and open the latest of countless thousands of bottles of champagne that have popped at the Cliffs down the years.
Les Cullen, who came to the Cliffs in 1966, carries particularly strong memories of Bruce Springsteen.
The great star was so concerned with his cash-flow, he insisted on being paid straight from the box office tills.
For Mike Pressling (1969), the stand-out recollection is provided by the great Hollywood star Bette Davis, who appeared on the Cliffs stage in a one-woman reminiscence show.
He said: “I met her in the car park and the first thing she said was ‘I just love your ocean’.”
It is Paul McCartney who stands out for Chas Mumford, primarily because of his impact, but also for one extraordinary anecdote.
He said: “I asked his people why they had chosen the Cliffs. They said Paul had originally wanted to play Folkestone. ‘But they had a tea dance on that day, and they wouldn’t shift it to make way for Paul’.”