“A TIME FOR TEARS”
A further instalment in the Casino De Paris Striptease Theatre Club story
In 1964 Danny La Rue opened his own club in Hanover Square which became a legend in night club history. This left a void at Winston’s where Danny had been performing for years. Bruce Brace, who was the owner of Winston’s, approached us and asked whether we would put on a glamour revue at his night club as Danny was no longer there.
I asked Danny what he thought and whether he would mind if we did a show for Bruce, and he said that it was fine. He forgot to mention that most of his weekly cheques from Winston’s bounced! So his salary was always in arrears. If only Danny would have told us the truth!
The show we put on was, if I say it myself, beautiful, glamorous, funny and with plenty of nudity. In fact perfect for a night club audience.
As you can see we had a multi talented cast and the show was a big success. After three weeks, however, the shit hit the fan! Our cheques for the production and costumes, etc. bounced. I told Bruce that he had a week to sort out our finances; otherwise we were pulling the show, which we did as no money was forthcoming. Fortunately I had insisted on making a contract with Bruce. He wasn’t too happy about signing at the time, but I told him ‘no contract, no show!” We took him to court and won the case with damages, which he was allowed to pay in weekly instalments as he was pleading poverty, so the payments would go on forever. The first week he paid, then nothing, so we took him back to court again and went through the same procedure. This went on for months and months. He’d pay the first week then nothing. So it was back to court again and again until finally I think it was Mr. Billy Howard who came to see me at the Casino De Paris. He told me that he was taking over Winston’s Club and he wanted to settle the whole amount and not have any more litigation. The man was a gentleman.
So it just goes to show that there was no need for me to go to Egypt or Greece to get ‘screwed’, I could stay in England and get ‘screwed’ here instead!! But at least here we had English law on our side. In the long run we finished no better off financially with all the wasted time and all the extra expenses, and with the money coming back in such small dribs and drabs. We just had to write it all off to experience, but we did learn that we could mount a very good night club show.
In 1964, Hello Dolly opened on Broadway and we managed to get a copy of the cast album as soon as it was released. Listening to all the wonderful songs and music, I couldn’t wait to do a show at the Casino de Paris using some of the music and songs. David Merrick, the American producer of the show was a regular visitor to our club and would always pop in for the afternoon show whenever he was in London. I knew that his visits to London were always on business, and seeing our show was his form of relaxation in between his meetings. Well, we mounted a new show and were using music from Dolly for the opening of our show and also for a big finale. This was way before it opened at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, with Mary Martin. Really it was not quite legal. Ahh-Hmmm! In fact it was completely illegal, but it was worth taking the risk as the music was so good.
One afternoon my secretary told me that David Merrick was in, so I nervously waited for him to come out at the end of the show. He said to me, “You know you’re being very naughty using ‘Hello Dolly.’ It hasn’t even opened in London yet!” I took a deep breath and said, “I know, but you must admit that we do it beautifully.” He replied, “You’re right, you do!” With that, he left the Club and the show continued its run without any problems from Mr. Merrick. He must have really liked what we did because I was told that on Broadway he was a tyrant and sued everyone! He was quoted as saying, “It’s not enough for me to win. My enemies must lose.” So it was wonderful that we managed to get off scot free and he still kept on coming back to see our shows.
Ray and I were still thinking of opening a night club as I had ‘ants in my pants’ and was always wanting to do something else, and seeing the exceptional way Danny La Rue’s club was going we went back to our original idea of a female impersonator fronting a night club. A very good friend of ours at the time was Sonne Teal whom we had known for many years since before opening the Casino de Paris. He was one of the stars at the Casino de Paris Theatre in Paris (coincidence of names – they were there first!). He also worked at the Carrousel Club in the Rue du Colisee in Paris, where he was starring with Coccinelle and Bambi, both very famous French female impersonators. Sonne had the voice of an angel and the looks of Marilyn Monroe.
Listen to Sonne Teal’s wonderful voice in this video tribute:
He could belt out numbers like Ethel Merman or be soft and melodious like Lena Horne. His sense of comedy was great and he already had a great following in London from when he worked at the Astor Club in Berkeley Square, which was not one of the easiest Clubs to play, but he played there time and time again and they loved him. Apart from being a brilliant artist, he also had a good business brain and his feet were firmly on the ground. So we put a proposition to him whereby he would have a third share in the club, to be called “Sonne Teal’s”, and we would finance the whole thing. He eagerly agreed and a deal was clinched. This meant that we were out looking for premises again!
By chance in late ‘65 a club came on the market that was called Annie’s Room (the famous Jazz singer Annie Ross ran the place) and we took Sonne along to look at it. He loved it. The premises, which were quite large, were in the basement of a building in Russell St. in Covent Garden, practically opposite the stage door of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane and three or four doors away from the Fortune Theatre. Remember, this was 1965 and Covent Garden was not as it is today – Swinging! The Covent Garden Market was still running and when it closed at night, there really wasn’t any real business in the area. But we thought that Sonne would be a big enough pull to bring the carriage trade along, because parking there was easy.
