Ray Jackson and I opened the Casino De Paris Striptease Theatre Club at 5-7 Denman Street, W.1. on the 21st of April 1958. It was above the old S & F Grill where, as an actor, I used to gravitate every afternoon from there to Taylors Sandwich Bar in Rupert Street, W.1. when I wasn’t working.
We had been looking around for premises for about 6 months. Originally we thought of opening a night club with a complete drag show. We approached Danny La Rue, who was then working at Churchill’s Night Club with Ted Gatty, and he gathered a group of drag artistes together that he had worked with in the shows that used to tour the variety theatres in the 50s. We talked with them and told them that Ray and I were thinking of opening a sophisticated night club along the lines of the Carrousel Club in the Rue de Colisee in Paris. We had seen a night club in Lower James Street, funnily enough also called the Carrousel, which had a great atmosphere and for a long time we contemplated buying it. Fortunately for us, the original owner, who was a friend of ours and who had built it and ran it for many years, talked us out of it because he told us that the place was a white elephant. The gentleman’s name was Morrie Conley (now that is a name to conjure with!). A lot has been written about him, mostly bad, but I can only say that to Ray and myself he was a good friend and adviser and we had many happy times and dinners with him and his lovely wife Nan.
During this period a new Licensing Law 1957 had been passed which allowed theatrical performances in private members clubs for nudes to move, which meant that striptease had become legal. Previously all nudes had to be static in artistic poses a la the Windmill Theatre. The Windmill had had the complete monopoly of that genre of show business for years and the queues of gentlemen outside the theatre each day proved it.
It stood to reason that there were more people interested in seeing the naked body on exhibition than there were in going to see a load of “poofs” in a drag show, so striptease it was going to be!
Daily we used to see gentlemen in raincoats waiting in line to get into the Windmill Theatre. So with the new laws the market was wide open. Already a few clubs had got on the bandwagon and were doing excellent business.
My Aunt, who ran a members social club in Brighton, told me of a social club at 5-7 Denman Street that was up for sale. It was the adjoining street to the Windmill Theatre. So Ray and I made an appointment to look over the place. We went along late one afternoon and climbed the wide staircase to the first floor. Above the first floor it turned out was a shoulder pad factory and above that an office suppliers. There were sliding gates in front of the double doors to the social club so we rang the doorbell to let whoever was there know that we had arrived and open the gates.
A very tall, grim looking man stood behind the gates who looked like Lurch from the Adams Family. He frightened the shit out of me! Anyway we told him who we were and he unlocked the gates and we went in, into what was an enormous room with loads of card tables. It looked like a speak easy from the 20s, and what with Lurch it made it even more authentic. The room had an enormous mahogany fireplace in the centre of the opposite wall, but the size of the place made it ideal to convert into a small intimate theatre. When I say theatre, we meant a real theatre run on the strict lines of a legitimate theatre with all the calls, half hour, quarter, five minutes and overture beginners please.
Lurch called for his other two brothers and they introduced themselves as Elliott, who was the youngest at about 50 years old and also the spokesman for the three, and Johnny, the eldest, and Lurch, whose real name was Mark. These were the Gold brothers. To me and Ray they were more like the Marx Brothers.
They were still running the place as a social club with Johnny cooking food in the kitchen, Elliott running the club and Lurch frightening everyone on the door. In the evenings they turned the place into a jazz club where Johnny Dankworth and George Melly used to occasionally play and sing; apart from the other Jazz Musicians who used to play. But really they were not doing any real business.
To make a long story short we agreed to go into a 50/50 partnership with Elliott and Johnny Gold providing Lurch (Mark) had no connection with the business and stayed away from the premises. We didn’t want to frighten the customers away with him on the door!
We got Peter Mullins the Art Director to design the theatre. I managed to buy theatre seats from the Q Theatre at Kew Bridge, which was just about to close. Doing business with Beatie de Leon who ran Q was some ordeal, as she was known to be a very tough lady and she was.
So the conversion started.
When the builders were about to remove the fireplace we had a major drama with Johnny who said it had to stay as it had been there for over 50 years. I thought it must have been a family heirloom. So I asked him how many theatres he knew that had a fireplace in the middle of the room? Finally the fireplace went. Although there were a few tears and unhappy faces.
We built two dressing rooms for the girls and one for the boys, which was in the kitchen at the back of the theatre. The bar, which could hold about 20 people was at the very back of the theatre it had arched Corinthian pillars around the whole bar similar to those on the walls, so you could watch the show whilst you had a drink. The theatre could seat about 70 people in total. It wasn’t large, but it was a ‘real’ theatre with so much atmosphere and a stage that was the width of the room at the very end.
