Remembering the Batley Variety Club – Yorkshire’s improbable showbiz oasis

Jimmy Corrigan’s life was like the roller coasters at one of his fairgrounds. He touched the stars and plumbed the depths. He went from rags to riches and back to rags in the time it took lesser men to clear their bar tab.

In the mid-Sixties, he was one of the showbiz giants, and our collection of rarely-seen pictures recalls a time when his club in Batley was at the centre of the showbusiness universe – an improbable oasis of glitter and excess in a dour little town that had seen better days.

The Batley Variety Club was the last place in the world you’d expect to see Louis Armstrong, Roy Orbison, Tina Turner or Gracie Fields – but there they were, picking their way through the scampi-in-a-basket on a hundred Formica tables.

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Corrigan created the club in his own mould; he wore it like a medallion around his neck. But though it glittered briefly, it was to be no gold mine.

Batley Variety Club owner James Corrigan pictured in the foyer with some photographs of the many stars that performed there. Included are, Cilla Black, Lulu, Roy Orbison, Morcambe and Wise, Louis Armstrong, Frankie Howerd, Salina Jones, Frankie Vaughan, Diana Dors, Tommy Cooper and Mike and Bernie Winters. The club later became the Frontier Club.

Born in a caravan on the east coast into a family of fairground workers, he knew how working-class northerners liked to spend their leisure time. In 1961, he bought the lease to a closed-down cinema for £100 and turned it into one of the first bingo halls.

But it was the burgeoning supper club scene that gave Corrigan his big idea. There had been cabaret clubs before – the Kon-Tiki, Wakefield, and the Ace of Clubs in Leeds – but Batley trumped them all. You had to pay 5s 6d a year to join, but beer came at pub prices. It was a posh night out for the masses.

But as rivals like the Wakefield Theatre Club started competing for the big stars, up went their fees, and down came the profit margins.

Corrigan went bankrupt with debts of nearly £500,000, and ended his days in York, making the best of it on social security.

Batley Variety Club owner James Corrigan

His final bow came in 1998, when they laid on a show in his honour at Batley Town Hall.

Batley Variety Club waitresses.
Batley Variety Club staff Bernie Preece, Allan Clegg, Brian Dewhirst and Dave Jackson with Ken Dodd
Inside the Batley Variety Club
Singer Roy Orbison greets audience members at the Batley Variety Club.
Enrico Tomasso, 7, greets Louis Armstrong with a tune on his trumpet - and the great Satchmo Listens critically. Louis Armstrong and the All Stars were appearing at Batley Variety Club in 1968
Gracie Fields, right, was greeted by her sister Edith Wakefield, on her arrival in Leeds before opening at the Batley Variety Club in 1968.
Batley Variety Club during a show