Maureen Prest was Batley Variety Club’s promotions manager during its heyday and has written a book about its creator James Corrigan. Chris Bond talked to her.
By the spring of 1967, revolution was in the air. The war in Vietnam was escalating as opposition to it mounted, while growing tension in the Middle East would soon trigger the Six Day War.
At the same time, ‘flower power’ was starting to blossom and The Beatles were about to release their Sgt Pepper album which would irrevocably change the face of popular culture.
But while much of the world was in the grip of upheaval, in a quiet corner of West Yorkshire one man’s vision was about to put a small, unremarkable mill town in the spotlight.
When Batley Variety Club opened on Easter Sunday that year few people gave it much chance of success. Yet through imagination and sheer guts James Corrigan, along with his wife Betty, transformed a piece of wasteland on Bradford Road into a showbiz ‘Mecca’.
It was not only the talk of the town but went on to be dubbed the “Las Vegas of the North” with its fame even spreading across the Pond to New York and LA. The list of stars who appeared at Batley Variety Club is almost as legendary as the club itself with Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Eartha Kitt, the Bee Gees, Tina Turner, Roy Orbison and Dusty Springfield among those that graced its stage.
James Corrigan put every penny he had, along with plenty more that he borrowed, into building the club and making his dream a reality, and half a century after its doors first opened, Maureen Prest has written a book – The King of Clubs – about the venue and the man who made it happen.
Maureen was the promotions and public relations manager at the club for seven years before leaving to launch a fashion business. “It was a legend in its own lifetime and it still is because the story never loses its lustre.”
Maureen started working at the club not long after it opened and remained friends with Corrigan up until his death in 2000. She felt the time was right to tell his story, and that of the club.
And as stories go this one has its fair share of ups and downs. “It’s a bit of a roller coaster. It’s a rags to riches back to rags again story... with a twist at the end,” she says, cryptically, adding that the ‘twist’ is revealed in the book.
“It was his vision and he was the pioneer of this kind of cabaret club. It was the biggest in Europe when it opened and no one could understand why he’d chosen a grimy little mill town in the middle of West Yorkshire to do it. People here didn’t have much and he bought glamour and entertainment, but it wasn’t tacky, this was first class entertainment.”
From the outset Corrigan aimed the bar high. “He chased artists all over the place to get them to come to Batley. He went up to a hotel in the North East to get Jayne Mansfield when she came to this country. He travelled all the way to Capri to get Gracie Fields and coaxed her out of retirement. James could be very persuasive, he could charm the birds out of the trees when he wanted to.”
There were some stars who got away, though not for the want of trying. “His dearest wish was to get Dean Martin and he went to see his management team in America and asked if he would come over to Batley. Well, first of all they’d never heard of Batley and then they asked him how much he was prepared to pay. James said ‘£45,000’ which was an absolute fortune in the 60s, but his manager turned round and said, ‘my boy wouldn’t get out of bed to p*** for that.’”
Maureen worked at the club during its boom years. “It was a magical time and to meet all these famous people was incredible.” People like jazz legend Louis Armstrong. “He was wonderful, he was such a lovely man. He was so humble and when he came to Batley he loved it here.”
Armstrong came to the UK in June 1968 and spent a two week residency at the club. “He came from a poor background and he identified with the people. He thought Batley Variety Club was ‘a living aspirin’ because it made you feel better.”
If the man they called Satchmo was the unofficial ‘king’ of Batley Variety Club then Dame Shirley Bassey was its undisputed queen. “She sold the place out for weeks on end. She was a superstar and she still is to this day, and she became a friend of James’s.”
The stars were paid handsomely to come to Batley, though it wasn’t all glamour as Bassey discovered. “She was all dolled up with her mink jacket on thinking she was being taken out for a posh dinner and instead James took her to a fish and chip shop for her supper,” says Maureen, laughing.
Corrigan was a flamboyant millionaire who owned two Rolls-Royces and had a penchant for practical jokes. But he didn’t come from a privileged background. He was born in Filey into a fairground family and his grandfather had told him to ‘always go where the chimneys are’, which led him to Batley and an unlikely world of showbiz.
The appeal of the club was it gave ordinary working people a big night out and the chance to see some of the biggest stars in the world on their own doorstep. The entrance fee included a meal (think chicken in a basket) while a pint of mild might set you back 2s 6d.
“By day women walked around with headscarves to cover their curlers. Then all of a sudden there was a bit of glamour and James Corrigan made it happen,” says Maureen. “People were transformed, they turned up at the club in evening gowns, they were born again princesses and these were the girls working in the mills and factories.”
The club’s success had a knock-on effect for the local economy. “The flower shops did good business, the taxi firms and dress shops did well, it was a huge boost to Batley.”
Maureen says that Corrigan put Batley on the map. “When he went to America to try and talk big artists into coming to Batley one of the agents pulled a map out and asked him to point to where it was because James had been bigging the place up as much as he could. But when he looked at the map he couldn’t find it. But the truth is he put the town on the map and it stayed there, because everyone knows about Batley Variety Club.”
However, success didn’t last forever and by 1978 a combination of growing competition, the fees needed to attract big names and changing tastes meant the venue had to close its doors.
“When Louis Armstrong came the publicity was enormous, it was worldwide, and James made it known how much he’d paid to bring him over which was a big mistake because all the other agents read this. So though there was only one Louis Armstrong when other artists were approached to play at Batley their managers knew their pockets were very deep and increased their fees and eventually the bubble burst.”
It marked the beginning of a downward trajectory for Corrigan. “His marriage went pear-shaped and he was declared bankrupt. He moved down south with his second wife thinking he would get back on top but it was the reverse.”
As for the club, it reopened a few years later as The Frontier nightclub and underwent several makeovers before closing its doors last year to be turned into a gym.
However, Maureen says Corrigan’s legacy lives on. “He wrote a chapter in the town’s history. Batley was just a little mill town with soot and smoke everywhere and he just blew the soot and smoke away and sprinkled stardust for everyone to share.
“It will never happen again, but sometimes just once in a lifetime someone comes along and makes a difference... and James Corrigan really did make a difference.”
King of Clubs, published by Route, is out on Monday.
Variety is the spice of life
It took just 14 weeks to build the Batley Variety Club. The venue opened in 1967 with a sold-out performance by The Bachelors, who played to a crowd of around 2,000.
For the next 10 years some of the biggest names in showbusiness performed at the club.
For many people it might have seemed like the back of beyond but even the biggest stars took the opportunity to take time out while they were in the town.
During a visit to Batley Market Eartha Kitt led shoppers in a rendition of On Ilkla’ Moor Baht ‘At.
Shirley Bassey went to Birkenshaw for fish and chips, while Bee Gee Maurice Gibb ended up marrying one of the waitresses, Yvonne.