“GETTING IT TOGETHER”
Whilst the conversion and building was in progress, it took a period of just over 3 months, Ray and I went to every variety theatre that was in the London area and saw every nude show that was to be seen. We also visited the Irving Theatre Club and the Panama and Gargoyle Clubs, which were already open with their nude shows. I have to say that we were not impressed. The shows were tatty and crude; there was no class or taste shown. We knew with our own experience in the legitimate theatre we could do better.
The girls looked as though they had just come in off the street. Their makeup was non-existent and the costumes were appalling. The comics, if there was one in the show, did not seem to have any respect for the girls. In fact all the shows were bad.
From that moment Ray and I decided that if we were going to be in the nude business we would do it, as Gypsy Rose Lee said, “with finesse,” and that we proved over the many years that the Casino de Paris was open. We would bring the customers up to our level and not go down to theirs, as we proved, and they appreciated it. We would give them good entertainment in luxurious surroundings.
Our girls would look elegant and classy. Our girls would not look as though they had just come in off the street. Our girls would look glamorous and beautiful, and they were.
During this period we really got to know our partners Elliott and Johnny. Their name was Gold and they had hearts of gold. They were both the kindest and most honest pair that one could ever wish to do business with.
Johnny was caring and like a broody mother hen. He was always concerned that everybody was happy and had plenty of tea. His only problem was that he would worry about everything, you name it, and he would worry about it.
Elliott it turned out was a professional gambler, who would spend hours on the phone betting. The whole time we had the Casino de Paris I could never understand what a monkey or a pony or a Yankee was, it was all double Dutch to me. Gambling did not interest either Ray or me. Despite his gambling vice, and like all gamblers his fortunes used to fluctuate up and down, he would never involve the Casino’s money. He was completely honest and trustworthy. Being a gambler, he was very superstitious. Elliott taught us all the finer points of life, food and wine, where to shop for the best clothes and shoes etc., in fact everything. He was a kind of mentor to us for the finer things in life. He had a wife who was an invalid and lived in Brighton, but that did not stop his womanizing and having a line-up of some of the most glamorous and chic ladies I have ever seen. He was charm personified, a real ladies man. When one day I mentioned his ladies to Morrie Conley, he said, “You know why he gets all those birds?” I said, “No.” “Well, you see he’s hung like a horse!” So that was how I discovered Elliott Gold’s extra charm and that was why he was forever adjusting himself. The thing must have had a mind of it’s own!
Having seen all the theatre shows and those that were playing in the other clubs, we decided that we would follow their lead and start with a pianist/singer and drummer for the shows. We engaged a pianist called Alan Leigh who had a beautiful singing voice and also a drummer called Leslie. We had to get a choreographer because Ray and I hadn’t got a clue how to put a variety show together and do the dance routines. We found a girl who had been working at the Windmill Theatre, so she knew the score. We chose all the numbers and told her what we wanted. We did know what was good and what was bad and what was in good taste. We had realized earlier on that we would have to run our own censorship after seeing the way some of the other clubs were performing.
From Strand Lighting we installed the smallest lighting board that they made with 4 dimmers, as the backstage area was very limited. Later on I think we added one more dimmer to the side of the board, altogether I think we had about 15 spotlights to cover the whole stage area. Remember, we were novices at all these things. Ray and I were learning at the same time as we were rehearsing how to properly run a theatre. We learnt fast. One of our customers from Heaven and Hell told us he was a Stage Manager in variety shows, so we engaged him. He turned out to be useless and just lasted 3 months. We decided that we would do 4 shows a day from 2:30p.m. to 10p.m. and each show would run approximately one and a half hours at 2:30p.m., 4:30p.m., 6:30p.m. and 8:30p.m. It was a little like a factory, but it allowed us an hour till 11p.m. to keep the bar open for that last drink.
We placed an advertisement in the Stage newspaper for girls and held auditions for nude dancers and showgirls. We also placed another ad for boy dancers and also for another Assistant Stage Manager. We were lucky because there were many girl dancers who unfortunately were not tall enough to be in a chorus line like the Tiller Girls, but they were trained and disciplined. Two of the boys from the drag shows we engaged to work as young ladies in the show. They were Tommy Osborne who had the most beautiful soprano voice and Dougie Currie who looked like Marilyn Monroe when he was in drag, but the main thing was that he could also make costumes, which was much more important than his talent. In Drag they both looked great and passed as girls with the customers.
So there in the dressing room every day whilst we were rehearsing Dougie sat and made costumes, except for when he had to go on stage to rehearse, but he was a dreamer and very, very slow with making costumes. It would take him forever to sew on a sequin. In fact I would stay up with him all night trying to get him to finish a set. I would spend the night making black coffee and supplying him with pep pills. This went on for weeks until finally I said, “Enough is enough! We open next week on the 21st of April,” and somehow miraculously, I don’t know how, it all came together.