Décor wise, the place was a dump and had to be gutted because there was nothing there that was worth keeping. We exchanged contracts with the owners and we had a lease for 15 years. The building would take at least three or four months to rebuild and redecorate, so Sonne asked us whether he could take up a contract to star in the Carrousel Show with four other artistes in Tokyo, Japan. It was just for six weeks, so we said okay and he went off to Paris to rehearse for a week and then fly off to Japan. There were a few weeks before the builders started work, so Ray and I sorted out the way the Club would look.
Of course I got completely carried away with the design and insisted that we put a glass dance floor in the centre of the club with colour changing lights underneath. This would also be used as the cabaret floor so it would serve two purposes and also add extra glamour to the show which was an important thing. “Sonne Teal’s” was going to look great!
As building started in Covent Garden, we heard the tragic news of Lydia Lova’s death, which saddened us greatly. On the 3rd of March we received a postcard from Sonne telling us that the show in Tokyo was a big success and that he would be back in London in two weeks. The following day on the B.B.C. we heard that a BOAC passenger jet had crashed into Mount Fuji 25 minutes after taking off from Tokyo, killing all 124 people on board. We were shocked at the tragedy but thought, “Thank God Sonne wasn’t on board.” But we had forgotten that the postcard took about two weeks to be delivered. Two days later Bruce Cartwright, who was Sonne’s partner, rang us from Paris to say that Sonne had been on the plane. Ray and I were devastated. In just two months we had lost first Lydia and now Sonne. Those beautiful young and lovely people were gone forever! It was just too much to comprehend.
When later we had time to reflect, it dawned on us, that there we were in the middle of building a night club for a star who was no longer with us. We were really in the shit!
This is my tribute to Sonne Teal a beautiful and multi talented spirit.
Photo from the Avery Willard Book
Photo from the Avery Willard book
Sonne Teal with his partner Bruce Cartwright
This homage to Sonne which is in French contains some beautiful pictures.
We couldn’t stop the building, it had gone too far. Too much money was already involved. We were truly up the creek without a paddle! Who could possibly take Sonne’s place? There were the French female Impersonators, but none of them spoke English well enough to banter with an audience. There was an American drag act called Ricky Renee who had worked at Al Burnet’s Stork Club in Swallow Street for quite a while a few years before and whom Sonne had talked about favourably as they had worked together at the 82 Club in New York. Maybe he would be interested?
I rang Bruce Cartwright in Paris, who was still in a state of shock and explained to him our situation, which he already knew about and sympathized. I asked him whether he knew where Ricky Renee was, whether he was still in Europe and if he had a phone number for him. He had! Ricky was working in a night club in Berlin at the time. Apparently he had been there for a number of years. It seemed that he had made Berlin his home. So we rang him and explained our situation, telling him the full story of poor Sonne. Was he interested in coming back to London and fronting a night club with his name as Ricky Renee’s?
Everything was under the same conditions as we had arranged with Sonne. Ray and I flew to Berlin to see Ricky and fixed the deal with him. He came to England that month and stayed with us in Marston Close whilst we finished building the club and getting a cast together for the show. Ricky had worked with Teddy Green when he was at the Stork Club and he was happy working with him again, so he was engaged. We also engaged Maria Charles, Melvyn Hayes and Anne Hamilton, all West End performers, plus a few other dancers and singers. We had a very strong supporting cast for Ricky.
All the costumes were designed and made by Dougie Darnell, who made exclusively for Shirley Bassey. So you see we had the best of everything. There was no expense spared. When the club was finished it looked beautiful, the furnishing, the exotic glass dance floor and the wonderful colour of the room. It was just the way I imagined a night club should look.
The only thing missing were the customers! Where were they? We had hoped for a phenomenal success, but it just wasn’t to be. Whoever came to the club adored the show and came back many times. The show was great and Ricky Renee was fantastic in his own way, although he wasn’t a Sonne Teal, but there just weren’t enough customers.
The headaches we had were every day. Years later even Elton John came unstuck with his restaurant “Yellow Brick Road,” which was also in Covent Garden. If only it was now, you would have had to book a table weeks in advance for both “Ricky Renee’s” and “Yellow Brick Road”. Every week we had to put extra money in just to cover expenses. Salary wise we never took a penny from the club, but we lost plenty and I must say it left a bitter taste in our mouths. Well, after about six months we admitted that we had made a big mistake and decided to call it a day. We had to close Ricky Renee’s. The place was a flop! We licked our wounds, counted our losses, which where enormous, and went back home to Marston Close and the Casino De Paris, which, thank God, was still doing good business.
Ricky Renee went on to further success and later appeared in the film “Cabaret” and is still working, I believe, back in Berlin.
To see what Ricky Renee’s club looked like, click on the link below to watch “Ricky Renne, Quick Change Artist, a British Pathe Pictorial which was filmed at the club. By the time it was released in cinemas in late 1967 the club had already closed.
You can see outtakes from the film showing more of the club at the following link:
You can read the full story of the Casino de Paris by clicking on the following link